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An East Kent Field Trip

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

ALDINGTON

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.

APPLEDORE

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.

BILSINGTON

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.  

GREAT CHART

 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.

An abecedary of Sacred springs of the world: Spring of Giving Life of Istanbul, Turkey

“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 Hagiasma By Alessandro57 – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11878406

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.

The sacred landscape of Ilam Staffordshire – the Holy Well of St Bertram, his shrine and cave

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.

Two wells?

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.

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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

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Sacred tree

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?

Guest blog post: Herefordshire’s Holy and Healing Wells by Janet Bord

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]

 

 

Down from the Piskies – Pelynt’s Nun’s Well, Cornwall

When I first became enchanted with holy wells in the 1980s it was the old engraving of this well which enchanted me the most but it took a few years to get to see it. The mysterious building overshadowed with by a venerable tree. Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary lore of holy wells put it succinctly:

“Its position was, until very lately, to be discovered by the oak and bramble which grew upon its roof. It is entered by a doorway with a stone lintel, and overshadowed by an oak. The front of the well is of a pointed form, and has a rude entrance about 4 feet high, and is spanned above by a single flat stone, which leads into a grotto, with an arched roof The walls on the interior are draped with the luxuriant fronds of spleen-wort) hart’s tongue, and a rich undercovering of liverwort. “

A pin well

Hope (1893) states that:

“In the basin of the well may be found a great number of pins, thrown in by those who have visited it out of curiosity, or to avail themselves of the virtues of its waters. A writer, anxious to know what meaning the peasantry attach to this strange custom, on asking a man at work near the spot, was told that it was done “to get the goodwill of the Piskies,” who after the tribute of a pin not only ceased to mislead them, but rendered fortunate the operations of husbandry.”

When I last visited in the 1990s I could see no pins but the chamber was full of tea candles suggesting regular visitation. The most noticeable feature is its delightfully intricate basin, possibly the most ornate in situ for any British holy well, so much one wonders where it came from. QuillerCouch notes:

At the farther end of the floor is a round granite basin with a deeply moulded brim, ornamented lower and all round its circumference with a series of rings, each enclosing a Greek cross or ball. The water must be supplied from an opening at the back; for none runs into it from the rim, and yet it is always full. If emptied, it soon fills again.”

It may have been from a chapel nearby:

“The well, and a small chapel above it, the remains of which are some indistinct mounds, and a vallum, artificially made, on the north and south sides (occasionally the plough turns some shaped stones and roofing slates), were dedicated to St. Nonnet, or St. Nun, a holy woman said to be the mother of St. David, and the daughter of a Cornish chief. She is also said to have lived and died at Altarnun.”

A warning to the sacrilegious

Perhaps the most fascinating legend associated with the well is about its rather ornate basin. Hope (1893) states that:

“An old farmer (so runs the legend) once set his eyes upon the granite basin and coveted it, for it was no wrong in his eyes to convert the holy font to the base uses of a Pigsty and accordingly he drove his oxen and wain to the gateway above for the purpose of removing it. Taking his beasts to the entrance of the well, he essayed to drag the trough from its ancient bed. For a long time it resisted the efforts of the oxen, but at length they succeeded in starting it, and dragged it slowly up the hillside to where the wain was standing. Here, however, it burst away from the chains which held it, and, rolling back again to the well, made a sharp turn and regained its old positions, where it has remained ever since. Nor will anyone again attempt its removal, seeing that the farmer, who was previously well-to-do in the world, never prospered from that day forward. Some people say, indeed, that retribution overtook him on the spot, the oxen falling dead, and the owner being struck lame and speechless.”

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Hope continues to paint a picture which continues to inflict our holy wells:

“Though the superstitious hinds had spared the well, time and storms of winter had been slowly ruining it. The oak which grew upon its roof had, by its roots, dislodged several stones of the arch, and, swaying about in the wind, had shaken down a large mass of masonry in the interior, and the greater part of the front. On its ruinous condition being made known to the Trelawny family (on whose property it is situated), they ordered the restoration, and the walls were replaced after the original plan.”

And as such it was restored.

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St Nonna’s or Piskie?

Hope (1893) notes that:

“The people of the neighbourhood knew the well by the names St. Ninnie’s, St. Nun’s, and Piskies’ Well. It is probable that the latter is, after all, the older name, and that the guardianship of the spring was usurped at a later period by the saint whose name it occasionally bears. The water was doubtless used for sacramental purposes; yet its mystic properties, if they were ever supposed to be dispensed by the saint, have been again transferred, in the popular belief, to the Piskies.”

Now Piskies are the Cornish version of Pixies and interestingly I noticed the high concentration of midges- were they the Piskies I wonder? Quiller Couch continues:

“Dr. O’Connor tells us that in some parts of Ireland there is a belief that by some of their ceremonies at the patterns, or pilgrimages to wells, the daoini maethe {i.e., fairies) were propitiated. In the basin of St. Nun’s may be found a great number of pins, thrown in by those who avail themselves of the curative qualities of its water, or consult it for intimations of the future. I was curious to know what meaning the. unlettered peasantry attached to this strange but common custom ; and on asking an old man at work near, was told that it was done to get the good-will of the piskies,’ who after the tribute of a pin ceased to mislead them, gave them good health, and made fortunate the operations of husbandry.— T. Q. C.”

Quiller-Couch’s and my visits 100 years apart

This well when visited in July, 1891, was in a very fair state of preservation, though not now used for any particular purpose. A thorn and a nut tree overshadow it, and ivy creeps from between the masonry. Ferns and mosses grow luxuriantly in the interior, where the trough still stands into which were cast pins in former days ; but the surrounding ground was in such a marshy state to make it impossible to approach near enough to examine any carving which may be on it. A woman, on directing us to the spot, smilingly spoke of having visited the well for the purpose of divination in her younger days ; an old man, who stood by, remarked that no one he had ever heard of knew when or why the well was built there, — but that was very possible, — he had heard that people had attempted to move it, with no success.”

My visit in July 1991 found it an enchanting place, obviously the scale shocked me at first as I expected it to be bigger based on the sketch in Hope. The tree which had been overshadowing it was gone and that lost some of the atmosphere. But it still was an enchanting place, especially creeping inside where that old basin remained and there was a feeling of being with the piskies..

Thanks for Carol Ellis for the 2017 photos!

Rediscovered/Restored: St. Alban’s Well, Hertfordshire – Britain’s first Christian holy well?

Perhaps Hertfordshire’s most famed well, dedicated to the first British Christian Martyr, and thus called St. Alban’s Well or Holy Well (TL 149 068) and as such one could argue it is the earliest Christian holy well in Britain.

Who was St. Alban?

Gildas and Bede accredit his martyrdom to the ruler Diocletian (c305), later authorities attribute Septimus severnus (c209) or Decieus (c254) to the act. His conversion to Christianity occurred when he sheltered a wanted priest (later St. Amphibalus). The priest taught Alban and baptised him as a Christian. The two exchanged clothes and, allowing the priest to escape, Alban was captured instead. He was tried and sent to be executed. The journey to his execution, now locally commemorated each weekend close to St Alban’s Feast Day, is when the spring arose!

The legend of the spring

It is said that upon climbing the hill to his martyrdom became tired and thirsty. Falling to his knees he prayed to God to quench this thirst and miraculously a spring of fresh water appeared. This is however only one origin for the spring. The other story states that after being taken to the old city of Verulam, he refused to offer pagan sacrifice, and was executed. His severed head rolled down the hill and where it rested a spring burst forth. This is a common holy well motif. After the adoption of the Christian church in the third century the spring gained great notoriety (although it is of course plausible that the spring was a pre-Christian site, gaining greater pilgrimage with Christian doctrine). St. Alban was also adopted, and finally installed in a Shrine in the Abbey. This was restored after the Reformation and is a beautiful example of a Pre-Reformation Shrine.

A spring of Arthurian romance?

This spring was strangely absorbed into Arthurian romance. It has been associated with mythical Romano-Celt ruler Uther Pendragon, father of the also possibly mythical King Arthur. The spring is said to have healed his wounds, and the incident is recorded during the reign of Richard II, by Chronicler Brompton:

“….Uter Pendragon, a British Prince, had fought the Saxons in a great battle at this place, and received a dangerous wound: and lay a long time confined to his bed: and that he was cured at length by resorting to a well or spring not far distant from the city; at that time salubrious; and for that reason, and for the cures thereby performed, esteemed holy; and blessed in a peculiar manner with the flavour of Heaven ..”

The well through the ages

The Benedictine nuns of the nearby nunnery were according to Matthew Paris, said to have dipped their bread in the well, and hence earned it the name of Sopwell. Until the reformation the well rivalled Walsingham in its popularity among the sick and troubled. Even in the 19th century the ‘Holy-well’ was “still held in some estimation, for its purity and salubrious qualities.” It then lay on the lawns of the Duke of Marlborough’s Holywell House, which was latter demolished.

Until the 1980s, the site was marked by a stone on the playing fields of the local Grammar school. However, in the 1980s, the site was at risk from developers, as the school wished to sell off its fields. This precipitated local interest, and a campaign organised by a Mr. Tony Haines, and set out to rediscover the well and ensure that it was preserved. This they finally did, although the site was not officially recognised by the local council, despite it corresponding to ancient maps, local knowledge as well as remains of medieval brickwork. Fortunately, the developer was sympathetic and in a rare example of preservation, restored it. It now stands in a small walled garden. The well was repaired by brickwork, and fitted with a protective grille over it. Interestingly, a combination of wet weather coupled with the water authorities ceasing pumping from the Ver’s source, has meant that the water table has returned and water can be seen in the well.

This restored site can be found by going up Holywell Hill Road, then taking the righthand road, Belmont Hill ( if approaching from Junction one M10 ). Take next right, into new housing estate, then left and the well is found in a small garden on the left.

The well survives, well as long as the housing estate does! It has become the centre of a local religious groups devutions as well!

An abecedary of Sacred springs of the world: Latvia

Latvia’s has a number of notable healing and holy springs. Many of them have folklore and associations which followers in the British isles will recognise. Such as Karalavoti’s The Seven Springs who’s waters were used by Sweden’s King Carl VII. Its waters were said to have worked on him when official doctors had failed and its waters remain a popular site. Flowing from the mouth of a lizard as the Kemeru Lizard springs. These are sulphur spring which have rejuvenating powers making old men young again!

Rags, coins and rings

Deposits are associated with a number of the countries wells. The Bolēni or Bolenu Spring is rag well where offerings can still be seen in the form of ribbons tied around the tree above the spring, which erupts in a small pool at the base of the tree.

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Bolenu spring note the rags tied to the tree

A sulphur spring first recorded in 1739 at Barbele being spring is also associated with the tying of rags to nearby trees. Indeed it is said that when a Riga physician brought 10 ill soldiers to take the water, it too a day to clear the rags. However, in more rag traditions this would have been unwise and deadly perhaps, not for these soldiers as 9 of them were healed. Interest in the well disappeared after the amount of mineralisation was reduced by World War II. The well survives arising in a tank set into a wooden platform.

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Another sulphur spring was that of Baldone spring. Which was discovered when it was noticed cows drunk from it and so by the 1800 500 people a year took the cure as the town became a spa town. Yet despite pretensions to be a spa it is evident that those visiting it felt the need to involve themselves in a ritual cult. The evidence for this being rings, including earrings and coins being found in the basin when it was repaired in the 19th century. The spring flows from a pipe set into a small stone which is housed in an hexagonal roofed shelter.

Deities of the springs

The Goddess Laima is associated with Bolenu spring who is said to have cried after breaking a glass she dropped. Her tears made the spring which is said to be good for sore eyes. It is recorded in 1838 that:

“Once in a summer morning when the sun was rising, Laima sat on the edge of the ash ravine. She was weeping, and her tears were running towards the morning against the Sun. The God was passing by and he asked why she was crying. Laima poured out her complains then. She wished the humans good life and health, but then many were afflicted and she felt sorry for them. Then the God made a spring flow out on that spot and ordered the water flow along Laima’s tear way. In this way the Oši Spring in the ravine and the river appeared flowing against the Sun. The spring and river waters were granted healing powers so that all diseases could be healed in them, and Laima would never have to cry again. Since that time Laima has been walking around smiling, she often comes to the Health Spring and the Raganīte River.”

 

Gutman’s cave with spring on the right hand side flowing out by Gatis Pāvils

Another spring which is said to arise from tears is that found in the Gutman’s Cave. The origin of these tears being recorded in the Latvian Folklore repository in 1860 notes:

“The Livs’ Chief Ringalds went in war. At home he left his beautiful wife warning her to remain faithful to him until he returned from the war. His wife waited and waited for him, however, still became unfaithful to him. When her husband returned his wife was remorseful and was asking him to forgive, however, Ringalds did not forgive her. He ordered to bury his wife alive in the ground. She has been crying there under the earth up to this day her tears of regret. They have turned into a spring and run out onto the surface of the ground. Thus the spring has eroded the Gūtmanis’ Cave”

She cried so much that the tears created the biggest cave in the Baltics and the spring became healing. The name of the cave is said to derive from the German, Gut being good and mann meaning man, therefore the Cave of the Goodman, the good man being a possible faith healer later a deity. A Jacob Benjamin Fisher in 1778 wrote in the earliest account:

“At Turaida there is a cave which consists of sandstone and is called the “Good Man”.

The spring which still rises in the cave and flows through a stone lined channel out hugging the rock of the cave. It was a site of offering until the 19th century, but no rags or coins are deposited now. These are but a small sample of notable springs and more can be learnt watching this excellent documentary

 

 

 

An abecedary of Sacred springs of the world: Haiti

Haiti is a fascinating country for those interested in the overlap between pagan beliefs and the Catholic church. This is particularly evident in the beliefs associated with springs and particularly on the island, water falls.

Voodoo or Vodou is a religious practice which origins in the Caribbean from West African slaves under the French colonists adapting Yoruba and Kongo, Taíno (indigenous Caribbean) beliefs as well as Roman Catholicism and even Freemasonry.

One of the most notable features is the association of the springs and water bodies with spirits. One of the most important was Simbi a guardian of marshes and fountains, where he would help those in need of a cure from supernatural illness. However he can be a troublesome character and would kidnap fair skinned children who would come to fetch some water to drink and make them work under the water releasing them years later with the gift of second sight as a compensation!

Damballah

Another water deity was the Damballah, a snake whose lives in the water and the land. He is said not to be able to communicate but create a feeling a comfort, optimism and fertility. Interestingly he is associated with St. Patrick who is of course famed for vanquishing serpents in Ireland.

The most famed spring site is Machann Dessalines, where there is a small cave or gròt, associated with a man-made pool, where Vodou spirits Ezili Freda and Simbi reside giving their healing powers to those who submerge in the pool.
However, the most sacred water place of the Haiti’s is the Saut d’Eau found in the Mirebalais district where physical illness, social and psychological issues can be cured – it is hoped! Why? For it is here that in the 19th century either a vision of the Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel or her Vodou counterpart Lwa appeared in a palm tree nearby. It is recorded that a French priest afraid of the repercussions cut it down. It did not work for the site became the main pilgrim destination on the island. Those Roman Catholic attend the church of the Virgin Mary whilst the Vodou followers bath in the waters of the waterfall. The most important day is during the festival of Our Lady of Carmel, July 14-16th During this period the eucharist is said at the site.

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The waterfall is also sacred to Damballah and it is said that its waters also cure infertility and it is said that many women give offerings of underwear. At the time of the festival the waterfall is a great spectacle of people in different stages of rapture taking in the sacred waters. They scrub themselves with soap in preparation for a leaf bath where medicinal herbs are used. They then bath again and after rinsing off the water, the priest and priestesses tell the attendees to them remove their clothes and offer them to the waterfall. By doing so they remove any illness or negativity and are reborn healthier with new clothes. The spectacle of so many people here all hoping for 7intervention from either the deity or the Virgin Mary, in a place where the pagan and Christian combine harmoniously.

An abecedary of Sacred springs of the world: The ancient springs of Greece

“O for a beaker full of the warm South Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene, With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, And purple-stained mouth; That I might drink, and leave the world unseen, And with thee fade away into the forest dim”

John Keats Ode to a Nightingale

 

Sacred springs were an integral part of Greek Mythology. Perhaps the most famous were the springs said to have arisen on Mount Helicon. Here overlooking the Valley of the Muses was a spring formed by the hoof of the Horse Pegasus (a theme which has transferred to Ann Boleyn’s Well in Carshalton). It is said that he hit the rock with such force that the spring arose as a result. This was called Hippocrene or Horse’s fountain. Being associated with the muses, (those providing poetical inspiration) drinking its water was supposed to induce that poetic inspiration. The poet Hesiod in his work, Theogeny refers to the spring in the late 7th century BC:

“From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing,

Who hold the great and holy mount of Helicon,

And dance on soft feet about the deep-blue spring

And the altar of the almighty son of Cronos, and,

When they have washed their tender bodies in Permessus

Or in the Horse’s Spring or Olmeius,

Make their fair, lovely dances upon highest Helicon

And move with vigorous feet.”

Callimachus in his 3rd century BC Aitia follows in Hesiod’s footsteps and in the work, Tiresias finds the spring and Athena bathing with it and is blinded as a result. However,  as a compensation he gains the ability to prophesize.

The Hippocrene spring is identified as a spring which still flows on the mountainside arising in a stone hollow. Also on the mountain was the spring where Narcissisus looked upon his own beauty but its location appears to have been lost.

Perhaps the second most famed spring is that found at the sacred landscape of Delphi. It too was thought to provide poetic inspiration. The Roman saw this as the location where Apollo killed the Python who guarded over the spring. This was the Castalian Spring. Pausanias stated that its name was derived from a local lady called Castalia, a daughter of the river Achelous

Interesting the site may have been a sanctuary associated to a local hero who vanquished the Persions, called Autonous according to Greek writer Herodotus which may have been a precursor to its association with Apollo .

However its greatest importance was to provide preparation for those visiting the famed Delphic Oracle. Here the priests would cleanse themselves before invoking the oracle, sprinkling it over the temple, and pilgrims according to Euripides Ion would prepare according to their background. For many just a wash of their hair would be enough, but murderers would have to completely cleansed!  Pausanias Guide to Greece stated that the water had a delicious taste!

The spring was said to have arisen from two rocks called the Pheriads becoming a stream called Papaddia and joining the river Pleistos below Delphi. In the grounds of the ruined Delphi the Greek and Roman fountains fed by the springs survive. Water is delivered by s small aqueduct to the Greek fountain emptying through lion-headed spouts into a marble-line basin, nine by three metres, surrounded by benches. It dates from the 6th Century BCE. Interestingly, the Roman fountain from the 1st BC is found higher up from the original spring. It has niches carved into the rocks for the giving of votive offerings and it is interesting that it was later converted into a church of St. John the Baptist. Water reached the fountain by an aqueduct and seven bronze spouts on the fountain.

Interestingly, it is claimed in the English translation of Pausanias’s Guide to Greece by Peter Levi that the water was still bottled and secretly supplied for its magical healing properties!

Hot springs can be found across Greece, historically one of the most famed was the Thermopylae, hot sulphur springs. These were thought to be the Hot Gates and as such the entrance to Hades. The site was first associated with the cult of Demeter but later Greek myths associate him with Heracles. Here it is said to have jumped in of wash of the poison from the Hydra which had attached to his cloak. This is why the spring became hot and sulphurous. The springs still arise but no structure exists around them.

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In Southwestern Greece is the Kaiafas Thermal Spring which have unlike the above been developed into a spa town. Arising in a natural cave at the foot of Mount Laphithas, historically, here the Angrides, cave dwelling nymphs were found and people would pray at the waters hoping to be relieved of leprosy, which the nymphs could cure.  The waters which have a temperature around 340C are rich in sulphur compounds and are thought to be good for musculosketal diseases. In 1907 a spa facility was established outside the mouth of the cave which still provides healing support today.

Greece is a country whose ancient wells continue to provide spiritual and physical healing into the modern age.

An abecedary of Sacred springs of the world: Some Rag Wells of France

In early May I had the pleasure to present my interim findings of my study into votive offerings at holy and healing wells at the #rituallitter workshop at the University of Hertfordshire (more in a future post hopefully). My presentation particularly focused on rag wells, or as has erroneously been applied nationwide, clootie wells (see this post). This lend me to exploring the custom in the wider geographical context and as I am monthly recording holy and healing wells globally, this month I decided to detail three rag or loque wells (strictly sources a loque) in France. However, a map below will show the distribution of the wells across the county that I am aware of so far.

Research indicated as a custom this is just as vibrant as it is in Britain although in most cases the visitors adhere more often to rags, but as can be seen personal items can also be left

Interestingly the custom is most frequently encounter in the Nord Pas de Calais region and into Belgium. (It is also interesting to focus on holy wells not in Brittany as well) Furthermore, it is an activity associated not only with springs but calvaries, chapels and trees as well – none of which are associated with a springhead.

However typical site is that of St Latuin’s Well, at Clerey Belfonds near Seez. A site which is associated with an evangelizing saint, the envoy of Pope Boniface I who is said to have built an oratory at the spring. He was famed to for converting pagans by healing the death and blind. The curative reputation of the spring harks from curing the blindness of a local widow he stayed with when he arrived there.

At the well, pilgrims would pray first to the saint and then wash at the springhead, hoping to cure skin diseases, fevers, scabies and eye aches. Indeed even the plague was thought to be cured. The site was so popular in the nineteenth and twentieth century that it prompted the expansion of the town. The legend of how the spring, a red chalybeate spring arose is told in Charles Corlet’s Legendes de Basse-Normandie d’Edouard.

“Saint Latuin or Lin passes to be the first apostle of the Orne, It is attributed the foundation of the cathedral of Sees. Saint Latuin, on arriving at Sees, took refuge in a poor woman, a widow whose daughter had been blind for many years. The saint restored the sight to the unhappy woman, and then, preaching in public the word of God, performed many miracles of healing. Satan, annoyed at the beneficial action of the saint, aroused against him Fatisie, who wished to take revenge on the saint who had refused his advances. Fatisie intimated to Latuin, on penalty of death, to cease to preach in Christ’s favor. The saint paid no attention to these threats, but his disciples advised him to retire for some time. What he did in the forest of Clairay. There he set up his oratory near a fountain. His tranquility was short-lived, for Fatisie sent murderers to him with the mission of killing him and bringing back his tongue. At the approach of the saint, the murderers prostrated themselves and converted to the Christian faith. As they were to account for their mission, they consulted the saint in order to know the best way to deceive Fatisie. Latuin advised them to kill their dog, to take away their heart, and to defile their clothes with the blood of the animal. Fatia soon died of a fatal death. But the waters of the spring were tinged with blood. Latuin returned to Sées. He often went to his hermitage. It was in this place that death took him peacefully and he still worked miracles.””

Today the spring fills a large square stone basin beneath a statue of the saint dressed in Bishop robes holding a crozier and those coming to cure complaints have tied rags to the top of the metal fence surrounding it. The spring and its church are now the location for an annual pilgrimage. This year on http://www.ville-sees.fr/dimanche-24-juin-pelerinage-saint-latuin/ website it recorded:

“25 years ago, the association “Les amis de Saint Latuin” was created to offer the pilgrims of Saint Latuin the annual animation of the pilgrimage and to ensure the restoration and maintenance of the church of Cléray , Its cemetery and its fountain. On Sunday 24 June: 7.45 am: laudes at the cathedral, 8 am: departure of the march towards the church of Cléray (7.5 km), 10.45 am: gathering at the Cléray fountain, procession followed by the Mass chaired by Bishop Habert. “

In La Croupte, is a spring dedicated to St Martin, with its 15th century chapel. Near here is a statue of the saint festooned with ribbons and different socks, particularly baby socks, close to the springhead. Why are there socks? The spring is said to help children suffering from rickets and hence helping children to walk.

After praying and lighting a candle the clothes or socks are attached nearby. It is recorded that other saints are prayed to according to the healing required as it too cures skin and eye problems.  The springhead fills a square basin surrounded by a metal fence upon which the votives are attached.

The final spring is that associated with a sacred landscape of Pre D’Auge, Calvados I Basse Normandie. Indeed it is unclear in this case whether the tree is more sacred than the spring head. Both are named after Saint Meen’s. This is a site which associates with a ragged oak which generations upon generations have attached rags to. The oak itself being called the Oak of Saint Meen, thought to be over a 1000 years old although it is now hollow and in the hollow is a small wooden statue of the saint (it is said that the original remains in a local castle). Indeed, there was concern about the condition of the oak and that in 2009 its final branch was removed and all that is left is the oak. However, the owners of the land concerned that the tradition would disappear ensured that two other oaks can replace it should the time come, one being planted in 1920 and the other in the 2000s. The hulk of the original tree has not prevented the pilgrims attaching rags which range from strips through to handkerchiefs to whole clothes. The spring is said to cure skin complaints and like at other springs, the cloth is first immersed into the spring and applied to the skin, before being left.

Miraculous source of Saint-Méen, which cures skin deseases. The sore must be cleaned with a tissue soaked with water, and requests must be addressed to Saint-Méen. The tissue is then hung to the thousand old oak, close to the source.

The rationale behind the springs use is related to the Saint, who was Breton monk who travelled these areas converting the pagans, who would appear to dislike rudeness and selfishness. It is reported that when on a journey to Rouen, thirsty he rested in the village. Seeing two young girls he asked them if he could drink, one said she would help but other complained about the scarcity of water and refused. As a result, he caused the spring to burst forth to thank the helpful one saying to the less than generous one:

“You will be covered with pustules and you will be obliged to come and wash yourself there praying to ask for your cure which will remind you of your lack of charity.”

A good reason to justify a rag well not doubt!