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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.