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?
One of the most curious holy wells is that which arises in a site called Mother Ludlam’s Cave. The Ludlam part of the name is interesting. Early accounts describe a Ludewell, Ludwell or Luddwell. The name is a curious one! A theory is proposed by John Aubrey who tells us that a King of the Saxon, called Lud came here to wash his wounds after a battle nearby. Another alternative view is that it derives from the Celtic God, Lud. He was said to be associated with healing and a number of wells may be named after him across the country from Lincolnshire to Derbyshire. A less romantic answer is that it comes from the same stem in which loud comes from. This is the view purported by the sign at the site describing it as a bubbling spring. Some authorities believe that the spring was originally called Ludewell, Ludwell or Luddwell and St. Mary’s Well are one in the same. However, this is not clear in The Waverley Annals, 1216 where it is clear there is a difference. It notes how the spring called Ludwell, which had supplied Waverley Abbey, failed and that a Brother Symon dug for fresh water and brought it together at a newly created spring;
“he collected a reliable spring of running water, by his enterprise, as it had not existed naturally… The spring is called St Mary’s well”.
Now what does this mean? Did he dig a well at the Ludwell site or find another? Is the spring arising from the cave the holy well or the original Ludwell. The problem with answering that question lies in the lack of any structural evidence at the site. However, the name St Mary’s Well only appears on the 1874 Ordnance survey map.
The legend of Mother Ludlam
A local legend tells of a local white witch or the fairies who would lend anything to anyone who would require it, especially the peasants, borrowing pots and pans, as long as they said: ‘Mother Ludlam, lend me….. And I shall return it in two days.’ However once she lent out a large cauldron, and never had it returned. Consequently she vowed never to lend another item, and moved away, and was never seen again. In another version the Devil stole it after being refused. He took off an in his leaps created the Devil’s Jumps nearby and dropped the kettle at Kettlebury! However, the Cauldron, thought to be a medieval one used to brew beer can still be found in Frensham Church. Another version, states that the local people did not return it.
Loss of goose!
Another local legend remarked upon at a number of holy wells, is that geese and ducks were lost in the cave and appeared several days latter rather worn out and featherless in Guildford, some eight miles away! The earliest reference to this story being 1787 and was published in Frances Grose’s fifth volume of The Antiquities of England and Wales.
Folly or natural?
The cave itself is interesting. Hewins (1961) in an article for the Journal of the Wessex Cave Club, the Moor Park Sandstone cave, describes it as being large for around 20 feet and then narrows but its passable for around 150ft to which the chamber narrows and is a foot or so high. The source of its formation largely being the stream, never known to dry, which flows through it. It is the larger of two caves nearby, the smallest named after a Victorian ‘hermit’ called Father Foot is nearby but lacks water. The name is significant does it rather remember the local monks or rather a hermit who lived here and administered people visiting the spring or looked after the supply for the abbey? Theses monks are thought to have possibly enlarged the caves but that seems unlikely. Why enlarge it and not protect it? Most orders who took control of wells made it very clear that they owned the water by enclosing their spring into conduit houses. Although trench work reported in 1985 by Jarrett in an article again in the Wessex Cave club journal called Mother Ludlam Cave recorded brickwork remains and mounds which appeared to be part of a formal garden and possibly cascades and reservoir rather than a conduit. Certainly, the evidence is in favour of much of the structure being of a grotto nature, an engraving from 1785 shows a natural cave with a paled fence around. This would appear to be the work of Sir William Temple who owned the land. A report by William Cobbett in his famed Rural Rides visiting in 1825 is interesting suggesting the presence of some infrastructure presumably as part of a folly such as iron cups, flooring seats and basins. It is said that whilst Temple’s secretary, famed author Jonathan Swift, wrote ‘The Tale of a Tub’ whilst resting in it. Cobbett sadly notes the decline which would be concurrent with decline in follies at this period, noting:
“Here I showed Richard “Mother Ludlum’s Hole”; but, alas! It is not the enchanting place that I knew it, nor that which Grose describes in his Antiquities! The semicircular paling is gone; the basins to catch the never-ceasing little stream are gone; the iron cups, fastened by chains, for people to drink out of, are gone; the pavement all broken to pieces; the seats, for people to sit on, on both sides of the cave, torn up, and gone; the stream that ran down a clean paved channel, now making a dirty gutter; and the ground opposite, which was a grove, chiefly of laurels, intersected by closely-mowed grass walks, now become a poor ragged-looking alder-coppice.”
However, Manning and Bray (1804–14) do not suggest any evidence of artificial structure in their account:
“there is a copious discharge of a pure, transparent water, issuing from the foot of a hill, and in the bed of a natural grot formed in the sandy rock… From this spring the several offices of Waverley Abbey, near half a mile distant, were supplied.”
Evidence of an ironstone arched entrance suggests a much later development than this and may have done during Victoria’s reign, post Cobbett to prevent its collapse. In the early 1990s years of neglect was evident inside which could be traversed within, although roof fails suggest it could not be entered with safety. Recently, there has been some concerted effort to preserve the site and a splendid metal gate has been affixed to it as well as an information board and the site certainly looks better than it did in the 1990s when I visited.
For more information check out James Rattue’s Holy Wells of Surrey http://www.amazon.co.uk/Holy-Wells-Surrey-James-Rattue/dp/0954463331