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A well for April: St Richard’s Well, Droitwich

The third of April is St Richard’s Day a day which was greatly celebrated in his home town of Droitwich for his associations with the local brine pits which became holy in association with him.

Take with a pinch of salt

John Leland in his Itinerary, written around 1540 gives the legend:

“Some say that this salt springe dyd fayle in the tyme of Richard de la Wiche Byschope of Chichester and that after by his intercession it was restored to the profit of the old course. Such is the superstition of the people. In token whereof, or for the honour that the Wiche-men and saulters bare unto this Richard their cuntre-man, they used of late tymes on his daye to hang about this sault spring or well once a yeere with tapestry, and to have drinking games and revels at it.”

John Aubrey noted that:

“on the day of St Richard the Patron of ye Well (i.e.) saltwell, they keep Holyday, dresse the well with green Boughes and flowers. One yeare sc. Ao 164-, in the Presbyterian times it was discontinued in the Civil-warres; and after that the spring shranke up or dried up for some time. So afterwards they kept their annuall custome (notwithstanding the power of ye Parliament and soldiers), and the salt-water returned again and still continues.”

This appears to have been an early record of well dressing in the country, albeit not as elaborate as those of Derbyshire today and simply arches over the well to give thanks. When this custom  fell into abeyance is unclear, but it was probably around the Reformation

Worth his salt

Richard was born in Wyche, and a house in the town records this, around 1197 and his image in the church was a site of pilgrimage. A ‘new’ statue, in 1935, was erected in Vynes Park, once an industrial site where the salt was removed.

The brine pits

In Vynes Park was the Upwich Pit which is believed to be St. Richard’s Well it was built in 1264-5. Excavation in the 1990s revealed a long history dating from the Roman period. However, what greets us now is a bit of a controversial site – a replica erected in 2000! It is filled with salty algae covered water which is not directly connected to the source below as it was capped. So strictly speaking St. Richard’s well no longer exists but a replica sort of does!

The return to a modern celebration

A version of the old celebration have been recently restored but set at the end of April or beginning of May, when the weather can be better (generally!) Now, the town of Droitwich celebrates the saint with a modern event which combines elements of the traditional custom with modern twists. The replica Upwich pit and a brine pump in town are imaginatively dressed in honour of the saint with a model of a swan made of flowers and other flower dressing. Around the town, there are displays of Morris dancers, Maypole dancing, historical re-enactments and a most bizarrely vintage car display…..which rather surreally spreads through the quaint streets of the town. Certainly worth a visit when you’re in the area.