WELL RESTORED: A Village Well, Donhead St Mary, Wiltshire

A Village Well, Donhead St Mary, Wiltshire:
introductory article
by Katy Jordan with Penny Olson

Background to the project

In January 2000 I was contacted by Penny Olson of the Olson Design Group, Eastling, Kent. Her sister lives at Shute Farm in Donhead St Mary, in the south of Wiltshire, and near the farm at the top of the village street is a dilapidated well-house. Penny, a practising architectural designer who specialises in conservation projects, had been asked by her sister to restore the well in a style which harmonises with the village and with what is known of its original appearance.

Penny had been referred to me by the staff of Wiltshire Buildings Record and County Archaeology department, as they know of my interest in wells. She wanted to get my opinion on whether it would be desirable to restore the well-house, and also to know whether her initial designs for restoration were in keeping with the general design of well-houses in the county. She also wanted to know about any dangers inherent in the task.  Like most people, she associated ‘well’ with ‘deep hole’ and had been hesitant about investigating the structure in case she was pitched down a long shaft. I was able to reassure her at the outset that it was extremely unlikely that we were dealing with any kind of shaft-well at all, and certainly not a deep one. What she described to me had all the features of a well-house built over a spring, to preserve the purity of the water and keep out cattle and other undesirables. However, I suggested that she probe with a rod just to be on the safe side.

It was clear to me that Penny had prepared carefully for the task in hand. She had looked at the local styles of vernacular building, and had spoken to local people who could remember the well before it became so dilapidated. They spoke of a stone structure with a thatched or tiled roof. It was on these memories, observations, and her own assessment of the current well-site, that she had based her designs for a simple well-house with an iron gate. I sent her some photographs of well-houses, two from Wiltshire and two from Cornwall, to set beside her own designs, and in a subsequent discussion we both felt that her plans for reconstruction would harmonise well with the village’s own vernacular architecture and with other well-houses in the county.

Penny had also acquired a small amount of documentary information from the Wiltshire Buildings Record, an archive based at Wiltshire Library Headquarters in Trowbridge. This clearly needed following up, and as she was based in Kent this was proving very difficult. I undertook to do a little work at the County Local Studies Library in Trowbridge to see what I could discover in the literature and on maps, and this is where we closed our initial discussions.


Initial bibliographic work

   My first task at the library was to check a reference to a map in a book about the Donheads which Penny had already been given – Tregaskes, W.H. (1995). Donhead. Donhead: W.H. Tregaskes.

What I found in this book was a interesting mish-mash of information which did not inspire my confidence, but which raised various questions. Tregaskes was a Cornishman who had moved to the village and compiled a history of it. He makes no specific mention of the little well at the top of the village. He does write of a ‘Sacred Spring’, and shows its stream-course superimposed over what I identified as the Tithe Award map (c.1840).  Unfortunately the mapping is not very clear, and he gives no Ordnance Survey (OS) grid references, so identifying the spring on modern maps proved very difficult. As often happens in local publications, he uses local names for places (e.g. Glyn Farm) which are not marked on the OS maps, and this simply adds to the confusion. Moreover as I read I became more and more convinced that the sacredness of the spring was Tregaskes’ own invention. He cites no personal or bibliographic sources for his information.  For all I can tell he simply identified what he considered to be a significant local spring and deduced that it must be the local holy well, as he had been used to seeing them in Cornwall.

There were no other works on Donhead St Mary on the open shelves.  The next obvious steps would be to visit the County Record Office to consult the Tithe Map and any other relevant documents; and then to visit the Library of Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Society, to check their card index to Wiltshire Archaeological Magazine. Both these tasks would take more time than I had to spare at that time, so I headed off home to think about the best way forward.

The village well at Donhead St Mary

The current condition of the village well at Donhead St Mary, Wiltshire Katy Jordan, 2000

Initial fieldwork

Clearly the next step was to do some fieldwork, to try to identify the dipping well, and the ‘sacred spring’ and see if they were one and the same. So some weeks later I went down to Donhead, accompanied by Alison Borthwick, an archaeological consultant (and friend) who used to be Assistant County Archaeologist for the southern half of Wiltshire. Donhead is a straggling and rather confusing village, set upon a network of small lanes, but Penny’s directions had been clear, and we found the well immediately, at OSGR ST 903 246. It stands at the top of the village, at the point where two lanes converge to form the village street, just opposite a house called ‘Spring Cottage’. The well-house is in very poor condition: only the back wall still stands to any height at all. It is overgrown and the spring, if any spring still flows here, is clogged with rubbish and debris.

After looking at the well, Ali and I went on around the village, checking the lie of the land and working with Tregaskes’ minimal information to try to identify his ‘sacred spring’. Ali was soon convinced that our dipping well was also the spring Tregaskes writes of. She pointed out that it was placed in the right position above the village and in relation to the hills he mentions.  It would originally, like many village springs, have flowed downhill not in a ditch beside the lane, but down the lane itself and so as described past Tregaskes’ cottage to the river in the valley below.

The village well at Donhead St Mary

The ‘interior’ of the village well at Donhead St Mary, Wiltshire in its current condition Katy Jordan, 2000

Sacred or secular?

So what are we to deduce about Tregaskes’ claim of a sacred spring? At present the question must remain open. It may be that the village was founded around the spring, and that at one time that spring was sacred, but without further corroborating bibliographic or oral evidence to that effect the holiness of the spring must remain heavily in doubt. More bibliographic work is certainly called for, and any findings will be published in later bulletins on this project.

Planned front elevation

Proposed front elevation of the restored well-house Penny Olson, 1999

Taking it forward

The next stage for Penny is the planning application. She is currently drawing up the application, which will be placed by the Land Agent for Shute Farm. Until her plans are approved, no material progress can be made on restoring the well. This natural pause in the proceedings will give me some time to do the next stages of bibliographic research, to see if I can find any more records of the well and its history.

Please click here for larger imagePlease click here for larger imagePlease click here for larger image


Background to the project

Initial bibliographic work

Initial fieldwork

Sacred or secular?

Taking it forward


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