A cursory check of the internet will show the perceived view of rag wells – most commonly called – clootie wells are that they are a Celtic pagan as summed up by the 21st century source of all information it seems Wikipedia:
“Clootie wells (also Cloutie or Cloughtie wells) are places of pilgrimage in Celtic areas.”
The online article goes on to list three sites in Scotland, Cornwall and Ireland – to emphasise this! However, the earliest recorded site is not only in England, but a fair distance from traditional Celtic homelands being on the north east in Yorkshire!
It is in 1600 work of A Description of Cleveland in a Letter Addressed by H. Tr. to Sir Thomas Chaloner earliest reference is made to an association with a well. It describes St. Oswald’s Well, Great Ayton that:
“they teare of a ragge of the shirte, and hange yt on the bryers thereabouts”.
Francis Grose in his 1773 The Antiquities of England and Wales also records that:
“Between the towns of Alten and Newton near the foot of Roseberrye Toppinge there is a well dedicated to St Oswald. The neighbours have an opinion that a shirt or shift taken off a sick person and thrown into that well, will show whether that person will recover or die; for if it floated it denoted the recovery of the party; if it sunk, there remained no hope of their life: and to reward the saint for his intelligence , they tear off a rag off the shirt and leave it hanging on the briars thereabouts: where I have seen such numbers as might have made a fayre rhime in a paper mill.”
However by Rev. John Graves 1808’s The History of Cleveland all mention of hanging rags appears forgotten or not known by the author who states that:
“Within the parish, at the northern extremity of Cliffrigg-Wood, and about two hundred paces to the eastward from Langbargh-Quarry, there is a copious spring of clear water, called Chapel-Well, which had formerly a bath &c. and was, till of late years, much resorted on the Sundays in the summer months by the youth of the neighbouring villages, who assembled to drink the simple beverage, and to join in a variety of rural diversions. But the harmlessness of this innocent recreation was at length destroyed by Spiritous liquors, furnished by the village-innkeepers: when the custom became discountenanced, and was soon after discontinued”
Yet when the Rev. George Young in his 1817 History of Whitby he does refer to the festivities but mentions the rags suggesting the custom was still concurrent:
“At the north end of Cliffrigg Wood, a little to the east of Langbargh quarry, is a copious spring, once the resort of superstition. It was supposed that when a shirt or shift was taken from a sick person and thrown into this well, the person would recover if it floated, but would die if it sunk. A rag of the shirt was torn off and hung on the bushes, as an offering to St Oswald, to whom the well was dedicated; and so numerous were the devotees, that, as an ancient writer states, the quantity of rags, suspended around the well, might have furnished material for a ream of paper. It is called Chapel Well, having once had a chapel, or cell, beside it, with a bath and other conveniences. As superstition is the handmaid of impiety, it is not surprising to find that a sunday fair was held here for many ages: this disgraceful nuisance is now happily removed.”
Perhaps the loss of the merrymaking resulted in a loss of the custom as when Frank Elgee visited in the 1930s noted in his 1957 A Man of the Moors, extracts from the Diaries and Letters of Frank Elgee (published in 1992) he described as:
“18 July 1936. “This evening we took the bus to Langbaurgh Quarries to examine the site an ancient Chapel and its sacred Well, which are close by…a spring flowing out of an iron pipe to meet a pool muddied by the feet of cattle”.
He had hoped to find fragments of the garments hung over the pool, in past times, as charms against disease, but was disappointed.
The site today?
A visit by Graeme Chapel on the Yorkshire holy well website noted that:
“The site of this once famous well is located just to the north of Great Ayton village, in a small fenced off area at the edge of a grassy field. Today the well is a wet boggy area at the foot of a Hawthorn bush (dead?). The wells healing waters appear to have had chalybeate properties, as orange-red deposits are still visible on the boggy surface of the spring, unfortunately the spring head is now so choked that the waters seep away instead of flowing along its former drainage channel. However probing through the mud reveals what may be a paved or cobbled area in front of the spring.
Finding the exact site was a bit of a challenge. Despite being marked on the old OS maps and guidance: a couple of sites appeared to suggest to be the exact one. Sadly it was completely forgotten – no rags and not even any water – but the indication of a dead hawthorn and a soft soil suggests the correct site. No sign of any pavement except some stones nearby and no chalybeate water! Unfortunately, it was largely inaccessible being surrounded by barbed wire! However, archaeologically it would sound that may would possibly be some significant remains hereabouts – not only a well, but a bath and suggestive by the name a chapel perhaps?
Graeme Chapel’s excellent Yorkshire holy well continues:
The well lies on the parish boundary between Great Ayton and Guisborough, while to the west of the well a little used single track railway line lies a little too close for comfort, but the view to the east is dominated by the mountain-like peak of Roseberry Topping (anciently called Odinsberg) where legend has it, Oswy, the young son of king Oswald, drowned in the Odinsbery spring high up on the hill top.
A footpath leading up to the summit passes near to the well and it is possible the two places were connected in local tradition.”
Now the Odinsbery spring has often been confused with the chapel well and as Chapel notes it seems likely the two were linked. The legends associated with this site deserve a full exploration but what is interesting is that Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary lore of holy wells records a version of the legend of Oswy, the ill-fated drowned son of Oswald:
“strolling out one day with her child, they met a party of gipsies, who were anxious to tell her the child’s fortune. After being much importuned, she assented to their request. To the mother’s astonishment and grief they prognosticated that the child would be drowned.”
Why do I make reference to this? Well one of my theories about rag wells is their association with the travelling community and although this does not explicitly mention the well it suggests that gypsies were found in the area. Indeed I saw several traditional pony and trap and caravans in the area. However, it is clear that everyone has forgotten this spring!
Holy well hunting can be a tough activity; covered in nettles, cuts, mud and water and still you may only find a boggy hole or concreted site. Even when it seems simple ie marked by a roadside it is not always easy. Therefore this is why it is important to search for wells in the winter month summed up by this comment on Geograph by a Humphrey Bolton :
“I had looked for this in vain several times, but was eventually informed by a lady of 90 years that it is under a hawthorn bush. After cautiously entering the bush from the side, removing a few nettle stems, I was able to take this photograph. Apparently it is opened up as necessary in times of drought, so there must be a stone slab under the twigs and soil.”
Thus in February I searched for the Lady well at Hartshead.
An ancient pre-Christian well
The Rev H. N Pobjoy in their 1972 ‘Story of the ancient parish of Harthead and Clifton’, states it may well have been here before the church which dates to 500 A.D in foundation. The author also states that it is possible that its waters were used by St. Paulinus to baptism local converts. The saint was based at Dewsbury so it is possible. It is also said that the church of St. Peter is aligned to the equinoxes which may indicate some pre-christian observations at the site. In the churchyard is a venerable yew said to predate the church as well. One wonders whether the church was once dedicated to St Mary originally?
It’s Kirklees so there must be a Robin Hood association
Not far from Hartshead is Kirklees were one can find Robin Hood’s grave. Therefore it would not be surprising to hear that no only did he use the yew tree in the grounds of the church for his bow – perhaps the famed one which he shot for the location of his burial – but he drank of the spring water.
Difficult to find?
In away the well being covered by the only large tree along Lady Well Lane means it is easy to find – well in winter anyway. As such I pushed back the branches beneath. The side closest to the road appeared to be closed over and covered in earth but I had heard that the site was a trough split in two. Jumping over the fence I found the other side of the trough and this was full of water. This was in line with what has been reported about the site being purposely closed up and only opened in times of drought.
Val Shepherd in their Holy Wells of West Yorkshire and the Dales in 2002 notes that there was in 1925-7 a historical pageant enacted about the church and that the area was associated with Whitsun walks. She also draws an association with Walton Cross – a cross base – derived from O.E Wagstan meaning a ‘guide’ post and was on the boundary of Bradford/Kirklees and their may have been an association with the holy well.
It would be good to see the Lady Well be restored as stated by Shepherd but at least as long as the lane is named after it it will be remembered and easier to find!
To those reading this blog, who may not be overly familiar with the study of Holy wells and healing springs, may be familiar with the throwing of coins into springs. However, this is a relatively recent invention, before this activity, itself of course quite expensive in older times – pins were used.
Pins you may ask? Why would you have a pin on you? Well of course in those days pins were commonly used, especially by women to hold hats on and so were generally available. A glance through works such as Jones on Holy Wells of Wales and Hope’s Legendary Lore of Holy Wells produces quite a number.
The custom was quite widespread from Northumberland (Worm Well) to much of Wales where at for example at Ffynnon Enddwyn, Merioneth, Wales evil spirits were ward off by doing so. At Piran’s Well, Cornwall, Hope (1893) tells us:
“Beside a path leading to the oratory of St. Pirian’s, in the sands, there is a spot where thousands of pins may be found. It was the custom to drop one or two pins at this place when a child was baptized.”
At Bede’s Well, Jarrow Durham, as noted before ill children were brought to the well and crooked pin was put in and at St. Helen’s Well, Sefton, Lancashire would inquire about the fidelity of their lovers, dates of marriage etc by as Hope (1893) notes:
“the turning of the pin- point to the north or any other point of the compass.”
In Chepstow, Monmouthshire a well called, the Pin Well, Hope (1893) again notes:
“those who would test the virtues of its waters said an ave and dropped a pin into its depth.”
Certain days were associated with giving pins. May time, particularly at St Maddern’s Well, Madron the first Thursday in May to consult this oracle by dropping pins states Borlase (1769) in his Antiquities of Cornwall.The Wishing well of St. Roche, Cornwall it was visited on Holy Thursday or Ascension Day. At Wooler, Northumberland, the Pin Well was visited by a procession of people from the village on May Day and each would drop a crooked pin into it and made a wish. Cruelly bent pins were daily thrown into St. Warna’s Well, Isle of Scilly to wish for ship wrecks! However in the majority of cases it was for a benefit of the depositer in a positive way. Quiller Couch in Holy Wells of Cornwall (18??) notes that at Menacuddle Well:
“On approaching the margin, each visitor, if he hoped for good luck through life, was expected to throw a crooked pin into the water, and it was presumed that the other pins which had been deposited there by former devotees might be seen rising from their beds, to meet it before it reached the bottom, and though many have gazed with eager expectation, no one has yet been permitted to witness this extraordinary phenomenon. “
There appears to be an association with fairies and pins. At the Pisky Well, Altarnun Hope (1893) states:
“In the basin of the well may be found a great number of pins, thrown in by those who have visited it out of curiosity, or to avail themselves of the virtues of its waters. A writer, anxious to know what meaning the peasantry attach to this strange custom, on asking a man at work near the spot, was told that it was done “to get the goodwill of the Piskies,” who after the tribute of a pin not only ceased to mislead them, but rendered fortunate the operations of husbandry.”
Such an association appears as far north as Cartmel, Cumbria. Stockdale, in Annals of Cartmel notes:
“Near to this holy well are two cavities in the mountain limestone rock called the ‘Fairy Church’ and the ‘Fairy Chapel,’ and about three hundred yards to the north there used to be another well, called ‘Pin Well’, into which in superstitious times it was thought indispensable that all who sought healing by drinking the waters of the holy well should, on passing it, drop a pin; nor was this custom entirely given up till about the year 1804, when the Cartmel Commoners’ Enclosure Commissioners, on making a road to Rougham, covered up this ‘Pin Well’. I have myself long ago seen pins in this well, the offerings, no doubt, of the devotees of that day.”
In many places, such as at St. Philip’s Well, near Keyingham, Yorkshire girls would caste pins for love predictions. At Brayton Barf, Yorkshire, a reason for this is given. A local woman is said to have been enchanted by the fairies looking into a well here and they appeared to explain to her their need for pins. Apparently, they used hawthorn thorns for their arrows and these were very ineffective but some of the fairy folk had noticed that the pins used by local women would be an ideal replacement. However, the fairies had no real way of obtaining the pins by enchantment and so they arranged that any women who visited the well and dropped a pin would find out the identity of their true love reflected in the water. After awaking from her enchantment she threw a pin in and she saw the face of her sweetheart and so spread the news and the fairies got their arrows! Sadly, the well is lost. However, the tradition has spread as far as Rhosgoch in Herefordshire where Hope (1893) was told:
“who haved close to the well for two years, tells me that the bottom was bright with pins — straight ones he thinks — and that you could get whatever you wished for the moment the pin you threw in touched the bottom.” ” It was mostly used for wishing about sweethearts.”
Despite this rather imaginative reason for dropping pins, why were pins dropped. Well in many cases, when the pin was bent, this action resembled that done in prehistoric times to swords deposited in ritual areas as votive objects. For example it may be significant that at some wells pricking the finger before casting it away may have had a deeper meaning. Does it represent a sacrificial aspect to giving a votive offering? So perhaps take a small pin box and caste a pin not a coin if you must.
One of the best signposted Holy wells, being signed from the town of Market Weighton! St Helen’s well is an evocative site. It is found to the south of the village lying in a wooded valley. The spring arises from a small cave and fills a triangular stone lined chamber. This structure has been linked to bathing but there is no evidence of such an activity and it may be more due to the water being used to fill the steam engines which used to pass by many years ago. Nevertheless this is a calm and charming site which has been considerably improved with a stone built well house enclosing and protecting the natural cave without detracting from the site’s ancient nature. Also below since I visited a local tree has become a considerable rag tree.
Smith (1923) notes:
“It is circular, built up with stone below and brick above, and roofed with corrugated iron, the approach being by four steps…the well like most old springs, has excellent water, bright and clear, and gives a never failing supply, the overflow finding its way to the Beck.
Also called the Quaker Well due the presence of a Quaker meeting house at the front of the house, it now apart from the roof much as Smith notes and is a charming and quiet shrine in a well manicured garden.
The site enclosed in North Cave Castle grounds, of which Smith (1923) notes:
“is situated not far from the church, and a short distance within the Park Gates of the Castle and quite near to the north side of the fishpond. Some years since it lay by the north of a road running from the Market-Place to the West End, but when the fishpond was made, the road was diverted, being brought more to the south and so away from the well.”
“The well is a clear and copious spring, and from time out of memory it is said to have given the whole place its water, and at a fire in 1875 at the Castle I am told, it supplied the water to the engine.”
“Now save the laming of cattle it is covered with a slab of stone.”
This has now been removed although a mess covers the spring head to prevent leaves entering. The area around the well has been gravelled and the well itself surrounded by stonework.
“At Great Hatfield, some half-mile from its beautiful cross, near the churchyard, and so originally not far from the south side of its former church lies the Well of St. Helen…the well flows from a bank and is covered with a roof of grass sods supported by walls. It is approached by four steps and a landing of stone facing east, its opening being at one protected by a door of which the frame only now remains.”
In 2014, on the 21st May a short service was held to re-dedicate this. In the mid 1990’s a committee was formed and the Well was reroofed. The work was completed in August 1995, the Well was dressed and a short service took place. This has happened nearly every year since.
“People would come to the Well and ask St. Helen for healing or to help with problems. The person would face East and put lace or a rag on the nearby hawthorn. This had to be done in secrecy at dawn. St. Helen’s is a rag well, (only a few remain throughout the country).”
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.
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.
Swathed in golden glistening daffodils is Wetherby’s Georgian Bath House, perhaps a little known relic from a bygone. Its golden stone shines in the spring sunshine and its restoration is a considerable testament to the Civic Trust in the town. Little is known of its history, the first record being in 1824 when the young 6th Duke of Devonshire sold Part 15a of lot 37 was described as:
“A valuable Paddock or croft, in which is a bath and Dressing Room near the River.”
Sadly the Chatsworth archives concerning Wetherby before 1824 have perished. In spite of extensive research we have been unable to identify the tenant at the time. Although the structure is typical of other similar bath houses in the country but few have survived of this quality. The bath house is divided into two sections. The upper floor is like a cottage with a room dominated by a fire place, this however was a warming room where you would warm up and socialise after a plunge. In the corner of the room near the entrance is a stairway which gives access to the sunken bath. This bath is eight feet by 12 and has a depth of five feet. This water of the bath is sourced by a spring and is reached by a series of steps in the corner. The bath is paved around and three alcoves are present. Interestingly outside is an oval pond with a sluice which could be used to control the depth of the pool taking excess water and channelling it down to the river below. When the site became forgotten and derelict is unknown, although by the late 1800s such sites were unfashionable. The bath house lay largely forgotten until the 1980s, when the Weir Preservation Trust successfully petitioned to list the site Grade II. The site was already fairly derelict with rotten roof timbers, and flooring which had collapsed into the pool below. Yet despite this the deterioration of the site continued with the loss of pan-tiles until the associated house being leased to Cheshire Homes allowed the gardens to be developed and restored. Restoration was estimated at £2500, and after some confusion and hard petitioning by the members of the society, the site became accessible to the public and made into a park.
Today, 12th February is the birthday in 1809 of Charles Darwin, an unusual point to make reference to perhaps on a site noting mainly holy wells, but he does have a link to the topic. For in 1859 he visited the White Wells in Ilkley. Set high above the picturesque small town, the small white cafe and plunge bath was first built in 1690, but considering the proximity of ancient remains around may have an earlier origin. The spring, the main source of the Town Brook, was further enlarged and improved in 1780 by a William Middleton consisting a plunge bath now surrounded by railings with steps going down. The bath was a rather brave move for any pilgrim, the long and rough walk across moorland, I visited in the summer and it was freezing, the plunge within the ice cold waters. Some visitors would have drunk from a fountain to the rear or taken a shower or douche in another bath room, now converted to the cafe.
The water Darwin took had no mineral within it and it seems ironic perhaps that its curative properties were derived from either its immense cold or faith, something Darwin perhaps was beginning to lose for his traditional Christian upbringing.
Darwin visited the White Wells in the autumn of 1859, an important date for him for it was the year he published his most famous work, Origin of Species and indeed it is suggested that he travelled to this then rather remote town to escape the unwanted publicity which was published later that year in November. However, he is also said to have been very ill during all of 1859, whilst he was finishing up the final draft of ‘Origin of Species’ and had originally planned to visit in July but delays in finishing the book meant it was not until 2 October, once John Murray Publishers were sent that he went. First he stayed at Ilkley Wells House, a homeopathic establishment run by Dr. Edmund’s until the 17 October they took lodgings in North House, Wells Terrace House, indeed he was still staying here when the book was published. From here, he wrote to his friend William:
“On Monday they all come from Barlaston to the above address & I leave the Establishment. The House is at the foot of a rocky, turfy rather steep half-mountain. It would be nice with fine weather; but now looks dismal. There are nice excursions & fine walks for those that can walk. The Water Cure has done me much good; but I fell down on Sunday morning & sprained my ankle, and have not been able to walk since & this has greatly interfered with the treatment…”
Clearly little has changed today as the walk is equally a rocky one especially on the way down! The they he referred to were his family and at the time he was. The so-called ‘Water Cure’ was thought to draw blood away from the internal organs and provide relief but as well as his sprained ankle, he also got boils on his legs and found the experience rather depressing it appears. Interestingly, two days before the publication of that book Emma, his wife and children left and he himself moved back to Wells House leaving finally in the 7th December to Kent.
A visit to Conisbrough, noted for its Norman castle should include a visitor to its holy wells. That is holy wells, as the town can claim two sites! Although according to the Conisborough website there appears to be a denial of this.
That which is called the Holywell or rather Holywell spring is found at the edge of Holywell road and the A630 Sheffield Road. It is a spring which appears to arise further up the hill in an area now covered in scrub and inaccessible. However, a very copious spring erupts at the base of the hill and as such has been the subject of various complaints. Despite this it remains and fills a large semi-circular pool surrounded by low walling. The spring was noted for its healthy waters and was used for brewing beer by Nicholsons Bros Brewery and one assumes some of the stone work dates from this. Little else is recorded of the site
Nearer the castle, and although dry it is more substantial is another site variously called the Town well or Well of St Francis. This is as Innocent (1914) describes it as:
“Covered by a curious little building very medieval-looking with ita chamfered plinth and steeply slanted roof”
Who the St Francis is, is unclear but Alport ( 1898) records the local tradition which states that he was a local holy man and probably not a true saint and it is interesting that a number of churches are dedicated to a St. Francis in Yorkshire. Interestingly, though the date of creation of the well is recorded and quite late compared to other local saints perhaps. It is said that in 1320 -1321 the village was suffering from a particularly terrible drought and this St. Francis, said to be an old and wise man was sought for his advice. He suggested that the local people cut a willow tree from Willow Vale and then as the people sang psalms and hymns he lead them through the church and priory grounds to the site of the well. At the spot St Francis then struck is and not only did a spring arise and followed for the next 582 years (for its sadly dry now) but the tree took root.
Sadly this tree has either died or was dug up but the well continued under the name of the Town well up until the early 1900s when mains water arrived. It is possible that the legend suggests the holy man may have been, in fact, Clark (1986) believes the story recalls a Pagan priest and that the legend was a legacy of Conisbrough’s pre-Christian past; certainly the reference to a willow indicates a water diviner.
The other area in Conisbrough where St Francis the older man is said to have done a similar ritual and found water is at a place called The Holy Well Spring of St Francis. In 2003 this holy well was restored by historian Bernard Pearson with the aid of Community service and a special service was held at St Peter’s church attended by the High Sheriff of South Yorkshire who than processed to the site, erroneously as it happens in a re-enactment that was associated with the town well. Indeed a plaque at the site makes this error clear.
Allport, C.H., (1898) History of Conisborough
Clark, S., (1986) The Holy well of Conisborough Source Old Series 5.
Innocent, C.F (1914-18) Conisborough and its castle Trans of Hunter Archeaology Society.
on the re-dedication of the well.