The best recorded holy well in the Cambridgeshire is that of St. Audry’s Well (TL 540 801). It is noted in the 12th century that a spring arose at the place where the saint was first buried
St Audry or rather Ethelreda or Æthelthryth was an Anglo Saxon saint who was a 7th century East Anglian princess, one of four saintly daughters of Anna, queen of Northumbria and Abbess of Ely. Interestingly she was born at Exning in Suffolk where a well is also associated with her. She died and was buried at Ely and it is recorded by Bede that when her body was disinterred her body was uncorrupt as such her powers and clothes were said to have special powers. She was reburied in the Cathedral and her shrine remained until the reformation. She is best known for the term tawdry for rubbish, a term which derived from the poor quality clothing sold at fairs on her feast days.
In the 12th century it is reported that:
“If any sick people take a drink from this spring, or have been sprinkled with its water, it is reported that they subsequently recover their original vigour…. in account of her merits, are acquainted with remedies and assiduous in curing the sick”.
It is noted that the monks made the spring site into a pit like cistern so that they could collect some of their water. Several miracles are associated with the well. One tells how a blind woman washing her face and eyes became able to see, how a man travelled from Northamptonshire to be healed and found the door locked. He was apparently barred entrance and was told that there was no bucket at the well and nothing to collect it with. He did not take no as an answer and so barged his way in where he found the well overflowing into the courtyard and thus cupped some water into his hands. He evoked the saint’s name and as he did so begin to recover. Another story tells how a woman fell into the well after accidently being pushed in by a crowd at the well. She was apparently left in the water for two hours and was found still alive by the monks.
The established site of the well is at Barton Farm to the east of the Cathedral. The site is shown on a Moore’s map of the fens dated in 1684 shown as St. Aldreth’s Well. According to Hippisley-Coxe in his 1973 Haunted Britain this site still survived as a muddy pool in a clump of elms near Barton Farm. The spring fills a small tree lined pool on the edge of the grounds of Ely’s Cathedral School, which has absorbed Barton Farm, and the Golf course. There does not appear to be any evidence of fabric but at some point, some brickwork has been used to create a channel to allow the water to flow way showing that the spring is still active.
Conversely the metrical Life and Miracles of St Æthelthryth by Gregory of Ely, c.1120 states that ‘the holy precinct of the church includes a spring’, but does not identify this as a holy well; the original grave of St Audrey lay:
“somewhere in the vicinity of the former Bishop’s Palace, the area close to the Fountain Inn, and the present St Mary’s Church, where the water-table is high.”
This was where:
“…where the people of the neighbourhood do now resort to drink the waters of it, it being a sort of mineral water”.
This suggests two things, one that it was an arrangement like current St. Withburga’s well at East Dereham and that it was nearer the Cathedral. Indeed I was shown by Mr Hart of Ely School a possible alternative site, a small duck pond in the grounds of the Bishop’s Palace. This however although might be a more likely sight indeed it lay across from the school’s old chapel and in the shadow of the Bishop’s Palace.
Details in Holy Wells and healing springs of Cambridgeshire and the Isle of the Ely.
In early May I had the pleasure to present my interim findings of my study into votive offerings at holy and healing wells at the #rituallitter workshop at the University of Hertfordshire (more in a future post hopefully). My presentation particularly focused on rag wells, or as has erroneously been applied nationwide, clootie wells (see this post). This lend me to exploring the custom in the wider geographical context and as I am monthly recording holy and healing wells globally, this month I decided to detail three rag or loque wells (strictly sources a loque) in France. However, a map below will show the distribution of the wells across the county that I am aware of so far.
Research indicated as a custom this is just as vibrant as it is in Britain although in most cases the visitors adhere more often to rags, but as can be seen personal items can also be left
Interestingly the custom is most frequently encounter in the Nord Pas de Calais region and into Belgium. (It is also interesting to focus on holy wells not in Brittany as well) Furthermore, it is an activity associated not only with springs but calvaries, chapels and trees as well – none of which are associated with a springhead.
However typical site is that of St Latuin’s Well, at Clerey Belfonds near Seez. A site which is associated with an evangelizing saint, the envoy of Pope Boniface I who is said to have built an oratory at the spring. He was famed to for converting pagans by healing the death and blind. The curative reputation of the spring harks from curing the blindness of a local widow he stayed with when he arrived there.
At the well, pilgrims would pray first to the saint and then wash at the springhead, hoping to cure skin diseases, fevers, scabies and eye aches. Indeed even the plague was thought to be cured. The site was so popular in the nineteenth and twentieth century that it prompted the expansion of the town. The legend of how the spring, a red chalybeate spring arose is told in Charles Corlet’s Legendes de Basse-Normandie d’Edouard.
“Saint Latuin or Lin passes to be the first apostle of the Orne, It is attributed the foundation of the cathedral of Sees. Saint Latuin, on arriving at Sees, took refuge in a poor woman, a widow whose daughter had been blind for many years. The saint restored the sight to the unhappy woman, and then, preaching in public the word of God, performed many miracles of healing. Satan, annoyed at the beneficial action of the saint, aroused against him Fatisie, who wished to take revenge on the saint who had refused his advances. Fatisie intimated to Latuin, on penalty of death, to cease to preach in Christ’s favor. The saint paid no attention to these threats, but his disciples advised him to retire for some time. What he did in the forest of Clairay. There he set up his oratory near a fountain. His tranquility was short-lived, for Fatisie sent murderers to him with the mission of killing him and bringing back his tongue. At the approach of the saint, the murderers prostrated themselves and converted to the Christian faith. As they were to account for their mission, they consulted the saint in order to know the best way to deceive Fatisie. Latuin advised them to kill their dog, to take away their heart, and to defile their clothes with the blood of the animal. Fatia soon died of a fatal death. But the waters of the spring were tinged with blood. Latuin returned to Sées. He often went to his hermitage. It was in this place that death took him peacefully and he still worked miracles.””
Today the spring fills a large square stone basin beneath a statue of the saint dressed in Bishop robes holding a crozier and those coming to cure complaints have tied rags to the top of the metal fence surrounding it. The spring and its church are now the location for an annual pilgrimage. This year on http://www.ville-sees.fr/dimanche-24-juin-pelerinage-saint-latuin/ website it recorded:
“25 years ago, the association “Les amis de Saint Latuin” was created to offer the pilgrims of Saint Latuin the annual animation of the pilgrimage and to ensure the restoration and maintenance of the church of Cléray , Its cemetery and its fountain. On Sunday 24 June: 7.45 am: laudes at the cathedral, 8 am: departure of the march towards the church of Cléray (7.5 km), 10.45 am: gathering at the Cléray fountain, procession followed by the Mass chaired by Bishop Habert. “
In La Croupte, is a spring dedicated to St Martin, with its 15th century chapel. Near here is a statue of the saint festooned with ribbons and different socks, particularly baby socks, close to the springhead. Why are there socks? The spring is said to help children suffering from rickets and hence helping children to walk.
After praying and lighting a candle the clothes or socks are attached nearby. It is recorded that other saints are prayed to according to the healing required as it too cures skin and eye problems. The springhead fills a square basin surrounded by a metal fence upon which the votives are attached.
The final spring is that associated with a sacred landscape of Pre D’Auge, Calvados I Basse Normandie. Indeed it is unclear in this case whether the tree is more sacred than the spring head. Both are named after Saint Meen’s. This is a site which associates with a ragged oak which generations upon generations have attached rags to. The oak itself being called the Oak of Saint Meen, thought to be over a 1000 years old although it is now hollow and in the hollow is a small wooden statue of the saint (it is said that the original remains in a local castle). Indeed, there was concern about the condition of the oak and that in 2009 its final branch was removed and all that is left is the oak. However, the owners of the land concerned that the tradition would disappear ensured that two other oaks can replace it should the time come, one being planted in 1920 and the other in the 2000s. The hulk of the original tree has not prevented the pilgrims attaching rags which range from strips through to handkerchiefs to whole clothes. The spring is said to cure skin complaints and like at other springs, the cloth is first immersed into the spring and applied to the skin, before being left.
The rationale behind the springs use is related to the Saint, who was Breton monk who travelled these areas converting the pagans, who would appear to dislike rudeness and selfishness. It is reported that when on a journey to Rouen, thirsty he rested in the village. Seeing two young girls he asked them if he could drink, one said she would help but other complained about the scarcity of water and refused. As a result, he caused the spring to burst forth to thank the helpful one saying to the less than generous one:
“You will be covered with pustules and you will be obliged to come and wash yourself there praying to ask for your cure which will remind you of your lack of charity.”
A good reason to justify a rag well not doubt!
Our Lady’s Well (SO 814 173) is certainly one of most interesting and picturesquely placed Holy well in Gloucestershire and one of the best near the city of Gloucester, overlooking as it does over the Severn valley. The spring itself issuing from the sand/bunter pebble stratum, probably of glacial origin, and fills the well house overflowing to fed a large stone trough replacing the previous structure.
Traditionally it is believed that the well was built by the Canons of St Mary’s Priory, of Llanthony in the 14th Century ( the ruins of which are presently being restored and can be visited ). However, another tradition asserts that the dedication of this well is that of St Anne, rather than St Mary which we shall explore later. The water of the well was associated with medicinal virtues and cured any ailment bathed within its waters. Indeed as Walters notes it may well have been a place of pilgrimage. Another tradition is that it is referred to as Lady’s Wash house being were the ancient ladies washed!!
An engraving of Our Lady’s Well is given by Maclean 1888–9 who describes it as
“a small cell or chapel erected over a well… The plan is nearly a square of 7 feet, on a wider basement. The east and west ends are gabled; in the latter is an ogee door, and a narrow ogee window of one light. On the east end is some sculpture, which seems to have been a rood. The covered roof is of stone, and the ridge is finished with a rib. The whole is of good ashlar masonry. This little building stands on the side of rather an abrupt slope, overlooking the valley of the Severn. A fine thorn tree which overhangs it adds much to its picturesque beauty.”
The well-house is probably of early fourteenth-century date and made of oolite limestone. The pitched roof, is comprised of large slabs of this stone, of which rebates have been cut to ensure overlap and keep watertight. The north and south sides are plain, however the of the east side are the worn remains of a sculptured carving. Remains of steps are visible on the north and south sides of the structure.
In Maclean’s time this was built in, but afterwards it was opened, being blocked for a time by an iron door
A curious discoverer
Roy Palmer in his 1994 Folklore of Gloucestershire describes a legend that the Virgin herself discovered the spring. On her way to visit Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury, her boat was washed up near here by the Severn Bore and climbing the steep slope from the Severn and found the spring. However he is the first to record this most curious of legends!
Who is the carving?
The sculpture on the east side has been variously interpreted. The virgin addressed by kneeling figures was Ashworth (1890) xxx suggestion. Bazeley and Richardson (1921–3) xxx :
“the central figure is a woman, probably St. Anne, standing between her daughter St Mary and an angel or perhaps her husband Joachim.”
They say that ‘Mr Hurry of Hempsted Court mentioned a tradition of two children being drowned in this well while bathing’, and the carvings may have been popularly supposed to commemorate this. It has also been suggested that the site was of pre-christian importance and was derived from Wan, the pagan god of fire, later becoming St Ann although the lateness of her cult, which is 14th century suggests not.
Holy Well or Wash House?
The well lay on land belonging to Llanthony Priory as a water supply and the well was thus a conduit. Its alternative name was called Our Lady’s Washhouse and Ashworth (1890) notes that many who washed in the waters were relieved of their infirmities and that this was the reason it was called Lady Well or Lady’s Wash House. Another notes that it was where as Walters (1923) notes:
“it was a place where ancient ladies washed”
They would find it difficult to wash from now as it has been dry. However, the well is still easily found by taking the road to Hempstead before Gloucester and after the roundabout. Take this road and then turn into the road of the church. Park here enter the graveyard and follow to the other end where there is a gate. Enter this follow the path between the hedges and into the field and the well will be quite self-evident.http://www.megalithic.co.uk/a558/a312/gallery/England/Gloucestershire/lady_well_hempsted.jpg
“Just over the boundary, in the parish of Wilcote, is an old well of beautiful clear water, surrounded by a wall, with stone steps going down to it. It is called the Lady’s Well, and on Palm Sunday the girls go there and take bottles with Spanish juice (liquorice), fill the bottles, walk round the well”
Violet Mason, SCRAPS OF ENGLISH FOLKLORE, XIX. Oxfordshire Folklore, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Dec. 31, 1929), pp. 374-384
My first visit to the Lady or Lady’s Well at Fincote was on a misty cold December walking down from the village I was struck by the old gnarled elms which lined the way to the well and the feel of an ancient processional route to it. Back then in the 90s I was unaware of the folk customs associated with it as hinted above.
The well itself is a small affair enclosed as stated above in a high wall. The gate was locked and so sadly I could not access the water directly. However, it followed from beneath the wall and nearby was what appeared to be a trough or perhaps even a bath half sunk into the ground. It is known that the water was used by Wilcote Grange for water and filled a series of ponds nearby now gone. Interestingly there is a Bridewell Farm nearby so was the well originally dedicated to St. Bridget or the pagan Bride? What the well lacks in structure is made up by its association with the curious custom noted above which existed until recently and may still do locally. On the Finstock Local History website it is recorded:
“Mrs. Ivy Pratley, describes the making of the Spanish Water. “On the Saturday evening before Palm Sunday, we children would crush humbug sweets and white peppermints together and to this we would add some pieces of chopped liquorice stick, the mixture was then added to a bottle of water and we would sit around the room shaking the bottles until it had dissolved”.
The correspondent notes that:
“This bottle of liquid was drunk the following day while walking to Ladywell. They also carried with them, in a paper bag, some of the dry mixture, which was mixed with water from the well to drink on the way home. Early on Sunday afternoon the walkers would set off, one group using the footpath by the Plough Inn and another group near the top of High Street using the path to the left of the road about 50 yards east of Gadding Well. The groups then merged to follow the path through Wilcote Field Longcut or the Longcut as it was known locally. Most of the girls were given a new straw hat for the occasion and these were filled with primroses and voilets on the way through Sumteths Copse. They then crossed the field to the front of Wilcote Manor and followed a route past St. Peter’s Church to the Ash Avenue which leads directly to Ladywell.”
The custom was still current when Violet Mason in 1929 recorded it but little beknown to her it was soon to disappear. The Finstock Local History society record that it died out at the outbreak of war in 1939. However, Janet Bord in her excellent Holy Wells in Britain a guide (2008) received correspondence which suggests later. She notes:
“The one-time vicar of Wilcote, J.C.S Nias, informed me that when he first went there in 1956, ‘numerous members of county families used to go to that well in Palm Sunday with jam jars containing crushed peppermint and (I believe) liquorish.”
Interesting the vicar then goes on to suggest what might have been the original reason for the Spanish water:
“they pour water from the well on to this mixture which, they believed, would then be a specific for certain ailments during the following year.”
Another correspondent noted:
“Local historian Margaret Rogers noted in a letter to me in 1984 that ‘local people do not any longer visit it on Palm Sunday’ she added; Occasionally one elderly lady visits it, but way back in 1934 there used of a substantial number of people going down on lam Sunday to make liquorice water.”
Bord’s correspondent may give another reason for the custom’s demise:
“Quite a few elderly members of the village remember with indignation that they did not get Sunday school stamps for going down there.”
Now that’s a way to kill a custom off! Perhaps some people still make their private pilgrimage but whatever there is something otherworldly about the Lady Well. It’s a recommended walk.
“+In This Place/ Paulinus the bishop/ Baptized/ Three Thousand Northumbrians/ Easter DCXXVII+”
So reads the inscription at one of the country’s most famous and picturesque holy wells…but what is the truth?
The most beautiful fountain….
Taking the lane up from between the houses and the side of the farm, climbing over and stile and into a pastoral landscape, ancient oaks lie to the left and a small babbling brook, moving away at great speed as we follow this the enclosure of the well is ahead of us. Here laying in this peaceful enclosure
Whose well is it?
Three names appear to be attributed to the well – Lady, St Ninian and St Paulinus. Which is the correct one? Certainly the later was current in John Warburton in his 1715 History of Northumberland describes it as:
“Paulinus’ Well, a very beautiful fountain in a square figure, length 42 feet and 21 foot in breadth; wall’d about with a curious stone resembling porfire, paved in the bottome and incompos’d with a grove of trees and at each corner thereof the foundation of a small [illegible]. Out of the well floweth a stream of water very cold, and clear as christall, and if cleaned out would be a most comodious cold bath and perhaps effect several cures without a marvell. At the east end lyeth a stone 3 foot in length and 2 in breadth called the holy stone, said to be the same whereon the forementioned bishop kneeled at his baptising of the heathen English; and was formerly held in great veneration by the gentry of the Roman Catholick religion who oft-times come here on pilgrimage.”
This association with St. Paulinus is easily explained. Although Bede descrived the conversion of 3000 this was misread by John Leland as Sancte Petre (holy stone )but it was Sancti Petri – St Peter’s Minster, York…an easy mistake but one which then enters as fact into Camden’s Britannia and consolidated over and over again! This was further endorsed by as William Chatto (1935) notes:
“a stone figure, intended for Paulinus, which was brought from Alnwick in 1780.”
The name Lady’s Well is also easily explained there was a Benedictine priory of Holystone which was dedicated to the Virgin in the 13th century and either their name was transferred to or else they renamed it. It was probably the former as the a signboard was first seen by a William Chatto seen in 1835 is the first to call it ‘the Lady’s Well’ and it appears on such on the 1866 OS. Hall (1880) calls it ‘St Ninian’s Well’. By the time of Butler (1901–2) all three names were in use, as he says that:
‘the beautiful well at Holystone, known to us as “The Lady’s Well”, described… as“The Well of St Paulinus”, was formerly “St Ninian’s Well”’
When visited by Dixon (1903) it was:
“a spring of beautiful water in a grove of fir trees a little north of the village. The well is a quadrangular basin within a neatly kept enclosure; the key of the gate can be obtained at the Salmon Inn… A stone statue of an ecclesiastic, originally brought from Alnwick castle, formerly stood in the centre of the well, but a few years ago this was removed and placed at the west end of the pool, and a cross of stone bearing the following inscription substituted: “+In This Place/ Paulinus the bishop/ Baptized/ Three Thousand Northumbrians/ Easter DCXXVII+”’.
A sizeable hoard
Hall (1880) notes that:
“At the bottom, visible through the pellucid water, Dr Embeton informs me he has formerly noticed many pins lying.”
Binnall and Dodds (1942–6) found it:
“now a wishing well, into which crooked pins or occasionally pence or halfpence are thrown.”
No pins can be seen in its waters although they would be hidden by the leaves and perhaps the sign which notes:
“don’t damage (sic) the water as it’s the village water supply”
However, beside the saint’s statue laying at his foot is a small hoard of modern coins and so perhaps starts a modern tradition. One wonders what happens to the money? National Trust? Church or local landowner?
All in all despite its duplicity with names and dubious origins sitting in the arbour of trees and peering into that clean beautiful water in this remote location you are divorced from the modern world and its modern problems…and if for that reason only Holystone’s special spring is worthy of a top ten for anyone.
Our Lady’s Well which in on the north side of Burley Road, Oakham, about a quarter of a mile east of the Odd House Inn. Rev Thomas Cox’s New Survey of Great Britain (1720-31) states:
“In ancient Times, before the Reformation, there was a Custom among the devout People of this Nation, and especially of these Parts, to go on Pilgrimage in Honour of the blessed Virgin Mary, to a Spring in this Parish, about a Quarter of a Mile from the Town, which is still known by the Name of our Lady’s Well, near which we may perceive in several Places the Foundations of an House or two remaining; but that which will confirm our Belief of such an Usage, is a Record found in the First fruits Office, containing, among other Things these Words, That very many Profits and Advantages belonging and appertaining to the Vicarage of Okeham did consist in divers Obventions and Pilgrimages to the Image of the Virgin Mary at the Well, and St. Michael the Archangel, and diverse other Rites and Oblations, which now are quite abolished, with the Benefits and Advantages which accrued there-from to the Vicar.”
As suggested above in the mid-1200-1300s, indulgences could be obtained by visiting it and the church during its patronal festival. By 1565/6, Jones (2007) states compensation was confirmed for the loss of:
“various offerings and pilgrimages [including] the late image of Blessed Mary at the spring.”
The site is recorded as Ladies Well in 1632, the Lady’s Well, 1691 and then Lady Well in 1801, becoming Our Lady’s Well in the 1885 OS map. The spring’s water was said to be good for sore eyes, only as Palmer (1985) notes:
“It was still renowned for healing powers in the Victorian era, and its water was applied to the eyes for soreness, provided that a pin had first been thrown into the well”
The site was even visited according to Matthews (1978) by Princess (later Queen) Alexander in 1881 when she stayed at Normanton Park. Now a boggy hole surrounded by modern housing in a nature reserve managed by Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust.
Cox (1994) notes the field name Helwelle in 1498. The site may be another name for the above site. The first part of the name suggesting it derived from hæl meaning ‘omen’ or hælu meaning ‘health.
Alternatively, it may be another name for Chriswell, a lost site on the opposite side of Burley Road to Our Lady’s Well. Its name may derive from Christ. Whatever its origins, it was said to have been used by a Belgian refugee in the First World War to cure his sick cow. It appears to have been a holy well as apparently the church collected money from the well.
Lost in the undergrowth
Sadly Oakham’s Lady Well is a far cry from its former self. Enclosed in dense and impenetrable undergrowth; brambles, nettles and briars, meaning that the source cannot be reached without considerable effort and pain. However, through the help of a local who was able to give an easier route to the well, I managed to reach it in a private garden. However unfortunately although the spring still flows the source is a boggy morass. Considering its fame one would imagine that the well head may retain some form of infrastructure, but nothing remains, bar some iron staining. Enclosed in a 1990s housing estate and largely forgotten, unfortunately there is little to excite even the most ardent holy well researcher!
It is nice to easily find a holy well for once, for Rhuddlan’s St Mary’s Well lying as it does in the grounds of Bodrhyddan Hall, is easily seen by the side of the drive to the hall (the gardens of which are open Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and well worth exploring)
Pure folly or holy?
What greets us today is a typical folly building but does the well have any provenance before the current construction. The earliest reference is as Ffynnon Fair and is made by Lhuyd in 1699 however it does not appear on an estate map until 1730, although an engraving on the fabric of the well states emphatically 1612! Significantly neither of these dates are associated with any traditions and there appears to be no pre-Reformation reference.
The only hints of its importance are traditions of clandestine marriages at the well, although it is possible that this is a mixed up tradition with a more famous Ffynnon Fair at St Asaph. The other hint is found in the hall, where a possibly unique stone fish inserted in the flooring of the hall shows the boundary of the parishes and as you may have gathered regularly reading this blog many holy wells mark parish boundaries. Neither pieces are particularly emphatic!
The well itself is a delightful edifice consisting of an octagonal stone four metre well house and adjacent stone lined ‘bathing pool’. The well has arched entrance with cherub kerbstone. Inside the rather cramp well are seats around the inside and although access to the water is prevented by a metal grill. On the top of the well house is a carved pelican and a stylised fish (more similar to classical images of dolphin) pours its water into the cold bath which is surrounded by a stone ballastrade.
Keeping up with the Joneses?
One of the biggest issues with site is who built it. On the well house it is proclaimed that Inigo Jones was responsible. Jones was a noted architect and garden designer, so the building has the appearance of something he could have built, the date was when he was at the height of his fame so it is surprising nothing more official is recorded. Was this a local of the same name or the family adding the date and person at a later date to impress visitors? Certainly the building looks late 18th or early 19th century, probably being built when the house was restored then. Whatever, the well is part of a larger landscape including other wells, tree lined walkaways and now a summerhouse above a landscaped pool.
Its absence in 1730 but present on the 1756 one suggests not. Furthermore, Norman Tucker 1961’s Bodrhyddan and the families of Conwy, Shipley-Conwy and Rowley-Conwy states that the lettering is on the wrong period! Another possibility is that the architect may have been involved with designing the gardens and when the well was constructed later as the central piece the date of the garden design was recorded…but of course this does not explain who the well’s designer was!
Wishing well or healing well?
Today a sign, rather tacky to my mind (and I removed it to take photos) claims it is a wishing well. Visitors have certainly have paid attention to the sign as the well is full of coins. It is worth noting that although there is no curative history to the waters, anecdotally its powers could be significant. All the owners who have drunk from the well have lived to a considerable age, indeed the present owner is in his 100s I believe. Perhaps it might be worth bottling it!
Whatever its origin the well is a delightful one and certainly a change from muddy footpaths, negotiating brambles and nettles and getting completely pixy led…and there a nice garden and fascinating hall to see too.
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It is difficult to imagine that Caversham, a suburb typical of many, was once a place of great Catholic pilgrimage but apparently it was. Whether there was a genuine holy well as part of the pilgrimage it is not clear. Let us examine it.
A common theme in holy research is the association of a well with a chapel. Whilst in many occasions, such as St. Clether’s Well, Cornwall, there is a genuine connection others it is not so clear. St Ann’s Well in Caversham is such an example. Let’s deal with the chapel first. On 17th September 1538 a Dr. John London wrote:
“I have pulled down the Image of Our Lady at Caversham, whereunto was great pilgrimage . .. I have also pulled down the place she stood in with all other ceremonies, as lights, shrouds, crutches and images of wax hanging about the chapel and have defaced the same thoroughly as eschewing of any further resort thither .. .”
Yet no field nor road name preserve the location or tradition and mentions in grants and gifts are scant especially in the 1500s. Therefore there is no evidence of its origin. However, it certainly existed by 1106 for it is mentioned in the cartulary or Nutley Abbey:
“In the year in whjch king Henry imprisoned his brother Robert Cunhose, Agnes, countess of Ripon) sister of the said Robert, secretly took the iron of the lance of Our Lord Jesus Christ to the chapel or the Blessed Mary or Caversham, together with many other relics….”
What of course is interesting here is the name of Blessed Mary an acceptable early dedication. . It is known that Walter Giffard, Earl or Buckingham gave the Park at Long Crendon, the parish church at Caversham, and the chapel or St. Mary in the same place, each with their possessions. What is clear here is that the chapel and church were two different entities. This grant to Nutley was confirmed by both Henry II in 1179 and John in 1200 and indeed was their property until the dissolution in 1536.
The Shrine contained a wooden statue of the Madonna and Child. Pilgrims came from far and wide to pray at the Shrine and to donate gifts and relics. These included donations from Henry 111 and from many noble families. In 1437 Isabel, Countess of Warwick, gave gold, weighing 20 pounds, to be made into a jewel-encrusted crown for the statue. Despite considerable note of some of the relics there in, there is no mention of the well. Now the only reference to the well appears to be a 1727 letter by the Revd Loveday:
“from thence [the chapel of St Anne] the Religious went at certain times to a well now in the hedge between the field called The Mount and the lane called Priest-lane, which is supposed to have its name from their going through it to this well, which was called formerly St Ann’s Well… There was in the memory of man a large ancient oak just by this well, which was also had in great veneration”.
Margrett (1906) identifies this as a well of dressed chalk and flint, apparently of c.1500, uncovered at the south side of Priest Hill. Janet and Colin Bords (1985) Sacred Water claims:
“There is a tradition that people buried their valuables beside the well to hide them from the Roundheads and others, and early this century some gold coins are said to have been discovered near the well”.
A clear link with the chapel although a clear confusion with Thomas Cromwell and Oliver I feel! This was rediscovered by the owners of the land, the Talbots in 1906 and they preserved it. But is it anything to do with a holy well? Certainly the claim made on the excellent Caversham 100 years on leaflet http://www.caversham100yearson.org.uk/pdf/heritage_leaflet_download.pdf is unsupported and contradictory (if the chapel was to Our Lady):
“Dating back to medieval times, the mineral spring waters, with their reputation for healing, drew many pilgrims. The well was then lost until workmen uncovered it in 1906. In 1908, a memorial drinking fountain and a cover were built and officially dedicated. This holy well and the medieval ‘little Chapel on the Bridge’ were both dedicated to St Anne, patron saint of women in childbirth.”
Sadly no archaeological work has even been done on the well. The well itself is a deep chalk lined pit. The hole is covered by a delightful example of road furniture, called the Memorial Drinking fountain. It is set upon two platforms of redbrick and is itself red brick oval shaped with a white marble basin and tap and covered by a bulbous metal frame. One the front a plaque dating from its construction in 1908 reads:
“The Holy Well of St Anne, the healing waters of which brought many pilgrims to Caversham in the Middle Ages”.
The rediscovery of the well at the turn of the 20th century and there is possibly a clue. In 1897 there was revived Catholic interest in the shrine. This was a problem considering the lack of evidence of any fabric and even its exact location. Therefore a well nearby the supposed location would be a good fit. Sadly it would not provide the modern pilgrim with healing waters…it’s dry.
It is my great pleasure to present an article from one of the most important contributors to the holy well research field. Author of the excellent The Living Stream – the first academic book on the subject, the indispensable guides to holy wells of Buckinghamshire, Kent and Surrey, as well as countless articles for Source and Living Spring, as well as his own webpage..he’s been in retirement holy well research wise and sticking to the day job of being a rector, so its a great privilege that he’s contributing this ground breaking piece of research about a holy well which is not recorded elsewhere to this blog..
In 1960 the Revd John Bickersteth, unlikely owner of the ancient seat of the Earls of Ashburnham in East Sussex after the death of his second cousin, created the Ashburnham Christian Trust. The estate, which Revd Bickersteth had only visited once before he inherited it in 1953, consisted of 8,500 acres of farmland and woods, a crumbling 82-room mansion filled with antiques, and a tax bill of £427,000. Most of the land and the treasures were quickly sold, but the house remained, inconvenient, expensive, and it seemed unlettable. However Revd Bickersteth was approached with the idea that Ashburnham Place might house a Christian training and conference centre. Most of the house was demolished, the grounds tidied up, the Trust established, and this is the role it fulfils today – along with a tea room open to ordinary members of the public, who can, provided they let Reception know, walk the grounds – and see the wells.
The approach to Ashburnham brings the visitor along a swooping drive through Burrage Wood and across the gorgeous stone bridge of the 1820s spanning Capability Brown’s lake formed off the River Ashbourne, to park around the back of the house near the old parish church. As far as wells are concerned, the chief attraction lies just south of the Broad Water. The Ladyspring Grotto is approached by one of two routes up a short gully leading uphill from the edge of the lake: either a high path along the eastern edge, or a lower path along the bottom of the gully. The upper path curves in around the top of the gully past a collection of massive boulders and stone steps. In both cases the Grotto is more or less hidden from view almost until the visitor reaches it. It consists of a well-chamber about five feet square by seven feet high, set into the bank, with a flagged stone floor and plastered walls, and a semi-circular arched roof; the walls are of very substantial stone blocks and the arch is constructed from thin clay tiles. The water pours from an outlet in the back wall into a stone trough raised above the floor.
Nothing is known for certain about the Ladyspring’s history. Information available at Ashburnham ascribes it to Capability Brown’s landscaping of the gardens in the 1760s and ‘70s, but if so it would be an item unique in his entire oeuvre. The only other folly in the grounds is a tiny Temple (really just a glorified seat) looking from the southwest bank of the lake across at the house. My guess is that, even though it may date from that sort of time, the real responsibility will have lain not with Brown but with the incumbent Earl who may have had a taste for that kind of thing. The Grotto seems to be an attempt to recreate a Graeco-Roman nymphaeum or shrine, with shades of the great spring at Bath (and rather like the site at Santa Fiora near Rome uncovered in 2009 – http://aqueducthunter.com/fiora/), and suggests a landowner who had some interest in and experience of such sites. John, the second Earl Ashburnham, who commissioned the landscaping work from Capability Brown, was, Horace Walpole described, ‘a decent, reserved and servile courtier’, and seems a less likely candidate than his son, the academically-inclined third Earl, George, who was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and trustee of the British Museum. He was in charge of Ashburnham between 1812 and 1830 – a bit late for the sort of Romantic folly-making the Grotto represents, but George is still its most probable builder.
The origin of the name is mysterious too. The Ashburnham Place guidebook and various information boards around the grounds ascribe it to a painting on the plaster at the rear of the well-chamber, depicting, as variously stated, one or three ‘ladies’. The image is supposed to be visible when water is thrown on the plaster – though, even allowing imagination the greatest latitude, I couldn’t make out anything more than random stains of mould – or under infra-red photography. An estate map of 1638 (thekeep.info/places/eastsussex/parishesandsettlements/Ashburnham) shows a ‘Lady’ field name to the north of the house, so the title had some pre-existing local usage, and a ‘Lady Spring’ might have existed before the creation of the Grotto, even if the name did not refer to the Virgin Mary (the church is dedicated to St Peter).
The Ladyspring is the most impressive of Ashburnham’s wells, but there are others. A couple of hundred yards to the southwest is Ironspring, a somewhat overgrown, artificially-dammed pond emptying into the lake and fed by waters which seep in from the slope above. The name suggests mineral content, but nothing is very obvious from the appearance of the water and there are no tell-tale red stains on the mud or undergrowth. Again, the history of this site is unclear: it isn’t named on old or current Ordnance Survey maps.
The Palladian Fountain is harder to locate (I stumbled upon it by accident). It lies south of the carriage drive and seems to be more modern than the Ladyspring, dating to a later phase of the development of the gardens. The outlet is a metal pipe set into a recessed semi-circular arch about four feet high, dripping water into a trough edged with shaped, dark bricks. On the left-hand, eastward side of the fountain, a stone wall curves away, supplied with what appears to be a low bench although the ground is now a bit boggy for sitting and contemplating, as well as the surroundings being somewhat overgrown. The Fountain doesn’t in fact tap a spring, but the overflow from one of the rivulets feeding the lake. The pink stone Shell Fountain, lying in the grounds to the north (and now dry) dates to the 1850s when water was channelled from springs to feed the gardens around the Orangery, next to the house.
The Ladyspring alone would justify a far greater fame for Ashburnham in hydrolatric terms. The combination of well-house and slightly tweaked and augmented topography creating a Romantic neo-pagan experience but one which aims at authenticity is unique in the UK and it would be fascinating to know more than just the speculations I’ve given here.
Jesmond Dene has seen many faces: private estate, heart of industry and delightful municipal park. Fortunately, it is the later which describes it now: a pleasant sweep of wooded valley, with its great river meandering through it, the haunt of dog walkers, joggers, parents with pushchairs and excited children. However, cast back to long before the 1800s to which much of its present guise steams from, back to the mid medieval period and this area of Jesmond was the scene of great pilgrimage. The goal of these pilgrims was the chapel of St. Mary, once the third biggest pilgrimage site in the Kingdom. To visit it now it’s difficult to understand why, despite an eerie sense of sanctity, its size suggests little importance. But size is not everything it’s what’s inside that counts and inside this chapel was thought to be a very important relic, although exactly what remains a mystery.
A street in Newcastle called Pilgrim Street is said to be connected to the shrine being where pilgrims would gather and be accommodated. A feel of its importance can be gathered by a record of 1479, a Yorkshire rector left money in his will for pilgrims to travel to the Kingdom’s great shrines St Pauls, Canterbury’s Becket shrine and the chapel at Jesmond. The Pope also gave special dispensations I believe in a Papal bull.
A few feet away, up a dirt path, is our main site of pilgrimage, St. Mary’s Well, although the causal passerby would be unaware until they walk up that lane as there is no signage from the street. This is an interesting holy well for a number of reasons. Firstly, that it is one of the few wells ever to be excavated…and secondly that despite a supposed long history and association with a chapel with a known provenance we should not always take everything on face value age wise. When tree root damage threatened the site in the early 1980s it was decided to excavate the site, the work being written up by Fraser (1983) in ‘St Mary’s Well, Jesmond, Newcastle upon Tyne’ in the 5th series of Archaeologia Aeliana. The research found that the earliest phase was only seventeenth century. A number of other springs were located nearer the chapel and it is thought that one of these was more probably the holy well, although authorities like Brewis (1928) writing in the article ‘St Mary’s Chapel, and the site of St Mary’s Well, Jesmond’ in the 4th series of Archaeologia Aeliana
The earliest description appears to be Wallis (1769) in his The Natural History and Antiquities of Northumberland he describes it as:
“walled round with stone; a saffron-yellow ochre appearing on the sides, and a blue vitrioline sediment at the bottom. It is a plentiful spring. It is made to fall into a stone-bath, a little below it. In the monastic times it was much frequented by pilgrims.”
Richardson The Border book notes
The Holy Well and shrine at this place were anciently in high estimation, and resorted to by pilgrims, who came from all parts of the Kingdom to worship there. It has a reputation as a healing well. The well was enclosed by William Coulson Esq., who purchased possession here in 1669 (as) a bathing place, which was no sooner done than the water left it. This was considered a just revenge for profaning the sacred well; but the water soon returned and the miracle ended
The excavation revealed that the bathing pool was installed as noted in the eighteenth century and the stone was a remodelling from the nineteenth century. Mackenzie (1837) in his Historical, Topographical and Descriptive view of the county of Northumberland states:
“St. Mary’s Well, in this village, which has as many steps down to it as there are articles in the creed..The Holy Well and shrine at this place were anciently in high estimation. Gray says in his chronography “with great confluence and devotion people came from all parts of this island to the shrine of the Virgin Mary” Bourne also observes, it all parts of the island to worship at it
Today, services are still held at the chapel, namely the first Sunday of May, where pilgrims still go to the well and collect its clear and healing waters. Brewis (1928) confusingly notes that:
The well itself is now underground, but the north end of the stone head is still visible.”
Suggesting that sometime in the twentieth century it was restored. More confusingly his account suggests that the spring was a thermal one:
“a Jesmond gentleman, that his grandfather, one winter’s day, took him to see this well
Touching the water, confusingly it does not appear to be warm, but of course that may be different on a cold day. The well is arched over with an inscription stating ‘gratia’ which is said to be part of a longer inscription ‘Ave Maria gratia plena’ although the former is thought to be 18th century in date. Today the spring water is clear and flowing running over is chamber and running down the channel into an overflow albeit covered in leaves. A venerable yew shadows this secret shrine creating a quiet and somewhat eerie nook in a scene of domesticity. It still has many visitors and is kept in very good condition. On an August afternoon it can be a peaceful escape from the modern pressure of Newcastle.