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A severed head, a mermaid and a bell – the curious waterlore of Marden, Herefordshire Part One

Down a lane away from the village in quiet solitude is St Ethelbert’s church at Marden. It is a church associated with a saintly legend and a location of particular interest for anyone concerned in water lore; for two pieces of local legend are recorded both with familiar motifs. Perhaps the most familiar one is associated with the strange find in a carpeted room to the left of the entrance. Here sadly dry is St. Ethelbert’s Well. The earliest record is John Duncombe 1804 Collections for a History of Herefordshire

“At the west end of the nave, defended by circular stonework, is a well about ten inches in diameter, about four feet below the pavement of the church, aspring supposed to arise from the spot in which the body of Ethelbert was first interred…. This spring is said to have been held in great veneration from the circumstance of the water retaining its purity, when overflowed by the stream of the Lugg, however muddy or impure.”

Charles Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of Holy Wells also records:

MARDEN: ST. ETHELBERT’S WELL. THERE is a well in the church of Marden, Herefordshire. It is near the west end of the nave, defended by circular stone-work, about ten inches in diameter, and enclosing a spring, supposed to arise from the spot in which the body of King Ethelbert was first interred, and is called St. Ethelbert’s Well (Notes and Queries, 3 S., viii. 235).”

Jonathan Sant in his 1994 The Healing Wells of Herefordshire notes:

“Formerly to be seen at the west end of the nave, St. Ethelbert’s Well has recently been swallowed up by an extended vestry where it can now be seen incongruously surrounded by carpeted floor. The octagonal stone well-top is apparently late Victorian but the square top within the shaft below is doubtless older. Needless to say, the table which has been built over it is very modern and prevents small children from falling down the well”

The well is much as Sant describes although there have been recent talks of an improvement to make a more appropriate structure although that could possibly ruin this strange well. He records water in it as well, it was dry when I examined it in April of this year.

What is particularly strange is that once the wooden lid is removed this is a deep shaft well. Very few holy wells are such deep shafts, the majority being shallow springheads. Perhaps this suggests that this could as Sant suggests provide pure water even when the river was in flood. Its depth may also suggest a great age indicating how the ground level has risen as the years have built up more sediment. The church guide suggests it had a healing tradition but I am unable to find their source, similarly they claim the well and church were a place of pilgrim, likely but again no written evidence. Current pilgrims have thrown coins in the well as can be seen.

The legend of St Ethelbert’ or Æthelberht’s Well

Overlooking the village of Marden are the scant remains of Sutton Walls now a tree covered hillfort. Here local tradition record was the royal vill or sort of temporary villa of the great Offa of Mercia the scene of the saint’s murder.

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle he was captured whilst visiting his bride to be Ælfthyth. Richard of Cirencester records that Offa’s queen Cynethryth convinced Offa that Æthelberht should be killed, although there is no evidence why. Although it was likely political as Æthelberht was King of the Angles and Mercia had domination over East Anglia and would be keen to stop any possible claimant under control.

One legend tells that he sat upon a chair with no seat a trap door of sorts, the whole being covered by a cloth and that he fell down the hole, a deep pit, his head being removed to ensure that he was dead. Another tells how he was smothered in his bed clothes. All accounts record his beheading, but some say that this was done in Offa’s presence. The body being hastily buried with the head beside the river below.

Discovery of the body and formation of the well

The legend is told in a panel upon the 2008 shrine to the saint in Hereford Cathedral but it is absent in the first version of the story which is restricted to the shaft of light subsequent tellings have mentioned the spring.

Issues with the legend

Considering the well head’s location and the church’s remote location it is more than likely that the church was placed here because of the well. However, does this make the well date from St. Ethelbert? Although, one would not miss to pour water upon the county’s famed legend, there are concerns that it might.

Hagiographers will notice that the religious features his martyrdom closely resemble that associated with the legend of St. Kenelm. This is best summarised by Edith Rickert’s 1905 article The Old English Offa Saga. II in Modern Philology Vol. 2, No. 3:

“At this point, however, mention must be made of another legend, that of St. Kenelm, which shows a curious relationship to the story of Ethelbert. The resemblances are these: a) Each saint, by the ambition and malice of a wicked kinswoman, was treacherously lured to his death and beheaded.’ b) The murderess in each case perished miserably by super natural intervention.2 c) Each saint had divine foreknowledge of his death in a dream or vision in which a beautiful tree was cut down and he himself was turned into a bird and flew up a column of light to heaven.”

Overall it suggests perhaps that the St. Ethelbert legend was a transfer from St. Kenelm (or vica versa) but if it was a concoction why? The other legend that of the Mermaid may give us a suggestion why….but we can discuss this in a future post.

The Lady Well at Wilncote

“Just over the boundary, in the parish of Wilcote, is an old well of beautiful clear water, surrounded by a wall, with stone steps going down to it. It is called the Lady’s Well, and on Palm Sunday the girls go there and take bottles with Spanish juice (liquorice), fill the bottles, walk round the well”

Violet Mason, SCRAPS OF ENGLISH FOLKLORE, XIX. Oxfordshire Folklore, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Dec. 31, 1929), pp. 374-384

My first visit to the Lady or Lady’s Well at Fincote was on a misty cold December walking down from the village I was struck by the old gnarled elms which lined the way to the well and the feel of an ancient processional route to it. Back then in the 90s I was unaware of the folk customs associated with it as hinted above.

The well itself is a small affair enclosed as stated above in a high wall. The gate was locked and so sadly I could not access the water directly. However, it followed from beneath the wall and nearby was what appeared to be a trough or perhaps even a bath half sunk into the ground. It is known that the water was used by Wilcote Grange for water and filled a series of ponds nearby now gone. Interestingly there is a Bridewell Farm nearby so was the well originally dedicated to St. Bridget or the pagan Bride? What the well lacks in structure is made up by its association with the curious custom noted above which existed until recently and may still do locally. On the Finstock Local History website it is recorded:

Mrs. Ivy Pratley, describes the making of the Spanish Water. “On the Saturday evening before Palm Sunday, we children would crush humbug sweets and white peppermints together and to this we would add some pieces of chopped liquorice stick, the mixture was then added to a bottle of water and we would sit around the room shaking the bottles until it had dissolved”.

The correspondent notes that:

“This bottle of liquid was drunk the following day while walking to Ladywell. They also carried with them, in a paper bag, some of the dry mixture, which was mixed with water from the well to drink on the way home. Early on Sunday afternoon the walkers would set off, one group using the footpath by the Plough Inn and another group near the top of High Street using the path to the left of the road about 50 yards east of Gadding Well. The groups then merged to follow the path through Wilcote Field Longcut or the Longcut as it was known locally. Most of the girls were given a new straw hat for the occasion and these were filled with primroses and voilets on the way through Sumteths Copse. They then crossed the field to the front of Wilcote Manor and followed a route past St. Peter’s Church to the Ash Avenue which leads directly to Ladywell.”

The custom was still current when Violet Mason in 1929 recorded it but little beknown to her it was soon to disappear. The Finstock Local History society record that it died out at the outbreak of war in 1939. However, Janet Bord in her excellent Holy Wells in Britain a guide (2008) received correspondence which suggests later. She notes:

“The one-time vicar of Wilcote, J.C.S Nias, informed me that when he first went there in 1956, ‘numerous members of county families used to go to that well in Palm Sunday with jam jars containing crushed peppermint and (I believe) liquorish.”

Interesting the vicar then goes on to suggest what might have been the original reason for the Spanish water:

“they pour water from the well on to this mixture which, they believed, would then be a specific for certain ailments during the following year.”

Another correspondent noted:

“Local historian Margaret Rogers noted in a letter to me in 1984 that ‘local people do not any longer visit it on Palm Sunday’ she added; Occasionally one elderly lady visits it, but way back in 1934 there used of a substantial number of people going down on lam Sunday to make liquorice water.”

Bord’s correspondent may give another reason for the custom’s demise:

“Quite a few elderly members of the village remember with indignation that they did not get Sunday school stamps for going down there.”

Now that’s a way to kill a custom off! Perhaps some people still make their private pilgrimage but whatever there is something otherworldly about the Lady Well. It’s a recommended walk.

 

Holy Wells and Healing Springs of North Wales: Ffynnon Gybi, Llangybi

St Cybi's Well Llangybi (45)

If holy wells had a token head, a site which makes the non-enthusiast an enthusiast, it would be St Cybi’s Well. Why? Firstly, it is well signposted, secondly it is well looked after, thirdly it is well written about – why all of these? This is because St. Cybi’s Well is a rare thing amongst holy wells – a site looked after and managed by a heritage organisation – CADW. Now although this may make you think that means it is sanitised and over populated…nothing can be further from the truth. Despite its CADW guardianship this is still a remote site, one still needs to traverse footpaths, cross muddy fields and still possibly get lost. This still is not an ‘exit through the gift shop’ site – there are no facilities at all in fact. It remains an eerie isolated place. I have been there a number of times and even at the height of summer it is still has the feeling of a special place however many people are there. Its walls echo a time long gone and it is captivating in its ruination.

What greets the visitor is quite unlike other holy wells in many ways, for these are the remains of a commercial enterprise – a house which served a guardian, a bath, well and even a latrine – fortunately down river – useful but often missing today from most holy well sites! The house itself is thought not be that old dating from around 1750, but were thought to have been built by the then landowner a Mr. Price to capitalise on the known properties of the well.

Who was Cybi?

A Cornish man descended from it is thought a Roman military leader of minor King and his mother was thought to be the first cousin to St. David. A much travelled man said to have be taught religious studies in France and travelled even to Jerusalem and Rome. When he returned to Cornwall becoming the leader of a failed uprising which forced him to travel northwards, first to South Wales and then to Ireland. He was not received well in Ireland being involved in territory squabbles and ended on the Lleyn Peninsula settling and founding the church of Llangybi. The spring is said to have arisen in a classic fashion for holy wells, him striking the ground with his staff and the spring arising!

St Cybi's Well Llangybi (126)St Cybi's Well Llangybi (63)

A catalogue of cures and a sacred eel!

The well here appeared to cure one of the widest range of ailments from warts, scrofula, scurvy, lameness to even blindness, one 18th century account telling of how a man blind for 30 years bathed his eyes for over three weeks in the well’s water and was cured. It was also used to love predictions. This was done by using a handkerchief. It would be floated on the water and somehow would tell who their love would be. For those unable to get the cure on site, water was often placed in bottles or casks. Jones (1954) in his Holy Wells of Wales even tells of smugglers being challenged by exercise men claimed the casks contained not spirits but holy well from this well!

A specific ritual arose for its use involving patients having to bathe in the water once or twice a day for seven to ten days, then sleep in a room in the adjoining cottage where they would be given the well’s water mixed with an equal volume of sea water. If the patient became warm in their bed then the treatment had worked. Offerings were left at the church being placed in a box called Cyff Gybi and crutches were found around the well; left by the cured.

Whilst I was at the well, I slipped and ended up falling into it – not enough to get too wet but enough to hopefully awaken its famed resident – it still remained. This was a large eel. It was claimed that if the patient stoop bared legged in the water the eel would effect a cure by wrapping around their legs. No eel appeared. Apparently it was removed some time ago and it was said the spring water’s powers was lost!

Certainly, what has not been lost is the magic of this site. Even on a day when the rain is torrential, there is still a mysterious and tranquil air to this site. Worth a restful moment on any day.

 

In search of St Walstan and his holy wells Part two – Costessey

2016 is a 1000 years since the death of St. Walstan. Now he may not be a very familiar saint and one that you may not think is readily associated with holy wells, however he is. Furthermore, he is unusually associated with three holy wells, in an area not always readily associated with such sites- East Anglia – which in itself is a rare occurrence. Not only that, however, unlike other multiple applications these wells are said to have a direct connection with the saint’s life and death.

St Walstan's Well Costessey (6)

Who is St. Walstan?

St Walstan was according to most accounts an Anglo-Saxon prince, the son of Blida and Benedict. Most accounts place his birth at Bawburgh (more of this place later) and his life appeared restricted to the west of Norwich. Despite being a royal he forsook the crown and all its privileges to become a simple farm labourer, giving whatever wealth he had to help the poor. After his death a localised cult developed, which grew and grew and in a way outlived the Reformation, as a saint for farmers and animals.

Three holy wells

In 2016 I decided to seek each of these wells and follow as close as possible the journey that St. Walstan is said to have made which resulted in these springs – Taverham, Costesssey and Bawburgh. Already I have tried to locate the first at Taverham’s and now I turn to Costessey.

The legend

Before Walstan died he had given instructions to the farmer and his wife, to place his body in a cart, which would be drawn by his own white oxen. With a procession of mourners, a procession started towards Bawburgh, and after crossing the river Wensum at Costessey (where it is said that wheel marks are said to be seen on the riverbed), they stopped and rested his body, and here another healing spring arose, St Walstan’s Well (TG 153 114) in Costessey Park. In St Walstan Confessor de sancto Walstanus confessore Fr Husenbeth in 1859 records:

“Another miracle also happened. When in the aforementioned wood, the bulls stood for a while with the body of St. Walstan on top of a steep hill, a spring of water as a sign of grace for love of St. Walstan appeared against the nature of the place (for until that time no water had been found there) and through divine mercy is still there today.”

Interestingly, the History of St. Walston (sic) an ancient manuscript held at Lambeth Palace and translated by Fr Husenbeth in 1859, fails to mention this second spring. However, it was marked as Walsam’s Well on the 1832 OS map, it is recorded that the well had dried up by the end of the 18th century, after 1750. It was described in 1878 as being:

“beside the Tud is a field called St. Walstan’s Well where as a boy I saw the stones where a spring once came out of the hillside – but the well had dried up”

Jeremy Harte in his 2008 English Holy Wells reported that in the mid-1990s that this site has been destroyed. However, pleasingly this is far from the case. Carol Twinch in her 2015 St Walstan the third search informs us that:

“in 1992, the Bawburgh News editor Betty Matins, visited the site with local historian Ernest Gage, but in spite of a long walk along the river Tud, negotiating barbed wire fences, and a trek along a field edge, they were unable to locate the site.”

However, the author does note that the year after a second attempt in the company of a Robert Akins revealed something. However this was soon under threat from an extension of the Costessey Park Golf course, this is presumably where Harte gets his information from. However, this golf course extension would be the saviour of the site not its nemesis.

St Walstan's Well Costessey (13)

Speaking with Mr. Larry Rowe Costessey Golf Course manager, I was informed that when he purchased the land to extend the golf course, he was informed of the well and its history but doubted its existence. Indeed, there appeared to be some debate on its location, however, in October 2013 as Twinch (2015) notes the precise location was revised by Norfolk County Council based on Ordnance Survey second edition. Mr Rowe and his groundsmen went to the location and tried to find it. They at first were unsuccessful but looking down from a small piece of rising ground they noticed a dip with a silver birch tree in the centre. It was removed and a quantity of loose flints were revealed. It is unclear whether with Mr. Rowe was aware of the earlier discoveries. The well is described as around 12 feet in diameter, with about eight foot sloping walls lined with flints and flints deposited at the bottom.

Twinch (2015) tells us that:

“on 17th January 2015 Costessey had its first sprinkling of snow and on a very cold morning local resident Paul Cooper, Larry Rowe from Costessey Park Limited and Norfolk Archaeologist Garry Grace walked to the spot where almost 1000 years before Walstan’s funeral cortege stopped on its journey from Taverham to Bawburgh.”

According to Rose of Norfolk Archaeological Unit defined it as a deep circular pit with a diameter of 12 feet and a depth of six feet with lumps of flint walling at the bottom. It was identified as being medieval in date and suggested that it once had a passage entering it from one side, which could not now be traced. Despite the concern from local residents it would be destroyed by the golf course, Mr Rowe agreed to preserve it.

St Walstan's Well Costessey (4)

In May 2015 a flint from the well was presented to Father David Ward of Our Lady and St. Walstan Roman Catholic church in the village and this was set into the gable end of the old dinning wall of the 1837 presbytery, predesignated a garden room. Then in April 2017, after a wooden painted sign was erected at the well, made from a door frame of the Catholic Church, it was rededicated and blessed by the said church. The sign states: ‘St Walstan’s Well Holy Well’.

Whilst perhaps not the most visually impacting of the county’s well, but its rediscovery and preservation is great testament to the joint efforts of local people. The well is now protected and preserved. Although dry the flint rows are interesting and fairly unique, interestingly only the well of the Anglican shrine at Walsingham has a similar design emphasising perhaps its Saxon origin. It is good to see this important site preserved and remembered.

Please note St Walstan’s Well is in the far corner of Costessey Park Golf Course and as such inaccessible without permission. I found the owner receptive to my enquiries however and would be best visited in the winter months or during the evening, post six o’clock, when there is less play.

From the forthcoming Holy Wells and healing springs of Norfolk

For more information on St. Walstan refer to Carol Twinch’s excellent trilogy of works 1995 In Search of St. Walstan, 2011 Saint with the silver shoes and 2015 St Walstan the Third Search

https://traditionalcustomsandceremonies.wordpress.com/2016/05/31/custom-survived-st-walstans-day-pilgrimage-bawburgh-norfolk/

In search of St Walstan and his holy wells – Part one – Taverham

 

St Walstan on Taverham village sign

St Walstan on Taverham village sign

2016 is a 1000 years since the death of St. Walstan. Now he may not be a very familiar saint and one that you may not think is readily associated with holy wells, however he is. Furthermore, he is unusually associated with three holy wells, in an area not always readily associated with such sites- East Anglia – which in itself is a rare occurrence. Not only that, however, unlike other multiple applications these wells are said to have a direct connection with the saint’s life and death.

Who is St. Walstan?

St Walstan was according to most accounts an Anglo-Saxon prince, the son of Blida and Benedict. Most accounts place his birth at Bawburgh (more of this place later) and his life appeared restricted to the west of Norwich. Despite being a royal he forsook the crown and all its privileges to become a simple farm labourer, giving whatever wealth he had to help the poor. After his death a localised cult developed, which grew and grew and in a way outlived the Reformation, as a saint for farmers and animals.

Three holy wells

In 2016 I decided to seek each of these wells and follow as close as possible the journey that St. Walstan is said to have made which resulted in these springs – Taverham, Costesssey and Bawburgh. Sadly, Taverham’s St. Walstan’s Well is lost…but that does not stop me looking for it!

The search for Taverham’s well

This first spring arose at the place of his death. The saint was said to have had a vision of angels and died soon after, a local priest wishing to wash his body searched in vain for water. Interestingly, his Latin Life fails to mention it but the History of St Walstan records according to Father Husenbeth (1859) its author:

“There lacked liquor to God they did pray, a well in that place sprang verment.”

As stated the exact location of this well has been a matter of conjecture. Let me look at each suggestion

Suggestion one: ‘Walstanhans’ plantation

This is said to be copse below the church and thus close to the crossing, now presumably the bridge. Credence is also given to the fact that in 1859 it was sated that a well still existed there. This location was perhaps synonymous with that named in 17th century terriers as Walstan Wong. They place it at TG 1630 1410, north the church along Nightingale drive. The area is urbanised so no evidence can be found there.

Suggestion two: Walsingham Plantation

However, it is interesting to note that on the current OS there is a Walsingham Plantation, are these the same and has consonantal drift over the centuries? There is no well or spring now marked here and presumably any one would have been lost when the area was afforested. Support to this being a location is perhaps that there is another Walstan wood noted in the nearby parish of Ringland. Are they connected?

Suggestion three: Spring Wood

DSC_0336

Sounds convincing and especially now this wood is not far from the village sign which shows the saint with his scythe. The wood that exists is probably much smaller than the original one and the name suggestions that derives from the spring of St. Walstan’s Well. However, I surveyed the site and I believe I can quickly dismiss it as a site as a possibility. All the trees appear to be the same age and there is no ancient forest indicator species. Why is this important? This would suggest that the ‘spring’ is from the 18th century term for an afforested area not a water source.

Suggestion four: Breck Farm

I stated my search near the farm said to be built upon the farm where St. Walstan died, that is Breck Farm. Norgate (1969) in his A history of Taverham refers to in an old lease book as:

..laying between Langwongs Furlong on the part of the south and the land of Mary Branthwayt north, and abutting a way leading from Taverham to Crostwick.”

          This would make it approximate to Breck Farm, which is believed to be near the site of Walstan’s Nagla farm, where he died, although no exact location has been determined. Whilst there a survey of the area does reveal a small water source forming a relatively deep brook channel, a field distance from the farm and beside a footpath at TG 168 150. The water could equally be a field drain, however the oval depression is too overgrown to reveal anything.

DSC_0302

Possible well site?

DSC_0314

Breck farm supposed site of Nagla Farm site of his death

Interestingly, Carol Twinch in her 2015 St. Walstan the third search informs us that carvings of figures in clerical dress knealing before a female figure, presumably the Virgin Mary have been found in the nearby Attlebridge/Morton on the Hill area. In 1813 the head of a processional cross was found ‘on the Walsingham Way, by Attebridge. A hermitage and possibly chapel are said to have existed at Attelbridge.

To my mind this seemed the most plausible site, but perhaps one day an old map will appear which will settle the matter. From this spring, St. Walstan’s body would be ceremonially carried by two white oxen to his final resting place. After considering the sites and resting a moment at Taverham’s typical round tower church of St, Edmund, I crossed the Wensum river like St Walstan did and one my way to the second spring.

From the forthcoming Holy Wells and healing springs of Norfolk

For more information on St. Walstan refer to Carol Twinch’s excellent triology of works 1995 In Search of St. Walstan, 2011 Saint with the silver shoes and 2015 St Walstan the Third Search

Holy Wells and Healing Springs of North Wales: St Beuno’s Well, Clynnog Fawr

Compared to Tremeirchion the provenance for St. Beuno’s Well at the fascinating Clynnog Fawr is much better. After following King Cadwallon from Holywell to Caernarvon, he was offered land here by his cousin Gwyyddaint after a falling out with the King! It is said that this was his final resting place, where he built his last cell, a chapel said to have been located at the site of the church. Thus in the seventh century a monastery was established which was destroyed in a 10th century Viking raid. Nothing is left from this period the present Chapel and church dating from the sixteenth century but excavations within have revealed earlier buildings.St Beuno's Well, church and chapel Clynnog Fawr (69)

A substantial well

St Beuno’s Well is of a style commonly met – a quite substantial well. The spring arises to fill a large rectangular bath surrounded by stone seats. The whole enclosure being walled around and raised above the roadway presumably to prevent animals reaching it and soiling it. Although the main road now thankfully bypasses the village and the well, the roadway was and still is, the pilgrim route down the Lleyn peninsular to the sacred isle of Bardsey beyond (a fact emphasised by the presence of a stamp collection for pilgrims)

A healing well

Here we come across a more confirmed usage of the well. This was mainly for children suffering from epilepsy and rickets for also conversely was linked to curing impotency. Scrapings from the pillars in the church were mixed with the water to cure sore eyes. An even more fascinating the tradition was that the bather would then visit St. Beuno’s chapel and laid on a bed of rushes upon a stone called Beuno’s tomb. A good night’s sleep procured a cure. I was denied even an attempt at this as the Chapel a unique side chapel reached by a small walkway was locked! However, I am not sure how good my cure would be as the stone itself was only a fragment of its original being removed in 1856. The practice itself was still being undertaken long after the reformation as accounted for by Thomas Pennant:

“and I myself once saw on it (the tomb) a feather bed on which a poor paralytic from Merioneddshire had lain the whole night after undergoing the same ceremony.”

St Beuno's Well, church and chapel Clynnog Fawr (66)

A pagan tradition?

What has been related so far is strongly suggestive of some long lost pre-Christian tradition. Indeed today by the door is a large sarsen stone possibly part as perhaps Beuno’s stone, of a megalithic monument. What is even more curious is the tradition of St Beuno’s cattle. These were cattle with ear markings which were slaughtered and offered to the saint to ensure well-being of the stock. This was later replaced by monetary offerings based on the sale of livestock and the chest, Beuno’s cyff, remains within the church. The money being used for the poor. The ‘sacrifice’ of stock is clearly very resonant of pre-Christian practises and perhaps the area was dedicated to a deity visited for such wishes.

St Beuno's Well, church and chapel Clynnog Fawr (2) St Beuno's Well, church and chapel Clynnog Fawr (26)

Guest blog post: Holy Wells of Cumbria a personal journey by Father John Musthers

Very honoured this month to have a guest blog article by Father John Musthers, author of a new book on Cumbrian holy wells – a poorly studied area – his book will be reviewed here https://insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.wordpress.com/book-reviews/. Below is a brief biography

After a full life of Christian service, Fr John moved to Keswick, from the south coast, with his wife Jenny in 2007. They immediately found enough people to start an Orthodox parish and he was ordained priest in 2008. The parish serves the whole of Cumbria and beyond and was granted the use of Braithwaite Methodist Church in 2009. There is an Orthodox liturgy in English every Sunday at 10.30 followed by food and time together for much of the afternoon. We welcome young families and children. The parish is thriving and is becoming known for its energy, warmth, and welcome. Fr John is a keen observer of the continuity between the early church in the British Isles and coming of Orthodoxy to Britain again in recent times. His passion is the traditon of lived holiness down the ages. He has written a book about the saints and their relevance today. He has extensively explored ancient Christian sites in the UK and Ireland. His latest interest has been the Holy Wels of North Cumbria.

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My introduction to holy wells came about in Ireland. I had some free time over there so I went to look for holy sites. This was a jaw dropping experience to find much of Ireland’s rich heritage of monasteries, churches, holy wells and more. With my wife we journeyed all over, in time visiting most of Ireland twice. Ireland is reputed to have had 3000 wells. We saw many big ones, little ones, nice ones, and spooky ones. My favourite is at Kyle in Co Tipperary. It is well off the beaten track. You have to negotiate a bull, water that bubbles, trees with clouties, and under the trees many crosses from a mysterious unknown monastery.

Back home in Cumbria we started to notice wells until it got to the point where we knew of at least 70 – many more than earlier tallies. So we felt people ought to know. We have published ‘Springs of Living Water’, in paperback and hardback. The hardback came out expensive, but I believe it to be a gem.

St Helen’s, Great Asby, is the well with the best flow of water. St Michael’s, Arthuret, is a big well and a very old one. St Andrews, Kirkandrewes, (on the front cover) has outlived its church but still makes a pretty flow of water by the footpath down past the churchyard. The most popular of wells is lkely to be that at Caldbeck on the riverbank behind the church.

I always like to find those difficult to discover: St Michael’s, once of Addingham, now in Lazonby, has to be another favourite with loads of atmosphere underneath trees, rather like Powdonnet well in Morland; St Catherines in a remote spot near Boot in Eskdale; the well at Staffield is little known, hidden away in the middle of a very very large field. In this category also must come the well in the bottom of Schawk quarry which had a history going back to Roman times. Many places have lost their wells and are known only by name: but there is one almost perfect well – Grange Hall in Great Asby with its canopy still in place.

What’s it all about? We don’t get very far without facing the deeper questions. Where do they come from? What are they for? Where do we come in the scale of history? It is a wise man who does not jump in too quickly to answer these questions. But here are some thoughts and reflections.

Human beings have to drink and wash from time to time. Our ancestors valued wells, streams and rivers because of this practical need of water. But such is the ‘magic’ of water they, like us, reflected on the matter and noticed how some wells had something more: a sense of mystery, a sense of awe, a sense of the ‘holy’. We need not doubt this for we can feel it too. In this context the leaving of a gift is a natural thing to do. We all have our explanations. We do not have to be condescending. We only need to sit at Castlerigg Stone Circle in Keswick to realise this magnificent piece of work is a testimony to man’s consumng search for the spiritual, the divine, for ‘God’.

Kneeling by the pool of water at Kyle we become aware of the bubbles coming up through the limestone. Instantly comes to mind the cripple at the Pool of Siloam who, when the pool was disturbed, could get no one to take him to the water. Here was a connection across 2000 years, between an event in Jerusalem to a moment in Kyle, of revelation, of meaning, of healing, if you believe it. Could not the Celt have made the same connection?

Would he not believe he had found a greater salvation?

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St Michael’s Well Copyright John Musthers

Just up the road from our house is Crosthwaite parish church. Here, in a likely tale told by an Englishman called Bede, about the itinerant bishop St Kentigern (I prefer the more intimate name of Mungo, ‘my dear one’) who placed his cross in a clearing and began to speak. From all accounts (as shown in the contemporary Life of St Cuthbert) there were many in those days who were thirsty. They went down into the pool, or stream or river and were baptised. Seek out the old British churches, of which there are several in north Cumbria, and look for the water. I guarantee you will find it.

Arthuret after clean

Arthurlet Holy Well copyright J.Musthers

The water was blessed, the water was used again and again. The faithful built little churches by the spot or even over it. They remembered the day when the Saint had visited them. They remembered the name of Christ and the name of the Trinity, though in some places it didn’t catch on and people went on in their old convictions. The Christian felt connected to the saint even when, as they believed, he went from them and was alive with Christ in heaven; and they found he still prayed for them.

Christ, the Church, the saints, the wells and baptism were the foundation of a new culture. Holy Wells flourished and abounded. If we go anywhere in Wales or Cornwall we will be astonished by their number. The large wall map on my wall of Cumbria tells the same story.

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Grange Hall Holy Well copyright J.Musther

As we all know they came under attack, many were destroyed, left to neglect. For a long time people remembered the old places. They still went on the Saints days to trade their wares, to enjoy the entertainments and went home grateful for another ‘holi-day’ temporarily lifting the heavy burden of life long ago.

Some wells got a new lease of life by the Spas when the cultured ‘took the waters’. Cumbria has many of them. Now people go to them for a nice weekend, and the well is, if anything, just a curiosity.

Our church in Braithwaite has started to bless the waters again; and new believers plunge into the cold waters of the beck. We have a large container of blessed water inside the church for use on local saints days, of St Bega, St Mungo, St Cuthbert and St Herbert. We also bless our homes with the water.

In effect, we have made a new holy well!

It can be purchased now follow the link

Springs of Living Waters

A pilgrimage to Walsingham’s holy well

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Well which well is it?

This is without doubt the most famous site of all holy wells and indeed Christianity in the county, now the main well is perhaps a modern one (we’ll explore its provenance below).) but in the ruins of its famed Abbey are  ‘Wishing Wells’ clearly holy wells, the more likely location of the 1061, vision of Mary by Richeldis de Faverches,, who built a replica of the Holy House where a spring arose. The site became a major pilgrimage centre and its waters were said to be good for curing headaches and stomach complaints. If these are the original site, after Reformation, they denigrated to mere wishing wells.

Walsingham Holy Wells (1)

Howeverr, most attention quite rightly is directed to the well enclosed in the modern Anglican shrine. A site which now could be classed as one of the most active holy wells in the country, Our Lady’s Well. This is the central focus of modern veneration at Walsingham. Its history is difficult however. It was during the digging for a new shrine in the 1930s.The shrine needed a well and this was convenient Consequent excavations revealed did suggest that this well was Saxon and thus as near the site of the original Holy House thought to be the original shrine. However this is difficult to prove. Now enclosed in a modern shrine, above this well an effigy of Our Lady with infant Jesus, is placed in as a centre piece of this modern arched alcove. Local belief suggests that an underground conduit connects these wells to the Anglican well of Our Lady, their source.

Little Walsingham was once the greatest shrine in Europe, with commoners and kings all following the many pilgrim paths to the shrine of ‘Our Lady of Walsingham’. It had a sacred image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a phial of her milk, and many other spurious relics, not to mention the two miraculous wells in the priory garden.

The origins

In 1061 the Lady Richeldis de Faveraches, wife of a Norman lord of the manor, is said to have had a vision at Walsingham in which the Virgin Mary appeared to her, took her in spirit to the ‘Sancta Casa’ – the home of Christ in Nazareth – and commanded her to build in Norfolk an exact replica. Aided by angels, the shrine was built of wood and later encased in stone, the site being ordained by the welling up of two clear streams at the behest of Mary. Rumours began to spread that Mary herself had fled there before the threat of invasion, and then that the chapel was the Sancta Casa itself, transported there by angels.

A priory was built there in the early 12th century, which the scholar and theologian Desiderius Erasmus visited in 1511, writing in his ‘Colloquy on Pilgrimage’:

“Before the chapel is a shed, under which are two wells full to the brink; the water is wonderfully cold, and efficacious in curing pains in the head & stomach. They affirm that the spring suddenly burst from the earth at the command of the most holy Virgin”.

Walsingham Holy Wells (7)Walsingham Holy Wells (6)

The wishing wells

These are circular wells and a square stone bath can be found near an isolated remnant of Norman archway in the priory ruins, in the grounds of a house called Walsingham Abbey. The wells are most noted nowadays for being wishing wells. If you remain totally silent within about 10 feet of the water, you should kneel first at one well, then at the other, and make a wish as you drink – but tell no-one what you wish for. Committing one error in the ritual is said to be fatal.

Another version mentions a stone between the wells on which one must kneel with their right knee bare, then put one hand in each well up to the wrist, and drink as much of the water as you can hold in your palms. Provided your wishes are never spoken aloud, they will be fulfilled within the year. On my visit I was keen to try it out…but found the wells covered by metal grills.

Walsingham Holy Wells (21)

More on Norfolk’s holy wells in the forthcoming Holy Wells and healing springs of Norfolk coming in 2016.

A well for November: St Hilda’s Well Hinderwell

hinderThe village of Hinderwell is so named after one of Yorkshire’s most noted saints – St. Hilda.

Who was Saint Hilda?

Hilda was an Abbess of the early Christian abbey at Whitby in the 7th century. She is said to have had a retreat in the area which may have been associated with the spring and caused the church to be established there, although the current church is 18th century. A local legend says that she prayed for water and a spring arose.

Is it named after Saint Hilda?

There is some confusion over the origin of the name Hinderwell. The settlement was called Hildrewell which may possibly mean ‘elder spring’, but of course Norse influence could have affected Hilden changing it to Hildar.

Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore states that:

“Tradition says that the monks, in the journey between Whitby Abbey and Kirkham Abbey, always made this well one of their resting place.”

In the churchyard is preserved a delightful spring head enclosed in a stone chamber with coursed rusticated stone walls supporting a flat slab roof. It is reached by a flight of well worn steps

Early pictures show a pump and Hope (1893) states it was so covered. However, this was removed when it was restored in 1912 by a Hilda Palmer of Grimple Hall, when it was restored to something more fitting.

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Traditions

There does not appear to be any observation on St. Hilda’s patronal day on the 17th of November recorded, but the well was visited on Ascension Day as Hope (1893) notes:

“On Ascension Day the children of the neighbourhood assemble here carrying bottles containing pieces of liquorice, which they fill at the well. Hence Ascension
Day is frequently termed Spanish-Water Day.”

In modern times the first Sunday in July has become a celebration of the well, although pilgrimage does occur on or near to the Saint’s day by local Catholic groups. It is during their services however that the water is the well is still blessed and taken I believe. During the July celebration well dressings are done, possibly Britain’s most northerly consisting of a triptych in July 2013 consisting of an image of the saint.

The evidence for a hermitage?

One aspect which strikes the visitor to Hinderwell is that the church and of course the spring is on a mound, an ideal shape and arrangement for a hermitage: In a way a symbolic island in a sea of wilderness. There is also good sea access from Port Mulgrave, meaning communication to Whitby where Hilda’s monastery existed.

St Hilda was associated by turning all the snakes in the area headless. They can be found in the rocks of the coast around here- we would call them ammonites.

photos from holy wells of Yorkshire website…if you run the websites of these images and want them removed, please let me know!

hinderrr

A well for September…St Edith’s Well, Kemsing

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St. Edith’s Well (TQ 552 586) lies below the Pilgrim’s Way in Kent and is the county’s most notable and best preserved sites. It is one of only two wells in the county which are dressed and the only one with a long lasting, over 50 years, tradition. this being St Edith’s procession held on the Sunday nearest to St. Edith’s Day.

A collection of cures

Chiefly, it was noted for its cure of eye complaints, and Watt (1923) also notes that it cured women’s barrenness. Belief in its curative power continued until the early 1900s. Its fabric is presumably ‘mediaeval’, and according to most authorities was once enclosed within a religious establishment, who were probably responsible for its upkeep. However there s neither archaeological nor written evidence of one but there is a recording in 1419 of a chapel of St. Edith the Virgin, which presumably was near the well and perhaps held a relic. Sadly, we do not really know.

A local saint

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St. Edith (961-84 AD) was the daughter of the early Saxon king, Edgar and Queen Wulfthryth. Despite being nominated Abbess of Winchester, Barking and Amesbury, she refused these positions, disliking state affairs, preferring to commune with the poor and animals. This made her popular among her countrymen, who immediately recognised her saintly attributes. Despite this, her canonisation was not recognised everywhere, and Cnut’s scepticism, prevented her feast day being adopted in many areas. Those who championed her, used miracles at her tomb and her incorruptible thumb, as evidence for her saintliness and she was canonised, with her body being transferred to Wilton in 997 AD. She was said to have been born on land which is now covered by a property called the Box, but again it here is no evidence.

Pagan shrine

Evidence would suggest that her local popularity was deeply rooted in pagan belief! It is interesting to note, that an image of St. Edith was erected within the churchyard, which according to Lambarde (1571), prevented mildew and the blight of corn and wheat crops. Lambarde (1571) describes a ritual associated with the belief, and the following appears significant:

“Priest made uses to toll the greatest portion, and then to take all handful or little more of the residue the which after aspersion of Holy Water, and mumbling a fewe woordes of conjuration, he first dedicated to the image of Saint Edithe and then delivered it back to the parte that brought.”

This appears to be some persistence of an ancient fertility rite to a pagan deity, further supported by with the cure of cure barren women. Lambarde (1571) believed this, suggesting the Roman god, Robigus (after Robigo, a canker of corn), was the earlier cult focus here. It is recorded that similar ‘sacrifices’ were made to ‘him’, and so it seems likely that even the saint’s effigy could have directly replaced his and the church being built on his temple. The holy water, used in the ritual, may have originated from the well, and in pre-Christian days this may have been an important part of the ritual.

The well today

Today it lies within a small garden of remembrance forming a focal point for the original village. It is approximately three feet high, a round rag stone structure, with a series of steps approach the well. Access now, via these steps, appears impossible, the gate being locked. Watt (1917) notes that the structure was forlorn, and then repaired, and then forlorn again, but now appears in remarkable condition, being within recent years cleared of much of its overgrown ivy! To prevent rubbish falling into the well, brown wiring has been set across, both the well passage, and shaft. A considerable depth of water was present in 2013, and even after a long drought, in 1995. Indeed, I have been informed that it has never been known to dry up! A local belief conveniently ignoring that it was recorded dry at the beginning of this century! Today the well is the best it has ever been although sadly one cannot access the water directly due to the wiring up of the steps.

A modern pilgrimage  

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Even today, it is pleasing to note that the well is still an important and respected part of the village. It is depicted as the centre piece of a fine tapestry in the church, and on the village sign.

Two separate religious observations are undertaken on the day. In the morning, a procession, established in 1961, after the well was established. It passes through the village from the church is traditionally held on the Sunday nearest the saint’s day September 16th.  Every ten years this forms part of a village wide celebration called St. Edith’s Festival, last held in 2011. A banner in the church maybe associated with an earlier 1920s revival perhaps as Mr. Taylor, a local associated with he present Catholic observation suggests.

Traditionally posies have been placed on the well during the service by the congregation, but in the last three years, since the 2011 festival, a well dressing has been undertaken place, last year’s was the Olympics, 2011’s was a picture of the village. This year’s was the harvest and delightfully it was rendered too with a good use of rhubarb seeds for a field and gravel for the signage. Next year’s is planned to be the First World War.

The artists being two local ladies, one of which would appear to have the tradition running through her veins coming from Elmton in Derbyshire, a village with a well dressing tradition, albeit a modern one. Subsequently, the frame is soaked in a paddling pool each year and taken to the village hall where on a table the two worked away using templates to create their art over the week finally finishing on the Saturday before.

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I arrived just in time to see the board turn up wheeled on a barrow and just in time to give some extra muscle to set it up beside the well where it was duly staked in. The small group admired their handiwork and then it was covered for the arrival of the church and its congregation. A few minutes later this congregation, following their cross, but sadly no banner, and holding their posies, arrived. The service with the prayer which begins:

“Father each St. Edith’s day, we bring flowers to this well….”

Then the posies were placed upon the walls of the well, the service continuing with a reading of St. Edith’s hymn:

“At this well with great thanksgiving, blessed Edith we record, her short years of holy living, chaste handmaiden of the Lord, May we in her Lord believing, be like her his living sword.”

DSC_0148A thanks giving was given for the water and then the well dressing was revealed to the delight of the congregation. It was great to see that the well continues to be celebrated and the well dressing is a more than welcome innovation. The ceremony ends with prayers of intercession and a collect for St. Edith’s Day, Lord’s Prayer, hymn and blessing. It was a bit disappointing I felt that the support from the village was quite small, especially as everyone here seemed so inviting, but as the service was at 9.45, perhaps it was too early. I recommend moving the service an hour forward and more visitors may be attracted.

Christopher Bells’ Centenary History of the Catholic Church of St Thomas of Canterbury states that Father Phillips, Sevenoaks parish priest from 1916 to 1946, probably revived it around the 1920s.  An elderly parishioner told Mr Taylor that the pilgrimage was going in the 1930s, but this was actually on the 16th, not the nearest Sunday as of recent. It is possible that as the village was home of Catholic convert Monsignor Robert Benson, son of Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1890s the observation may be older. I was told that now parishioners come from all part of the parish which covers the villages of Kemsing, Otford, Weald, Borough Green and West Kingsdown as well as Sevenoaks, some walking 8 miles as well journeying by car from London.

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It is said that not only does her water cure eyes, but spiritual blindness, and Richard Bateman,  the local Anglican vicar, attributed his conversion to Catholicism in part through her intercession.

Certainly the Catholic community may be aware of the need to start later. In the afternoon, a Catholic pilgrimage occurs from the nearest Catholic Church based in Sevenoaks. However, in 2013 although they planned to meet at 3.00, the weather had turned to the worse. The glorious weather of the morning being replaced by a penetrating drizzle, subsequently, the planned Holy Rosary, prayers and St. Edith’s hymn which were to be at the well were moved to nearby Otford Catholic church…hopefully the weather will be more favourable next year and they will return.

2011 well dressing image copyright Heather Porter

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2012 well dressing image copyright Heather Porter

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Many thanks to Mr. Antony Taylor, Jane Bowden and Erica Cole as well as the congregation of St Mary’s kemsing and especially Heather Porter

Images and post copyright Pixyledpublications.