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.
During my research into Holy wells and healing springs of Lincolnshire book (available now), I made contact with the Brigg Local history society, who in turn put me in contact with the owner of perhaps one of the counties more unusual sacred springs.
St Helen’s well (TA 013 077), it can be suggested is the most significant of the county’s springs with evidence of its usage going back to Bronze age periods. However, the first recorded account of it is in 1697 being noted in the diary of Abraham de la Pryme (published in 1870). He notes:
“having passed through Brigg on our way towards Melton, we went by a great spring, famous in days of old, called St Helen’s Well.”
It is unknown what the spring consisted of when Pryme visited, or why it was famous is unclear. It probably filled a large pool, rather than be associated with any structure, or possibly as the topography suggests a great fountain head, as suggested by it being considered a great spring. The next note of the site is probably that of Helingwell noted 1724 may derive its name from a vulgarisation of Helen or else O.E halig meaning holy. Interestingly, White (1856) refers to the site as St Anyan’s spring, and Peacock (1895) later spoke to:
“an old man brought up in its vicinity …. says that its true name is St Anyon’s Well”.
Although, he suggests that both authors have confused this site with St Trunnian’s Well at Barton-upon-Humber or St Aniel’s Well at Burton upon Stather. However, being a substantial spring, it would be identified in the 1850s as being a suitable source for a public water supply for the growing town of Brigg. Therefore in 1852, a Robert Cary and Cary Charles Elwes built a pumping house. This is what remains of St Helen’s well today: a plain rectangular building without windows built of yellow gault brick with a Welsh slate roof and York stone gable copings. The structure sits upon a large earthen mound.
However this is not all what it seems for with the door opened to the pumping house a deep chamber is revealed. Upon descending by means of a ladder, this deep chamber opens up to something far more impressive a large rectangular chamber with an oval roof burrowed deep within the hillside. The floor is inches deep in water and with the light of a torch only I followed this flow to its source: the springhead.
The spring arises via a pipe, set about four feet in the back wall, through which a considerable flow of clear water emerges. A large circular shallow basin, looking like a quern obviously from the nearby mill but possibly a precursor to the present structure, is found beneath the outflow. It may have been set up to be filled by the spring water but even with the present considerable volume and force it currently does not fill it. It may be setup to be filled by an outflow higher above the source. The present spring water now hits a slate stone tablet beneath it and forms a stream in the middle of the tiled floor, slanted to allow this. The spring filled the whole chamber at one point I was informed when the chamber was not opened up to allow it to now flow to a stream below.
Mr Day, the present owner gave an unlikely story that it was named by Emperor Constantine on his journey up to York. What is clear that the site lies within the area Jones (1986) describes as his core zone (containing 25% of Helen site) although it is missing from his gazetteer. Archaeological remains and finds suggest it was an important site. Mr Day informed me of the presence of a Roman settlement in the field adjoining the spring and showed me a number of coins of Constantine so perhaps this is an early site to be Christianised. Recently was found a more significant Bronze Age find, which is currently treasure trove, and so I cannot comment. However it was an object of some value to its owner and had been bent. He was told by a local expert that it had been damaged to prevent it being reused, but it is more obvious that it was so treated as a offering. If so it is a significant find and emphasises Thompson’s belief that the spring was cultic.
This site has clearly much yet to reveal and perhaps will become one of the most important of such sites in the county.
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A visit to the enormous Sutton Park will reward any curious well researcher. The magnificent park, once a royal hunting park, and then after Henry VIII gave it to Bishop Vesey, it is now a park, which is now municipally owned and admission is free. It contains half a dozen man-made pools and three named wells The most obvious of the ‘holy’ wells is that marked at the south-west end of Bracebridge Pool called St Mary’s Well. Burgess and Hill (1893) notes that it was:
“… very popular with visitors to the Park, is that of St Mary, commonly called the Druids”.
Ribton-Turner (1893)’s Shakespeare’s land being a description of central and southern Warwickshire.notes that
“Sutton Coldfield and Park have several wells other than that of Rowton, which are deserving of notice ; of these Another well, very popular with the visitors to the Park, is that of St. Mary, commonly called the Druids’. This is at the south-west end of Bracebridge Pool (the Queen pool of the Park). How it tame to be called the Druids’ Well is not known, it is scarcely necessary to say that it can have no Druidical connection ; it is very probable, however, that it was dedicated to Saint Mary long before the dam of Bracebridge Pool was made by Ralph Bracebridge in the reign of Henry V.”
This is association with the Druids may owe something to Hutton’s History of Birmingham (1783), who suggested that there was a Druid site near Sutton Coldfield on a Druid sanctuary near Sutton Coldfield and it was said to be the seat of the Archdruid, Sadly the well has seen better days. I was informed when looking for the site by a man surveying the area that it no longer existed and that he himself had never found it. He informed me that the distinctive well house was taken away due to damage caused by vandals and stored somewhere by the local council. However, dogged searching in the underground where the site was marked on the appropriate OS did reveal something. Ducking under some Rhodendrons, I found what would certainly be the well, its spring found filling a rectangular stone lined pool which was still full of clear water emptying into a channel just beyond. Despite what I was told, the well house shown in Bord (2008) appears to be lying beside looking rather forlorn and the other side a more modern structure takes the water. Hopefully one day it can be fully restored.
Rowton Well is a medicinal pool about ten feet in diameter, with a neat low circular curb of large stones, now enclosed by a new post and rails fence. Ribston-Turner (1893) notes that:
“Rowton Well lies near the Roman Ikenild Street, and has therefore a claim to very early fame. Rohedon was the name of a family in the neighbourhood, temp. Edward I., and there was also a Rohedon Hill and a Rohedon Green at Erdington. This name, probably the origin of Rowton, may be of early derivation, and there is a tumulus near the well which favours that view, yet a dedication to the Holy Rood in Saxon days may possibly be the original source of the name.”
The Keeper’s Well is the copious source of supply to the pool of that name. This pool is nearly surrounded by woods of great natural beauty, and is supposed to have derived its name some four centuries ago from John Holt, who was park keeper or ranger under the Earl of Warwick in the reign of Edward IV., and probably constructed the dam. A final interesting well, not perhaps in the park but was called Robin Hood’s Well in the parish, but I have been unable to discover more information. It may have been another name from one of the other wells.
A visit to Conisbrough, noted for its Norman castle should include a visitor to its holy wells. That is holy wells, as the town can claim two sites! Although according to the Conisborough website there appears to be a denial of this.
That which is called the Holywell or rather Holywell spring is found at the edge of Holywell road and the A630 Sheffield Road. It is a spring which appears to arise further up the hill in an area now covered in scrub and inaccessible. However, a very copious spring erupts at the base of the hill and as such has been the subject of various complaints. Despite this it remains and fills a large semi-circular pool surrounded by low walling. The spring was noted for its healthy waters and was used for brewing beer by Nicholsons Bros Brewery and one assumes some of the stone work dates from this. Little else is recorded of the site
Nearer the castle, and although dry it is more substantial is another site variously called the Town well or Well of St Francis. This is as Innocent (1914) describes it as:
“Covered by a curious little building very medieval-looking with ita chamfered plinth and steeply slanted roof”
Who the St Francis is, is unclear but Alport ( 1898) records the local tradition which states that he was a local holy man and probably not a true saint and it is interesting that a number of churches are dedicated to a St. Francis in Yorkshire. Interestingly, though the date of creation of the well is recorded and quite late compared to other local saints perhaps. It is said that in 1320 -1321 the village was suffering from a particularly terrible drought and this St. Francis, said to be an old and wise man was sought for his advice. He suggested that the local people cut a willow tree from Willow Vale and then as the people sang psalms and hymns he lead them through the church and priory grounds to the site of the well. At the spot St Francis then struck is and not only did a spring arise and followed for the next 582 years (for its sadly dry now) but the tree took root.
Sadly this tree has either died or was dug up but the well continued under the name of the Town well up until the early 1900s when mains water arrived. It is possible that the legend suggests the holy man may have been, in fact, Clark (1986) believes the story recalls a Pagan priest and that the legend was a legacy of Conisbrough’s pre-Christian past; certainly the reference to a willow indicates a water diviner.
The other area in Conisbrough where St Francis the older man is said to have done a similar ritual and found water is at a place called The Holy Well Spring of St Francis. In 2003 this holy well was restored by historian Bernard Pearson with the aid of Community service and a special service was held at St Peter’s church attended by the High Sheriff of South Yorkshire who than processed to the site, erroneously as it happens in a re-enactment that was associated with the town well. Indeed a plaque at the site makes this error clear.
Allport, C.H., (1898) History of Conisborough
Clark, S., (1986) The Holy well of Conisborough Source Old Series 5.
Innocent, C.F (1914-18) Conisborough and its castle Trans of Hunter Archeaology Society.
on the re-dedication of the well.
The outside of the spa building. The left from the car-park, the right showing the two storeys
Back in September I re-visited the delightfully surprising Birley Spa. This is a rare spa building survival which was once in Derbyshire, but now firmly in the suburban edges of Sheffield.
An old origin?
Our first record is when it was established as seven baths by Earl Manners. However, it may have an ancient origin, the spring is located along Neolithic trade routes and indeed implements have been found in the vicinity. Some authorities have noted that there was a Roman bath here supported by the proximity to the Rykneid way. There is however no direct archaeological evidence to support this theory and it may have been spread around by the proprietors to support the quality of the water. A work by T. L. Platts (1976) contains much of the information and it is from this work I have taken most of the notes. The earliest establishment of the spa is thought to be in the early 1700s being built by a Quaker named Sutcliffe. The spa then consisted of a square stone building with a cold bath within with a bolt fixed on the inner side to ensure privacy. This structure appeared to exist until 1793 when the bath was ruined and filled with stones.
A spa reborn
In 1843, the Earl Manvers who owned the Manor developed this spa for a larger and more upmarket clientele. A Leeds chemist West analysed the waters stating that they were beneficial for those suffering from constipation. An administrative committee was appointed and even a Bath Charity was started so that poor people could benefit and take the waters.
A spa in decline
Unfortunately the baths did not make profit and by 1895 only one plunge bath remained; the Hotel apparently ceased to function as such about 1878. It is believed that Earl Manvers removed the marble from the warm bath for his own use. The site then went into a slow decline. In the 1920s and 30s a children’s pleasure ground was established but the grounds were closed in 1939, due to the prohibition of assemblies of crowds, introduced as a safety factor in case of air raids. The buildings and grounds were allowed to decay and become very dilapidated. Since the building of the Hackenthorpe Housing Estate in the 1950s Sheffield Corporation have become owners of the property.
The museum room (old warming room) and the coal room
A re-born again!
Fortunately unlike other sites, the bath house still exists, probably as a consequence of the first floor being used as community centre. The cold bath was derelict and rubbish strewn, but a splendid restoration has been undertaken. The bath house can be found in a small wooded dell in the housing estate. Despite predations by vandals on the house, the interior reveals an impressive oval stone lined cold bath with steps into the water either side. To the other side are a small collection of artefacts and the history of the site. There is also the store room where coal was stored for the warm bath which no longer exists.
Birley Spa is now open for special events and the first Saturday in the summer months; however it is best to check that the site is open as it is open by volunteers. It can be viewed from the outside when closed and can be reached off the A1635 take Occupation Lane then Birley Spa Lane on the left and once passing a school on the left there is a lane going into the woods on the left by a side, down here is the Spa. There is some parking.
Revised from Holy wells and healing springs of Derbyshire.
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The following is taken from Holy wells and healing springs of Essex (This blog includes reference sites not included in the original text and will be described in a further volume of the works as an appendix)
In regards to healing springs, Essex has been better served, in regards the study of mineral waters and particularly notable surveys are Allen (1699/1710), and more recently Christy and Thresh (1910). Both have touched upon holy wells but this was certainly not in an exhaustive manner. Cowell (2000) updates much of this work but again only touches upon holy wells. This work attempts to catalogue and update these previous works, with the aim of providing the definitive accurate guide to both mineral spas, holy wells and water bodies with associated folklore in the county.
In approximate terms there are probably many thousands of holy wells across the country. Although there appear to be areas or counties with high concentrations, this is probably because the others have as yet been adequately studied. Only three works have attempted to give a countrywide survey of sites (Hope (1893), Bords (1985), Rattue (1995) and Bord (2008)). (and subsequently Harte (2008)) Perhaps an accurate survey of all sites would result in an average distribution across the country; topographical features allowing, which would show that all counties have a similar distribution.
Despite some attention for specific sites and counties, the holy well has been largely ignored by the historical and archaeological establishment, leaving the field open to antiquarians and enthusiasts. Consequently, much mythology has developed around them, and very few have been professionally excavated, particularly in East Anglia. Hence, a general lack in archaeological interest in such sites, claims for ancient origins is difficult to make.
I have adopted Francis Jones’s (1954) category system for wells. The main body of the text covers Class A (saint’s names, those named after God, Trinity, Easter etc), B (associated with chapels and churches), C ( those with healing traditions which in this case includes spas and mineral springs) and some E (miscellaneous with folklore) sites The second part includes a list of named ancient wells with explanatory notes (mostly Class D i.e. those named after secular persons but possibly also holy wells and E). Hopefully once the volumes are completed and using similar documents for other counties this fuller picture will be achieved.
There does not appear to be any holy wells which can claim this pre-Christian heritage via written record, although there are wells called Roman spring (Earl’s Colne), Chesterwell (castle well) (Great Horkesley) and Dengewell (Danishwell) (Great Oakley) and possibly Herwell (Army well) (Little Bardfield) and totwell (from O.E toot for meeting place or look out) (Birchanger), which suggest great age but there is no evidence of these being healing or holy. There is a Puck well (Waltham Holy Cross) recorded suggesting a site associated with O.E pwca for goblin. Records of ghosts, often used by folklorists to indicate either pagan or Christian traditions are scant in the county, with St. Oysth’s well (St Oysths) and Charlotte’s Well (Birchanger) being the only examples.
Certainly, compared to other counties per square mile, Essex is low on numbers of holy wells. Why is this? It seems likely that there may be many more sites but poorly recorded. Others may be recorded in names which do not suggest holy or healing immediately. There are for example many sites called hog well in the county, whose name may derive from halig Old English (O.E) for healing. However, other sites said to be holy wells, such as the number of Chadwells (9) in the county, reveal themselves to be more likely to be derived from Caldwell irrespective of local folklore. Most common are Lady well (9), followed by Holy wells (4), Cedd (2) (brother of Chad),and two named after God, although this could be derived from a personal name. All the other sites have one dedication(in some case one off dedications suggesting local cults (or loss of knowledge)): St. Edmund, St Thomas, St Anne, St Germain, and local saints St. Oysth and St. Botolph.
Taking only holy wells (and I have been generous to include some sites likely to be) Essex has a density of 0.3 wells per square mile. Taking into consideration all noted, healing and holy wells, this density becomes 0.6 of a well per square mile. This suggests that holy wells and healing springs are in low numbers across the county.
The reason for the low numbers of holy wells may be explained by the larger amount of mineral springs noted in the county. Across the country many of the old holy wells were re-discovered as mineral springs and established as spas. As noted Essex is fortunate for its mineral spring history is well recorded. However, in no examples given by either Allen or Trinder is it noted that the site had previously been a holy well. Certainly, it is hinted at with such sites as Brentwood, Havering Well, Woodford and Felstead, (all with some pre-Reformation past) but nothing is explicitly stated. This may indicate the strength of anti-Catholic feeling in the authors or the Essex people. Was the impact of Protestantism and non-conformism that great? This would explain the paucity of holy wells for such a large county, particularly to the eastern side. By comparison there are a large number of mineral springs. Perhaps we can consider these all as past holy wells?……….
To learn more about the healing and holy water history of the county read Holy Wells and healing springs of Essex