DIPPING WELLS: Wiltshire Healing Wells and the Strange Case of Purton Spa: What do the healing wells cure?
If we look at the range of ailments which the 19 known healing wells in the county were reputed to cure, we can begin to form a picture of the kinds of illnesses to which Wiltshire’s inhabitants were prey in earlier centuries. In some cases the cures were sought right up until the early decades of the twentieth century.
The frequency of each type of cure associated with wells in Wiltshire has been represented graphically. As a glance at this histogram will show, and as any seasoned well-hunter would expect, ‘sore eyes’ and eye complaints are the most common. This pattern is repeated across the country. People suffered badly from vitamin A deficiency during mediaeval times, and the primary symptom of that is sore eyes. Then the rest of the wells cure minor injuries, digestive ailments, skin complaints, gallstones or are just general cure-alls. Valuable farm animals are not forgotten: dogs, cattle, and the pigs around which domestic economy was centred in this, as in many counties. Only three of these 19 wells were reputed in any way to be ‘holy’, although an argument can be made for counting healing wells as holy per se.
Antedocks-well, Lydiard Tregoze.
‘At a place in this parish, is a Well, the water whereof, as I am informed, was heretofore famous for curing many diseases and working miracles, in the old time’ (Aubrey 1862, p.183).
‘On Parsonage Farm there is a famous spring of water in a field called Biddle where the Highworth folk, fifty years ago, used to bathe bad eyes. It was also used to cure a sprained ankle, the patient letting the water run over the sprain for a fair length of time. I can assure you that this took a bit of sticking, but if carried through, it was a sure and safe cure’ (Archer 1973, p.84).
The field called Biddle is now a housing estate, and the only evidence remaining of the healing spring would appear to be some ominous manhole covers and a street sign reading Bidel Springs Nos. 1-11 (Field trip, 19.8.98).
Eye-well, Market Lavington
This tiny drinking-fountain is badly encroached upon by the road, but can still be seen at the foot of Clyffe Hall hill between Market Lavington and West Lavington. Peggy Gye’s aunt, as a child, often fetched water for an old woman suffering from cataract. The water was used in West Lavington for treating eyes as recently as the 1940s (Wiltshire 1975, p.77; Peggy Gye, pers. comm.).
Five lanes healing well, Potterne.
Aubrey notes, ‘In the highway, towards (Marston) in a ditch, a mile from the Devises, is a spring…’ and his editor Jackson adds, ‘the mineral spring of which he speaks is near ‘The Five Lanes’, and its virtues are well known (Aubrey 1862, p.301).
Hancock’s well, Luckington
‘In this village is a fine spring called Hancock’s-well… It cures the itch and Scabbe; it hath done much good to the eies,’ writes Aubrey, and again the editor Jackson adds: ‘Hancock’s well is still resorted to for the cure of sick dogs, bad legs and the like’ (Aubrey 1862, pp.105-106). Pafford (1953, p.29) tells us that at the time of writing the well still had the reputation of being good for the eyes.
Hancock’s well still flows strongly in its stone culvert down to the river close by.
Healing spring, All Cannings
In 1938 the waters of a local spring were recommended as good for eczema (Wiltshire 1975, pp.77-78).
Healing well, Ansty
In Blind Lane was a well whose water was used to treat the sore eyes of babies (Morrison 1982, p.26).
Healing well, Biddestone
The water from the well at the George Inn was diuretic, cured the stone and gravel. It also cured the landlady’s hysterical fits (‘fits of the mother’) (Aubrey 1969, p.25).
Hog’s well, Bugley, near Warminster
The benevolent guardian spirit of this well, which lived in a barrow on nearby Cley Hill, told the local people to use the water of Hog’s Well only for curing weak eyes. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the flowers of Ground Ivy were brewed in the water to make an eye-bath. Farmers with a weak pig in a litter would stand the piglet in the spring for fifteen minutes (Manley 1924, pp.4-5).
Holy well, Biddestone
This well, in the garden of a large house in Biddestone St Peter, was known to John Aubrey. In an untitled and undated notebook, Goddard notes, ‘This well is good for bad eyes and for making tea. Even in the 20th century bottles of the water have been taken away to cure eyes’ (Goddard n.d., n.p.).
Merry well, Baverstock
Merry well, or Mary’s well, was a holy well associated with a retreat house belonging to the Abbess of Wilton. During the 15th century, a time when Mariolatry was at its height, pilgrims visited the well to wash their eyes (Saumarez Smith 1984, p.22).
Until quite recently Merry well could still be seen in the grounds of the manor house. But it is gone now. The churchwarden told me, ‘There was indeed a MARY’S WELL, and it was reputed to have therapeutic qualities for eyes. It was mainly used for watering cattle having a windlass-chain-bucket arrangement mounted on a wooden frame. With the advent of piped water it became neglected – and during the late 1970s early 1980s dismantled and it was filled, as far as I am aware no-one complained…. It is now covered by Mr Huxtall’s drive’ (D.A. Mills 1997, pers. comm.).
Patney spring, Clyffe Pypard
This spring was at one time to be found at the foot of the steep Patney Pitch at the foot of the escarpment above the village. It was ‘used on account of the softness of its water for tea-making and sore eyes’ (Morris 1885, pp.484-5). This is yet another spring used into the 20th century, but which is now forgotten by local inhabitants.
Healing well, Poulshot
‘I was informed at my last being at the Devises, April 4, 1668, that… An hectique and emaciated person, by drinking this water, did in 3 weeks increase in his flesh and get a quick appetite’ (Aubrey 1862, p.301).
Salt spring, Wootton Bassett.
Parsons notes ‘the remarkable saline spring, which is of such repute amongst the inhabitants of that part of Wilts. In the summer months large quantities of the water are taken away by visitors from the towns and villages within a radius of ten miles or more. On Sunday mornings, especially, in May and June, there may sometimes be seen as many as thirty persons at one time drinking the water or filling their various vessels. On one occasion (in May 1879) the present tenant of the farm (Mr Hathway) had the number who came during the day counted, and they amounted to near upon four hundred. The public have full and free permission to visit the place and take the water at all times. The well is enclosed with brick, and the water comes up slowly through an iron pipe, the length of which is not known. The field in which the spring is situated is usually reserved for the pasturage of young cattle, as it has been long known that they enjoy there an immunity from the disease known as “quarter evil”, or inflammatory fever, to which young stock are frequently subject’ (Parsons 1896, pp.252-3).
Once again, this well has been lost in relatively recent years: ‘It was an intermittent spring, welling up and then disappearing. In the late 1960s despite the roadway engineers’ assurance that they had piped an outlet to it the spring disappeared for ever’ (Gingell 1985, p.133). The roadway engineers were engaged in building the M4 motorway.
Salt’s Hole, Purton Stoke Traditionally a cure-all, and used to treat a wide range of ailments. During its life as Purton Spa, it was specifically mentioned as being of great effectiveness in curing a wide range of chronic conditions: digestive, liver and kidney ailments, gout, skin complaints, rheumatism, sciatica, bronchial and glandular illnesses, and being ‘unhinged’, ie generally off-colour. (Various sources: see below)
Shingle Bell well, Limpley Stoke
‘The waters in Shingle Bell Well have been held in great repute as efficacious in diseases of the eyes.’ This was also the only (documented) rag-well in Wiltshire (Lewis 1889, p.283).
‘The inhabitants told me that it is good for the eies…’ (Aubrey 1969, p.21). ‘The water from it was claimed to contain properties capable of curing many eye infections. Many of the older inhabitants can remember as children, having their eyes bathed with this water. As recent as thirty years ago, I can remember a Swindon person making a special journey to Bromham, (on the recommendation of his aged mother, who was a native of the village), in order to obtain a bottle of this water to use as an eye lotion’ (Davis 1965, pp.222-3).
Stockwell is a tiny spring which still flows beside the footpath known as Stoney Lane (formerly Stockwell Lane) in Bromham.
Vicarage well, Keevil
‘The vicarage in Keevil, now called Field Head, was built in 1842, by the Reverend W.H. Pooke. It is a medium-sized house shaped with Jacobean-type gables. There is a small spring in the grounds, said to have medicinal qualities, especially for the eyes’ (Loring 1983, p.25).