“the most beautiful of the Holy wells of Somerset.”
Here in this small community, consisting of a manor house, associated farm and pleasing church, is a delightful find: an ancient conical well house called St. Agnes’ Well (ST 184 318 ) which in 1994 was swamped by tall horsetails and covered in fernery and herbs, which lent a rustic and mysterious feel to the site. Removing the surrounding vegetation will reveal more of this little six foot high conical stone structure. It resembles many such sites encountered in Cornwall, and one can agree with Horne (1923), as noted above who describes it as ‘the most beautiful of the Holy wells of Somerset’. The earliest reference is Jeboult in A General Account of West Somerset (1873):
“Near Cothelstone old Manor House is a fine spring of water, said to have been named St Agnes’ Well, and to have possessed excellent curative and cooling properties.”
Its water is accessed via an arched doorway on the west side, believed by Horne ( 1923 ) to show clearly its Perpendicular origins ( although there is no written evidence.) Once opening the small wooden door, one can see that a large volume of clear shallow water. According to Horne ( 1923 ) the water rises from the centre and flows under the step to an underground channel some distance to emerge as a large pool : obviously for livestock. A pipe leads out of the well indicating that it is directly tanked for farm use. Horne (1923) describes it as:
“A little stone building about six feet square… There is a doorway on the west side, well made, with a cut stone head. Inside, the whole floor is covered with shallow clear water, which rises about the centre and flows out under the door-step. It then follows an underground channel for some little distance, when it comes to the surface and forms a fairly large pond”.
Tongue (1965 ) adds that the well was once visited by lovers, usually on St Agnes’ Eve to find their futures. Palmer (1973) in Somerset Folklore notes some of the folklore of the site:
“It was thought necessary to leave a coin, usually silver… It was lucky if the coin fell flat, though sometimes tradition held that if the coin fell to the left the answer was no, but if it went to the right the wish was granted.”
Please don’t know as the water is used for a domestic supply! A stream nearby was called the Pixie Stream and it was thought that the well was where pixies lived!:
“It was said to have been a wishing well of considerable power, but many local people wouldn’t use it because it was also the place where mischievous pixies lived The waters are thought to be good for sore eyes and sprains, as well as for finding a husband, but only if you are not married! Once an old maid servant“coming to the end of her womanhood” did long for a husband and children. She did not wish to worry St Agnes when there were so many younger maids needing husbands. St Agnes had different ideas. When the old maid visited the well, her future husband just happened to be out walking that same night! Within a year they were married with children! The night before the feast of St Agnes (20th January) is when maidens would creep over to the well after dark to whisper their heart’s desires, hoping to see romantic visions of their future husbands! If St Agnes “do fancy the maiden she’ll send a husband that year!”
However, Harte (2008) in his English Holy Wells believes these traditions are spurious and possibly I suggest Victorian in date. Indeed, it may date from the time of Edward Stawel who married an Agnes, daughter of John Cheyney of Pinhoe Devon during the reign of Henry VII. The well may be simple called Agnes Well, there is an Agnes Well in the Selworthy estate in Somerset..interestingly this too has been ‘canonised’. It seems likely that the well was associated with the saint in the 1800s in a reverse of the secularisation of holy wells elsewhere.
In 1987 the Friends of The Quantocks repaired the Well but by the 1990s when I visited it was looking very forlorn. Fortunately in the 2000s the landowner, a Mr Hugh Warmington agreed to a full restoration and a group was formed to restore it using funding from the Quantock Hills Sustainable Development Fund and using the scheme to help the employment prospects for adults with learning disability. With permission from the County Archaeologist a small dig was made to find if there was an original base. By 2008 the progress of repair and improvement was already well on its way.
By 2009 a sign had been set up and a kissing gate. Leaflets were produced and a medieval fayre was established in September 2009 in a field opposite the well. All in all, raising interest and knowledge of this delightful site.
A stone channel and basin was created with the water flowing into this space and towards the river. During the restoration the most splendid find was an engraved stone with the words St. Agnes and a small cross, probably by the look of it from a Victorian restoration. Finally in 2015 the following was reported:
“£8,700 Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant for promotion of the heritage and restoration of the surrounding area of the well in partnership with Land-based Studies students from Bridgwater College. Bishop’s Lydeard Parish Council also kindly donated towards the project. The initiative is thought to be the only project of its kind in the country.”
Fantastic news and hopefully this will be the trailblazer for future restorations. Find out more at www.wellobsessed.com. (be careful who you copy and paste the website by the way!) http://www.wellobsessed.com/HolyWellsLeaflet.pdf
My attention was first brought to this curiously named well in Janet and Colin Bord’s excellent Sacred Waters, then I traced the quote to Ruth Tongue’s 1965 Somerset Folklore. However neither sources gave any idea of whether it was extant but both state it was near the church (of course Tongue’s work is the original source no doubt). A few years later I found myself in Bishop’s Lydeard and thought I’d look for it. I found the church and in a lane nearby I found a fish and chip shop. I asked there and they said although they had never heard of the well, there was a well down the lane. A few yards down and there it was. An elderly lady was walking past as I peered in and I asked her if she knew the name of the well..”Devil’s whispering well” she replied.
But why the Devil?
One theory underlined by the name is that one could commune with Old Nick. And the structure could lend support to this bizarre usage. The well is a red brick structure with an arched entrance, but oddly with the well’s basin is to the side of the structure rather being face on like most wells, so we could whisper? But why whisper to the Devil? One possible reason is that the well is a cursing well. As a cursing well it would not be unique countrywide. Indeed, the most well documented site is less than 100 miles away at Bath. But are the two connected? Bath’s reputation comes from the discovery of a hoard of cursing tablets There appease to be no evidence of a Roman connection to the settlement that I am aware of, but then again the other well known site St Elian’s Well in Llanelian similarly does not have a Roman connection.
Walling in the Devil Is it possible that the cursing aspect is a confused red herring? This is suggested by another possible original is recorded in an article in the Local Notes and Queries of the Somerset Herald of the 31st August 1935:
“Walling in the Devil at Bishop’s Lydeard – many years ago, when I was a child , I remember hearing my grandmother say that the Devil kept appearing near a well at Bishop’s Lydeard, where some men were building. They were very frightened and went to the clergyman and asked him what to do. He promised to go with them when they thought he would appear again and he did so. When Satan appeared in the form of an ordinary man, but with a cloven hoof, the clergy man approached and said ‘In the name of the father, the son and the Holy Ghost, why troublest thou me?’ and he gradually disappeared and the clergy man told the workman to ’wall him in’. So they built round the place, and he disappeared forever. I have always had the impression it was somewhere along the wall opposite Lydeard House. I wonder if anyone else had heard of it? I know my grandmother used to say they walled in the Devil at Bishop’s Lydeard – H”
What does this legend mean? Was it that the Devil was walled up and that’s why you could whisper to him? A reply came a month later and printed in the 28th September edition, where an Isabel Wyatt suggests
“One or two features of this legend suggest the interesting possibility that it may originally have had quite a different significance from the one which we read into now. In the middle ages a person walled into masonary while still alive was one of the punishments for witchcraft; thus in 1222 an old woman and a young man was accused of witchcraft were sentenced by Stephen Langton, then Archbishop of Canterbury, to be plastered alive into a wall.”
She goes on to suggest that the Devil is not the real Devil, but a human devil who was the chief of each witches coven. Witches are associated with other wells in the county, indeed not that far away at Parlestone Common on the Quantocks. This makes some sort of sense as witchcraft is strong in the region. Is it possible that the head of a coven was walled up in the well and members of the surviving coven would visit them and whisper to them? Or is the walling up part of another legend as the first correspondent suggests. Perhaps the well was a well associated with the witches. This might explain why the well was never Christianised despite close proximity to the church. Perhaps this well was their ritual well, a pagan well escaping rededication despite the proximity of the church. What do we make of Palmer (1975) who details in his Folklore of Somerset that Snell (1903) give details from Thornton’s Reminiscences of an old West County Countryman tells of a black dog in the village?
Many years back, when I lived in Bristol, I started working on a book on holy and healing wells of Somerset. I still hope one day to complete it but until then, here are some field notes from some of the sites.
Horne had difficulty in dry weather finding this site and indeed the walk to Childen Polden’s Holy well is probably not worth it, as the well arises in small circular area with some signs of rockwork around it but ruined by rather ugly farm shed. Nothing of any antiquity remains, which is indicated by the blue writing on the current pathfinder. It is said to be a noted sulphur spring, but upon visiting I failed to notice any distinctive features. above it This site is clearly marked on the Landranger map is the Holy Well with the note (Sulphur), and said by Kelly’s Directory to have healing qualities and that people from Bridgewater came to take its waters, and Tongue as an eye well.
Edington’s Holy Well by comparison is far more impressive structure. Indeed it comes as quite a surprise as one takes Holywell Road through the village and come across it at the corner of this road protected by a clump of trees. Unfortunately the source of water has now dried or else seasonal ( although this may have been the result of a summer drought ). The first mention is by Collinson (1791) describes this as a
‘perpetual spring, which contains sulphur and steel, and stains silver yellow in two hours… It has been found efficacious in scorbutick cases’
He interestingly fails to call it a holy well and it was until Phelps (1836–9) would the name holy well be applied to the site so perhaps it is his invention, the name being immortalised for good on the 1886 OS map. Phelps notes that the spring was the same quality as a holy well at Shapwick but contained less sulphuretted hydrogen. Horne ( 1923 ) states :
“ ..water gathers in a well-made stone tank about three feet square, the top of which is level with the surrounding ground. It is covered with two stone slabs, one of which at the date of visit in April 1915 had been removed, and the tank was half full of decaying leaves as a consequence. The water was three feet in depth and ran through a stone spout. The flow was slight, and the water of a greenish milky colour, with a strong and horrible smell of sulphur.”
As I noted, the well appears to be dry although the structure is still in good condition consisting of seats set around a stone forecourt. This structure was restored in as a stone plaque recalls :
“Edington Holy Well was renovated in 1937 in the memory of Margaret Charlotte Fownes Luttrell”
It is an interesting well to discover, but in the nearby village of
One of my favourite villages, with its delightful church full of hidden treasures including a plesiosaur, the overly picturesque castle ruins and St Andrew’s Well, one of the largest in the county. Down this side lane one is greeted with the most impressive structure surrounding a Holy Well in Somerset. One enters a large archway into a forecourt where two small ‘brick huts’ are apparent (now with windows) within which apparently the waters arise and perhaps custodians sat. The water emerges beneath these ‘huts’ a series of three pipes. Two to the left and one to the right. There water gushes out at some force filling stone throughs and then draining away.
In a delightful private garden set amongst cascading is a particularly venerable looking Holy Well called St. Pancras’s or Holy Well, although some doubt over its antiquity. It consists of a stone walled structure with two larger stones set across its opening, with one inside having fallen in. The lady owner stated they were worried that it was going to collapse any day : but has not! Indeed this condition was noted by Horne in 1914 that it has:
“has two slabs of stone over the top gable-shaped, but the stonework inside has fallen in somewhat, and is moss and fern grown… It is locally known as the HolyWell”
The water travels through a narrow liverwort covered channel, and then underground. The owner stated that they had had the water tested and found it purer than any water around!
Horne (1914) notes that:
“The well is in the garden of an old cottage which was once a chapel, though it has been much re-constructed. The cottage has always been known as St Pancras, and this was no doubt the dedication of the chapel, of which little remains beyond a built-in lancet window and the doorway”
Its position in the enclosed area of an old chapel, dedicated to St Pancras suggests perhaps that it may have had a role in supplying water for visitors to Old Cleeve Abbey . The owner noted that recently the well had received some notice in the local press, which pleased her it seemed.
Wembdon is a small strip village slowly being absorbed by the larger Taunton. Passing through the main street one would be surprised to discover in the garden of a bungalow, called Belle Vue, is an ancient and substantially built holy well. This is St. John’s Well. Unlike a number of Somerset wells which claim a long heritage and details being scant, St. John’s well does have a mediaeval age at least, being first mentioned in Bishop Thomas Bekyngton’s Register of 1464. In commissioning a report on the Wembdon churchyard, it records:
“a certain spring commonly called “St John’s Spring” is issuing, to which for the last few days, but not previously, there has been a great concourse of people thirsting to drink the water thereof and in fact drinking it and making their offerings there in honour of the Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist, and that now there is a concourse there every day, and many persons who have suffered for many years and are quite distrustful of the cures of the physicians are daily relieved of their sufferings and restored to health when they drink the water of the spring and make their offerings there.”
When Horne (1913) author of indispensible Somerset Holy Wells records that it was found in allotment gardens, and perhaps was in danger of being lost among new development, noting that it was:
“ now nothing to look at…like an ordinary draw well, being a deep hole in the ground, covered at the top with a flat stone with a circular hole in it.”
Although he added:
“The water is still taken from this well in some quantity, persons coming for it from a great distance”
However Horne’s account is confusing. If he was visiting in the early 20th century, he may well have visited the wrong well for a plaque on the North gable of the present structure of the well house reads:
‘HOLY WELL, RESTORED BY JOHN B HAMNELL 1857’
This suggests that the present structure was put in place, 63 years before the publication date of Horne’s work. This restored well house is picturesquely sited at the bottom of the garden, below the level of the main part of it. It is made of red sandstone rubble, open to the south end. It is covered by a tiled roof with fish-tail bands with a large cruciform stone finial to North gable. The structure is open one side revealing an excavated quarry-tiled floor level reached by a rubble step. It the centre of this floor is a central circular well, a structure which fits with that described by Horne (1913) rubble lining, false bottom formed by a stone slab pierced with small holes to allow the water to flow thorough it, a 20th century metal cover is set over the well lifted when I visited it. Inside is also a semi-circular rubble bench with a quarry-tiled capping. The structure is well looked after being partly used to house garden equipment. The location of the well was difficult to trace at first as my map was a bit out of date and still showed it in open fields. Enquiring at the local pub I was directed to the appropriate house but when I visited the owners were unfortunately out but someone was working on the house, who informed me that they always showed visitors. This was back in the late 1990s of course the owners may have changed by then