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Holy Wells and Healing springs of North Wales: St Mary’s Well, Rhuddlan


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.

For more information on North Wales Holy Wells follow




Once a place of pilgrimage….St. Anne’s Well, Caversham

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. St Anne's Well Caversham2

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”.

caversham st ann's 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 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.

GUEST BLOG POST James Rattue’s Uncovering the Wells of Ashburnham

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 –, 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 ( 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.

A pilgrimage to St. Mary’s Well, Jesmond, Newcastle

Close up of the well copyright Pixyledpublications

Close up of the well copyright Pixyledpublications

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.

Our Lady looks over pilgrims to the well copyright PIxyledpublications

Our Lady looks over pilgrims to the well copyright Pixyledpublications

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.

The well

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.”

The view of the well and chamber copyright Pixyledpublications

The view of the well and chamber copyright Pixyledpublications

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.

The inscription on the well arch copyright Pixyledpublications

The inscription on the well arch copyright Pixyledpublications

The well copyright Pixyledpublications

The well copyright Pixyledpublications

A well for May – Our Lady’s Well and a pilgrimage to Our Lady’s Island, Wexford

May is a month dedicated to Our Lady or St Mary and of course across the British Isles, there are a number of Lady Wells. Ireland is a country which is rich in such wells and in County Wexford is perhaps the most famed of all of them, a well which is part of a larger sacred landscape. This is a sacred landscape which doubtlessly dates back beyond the times of pre-Christianity. Indeed, a natural formation at Carnsore Point is believed to be a Druid Altar, and the name Cluain-na-mBan translating as ‘the meadow of the women’ suggests the site could have originated as a Druid community ran by women and as such Our Lady would be a natural dedication.

Perhaps more a peninsular than an island, the supposed island covers around thirty-two acre plot sitting a tidal lake, reached by a causeway. Beside the modern altar encased in class is the leaning barbican tower of a medieval Norman castle which once protected this area. Beyond it, the ruins of a church, where tombs and graves lie in sad desolation and shamrock grows from their bones. Both were built by a de Lamporte and the church was used up until the 18th century.

The island’s Christian heritage begun in the 7th century A.D, when a St. Abban founded a community there and dedicated it to Our Lady.  Saint Abban’s Vita is well recorded in both the Codex Dublinensis and Codex Salmanticensis, and he is recorded to have travelled to Rome and been well educated by a number of saints such as his uncle St. Ibar. It does seem strange that no well is dedicated to him on the island.

Little is recorded of early pilgrimage to either the island or the well. However, its importance can be hinted at when a leaden Bula of Pope Martinus V (1417-31) was found suggesting that papal indulgences were made to those who visited the site. In 1607, Pope Paul V gave a plenary indulgence to those who after Confession and Holy Communion would visit the church of Our Lady on the Island on the Feast (8th September) of Our Lady and the Assumption (15th August).

After the severe prosecution of the Cromwell period, although Pope Benedict, between 1740 and 1743 tried to suppress pilgrimages he had the only official permissible locations being one being Our Lady’s Island and Lough Derg. The Bishop of Ferns was involved with a large procession of the Blessed Sacrement around the Island and high mass was said at the newly consecrated parish church. However, it was not until 1897, that a regular Pilgrimage Procession by local Parish Priest, Father Whitty. This has grown over the years and thousands now attend.

Bob Embleton [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Bob Embleton [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Two wells exist in the area. The more famed and interesting is that of Our Lady’s Well, whose whitewashed chamber overlooks the island below. It is found by passing over a stile and through a couple of fields, look for our lady on the wall on the lane…and a sign! The spring fills an oval chamber and empties into a ditch through a pipe. Overlooking the spring is a small figure of the Virgin and steps go down to the water. Perhaps the most unusual feature is a metal turn-stile. A number of claims are made for its waters, but I know of no specific cures. From its position it is clear that pilgrims would start their journey from the well and after having refreshed themselves would process down to the island.

On the island is another well. The provenance of this well is unclear, it does not appear to have been present in the 1900s when the shrine was constructed nearby and is probably either a domestic farmer’s well or else drains off the farmland; consequently a sign warns of not drinking it. Around this well can be seen a number of figurines probably given as offerings, including a snow globe and a Buddha. It appears that this well probably because of proximity to the pilgrim’s procession vies to replace the most venerable Lady’s Well.

Even on a fine summer’s day, one can both experience the peacefulness of the site and imagine the hoards of pilgrims as the process around it, sometimes with one foot in the water! A romantic and wonderful place and highly recommended.

Interested in Irish holy wells follow this excellent blog

Note my hard drive isnt working so I have had to use a wikicommons image.

Our Lady’s well Preston

This month being important to St Mary or Our Lady I decided to do all the posts on wells related to this saint…..

Despite being close to the busy M6 motorway, the shrine of Our Lady of Fernhalgh remains a quiet and often difficult to find sacred place.  The well arises in a square chamber with a wooden lid, which can be lifted to reveal the iron rich chalybeate water. This is enclosed by a roughly oval or rather octagon shaped walling which may have been the remains of a well house. Overlooking the well is a carving of Our Lady and Jesus enclosed in a stone niche and protected by a low grill with the words Ave Marie on it.

Ferny field or ancient shrine?

The age of this noted holy well is under some dispute. Some authorities believe that the name of the settlement name, Fernyhalgh is believed to mean in Anglo-Saxon “ancient shrine”; Etymologist Skeat used Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as evidence extracting ‘to ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londres’ meaning to distant shrines known in many lands. Ferne being distant or possibly ancient and halwe derived from Anglo-Saxon halgian meaning hallow. however it is more likely that it means “watery meadow abounding in ferns, “halgh being  interchangeable with haugh”. “Fernig halth,” the Old English for “a field with ferns”

Possible confusion of sites

It is possible that the traditions associated with Fernyhalgh were transferred from a site in Preston itself. Taylor (1908) in his….. wrote: “The site is marked on the ordnance map at a spot about one hundred yards north-east from the Franciscan friary, from which it is now separated by the Lancaster Canal. To the east of it is Ladywell Street. Baines states that at a short distance from the Friary, there was an ancient well called Lady Well, frequented within living memory by the devout. Mr Hewitson, in his History of Preston, says that he examined the site in the year 1883, but could find no trace of the well. It was probably destroyed when the canal was made. Mr Hardwick, writing on ‘Well worship’ [Traditions, Superstitions and Folklore, p.218] remarks that water, both in ancient and modern times, has been largely employed as a symbol of purity, and in the Roman Catholic church especially has been consecrated to religious purposes and rendered ‘holy’. He writes, “Hence, it is not surprising that many springs, and especially in the neighbourhood of religious houses should in the Middle Ages have been invested with a sacred character, or that superstition of a more ancient or heathen origin should yet as it were haunt their precincts. Many such wells, as those in connection with the ‘Old Friary’ at Preston which gave the name to Ladywell Street in that borough, like that which performed a similar office for the late, notorious ‘Holywell Street’ near The Strand in London, have passed away, and left nothing behind but the street nomenclature referred to….”

Taylor (1906) does not mention any legends but it is possible that confusion may have arisen and because Our Lady’s Shrine was still functioning traditions were transferred when the present building was constructed in 1685 with a group much more keen to encourage its venerability.

Father Christopher Tootel, writing in 1730 is said to have learnt from his parishioners around the end of the seventeenth century the story of its foundation. He was told that a merchant called Fergus Maguire was caught in a terrible storm on the Irish sea and prayed to the Virgin saying that if he would be saved he would do some deed of great piety. Soon the storm passed and upon arriving unharmed on the Lancashire coast was instructed by a vouch to find a place called Fernyhalgh and build a chapel there where a crab tree bore fruit without cores and near a spring. He searched for a long time and finally reached Preston was served by a girl who apologised for being late because she was tending to a stray cow at Fernyhalgh. He was then guided to the place and did find both tree and spring as well as a statue of the Virgin. He such built a chapel with a cross there and the site soon became a goal of pilgrims.

The finding of a statue suggests that it may have been an earlier site, however the account despite an interesting origin has no provenance further than the 19th century although it is said to be a family tradition of the Maguire family (in Thomas Maguire Fermanagh-The Native Chief and clans). The date varies as well from 1100 to 1484. However, giving support to the tale, Historian Whittle (1821) states that the: ‘

“the ancient cross stone… stands close to the Lady’s Well”.

And that he shown the crab-tree which was only felled in the early nineteenth century; although he is the only authority to refer to it and one has the feeling that this was said to support the legend. The cross by the well had been removed by 1843, although it only dated from the 1600s.

Restoration or creation?

The big question that hangs over the site is how old is it? If the legend above dates from the 1100s what happened to this chapel as the earliest true reference to anything at the site is in the Register of Archbishop Zouch of York which states that on the 8th January 1348-9. This states that:

“a licence was granted to Thomas son of Gilbert de Singleton to have divine service by a fit chaplain within the manors of Broughton, Fernyhalgh and Farmholes for three years..”

The date is significant being around the time of the Black Death and so is the length of time, over which they perhaps hoped the plague would die out. This still does not answer the question what happened to the chapel? It is possible that the any village associated with the site died out but there is no evidence.

The next mention is in 1454 when Nicholas Singleton of Broughton  and his wife Margaret had a licence for a chaplain to celebrate divine service in the chapel of Fernyhalgh and in the oratory of their manor house. Such chapels were common in remote areas and remains of them in varying states can be found in Northern England. Obviously the chapel was closed in the 1547 Act in the Reformation. This appears to only suggest a small chapel or even a private one and does not suggest in any way that there was a shrine here. It seems more probable that the site was chosen by recusants because of some presence of a chapel; the well may have been domestic and chosen to create a shrine, with a story being back created to attract pilgrims. This was purchased in 1685 by local Catholics and soon according to Gillett (1957) records show that the site was being well used, two years later:

“Bishop Leyburn confirmed at Ladywell Chapel (St Marie’s) one thousand and sixty-nine persons.”

This raised the ire of the authorities who in 1718 sent twenty solders from Preston to suppress worship at the chapel. The appearance of the soldiers appears to have forced the worship underground, as the Rev Christopher Tootel records that

“June the twenty-ninth, 1718, was the last day of public praying at Our Lady’s Well”,

Tootel later adds that:

“we began to pray at our Lady’s Well, privately Aug. 5th, 1723”

Yet from that day to this the Catholic community have retained this site and preserved it against Protestant mobs and fires (the later in 2011). Now in the Diocesan Shrine of Lancaster, with a sort of strange Catholic theme park feel about it, pilgrims from all denominations visit from May to the end of October.

A rediscovered Essex Lady well

In my volume of Essex holy and healing wells I referred to Sandon’s Lady well which is recorded on the first series of Ordnance Survey and that I recorded as being lost. My further research suggested that the site may exist. Closer inspection of a modern map combined with google map satellite images appeared to show a lane off the main road, called Ladywell lane and some springs near a tennis centre there.

I contacted the Tennis Club but they knew nothing of a spring so I assumed the spring I could see was not as I had assumed on their property. The best idea was to do some field work. At first I investigated the bushes near the Tennis Club, and after exploring where I thought the spring was, found nothing and appeared much to the surprise of a man walking his dog. Despite being interested and having lived in the area for many years, he had never questioned why it was called lady well.

Exploring further down the lane I rang the doorbell of a Ladywell House and a lady appeared. She did know the reason for the lane’s name and confirmed that it still existed! She pointed me to a small copse on the edge, but beyond, her garden where the spring lay. She did not know who owned the land but added that access would not be a problem. Taking the footpath, and there I did I find a gate into the woods, long since broken away which served access to the woody area. Going back on myself as instructed I found a steep channel carved through the mud and tracing back to the source, a spring arising from a clay pipe and forming a shallow but quickly moving stream. Perhaps not the most picturesque of wells but in Essex something unique, a surviving Lady well. Why this sort should be a lady well is unclear, the church dedication is St Andrew although Great Baddow’s church is dedicated to St Mary and interestingly the named Baddow is believed to mean bad water!

I was informed by the owner of Ladywell House, that it was believed locally that a local women drowned in the spring and this is why it is so called. I am always intrigued by such explanations and clearly this cannot be the reason and I postulate it is more likely to be due to some post-Reformation reassignment. Of course I say rediscovered peope knew it existed in the area but not many!!

The Lady Well of Woolpit

The village boasts a spring of clear and clean water has been an important site of pilgrimage possibly for centuries, called The Lady’s Well ( TL 977 626 ) although the villages most prominent attraction was its church.

Confusion over the Lady Chapel

Before the Reformation Woolpit’s Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary or Our Lady with its miracle giving Virgin was the religious focal point of this region of East Anglia. Its patron effigy was adorned with riches of silver and gold; the many gifts donated by thankful wealthy and poor pilgrims alike who were cured by the act of prayer here.  The chapel even saw was Royal patronage in the form of Henry VII ‘s wife, Queen Elizabeth, who visited it in 1501. First mentioned in 1211 and 1214 in a mandate from the Bishop Of Norwich, which granted all its to the nearby monks of Bury Abbey. It remained an important place of adoration for centuries, and records of Wills show that many legacies were given to upkeep the shrine. As early as the 13th Century, The Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, was established, on the 8th September, a fair to cater for and capitalise on the pilgrim trade.       However as with most prominent shrines it ultimately meet the wrath of the overzealous Henry VIII. Around 1538 he ordered that the Image be removed, and the surrounding chapel was consequently removed about 1551. After this the site was largely forgotten and Woolpit slips into the fringes of history. Although archaeologists disagree on the location fine details, it is believed to lie the North side of the church’s Chancel.

Not a mediaeval shrine?

There would appear to be no evidence to suggest, however, that although the village was a pilgrim site, that the well was venerated before the Reformation. Indeed one could suggest that the well’s veneration somehow was a substitute for the loss of the chapel and its effigy. This is supported by the fact that the earliest specific reference to the well is post-Reformation and is mentioned as a piece of land in a survey of the manor of 1573-76, referring back to manorial court of 1557-58:

“..lying alongside the way which led to the spring called our lady’s well.’

However, first description of the well is not until 1778 within church notes written by Sir John Cullum. These state:

“in  a close near the near the east ends of the Church is a spring still bricked up called Our Ladys Spring.”

They continue to state that Parish tradition:

“ says there was a chapel near the spring.”

Now is this the Lady chapel or another chapel? This would appear to be the earliest mention concerning a chapel serving the well directly. The lack of contemporary records of such a well chapel would appear to suggest antiquarian confusion with the Woolpit Lady Chapel. However after this mention the existence of this chapel is emphasised in Gough’s 1789 Britannia:

“..a spring which is called Our Ladys Spring, that the inhabitants have traditional report….that there was a chapel near the spring, but there is no remains of it. The spring is a square and bricked and supplies a large moat with very clear water.”

It all depends what is meant by near? An unlikely source, mainly because of its lack of academic rigour, Arthur Mee (1904) mentions a chapel in association with the well and records that Abbot Samson of Bury St Edmunds travelled to Rome in 1173 to secure the revenue for the well, and Dickinson ( 1957, an update on that of 1904 ) emphasises a mediaeval origin. However neither authors quote earlier sources and on known evidence appear erroneous. Abbot Samson did claim the revenue of the Lady Chapel and thus these authors show how confusion with Our Lady’s Chapel can occur. The earliest record of direct pilgrimage associated with the spring was referred to by the Rev John Cobbold of Woolpit in a letter to David Elisha Davy, a Suffolk Antiquarian. He states that:

“..tradition says that a pilgrimage of Holy Nuns came from Ireland to visit it.”

This was recalled by a local lady of 90 years, and he states that the well was still:

“In great request with antiquated females….for its numerous virtues.”

Indeed from 1794 until 1802, Augustinian Holy Nuns may have come from an English convent at Bruges to live at Hengrave Hall where they established their own Chapel. In Bury St Edmunds and Its Environs ( 1827 ) its anonymous author described it as a ‘ far-famed well ‘ being:

“A perpetual spring about two feet deep of beautiful clear water, and so cold that a hand immersed in it is very soon benumbed.”

This I can personally vouch for in winter! The author continues that: ‘It is used occasionally for the immersion of weakly children, and much resorted by people with weak eyes.’ This benefit for eyes is noted by William Dutt, in his Little Guide to Suffolk (1904), as well as the ubiquitous Arthur Mee (1904). Walker (1988) states the Queen Elizabeth I visited the well. However I have been unable to find any corroborative evidence for this claim and suggest that the author may have confused the incident with Queen Elizabeth, wife of Henry VII, who as previously noted visited the Lady Chapel, and not the well!

Considering the water’s benefits, tests were made by Anglia Water Authority were made in 1978. They revealed the water to be more mineralised than the drinking water supply abstraction around Bury St Edmunds. A high sulphate level was also recorded, which medically is of interest as sulphates were used as an antiseptic, and thus could be useful against trachoma (an eye ailment), explaining the use of the water as a eye curative.

The site became an Ancient Monument in 1978, despite the area of the well being overgrown: the well itself only being identified as being beneath a rotten wooden board. Consequently access to the well was difficult until 1989-1991 when preservation work was done. The work commenced in 1989, and has improved access and preservation considerably. The area now being designated as a Nature Reserve. This preservation work was carried out by English Heritage, Suffolk Wildlife Trust, Mid Suffolk Council, Parish Council and brewers Ruddles.

The well is composed of a square structure of grey stone work of about a foot depth. A metal grid with chicken wire has been wielded over the opening to the well. Obviously to prevent it becoming clogged with leaves, and anything or one falling in! The water is clear, and flows in a Northerly direction through a square aperture, large enough to insert ones hand to sample the water, into a small stream that feeds the moat.

The Our Lady’s Well at Woolpit, in its woodland setting, is a magical site. Woolpit itself is a remarkable village, steeped in history and lore. Most of its claims to fame being displayed upon the prominent village sign ( depicted ), the well is however is absent, perhaps it was difficult to depict!! the name of the village is believed, among other possible theories, to originate from a pit dug to dispose of wolves: indeed it is said that wolves are said to haunt here! The village boasts an impressive Parish church ( worthy of a visit for its surviving poppy heads alone ), a village Lock-up and ornate Victorian village well canopy. Perhaps its greatest claim to fame, is the story of the Green Children, a strange Babes-In-The-Woodsesque story that any half decent folklorist will recant at length. For those curious, the church has an original translation from the latin account which describes the appearance of the green boy and girl, of whom the former died, but the latter lived,  lost her greenness, and married a Norfolk man. This is despite only eating peas!!? A story owing perhaps more to symbolic fable than substantiated fact.

Recently clooties and an effigy of our Lady have arrived!

A Sutton Coldfield Field Trip

A visit to the enormous Sutton Park will reward any curious well researcher. The magnificent park, once a royal hunting park, and then after Henry VIII gave it to Bishop Vesey, it is now a park, which is now municipally owned and admission is free. It contains half a dozen man-made pools and three named wells The most obvious of the ‘holy’ wells is that marked at the south-west end of Bracebridge Pool called St Mary’s Well. Burgess and Hill (1893) notes that it was:

“… very popular with visitors to the Park, is that of St Mary, commonly called the Druids”.

Ribton-Turner (1893)’s Shakespeare’s land being a description of central and southern Warwickshire.notes that

“Sutton Coldfield and Park have several wells other than that of Rowton, which are deserving of notice ; of these Another well, very popular with the visitors to the Park, is that of St. Mary, commonly called the Druids’. This is at the south-west end of Bracebridge Pool (the Queen pool of the Park). How it tame to be called the Druids’ Well is not known, it is scarcely necessary to say that it can have no Druidical connection ; it is very probable, however, that it was dedicated to Saint Mary long before the dam of Bracebridge Pool was made by Ralph Bracebridge in the reign of Henry V.”

This is association with the Druids may owe something to Hutton’s History of Birmingham (1783), who suggested that there was a Druid site near Sutton Coldfield on a Druid sanctuary near Sutton Coldfield and it was said to be the seat of the Archdruid, Sadly the well has seen better days. I was informed when looking for the site by a man surveying the area that it no longer existed and that he himself had never found it. He informed me that the distinctive well house was taken away due to damage caused by vandals and stored somewhere by the local council. However, dogged searching in the underground where the site was marked on the appropriate OS did reveal something. Ducking under some Rhodendrons, I found what would certainly be the well, its spring found filling a rectangular stone lined pool which was still full of clear water emptying into a channel just beyond. Despite what I was told, the well house shown in Bord (2008) appears to be lying beside looking rather forlorn and the other side a more modern structure takes the water. Hopefully one day it can be fully restored.

Lady’s or Druids’s well. The forlorn remains of the well house which supposedly where removed to a safe place!

Rowton Well  is a medicinal pool about ten feet in diameter, with a neat low circular curb of large stones, now enclosed by a new post and rails fence. Ribston-Turner (1893) notes that:

“Rowton Well lies near the Roman Ikenild Street, and has therefore a claim to very early fame. Rohedon was the name of a family in the neighbourhood, temp. Edward I., and there was also a Rohedon Hill and a Rohedon Green at Erdington. This name, probably the origin of Rowton, may be of early derivation, and there is a tumulus near the well which favours that view, yet a dedication to the Holy Rood in Saxon days may possibly be the original source of the name.”

The  Keeper’s Well is the copious source of supply to the pool of that name.  This pool is nearly surrounded by woods of great natural beauty, and is supposed to have derived its name some four centuries ago from John Holt, who was park keeper or ranger under the Earl of Warwick in the reign of Edward IV., and probably constructed the dam. A final interesting well, not perhaps in the park but was called Robin Hood’s Well in the parish, but I have been unable to discover more information. It may have been another name from one of the other wells.