A Somerset field trip: The holy wells of Charlcombe and Lansdown
The area of Charlcombe and Lansdown on the outskirts of Bath boasts three holy wells. The first one is of these is St Mary’s Well which attracted some notoriety in the 1980s when its existence seemed threatened. An article in the Bristol Evening Post of 6th June 1986 entitled ‘Hermit told to quit holy well site’, related according to an article in the Source Journal of Holy Wells how:
“the Bishop of Bath and Wells had obtained a court order to evict ‘bearded 42 year-old artist Alan Broughton’ who had made a makeshift home under a tree in the grounds of Charlcombe Rectory, near Bath. The rectory is due to be sold by the church even though its grounds include St Mary’s holy well. Churchwarden John Kirkman is leading a campaign to preserve the well in some way and I sent a letter of support on behalf of Source to be added to similar letters from other concerned parties for presentation to the Church Commissioners. It is to be hoped the Church will not put profit before sanctity.”
A report in the Proceedings of the Bath and District Branch of the Somersetshire Archaeological and Natural History Society for 1909-1913 records:
“Mr. Grey … tells me he has known of this one, under the name of St. Mary’s Well, for a great number of years. It is close to the old Norman Church at Charlcombe, in the Rectory garden, amid a clump of ferns. The inhabitants have a tradition that the water is good for the eyes, and some twenty years ago persons were known to come and take it away in bottles. It is also stated to be a “wishing well,” and I believe the water is still taken from this source for baptisms. Mr. Grey gives an extract from a letter in which the writer states that a lady derived considerable benefit from this well, through applying the water to her eyes.”
The Rectory was sold and the hermit was removed. But what happened to the well? Dom Horne (1923) in his Somerset Holy Wells records the site as being:
“ situated in a bank, now covered with ferns, and the water flows through a pipe into a small natural basin. The village people used to take away the water from this well, as it was reputed to be ‘good for the eyes’, and the font in the church was filled from the same source.”
Searching for the site in the 1990s I couldn’t get access to the Rectory and feared it may have been lost but soon found a sign for it! It had been moved a controversial option for a holy well. It now lay in a public garden and filled a small elliptical pool. Overlooking the pool is a stone carving of Christ being baptised in the river Jordan This according to Quinn’s 1999 xxx it was done in 1989. It was very good to see someone preserve it, but I did wonder what had happened to the origin stonework. Was there something still in the Rectory, Quinn is silent on this. In a way this sort of modern day action underlines the contradictory views of those who look upon the site in regards to its waters and those, such as historians, who might be more concerned with its fabric. The Holy Well is used for baptisms and Christian festivals such as Ascension Day and Easter Day.
Above the village not far from Beckford’s Tower is another well, one which is in a way far more interesting by virtue of its dedication. This is St Alphege’s Well. Its first reference was in the 15th century were it is recorded that there were lands
“apud fontem Sancti Alphege.”
When Horne visited he stated that:
“This well is situated on…the opposite side of the road to the old cricket ground. A steep path, which looks as if it was once made with cobblestones, leads down from the road to the bottom of the field. The water issues from a bank and falls into a Roman coffin. This…was brought from Northstoke about forty or fifty years ago, by a farmer who wanted to make a drinking place for his cattle…A mile from this well, on the road to the Monument, is Chapel Farm. This was originally St Laurence’s Hospice for pilgrims on their way to Glastonbury. It is not uncommon to find a holy well by frequented pilgrim tracks, and this is a good example…This is probably the only well in England dedicated to this saint.”
Horne is not correct there are records of other Alphege wells one in far way Solihul and a possible another one in Kent. Both lost! What is interesting concerning St. Alphege’s well is that a path remains as a track linking it to a fifteenth-century chapel which half a mile away which suggests it was on a pilgrim route. Indeed Quinn (1999) relates that its waters were sought until recently:
“by the Catholic Church of St Alphege in Bath, who came to take away a gallon of the holy water for use in the baptismal font. At one time there was a deposit of soot on the roof of the well chamber, left by the burning candles of generations of pilgrims’.
Today they would find it difficult to fill the water for the access to the well is very overgrown and the doorway locked. One hopes that soon access can be improved otherwise I fear the well may be forgotten
Alphege was a local saint so to speak living in Gloucestershire at the Deerhurst monastery near Tewkesbury in the late 900s. Why here? Well he is said to lived as a hermit in a small hut here and was latter associated with the building of Bath Abbey before meeting a death of a Dane in the early 11th century Greenwich, the site being now a church!
The final well is now lost St Winefredes Well, Sion Hill, Lansdown. St Winifred unlike St. Alphege probably needs little introduction being a noted Welsh Martyr whose death at the hands of a pagan ‘husband’ she was forced to marry and resurrection by her uncle St Beuno are well known in hagiographical terms and of course a well-known healing water shrine arose – The Lourdes of Wales. But in Bath’s suburbs such as dedication is curious. Of this well it is described in 1749 in John Wood’s An Essay Towards a Description of Bath as:
“A Spring of Water, which, for some Mineral Quality, was, in former times, dedicated to St Winifred; the Fountain still bearing the name of Winifred’s Well; and it is much frequented in the Spring of the Year by People who drink the Water, some with Sugar and some without.”
As such this would make it the furthest south and west of the Sugar wells i.e those where people would drink them on specific days with sugar or licorice. However finding provenance for the well is difficult and it seems likely that its name was adopted at a later date when it became acceptable once again to visit the Flintshire shrine. Evidence may be drawn from Robert Peach’s 1883, Historical Houses in Bath and their Associations which recalls that Mary of Modena lived nearby. Now it is known this was around the same time as she travelled back from the more famous St Winifred’s Well in Flintshire to utilise the Cross Bath and other local springs to hopefully fulfil a wish to conceive. Did someone locally know her location and puffed a local mineral spring as a St. Winifred’s Well. Indeed Peach notes that the spring was sought by:
“women with superstitious hopes of maternity.”
Of course a St Winifred’s Well did exist, 19th century deeds for a Winifred House refer to
“Pasture-Ground, called the Barn-piece, wherein was a well called Winifred’s Well.”
And it does appear as St Winifred’s Well on the 1888 OS at ST 742661 and although John Collinson in his 1791 The History and Antiquities of the County of Somerset does mention a chapel of St. Winifred he is the only one. By the time of Dom Horne (1923) looked for it he stated that it
“been covered in and its exact position is doubtful. The water is said to be of a hard brackish nature.”
Nothing remains at Sion Hill to note it today and many people will have forgotten this interesting footnote in the local history.