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In search of rag wells: The Ragged Springs of Healing, Lincolnshire

There are records of a considerable number of rag wells in Lincolnshire and as such a cluster can be identified. In a couple of posts we shall be exploring the sites focusing on some in detail such as the significantly named Ragged springs near Cleethorpes to the north of the county which is the focus on this blog post.

First it is worth considering the name. The springs themselves whilst possibly being an ancient site, noted by the fact that the earliest name for the parish is Heghelinge. One may make the assumption that perhaps this derives from the springs. However, this is at variance to the view of the Cameron (1985-2002) as it is noted that Hægelingas is derived from ‘the sons or followers of a man named Hægel’ rather than healing, although it is of course a strange coincidence perhaps.

The first reference appears to be Charles Edward Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of Holy Wells, which of course takes a number of sources, some hitherto unknown, but often from local accounts. He records it confusing under another nearby village and states?

“Lincolnshire GREAT COTES, ULCEBY. Here is a spring celebrated locally for its healing properties. It rises from the side of a bank in a plantation, and is overshadowed by an ancient thorn, on the branches of which hang innumerable rags, fastened there by those who have drunk of its waters.”

Gutch and Peacock (1908) note that a:

“Mr. Cordeaux visited them not long since for the purpose of discovering whether pins are ever dropped into them, but the bottom of the water in both cases was too muddy and full of leaves to allow accurate examination.”

According to Gutch and Peacock (1908) each well had a different use, one spring being a chalybeate one was done for eye problems, whereas the other was for skin problems. They continue to note that a:

“F S, a middle-aged man, who grew up in an adjoining parish, states that when he was a lad, one spring was used for bathing, and the second for drinking. The latter was considered good against consumption, among other forms of sickness. . . . What the special gift of the bathing well was F S cannot say. He often plunged his feet into it when a boy, but he does not venture to assert that it had any great power in reality, although ‘folks used to come for miles,’ and the gipsies, who called the place Ragged Spring or Ragged Well, frequently visited it. A Gentleman who hunts with the Yarborough pack every winter, says that he notices the rags fluttering on the shrubs and briars each season as he rides past. There is always a supply of these tatters, whether used superstitiously or not, and always has been since his father first knew the district some seventy years ago.”

The custom apparently continued until the 1940s, indeed a visitor in the 1920s noted that even the trunks were covered with longer pieces of rag. A picture in Healy (1995) shows a number of rags on the bushes as seen below.

It is worth noting that perhaps the presence of a large thorn perhaps suggests a great antiquity to the site   The springs are still marked on the current OS map, as Healing Wells, in a small plantation, but they are, as the photo shows, only marked by circular indentations in the ground, the first spring being the easier to trace and appears to have holes, although these may be made by animals.

The springs are now quite dry, perhaps that the clogging of the springs noted above continued as the springs were forgotten, resulting in the current situation. Lying around the springs are a range of metal buckets in various stages of decay and some metal pieces which may be remains of a metal fence around it. I was unable to find any sign of rags although the man I asked in the whereabouts referred to them as the ragged springs. So there name maybe remembered even if the custom has long since been forgotten.

An abecedary of Sacred springs of the world: The rag wells of Wales

As a prelude to next year’s theme on votive offerings at holy and healing wells with a special focus on rag wells, for this abecedary entry W I have picked Wales and want to focus on rag wells in the country as an early prelude to my theme next year which is on rag or more often called cloottie wells.

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The earliest confirmed reference is an English one of 1600 and evidence from Wales of their existence comes much later as nearly 300 years after the first accounts. What are we to make of this?

An account by Professor Rhys in Folklore for September, 1892 is the easiest reference and he is given the following information, said to be ‘lately sent to him by a friend, about a Glamorganshire holy well situated between Coychurch and Bridgeendd’ he notes.:—

“people suffering from any malady to dip a rag in the water, and bathe the affected part. The rag is then placed on a tree close to the well. When I passed it, about three years ago, there were hundreds of these shreds covering the tree, and some had evidently been placed there very recently.”

He was further informed that :

 “People suffering from rheumatism. They bathe the part affected with water, and afterwards tie a piece of rag to the tree which overhangs the well. The rag is not put in the water at all, but is only put on the tree for luck. It is a stunted but very old tree, and is simply covered with rags.”

An interesting variant of the custom is recorded at Ffynnon Eilian (St. Elian’s Well), near Abergele in Denbighshire. Here Professor Rhys was informed by Mrs. Evans, the late wife of Canon Silvan Evans, who states that:

“some bushes near the well had once been covered with bits of rag left by those who frequented it. The rags used to be tied to the bushes by means of wool-not woollen yarn, but wool in its natural state. Corks with pins stuck in them were floating in the well when Mrs. Evans visited it, though the rags had apparently disappeared from the bushes.”

This may have been to do with the unfavourable nature of the well which was renowned as a cursing well. Recently restored it rags have yet to re-appear there!

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Finally he records Ffynnon Cefn Lleithfan, or Well of the Lleithfan Ridge, on the eastern slope of Mynydd y Rhiw, in the parish of Bryncroes, in the west of Caernarvonshire, here:

“The wart is to be bathed at the well with a rag or clout, which has grease on it. The clout must then be carefully concealed beneath the stone at the mouth of the well.”

Which is yet again another variant possibly to do with the paucity of trees in the area

In an article in the Cardiff Naturalists Society (1935) by Aileen Fox, entitled “A Rag Well near Llancarfan” the spring called the Inflammation Spring  she states that:

“When I first visited the spring in August, 1935, 3 old rags – pieces of dish cloth and calico – and a piece of brown wool were tied on overhanging branches by the source.”

And records that:

“The treatment described by Mrs Williams consisted in using the water for drinking to the exclusion of all other fluids, in applying mud from the source as a plaster on the affected parts, and in tying a rag, preferably from the underclothing, by the well.”

Distribution of the rag wells in the county is spread out with a small cluster in the south. Research and survey work indicates that there are eight traditional sites of which only three have a continued tradition, although it is difficult to describe or define the presence of rags there as continued or revived tradition without further research. Add to this only three sites which have no tradition but have no become rag wells. This latter category itself is a puzzle to define.

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A recent visit to the atmospheric St. Pedr’s Well at Caswell Bay on the Gower did reveal rags and objects hanging from trees. However, the more traditional appearing was St. Teilo’s Well, Llandilo in Pembrokeshire where trees beside the pool filled by the spring were adorned with white and red fabrics of cloth and as such perhaps appears closer to the tradition than other sites such as St Anne’s Well, Trelleck, Monmouthshire, where a tree is adorned with a multitude of objects when it is not actively cleared up by local people. Why rags and objects should appear at St Tegla’s Well, Llandega, Denbighshire, or the Holy Well, Pileth, Powys or Patrishow’s holy well, Llanlawer is unclear. As sites which have received publicity in the earth mysteries and pagan press these rank pretty high. However, it is interesting to note that they are all close to the English border too. The origins of the custom in Wales similarly is difficult to determine. The widespread nature of the custom and it variant usage suggests possibly a wider distribution and the sites remaining are bar the remnants or that it arose individually in a number of places.