“All ye who hither come to drink/Rest not your thoughts below/Look at that sacred sign and think/Whence living waters flow”.
Ashwell’s Wishing’ Well is one of those frustrating sites. It is clearly a structure of some importance, being one of the best built up in the midlands, but how significant is it?
The sacred Ash
Peter Binnall (1935) in his Folklore of Wells notes that ash tree are very often associated with holy wells. The Ash was considered a sacred tree in Scaninavian countries and Britain. It was identified as Yggdrasil, the legendary tree associated with the god Odin. It is significant to note that at its roots was a spring where the Norns: Fate, Being and Necessity lived. They used the spring to water the tree each day and used clay from it to keep the tree white to preserve its life.
However that does not mean that a well named after an ash is a culted spring. However, as Val Shepherd notes in her 1994 Historic wells around Bradford Holy Well Ash as well as Syke Well, Priestly which still has ash trees over it, as have Peggy Well, Riddlesden and White Well Harden. Hertfordshire has a significant seven springs in the town of Ashwells which is associated with a Roman shrine. The ash above St Betram’s Well, Ilam Staffordshire was protected by a ‘curse’ which suggested that any person who harmed it would themselves be harmed. Indeed my research has suggested there is an Ashwell in every county but I have not been bold enough to suggest there would be any significance in these names…yet!
Is this the well of the village?
Over the time the name of the village has changed from Exwell in the 11th century; then Assewell, Ayswell, Aiswell (13th century; and then Aswelle, Ashewell, Assewell 14th century and possibly the spring in which the village is named after, although some authorities note is derived from O.E wiella for stream although that does not preclude the spring being the source of course.
Furthermore, finding any associated tradition or history is impossible. The name wishing well is a modern term it appears unsupported by historical evidence. There is some local belief that it may have been a holy well, and a cross was once erected over the structure as there is today.
The well today
When I first visited the well in the 1990s it looked a little forlorn, the cross said to be affixed to the apex of the building had gone and apparently fallen into private hands (I subsequently discovered its current whereabouts and it is safe!) It is better of today.
The spring arises in a substantial stone well house. This is made of squared rubble with a dressed stone coping. It is like a small grotto-like covered niche with an opening to the front with convex curved walls each side. Above the arched doorway an inscription reads. The spring fills a small pool at base of niche within in the rockface showing this is a spring not a well. The cross has been restored as well.
In conclusion it would suggest that the spring’s development was an attempt by a Victorian clergymen to both gentrify the site and as thus built a proper well house with its legend. Was there a High Church tradition in the village in the 1800s not that I have so far discovered?
Our Lady’s Well which in on the north side of Burley Road, Oakham, about a quarter of a mile east of the Odd House Inn. Rev Thomas Cox’s New Survey of Great Britain (1720-31) states:
“In ancient Times, before the Reformation, there was a Custom among the devout People of this Nation, and especially of these Parts, to go on Pilgrimage in Honour of the blessed Virgin Mary, to a Spring in this Parish, about a Quarter of a Mile from the Town, which is still known by the Name of our Lady’s Well, near which we may perceive in several Places the Foundations of an House or two remaining; but that which will confirm our Belief of such an Usage, is a Record found in the First fruits Office, containing, among other Things these Words, That very many Profits and Advantages belonging and appertaining to the Vicarage of Okeham did consist in divers Obventions and Pilgrimages to the Image of the Virgin Mary at the Well, and St. Michael the Archangel, and diverse other Rites and Oblations, which now are quite abolished, with the Benefits and Advantages which accrued there-from to the Vicar.”
As suggested above in the mid-1200-1300s, indulgences could be obtained by visiting it and the church during its patronal festival. By 1565/6, Jones (2007) states compensation was confirmed for the loss of:
“various offerings and pilgrimages [including] the late image of Blessed Mary at the spring.”
The site is recorded as Ladies Well in 1632, the Lady’s Well, 1691 and then Lady Well in 1801, becoming Our Lady’s Well in the 1885 OS map. The spring’s water was said to be good for sore eyes, only as Palmer (1985) notes:
“It was still renowned for healing powers in the Victorian era, and its water was applied to the eyes for soreness, provided that a pin had first been thrown into the well”
The site was even visited according to Matthews (1978) by Princess (later Queen) Alexander in 1881 when she stayed at Normanton Park. Now a boggy hole surrounded by modern housing in a nature reserve managed by Leicestershire and Rutland Wildlife Trust.
Cox (1994) notes the field name Helwelle in 1498. The site may be another name for the above site. The first part of the name suggesting it derived from hæl meaning ‘omen’ or hælu meaning ‘health.
Alternatively, it may be another name for Chriswell, a lost site on the opposite side of Burley Road to Our Lady’s Well. Its name may derive from Christ. Whatever its origins, it was said to have been used by a Belgian refugee in the First World War to cure his sick cow. It appears to have been a holy well as apparently the church collected money from the well.
Lost in the undergrowth
Sadly Oakham’s Lady Well is a far cry from its former self. Enclosed in dense and impenetrable undergrowth; brambles, nettles and briars, meaning that the source cannot be reached without considerable effort and pain. However, through the help of a local who was able to give an easier route to the well, I managed to reach it in a private garden. However unfortunately although the spring still flows the source is a boggy morass. Considering its fame one would imagine that the well head may retain some form of infrastructure, but nothing remains, bar some iron staining. Enclosed in a 1990s housing estate and largely forgotten, unfortunately there is little to excite even the most ardent holy well researcher!