DIPPING WELLS: St Aldhelm’s well, Doulting, Somerset
|ISSUE ONE (MAY 2000)
DIPPING WELLS – Katy Jordan & Rich Pederick
|St Aldhelm’s well, Doulting, Somerset
by Katy Jordan & Rich Pederick
‘Near Doulting is still shown St Aldhelm’s Well of wonder-working water’ (Hope 1893, p.149). This quotation from the Tracts of M. A. Denham of Piercebridge near Darlington was originally published in the 1840s, and it indicates some tradition of holiness or healing at the well in the earlier years of the 1800s. Hope’s work is largely made up of quotations from previously printed sources, and he seems to have visited very few of the wells he mentions in his book, which is nevertheless the first real national study of holy & healing wells. But Dom Ethelbert Horne took the trouble to seek out the holy wells still extant in Somerset, and it is to him that we are indebted for the fullest description and history of St Aldhelm’s well yet in print (Horne 1923, p.26).
St Aldhelm and his well
The well is named after St Aldhelm, the great scholar-bishop of Sherborne, who according to legend was not above singing songs and juggling to keep the attention of the congregations which gathered to hear him preach. During his Visitation to Doulting, the site of a fine priory, he died, and the vigorous well of clear water was named after him from that day. (Farmer 1992, pp.13-14; Jones 1994, p.14) Two leaflets for sale in the church tell of slightly different local traditions about St Aldhelm and his well. The first tells of the use of the water for religious purposes: ‘A purely local tradition states that St Aldhelm did penance here by sitting in the well while he recited the psalter.’ The other appears to emphasise the healing qualities of the water: ‘Local tradition has it that St Aldhelm would sit in this bath when he was ill here shortly before his death in 709.’ In this case healing did not apparently take place! Nevertheless the well has kept a reputation both for sanctity and for healing, and it is its reputation for healing which must have led to its being developed as a bathing-place for pilgrims.
Local tradition, in asserting that the Saint bathed in the water, is simply following a recognised folkloric motif attaching to some holy wells. It seems the need to explain the reason for the water’s holiness in Christian terms has spawned a series of similar legends based on the concept of transference of holiness: either from living saint or from saintly relic to the water itself. We find the tale at St Neot’s in Cornwall of St Neot who habitually prayed when immersed up to his neck in the water of his well (Deane 1975, p.157); and in Lichfield St Chad did penance by standing naked in the icy water of St Chad’s well. (Hole 1965, p.83) Similar legends attach to holy wells all over the country. In the well-chapel at St Clether in Cornwall we find the waters of the well flowing through the chapel, beneath the altar, to a second dipping well set into the chapel wall, which was where the pilgrims would draw water and leave their offerings. It seems the water became more holy by flowing through the chapel itself – although this interpretation holds good only if Baring-Gould’s reconstruction of the well was an accurate reconstruction of its original arrangement. (Hulse, pers. comm., April 2000)
Structure of the well
The strong spring has, according to one church guide, a constant supply of excellent water and has never been known to fail even in times of extreme drought. Experienced well-hunters will recognise here yet another of the typical attributes of the holy well: an unfailing supply of water. The spring forms the source of the Doulting River, which flows on via Shepton Mallet, Dulcote, Coxley and Godley on its way to join the river Brue. The spring rises within the hillside below the church, and the spring flows out through two pointed arches which are set against solid rock. This forms one side of the wide and shallow bathing pool which leads down to an outflow which passes through a pumping-house to fill a drinking-trough in the lane below. There are various pieces of carved masonry lying around the well, evidence that in previous years the well was roofed over and made more attractive to the pilgrims who came to bathe in the healing water.
An active well-cult
When I first visited the well in spring 1996, I found an absolute gem of a well, the only one I have seen in this part of the West Country with a bathing pool. In a niche by the side of the pump-house I found a simple jam-jar filled with spring flowers, an offering of reverence to the well and its saint or indwelling spirit. On my second visit in mid-1998, there was no evidence of any offerings left here, but the church guide leaflet asserts that ‘Even at the present day healing powers are attributed to the water of St Aldhelm’s Well, and pilgrims still make use of it from time to time.’ Certainly the well is signposted and apparently cared for in a way which seems to indicate that this is important feature of the village.
Changes at the well
The latest visit was prompted by worrying reports from a colleague at the University of Bath that many of the trees around the well had been cut down and the area greatly spoiled. So on 22nd March 1999, a brisk spring day, we set out to see what damage had been done. It was not so bad as we had feared. It was clear that some form of reconstruction work was in progress. The wall had been rebuilt in a number of places and it was hooded in plastic. Certainly a large number of trees had been felled on the bank above and to the left of the well, and a large pile of debris was left lying, but there were still enough trees standing to make the area pleasant and attractive. My main concern was for the fate of the plants in the undergrowth, which were largely wild arum lilies and garlic flowers, both of which flourish in dappled shade. It remains to be seen whether the tree canopy remaining will be adequate to preserve the environment they need to survive.
The community cares for its well
A year later a follow-up visit seemed in order, and on 27th January 2000 I visited the well again. Things seemed little changed from the previous year, except that a few more trees had gone, the construction work on the wall had been finished, and some of the debris cleared. The area surrounding the well was now largely bare of trees, although mercifully some of them to the east of the well had been left standing. But at the church above the well I found welcome signs of progress. Inside the church I picked up the January 2000 issue of the Doulting, Cranmore, Dean and Prestleigh newsletter where I read:-
NOTES ON ST ALDHELM’S WELL
As most of you are aware, many of the trees near the Well had to be felled during 1999. In the felling some damage was done to the wall. We now have a situation in which it is necessary to do urgent repair work on the well, and to plant new trees.
A Working Group has been established to plan and organise this. On the group are representatives of the Shepton Mallet Trust, who at present own the Well, and Mendip District Council, together with members of the Parish Council and Parish Church Council, and a number of concerned individual villagers. It is hoped that the school will also be able to send representatives to the Working Group.
Further paragraphs dealt with the procedures for choosing and planting trees at the well, and for involving local residents in funding and planting.
In the church porch I found a notice which read:-
St ALDHELM’S WELL
This will mark the start of restoration work.
So it seems I had returned one day too soon to see real positive changes taking place here, as the village and concerned groups from the locality start the process of recreating their holy well’s peaceful, wooded environment. Only time will show how successful they will be. In the meantime LSJ will monitor progress here at Doulting, and feature updates in future issues. If any readers have more information about conservation work on St Aldhelm’s well, please email and tell us.
I am indebted to Tristan Gray Hulse for reminding me that St Clether’s well-chapel was largely reconstructed by Baring-Gould around the year 1900, thereby making any speculations based on details of its layout somewhat suspect.
The church of St Aldhelm, Doulting; St Aldhelm’s well. [2 ephemeral leaflets, different editions of the church guide, undated, unattributed].
Deane, Tony (1975). The folklore of Cornwall / by Tony Deane and Tony Shaw. London: Batsford. (The folklore of the British Isles).
Farmer, David Hugh (1992). The Oxford dictionary of Saints. 3rd ed. Oxford: OUP.
Hope, Robert Charles (1893); The legendary lore of the holy wells of England. London: Elliot Stock.
Horne, Ethelbert (1923); Somerset holy wells and other named wells. London: Somerset Folk Press. (Somerset Folk series; 12).
Jones, Alison (1994). The Wordsworth dictionary of saints. Ware: Wordsworth.