Mermaids are traditionally thought of as a marine phenomena but there are a number of freshwater accounts such as that noted in Herefordshire, three in Suffolk (Bury St Edmunds, Rendelsham, Fornham All Saints) and another in Gloucestershire at Timsbury. The peak district probably because of its remote and desolate landscape claims two!
The first is associated with the Black or Blake Mere a small pond of irregular shape, lying in a little hollow on the summit of the high hill of Morridge, about three and a half miles. from Leek in Staffordshire. The pond appears to have a reputation of being haunted. In the pages of The Reliquary, Camden quoting Nicham, says it is:
“A lake that with prophetic noise doth roar; Where beasts can ne’er be made to venture o’er— By hounds, or men, or fleeter death pursued, They’ll not plunge in, but shun the hated flood.”
Robert Plot in his 1689 Natural History of Staffordshire notes that:
“no Cattle will drink of it, no bird light on it, or fly over it; all which are as false as that it is bottomless; it being found upon admeasurement, scarce four yards in the deepest place; my horse also drinking, when I was there, as freely of it as ever I saw him in any other place; and the Fowls are so far from declining to fly over it, that I spoke with several that had seen Geese upon it; so that I take this to be as good as the rest, notwithstanding the vulgar disrepute it lies under.”
Neither account mentions a mermaid and it is unclear when this creature is first applied to the site. One of the first accounts perhaps is Charlotte S. Burne 1896 notes in her “What Folkore is, and how it is to be collected” in the North Staffordshire Naturalists’ Field Club, Annual Report and Transactions. Two origins for the existence of this mermaid are given. One account states that she was a women ,who during a stormy night was drowned there by her lover after he discovered she was pregnant with his child. Another story suggests that she was a witch and was drowned by the local people. It is said that as she drowned she cursed the person who accused her and days later he was found clawed to death in the pool. Local people state that she can be seen combing her hair and enticing people to their death. She is also said to have warned locals who were draining the lake to check its depth by threatening to flood the local town of Leek – they subsequently stopped!
Perhaps the more famous of the Peak’s merfolk is found in The Mermaid’s Pool a mysterious pool at the foot of Kinder Scout, a strange site which appears to be a relic of pre-Christian water worship particular as the water is said to have healing qualities. Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary lore of holy wells notes:
“There is a local tradition that a beautiful nymph ….who comes to bathe daily in the Mermaid’s Pool, and that the man who has the good fortune to see her whilst bathing will become immortal.”
It is likely that Hope is sourcing Henry Kirke’s 1869 article “The Mermaid’s Pool” in The Reliquary notes:
“At Old Oak Wood, near Hayfield, Derbyshire, is the Mermaid’s Pool, where a beautiful woman is said to enter the water every day, and whoever has the good luck to see her will become immortal and will never die.”
Hope records a tradition of someone who had seen the mermaid thus:
“The old folk of Hayfield, moreover, have a long story of a man who, sometime in the last century, went from Hayfield over the Scout, and was lucky enough to meet this mountain nymph, by whom he was conducted to a cavern hard by. Tradition adds that she was pleased with this humble mortal, and that he lingered there for some time, when she conferred on him the precious gift of immortality.”
The best time to find visit the Mermaid’s Pool is midnight on Easter eve when she could favour you with your wishes, but if she did not favour you she will drag you to your death!
It is possible of course that local production of methane gases produced willo-the-wisps which were seen as the mermaid but that would ruin a good story would it not? Or perhaps you might argue that someone caught the said mermaid and put it in Buxton museum! – go along and have a look!
One of the frequently encountered mysterious creatures near springs and wells, as well as other bodies is called Jenny Greenteeth. In an article in the Transactions and proceedings of the American Philological Association in 1895, Charles P.G. Scott notes in the Devil and his imps remarks:
“Jenny Green-teeth, in the vernacular Jinny Green-teeth, is the pretty name of a female goblin who inhabits wells or ponds.”
The name Jinny Green-Teeth is recorded in the Folk-speech of South Cheshire (1887) and A Glossary of Words Used in the County of Chester (1886) stating that:
“Children are often deterred from approaching such places [as wells or ponds] by the threat that “Jinny Green-Teeth will have them.”
Edwin Waugh notes in 1857 Sketches of Lancashire life and localities
“ lurking in the streams and pools, like ‘Green-Teeth,’ and ‘Jenny Long Arms,’ waiting, with skinny claws and secret dart, for an opportunity to clutch the unwary wanderer upon the bank into the water.”
Often description is given of this goblin and it appears to be restricted to the west of the country, with references made in the Notes and queries around Manchester, Birmingham and as far east as Shropshire. Roy Vickery in a piece on his excellent Plant-Lore blog reports an account from Bebington Merseyside in the 1980s:
“Although Jenny Greenteeth was usually unseen, in about 1920 the bogey which inhabited two pools beside Moss Pitts Lane in Fazakerley, ‘had pale green skin, green teeth, very long green locks of hair, long green fingers with long nails, and she was very thin with pointed chin and very big eyes.”
Moreover it is possible that in Lincolnshire the same goblin is encountered as Jenny Hearn, Hurn or Yonde. This name is found associated with a bend of the Trent at Owston Ferry was haunted by Jenny Hearn or Hurn or Jenny Yonde. Unlike Jenny Greenteeth the creature is described. In Lincolnshire folklore Ethel Rudkin reports:
“The pygmy propels the dish rapidly across the stream by means of a minute pair of oars, the size of teaspoons. It is said, that having reached shore this being crosses the road and proceeds to browse in the field. ‘Or again it is said that a ‘thing’ is known to come crawling out of the water, having large eyes, and long hair, and tusks a walrus. It goes into the fields to feed. The river bank here curves in the shape of a horse-shoe, consequently a short-cut footpath has been used for years to counteract this bend.”
A possible ancient origin of this creature is suggested by another Lincolnshire location: Jenny Stanny Well a site has appeared to have passed through a number of name changes. Abraham de la Pryme discussed it in his 1680 discussion of Lincolnshire described the well as Julian’s Stony Well and now it is called Stanniwell. The name is suggestive of a Roman heritage.
Here interestingly, the name Jenny Stanny well has been supported by the suggestion that the site is haunted by a ghost presumably of that girl who carries her head under her arm. She is said to have drowned in the water. Is this a confusion of the Jenny Greenteeth tradition?
Interestingly in Preston the goblin is associated with a holy well. In the anonymous 1852 piece A Prestonian, ‘Preston More than Forty Years Ago’ in the Preston Chronicle:
“Near Friargate, and not far from the houses now called Mount Pleasant, was ‘Lady well’, about which the superstitious old women used to tell strange tales of one ‘Jenny Greenteeth’, who was said to be occasionally seen riding on a broomstick, cutting wonderful capers.”
The association of drowning with Jenny Greenteeth is significant as it would seem that the folklore probably developed as a way to warn children off playing in dangerous areas of water. This being done by associating the goblin with algae and duckweed. A note in an 1820s version of Notes and queries records Jenny Greenteeth being a name for duckweed in Birmingham. In A Glossary of the Words and Phrases of Furness (North Lancashire) (1869) she is called
“Jinny-green-Teeth — green conversa on pools.
“green scum on ponds, but supposed to imply the presence of a water-sprite or “boggart”, a terror to children as they pass the pond on which the appearance is seen.”
This is emphasised by an article by A.R. Vickery, Lemna minor and Jenny Greenteeth, in Folklore 94: 247-50, 1983. whose correspondent noted:
“ I was brought up in the Upton/Crenton area of the west side of Widnes in Lancashire (now Cheshire) …It was and still is…a farming area and many of the fields contained contained pits – some of them have quite steep sides Jinny was well known to me and my contemporaries and was simply the green weed Duckweed, which covered the surface of stagnant water.”
Finally, it is interesting the correspondent also notes
“Children who strayed too close to the edge…would be warned to watch out of Jinny Greenteeth, but it was the weed itself which was believed to hold children under water. There was never any suggestion there was a witch of any kind there!”
And such does a folk tradition become diminished! However, it was a clever way to use a common plant of stagnant water to signify dangerous waters – pity it wasn’t used in 1970s Public information films – Dark and dangerous water!
In a quiet corner of Kent is one of the county’s most renowned wells. A well known local legend is associated with St. Eustace’s Well (TR 062 458) Hasted (1797 -1801) based his knowledge on the work of Roger of Wendover describes the well as follows:
“In it (Wye) is a hamlet, called Withersden, formerly accounted a manor, in which there is a well, which was once famous being called St. Eustace’s Well, taking its name from Eustachus, Abbot of Flei,…..a man of learning and sanctity…to come and preached at Wye, and blessed a fountain there, so that afterwards its waters were endowed by such miraculous power, that by all diseases were cured.”
Hasted (1797-1811) relates the properties of the well in detail:
“..from the taste of it alone, the blind recovered sight, the lame their power of walking, the dumb their speech, the deaf their hearing, and whatever sick person drank of it in faith enjoyed renewed health.”
The legend set in 1189, during Godfrey de Luce’s tenure at the vicarage. Pope Innocent III sent St. Eustace, a Norman Cistercian Abbot, who held his first meeting at Wye after a terrible sea journey. Thirsty, he searched for water, and finding this spring, blessed it, afterwards it attracted pilgrims, and a guardian priest was established. A specific legend tells of a woman, possessed of the devil, and ‘swollen up as it were by dropsy’ came to a priest, whom upon seeing her urged her to go the spring. This she did and no sooner had the women drunk the holy water, she recovered but vomited forth a pair of black toads, growing into black dogs, then black asses! The woman surprised vented her anger against these manifestations and the priest intervened, sprinkling the holy water on ‘they flew up into the air and vanished, leaving no traces of their foulness.’
When I first became interested in holy wells – some would say obsessed – my interest being piqued by a copy of Janet and Colin Bord’s 1984 Sacred Waters picked up in a Truro bookshop back in the 1990s and in it was St Eustace’s Well. It was described as follows:
“The well is close to Withersdane cottage 3/4 mile southeast of Wye and reached along a lane by Withersdane hall. the well now has an air of neglect but in medieval times it was famous because it was visited by St Eustace when visiting the country. People visited for eye cures.”
As the well was place with the Saint Edith and The Black Prince’s Wells, both exceptional sites, I expected something on an ilk. With the book in hand and armed with a map I looked for the site, and looked and looked. I was expecting to find something beside the road at the corner where the map albeit a less than accurate landranger placed it. To no avail I could not find it. So finally I decided to ask a person in a nearby cottage thinking that perhaps the site was lost in the undergrowth or else unfortunately filled in. Especially as Robert Goodsall in his 1968 A second Kentish patchwork first visiting the site in 1966, found the site overgrown with saplings and weeds, but recently the site has been tidied up. There was report of steps and rails from the roadside down to the spring head with a stone nearby near the pond for leaving water vessels.
Upon asking I thus discovered that the person I was asking had it in the corner of their garden. The owner, a Mr. John Hilton and he gladly showed me the well. It consists of a shallow rectangular shaped pond, with its source enclosed within a square brick structure with a concrete top, to the north of the actual well basin. I was informed by the then owner Mr. Hilton that even in the 1976 drought, there was no apparent difference in depth, the only considerable change being the influx of agricultural fertiliser causing overgrowth in algae over the years.
Within recent years it has been reported that St. Eustace’s Well had become very yet overgrown again. Perhaps due to a change of ownership it has again been cleared of bushes and this time it was noted that the water table had fallen due to water abstraction for mains supply nearby and thus turned the well more into a murky pool. However, I noticed that in a recent photo from Will Parson of the Pilgrimage Trust that it looks much more inviting with the steps down to it having been tidied up and the water looking clear and clean. It is clear from the planting that this back garden holy well is much appreciated.
Sitting rather incongruously beside a main road is the Beggar’s Well. A site which is often without explanation included in works on holy wells however there is no folklore or history recorded of the site. Described Patchell and Patchell (1987) Old Wells of Warwickshire describe it as like a dog kennel. Indeed this structure is very confusing. When Lichfield road was widened the well was rebuilt sometime 13 metres to the west of its original location between 1962 and 1983 it appears and surprisingly no one remembers exactly when or by whom. Even more confusing is that a surviving photograph held in Warwickshire Record Office showing woman standing by Beggar’s Well which is dated between 1900-1909 it appears completely different in shape, size and appearance. When I visited it was evident to me that the brickwork did not match that seen in the photo. Thus it asks the question why were new bricks used, what happened to the original brickwork or is this the original brickwork which could be found behind encasing possibly seen in the photo. It is possible that the brickwork is that seen below the conical shape but one might ask why not completely rebuild and what happened to the conical top. It is all very odd. Furthermore the site is now completely dry no one thought it appears to direct the spring (assuming it was still flowing when moved). All in all it looks like an amateur job but someone must know for sure.
Is it a holy well?
Some sources emphatically include it in surveys of obvious holy and healing wells. But there is no evidence of this. Nor is there evidence of any age either. It’s earliest reference is on the first series OS map it appears. Yet could it be a holy well? Is there more to its history? Let us examine the evidence.
Is it really St Peter’s Well? St Peter’s Well ‘appears in many old documents’. The parish church is dedicated to Sts. Peter & Paul, but the wells exact location is unclear unless it refers to the Beggar’s Well? The evidence against this, but not exclusively problematic, is that many wells which share the same name as their parish church are located near the parish church – the Beggar’s well is not. Furthermore one could suggest that St Peter as a dedication suggests that as a holy well it may have derived its name from the church and thus emphasising its proximity.
Is there any other evidence? Well no but perhaps it is worth exploring the name Beggar’s Well. No authority appears to give reason for its origin. The obvious answer is that this was a site frequented by beggars which provided free water. There are other Beggars wells in the country, perhaps the most similar and indeed it even looks like Coleshill’s Beggar’s Well, is that of Threapwood, Staffordshire. Here its is said that workers at the now disused sandstone quarry discovered this source of water in the 1840s. Landowner Earl of Shrewsbury allowed locals to use it. Although that does not really explain the name!
There is another possible if rather hypothetical origin to the name. Is it derived from St. Bega? It seems unlikely St Bega as a saint is restricted to the north west of England it appears and I know of no evidence of her cult in this area of the country. However what is more interesting is that she was a Celtic saint and there is evidence of Celtic remains here.
Is the Romano-British settlement a clue?
In 1978, local enthusiasts discovered Roman pottery and more significantly it is I discovered this unattributed record:
“workmen removing the original stone lining in preparation for sinking a new well to one side of the dual carriageway found a crock pot buried behind one of the sandstone blocks, breaking it open they found it was full of Roman and Romano-Celtic coins – not one of which had been minted after 63ad.”
This report is of the Beggar’s well and indicates the ancient use of the well and the deposit of coins an offering. The date link suggesting perhaps to prevent the impact of Bouddican raids. This finally suggests that if the well in the article in question is the Beggar’s well we can state fairly emphatically that it was a sacred spring.
Was the well linked to a Roman settlement with a Roman temple found on Grimstock Hill. This was occupied from the 1st to 3rd century and the discovery of silver plaque showing a figure holding a shield suggests it was dedicated to Mars or Mercury. Unfortunately, such a deity is not a strong indication of a local water cult. What was worked out was that the square shrine was built on top of earlier ovens where food may have been offered to the gods.
An important Celtic religious site would be likely in Coleshill as it was the meeting point of three Celtic tribes: the Cornovii, the Dobunni and the Coritani. Of course the observant amongst you will see the name of the hill is significant – Grimstock – is this our final clue albeit a Germanic one? It is highly suggestive that Grim derives from Grimr, a version of Odin the Norse chief god and stock derived from Old English ‘stoc has been suggested as meaning ‘place’ quite often for a holy place. Was this a name given by Germanic settlers seeing the temple remains one wonder or did they celebrate their god here and utilise the spring? Interesting here might be another clue to the age of the well and its name. Böðgæðir is another name for the god, as is Báleygr, and whilst there is no evidence of either being used locally or indeed how they are pronounced, consenental drift over the years may have made it sound like beggar and the ill informed made it so.
Is the Hawkswell evidence?
Also in the parish is a Hawkeswell. Now I have mooted a theory that such named wells are vestiges of ancient motif wells which were named after the motif animal of different tribal groups that met there perhaps.
There is a record of a Cold Bath in the parish which was said to cure leprosy. Where this was I have been unable to ascertain but it may have been possibly associated with the spring. Its association with leprosy is significant often leprous beggars were an issue for many medieval towns and villages was this a way to prevent lepers reading the centre. It was after all on the edge of the settlement.
So in summary I would say there is not much evidence for Beggar’s well to be a holy well in the Christian sense but there is some circumstantial evidence that it is sacred spring in the Roman British time and possibly into Anglo-Saxon times. It does feel that the Beggar’s well holds more secrets and perhaps one day these will be revealed. So for now Beggar’s well is not a holy well.
Despite the thundering sounds of motorways nearby, the industry of Aylesford and the urban sprawl of Maidstone and Rochester not far away the triangle of area trapped between this modernisation clinging to the edges of the ancient pilgrim’s way still has a feel of something ancient and mysterious. Many people visit the area to see its megalithic remains – Kit’s Coty, lower Kit’s Coty and the White horse stone, but in this area are a number of springs which tantalisingly may suggest a similar ancient ritual use.
Many years ago I picked up a delightfully named volume A Tramp in Kentish Pilgrim Land by Coles Finch. A 1925 book whose research and details are of much interest. One of the sites he discusses is the Pilgrim’s Spring, (TQ 731 614) in the old community of Tottington, which he describes a pool surrounded by sarsens believed to be of ancient origin:
“Spread around this beautiful spring head in plenteous disorder is a large number of huge stones, some thrown into the bed of the stream, others supporting its margins. Some half buried and peep through the ground. With Cromlech and altar thrown down and heaped around the spring, it is left to our imagination to picture this site of ancient water worship in the dim and distant past. The stone circle appears to have completely encircled the principal spring; hence there are reasonable grounds for concluding that too was devoted to water worship.”
Earlier in 1872 a James Fergusson visited the area and noted:
…nearer the village [Aylesford] exists or existed, a line of great stones, extending from a place called Spring Farm, in a north-easterly direction, for a distance of three quarters of a mile, to another spot known as Hale Farm passing through Tollington [sic], where the greater number of the stones are now found. In front of the line near the centre at Tollington lie two obelisks, known to the country people as the coffin stones – probably from their shape. They are 12 feet long by 4 to 6 broad, and about 2 to 3 feet thick. They appear to be partially hewn, or at least shaped, so as to resemble one another.
Of course, the description is perhaps tainted by the ‘Druid’ obsession of Victorian antiquarians, so perhaps the stones are natural, although close to recognised ancient monuments, they are still to be found in area some up righted by the farmer The springs still exist too, but the number of sarsens associated with them appears to have been reduced, and one would suggest that a number have been dragged from their position and placed on the Coffin Stone.
Another similar site is a Spring (TQ 745 599) which is also situated by the Pilgrims way, and was probably associated with the nearby lost chapel of St. Michael, Alfred John Dunkin in his 1846 History of the County of Kent describes it as a Druidical pool:
“East of the Medway at Cossington, at the base of the hill on which Kits Coty House stands, water of the spring is intensely cold in summer and very warm in the winter.” He records that stones and similar objects placed in the water become coated in a red tinge, which undoubtedly created deep superstition regarding their powers.”
He also notes that around the spring head:
“still lie many of the massive boulders of their temple in a well preserved semicircular form.”
Dr. Thorpe’s work of 1788 cited in Hasted (1797-1811) History of Kent describes Cossington’s spring as:
“At the bottom issue several springs, which are so cold and sharp that the water is said to cramp and kill ducks, and the flints that lie in it are tinged red as blood, and to try the experiment stones have been marked and put in, which, in less than a year’s time, were of the same colour.”
Finch (1925) believes that these properties were exaggerated, and were certainly not considered when the water company took charge of the water; he describes the stream as now only flowing at a meagre flow and only feeding some pools by the ruins of Cossington Manor. Sadly, the site was been taken over by the waterworks and consequently at the spring head there is nothing of interest. Near Cossington farm, there are the ruins of the ancient manor and beneath this a rag stone pool, built to grow watercress. Yet, these are the only artefacts of interest, as the spring head itself is of no longer interest.
Below Boxley’s All Saint’s Church, Finch (1925) recorded a Pilgrim’s Pool (TQ 775 589) where the pilgrims would have presumably refreshed themselves or bathed. This pool has become over grown and rubbish strewn, compared to Finch’s (1925) time. The railings that lined the pool as shown in Finch’s photo are now bent, buckled and rusty. Overall, the pool is largely forgotten, and not even mentioned by the church guide. Hasted (1797-1811) notes two Petrifying Springs in the vicinity, and these are presumably the ones which arise inaccessibly in a small copse near the ruins of Boxley Abbey and the old vicarage garden (TQ 766 591, and TQ 774 589).
All of these sites potentially suggest the location of the Haly Well of Haley Garden. This has caused a fair amount of confusion from Kent historians being some discussion has occurred regarding its exact location, although Hale Farm may have taken its name from it. Harris (1719) in his work on Kent Topography notes that a well, that had many virtues, in particular cleansing sin:
“Under Boreham (Burham, Burgham) formerly there was a fountain in this Parish (South Philipot) at a place called Haly or Holy Garden, which was accounted mighty sacred by common people, and had very uncommon virtues ascribed to it, and in the 17th year of King Richard II, The Friars Carmelites of Aylesford obtained a grant by letters Pateill to bring the water from to their monastery.”
The nearby Friars at Aylesford are also said to have built an aqueduct from the site. Finch (1925) believes that the well lay eleven hundred yards due west of the Kewland Wheel Well house. Although, he also states that other authorities believed that this wheel well itself was the site. This belief was discredited, however, when its well shaft was explored: no chambers or tunnels were found to lead off of from it. Sadly, there is no evidence of Great Kewland house, although some house debris down a nearby wooded quarry can be located, although being tightly fenced in, one is unable to find any remains of a well or local knowledge.
Another possible site is a Roman or Ancient Draw Well, (TQ 741 809) According to Finch (1925), there is a legend connecting the well with another that of Kewland by a secret tunnel. Finch (1925) notes that there is:
“…an elm tree and some stones of various sizes, beneath which is a well only some two feet in diameter, but tested to be 113 feet deep. This doubtlessly was sunk for a water supply for the Roman occupants hereabouts.”
Finch (1925) expected that this well was a local myth but was fortunate to find a sixty year old man, who as a boy, used to drop flints down it. He notes that:
“The elm tree is bowed over with age and its sinuous roots have all but closed the entrance to the well, leaving but a tiny aperture through which one could see the rough coping stones. With a little dexterity, one could drop a stone, time its fall, and hear the thus as it fell upon the accumulated debris on the bottom no casual visitor could find the well, even though accurately marked upon a plan, without a guide.”
Certainly, it is unmarked on the present maps, and attempting to uncover its location I was hindered by considerable ivy cover and rubbish. I did locate a large amount of brick and stone debris at one site and possibly remains of a dead elm, but conclusively. Its location and indeed the location and meaning of the springs remains a mystery. Much of my field and archival research was done in the 1990s and detailed in Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Kent but even with the power of the internet these sites have not revealed themselves.
This year we are focusing on the often controversial subject of rag or clootie wells. The topic has already been explored on this blog a while back but with new research it is worth exploring again. So this year either view detailed history/folklore discussion or photo archive we shall be exploring the topic again. To start rather than a detailed History/folklore blog post it would be good to look at the range of clooties or rags left at the country’s most famous example with my ideas of why and I hope it might encourage discussion.
Over Beltane 2017 I had the privilege to spend much of the day at this famed holy well. My aim was two fold:
a – to photo as many as possible of the clooties and other offerings at the well as a record
b – to hopefully encounter visitors attaching clooties
Below is a photo archive cataloguing some of the diverse form of offerings at the well. For the background to this site please see the earlier post. I shall give my recollections of b in a later post with another on the site’s history
I have tried to categorise each item and give some rationale…it’s a controversial subject and now the site has been cleared recently do doubtless many of these have gone, which is not necessarily a bad thing in many cases!
Underwear – were these spare or did they completely undress? Are they associated with problems with these parts of the body? There is the famous bra fence in Australia associated with cures of cancer is this the same or are they ex votos as thanks?
Shoes – Similarly for foot problems or thanks for travelling safely…some new shoes as well
Teddies and dolls – personal items of a sick child perhaps?
Flags! – Hope for Nationalism and a record for overseas visitors
Football scarfs – wishing the team good luck!
Tabards – asking for solving work problems or to give protection for workers!
Personal messages – hope, thanks and memories of friendship renewed
Bags – good luck for school
Plaster casts – speak for themselves
Odd eggs! – Cowabunga! Fertility perhaps or just an attempt at egg rolling!?
This one’s been here for a while!
And there are many many more…perhaps enough for another blog post at the end!
In this post I thought I’d examine some little known holy and healing springs from East Kent extracted from the book Holy wells and healing springs of Kent
This parish is associated with the Holy Maid of Kent, Elizabeth Barton, whose proneness to fantastic illusions, attracted great numbers of followers, angered by Henry VIII’s split from Rome. Frightened of any connection with Rome, or power she may hold over the peasant folk, she and her collaborators, local monks, were hung at the Tyburn in London. Neame (1971) notes that there was another reputed ‘holy well’ at Goldwell manor apparently associated with the Holy Maid, called the Golden Well (TR 066 371). This was never known to fail, and was still frequented in the 1930s. It lay in the north-east corner of the house and was reached via steps in the cellar, being surrounded by a low brick coping. Sadly it has now blocked up and lost.
The remains of the Chapel of Our Lady (TR 090 353) judging from early engravings, has degraded considerably over the centuries, and sadly all that now remains are three walls with traces of Romanesque archways. A large water cress covered pool, lies beside this. This was the pool used by the pilgrims visiting the Chapel. However, below this is a spoon shaped stone lined chamber, which appears to be a well and may have been a holy well. Although much of it is filled in, and dry, one can envision, a series of steps flowing down to the stone-lined circular pool. It would appear to be unrecorded by other authorities. Perhaps an excavation can be employed to discover its origin.
Charles Igglesden (1900-46) in his Saunters through Kent notes a ‘Pilgrim’s Well’ (TR 082 354):
“Here is a bridle path from Smeeth Station to Lympne Road, called Pilgrim’s Way, from the fact that there is a well at the Lympne end.”
This dubious site, however, appears to have been lost.
Here is an ancient well, called Queen Anne’s Well (TQ 958 291), because its waters it is said were drunk by a thirsty Queen Anne, asking for refreshment at the house. Consequently, the house was named ‘The Queen’s Arms’ to commemorate the event. Considering the Queen’s liking for spas, the water may have been a mineral water. Perhaps, although one naturally associates the well with the Stuart monarch, she may have been the wife of James II, Anne Hyde or even further back James I, Anne of Denmark. The well lies in the cellar of a private house of The Queen’s Arms, the one nearest the church. I was informed by the owner that its water flows from the wall behind and then flows via a series of drains to and from the well. Niches facing the well indicate a great antiquity, and emphasise that the house may be built on an old chapel or even priory, as it appears medieval in period, which was the view of the owner. Considering the antiquity of the surroundings, its name may derive from St. Anne. Little is known of its history, it may have been a main ancient water source.
To the east of St. Augustine’s Priory at the edge of a field is a site called the Holy Well (TR 044 356). However, I have been unable to discover any reasons for the dedication; it may not be a particular old dedication although it is likely to be the water supply of the priory. It is a simple spring without any sign of structure.
Igglesden (1901-1946) records a tradition of a curative spring, called The Golden Well (TQ 969 425) which he considers a feeder of the Medway, arising beneath the private cellar of a house. He notes that the house:
“Takes its name from a golden well that lies under the cellar and there used to be a legend the effect that the water possessed curative powers over the certain diseases.”
It arises at the base of the rag stone cellar wall, into a circular stone lined well shaft. This although appearing to be only a foot or so deep, was once deeper, but filled when the present house was erected over the cellar. Recent analysis shows it was not potable, yet it is remarkable clear. Interestingly, the owner, Mr. Peter Green, told me of a tradition of a tunnel which lead from the cellar to the edge of Romney Marsh, or rather the sea. He thought he came across the tunnel whilst building a wall.
However, the origin of the well is not clear cut. Wallenberg (1934) in his Place names of Kent, conversely, believes that the Manor’s name derives from the Goldwell family. The explanations are not exclusive. The family may have obtained the name from being guardians of the well. Goldwell may derive from golden votive offerings given to the spring, or the discovery of a hidden hoard from the Reformation, a common myth embroiled around such sites.
“O Lady graced by God,
you reward me by letting gush forth, beyond reason,
the ever-flowing waters of your grace from your perpetual Spring.
I entreat you, who bore the Logos, in a manner beyond comprehension,
to refresh me in your grace that I may cry out,
“Hail redemptive waters.”
The ancient city of Istanbul is a melting pot of religions and cultures. As a result it is an excellent place to search for holy wells. The most famous is the Life Giving spring or font or Hagiasma which survives despite a history of destruction revealed to a Byzantine soldier called Leo Marcellus who became the Emperor Leo 1 who reigned between AD 457-474.
The legend according to Nikephoros Kallistos Xanthopoulos a Greek Historian writing in 1320 occurred on April 4th 450. At the time outside the Porta Aurea of the city of Constantinople there was an overgrown grove of trees where a shrine with a polluted spring existed. It is described that as Leo was passing a grove of trees, he passed a blind man who was lost. Leo helped him find the path and seated him in the shade. The blind man was thirsty and so Leo looked for some water. In his search, Leo heard a voice say
“Do not trouble yourself, Leo, to look for water elsewhere, it is right here!”
However,he looked around and could see any. Then he heard the voice again
““Leo, Emperor, go into the grove, take the water which you will find and give it to the thirsty man. Then take the mud and put it on the blind man’s eyes. And build a temple here … that all who come here will find answers to their petitions.”
Rather surprised by the voice he did as told and once mud was placed on the blind man’s eyes and he miraculously regained his site. Finally when Leo became Emperor he built a church on the site of the spring.
After his accession to the throne, the Emperor erected a church to Theotokos or St Mary. The spring continued to provide healing waters and in particular was said to allow people to be brought back from the dead hence its name. Indeed, the name Life giving font’ became an epithet for St Mary It became a major pilgrimage site in the Greek Orthodox church who celebrate the spring on Bright Friday in the Orthodox church. .
The present church is also rectangular and the spring arises in a crypt outside the church adorned with icons and paintings surmounted by a dome painted with an image of Christ in a starry sky. It is accessed a stairway parallel to the longer side of the church. The springs water flows into a marble basin. Inside the basin can be seen fishes who have been present in the water for several centuries. This is remembered in the complex’s Turkish name balikli the “place where there are fishes.
How did the fish end up in the holy well? It is said that a monk was frying fishes in a pan nea the shrine when a fellow monk told him of the conquest of the city by the Ottomans. He did not believe the other monk saying he would only believe it if the fish he were frying came back to life. At that point they did, jumped from the pan and into the water and began swimming!
Joseph the Hymnographer in the 9th century wrote a hymn to St Mary called Zoodochos Pege:
As a life-giving fount, thou didst conceive the Dew that is transcendent in essence,
O Virgin Maid, and thou hast welled forth for our sakes the nectar of joy eternal,
which doth pour forth from thy fount with the water that springeth up
unto everlasting life in unending and mighty streams;
wherein, taking delight, we all cry out:
Rejoice, O thou Spring of life for all men.
Just a small distance from the highly visited Dovedale is a sacred landscape of hermitage, holy well and shrine. Ilam boasts a rarity in England a largely intact shrine with its foramina (holes in which the pilgrim could insert ailing limbs and get closer to the holy person). The shrine is that of Beorhthelm or Bertelin, Bettelin or more commonly Bertram. The patron saint of the county town of Staffordshire, Stafford.
Who was Bertram?
Bertram is an interesting local saint, dating from around the 7th-8th century in what was the Mercia. Briefly, he is said to be of Royal Irish lineage but after making a princess pregnant, escaped to England where he sheltered in the woods around Ilam. The story is told by Alexander, a monk, in the 13th century who notes:
“They were in hiding in a dense forest when lo ! the time of her childbirth came upon them suddenly ; born of pain and river of sorrow! A pitiful child bed indeed! While Bertellinus went out to get the necessary help of a midwife the woman and her child breathed their last amid the fangs of wolves. Bertellinus on his return imagined that this calamity had befallen because of his own sin, and spent three days in mourning rites”.
As a result he became a hermit living in a cave in the valley near Ilam. Despite the earliest mention being Plot, the local geography is suggestive that this is the site of an early Christian hermitage site, although no mention of a well is noted in his legends it can be noted. The cave itself still exists but reaching it appears to be problematic. Only being accessible when the river Manifold dries which suggests a very useful hermitage site. However, it is worth noting that some accounts have the cave being Thor’s cave further up. Perhaps this is significant as it suggests a Christianisation of a pagan site.
One well up on the hillside has perhaps the greatest provena is surrounded on four sides by varying low stone walling, about two feet or so at its highest (although it appears to have been built up and down over the time I have visited the well). The spring flows from a small, less than a foot square chamber, enclosed in stone and set into the bank through a channel in the rubble flow and out along the path towards it.
Since the 1990s, on the first Saturday in August, the Orthodox Church makes a pilgrimage to the site and blesses the well.
Interestingly, literature available from the National Trust shop fails to mention this well, but notes a more substantial second St Bertram’s Well. This is close by the church and surrounded by a rectangular stone wall with steps down, the water arises here at greater speed and flows into the nearby River Manifold. Visually it is more impressive and more accessible but whether there is any long tradition of this second well is unclear, but authors such as the Thompsons’s (2004) The Water of Life: Springs and Wells of Mainland Britain and Bord (2008) Holy Wells of Britain appear to have fostered its reputation.
Little is recorded of the wells, but Browne (1888) in his An Account of the Three Ancient Cross Shafts, the Font, and St Bertram’s Shrine, at Ilam, noted that the ash had gone, but the water was still being used. He states that:
“The late Mrs Watts Russell always had her drinking water from it.”
Since the 1990s, on the first Saturday in August, the Orthodox Church makes a pilgrimage to the site and blesses the well. Interestingly, literature available from the
More is recorded is rather curious. Plot (1686) in his The Natural History of Stafford-Shire, the earliest reference of this fascinating site and he records that a
“St Bertram’s Ash… grows over a spring which bears the name of the same Saint… The common people superstitiously believe, that tis very dangerous to break a bough from it: so great a care has St Bertram of his Ash to this very day. And yet they have not so much as a Legend amongst them, either of this Saint’s miracles, or what he was; onely that he was Founder of their Church”
Such ash trees are commonly associated with holy wells. It is worth noting that in North myth, the sacred Yggdrasil was an ash tree associated with divination and knowledge. In some places rags would be tied to such trees but no such record exists here. By the late 1800s as noted in A general collection of voyages and travels digested by a J. Pinkerton in 1808 that the:
“Ash tree growing over it which the country people used hold in great veneration and think it dangerous to break a bough from or his in the church which are mentioned by Plot I did not hear of it at the village.”
Thus suggesting by that time it had gone by this time
A final observation is that in the 1800s a Roman relic found there:
“In the parish of Ilam near the spring called St Bertram’s there was found an instrument of brass somewhat resembling only larger a lath hammer at the edge end but not so the other This Dr Plot has described in the XXIII Tab 6 This he takes to have been the head of a Roman Securis which the Papoe slew their sacrifices.”
Does this suggest that sacrifices were made at the spring by the Romans?
I am very pleased as a bit of festive gift to welcome another post from Janet Bord one of the great contributors to the field….Merry Christmas, happy Yuletide and Happy 2019
100 years ago many homes in Britain did not have a mains water supply, with water having to be fetched from nearby wells and springs. Domestic wells were a fact of life for many even in the mid 20th century, whereas today we turn on taps in the comfort of our homes without a second thought. The intricacies of water supply in Herefordshire on the Welsh border in earlier times are shown in a detailed survey by Linsdall Richardson which was published in 1935: Wells and Springs of Herefordshire (HMSO, London, 1935). In addition to the most well-known holy wells of the county, he also describes many more named wells, some holy, many used for healing purposes. I have no idea how many of them can still be identified, but they are worth recording, and so here is a run-through of the most interesting examples, with quotations from Richardson’s book. Remember that references to the present-day within the quotes will mean the early 1930s! I have given map references for those wells I have visited. Many of them are also described in Jonathan Sant’s useful 1994 book The Healing Wells of Herefordshire, sadly no longer easily available.
Cae Thomas (or St Thomas’s) Well, Llanveynoe (p.40)
‘This very attractive and copious spring issues from the rock in a steep bank two-fifths of a mile up stream from Ford and courses down the bank into the Olchon Brook…. [It] has long had a local reputation for its medicinal properties…’ At the time of writing in 1935, the owner planned to market the water as Glen Olchon Water, but he died and so the plan was thankfully never carried out. The commercialisation of this spring doesn’t bear thinking about, and luckily it remains unspoilt, tucked away in the remote borderland, needing persistence to discover but well worth the effort.
St Clodock’s or St Clydog’s Well, Clodock (p.41) SO326273
‘… a dip-well fed by a spring from rock close to the R. Monnow. In times of flood the Monnow invades the well.’ The spring can still be located on the river bank under a low stone slab among the grass. Clodock was a 6th-century Border king who was murdered and whose body was taken away by ox-cart until it broke, so he was buried at that spot, and a church was built there. His well is only a few minutes walk away along the riverside footpath.
St Peter’s Wells, Peterchurch (p.43) SO353388
There were three springs originally, the two highest being good for eye troubles; pins were thrown into them. ‘The water of the larger [lower] well flowed through a sculptured head of St Peter into a shallow bathing place made for the use of sufferers of rheumatism.’ The well has been restored so that the water still flows, or did in 2009 when I saw it, through the stone head. The site of the pool below is now overgrown.
St Mary’s Well, Peterchurch (p.43)
‘A small spring called St. Mary’s Well, but known locally as Sore Eyes’ Well, issues from rock in the steep side of the dingle in Park Wood… A small basin-like hollow appears to have been made in the rock and the spring is still resorted to by many in search of relief for eye afflictions.’
St Margaret’s Well, St Margarets (p.44)
‘This spring is on Green Court Farm, three-tenths of a mile south of Urishay. The spring issues from beneath a prominent rock band and discharges direct into the stream… The only information that could be obtained locally was that it was believed that there used to be a bathing pool here.’
Heavenly Well, Vowchurch (p.45)
‘This is a dip-well fed by a small spring from cornstone close to the track’ one mile from Vowchurch church. No information is given as to the well’s use, but its name alone meant I had to include it in this listing.
Golden Well, Dorstone (p.49)
‘This is a shallow-seated spring issuing from loamy soil just within the western boundary of Bell Alders, half a mile north-west-by-west of St. Mary’s church, Dorstone. According to the legend: “In this well, once upon a time, a fisherman caught a fish with a gold chain round its neck. In commemoration a sculptured representation of the fish in stone, with its chain, was placed in the church [at Peterchurch], where it may still be seen.”’ [Quotation from The Folk-Lore of Herefordshire by Ella Mary Leather, p.12]
St Peter’s Well, Whitney (p.50)
‘This is a “spout spring” issuing from the steep bank between the railway and the road north-east of SS. Peter and Paul Church.’
St Ann’s Well, Aconbury (p.51)
‘For a long time it was the local belief that water taken from this spring after twelve o’clock on Twelfth Night possessed great curative properties and was especially good for eye troubles.’
St Edith’s Well, Stoke Edith (p.59) SO604406
‘This is a copious spring, probably an overflow spring from the Downton Castle Sandstone, emerging near the church and below the churchyard and by which the memorial trough on the Hereford—Ledbury road was supplied. The well is called after St Edith, daughter of King Edgar, who at the age of fifteen was made Abbess of Wilton. She died in her twenty-third year, on September 16th, 984. According to a legend the spring issued in answer to her prayer for water which was needed for mixing the mortar required for a church. For many years the villagers believed that those who bathed in its water were cured of various ailments, and to stop the bathing, bars were at length placed in front of the well.’ That sounds like a most vindictive, unsympathetic course of action to take, at a time when the villagers would have had little or no access to medical care.
Holy Well, Luston (p.84)
‘At the northern end of Luston village, at the turning to Eye, is a Holy Well the water of which is now collected in a concrete tank from which it emerges through a pipe.’
Holy Well, Adforton (p.87)
‘This spring, which is on government property and said to have “a pretty constant make,” emerges in Wenlock Shale ground at a point 960 yds. from Adforton Church in a south-westerly direction. There are said to be seven springs which locally are reputed to have medicinal properties.’
Laugh Lady Well, Brampton Bryan (p.89)
‘A cairn has been erected over this spring the yield of which is now small since the bulk is taken for the Park and village supply. The legend attached to this well is that if a pin be dropped in and bubbles arise from it, the wish then made will be granted.’
Cawdor Well, Ross Rural (p.99)
‘This well, on the northern boundary of the Ross Urban District, was fed by five weak springs from sandstone, but has now been filled up with earth. For long its water was held in high esteem for curing rheumatism, etc.’
Holy Well, Garway (p.105) SO455224
‘In the churchyard of St. Michael’s Church is a Holy Well. The water comes through a spout in the churchyard wall, but it is the overflow of a stone tank (in a hollow at the back) into which a spring from sandstone runs…. The occurrence of this spring caused the Knights Templars to select the site for one of their preceptories.’
Holy Well, Holywell, Blakemere (p.108)
‘At Holywell, the Holy Well is a perennial spring of good water, issuing from a gravel bed in a field at the back of the school, from which all the people in the hamlet fetch their supplies.’
The Dragon’s Well, Brinsop (p.109)
‘”The church…is dedicated to St. George…The Dragon’s Well is in Duck Pool meadow, on the south side of the church, while on the other side is a field called ‘Lower Stanks’…where St. George slew the Dragon.”’ [quoted from Mrs Leather’s Folk-Lore of Herefordshire, p.11]
Eye Well, Mansell Gamage (p.110)
‘There is an Eye Well in Eye Well Field on the top of the hill.’
Eye Well, Bromyard (pp.114-15)
‘This spring (about half a mile south-west-by-south of Bromyard Church) is on land…by the side of the Hereford road…The water had for long the reputation of being “good for the eyes” and was used for bathing them up to about twenty years ago [i.e. c. 1915]. “Eye Well” has now become erroneously “High-well” and a house built near by bears this name.’
Crooked Well, Kington (p.115)
‘This spring – the source of the town’s supply – according to tradition was “good for the eyes.” By some it is said to be so called because a crooked pin was necessary as an offering; but Mr. G. Marshall suggests that the name comes from the old word “crooked” (crokyd), which was equivalent to lame or crippled.’
St Ethelbert’s Well, Castle Hill, Hereford (p.127) SO511396
‘According to tradition a spring “is said to have sprung up on the spot where St. Ethelbert’s body touched the ground on its removal from Marden [to Hereford Cathedral] in 793. A mutilated sculptured head of St. Ethelbert, part of an effigy which formerly stood at the west end of the Cathedral, is fixed above the well. A circular stone within the garden of Mr. Custos Eckett’s house marks the exact position of the spring.” “Some years ago, when the well was cleaned out, a quantity of pins were found in it. The water was held especially good for ulcers and sores.”’ [First quotation from Trans. Woolhope Nat. F.C. for 1918; second quote from Mrs Leather’s Folk-Lore of Herefordshire, pp.11,12]