Blog Archives

A lost well dressing – Welton Lincolnshire

Lincolnshire is not the first place on thinks of concerning holy and healing springs but as my research for my book on Holy wells and Healing springs of Lincolnshire showed closer examination can reveal some interesting sites and traditions. One such site now completely forgotten is found in the aptly named Welton. Here the Old Man’s Spring and five wells, which the spring head supplies, in the village were the source of a local little known and forgotten well dressing custom. A correspondent of Maureen Sutton in her excellent Lincolnshire Calendar (1996) a resident of Welton notes:

“The custom of well dressing was an annual event which took place on  Ascension day. Five wells in the village were dressed including one in the churchyard, one in the grounds of the vicarage, two in West Carr and one in spring cottage in Sudbeck Lane. The origin of the source being ‘old man’s head spring’ in Welton Cliffe (Westhall Farm) The dressing of the wells took a different format to that of neighbouring counties, Derbyshire and  Nottinghamshire. In Welton each area surrounding the well was marked with an arch formed from a tree branch and decorated with lilac and laburnum. A linen, white calico cloth on which was depicted a text taken from the bible was put into each arch; this was put up by the men in the village early on Ascension Day morning. The ceremony began with a service in Saint Mary’s Church followed by a parade to the decorated beck in the churchyard. Each well was then dressed in turn and a prayer said and a hymn sung. The local Sunday school children took part in the ceremony by placing wild flowers at each well.
Sutton (1996) records two references in the local parish magazine, one in 1910 which reads:
“On Ascension Day we again propose to continue the custom of ‘Well dressing’ as an act of thanks-giving to Almighty God for the blessing of bountiful supply of pure water to Welton. Celebration of Holy Communion 8 am; Well dressing service 2pm; Procession to the wells 3pm; Public and Day school Tea 4.30pm; Children’s concert and Prize distribution 6.30 pm We pray to God to favour us with fine weather for the festival”.
Sadly, the colourful and last survivor of a more widespread Lincolnshire tradition ended in 1924. One wonders why the spring head itself was not dressed until it reached the church yard; perhaps this was a conscious attempt to Christianise the site, does the Old Man have a pagan connotation? Alternatively, it may have been that the spring head was too inaccessible! There do not appear to be any direct traditions associated by this spring head. But I was told that during a whooping cough epidemic in the village in the 1900s, mothers took their prams containing the infants and stood them in the beck, believing that the germs would be carried away, with the flow of the fresh water! Perhaps this suggests a healing tradition. The spring itself arises around a large concrete culvert and indeed appears to bubble up more around it through some stones to the side than this channel. The spring quickly forms a pool and flows downwards towards

Blessing the Lady’s Well at Speen, Berkshire

“This well is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, after whom the church is also dedicated.  However, the spring around which the well was built is much earlier than the church, and it may have been a sacred spring renowned for healing powers in pre-Christian times.  The present well was constructed in the mediaeval period, and restored in 1902 in celebration of the coronation of Edward VII.”

Back in March I detailed a little known holy well in a county little known for its holy wells, Speen’s Lady Well, a delightful stone built well repaired for coronation of Edward VII back in 1903. Since then I have been fortunate enough to find out more information via Church Warden Mrs Jane Burrell, and obtained some photos about the annual service which is enacted there each here. I thought I would record here the full details of the ceremony for historical reasons.

Every year the service is done near or at the church’s Patronal Festival, this being the 15th August, which is the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. I have been informed that the Lady Well has been blessed annually for decades but how many no one readily appears to know when the custom was founded.  As the well itself was refurbished in 1902 to commemorate the coronation of Edward VII, it would be nice to think the celebration dates from then.

It certainly is well reported of late locally. The Newbury Weekly News on the 17th August 2010 stated

“Parishioners of Speen turned out in force on Sunday to continue the traditional blessing of the Lady Well at St. Mary’s church. Around 70 members of the congregation attended. Leading the procession was Rev Canon David Winter, followed by cross-bearer Alan Booth and incense-burner Derek Shailes. Church wardens Jane Burrell and Brian Nobles were also among the procession, which followed the patronal festival service at the church. Around 50 of those who attended also joined for a lunch to mark the blessing of the Lady Well, which is thought to date back before 452 A.D.”

The ceremony begins with a procession out of the church, across the fields with the congregation following a cross-bearer and down the lane to the well. Here the well has been previously dressed with posies and bunches of flowers as shown above. During the service the water sprinkled amongst the congregation. Apparently before the last five years, the liturgy was dependent upon whoever was taking the service now it goes as follows:

INTRODUCTION  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. All Amen  Our help is in the name of the Lord, All Who has made heaven and earth.  The Lord be with you. All And also with you.   

PSALM 65 1 Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion:  to you that answer prayer shall vows be paid.

  To you shall all flesh come to confess their sins;  when our misdeeds prevail against us,  you will purge them away.

 Happy are they whom you choose, And draw to your courts to dwell there.  We shall be satisfied with the blessings of your house, even of your holy temple.

 With wonders you will answer us in your righteousness, O God of our salvation, O hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.

 In your strength you set fast the mountains and are girded about with might.

 You still the raging of the seas, the roaring of their waves and the clamour of the peoples.

 Those who dwell at the ends of the earth tremble at your marvels; the gates of the morning and evening sing your praise.

 You visit the earth and water it; you make it very plenteous.

The river of God is full of water; you prepare grain for your people, for so you provide for the earth.

  You drench the furrows and smooth out the ridges; you soften the ground with showers and bless its increase.

 You crown the year with your goodness, and your paths overflow with plenty.

 May the pastures of the wilderness flow with goodness and the hills be girded with praise.

 May the meadows be clothed with flocks of sheep and the valleys stand so thick with corn that they shall laugh and sing.

 Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit;  as it was in the beginning is now and shall be for ever.  Amen.”

The blessing going as follows:

“BLESSING OF THE WATER   

 As St Francis prayed with great gratitude for Sister Water, so we too come in prayer to God today, full of thanks for the life-sustaining generosity of his wonderful gift of water.     In her mysterious beauty, water causes the desert to bloom.  Each tiny drop among countless thousands of other drops does its work to water seeds and plants, to provide harvests to feed us and all creatures, to quench our burning thirst.     Like the body of the earth, our bodies too are over three-quarters’ water.  We are a water people.  We are a water planet.     O compassionate Creator God, whose spirit breathed over the waters at the dawn of creation, we seek forgiveness for our mindless use of water, we beg for wisdom to understand better how to conserve and cherish water, we ask healing for the ways that we abuse and contaminate water.     And what we ask for the creation around us, we ask too for our inner lives.  We welcome the gentle rain of your grace into our souls.  Come free us from hatred, greed, fear and our lack of love for your gifts to us.  Refresh us and renew us with your living streams of water that we may flow green and moist with life, hope and love for all that you have made.     We make this prayer through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen

We bless this well in the name of God, the Father who created us, the Son who redeemed us, and the Spirit who overflows with life within is.  Amen”

Then the following hymn is sung:

“HYMN All creatures of our God and King, Lift up your voice and with us sing: Hallelujah, hallelujah! Thou burning sun with golden beam, Thou silver moon with softer gleam: O praise Him, O praise Him, Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!

Thou rushing wind that art so strong, Ye clouds that sail in heaven along, O praise Him, hallelujah! Thou rising morn, in praise rejoice, Ye lights of heaven, find a voice: O praise Him, O praise Him, Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!

Thou flowing water, pure and clear, Make music for thy Lord to hear, Hallelujah, hallelujah! Thou fire so masterful and bright, That givest man both warmth and light: O praise Him, O praise Him, Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!

Let all things their Creator bless, And worship Him in humbleness, O praise Him, hallelujah! Praise, praise the Father, praise the Son, And praise the Spirit, Three-in-One: O praise Him, O praise Him, Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!”

All in all a great evocative holy well and it is great to see that it is still celebrated by its community. Hopefully more details of the custom’s establishment will come forward.

A Holy sepulchre Bunyan’s holy Well

The Holy Well by Diane Earl

The Holy Well by Diane Earl

“Just as Christian came up with the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell from off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.”

So writes John Bunyan in the puritan classic Pilgrim’s Progress, the sepulchre in question is believed to be Stevington’s Holy Well (SP 990 535) in Bedfordshire. Bunyan only lived five miles away and is known to have preached at the nearby cross and meadows near the well.

Bedfordshire itself is a poorly studied area for holy and healing waters, and Stevington’s sacred spring is the best known and more structurally significant in the county, although a similar structure can be seen at Biddenham Bridge. An account at the time of its listing in 1964 records:

“Well structure. Recess in churchyard wall at East end of church. Stone voussoirs in limestone rubble. Recently restored.”

The Holy Well too is in an unusual location situated beneath the Parish church arising from the rocky outcrop.  Such a location causes much debate amongst antiquarians. Was the church built upon a holy spring purposely to sanctify it? Was it a pagan site? Or is it coincidental? The church is dedicated to St. Mary

The earliest mention of the well is on the Enclosure Award of 1807 reference is made to Hallwell and Wells Pightle. The later 1883 calls it Holy Well. Neither suggests a dedication but as Harte (2008) in his English Holy Wells suggests it may be an ancient Saxon one.  However, Fisher (1812) in the Gentlemen’s magazine records:

“From the rock on which Stevington Church is built issues a spring of clear and most excellent water. This spring is called in old writings, and even to the present time, Holy Well. The principal stream proceeds from the arched recess under the north chancel of the church.”

What these old writings are is unclear, antiquarian Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of Holy Wells records:

There is a well or spring at Stevington-on-Ouse, seven miles up the valley from Bedford. On the ordnance six-inch map it is engraved “Holy Well,” in Old English lettering, a plan adopted by them for distinguishing ancient buildings or relics from modern institutions. Stevington holy well is arched over, and built into the churchyard wall of St. Mary’s Church, and abuts upon the modern alluvium of the Ouse, which there forms a considerable flat. The church stands on rising ground, formed of alternating beds of limestone and clay, which holds up the water percolating the limestone-hence, probably, the spring. The water was clear, sparkling, and tasteless, although I was prepared to find it a mineral water of some kind. At one time people visited this holy well in considerable numbers, but, like many others, it appears now to have lost its popularity.”

This lack of regard for the spring is suggested by Harvey (1972-8) in his Hundred of Willey who notes:

“It was the customary to wash sheep from Carlton Hill Farm, and from Stagsden, as well as from Stevington, in Holywell” 

J. Steele Elliott (1933) work on wells of the county in the Bedfordshire Historical Records Society , so far the only account notes that the Manor house was used for ‘invalids and pilgrims attracted by the well’s virtues’.  One of these virtues was to cure eye complaints as well as its waters being renowned in not freezing or drying out.  However, Elliott is probably confusing the manor house for the Hospitium the ruins of which were there in the 1600s and may have been built for pilgrims visiting the well but there is no evidence for either being used!

Well dressing

It would seem that this venerable holy well however is having a new lease of life as a site of well dressing.  This first begun in 2012 for the Jubilee, using a design being based on Bunyan’s Christian standing by the cross and his burden rolling into the said sepulchre, taken from the Parish church and a naturally fitting design. In 2013 they used the window in Bunyan’s Bedford church showing him imprisoned writing from his illuminated cell. Both considering the ‘immaturity’ of the team was brilliantly done.   An account in the St Mary the Virgin Stevington newsletter June 2013 records:

“One of the biggest labours was the Well Dressing. This year Jane O’Connor led a team of volunteers patiently pricking in everything from petals to grasses, from seeds to egg shells to form the representation of the famous picture of Bunyan languishing in his prison cell. An innovation this year was the second collage prepared by the children, somewhat optimistically titled ‘Sunny Stevington.’  In the event the optimism was justified; we had the best two days weather wise of the year so far. We welcomed the Bishop of Bedford for his first visit to Stevington. He rose to the occasion and managed in his sermon to bring together the significance of the Bunyan, the Well and the visit of the Virgin Mary to her cousin Elizabeth under the theme of pilgrimage. The choir sang as well as I have heard and the service was completed with a procession for the Bishop to bless the Well followed by refreshments back in church. It was really gratifying not only to see so many in church, but also to note the number of people who appeared just to see the well dressing.

And long may this tradition continue and bring more modern pilgrims to be drawn into the peaceful place which is Stevington’s Holy Well.

A well for November: St Hilda’s Well Hinderwell

hinderThe village of Hinderwell is so named after one of Yorkshire’s most noted saints – St. Hilda.

Who was Saint Hilda?

Hilda was an Abbess of the early Christian abbey at Whitby in the 7th century. She is said to have had a retreat in the area which may have been associated with the spring and caused the church to be established there, although the current church is 18th century. A local legend says that she prayed for water and a spring arose.

Is it named after Saint Hilda?

There is some confusion over the origin of the name Hinderwell. The settlement was called Hildrewell which may possibly mean ‘elder spring’, but of course Norse influence could have affected Hilden changing it to Hildar.

Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore states that:

“Tradition says that the monks, in the journey between Whitby Abbey and Kirkham Abbey, always made this well one of their resting place.”

In the churchyard is preserved a delightful spring head enclosed in a stone chamber with coursed rusticated stone walls supporting a flat slab roof. It is reached by a flight of well worn steps

Early pictures show a pump and Hope (1893) states it was so covered. However, this was removed when it was restored in 1912 by a Hilda Palmer of Grimple Hall, when it was restored to something more fitting.

hinderr

Traditions

There does not appear to be any observation on St. Hilda’s patronal day on the 17th of November recorded, but the well was visited on Ascension Day as Hope (1893) notes:

“On Ascension Day the children of the neighbourhood assemble here carrying bottles containing pieces of liquorice, which they fill at the well. Hence Ascension Day is frequently termed Spanish-Water Day.”

In modern times the first Sunday in July has become a celebration of the well, although pilgrimage does occur on or near to the Saint’s day by local Catholic groups. It is during their services however that the water is the well is still blessed and taken I believe. During the July celebration well dressings are done, possibly Britain’s most northerly consisting of a triptych in July 2013 consisting of an image of the saint.

The evidence for a hermitage?

One aspect which strikes the visitor to Hinderwell is that the church and of course the spring is on a mound, an ideal shape and arrangement for a hermitage: In a way a symbolic island in a sea of wilderness. There is also good sea access from Port Mulgrave, meaning communication to Whitby where Hilda’s monastery existed.

St Hilda was associated by turning all the snakes in the area headless. They can be found in the rocks of the coast around here- we would call them ammonites.

 

A secluded well and chapel: Chadkirk’s St Chad’s Well and Chapel

Nestling in a quiet valley beneath the suburban overspill of Stockport is Chadkirk chapel and its well, protected in this cocoon in a country park.

St Chad's Well and Chapel (3)

A picturesque chapel

The first record of the Chapel is around 1306, but by the early 16th century it was referred to as a Chantry Chapel with a Chaplain, Ralph Green, in Valor Ecclesiasticus of 1535. This suggests a pre-Reformation chapel on the site perhaps nearer the well. However by 1621 when William Webb wrote about the Macclesfield Hundred he noted:

“At the foot of Werneth Low, towards the merzey, lies an old dearn and deavly chappell, so people call desert places out of company and resort: called Chad Chappell where seems to have been a monkish cell.”

An archaeological survey undertaken in 1994 showed that there was a previous chapel on the site which was the same size. The present chapel is aligned east west and is a simple two cell building much in keeping with an Anglo-Saxon style. The oldest part was revealed to be the north and east walls of the chancel. Upon these stone walls is a wooden frame in traditional Cheshire black and white style.

St Chad's Well and Chapel (6)

Is it an ancient well?

Middleton (1939):

“A picturesque well near the chapel – its walls built of rubble stone, covered with moss and ferns – bears the name of St Chad’s Well, or the Holy Well, and is traditionally said to have been the scene of miraculous cures.”

Despite this it is a problematic well, as it is first named in 1872 on the first Ordnance Survey. A stone found in a garden nearby at Romiley is mentioned on the information display board at the well is linked to the ancient British head cult, it shows three heads and its tentatively linked to the well…very I would say.

St Chad's Well and Chapel (4)The guide, A Short history of Chadkirk Chapel says:

“The well was probably here before that time but these small details were sometimes missed off the maps.”

The well house was probably built around 18th -19th century and is built of sandstone blocks having a doorway with a flat lintel where there is evidence of both inner and outer door. It was probably roofed protecting it. Three steps step down into a rectangular well chamber, with a chamber measuring 1.8m x 1.6m. The wells seem to have been repaired or renovated several times in the past.

Every year since 1998 at the end of July a well dressing of the Derbyshire style has been produced and it is opened by the Mayor and is associated with the very popular festival.

St Chad's Well and Chapel (5)St Chad's Well and Chapel (7)

What about St. Chad?

The earliest reference to the saint is possibly in the Domesday Book of 1086 as ‘Cedde’ although some believe that this refers to Cheadle. There is a tradition that the saint visited the area, but there is no direct evidence. Sadly, this is a trend quite common in wells associated with this saint.

St Chad's Well and Chapel (10)

A Norfolk field trip

In a previous post, I promised a return to Norfolk…I unfortunately haven’t physically been there but there are still some sites of which I can describe from my original survey.

GRIMSTON

grimstonLocated in a private garden is one of the least known holy wells is those found opposite the church called St. Botolph’s Springs (TF 721 219). It is absent from Harte’s work and I have been unable to find its origin. According to local tradition it apparently named after a local saint who baptised converts in them. Little appears to be recorded of him, but clearly the church was founded to Christianise the springs considering its proximity. These appear to be two in number and now flow to fill a large pool in the garden of the house opposite the church called The Springs. There is a small section of stone walling just above the first spring and the spring itself bubbles from underneath this through the chalk. The second spring arises similarly from under a ledge nearer to the church. Whether there are any old fragments of this site is unclear, especially as there appear to be no authorities to confirm that the truth behind the local saint.

 

THELNETHAM

Arises in a small copse of bushes on the edge of a field is St Mary’s Well (TM 021 781) whose waters were thought to be good for eyes. It was recently been tidied up with a new fence erected around it although it is a simple spring. There as a number of small stones lying around suggesting a possible structure. 

WEREHAM

wereBetter reported St Margaret’s Well (TF 680 017) is noted by Chambers (1830) as:

“…to the west of the church is St. Margaret’s Well, at which, in the times of popery, the people diverted themselves on that saint’s day with cakes and ale, music and dancing; alms and offerings were brought, and vows made: all this was called Well worship”.                                                                             The site still arises beside a circular pond fills a small foot wide basin beneath a small obelisk.           Water flows sluggishly from this structure but clearly contributes to the pond beside it. No casual visitor would      identify the well as it does not have any sign.

EAST DEREHAM

East Dereham boasts one of Norfolk’s best and most interesting holy wells. This is St. Withburga’s Well (TF 988 134) which arises behind the church through a flint and stone archway in front of the well basin is a stone coffin lid.  The site is protected by railings and since the 1990s there has been a well dressing although not in a Derbyshire style. In 1757 there was an attempt to convert the spring into a minor spa, although never referred to as such. A bath house was constructed over the well and this was restored in 1786 and 1792-3 the latter being undertaken by local man Sir John Fenn and his committee established to repair and maintain the structure. This resulted in a brick built classical building being erected over the well. However, this was finally removed in the 1850s by the Rev Benjamin Armstrong who opposed the structure.

The well is associated with Saxon St. Withburga, daughter of King Annas who died in c 743. The spring is said to have arisen after the monks of Ely Cathedral stole the saint’s relics.

Chambers appears to suggest that there is another St. Withburga’s Well (TF 986 133) some distance from the churchyard but gives no further details. This would appear to have been that at Old Becclesgate where it lay in the garden, however in the cellar which shows evidence of the building being probable monastery site was a supposed well said to be a holy well. Neither site appear to exist.

NORWICH

norwichRecords show that St Lawrence’s Well (TG 228 089) in the time of Edward I was a common well and probably served Fullers Hole, where cloth was cleansed and thickened.  In 1547 the Court granted the parishioners the lane from the High Street to the well, together with the said well, on the condition that they erect the door at the south end of the lane and keep it open in the day, and shut up securely at night. However, in 1576, Robert Gibson was given a grant of the said lane, or entry, and the well, and had thus to provide at his own charge access to the well. It states:

‘He shall bring the water from the said well in a cock of lead, into the public street, for the ease of the common people, and shall maintain the same.’

In latter times this site was known as St Lawrence’s Pump, and following inscriptions had been applied:

“This Water here cavght,  In Sorte as yowe se. From a Spring is brovghte, Threskore Foot and thre. Gybson hath it sowghte, From Saynt Lawrens Wel.”

The site appears in drawings by Cotman (1818) and Willis (1885). Suffling (1887) notes that:

“A few years since, Mr Harry Bullard, a brewer, and well-known patron of his city, transformed it into a public drinking fountain.”

After a number of years of looking rather sorry for itself this is without doubt the most splendid of the wells in this survey, resplendent in its guilt and painted brick work.

 Copyright Pixyledpublications

A Huntingdonshire field trip

Huntingdonshire is not a county associated with holy wells and healing springs but during my research a number of interesting sites are still to be found in the county

HUNTINGDON

It is good to see the county town has still retained a site which Dr Daniel Layard (1759) described as spring to the north of Huntingdon as:

“The pure and limpid water called Horse-Common Water at Huntingdon, remarkable for its softness and little sediment.”

So it is still found, the Horse-Common water (TL 238 726) named after the area of land it is found in. Today this common is an odd relic surrounded on all sides by modern housing and a leisure centre. The spring produces a fine flow and is responsible for the marshy area here and its own survival; it would be an unsuitable area to build on. The spring arises from a substantial structure, with steps down to the water which flows out at some force and forms a channel through a paved area. An older structure can be observed within the more modern well house. There was a cast iron lion’s head where water flowed out of its mouth via a pipe and a chain with a cup beside it. All evidence of this has gone.

Local people state that they used it to wash their hair as it was better than tap water and picked water cress around the area. There appears to be no record of any medicinal use although it is clear that it was so regarded. Can we suggest considering its proximity to a Roman road, that it was known by Huntingdon’s Roman inhabitants? This site was also called Cowper’s Spring, associated with poet William Cowper who had a bath house built and presumably what remains are the relics of this.

LONGSTANTON

Lying in the churchyard of the thatched chapel of St Michael, is a particularly fine example of a baptismal well, called Holy Well or St Michael’s Well (TL 403 658) However before the arrival of a Mr and Mrs Brown to the village the site was very neglected and little known.  The well settles under a large tree in the corner of the tree which may be significant and is enclosed in a yellow brick half barrel well house, at the back of this is a cross shaped window. This has been erroneously reported to project the image on the head of the baptised individual. However, I was informed by Mrs Brown that there was no evidence to support this although it is an interesting theory. The well arises in a shallow circular well with a gravel substrate (the source of the water is not clear), and is approached by a series of steps between two low walls and black metal railings which encircle this approach to the well with a small gate. A black metal guard has been placed in front of the well, and this can be raised to give access.

There would seem to be local disagreement over the use of the well and indeed whether it was dedicated at all! Its proximity to the church suggests its use in baptisms, although no clear records could be found. Notwithstanding, Mr Brown did speak to an elderly lady whose mother was baptised in it about 100 years ago.

Well dressing was introduced in 1986 making two of Cambridgeshire’s Holy wells that have had this distinction. The dressing consists of a tryptic arrangement with a variety of images and motifs: The Golden Hind with bells and anchors; East Anglian Life: a windmill and church; The Harvest is ripe. A number of photographs of these ceremonies are displayed in the porch of the church. Sadly lack of interest within the village seems to have caused the abandonment of the ceremony, as it was only Mrs Brown and another elderly lady doing the rather time consuming work. Hopefully one day it will be restored.

PAPWORTH ST AGNES

Arising in a boggy hole is St Agnes’s Well or Nill Well (TL 268 625).The spring area is stained red indicating it schalybeate nature but it is difficult to discern exactly where the spring arises. It is found in a small copse just off a small road. Does the name Nill refers to fairies? Possibly not as there was a Gilbert de Knille recorded as a landowner in 1279, but did he get his name from the well? Which St Agnes is referred to is unclear especially as the much restored church is dedicated to St. John the Baptist and this likely that as Reaney (1943) notes that the village takes its name from Agnes de Papewurda. It is possible that this is the spring noted by Scherr (1986); recorded as Anneiswell, in the 13th century. Someone along the way has made the site related to a saint byb accident                    

Blessing the Wells at Tissington Well dressing

Tissington in Derbyshire claims to be the oldest continued well dressing tradition. Well dressing being almost a Derbyshire speciality (although it has spread to neighbouring counties and beyond these in the twentieth century) is for those unfamiliar where clay is placed upon frames and an image pressed into this by using flowers, leaves and seeds. The art work produced can be of fantastic, but due to the spread of the tradition this quality varies greatly as do the themes, unsurprisingly the Olympics and Jubilee figure largely in 2012 designs. One of the best places to see the tradition is at Tissington, where not only is the art work very high quality, but the theme is very tradition taking biblical themes.

Furthermore, it is considered the oldest location. Local tradition, although I have been unable to verify states that the springs were dressed as a thanks for survival from an outbreak of the Black death in 1349, the local populace believing that the quality of the water was the reason for their survival, apparently only one person died whilst it ravaged through the local area. This notwithstanding, a severe drought, recorded in nearby Youlgreave parish registers where between the 25th March and August 1615 when only three showers fell may be the source of the custom. However, the earliest written reference, quoted by Christian (1966) states that in 1748 Nicholas Hardinge, clerk of the House of Commons recorded:

At Tissington, FitzHerbert’s village we saw springs adorned with garlands; in one of these was a tablet inscribed with rhymes, composed by the local schoolmaster in honour of the fountains, which as FitzHerbert informs me are annually commemorated upon Holy Thursday, the minister with his parishioners praying and singing over them.”

Certainly this reference suggests that the tradition was older then 1748 and although the dressing may have been cruder than today’s effort it does appear to have been showing some development beyond garlands. It is reported in 1758 that the well nearest the church was certainly dressed and perhaps given their name of St. Helen may have been some a left over from dressing of a holy well (although Lord St. Helens was the brother of the first Tissington baronet so it would be a big coincidence!). A report in the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1794 noted:

“it has been custom, time immemorial, on every Holy Thursday, to decorate the wells with boughs of trees, garlands of tulips and other flowers, placed in various fancied devices; and after prayers for the day at the church, for the parson and singers to pray and sing psalms at the wells.”

Today there are five wells dressed, certainly in their own right without the dressings, a number of these wells are quite interesting and impressive. The most impressive being that as noted dressed the longest the Hall or St. Helen’s, Hand’s Well named after a local family (as our the following) with its oval basin, Yew Tree or Goodwin Well, Coffin or Frith’s Well and Town Well.

However, it is not until 1817 that a report makes it clearer that boards were being reused each year, in Brayley’s Graphic and Historical Illustrations in The Mirror of Literature, amusement and instruction:

“The well that pleased me most was one that stood in a retired garden, it had an arbour formed from trees with wreaths of laburnum and the common blue hare-bells thrown over, at the top was a picture of pity (holding a medallion of the King), bending to Hygeia, with her accustomed offerings of fox gloves. The drapery of the figures defied all description. The colours were so well chosen.”

A report in 1839 appears to be the earliest definite report of the dressing being a design. A local report stating:

“The stems and flowers are closely inserted, and a brilliant mosaic is thus prepared, forming as it were, a ground work for various ornamental designs, as crowns and stars, and appropriate mottoes, chiefly from scripture, which are most imperiously introduced.”

Indeed, it is clear that the blessing of the well was well established in its modern format by then. One thing that these early reports emphasis is the hospitality of the local people where all and sundry opened their houses, including Tissington Hall, to the visitors indeed it is noted there is

“Open house was kept by everyone according to their means and all comers are received with welcome.”

Indeed many people did come to the wells and that in 1800s that Ashbourne people were ‘ keen to get a lift on a horse, or anything that pulled, in order to get there with the least inconvenience’. Indeed, as the Revd Ward noted in 1827 that the day was ‘concluded with utmost hospitality and festivity.’

Little has changed in the intervening 150 or so years and the village whether on the morning of the blessing of any day until their dismantling is a throng of people, car parks are full, coaches line the main street and although it does sometimes look like all of Darby and Joan has descended upon the village, children can be seen taking full advantage of any ice-cream available!

Interestingly by the end of the nineteenth century Tissington was described as where “the spiritual character and quaint simplicity of well dressing is maintained..elsewhere in Derbyshire has degenerated.”

Perhaps this was a statement on the quality of the dressings or the maintenance of the tradition which has apparently only been broken three times in the last 100 years. The obvious times being the Wars, indeed the last war appears to have caused a considerable gap in the proceedings as Porteous (1949) in his ‘The Beauty and Mystery of Well dressing’ counts himself fortunate that he did not seek out the Tissington dressings before other lesser known sites, as the tradition being in abeyance in the village may have led him to the belief that it had died out elsewhere. He notes that it was hoped that Tissington would start dressing again in 1950. The third time was during the Foot and Mouth Outbreak of 2001!

Ten years only from that cancellation, 2011 I was able to see the blessing, traditionally held on Ascension Day every year (a variable date in either May or June-it was June 2nd in 2012). After a service in the church, the procession led by the vicar Revd Andy Larkin with the Archdeacon of Chesterfield, the Venerable Christine Wilson, the FitzHerberts and choir left the church and made their progress around the village to bless the wells. At each a reading was given, a hymn sung and a blessing made with a large congregation of onlookers.

All in all a delightful day, the artistry of the wells particularly that of the Hands well with its topic Royal Wedding theme was much to admired…as was the Stilton Sandwich…which had virtually a wedge of Stilton! Hospitality is still considerable on Well dressing days..

A Huntingdon Holy well: The Holy well of Holywell-cum-Needingworth

The county is not well known for its holy wells, however a number of interesting sites can be found; one of these being the eponymous holywell of this settlement. This settlement on the banks of the Stour owes its name to the presence of a clear and never failing spring, called simply the Holy Well (TL 336 707) that arises at the junction of gravel and Ampthill clay. This well was may have been known in Roman times, indicated by the discovery of Roman coins and pottery in the churchyard and rectory grounds. These are now in the Norris museum. First mentioned in a will of 986 when an Athelstan Mannessune bequeathed to Ramsey Abbey ‘de terra… de Haliwella’. By the time of the Domesday 1086,, the settlement Haliewelle is noted with the names Haliwell, 1231, Halliwell, 1350 and even Hallowell, 1601, before settling as Holywell in the 1700s.                                                                                          

It maybe that the Christian history is associated with the 7th Century Bishop of Persia, St Ivo, whose relics were held at the nearby town of St Ives. Pilgrims would rest and drink here after or before taking the ferry across the Stour to and from the St Ives’ Shrine. Whether the dedication of the well was the same is unclear, as the well lies the Parish church of St John the Baptist, it is possibility that it too was dedicated to St John.

Despite its age, Tebbutt (1938–47) states that:

“I cleared outthe basin in 1936, and only found one penny dated 1905.”

The present structure was constructed in 1845 by Rev. S.B. Beckwith, the rector, which covered the mediaeval 13th century stone ring (Kelly (1910) notes 1847). This structure is an attractive yellow brick dome. A metal plaque is set into the arch recording its name. However, direct access to the well is impossible as a black metal frame covers the entrance; however the spring can be sampled, as it gushes forth by some force below the well. Until the 1940s this well was the only source of domestic water and was also still used for baptism.

The spring had a reputation for healing, Terbutt (1938-27) notes:

“About 1933 the late MrsYeatherde saw a woman sitting with her feet in the well to cure a foot complaint. In1935 I was told… that people often came to bathe for such complaints as sore eyes.In the previous year a boy with a sore on his forehead that would not heal, came and bathed it with water from this well, and it at once healed up.”

The site was restored in the 1980s, as three elms, whose roots were undermining the structure and making it thus unsafe, were damaging the fabric. Hence after the death of these trees due to Dutch elm disease, it was decided to restore and repair the well. Volunteers and the Parochial Council set to remove the trees and after measuring the structure and making a template of the arch, together with photographs: the repairs could be done, after diverting its flow of course.

It was found that the foundations and walls were in a very bad state and this required removing the structure down to the original 13th Century stone ring. Care was taken as to save as many of the old bricks, and these were incorporated into the new structure with matching old bricks supplied by a local builder. To eradicate future problems of tree damage, the area around the well was cleared right back and four ft high retaining walls were constructed from old facing bricks backed with engineer bricks and the surrounding well area covered in crazy paving. Further improvements to ensure safety, including new fencing and easier access to the spring outlet were made and the area was improved with the planting of 800 spring bulbs. Today thanks to the restoration the site is a pleasing place for contemplation.

An annual well dressing ceremony was also introduced and this is carried out on the Patronal day of 24th June, that of St John the Baptist since 1982. It involves a mud and dried flow technique, the Derbyshire technique, and the placing of a wreath around the arch. In 1982 the motif was peace with a dove and church and a yellow rose as the designs either side of the arch’s finial. Then, as since, the dressing receives the blessing of the Bishop of Ely or Huntingdon and the display remains for ten days. Today the well entrance is filled by a plaque also dressed and in 2012 the Royal Jubilee is the topic.