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Gumfreston Wells by Gina Silverman Source New Series No 3 Spring 1995

Background information

The 12th century church of St Lawrence, Gumfreston (Pembrokeshire/Dyfed) lies off the road to Tenby to Sageston. In its churchyard three springs rise to form a stream that flows out through a ‘bridge’ in the churchyard wall. Although well-known and historically recorded in the past, Gumfreston Wells had become a local ‘secret’ that was in danger of being forgotten as the generations moved on.

It was in 1992 that my husband Trevor and I walked down the quiet lane to find the ancient church nestling in the woods and fields around it. It seemed an odd place to build a church, halfway down a hill, with no nearby houses. We knew nothing then, of course, about the history of Gumfreston. Walking through the churchyard gate was like walking into another time, into an almost awesome sense of peace, and for us, welcome. I really surprised myself by thinking ‘This is a place of healing’.

Sometimes people or places reach out to us, and so our journey with Gumfreston began. We had come from London to live in West Wales after Trevor had been made redundant a year before. Sp we had to,e tp bosoy the church and explore the churchyards. We found the wells, very overgrown with plant life, the stream choked with leaves and debris. Then for the first time we met someone once connected with the church, the then warden, Ken Handicott, who with a tiny but devoted congregation was struggling to keep the church going. It was Ken who first told us about the healing qualities of the wells, upon which he felt he had drawn personally. Sixteen years before, he had suffered a stroke and been partially paralysed on one side. With immense determination and often daily visits to the well, into which he dipped his paralysed arm, he regained his mobility, and went on to serve as a lay-reader and warden to Gumfreston. By this time the workload was heavy for him, and although we live in Manorbier over 5 miles away, we knew this was to be our church, and that we had the time and energy to give to this place we loved too.

That summer we were wading happily through the stream clearing the surplus greenery and nettles, discovering the beautiful stone structures of two of the wells in which the springs were rising, and the water trickled from another well was buried under natural debris. We began researching the history of the Gumfreston wells and discovered that they were listed in Holy Wells of Wales by Francis Jones (Cardiff 1954 p211) as pilgrimage healing wells. What had begun as  a play’ was becoming more serious now. Trevor became warden (mainly because nobody else wanted the job!) and we began looking up references to Gumfreston in every local library, and talking to local people, especially the elderly. Tenby Museum had old prints that showed Gumfreston had been a quay on the River Ritec which had carried boats from Tenby to St Florence before the river estuary became silted up and the railway embankment was built. 

In our small congregation we found a real sense of fellowship and purpose to maintain Gumfreston church and wells as a place of worship and a continuing ‘sanctuary’ for modern-day ‘pilgrims’/ Over the last couple of years we have become aware of the large numbers of visitors passing through Gumfreston many who return year after year, and are using the well water. We believe there have always been pilgrims coming here, and have begun to work for them. The church lost its keys years ago and is always open, so we invite people to come in and enjoy the peace of Gumfreston. We leave books in which visitors can write their thoughts and if they wish their prayers, which we join with our prayers on Sunday. There is usually a colourful display of the history of the Gumfreston Wells. The weather had been so damp recently, that I am currently making a new one which gives us a chance to add new information. We have no resident priests but are with the Rectorial Parish of Tenbyand fortunately receive encouragement and understanding from our Rector. I would like to mention here the unsung heroine of Gumfreston, Mrs Sheila Askew, whose devotion to the church and wells, hard work, and loving patience with us and the visitors has kept us going.

The History of Gumfreston Wells

The present history is based on a mixture of known and recorded facts, on-going surmise and research by fellow-enthusiasts at St Nicholas’ Church,Pennally, Brother Gildas on Caldey Island.and the interest and advice of David Austin, Head of Archaeology at Lampeter University College. He is in charge of the dig at Carew and as we are in his ‘catchment’ area within the new few years, he has offered to try and uncover the third well.

The three springs rising in such close proximity could have had a strong mystical significance for the early Celts who considered the number three to be connected with divinity. Springs and bodies of water were favourite places for worship, being associated with divine and healing powers. 

At the time of the peregrini (‘pilgrims’), the travelling ‘saints’ of Celtic Christianity, a holy man or woman probably used the wells, maybe settling there. They may have been buried there and a small chapel built. The well water could have been consecrated and used in baptism. Gumfreston was then on the river estuary that faced Caldey Island, a spiritual centre and monastery, and on ancient routes that led from the ridgeway and St Florence by water and land. The whole of West Wales was  a lively centre of Celtic Christianity, St Teilo being our local saint, born at Pennally and Gumfreston. 

There is evidence of relic-keeping in our church and an ambulatory for ‘private processions’ which is most unusual in such a small church. Possibilities are coming to light of monastic settlement between the churches of Gumfreston, Pennally and Manorbier. Certainly in the Celtic Church organisation these churches would have been under the control of a ‘mother’ church, a much larger Christian centre.

When the Normans invaded Wales in the 11th century they changed both social and church structures but the holy sites and practices remained if firmly established. Our present church of St Lawrence would have replaced earlier buildings, and the original saint’s name,but the atmosphere of the holy sanctuary and peace remained for the pilgrims wo are recorded as still coming to the wells for healing of mind and body.

The Holy Wells of Wales (p.90) records visits to Gumfreston Wells on Easter Day to drop bent pins into the water. This was called ‘throwing Lent away’ The last record of this was in the 17th century before the rector of Gumfreston was removed by the Puritan authorities.

In the ‘Age of reason’ the well waters were scientifically analysed, first by Dr Davis, a physician to William IV, who found their medicinal qualities, rich in iron to be ‘as good as the wells of Tunbridge’ Visitors to Tenby Spa would ‘take the waters’ at Gumfreston or pay local children to walk out collect bottled water from the wells. In the same century Dr Golding Bird, Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Professor of Therapeutics to Guy’s Hospital’ also reported on the waters (see below)

We intend to have the water analysed ourselves before we recommend it for drinking, although there are locals who drink them regularly . We are told that they make a good companion to whisky! Obviously there seem to be medicinal qualities in the water for our bodies, and there is a local tradition of using, one of the wells for eye ailments; but the account of the well dressing that follows is more concerned with the healing of our ‘souls’ and releasing our intuitive ‘creativity’ 

Well-dressing at Gumfreston

Why we did it

Gumfreston had been used in recent years as a setting for a floral display during the week of the Tenby Arts Festival. This year (1994), the team that did the display were busy elsewhere. I didn’t want to lose our participation in the Arts festival and was glad of the chance it gave us to be something for ourselves. I offered to do a small historical display on Wels holy wells and a iide yur of Gumfreston church and wells. Well dressing came into my mind as an artistic way of combining flowers and history that certainly attracted the festival committee – who weren’t sure what it was but it sounded different.!

All good practical reasons: but of course in hindsight I realise there was a much deeper person going on in my choice of well-dressing. For a while I had privately included the wells in all our Christian festivals by slipping quietly down to the watedz. Taking small tokens such as flowers, saying brief prayers and blessings, and ‘telling’ the wells what was being celebrated in the church. I wast sure why I was doing this but it felt ‘right’. At this point maybe I should explain that I am a Third Order Francisican and as such can get away with being somewhat ‘odd!’ but nevertheless my mind was needing to understand what was going on with all this intuitive activity. In researching what joly and healing wells had meant to generations before me. And would I hope to generations after me. I found the answers I needed for myself and which I could share with others.

How we did it

In my research, I had read of three instances of well-dressing in Wales (Jones pp 89, 91-2), so I knew it had been done; using garlands of mountain ash in one case (Priest’s well, Narbesh, Glamorgan), and in others at New Year, box (at Llanisen, Glamorgan), and mistletoe (at Diserth, Radnor).

Theoretically, I knew quite a bit about the more formalised art at Derbyshire well-dressing and toyed with the idea of using a similar technique on a small scale.

It was a quiet walk that it all began to take shape in my mind. This was Wales, not Derbyshire. I had been thinking of formal teaching, of constructing to a pre-planned end. Now I realised jay was mot to be the way at all. My whole approach became simpler. Researching for my historical display had made me realise that each well in Wales had its own history, its own associations with people and the uses it had been put to, so surely a well-dressing should reflect that.

I also realised that each well would have it own environment, of structure, flora, etc., and that flora available would vary with the reason of the well dressing. It seemed important to use what was growing around us, and to search for any plants of special significance. 

This approach to well-dressing was becoming personal to the people involved, their personalities responding to the ‘personality’  of the wells. It was also going to involve getting in touch with the ‘natural’ around us.

This approach to well-dressing was becoming personal to the people involved, their personalities  responding to the ‘personality’ of the wells. It was also going to involve getting in touch with the ‘natural’ around us.

So the Gumfreston workshops on well-dressing became a hands-on experience for those involved. The best place to ‘dress’ seemed to be the stone surrounds of the wells. In preparation I gathered large bunches of wild grass and barley, holly, laurel and other plants from the churchyard. There was an abundance of rosehips and blackberry sprays up the lane. Wild hydrangea and ferns and red sprays of berries, ivy and wild fuchsia. It’s amazing the variety of plant-life around us!

The day before the first workshop I made my own well-dressing so that I could get the feel of it. E could choose whether to work directly onto the wells, or use a container to place on them. I sat the total peace of Gumfreston in the autumn sun and would ferns around the edges of a wire frame I’d put together. A cross of wildflowers formed the centre of  ‘dressing’ to account for me the holiness and healing qualities of the wells. Other plants filled the gaps. It’s said that ‘love covers a multiple of sins’: plants certainly cover a multiple of mistakes!

We had small groups, mainly local people, for the actual ;dressing’. Some had expected just to watch the ‘experts’. I had so little to offer them really, just the actual materials and the invitation to ‘respond’ to the wells and use their own creativity. And each person seemed to enjoy it so much! We were so fortunate with the weather that week, the wells were at their most charming. All the ‘dressings’ were different, but by the time we finished there was a sense of personal satisfaction and the relaxation that working intuitively rings. Gumfreston’s Harvest festival was on the following Sunday, so the wells were dressed for that.

We will be well-dressing again at Gumfreston (by popular request) on 15 April 1995, Easter Saturday. Anyone who would like to join in with us will be very welcome. We should be there all afternoon, from midday onwards, as we will have a lot to do in the church as well. In addition, the church and churchyard are always open and visitors are warmly welcomed. Easter Sunday morning service is at 10 am. 

I feel that well-dressing is here to stay at Gumfreston. We still have a lot to learn and will always be happy to hear from anyone who has ideas and information to share.  

Dr Golding Bird’s Report

“In consequence of the shallowness of the basin, this water is apt to vary in composition after heavy rains, from its undergoing dilution; this however applies nearly exclusively to the solid ingredients as the evolution of carbonic acid gas from the subjacent strata is so considerable that the water is, under all circumstances, saturated with the gas, so as to sparkle vividly in a glass, and undergo violent ebullution when laced on the air-pump and very slightly exhausted. 

The water is remarkable for its singular purity, the quantity of the saline ingredients being exceedingly small. An imperial gallon contains but five grains of lime, part of which exists as carbonate, and is held in solution by an excess of carbonic acid. The exceeding minute quantity of sulphuric acid is remarkable, less being present than in the purist river water. The quantity of oxide of iron is about 2.4 grains of iron. 

The Gumfreston water is, however, one of the purest hitherto noticed, and owes its medical properties to the iron, and the larges quantity of the carbonic acid it contains. This extreme freedom from saline ingredients, the presence of which constitutes the hardiness of water would render this water of great value to those patients who cannot bear the ordinary chalybeate water. 

The Gumfreston water resembles that of Malvern in its purity, and of Tunbridge Wells in the quantity of iron it contains, exceeding all other chalybeate waters in Great Britain in the large quantity of Carbonic acid held in solution.

In cases of chlorosis, and other forms of deficiency of red blood in the system, this water would be invaluable.”

(Quoted in Samuel C. Hall and Anna M. Hall, The Book of South Wales, the Wye, and the Coast, first pub. London 1861 republished EP Pub Ltd 1977. Gumfreston is described pp 442-7, illustration of the well p446)

How old is St George’s Well at Minsteracres?

As St Georg’s Day approaches I thought it would be interesting to cast one’s attention to wells dedicated to the saint. Jeremy Harte in his 2008 English Holy Wells Sourcebook refers to six wells dedicated to St George: Wilton, Cullompton, Hethe, Holsworthy, Kirkwhelpington and Stamford. He does not include Padstow’s St George’s Well because he does not include Cornwall in his survey. Interestingly though he misses a St George’s Well at Minsteracres which means despite a sparse distribution across the country, two exist in Northumberland. 

It thus begs two questions. Why does England’s patron saint have so few wells dedicated to them? And how authentic then are the St George’s wells which are known? 

One of the most interesting is that at Minsteracres at Barley Hill Northumberland. The Historic record notes simply:  Park with gate lodges, water features, a well and a chapel. The well itself lies in a shrubbery enclosed in a small piece of low stone walling on one side rubble built behind and dressed at the front. The spring arises in a circular chamber near the walling in a pavement area which is lower and enclosed. There is often water in the well but no perceivable flow. The brickwork looks Victorian and the site is marked on the first series OS map but significantly perhaps not in italics suggesting no great age. 

St George's Well, Minsteracres

© Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The estate is mediaeval but it is likely to be two origins to the well. Firstly it could link back to the family who owned the estate in the 1800s, the Silvertop family. They were devout Catholics, who made considerable fortune from coal mining but were persecuted for their faith. George Silvertop is likely to be the first one responsible. He travelled widely and brought back a number of trees and plants from his journeys to beautify the estate. Did he improve a spring and dedicate it?  The second likely person is his nephew Henry Charles Englefield, who inherited the estate and adopted the family name and significantly  built the mansion’s  private chapel which became St Elizabeth’s Catholic parish church in 1854. Did he need a spring for baptism water and liturgical processes – if so why George and not Elizabeth?

The final group of people were those who took over the estate after the second world war: Friar Colum Devine of the Passionist Order, who transformed Minsteracres into a monastery and retreat centre which opened in 1967. However, despite a Catholic order being the most obvious choice for dedication their taking over of the estate is too late as it had already appeared on the OS map by that point. My person guess is the Henry Charles Englefield but I am sure that a deeper examination of the records may reveal something and perhaps explain why this saint was adopted. And was it an earlier holy well forgot and restored or just a simple spring?

So why are St George’s Wells so scarce? One would have thought being England’s patron saint would have been popular enough to have a large number of dedications but that it a way underlines how wells are named and why. Did the cult of St George arrive too late to see a wide spread adoption of his name? Indeed of the 6 wells mentioned by Harte on Wilton’s has any authenticity being recorded as mediaeval. But of course this did stop the wider adoption of St Anne in the 14th century. Of course that in itself may suggest why certain saints had better ‘healing traditions’ and saintly importance in the pantheon of saints. Equally often wells adopted saints names due to an association of the saint with water and healing. St George does not obviously appear to have either.

St Cuby’s Well Duloe Cornwall

If I was to be asked ‘take me’ to a classic holy well, one which had that romantic and mysterious feel and remained in the 21st century still a place of solitude and contemplation, one site I would suggest is St Cuby’s Well at Duloe. Throw in the fact nearby is the presence of an ancient church and a unique quartz stone circle and the site certainly has its attractions to the antiquarian.

Duloe, Cornwall - Wikiwand

In Ancient and Holy Wells of Cornwall by Mabel Quiller-Couch (1894) tells us:

“In the parish of Duloe, on the road which leads from Sandplace to Duloe Church, at one time stood the consecrated well of St. Cuby… The well of St. Cuby was a spring of water on the left hand side of the above road, which flowed into a circular basin of granite, carved and ornamented round the edge with the figures of dolphins, and on the lower part with the figure of a griffin; it is in shape somewhat like a font, with a drain for the carrying off of the water.”

The well is first mentioned in land documents appearing as La Welle with the valley Kippiscomebe according to Lane-Davies being Cuby’s combe being originally Cub’s combe.

Why was St. Cuby?

St. Cybi (Cuby) founded a monastic settlement within ‘Caer Gybi,’ being born 480 AD at Callington near Plymouth. His father was a Cornish Chieftain and great grandson of Cystennin Gorneu, King Arthur’s grandfather. He was a well connected saint, his mother Gwen, was sister of Non, St. David’s mother. He decided not to follow in his family footsteps and being a chieftain and so became a Christian monk travelling to Gaul establishing religious centres with his disciples. He returned to Cornwall settled at Tregony living in a cell next to a well. Quiller-Couch (1894) notes:

“This saint, who has been called also Keby by some of his biographers, was the son of Solomon, a Christian king or chieftain of Cornwall. According to the Rev. S. Baring-Gould, Solomon was a son of Geraint, and his wife was a sister of St. Non. St.Cuby at an early age gave himself up to learning and religion ; he renounced all claim to his father’s kingdom, to which he undoubtedly had the right, in favour of his brother’s family, and settled at Tregony for a short time, after which he visited Ireland, and finally went to Anglesea, where he died.”

Traditions of the well

According to Helen Fox in her Cornish Saints and holy wells the well’s water cured TB, Scurvy and rheumatism although I am unsure where this piece of folklore is derived from. The most well-known piece is quoted by Quiller-Couch wo states that:

“The well at one time was very much respected, and treated with reverence by the neighbouring people, who believed that some dire misfortune would befall the person who should attempt to remove it. Tradition says that a ruthless fellow once went with a team of oxen for the purpose of removing the basin ; on reaching the spot one of the oxen fell down dead, which so alarmed the man that he desisted from the attempt.”

In Mrs Peel’s Our Cornish Home, it is said that the basin was broken when it was rolled down Kippiscombe by drinken workmen and it came to rest beside a cottage of an old lady who heard the Piskeys laughing over it all night.

Quiller-couch notes that:

“In spite of this tradition, however, the basin has been moved, probably when the new road was cut, and was taken to the bottom of the woods ‘on the Trenant estate ; it is now placed in Trenant Park.”

This story of the well is told in more details in In the Old Cornwall Journal of April 1928 the story is told that so strong was the superstition attached to the basin that when the squire (Wm Peel d 1871) wished to move it into Trenant Park for preservation about 1863 he had to pledge himself firmly to provide the pensions for the families of any who fell dead before the carters would took the stone. Of this font one now must travel to the church being returned in 1959 when it returned to the parish. It is a remarkable relic with a snake, griffin and dolphin on the bowl’s rim. It certainly looks pre-medieval.

Recently as it spreads across Cornwall (and beyond) the well have become a rag well or as it might be called locally clootie well.

The well today

The well is made of granite ashlar with a gabled end and roof constructed of large blocks of granite with a rounded head arched entrance with an ancient Celtic cross above the door. There are two cells the outer one has a stone seat but its a cramped location to wait. The inner well house is built into the bank and has a round-headed arch to the inner well house room which has corbelled walls and a flat stone roof. The well is  thought to be 15th century but its present state owes to be restored by a former Rector The Rev. Dr, Barrington Ward around 1822 when the nearby road was built and remains a delightfully well preserved granite well chapel. Despite being close to a road it is a peaceful spot shrouded by bushes and resembles a grotto where within you can be devoid of the world outside as it is dark; very little light penetrates through! The water now seeps from the side and flows into the floor of the second chamber. It is clear and flowing although it had a dead mole in it! Despite this it is a remarkable place.

 

The wells of East Coker by Abigail Shepherd (Source New series No 3 Spring 1995)

The parish of Easter Coker, near Yeovil, in Somerset, is fortunate to have a wealth of springs and sources. In the 1920s two springs, at Burton in the north of the parish (5332 1384) and in Coker Court Park to the south (5335 1233), met the needs of the majority of homes. There are stories that during the first world war village men patrolled these springs to guard against German spies poisoning the water. A few homes, notably at Foxholes and on Lodge Hill, are still supplied by spring water.

Sadly, some of these springs and streams have been piped underground. At the hamlet of Nash the spring is called Peter’s Hole (5387 1375; can anyone help explain this name?) The stream runs from the source through the now vanished hamlet of Sheepslake and into North Coker Park, a 19th century creation, where the water emerges as an overgrown pond behind iron railings then dips back underground where it used to meet a hydraulic ram that lifted the water up into tanks in the roof of North Coker House.

Going back in time, the Roman villa site at East Coker is situated close to a spring (5472 1393) that rises to the north of Dunnock’s Lane and trickles down to the cottages at Patchlake. A footpath flows this little stream along its course to Paviotts Mill in Coker Moor. Across the moor near Davole Farm (on Private land: 5524 1211) is what appears to be a little dew pond, but may be a spring called the Beauty spring (B.A Hackwell The story of our village 1953 p6.) rising there, close to the road from Sutton Bingham, an ealden herepath or ‘old army road’ according to a 9th century charter.

In the village of East Coker itself the spring in Coker Court Park (see above) runs down from an overgrown reservoir where villagers could once collect water from a pump, and through the broken remains of a stone-edged pond that might once have supplied the oce for an ice house in a field at the other end of the track across the park. The stream then meanders round to west wells where, in the front garden of one of these cottages, there is a medieval stone washing place which can be seen from the road. The stream then runs along the roadside past the Helyar Arms pub, before doubling back and making its way across the moor.

In Coker Moor itself is ne of the most impressive wells in the parish, known as Blackwells (5497 1302), where the rusty-coloured water of this chalybeate spring bubbles to the surface to fill a small stone surrounded pond or drinking place for cattle, built by a local farmer. Blackwells water is said to be good for eyes. It can be approached from the telephone kiosk in North Coker where you go down a rough track called Moor Lane, past the sewage works until you reach a gate to a large field called Moor Field. Walk around the edge of the field in either direction and you will come to Blackwells in the far corner. The farmer allows access to this field and it is a popular place for villagers to walk.

In the far south-western corner of the parish of East Coker is the hamlet of Lyatts where a beautiful spring constantly flows out of a hedge bank (5233 1184) past a few withies and an impromptu pond, before tumbling out and under the road through Lyatts, running downhill towards Hardington in the next parish. Whilst not prepossessing to look at with its yellow plastic pipe, the boundary of the parish of East Coker cuts across to this little spring which must have been important feature in the landscape. The place-name Lyatts is believed to be all that remains of the Saxon hundred of ‘Liet/Licget’ meaning ‘lych-gate’. The spring is easily reached as it lies along a footpath, only a stone’s throw from the gate at Lyatts.

Two springs at Primrose Hill on the western edge of the parish (5292 1280) feed a little stream that runs down to Halves Lane. It is on this hillside, up above Primrose Hill Farm, that the holywell field names occur on a 1819 map of the parish. In amongst these are Bridles mead and Bridles orchard – in 1770 the former is listed as ‘Bridewells mead’. I have heard that earlier in this century there was even a spring rising in the road here. A footpath takes you across the fields, close to these sources, and follows the stream for part of the way downhill to Halves Lane. If the name Bridewells is original (and not, say, the name of the farmer who owned the field), it is interesting to note that in the Middle Ages, Bride or Bridget was a popular saint in Somerset, with a cult centring on Glastonbury; and thus he wells may have been dedicated to her. Or it might be a dim memory of the pagan goddess Briga.

At the foot of Primrose Hill, and a good place to finish this description, is the Holy well itself, which can be found in the hamlet of Holywell, on the boundary between East and West Coker (5295 1325) Here the spring rises to the north side of the Foresters Arms pub, next to the footpath leading across to Burton. Dom Ethelbert Horne visited the well while preparing his book on the holy wells of Somerset, and described it in the following words:

“The well itself is a plentiful spring, the water coming through a pipe and falling between some great stones. These are squared and dressed stones, some of them being large steps, and they may have been part of a building in former times. No tradition, that I could find, existed in the neighbourhood as to why this place is called Holywell, nor were the waters considered ‘good for eyes’. Indeed, when I asked an old lady on the spot, who had come to dip up some of the water if it was good for anything on particular she replied ‘Yes for making tea!’ She added that across the moor was a spring the water for which was ‘good for the eyes’. The directions for finding this well were so vague that I did not make the search.”

(Ethelbert Horne Somerset holy wells, London 1923, p35)

The other well mentioned to Dom Ethelbert by the old lady was the one known as Blackwells. The wells of East Coker are modest ones – both in their scale and their seclusion – but deserve the rediscovery of a visitor’s or a pilgrims’ eye

originally published in Source New Series 3 Spring 1995

 

A Glimpse of Holy Wells in Belgian Villages – Karl Petit (Source New Series 3 Spring 1995)

Most of the Belgian wells (about 300) spring in the countryside; and mainly in the French-speaking region. However towns are not unprovided by them.

So, in order to get a general idea let us be allowed to focus only on some of the them i.e on some of those to which healing power is attributed by tradition. They very often gave birth to cults or rites and generated enthusiastic pilgrimages surviving for centuries, consequently illustrating the depth of popular credulity in the past as at the present time.

If these fontaines merveilleuses are, in most cases, hidden away at the end of paths twisting through fields and woods, they are of easy reach in villages and towns. Occasionally, they may be fed by a hand pump. Sometimes, a chapel enhances the importance of the spot. These are determined by the zone of emergence of the miraculous source, according to the legend or life of the saint to whom it is closely related. Some names occur in the hagiography, whereas other names, taking into account dialectal pronunciations, became quite modified. Shall we dare say that some are simply apocryphal?

As a rule in Belgian villages, wells are situated alongside roads but can easily escape notice. Let us cite a few examples.

A Scots (Irish) Monk, named Monon (ob. circa 636) built a hut in solitude and sielence near the remote fons Nasiana or Nasonoa (now called Nassogne). Later on, Pepin the Short. Charlemagne’s father, who is aid to have caused a source to gush force there, in thankfulness for the kindness of God through Monon’s intercession came back to the lonely placed to richly endow the pious monk’s sanctuary. Nowadays, only an engraved slab modesty commemorates this fruit of a rather queer superstition of two medieval legends. Hence the pretty name of ‘Source de la Pepinette’

Another example is Saint Fredegan’s Well, hidden under the foundation of a house at Mousteir-sur-Sambre. It was supposed to cure children of tuberculosis or to improve their locomotion. They had to drink water from the spring. Some could be washed, dipped or even dressed with wet clothes. This out-of-the way tradition begun ‘a longe tyme ago’.

The most talked-of holy well in Belgium is undoubtedly found in the village of Banneux, near Verviers ie not far from the German border. This is an international centre of pilgrimage, devoted to the virgin after she appeared there in 1933. Thousands of hopeful pilgrims and tired day-trippers come mainly on summer sunny days to visit the chapel and gaze for a while at the neighbouring source topped by Mary’s statue. The water is renowned as miraculous.

At Bouval, horses are blessed, watered and well-groomed every August 24 at St Bartholomew’s Well. At this occasion, a procession takes place in the open country.

Saint Roch is believed to have cured himself of the plague after washing at the source at the village of Harnoncourt, so the legend tells. Ever since, the neighbourhood as always been preserved from epidemics. Once raised to the ground, the saint’s statue which formerly adorned the old washing-place, had been replaced. It has been set above the renovated fountain (1976). The odd thing about the well is that various personifications of the water (such as sprite monsters, undines, water people and cintry-people) are also present in a decorative manner. Pilgrims yearly come on August 15 to drink the water and to pray.

A cube shaped fountain, bearing the name of Saint Lawrence, whose cult is widespread, has been built below the church of Patagne-la-Grande. Its fresh water, people say, is a sovereign for burns, the saint having perished on a gridiron. There as at some other places, wells associate the Christian cult with the realities of peasant life.

Every year, also on August 15, a curious tradition is maintained at Saint Lawrence a village in the Namur district, with a procession and pageant in the saint’s honour. This gives the villages the opportunity for villagers dressed as soldiers to soak their points of their swords of the butts of their rifles into Saint Lawrence’s well water.

In the same province, it is said that a certain Lupicin, having three times driven his stick into the ground at Lustin, sprouted out three sources which fed Saint Lupicin’s Well. On Whit-Monday, pilgrims invoke him for headaches.

Since the eighteenth century, lots of pilgrims – hoping for the best – go to Marcourt (Province of Luxembourg) where Saint Theobald’s well, hidden in a wood, is supposed to be miraculous. After drinking the water, washing and in some cases filling bottles, devout folks stick crosses (made from two small branches of wood) into the ground as votive offerings. Should young girls walk three times in silence round the chapel, they will become engaged within the year.

At Vielsam in the same province, Saint Gengoux, killed by his wife’s sweetheart in the year 760 is paradoxically evoked for a couple’s union. This source is conceived by naïve lovers as the right spot for pilgrimage, not only against rheumatism and eye disorders, but also to plight one’s troth. That sounds silly, doesnt it? A useful wariness should be observed, for everyone knows how dodgy this may sometimes be!

Some of the many lavoirs (public washing places) situated in the southern and eastern parts of Belgium have been connected, too. in the course of time, to a particular cult. For instance, at Laneffe, horses are yearly invited to drink the water which is thought go have a beneficial effect on animals. . Whereas, at Villers-devant-Orval, those who suffer sorrows or finger infections evoke Saint Gengoux’s aid at his washing-place.

Other holy wells can also be seen in more or less extraordinary spots, even near the sad walls of a cemetery (Villers-la-Bonne-Eaux). Several, seated along side houses in picturesque surroundings, often date from Celtic times and are concealed far from indiscrete at Couture-Saint-Germain, on a hidden hillside in the open country and next to a chapel. Slow-growing children are taken there by distressed parents asking for relief with a glimmering of hope in their eyes. The pilgrimage is traditionally linked with various dipping of chemisettes and sick lambs. Three times linens must be dropped into the water, and the chapel passed round many times; and it is piointless to controvert established opinion.

Woods too, especially in the southern part of the Walloon region, including several holy wells. Charming legends are common, but many are no better known then the old story of King Alfred and the cakes is by today’s British computerised undergraduates. Some are not very easy to discover whilst others are found on the outskirts of villages or close by.

The goal of an annual pilgrimage since 1855 (for skin diseases), the small Saint Meen’s Fountain, near Couvin can be encountered at the verge of the wood. It is the only Belgian sanctuary consecrated to this Irish preacher much noted in Brittany (6th cent.)

We cannot forget, of course, to mention the other old fountain of Bellefontaine (Ardennes) designed for the purpose of commemorating Saint Furcy, another Irish priest (7th cent). They say he stayed there after having made a well spring out from his rod. In the past pious pilgrimage were very popular there, but in our hectic days, the dried up source is forlorn and does not attract anybody.

Others too, suffering loneliness and loss of interest, ceased to be hospitable and are no more alas! what used to be sic transit gloria mundo as we all know.

First published in Source Holy Wells Journal New Series No 3 Spring 1995

England’s first holy well? St. Augustine’s Well, Ebbsfleet

Many claim to be the oldest holy well but by virtue of its association with the first Christian ministry of the Saxons, St. Augustine’s Well Ebbsfleet is perhaps according to tradition the obvious claimant for the oldest ‘English’ holy well.

However early records are rare and its first reference appears to be on the 1874 OS map and its earliest written account is George Dowker in 1897 article for Archaeologia Cantiana On the landing place of St, Augustine records:

“Formerly Ebbsfleet was supposed to be situated where the farm-house of that name stands, and is so placed in the Ordnance Maps of Thanet; of late the spot has been shifted to near ” The Sportsman,” and by a spring of water called St. Augustine’s “Well, chiefly on the representation of the late Mr. W. R. Bubb, who resided at Minster; he walked with me to the spot where the present memorial cross is erected, and explained his reasons for concluding that the landing must have been there, and not at or near the Ebbsfleet Farm, as usually represented. These reasons were chiefly the presence of a large oak tree that was said to have formerly grown there, and the proximity of the place to Cotting-ton-field, which he thought a corruption of Godman-field.”

Interestingly it almost suggested that it was Bubb who coined the well and it would appear to be a possible invention by revived Catholics. This is supported by Rev Boggis (1907) in A history of St. Augustine’s College Canterbury,, as a Catholic revival:

“The next station is made at St. Augustine’s Well — just to quaff a draft from the spring which he is fabled to have brought bubbling up through the briny sands.”

The account also adds a piece of folklore similar to the tradition that like Becket at Otford he perhaps prayed for water, which is related by Goscelin of Saint-Bertin who states the saint was able to provide water for his thirsty followers by striking the ground with his pastoral staff but this could equally be another site. Iggleseden (1901-1946) Saunters in Kent. He describes:

“..a stagnant pool, the remains of a well, which had the reputation of miraculous healing powers, while the water was also used for baptismal purposes.” 

However, Howarth (1938) who notes: 

“near which is a well (known locally as St. Augustine’s well). This will continue to delude people into the notion that there is a real foundation for the view.” 

Yet, Certainly by Stanley (1956) in The London Season pilgrimage was formalised:

“Near to the fifth green is a little spring of clear water which is known as St. Augustine’s Well, which legend holds appeared miraculously to slake the Saint’s thirst. Every year this site is the scene of the pilgrimage headed by the Warden of St. Augustine’s College, Canterbury, who, in his role of Bishop Knight, kneels by the spring to drink the water.”

Why wonder what connection that has with what James Rattue (2003) in his Holy wells of Kent records:

“Apparently local nuns used to clear it out, but this has ceased to happen for almost twenty years.”

I was also informed by some members that this site was where a drunken vicar drowned, but have not substantiated this story.

St Augustine or St Mildred’s Well?

Howarth (1938) does not support the fact that Ebbsfleet was the location where on Whitsun A.D. 597, Augustine baptised heathen Saxons, amongst them, possibly King Ethelbert in the area. However, local lore recognised first a tree and now an ornate carved cross dating from the 1800s which depicts the story however there is a possible another association. James Rattue (pers com) suggests that the well may have originally been dedicated to St. Mildred, daughter of Queen Ermenburga, who was given land at Thanet, by the converted King Egelbert, as an apology for killing her brothers. Here, she founded a monastery, and became the Abbess of Thanet Minster; latter becoming their patron saint.

The view that the well was dedicated to her is based upon local tradition that a stone, located within proximity of the well, bore the footprint of the saint, made miraculously as she set foot on the land at Ebbsfleet, from France. One tradition associated with St. Mildred’s stone is that it could never be removed. Whenever it was it returned to the same position! This is a common folklore belief only spoiled here by the fact that St. Mildred’s stone has not been seen since the 1800s! 

The site today

When James Rattue visited he described it as:. 

“a pit, now usually dry, but which represents St Augustine’s Well.”

Now on the 17th fairway of St. Augustine’s Golf Course St. Augustine’s Well is a large circular steep sided pool, from which a sluggish stream arises, flowing to the sea. I found it full of water but not very pleasant more recent photos have shown cleaner water. 

 

 

The Divine Juggler of Doulting by Caroline Sherwood Source Issue 2 (Winter 1994)

The plants and trees on the surrounding banks seem to lean towards St Aldhelm’s Well in perpetual veneration. The effect is of being at the heart of a leafy hermit’s cell. The magic of the place is hidden from irreverent eyes by a wall through which the water trickles in a trough in the lane. In May the wooded slopes are lush with pungent wild garlic and all year round the steady sound of running water offers a refreshing reward even for the most world-weary modern pilgrim.

The village of Doulting (Somerset) lies about two miles east of Shepton Mallet on the A361. The name means ‘dark water’ and until the eighteenth century the river Sheppey was known as Doulting water. The village is famous for its stone which was used in the building of Wells Cathedral and Glastonbury Abbey. In previous years Doulting St Agnes fountain (another holy well) was reputed to cure the ‘quarter-all’ (cattle paralysis) but not if the cattle was stolen.

St Aldhelm, after whom the well is named, was a Benedictine monk who died in Doulting in 709. He is immortalised  in the present church in stained class and in a statue; standing beside his spring, which he often visited to pray and to baptise the faithful. It was customary until recently to use the wall water for all christening; these days this only happens at the special request of the parents.St Aldhelm was the first Englishmen to encourage classical study; writing lengthy prose in a flowery and extravagant Latin style. He moved in high circles and was a relative of Ina, the heathen King of the Saxons, as well as being Abbot of Malmsebury and later Bishop of Sherborne. 

He also appears to have had an eccentric side to his character. Gloria and Favid Bowles are residents of Doulting and have made an extensive study of the saint and his well. They hold the spot in high regard and due to their strong sense of connection with the place, are keen to see it preserved as a sacred shrine. David told me that Aldhelm used to nuddgle and eat fire to attract would-be converts, as wella s being remembered for lying up to his neck in the ice-cold well bath, whilst reciting the Psalter. Hewent on to say, with an impish smile, that he cherishes a mental picture of St. Aldhelm juggling three balls before a fascinated audience while muttering ‘ Father, son and holy ghost’ 

The well is now under the management of the Shepton Mallet Amenity Trust which bought it from Wells Cathedral for £1. The trust tried to interfere as little as possible with the site, doing minor repairs to the walling and felling some dangerous trees. Test on the water proved it free of contaminants and good to drink. Plans a few years ago to bottle the water for wider distribution were not met warmly by the village and were abandoned.   

In 1893 R. C. Hope in his Holy Wells of England described the water as ‘wonder-working; and there are legends about its ability to cure blindness. Fred Davies of the Amenity Trust told me that less than ten years ago a Shepton woman of his acquaintance bathed her child’s severe eczema with the water from the well and the condition cleared. There appears to be no recent mineral analysis of the water, which seems a worthwhile task, in view of the well’s reputation.

According to Janet and Colin Bord in their book Sacred Waters (Granada 1985) the earliest water cults can be traced to around 6000 BC with an increasing awareness of the importance of unpolluted water, we are today seeing something of a revival in interest in water lore. Most ancient cultures developed ritualised ways of honouring the value of water. Divinities and the guardian of sacred wells was recognised as female and revered by many names the world over. Some of the old deities’ names still remain hidden in the names of our rivers today. Ceremonies were regularly performed beside wells and springs – to improve one’s fortune, gain insight into the future, seek healing or even make a curse. Often wells are attributed with specialised healing properties; eye complaint, infertility and children’s ailments being most usual. In less cynical days than ours, pieces of clothing from the sick would be bathed in water and bound to the ailing part or tied to the branches overhanging the well. These days rags and offerings can sometimes be found in the vicinity of ancient holy wells and the tradition of well dressing surviving only in Derbyshire is now reappearing in other parts of the country.

For many years St. Aldhelm’s Well was a site of pilgrimage and in the 30s and 40s Dom Ethelbert Horne, a Downside monk and enthusiastic antiquarian, took parties of visitors to the well. He recorded its existence for posterity in his book ‘Holy wells of Somerset’ (1923)Today as well as being a recreational spot and a water hole, for many in the village and beyond the well continues to be a place of pilgrimage and, from tome to time, local people have decorated it with flowers and candles to honour it as a natural spring

June 1989

(The above was the first draft of a booklet entitled St Aldhelm’s Well published by Ms Sherwood (Shepton Mallet 1991) and is printed her by kind permission of the author. 

Professor Charles Thomas Holy Wells of Cambourne extracted from Christian antiquities of Cambourne H.E Warne Ltd 1967 pp120-6 by kind permission of the author Originally published in Source – The Holy wells journal New Series No 2 Winter 1994 Part Two

In my aim to restore the lost articles from the Source archive this is the second part of the Holy Wells of Cambourne article

8 Maudlin Well

Just north of Roseworthy is the tenement of Cornhill, and in the valley bottom, on the Camborne side of the Connor street where a large field meets the uncultivated moor by the river, there is a spring now enclosed in a modern concrete housing. On the 1840 Tithe Map, this appears as ‘Maudlin Well’(field no. 435) miscopied as ‘Moudlin Well’  on one version. Henderson noted a version Medlenswell; but does not state where he found this. It is hard to think of any Cornish word which could have given rise to this way by corruption, and looks like as if this well was formerly ascribed to Mary Magdalene, sister of Lazarus and Martha.

9 Sandcot Well

In the extreme north-west corner of the Parish, there is a small steam flowing on the southside f the B3301 road, opposite the small one-storey cottage called Sandcot (below Pencobben) down the Red River bridge, or Gwithian Bridge, which divides Camborne from Gwithian. The stream comes out from under a rock in an overgrown quarry, and issues with some force,

The writer is indebted to Mr W. J. Furze of Beach House, Gwithian, for the information that this was at one time thought to be a holy well. The physical situation is certainly not against this theory, and it is interesting to note that there is no holy well otherwise known to be connected with the nearby chapel of St. Gothian, patron of Gwithian. This may be St Gothian’s Holy well.

10.Fenton-Ia

The history and development of this site was fully discussed in Chapter V. It is worth stressing again that this may have been a medicinal well. Edward Lhuyd merely comments that ‘the well was call’d FentonIa in the psh of Cambron’ but fifty years later, Dr Borlase described it as a ‘well notated for Physical virtue’ and again as ‘…a rude well noted for its physical virtues.’ It is pity that we are not told what these virtues specifically were. 

11 Fenton- Veryasek

The evidence for the existence of St. Meriasek’s holy well in Camborne, a shrine of some renown, rests not only in passages in Beunans Meriasek (a late mediaeval miracle play in Cornish detailing the life of St Meriasek/Meriagog -ed) but a wide range of independent accounts. The earliest is provaky that of Nicholas Risarrck writing in circa 1600 who says ‘there is a well wch also bereth that name and it is called St Marazaak’s Well’ Lloyd does not appear to have regarded the well as worth noting, but it appears in his notes as his chapel no 4 (at Rhoszwerb ie Rosewarne) and that some kind of structure was still visible about 1700 is confirmed by Tonkin 

Thomas Tonkin of St Agnes in his unpublished Parochial History of Cornwall wrote between 1702 and 1730, the following passage concerning Camborne:

“I am inform;’d that there is a walled  Consecrated well in the Parish called Mearhagos…and yearly the young People of the Parish frequent thai well, drink the water, and perhaps Cast some kind of offering in it, besprinkle themselves and then for the future are reckied true Parishioners and called Meerhagicks.”

Tonkin clearly shared an informant with William Hals who in the published portion of his county history, stated this

“CAMBURNE a Rectory, Is situate in the Hundred of Penwith etc. For its modern name Camburbe, which was not extant at the the of the Norman conquest, it signifies crooked or arched burne or well pit of water, so named from the famous consecrated spring  of water and wall’d well in this parish call’d Cam-burne Well; to which Place Young People, and some of the Elder Sort,, make frequent Visits, in order to wash and besprinkle themselves with the Waters thereof…viz such as have been much sprinkled with Sprigs, Shrubs or Branches, viz, the shrubs, or Branches of Rosemary or Hyssop with which they are besprinkled. These are again by others also nick-name Mearagacks alias Meraragiks, that is to say Persons erring, straying, doing amiss, rash, fond, perverse, wilful, obstinate.”

This strange and much embroidered passage contains a good deal of hidden information. Tonkins Meerhagicks,, Hals Mearagacks and Lhuyd’s spelling of the Saint’s name as ‘Meradzock’ all confirm that by the 18th century, the last stage of Spoken Cornish, in intervocalic -s-in Meriasek’s name has become an English -J- sound, As Nance commented the colloquial pronunciation would now be ‘Mer -aj -ek’(probably with a strong penultimate stress). Hals gives at least two false etymologies ; that of the name Cambourne taking burne as a well or well-pit (OE burne stream, brook, fountain, well), an idea which was also expressed by Borlase; and an indigeneous attempt to translate Mer-rasick as a compound word instead of a proper name. As he appears to think it means ‘much sprinkled’ presumably be seen as VC mur, meor ‘great’ or meor ‘many much’ and an invented adjective ‘rasick’ possibly intended as a united form of crasyk (?crysek) from ModC crys, ‘a shaking, a shir’? Cf W crony vb to shiver and in Middle Ir creasach ‘ shivering. ‘Mearagacks alias Merargiks, on the other hand, he translates by a string of not wholly related adjectives, and it is hard to see what Cornish words, real or imagined, he had in mind here.

The special virtue of this well, as we know from Beunans Meriasek lay in the power of its water to cure insanity (lines 005-8 ‘likewise the water from my well/I pray that it may be a cure/For a man gone out of his mind/to bring him back to his wits again.). This reflects an original facet of Meriasek cult. At Stivalin Brittany an early mediaeval bell attributed to the saint is used to cure headaches and deafness, and at St Jean – du -Doigt, a mediaeval reliquary in the form of a bust of the saint contains what is alleged to be a piece of his skull. This head motif is thus central to some lost tradition it seems, in this respect to have been commissioned to both Cornwall and Britany. In Camborne, by a simple transference of ideas, those frequently Fenton-Veryasek would be jocularly regarded as in need of this specific cure, and the name ‘merajick’ must by Hals and Tonkin’s time have bee a local synonym for a hot-head or giddy fellow of any kind. 

It is also seems clear from what Tonkin says that this well was in some way central to the life of Camborne; one suspects that the young people who frequented it ‘yearly’ did so in particular in early June, on the occasion of Meriasek’s feast-day.

Neither the well nor chapel are mentioned at all by Borlase, and all subsequent accounts derive either from Hall’s florid passage quoted above, or (more recently) from a minor elaboration of Hal’s remarks by Robert Hunt in his folk-lore collection. The chapel may have been in ruins as early as the 16th century, even if some kind of structure – as Thomas Tonkin suggests – even remained around the well itself until after 1700. In some form or other, the actual well was both known and identifiable until the last century, and gave its name to a house (St Maradox Villa) at the bottom of Tehidy road, Camborne.

The well was not, as tradition sometimes asserts, inside the present wall around the grounds of Rosewarne House. It stood on the opposite (west) side of what is now Tehidy Road, probably within the front garden or gardens of the late 19th century dwellings there. There is made clear from an interesting and unpublished paper by the late Tomas Fiddick, JP of Cambourne, a precis of which is fortunately preserved in Canon Carahs notes. The paper read to the Camborne Old Cornwall Society on 15th June 1925 states:

“St Meriadoc’s Well, which until existed until about 70 years ago was then a wishing well and children dropped pins into it, and expressed some wish, hoping to have their desires fulfilled, This well was inside a wall on the left of what is now Tehidy Road, going from the town, and just opposite St Meradix Villa. It appears to have been drained dry by mine adits and pumping operations at Gustavus mine. The water of the well was thought to have miraculous powers and especially for the insane.”

An interesting account of 1872 comes from the Rev John Bannister (vicar of St Day and author of A glossary of Cornish Names,18721) Reviewing Stokes edition of Beunans Meriasek, he wrote

“At the foot of Fore street also, east of the parish church, is a well still vulgarly called St. Merijicks, and the first Friday in June (some say July) is Teeming-day in Camborne, Some fifty years ago, I was told by an old habitant (who when a youth learnt orally from his uncle, the Cornish numerals up to 20, which he can now, though upwards of 80 years, repeat fluently from memory), no one could pass up the street on this day without having a pitcher of water thrown at him. Something o the kind though not quite so bad is still kept up; and old Hals yells us that persons washing in Camborne well, for the relief of some maladies were called Mereasicks or Mearagasks, though ignorant of St Meriasek, he gives his usual, some strange derivation for it, making it means something like sprinkled with rosemary.”

Bannister must be regarded as a reliable informant and this takes the life of the well a decade later than Thomas Fiddick states ‘Teeming day’ means ‘Pouring day’ from the obsolete dialect word ‘’teem’ pour (out) water preserved only in the English phrase ‘ teeming with rain’.

The famous well is now recalled only by a bronze plaque into the wall of the farmer Rosewarne park, a short distance away on the opposite side of the street. Erected by the late ,Mr James Holman who bought Rosewarne in 1911, it commemorates the starting point of Richard Trevithick’s first run in his road locomotive in 1801 – the birthplace of the modern railway system- and is dated ‘Peace day July 19th 1919’ it concludes ‘Also near this spot was the once famous Well of St. Meriadoc supposed to possess healing qualities of great virtue.

12 Bodryan Well

Henderson recorded a ‘Bodryan Well’ for both 1608 and 1650 as being in Camborne parish. Despite the most intensive search, the writer has been unable to find any other occurrence of this place name, either with reference to a tenement or to a field. It may represent ‘bos plus dreyn ‘ thorns’ or ‘house by the thorns’ but this scarcely helps in locating it.

 A note on the locations of the wells listed

The following is based on the new (1963) Ordnance Survey 6 in. revised edition; N.M indicated not marked. 

 

No Name Location Marked as
1 Vincent’s Well SW 67683776 N.M
2 Newton Moor Well SW 6713873 W
3 Peter James’ Well SW 65633728 W
4 The Reens Well SW 65203834 N.M
5 Treslothan Well SW 65143784 N.M
6 Silver Well SW 65253744 N.M
7 Pendarves Well SW 64703812? N.M
8 Maudlin Well SW 61413986 Spring
9 Sandcot Well SW 59304230 N.M
10 Fenton-Ia SW 65833815 N.M
11 Fenton -Veryasek SW 64604052? N.M

The rise and fall of St Ruffin’s Well, Tamworth

Tamworth is noted for its splendid castle which dominates the public park, but once in the park was another notable antiquity St. Ruffiany’s Fountain or Ruffin’s Well (SK 207 039) The earliest reference for the site is in a 1276 Court Roll:

Will’s Chelle  obstruxit  viam  q’  ducit  ad  fontem  S’ci  Ruffiany.” 

Or 

William Chelle has blocked the way which leads to St Ruffianus’ Well”. 

The site is supposedly connected with a King Wulfhere may have had the site as a Mercian royal residence and so may have dedicated the well as a holy well in penitence for the murder of his sons.   

Who was St Ruffin?

St Ruffin was said to be a Saxon convert who was converted along with his brother, St Wulfhad in 670 being baptised by St Chad the Bishop of Lichfield. Both were said to have been killed whilst at their prayers. However there is some question mark over whether the saints really existed and were invented as a metaphor for martyrdom. 

Destroyed, restored, destroyed.

Robert Hope in his 1893 Legendary Lore of Holy wells notes it was destroyed by fire on June 15 1559 and its restoration took 40 years, but soon fell into disuse.

Lindsall Richardson (1928) Water supply of Warwickshire states that the site is a pool enclosed with brick walls, about 15 ft by 12 ft. It was thought to be covered by a high- pitched roof over it. This may explain the account that on the 15th June 1559 it burnt down. A flight of six steps descends to the pool from a doorway in an adjacent building. He continues to note that the pool is filled by a spring which overflows into River Anker.

No photo description available.

The well lay on what was the eastern side of the castle’s lower lawns, beneath the Ankerside shopping centre. The surroundings of the well were improved in 1960 to commemorate the 1200th anniversary, three years previously, of the accession of Offa to the Mercian throne. The structure is modern and does  not look much like a well, rather a raised plant bed being now situated on the south-west exterior of the Ankerside shopping centre.

A commemorative plaque reads:

“St. Ruffin’s Well. According to tradition this well was dedicated to St. Ruffin. The Martyred son of Wulfhere who was King of Mercia in the seventh century. The restoration work was carried out to commemorate the 1200th anniversary of the accession to the Mercian throne in 757 a,d of King Offa whose Royal palace stood in the northern part of these grounds when Ramworth was the capital of that Kingdom.”

However a recent visit has found that this has been removed and all sign of the well has vanished.

To be restored again?

Then in 2012 a Facebook group was formed with its aim to restore the well. However, the following post suggested the issues about restoring

“Well, well, well (excuse the pun) – here is a long overdue update for you folks who are in support of the campaign to re-instate St Ruffins well. The campaign is still alive and kicking – the situation at the moment is:

1. Tamworth Borough Council are not opposed to the idea!!!

2. They want empirical proof that the spring is still there before we can do anything

3. Having spent the best part of a year talking to University archaeology depts, county archaeologists, English Heritage, private companies etc etc, we are in a catch 22 position –

There is no test or survey that will show whether the spring is still there, at best all that would show up is whatever they capped it with (probably a lump of concrete) – the best way to find this is to dig a hole – SO – we need to dig a hole to find the empirical proof for the council that will lead to them giving us permission to …. dig a hole – you see the problem.”

However despite a positive campaign as noted from below

  1. “The Tamworth Herald say they have had lots of emails in -supporting the campaign to ‘Free St Ruffins Well’ and are publishing an update of the situation in tomorrows Herald, so will purchase a paper tomorrow with baited breathe.”

And indeed we have because St Ruffin’s Well remains unrestored and the campaign to revive similarly appears to have hit a hiatus! It is a shame because as the photos show a restored St Ruffin’s well could become a real feature in the castle grounds.

Searching for St Bride’s Well, London

It is not clear whether St. Bride’s Well  takes its name from St. Bride’s Church constructed in 11th century. Certainly the name Brydewell is noted in property owned by the Bishop of St David’s in 1487. The Palace of Bridewell was built nearby and thus Stow (1598) notes:

“fell to ruine, insomuch that the verie platform thereof remyned for great part wast, and as it were, but a layestall of filth and rubbish; only a fayre Well remained there… until King Henry the 8 builded a stately and beautiful house thereupon, giving it to name Bridewell’”

The well was outside of the church until the 15th century rebuilding when it was incorporated into the south-east corner of the church. Hone (1826–7), who says:

“the last public use of the water of St Bride’s well drained it… Several men were engaged in filling thousands of bottles, a day or two before the 19th of July 1821, on which day his majesty, King George IV was crowned at Westminster from the cast-iron pump over St Bride’s well, in Bride-Lane.”

I was informed by Mr. Eric Davies informed me that the well ran dry after an enterprising local pub landlord decided to sell water from the well and perhaps this is what Hone above alludes to. The nearby Bridewell Baths were said to have been filled by the spring’s waters explaining perhaps the poor quality of the water. In the crypt museum is a pump tap said to be from the well.

According to Mr. Davies it was the custom to use the water from the well as holy water, to sprinkle on the route of Coronation Processions from the Tower of London to Westminster Abbey, which went along Fleet Street and past the church. Milne (1997) it was ‘still remembered in the early twentieth century as the focus of a formal procession which left the chancel and made its way southwards towards it.   A map in the crypt museum notes an unusual feature a south door installed for processions to the well, presumably when the well was at ground level.

After the post-War restoration of the church, the name was assigned to a fountain placed in the northern churchyard, which was removed in 1994. Indeed there appears to be some confusion over what happened to the well and when. Furlong (accessed 2013) states that it disappeared under modern office complexes however the church identify it as being in the crypt and according to Mr. Davies was lost over 100 years ago.

However, according to correspondent the well was still there in the 1970s and was full of water and indeed in the 1990s when a workman was asked whether there was a well there he said there was. However, there is no well to be found at the site in the crypt and indeed the flooring of this chamber appears to be modern. The loss of the well and the adamant statement that the well was there in the 1970s is clearly at odds with the opinion of Mr. Davies who kindly showed me the site. It is possible that the church filled in the well around the 1990s as a response to pagan usage of the crypt and church around St Bride’s Day, in particular the usage of the plane tree said to mark the site of the well and fed off it. The site of the well is shown on maps in the crypt museum be found in the crypt, but not the section which is open to the public.

In the crypt museum the tap from the well which provided a public water supply is shown in one of the museum display cabinets. Outside appears to be an aperture and small trough fed by a pipe which may have been fed from the spring or alternatively from the drains above.  One hopes that the mooted but expensive improvements planned to be made to the church will reveal the well once and for all and restore it.

Extracted from Holy Wells and healing springs of London and Middlesex