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.
Surrey is not the first county associated with holy wells, although James Rattue’s 2008 Holy Wells of Surrey makes it clear there are a number. Visions of the Virgin Mary are! So when we have a holy well and a vision of the Virgin Mary seen together it is an interesting site – but how old and genuine as a holy well is it? Especially curious as Rattue notes it appears in most surveys of holy wells.
Easily found following the sign from the church yard towards the river the well is certainly very picturesque, if a little muddy to get to. The well is unusual in being enclosed in two brick built chambers each covered by a metal lid. The water does not look particularly refreshing being rather stagnant and full of leaves. Over the well is an ornate wooden and tiled cover. A.J.A. Hollins in his 1933 A History of Dunsfold compiled from various sources gives an account of its repair and what was there beforehand:
“Until 1933 it consisted of two brick lined cisterns of uncertain date with wooden lids in a very poor state of repair. Now by the efforts of the Dunsfold Amateur Dramatic Society there has been erected over it a shelter or shrine of old oak with a shingled roof, and on one side of it is an exquisitely carved figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Holy Child.”
Hollins’ (1933) gives some further details:
“The Holy Well lies on the bank of the river below the church and is approached by a short lane. The water which is singularly pure and cold even in the height of summer, is derived from two streams which have their origin somewhere in the hill on which the rectory stands. These unite just above the Well. From one of them at one time the water supply to the rectory was obtained, a one pony power circular pump being employed. With the advent of Company’s water this has long been derelict.”
A real holy well?
A. Judges (1901) in his Some West Surrey villages is also clear of its ancient origin and perhaps suggests a monastic association:
“As to one tradition connected with the spot, however, there can be no doubt. The well between the church and the river was for generations considered a holy well. Even to this day it is credited with medicinal properties, and people come for the water as a cure for sore eyes. The Rector, the Rev. W. H. Winn, favours the theory that it was on account of this well that the church was built on its present site, some little distance from the centre of the village. Water is scarce in the Weald, and this is the only spring-well rising to the surface of the ground which Mr. Winn knows of in the whole country. It never runs dry, and rises within 4 or 5 feet of the river, with which, however, it has no connection, except in the way of overflow. I ought, perhaps, to add here that the orchard near the mill was known as the Abbot’s Garden, and an old house on it, removed in late years, is supposed to have been connected with the church or some old monastery.”
Similarly, Hollins (1933) is unequivocal:
“Isn’t it significant, bearing in mind what has been said about the places usually chosen by the early peoples for their settlements, that the church is built near the river (which becomes the Arun before flowing into the sea at Littlehampton) practically beside the Holy Well, on one Roman road and very near another? As regards the well, its fame has spread down to modern times, and there is very little doubt but that it was sacred from the very earliest times….. it would form the site of a shrine for primitive worship in heathen days, and when the Christian era began, the builders of the first church would place it, as church builders frequently did, on an already sacred site, and merely substituted their ideas for those already existing. All the oldest churches in this country built on heathen sites have wells in or near them, for the Ancient Britons and their successors needed water for purification rites. The Well under Christianity would naturally have the patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and this in turn would give the name to the Church.”
The usual claims, heathen worship, possibly Roman adoption by the early church, a theme we will return too in a moment.
Doubt was creeping in to Hollins’ (1933) work:
“The actual history of the Well is obscure. What can be stated is that from the very earliest times it was a sacred spot….There is a strong tradition that the Blessed Virgin has appeared at the Well, and one old belief is that she is always in residence in Dunsfold. The Well was an ideal spot for heathen worship, and when the Christian era began, the worship of St Mary at the Well would naturally follow, and thus give a lead to the church. But the Well was here first. By the very nature of its water, it can be said for certain that its use must have occasioned what no doubt would have seemed miraculous cures in the days when medicine was little understood.…..The shrine was dedicated by the Bishop of Guildford on Sept. 29th 1933.”
James Rattue (2008) hits the nail it on the head:
“This ought to be a clear-cut case of a holy well linked to a church, and, given its location, probably a comparatively late dedication like the Mary Wells we find in the Kentish Weald. But perhaps it’s even later than that. On the 1897 O.S map it appears merely as a tank, not even a well.”
Most holy wells are marked on old O.S maps if not present today, even those which have been missed off are still springs or wells, not tanks. A tank suggests a modern structure, a purely functional one, one established for farming not faith. Of course, not being mentioned on the map does not 100% go against it being a holy well but it does not give further support. Was it just a local mineral spring established in the age of spas? Hollins’s (1933) notes:
“Possessing notable qualities for the cure of diseases of the eyes – this has recently been confirmed by analysis.”
Hollins’s (1933) gives further details on its properties and its analysis:
“The water is very strongly impregnated with chlorine, a fact only recently discovered, when a noted Harley Street eye specialist took the matter up from a scientific point of view, and this is extremely interesting confirmation of the fact that the water has always been held to be marvellous for eye diseases.”
Indeed, the earliest reference to the site by Lewis Andre in his 1897 Dunsfold Church in the Surrey Arch Collections states simply:
“in the vale south of the church, there is a well, which is said to have been resorted to until recently for medicinal purposes.”
Although a mineral spring is very likely after all, Surrey had a large number of these and many were of nationwide fame. Maybe we shall never know.
Yet Hollins’s (1933) notes
“There are other holy wells in England — and in Surrey — but an old book in Cambridge University Library specifically mentions Dunsfold as being one of four in England.”
Have we all missed something? Neither Rattue, Harte or I have ever located this book which mentions specifically Dunsfold. If it could be found the authenticity of the well would not be in question.
A site of modern pilgrimage
Hollins (1933) notes that:
“Even in modern times it has been a place of pilgrimage, especially by Roman Catholics, and there is indication that this has always been the case. Roman Catholics have been heard to say that one day they will get the church back into their fold. Its dedication to St Mary and the presence of the Well are, of course, the reason for this. From London too even in recent times have pilgrimages been made.”
Whether these pilgrimages occur is unclear
Visions of the Virgin Mary
Judges (1901) notes that:
“A statement has been made that Dunsfold Church is a special object of pilgrimage by Roman Catholics. One ought, perhaps, to say in passing that the sole warrant for this assertion is the fact that the church is visited several times every year by parties of Roman priests from the seminary at Wonersh, and that on one occasion, some little time since, a numerous band of visitors came from London, the explanation being their belief that the ‘ Blessed Virgin Mary was always in residence at Dunsfold.”
Always in residence, a curious statement but delve deeper and it appears it refer to as Rattue places it ‘vague oral traditions’ of the Virgin Mary appearing in the vicinity, as referred to in the Guidebook. The Surrey Advertiser of the 14th October 1933 states she appeared to those who sought the spring’s water. England is not renowned for recorded visions of the Virgin, and indeed the only one appears to be the most famous, Walsingham, if we do not include the discredited Our Lady of Surbiton which begun in the 1980s.
Of course, new age pagans may suggest that some visions record a pre-Christian tradition of a pagan water deity. Certainly this is an ancient location with an old 1500-year-old yew which may have been the original focal point explaining the remote location of the church. So the site may have been pagan and this may be true, but the details are very vague when concerning the well. More likely is that this was a local attempt to create their own ‘Walsingham’ at a time when the Catholic church was beginning to re-establish itself more firmly in the region, after all an Anglo-Catholic movement had re-established itself in 1921 under Father Alfred Hope Pattern. The most famous healing spring associated with a vision of the BVM is of course Lourdes and it is tempting to make a connection. Did the local St John’s Seminary want to establish a local Lourdes? Did they need a well for their ablutions and a local story, possibly from ‘modern’ mystics visiting the area or completely concocted to justify giving the well the association with the Virgin?
In conclusion, I think it is easy to agree with Jeremy Harte (2008) in his English Holy who believes that:
“The cult at the well has the flavour of 1930s Anglo-Catholicism, and seems to have been created then.”
Good for them I suppose you could say and similarly ask does it really does not matter that its provenance for it is difficult to find such a delightful sacred spring?
It is nice to easily find a holy well for once, for Rhuddlan’s St Mary’s Well lying as it does in the grounds of Bodrhyddan Hall, is easily seen by the side of the drive to the hall (the gardens of which are open Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and well worth exploring)
Pure folly or holy?
What greets us today is a typical folly building but does the well have any provenance before the current construction. The earliest reference is as Ffynnon Fair and is made by Lhuyd in 1699 however it does not appear on an estate map until 1730, although an engraving on the fabric of the well states emphatically 1612! Significantly neither of these dates are associated with any traditions and there appears to be no pre-Reformation reference.
The only hints of its importance are traditions of clandestine marriages at the well, although it is possible that this is a mixed up tradition with a more famous Ffynnon Fair at St Asaph. The other hint is found in the hall, where a possibly unique stone fish inserted in the flooring of the hall shows the boundary of the parishes and as you may have gathered regularly reading this blog many holy wells mark parish boundaries. Neither pieces are particularly emphatic!
The well itself is a delightful edifice consisting of an octagonal stone four metre well house and adjacent stone lined ‘bathing pool’. The well has arched entrance with cherub kerbstone. Inside the rather cramp well are seats around the inside and although access to the water is prevented by a metal grill. On the top of the well house is a carved pelican and a stylised fish (more similar to classical images of dolphin) pours its water into the cold bath which is surrounded by a stone ballastrade.
Keeping up with the Joneses?
One of the biggest issues with site is who built it. On the well house it is proclaimed that Inigo Jones was responsible. Jones was a noted architect and garden designer, so the building has the appearance of something he could have built, the date was when he was at the height of his fame so it is surprising nothing more official is recorded. Was this a local of the same name or the family adding the date and person at a later date to impress visitors? Certainly the building looks late 18th or early 19th century, probably being built when the house was restored then. Whatever, the well is part of a larger landscape including other wells, tree lined walkaways and now a summerhouse above a landscaped pool.
Its absence in 1730 but present on the 1756 one suggests not. Furthermore, Norman Tucker 1961’s Bodrhyddan and the families of Conwy, Shipley-Conwy and Rowley-Conwy states that the lettering is on the wrong period! Another possibility is that the architect may have been involved with designing the gardens and when the well was constructed later as the central piece the date of the garden design was recorded…but of course this does not explain who the well’s designer was!
Wishing well or healing well?
Today a sign, rather tacky to my mind (and I removed it to take photos) claims it is a wishing well. Visitors have certainly have paid attention to the sign as the well is full of coins. It is worth noting that although there is no curative history to the waters, anecdotally its powers could be significant. All the owners who have drunk from the well have lived to a considerable age, indeed the present owner is in his 100s I believe. Perhaps it might be worth bottling it!
Whatever its origin the well is a delightful one and certainly a change from muddy footpaths, negotiating brambles and nettles and getting completely pixy led…and there a nice garden and fascinating hall to see too.
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