Hollinshead Hall Holy Well
by John Crawshaw
The early history of the well is scanty, but it seems that a medieval well-house (with a superb vaulted stone roof) was ‘restored’ at some date during the 17th century.
This restoration was probably carried out by the owners of the land on which the holy well stood, the powerful recusant Radcliffe family, of Ordsall Hall near Manchester.
Unfortunately, though I have been researching its history for some years now, I have not been able to discover the holy wells’ dedication, which has been lost. Doubtless the site was very important, for the well-house itself is very grand indeed, and houses two baths in the form of rectangular cisterns, and there is also a fine retaining wall to the right of the compound, bearing traces of the Radcliffe coat of arms. A member of the Radcliffe family lived in a house near the site, and it is highly probable that the well-house was a secret mass-centre and baptistry, a focus for recusant life in the area. I believe that there is sufficient evidence in the style of the building to show that it is a ‘disguised’ holy well-house, perhaps built when persecution became a little easier during James the second’s reign: at any rate the style of the building is very much that of c. 1680s Lancastrian master masonry.
On the hillside, immediately behind and above the well-house, is a pool which probably represents the original holy well. It is a pretty big pool, oval-ish, and lined with ancient stones. The spring issues from the earth at the right-hand side, fills the pool, and from thence the water falls down into the two cisterns within the well-house itself.
Hollinshead Holy Well has a vague reputation of being haunted and also that its very pure water is good for eye troubles. Hollinshead Hall is referred to in Twycross’ Mansions of England (1846), where the well-house is mentioned, said to have been formerly called ‘Thee Holy Spring’, and visited by pilgrims who came for the water.
The well-house is accessible to the general public. Visiting it on 18 October 1994, I was delighted to find that the holy well-house had not been vandalized, as I had been informed recently. It is still in good order, except for some obscene graffiti and the fact that the door to the well-house is now locked with a large padlock, so that access to the well-house itself is not now possible. However, the interior of the well-house can easily be seen through the two windows in the façade. The original pool behind the well-house is still full of water, and access to this unrestricted.
The well is still referred to locally as a ‘Holy Well’, and I was present, back in late September 1988 at a well-dressing ceremony (the very first one to be held) at the Well. This was organised by the local Anglican priest, and very well conducted it was, too.
There are other holy wells in Lancashire, though none with so grand a well-house as the Hollinshead Hall one.
Text & Illustrations © John Crawshaw (1994)
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