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!
Surrey is not the first county associated with holy wells, although James Rattue’s 2008 Holy Wells of Surrey makes it clear there are a number. Visions of the Virgin Mary are! So when we have a holy well and a vision of the Virgin Mary seen together it is an interesting site – but how old and genuine as a holy well is it? Especially curious as Rattue notes it appears in most surveys of holy wells.
Easily found following the sign from the church yard towards the river the well is certainly very picturesque, if a little muddy to get to. The well is unusual in being enclosed in two brick built chambers each covered by a metal lid. The water does not look particularly refreshing being rather stagnant and full of leaves. Over the well is an ornate wooden and tiled cover. A.J.A. Hollins in his 1933 A History of Dunsfold compiled from various sources gives an account of its repair and what was there beforehand:
“Until 1933 it consisted of two brick lined cisterns of uncertain date with wooden lids in a very poor state of repair. Now by the efforts of the Dunsfold Amateur Dramatic Society there has been erected over it a shelter or shrine of old oak with a shingled roof, and on one side of it is an exquisitely carved figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Holy Child.”
Hollins’ (1933) gives some further details:
“The Holy Well lies on the bank of the river below the church and is approached by a short lane. The water which is singularly pure and cold even in the height of summer, is derived from two streams which have their origin somewhere in the hill on which the rectory stands. These unite just above the Well. From one of them at one time the water supply to the rectory was obtained, a one pony power circular pump being employed. With the advent of Company’s water this has long been derelict.”
A real holy well?
A. Judges (1901) in his Some West Surrey villages is also clear of its ancient origin and perhaps suggests a monastic association:
“As to one tradition connected with the spot, however, there can be no doubt. The well between the church and the river was for generations considered a holy well. Even to this day it is credited with medicinal properties, and people come for the water as a cure for sore eyes. The Rector, the Rev. W. H. Winn, favours the theory that it was on account of this well that the church was built on its present site, some little distance from the centre of the village. Water is scarce in the Weald, and this is the only spring-well rising to the surface of the ground which Mr. Winn knows of in the whole country. It never runs dry, and rises within 4 or 5 feet of the river, with which, however, it has no connection, except in the way of overflow. I ought, perhaps, to add here that the orchard near the mill was known as the Abbot’s Garden, and an old house on it, removed in late years, is supposed to have been connected with the church or some old monastery.”
Similarly, Hollins (1933) is unequivocal:
“Isn’t it significant, bearing in mind what has been said about the places usually chosen by the early peoples for their settlements, that the church is built near the river (which becomes the Arun before flowing into the sea at Littlehampton) practically beside the Holy Well, on one Roman road and very near another? As regards the well, its fame has spread down to modern times, and there is very little doubt but that it was sacred from the very earliest times….. it would form the site of a shrine for primitive worship in heathen days, and when the Christian era began, the builders of the first church would place it, as church builders frequently did, on an already sacred site, and merely substituted their ideas for those already existing. All the oldest churches in this country built on heathen sites have wells in or near them, for the Ancient Britons and their successors needed water for purification rites. The Well under Christianity would naturally have the patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and this in turn would give the name to the Church.”
The usual claims, heathen worship, possibly Roman adoption by the early church, a theme we will return too in a moment.
Doubt was creeping in to Hollins’ (1933) work:
“The actual history of the Well is obscure. What can be stated is that from the very earliest times it was a sacred spot….There is a strong tradition that the Blessed Virgin has appeared at the Well, and one old belief is that she is always in residence in Dunsfold. The Well was an ideal spot for heathen worship, and when the Christian era began, the worship of St Mary at the Well would naturally follow, and thus give a lead to the church. But the Well was here first. By the very nature of its water, it can be said for certain that its use must have occasioned what no doubt would have seemed miraculous cures in the days when medicine was little understood.…..The shrine was dedicated by the Bishop of Guildford on Sept. 29th 1933.”
James Rattue (2008) hits the nail it on the head:
“This ought to be a clear-cut case of a holy well linked to a church, and, given its location, probably a comparatively late dedication like the Mary Wells we find in the Kentish Weald. But perhaps it’s even later than that. On the 1897 O.S map it appears merely as a tank, not even a well.”
Most holy wells are marked on old O.S maps if not present today, even those which have been missed off are still springs or wells, not tanks. A tank suggests a modern structure, a purely functional one, one established for farming not faith. Of course, not being mentioned on the map does not 100% go against it being a holy well but it does not give further support. Was it just a local mineral spring established in the age of spas? Hollins’s (1933) notes:
“Possessing notable qualities for the cure of diseases of the eyes – this has recently been confirmed by analysis.”
Hollins’s (1933) gives further details on its properties and its analysis:
“The water is very strongly impregnated with chlorine, a fact only recently discovered, when a noted Harley Street eye specialist took the matter up from a scientific point of view, and this is extremely interesting confirmation of the fact that the water has always been held to be marvellous for eye diseases.”
Indeed, the earliest reference to the site by Lewis Andre in his 1897 Dunsfold Church in the Surrey Arch Collections states simply:
“in the vale south of the church, there is a well, which is said to have been resorted to until recently for medicinal purposes.”
Although a mineral spring is very likely after all, Surrey had a large number of these and many were of nationwide fame. Maybe we shall never know.
Yet Hollins’s (1933) notes
“There are other holy wells in England — and in Surrey — but an old book in Cambridge University Library specifically mentions Dunsfold as being one of four in England.”
Have we all missed something? Neither Rattue, Harte or I have ever located this book which mentions specifically Dunsfold. If it could be found the authenticity of the well would not be in question.
A site of modern pilgrimage
Hollins (1933) notes that:
“Even in modern times it has been a place of pilgrimage, especially by Roman Catholics, and there is indication that this has always been the case. Roman Catholics have been heard to say that one day they will get the church back into their fold. Its dedication to St Mary and the presence of the Well are, of course, the reason for this. From London too even in recent times have pilgrimages been made.”
Whether these pilgrimages occur is unclear
Visions of the Virgin Mary
Judges (1901) notes that:
“A statement has been made that Dunsfold Church is a special object of pilgrimage by Roman Catholics. One ought, perhaps, to say in passing that the sole warrant for this assertion is the fact that the church is visited several times every year by parties of Roman priests from the seminary at Wonersh, and that on one occasion, some little time since, a numerous band of visitors came from London, the explanation being their belief that the ‘ Blessed Virgin Mary was always in residence at Dunsfold.”
Always in residence, a curious statement but delve deeper and it appears it refer to as Rattue places it ‘vague oral traditions’ of the Virgin Mary appearing in the vicinity, as referred to in the Guidebook. The Surrey Advertiser of the 14th October 1933 states she appeared to those who sought the spring’s water. England is not renowned for recorded visions of the Virgin, and indeed the only one appears to be the most famous, Walsingham, if we do not include the discredited Our Lady of Surbiton which begun in the 1980s.
Of course, new age pagans may suggest that some visions record a pre-Christian tradition of a pagan water deity. Certainly this is an ancient location with an old 1500-year-old yew which may have been the original focal point explaining the remote location of the church. So the site may have been pagan and this may be true, but the details are very vague when concerning the well. More likely is that this was a local attempt to create their own ‘Walsingham’ at a time when the Catholic church was beginning to re-establish itself more firmly in the region, after all an Anglo-Catholic movement had re-established itself in 1921 under Father Alfred Hope Pattern. The most famous healing spring associated with a vision of the BVM is of course Lourdes and it is tempting to make a connection. Did the local St John’s Seminary want to establish a local Lourdes? Did they need a well for their ablutions and a local story, possibly from ‘modern’ mystics visiting the area or completely concocted to justify giving the well the association with the Virgin?
In conclusion, I think it is easy to agree with Jeremy Harte (2008) in his English Holy who believes that:
“The cult at the well has the flavour of 1930s Anglo-Catholicism, and seems to have been created then.”
Good for them I suppose you could say and similarly ask does it really does not matter that its provenance for it is difficult to find such a delightful sacred spring?
Cambridgeshire is not a county readily associated with holy wells, however my research for volume VIII in my series suggests that there are a number of little known sites. Frustratingly, there a number of attractive and curious streams in the county, especially in the chalk regions, but their names tell nothing – often being called simply – the spring head or numerically named such as Nine springs. One such Springhead has given us a bit more to go on, its alternative names – Robin Hood Dip or bizarrely Giant’s Grave are far more tantalising.
A peacefully evocative site sandwiched between two rather busy roads. A delightful place in spring when its surrounding cherry trees are rich in blossom. Very little is written down about the spring head except that in modern terms it was used as a water source for the village and as a laundry! However it is surrounding landscape and legends which perhaps provide a clue.
Who is the giant?
All that is known is that the giant was buried at the site and that he is thought to be Gogmagog, the name also applied to nearby hills. One of these hills, Wandlebury, is a hill fort to which a considerable amount of confused history, mystery and legend has been attached. What is interesting is that when folklorists collected stories of the giant (or giants as it really is Gog and Magog traditionally) it was noted that they were buried nearby but not where. This is along with a golden chariot at Fleam Dyke.
It is worth recording the legends of this hill fort. They were recorded as early as 1219 by One Gervase of Tilbury:
“Osbert, a bold and powerful baron, visited a noble family in the vicinity of Wandelbury, in the bishopric of Ely. Among other stories related in the social circle of his friends, who, according to custom, amused each other by repeating ancient tales and traditions, he was informed, that if any knight, unattended, entered an adjacent plain by moonlight, and challenged an adversary to appear, he would be immediately encountered by a spirit in the form of a knight. Osbert resolved to make the experiment, and set out, attended by a single squire, whom he ordered to remain without the limits of the plain, which was surrounded by an ancient entrenchment. On repeating the challenge, he was instantly assailed by an adversary, whom he quickly unhorsed, and seized the reins of his steed. During this operation, his ghostly opponent sprung up, and, darting his spear, like a javelin, at Osbert, wounded him in the thigh. Osbert returned in triumph with the horse, which he committed to the care of his servants. The horse was of a sable colour, as well as his whole accoutrements, and apparently of great beauty and vigour. He remained with his keeper till cockcrowing, when, with eyes flashing fire, he reared, spurned the ground, and vanished. On disarming himself, Osbert perceived that he was wounded, and that one of his steel boots was full of blood. Gervase adds, that as long as he lived, the scar of his wound opened afresh on the anniversary of the eve on which he encountered the spirit.”
Of course the Knight and the Giant may be unconnected entities. I shall return to the Knight in a moment, but the giant in more recent times has created more legends. In 1955 archaeologist TC Lethbridge intrigued by reports by various 17th and 18th century antiquarians. The first of these, John Layer (1586–1640) wrote that he thought on the hill was a hill figure on the hill was believed with the work of Cambridge undergraduates being cut with ‘within the trench of Wandlebury Camp’ as does William Cole (1714–82) noting the ‘the figure of a giant carved on the turf at Wandlebury’) and Dr Dale recording it ‘cut on the turf in middle camp’ in the 1720s. Bishop Joseph Hall:
“A Giant called All Paunch, who was of an incredible Height of Body, not like him whose Picture the Schollers of Cambridge goe to see at Hogmagog Hills, but rather like him that ought the two Aple Teeth which were digged out of a well in Cambridge, that were little less than a man’s head. When I was a boy, about 1724, I remember my father or mother as it happened I went with one or other of them to Cambridge……always used to stop and show me and my brother and sisters the figure of the giant carved on the Turf; concerning whom there were then many traditions, now worn away. What became of the two said teeth I never hear.”
Lethbridge using rather unusual archaeological methods apparently revealed this figure, or as it turned out figures and although his work was criticised, traces of his giants remain and his theories have relevance to Cherry Hinton’s spring head. Does the name of the camp remember Wandle, an ancient God or Woden, a deity often associated with water?
Or does as the Cherry Hinton Chronicle of 1854 records in 1854 the discovery of Iron Age burials unearthed locally on Lime Kiln Hill whose the skeletons were unusually tall gave rise to the legend!?
The Footprint stone
Across the road from the spring head at the Robin Hood and Little John Inn is a curious stone. Rather unceremoniously placed by the car park the large round stone looks like a glacial erratic and clearly left there or placed there at some time. But why? A closer inspection reveals it to be hollowed out and the hollow is like a footprint or more like a shoe, around a size 11 as it fits my shoe well!
Carved foot print stones are widespread, often associated with prehistoric burial chambers as far afield as the Calderstone at Liverpool to a burial chamber Petit-Mont Arzon in Brittany, France. The Romans too carved such footprint stones inscribing them with pro itu et reditu, translating as‘for the journey and return’, the tradition would be to place one’s feet before and then after the journey as a good luck. Footprint stone and wells are not infrequently met. There are two in Kent for example, St Mildred’s or St. Augustine’s stone near Sandwich (now lost) and the Devil’s footprint at Newington once associated with a barrow (now lost). So there might be some precedence?
Does the Knight story have relevance here? Does the stone record an ancient ritual of kinship, that knight with his challenge record? There are Celtic and Pictish traditions of kingship or installation stones. These would work in the equivalent way as placing crowns on a King, by placing their feet in the holes would mean they had taken over the tribe and such places survive on the Isle of Man and Scotland (for more information refer to Janet Bord’s Footprints in Stone (2004)
Of course the hollow could have a much simpler explanation. It could have been made as a socket for a cross. However, here we have another interesting possibility, such holed stones called bulluans are associated with holy wells, and although none exist in Cambridgeshire it is tantalising that this could have been one.
Robin Hood in Cambridgeshire?
The alternative name, Robin Hood Dip is one which creates the most curiosity. There is no record of the folk hero in Cambridge, as far as I am aware, and this is well beyond Sherwood Forest! Taking to one side the possibility that it’s a site which achieves its name from story-telling about the folk hero’s exploits, explaining its name appears at first difficult. However, folklorists will have another explanation. Robin Hood is a commonly met name for an elemental, a fairy folk or spirit and what is more interesting he is often associated with springs and water places. See this article for more of an overview. Why is this name associated with springs? I have made various suggestions. Firstly, the associated with a sprite may discourage use – i.e a warning off children and secondly it may record an earlier cult presence. Perhaps the Giant and Robin Hood are the same folk memory of a deity which was celebrated at this spring. The name Thirs interesting is also associated with springs and water holes and this is Saxon word meaning possibly ‘giant’!
The Roman connection may also give support to this idea. It is known that the river Rhee, arising at Ashwell was associated with Roman shrines and a deity called Seunna. Was Granta a Roman deity? Is there an unwritten story which connects Granta and Woden which would explain the grave?
Piecing it all together
So what do all these different facets bring to the site at Cherry Hinton? The legend of Wandlebury is rather lacking of any location for a grave and its fairly obvious perhaps that the name is derived from the large grave shape size of the springhead. But does this remember a folk memory of it being dug? Or does it remember the presence of large bodies in prehistoric graves? The interesting point is that the island is called the grave according to local tradition. Did this mark a barrow?
Nearby on the Fulbourne Road were found three Bronze Age ring-ditches and Neolithic flint artefacts and Early Bronze Age pottery were found in the locality suggesting a long period of history. As well the Iron Age material earlier. It is very likely they settled here for the water supply and it is very likely it was culted.
What of the stone? Is it coincidentally located near the springhead or does it remember practices at the well? Is it a Kingship stone, a receptacle for healing water or a simple cross base?
There appears to be a considerable amount of unknown history to this simple, but picturesque, spring head and whilst we must always be wary of neo-pagan exaggerations, it does seem plausible that this is a long lost sacred spring. Sacred to the Saxons, Sacred to the Romans and perhaps long before this!
Read more of Cambridgeshire water lore in
Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Cambridgeshire.
For the last twelve months I have been cataloguing some of the rich sacred spring heritage of Sardinia. For the final post, perhaps the most fascinating sacred spring site has been saved until last!
For buried beneath a fairly ordinary Sardinian church is a unique marvel – an incredible relic of ancient times and a testament to the continuation of tradition and spirituality. For 1000s of years, generations of Sardinians – whether Nuraghic, Roman, Punic, Islamic or Christian have worship here at the sacred spring.
The site is in a remote place – remote in every sense – geographically, culturally and of course historically.
The village of San Salvatore is a typical example of a temporary religious centre, such as we discussed at Santa Christina. A village of 130 houses which apart from one house the village is completely deserted centred around its church of Jesus the Saviour. So deserted in fact that I feared that the church would only be open at specific times, as my guide book suggested, but I found it was. When the church is certainly open and the village comes alive in the first Saturday of September. It is then that the village swarms with attendees of the naked foot race. This race called the Corsa degli Scalzi or Barefoot Race is said to commemorate an 1506 Arab pirate attack that forced nearby town of Cabras to run to San Salvatore to hide their Saviour’s statue. The local faithful still run this dirt track in their white tunics and stone torn feet.
It is very tempting and indeed it is likely that this ritual arose from some ancient practice at the site. This is especially considering the autumnal date of the custom which would tie in with harvest festivities which certainly were celebrated by ancient civilisations. Essentially considering the name Saviour is the same as Sin Salvatore’s church. Is this some ancient processional ceremony to celebrate the harvest?
The site today
Arriving at the church, it is a fairly typical whitewashed Italian church. Not remarkable but pleasing to the eye, a simple two aisles divided by pillars. The only clue to anything unusual is that it is arranged in an unusual orientation. This is a clue to what lies within as its arrangement was presumably done to enclosure the original sanctuary.
It is this sanctuary that we have come here to see. A rectangular hatch in the floor opens up to reveal a step set of stone steps into a dug out chamber, made of sandstone and brick faced with cement – a hypogeum – not the only one in Sardinia but unique in what we find within.
The steps lead us to three separate chambers set off a central room in essence a cross arrangement. The shapes of the chambers with their dome roofs suggest partly a Roman origin. However, it is thought that the construction of the church may have removed any firm evidence.
The central chamber is dominated by a large square well, now dry. Originally this well’s water was obtainable from the church above by an aperture now closed up. The furthest chamber is the most interesting and looks like the most significant religiously. Here is found a small table altar, a semi-circular drainage hole and circular well shaft. It is this well which is believed to be the original nuraghic site, although the evidence is scant. There is certainly no lack of evidence for its usage. This evidence being on the amazingly preserved drawings or graffitos on the walls around the chamber. The wells were dry in August but that is probably significant I could not confirm it but I would reckon that the spring was flowing in September at the time of the festival.
The site was probably a baptistery, and the dedication of the church to Jesus may well suggest this, but it is also possible that the hypogeum was the shrine of some saint. There is support for this for in Mamertina prison, a healing well was said to have used by Saints Peter and Paul, the water of which came from the catacombs of St Elena. Early baptisteries were incorporated into church and it was only after the risk of persecution was lifted that they became separate buildings.
Father Aleu, in his Successos Generales de laisla de SardeIra” (Avvenimenti generali della isola di Sardegna), sud- isla de SardeIra (Events General of the island of Sardinia) is one of the first to describe in the 1684:
“San Salvador, whose church remains until now, and has an underground until now, and has an underground chapel in the form of sanctuary, and in the area above the ground you can see the ruins of brick and cloisters, which document the existence of a Monastery.”
“Vi era un altro insediamento-scrive Fra Alèu nel 1684-non lonta- This monastery is thought to date from 1070 and suggests an importance to the settlement long since past. However, dig beneath the surface and this history is indeed very ancient. Near the village itself are Roman remains. It is en route to the city of Tharros and along the Sinis lagoon are Neolithic towns. The presence of Neolithic towns along the banks of the lagoon Sinis have left not only obsidian tools and more significantly a Mother Goddess. Clearly a very significant location.
Once in the chamber one is struck by the otherworldly nature. Sardinia has many great relics. Indeed its domus tombs are amongst the most awe inspiring. However, there is something more atmospheric about this site. Part of this is due to the artwork and inscriptions – graffiti – from over the ages on the walls.
These inscriptions span the centuries from 16th century back to Roman. Drawn in charcoal for the most part, although some have traces of colour, probably ochre, they are Arabic, Latin and Greek in origin. Inscriptions some of scripture, some harder to decipher, animals, deities and various scenes, laying upon each other in a confused manner, even modern graffiti. Like many places more recent visitors have made themselves known such as a Fin Salvatore in 1920 which is on the central well. These modern inscriptions sit with older Latin writings from the fourth and fifth century AD although deciphering them is now difficult. It is possible that these and the Greek letters represent some sacred alphabet perhaps a magical incarnation or spell. This may explain the appearance of RF written eight times on the walls. One interpretation maybe that this is someones’s name – Rufus – another that it may derive from a Semitic prayer barb-pe-aleph (ip ‘), meaning ‘heal, save, give health.’ And may have been associated with the use of the well water.
Those who visit churches will be familiar with bosses, poppyheads and misericords showing strange animals often personifying human evils. It is probable that some of these images fulfil the same function. For on the walls are geese, dogs, and large cats. More interesting and again emphasising its classical origin there is a winged horse probably Pegasus and fish. Fish of course represent a secret code for Christians and their presence on the wall must be seen as significant. It emphasises the chambers use as a secret place of worship. Although one might question why did these early Christians not remove the signs of pagans – perhaps like in many other places they were attempting to assimilate not destroy signs of earlier worship.
Another possible link with the well is the presence of ships. Some of these are of local, fassoni reed boars, and possible ancient origin. Others are three mast ships, a feature which does not belong to the ancient world, but is rather typical of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. So why are they here?
It is probable that the ships were part of some long held ritual here. Boat images are quite regularly found in the nuraghic settlements as votive offerings and it is tempting to think that these drawings are part of a continuation of this. Particularly as one shows a human figure with their arms raised to the sky presumably as prayer. Were these drawings part of a long lost tradition of going votives to a sea deity perhaps linked to the waters of the well, which may have due to the proximity of the lagoons be saline? What is also interesting is that tradition may have connections to the Greek graffiti here – the Island of Delos – where God was born and ships shipwrecked. The fact that this tradition survived possibly from prehistoric times is remarkable.
Greek iconography is very evident in the shrine. Two particular deities are present – Hercules strangling the Nemean lion. This image is particularly interesting considering the role the cult of Hercules had in the late period of the Roman empire when he vied for religious dominance against Christianity, Mithrasm and other cults. However again, Hercules was adopted by the early Christians as a metaphor. His many labours recognised as a divine struggle akin to that central to the story of Jesus and indeed he was often called Soter – the Savior. The dedication of the current church may possibly be a link to another association preserved from ancient times.
The most remarkable graffiti is that of two female figures standalone, with corona radiata on their head: identifying them as a deity. Over their heads of the figures they are painted their names: VENVS and MVRS – Venus and Mars. Above them is a winged cupid with AMOR. As a result the interpretation of this scene is the love affair of Venus and Mars. One which was particularly significant in the political and religious life of Rome: The city founders, Romulus and Remus, were said to be the children of Mars and descendent from Aeneas, a descendent of Venus. What is interesting again is the context Venus was another cult, popular at the times of emergent Christianity, and its survival here like Hercules is perhaps an attempt to adopt it perhaps as Mary.
However, there is something more significant in line with the spring arising here. The appearance of the Venus is akin to that of a water spirit and indeed, Venus was a Goddess associated with water – being associated with the waves and the morning dew.
Move forward the centuries to the Arabic inscription in the third room, which reads translated as:
“In the name of God the merciful and gracious. There is no God except Allah …. and that Muhammad. It testifies that heaven actually exists and Hell really exists.”
This may date from 1509 a time when the Sardinian coast was subject to many Arab incursions and a landing occurred not far away at Cabras. The presence of the inscription may be due to the site being used as refuge or maybe a prison!
There is so much to observe in these four small chambers remote from the outside world. However what is clear that they remain a rare relic from an ancient time and a fascinating testament to how the faiths through the millennia had one central theme – the sanctity of water.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
More on Norfolk’s holy wells in the forthcoming Holy Wells and healing springs of Norfolk coming in 2017.
The Roman occupation of the island has left a few remains although not as many as the mainland Italy. The most remarkable of these is the spa of Caddas, called Aquae Ypsitanae, a name coined by Roman writer Tolomeo. It is an incredible survival nestling on the banks of the river Tirso. Established in the reign of Trajan the site consists of a forum, an amphitheatre (a few metres off site) and the spa. Being located at the most significant thermal region on the island, and even on a hot August day steam can be seen building up over its waters.
For those familiar with the site of Bath in England, the site is particularly interesting as it gives an idea of what that site would have looked like before its most recent improvement. The oldest section of the complex dates from the first century A.D. and it was occupied until third Century.
The central focus on the ruins is the 12 by 6 by nearly two metre deep natatio, or bath. This is filled by the thermal spring which arises to the south of the site. These waters were mixed in another bath with cold waters entering from higher above. In such a way waters could be controlled. Other baths exist to the north and a cloaca or channel through which the water drains into the river. Over the natatio was probably a barrel roof, the arches of which remain. These arches enter the most interesting relic a nympheum, which was probably a small chapel. Here Esculapio, God of healing and nymphs were invocated for their guidance and power.
These parts formed the original nucleus of the spa complex of which, a frigidarium, tepidarium and celidarium complex was used utilising cold springs.
The source of the waters
It was thought that an aquaduct provided water from Mount Grighini but it is noted that as water on site is still so abundant it would have arisen here. For above the Roman ruins are the large tanks holding the spring water. These have been carved into the rock and are despite their algae covered waters still flowing from here and through the complex. The hot spring arose separately in such a small distance from the cold springs a quite amazing fact for these early engineers to note. This hot spring is also a sulphur spring which has lead to healing properties.
Healing and cleaning waters
These waters of Aquae Ypsitanae were famed as the S’abba de su figau’ – the waters of the livers. However they are also said to be able to cure and relieve skin complaints such as dermatitis and psoriasis, bone ailments and respiratory problems. The hot waters also have had a more functional use. The large oval pools located outside the enclosed ruins were used, and may indeed still be, used for washing clothes. Touching the water it is exceptionally hot being 56OC
The Bagnio and beyond
Whist it is not beyond realisation that one could still utilise the spa site today. The town of Fordongianus is still a functioning Spa town beyond the site. A few metres from the Roman site until recently visitors could experience the hot waters in a Bagnio Termali. This nestles closer to the village and below the level of the road. Despite its fairly modern appearance the site dates from 18th century. The site derivs its waters from another spring which fortunately are slightly colder being 44OC Sadly it appears that the site is now closed it but spa bathing still survives with an enormous investment being made into a more considerable spa complex. As the small linear building is only big enough for a normal sized bath, the new establishments located more centrally in the town. These farm more modern hotel facilities still provide the same, if slightly more modernised, wellness treatments provided by the Romans – little changes. So not only can we marvel here the cleverness of the use of both cold and hot springs which the Roman engineers manipulated excellently to provide a tepid and more tolerable water, we can see its use remains today.
Many of Sardinia’s great sacred wells are found in romantic lost landscapes, dry arid fields or high in mountainous regions. However, one of the island’s most significant and evocative is found a few feet away from a busy main road, tucked behind an industrial estate and often overshadowed by the multiply planes which fly in and out of Olbia airport from across Europe. This well enclosed in a quiet oasis is that of Sa Testa, well sign posted from Olbia.
Discovery and artefacts
The site’s discovery was in the 1930s by shepherds seeking out water supplies. It was subsequently excavated by Franceso Soldati in 1938 and subsequently restored in 1969 by Ercole Contu. The work revealed bronze objects, such as dagger hilt, bracelet, ring as well as fragments of cup. These pieces placed the date of the site in line with the other sacred springs of the island, around Bronze Age end, 1200-900 BC.
However what is perhaps more amazing is that this was a site of continued ritual use. A fashioned juniper wood figurine was the most interesting. This was believed to present the archaic Greek God of Xoanon, a sort of phallic like large headed and little or in this case no armed deity, which dates from the 7th to the 6th centuries BC. Also found were thymiateria, Greek incense burners. Both finds clearly indicate that the site was of ritual use by a group unconnected ethnologically to the Nuragic people who built it. These was probably deposited by Phoenicians whose black painted bowls and pitchers were also found. However, the finding of jar and cup fragments from the Tuscan pottery production of Arezzo, emphasizing the influence of the Romans and their continued use if not for cult reasons than for domestic use.
The ritual use by the constructors is suggested by the curious circular courtyard arrangement, 8 by 7 metres approximately around the well. This appears have been constructed so that some ceremonial activity could be undertaken with the circle with the ‘priests’ or secular members watching from around the edge from a bench. One view is that this site like that of Santa Christina was aligned astronomically with the moon’s minimum and maximum declination during its 18.6 year cycle.
Although not the largest of the wells, it is nevertheless substantially made. Built with cut granite and shale blocks it covers a length of around 18 metres and consists of a circular courtyard,, trapezoidal entrance, staircase and a tholos roof to the spring head. A second tholos has been lost but steps still ascend to it.
Seventeen steps make their way to the clear deep water and to descend into them divorces you immediately from the hot air outside. The channel down through which these steps descend is made of shale and is narrow. What is also interesting in a paved over channel which goes from above the source and round into the source. Such an arrangement is usually stated to be collect run off but with a strong source even today in August why collect rain or condensation water? Was there another source above or was something else poured into the channel to collect in the well? Perhaps we shall never know what happened in this enclosure but despite the industrial and urbanisation around one can just feel the separation from modern times in the cool confines of its chamber.
When the foundations of the Grand Pump room were made in 1790, some strange pieces of a unique carving were discovered. Thought to represent a Gorgon’s head, it is said to have been sculptured by Gaulish artists around the first century AD and believed to hang over the entrance to the temple.
What is this image of?
One intretation is that the head, with its beard and thick moustache is surrounded by snakes . The Gorgon of course was killed by Perseus with the aid of Athene and significantly Minerva, part of the goddess complex of Sulis Minerva, is her Roman equivalent. This seems quite appropriate especially as the carving also appears to show wings which is commonly shown in Medusa images.
But wait a minute Medusa is female it is clearly a man!! I have another interpretation. I believe that this is a water god and the flowing serpents are not that but flowing water. I cannot clearly see any snake mouths. Certainly the face looks very Celtic, expectedly if it was carved in Gaul! So who is it? Well clearly it must be the original Celtic God of Sulis before its attachment to its female side – Minerva. Whatever, the real origin, we shall perhaps never know, but clearly the power of this image, reproduced in the shop many times is still evocative.
“If I throw thys ryche swerde in the water, thereof shall never com good, but harme and losse.’ And then sir Bedwere hyd Excalyber undir a tre… But King Arthur repremands him and sends him back.
So Bedevere went to the watirs syde. And there he bounde the gyrdyll aboute the hyltis, and threw the swerde as farre into the watir as he myght. And there cam an arme and an honde above the watir, and toke hit and cleyght hit, and shoke hit thryse and braundysshed, and than vanysshed with the swerde into the watir.”
So retells one of the most famed scenes recorded in Arthurian romance: the Lady in the Lake taking the mighty Excalibur back. A scene which may remember folk memory of Celtic and possibly pre-Celtic traditions of depositing sword votive offerings such as those held in the British Museum. A number of sites have revealed sword and other weapon deposits as far apart as Flag Fen (Cambridgeshire) to Carlingwark (Scotland). In some places there are considerable amounts. An intriguing window into the Celtic world and the ritual significance of water has been revealed for example at Llyn Cerrig Bach. Here 150 objects dating from second century B.C to the first century A.D have been extracted. Many of these objects show damage before their deposition, i.e rendering them useless although some were quite servicable, a common theme it appears.
One particular location which too has been clearly significant is the river Thames. This received a wide range of weaponry and other military equipment over at least a millennium, such as early Iron Age spearhead daggers still in their sheaths, at Chelsea, Wandsworth, Barn Elms and even a bronze helmet with bulls horns found era near Waterloo Bridge.
A bronze shield found in 1985 in a gravel pit near the River Thames at Chertsey with a pair of double-headed snakes beside the handle suggesting a higher level of working then would usual.
However, most famed of these votive river offerings is the Battersea Shield, a rare relic from the Iron Age. It is delightfully decorated being highlighted by 27 framed studs of red enamel associated with three roundels, with a high domed boss in the middle of the central one with a large stud in its centre. A reprousse technique having been used with engraving and stippling being used. Its rich decoration with polished bronze and red glass as well as the thinness of its iron suggests that it could never have been used for defence and clearly was purely ceremonial or made for depositing as a sacrifice for appease some deity. The Battersea shield is remarkable in being made of metal as many shields found in burial sites are wood and had very few metal parts. It is probable that the Battersea shield was only the front part of the shield and there is evidence of rivets on it.
But why leave something like this? Did it prepare the giver for the afterlife? Was there a god or goddess for war associated with water? Perhaps we shall never really know. Certainly, there is evidence in the currency of giving something very valuable to appease a deity. What is interesting is despite consideration that this an Iron Age custom, there is evidence that such depositions continued into the fourteenth century and as such gives greater evidence for folklorists suggesting that customs and ceremonies can survive from prehistoric times perhaps!
The Swallowhead spring is a bit of an enigma. Is it a holy well? Folklore (1915) notes:
“A sacred spring – It was formerly the custom to make merry with cakes, figs and sugar mixed with water from the Swallowhead, the sacred spring of the district, and the principal source of the river Kennet.”
And that is it really! No saint is claimed. No healing claim. Although it telling perhaps that the words sacred spring is used. The custom of drinking the water with sugar etc is a widespread one and interestingly often the wells are not Christianised, which may or may not be significant. The drinking of the Swallowhead water did have a Christianised element it was associated with a Palm Sunday festivities on Silbury Hill of which the author notes:
“Silbury Hill is to this day thronged every Palm Sunday afternoon by hundreds from Avebury, Kennet, Overton, and the adjoining villages.”
Stukeley in his Abury work states:
“It seems no difficult matter to point out the time of year when this great prince died, who is here interr’d, viz. about the beginning of our present April. I gather it from this circumstance. The country people ahve an anniversary meeting on the top of Silbury-hill on every palm-Sunday, when they make merry with cakes, figs, sugar, and water fetch’d from the Swallow-head, or spring of the Kennet. This spring was much more remarkable than at present, gushing out of the earth, in a continued stream. They say it was spoil’d by digging for a fox who earth’d above, in some cranny thereabouts; this disturb’d the sacred nymphs, in a poetical way of speaking.”
Of course you could argue that being the purest source in the area it would the only place to get your water and that Silbury being the highest point would be ideal for celebrating. However, that could be seen as over cynical! Stukeley adds:
“… I took notice that apium grows plentifully about the spring-head of the Kennet. Pliny writes defunctorum epulis dicatum apium. To this day the country people have a particular regard for the herbs growing there, and a high opinion of their virtue.”
Interesting is the springs association with the river Kennet, probably a sacred, and certainly significant transport river of prehistoric peoples of the valley. However this view that this is the source is in itself erroneous and appears to have spread by Stukeley (1740) who writes:
“There are two heads of the river Kennet: one from a little north-west of Abury, at Monkton, runs southward to Silbury Hill: this affords little water, except in wet seasons. At Silbury Hill it joins the Swallow Head, or true fountain of the Kennet, which the country people call by the old name Cunnit, and it is not a little famous among them. This is a plentiful spring.”
Despite this reference the spring is not the source of this noted river which actually rises at Broad Hinton some four miles north west. The stream which forms from the Swallowhead is the Winterbourne which joins the Kennet, although the infant Kennet does join this stream.
What’s in a name? Swale, Swill or Sulis?
The name of Winterbourne is of course again significant. Streams which are seasonal or intermittent, commonly found in chalk areas, were often seen as uncanny and collect associated folklore. Although no such folklore concerning this behaviour is recorded here, it seems likely that part of the ‘cult’, if that is what we can call it, would have been connected with this. Similarly, swallow is a common term of rivers found in areas of intermittent streams, often on the chalk, often to explain how a stream disappears into the ground, erupting elsewhere.
The name ‘Swallow Head’ appears to have the same source as Swill also in Wiltshire and the Swale in Kent and Yorkshire, and derives from old German swal, meaning ‘swell’ or ‘whirlpool’. However, there may be an alternative origin which appears to have been not recorded. Does it is derive from Sulis? Therefore a sacred spring to the Romano-Britis, the God combined with Minerva at Bath and so the site retain a pre-Roman god, but one acceptable to them. The Romans were active in the area and in the last five years a Roman town has been excavated only a few yards from this site.
A modern sacred spring?
Fast forward several hundred years and the Swallowhead has indeed become a sacred spring for a whole new community. Visiting the site today, as Leary and Field (2011) in their book The Story of Silbury Hill note:
“One only need wander down to the Swallowhead spring, just south of Silbury, to see how Dames influential book has become tradition. The rags hanging from the willow tree, to say nothing of the other votive offerings around the springhead – crystals, candles, wind chimes to mention but a few – announce that you are entering contemporary sacred ground.”
“The willow has now cracked forming an arch, creating a sort of portal one has to go through, which helps give the impression that you are entering a different realm.”
Jordan in the Haunted Landscape (2001) notes:
In 1998 there were various bits of rag tied to the tree, but also a child’s glove and a postcard with a child’s drawing of fairies and butterflies fastened to the truck with drawing pins
Micheal Dames work on Silbury Hill and the Averbury Circle () perhaps is the source of this devotion. Dames recognises the spring with the Great Goddess.
“When the land was regarded as the body of the Goddess, and fertility as always depended on water it would follow naturally that the twin headwater streams would be equated to a twin lobbed uterus.”
This appears to have lead to a widespread view amongst neo-Pagans that the springs were dedicated the Celtic Goddess Brid or Bridget who accordingly was associated with the return of the flow of water. Certainly, what with the Winterbourne’s intermittent flow this would be convenient; there is not a thread of evidence! But does that matter? Clearly the springs in this valley, Pot, Walden and Silbury Springs, were considered significant to our ancient forefathers for whatever reason and today they have that function for our neo-Pagans, in a rare site, a spiritual one which has never been Christianised but remained significant it is remains a potent site. A Holy well for a modern generation perhaps.