Seven Wiltshire Wells and their Folklore
by Katharine M. Jordan
Wiltshire is not renowned for its wells. A glance at the two main gazetteer guides to holy wells is discouraging: Hope lists only three (Hope 1893, p. 170); Janet and Colin Bord note two more, one of which they warn is not a holy well at all (Bord 1986, p. 212). The Folklore of Wiltshire makes no mention of wells whatsoever (Whitlock 1976). Well-hunters might be forgiven for passing hastily through Wiltshire in search of more fertile ground further west. And yet, in the four years or so that I have been researching Wiltshire wells, I have found a huge number – over 180 so far – of ancient and named wells of all kinds. As an introduction to the many remarkable Wiltshire wells, I have chosen seven which illustrate in particular some of the different types of folklore associated with wells and springs. Most of these seven wells can be visited: I have added location details along with the grid reference and the relevant 1:25 000 Pathfinder OS map number.
Holy well : the star-bearing well
‘East of Bitteston…is a spring – they call it a holy well, – where five-pointed stones doe bubble up (Astreites) which doe move in vinegar.’ (Aubrey 1969, p. 45). The seventeenth-century Wiltshire antiquarian John Aubrey notes with his characteristic air of scientific enquiry the outstanding feature of this most magical of Wiltshire wells. Holy well is a natural spring rising at a fault-line between the cornbrash layer of the Great Oolite and its overlying clay. Blocks of masonry in its wide pool indicate that the well once had a stone surround and drinking trough, but the spring has broken through in a different place, and now flows simply from a fair-sized hole in a fold in the land. In the sandy bed of the spring can be found tiny fossils shaped like stars, which are constantly being freed from the fossil-bearing cornbrash below by the action of the spring water, which then carries them up to the surface. These stars are the isolated stem parts, or columnals, of crinoids, the plant-like sea-creatures commonly known as sea lilies. Crinoids are related to starfish, hence the star-like shape of the columnals; and because they are made of calcite, they will indeed (if you can bear to destroy them) effervesce in a dilute acid solution like vinegar.
Certainly the stars have contributed greatly to the mystery of the well, and have given it its other name, the Starwell. The Travellers know it by this name, and have taken to visiting it in their wanderings around the West Country . Local folklore says that the stars are petrified flowerlets fallen into the water from the elder trees – witch-tree par excellence and much associated with wells – which grow around the spring . This is a nicely scientific explanation, but although there are wells with petrifying water in Wiltshire, this is not one of them. It is a typical trait of folklore, however, to try to explain what cannot be understood, and we shall shortly meet another instance of this at a different Wiltshire well, Chattle Hole.
Location : ST 880 727, Sheet 1152. Holy well lies between Biddestone and Chippenham, in a field north of the crossroads by Stowell farm. Please note that there is no right of way across this field. Once through the field gate keep to the left of the stream, and follow the beaten path out to the spring, which flows into the stream from the far side. Wellington boots are essential for this one.
Shingle Bell : healing for the eyes
The village of Limpley Stoke clings to the western slopes of the Avon valley, in this area known romantically as the Valley of the Nightingale. In Stoke Wood lies the ancient holy well called Shingle Bell. Springs break intermittently all through this hanging woodland, but Shingle Bell has cut a clear stream-bed out of the steep hillside. It is nevertheless a very insignificant spring, which was flowing only weakly when I visited it in May 1995. Its folklore, however, is far from insignificant, for this both an eye-well and Wiltshire’s only rag-well. ‘The waters in Shingle Bell Well have been held in great repute as efficacious in diseases of the eyes; tradition adds that sufferers, who received benefit from them, used to hang strips of rag or cloth on the branches of the surrounding trees as votive offerings.’ (Lewis 1889, p. 283).
Shingle Bell rises at the east end of what was once an old building, long demolished – discarded blocks of masonry can still be seen nearby – which may have been a chapel belonging to a small castle, traditionally known as Spy Castle, which stood at a point which gives fine views of the valley and hills around (Ibid., p. 283). So here we have an eye-well, with its cult of simple rags hung on the trees around, which was perhaps Christianised by the building of a chapel above it. We have no definitive way of knowing whether the healing cult came before the Christianisation of the well, or indeed whether the well was sacred before the building of the chapel, but there may be a clue hidden in a local place-name. Stoke Wood was known in earlier times as Pucklewood (Hooker 1977, p. 47). Now it is notoriously dangerous to make guesses about the meaning of place-names without early forms of the name to guide one: so I suggest the following as a possibility only. Well-names often contract to the suffix -le – for example Buckwell becomes Buckle, Botwellsford becomes Bottlesford – and it is just possible that here Puckwell-wood has become Pucklewood. Puckwell, as we shall see in the discussion of the next well, has devilish connotations, indicating the presence of some pagan god.
Location: ST 780 614 Sheet 1183. Limpley Stoke lies either side of the A36 south of Bath. Starting from the Rose and Crown car-park on the A36, cross the road (carefully!) and take the public footpath through the kissing gate signposted to Waterhouse. About a hundred yards along here you pass an abandoned railway truck on the right, and almost immediately enter a small clearing. Leave the right-of-way and take the small path leading off the clearing ahead right (taking care not to tread on the Early Purple Orchid which is growing right in the middle of the path). A little way down the path is a rustic bench on the left, and Shingle Bell lies just down the slope opposite the bench. Wear your wellingtons.
Puckwell : the well of the goblin
Puckwell lies in Puckwell Coppice at West Knoyle in the south-west of the county. It is a simple spring, little more than a muddy and foul-smelling hole in the ground when I visited it in the summer of 1994. Puckwell is puca-wielle, the spring of the puca or goblin (Gover 1939, p. 177). The English puck, like the Welsh pwka and Irish phouka, was a shape-shifting hobgoblin. Shakespeare turns Puck into a genial if mischievous figure, but in Middle English the name Puck was used of the Devil (Briggs 1977, p. 326; pp. 336-7), and it is certainly as a denizen of hell that the early (and later) Church viewed all such goblins and well-dwelling spirits. The usual Church practice was to transform the well-spirit into a Saint, often by blessing the well and mingling the pagan cult with that of a suitable saint. At some wells this never happened, and again, we can only guess at the reason. Our Puckwell remains a goblin’s well – perhaps the Devil’s well – but certainly a well which was never Christianised, and whose name speaks to us of its pagan past.
Location : GR 856 318, Sheet 1240. A footpath runs south-east alongside Puckwell Coppice, and there is room to park here. Puckwell Coppice is in the care of the Woodland Trust. The well lies just within the woodland on the south-east side, and is easiest located from the field on that side. While in West Knoyle take a look at the grotesque male exhibitionist carving on the south-east corner of the church tower. He is bent double in the acrobat’s feet-to-ears position, flashing his all to the four winds, right above the spot where all the Victorian ladies and gentlemen would have passed under him on their way to Divine Service. Just the sort of joke to appeal to Puck, I guess.
Nykerpole : here be dragons
Nykerpole is a very obscure well. Indeed, it is now not a well at all, but a mediaeval place-name, recorded first in 1272, indicating a well now lost, at Mildenhall near Marlborough. Nevertheless, I include Nykerpole here because, like Puckwell, the place-name recalls a legendary well-dwelling creature.
Mildenhall (pronounced Mine-all) was Roman Cunetio. Two Roman shaft-wells have been found in the area, one of which contained a Saxon burial, the remains of a female skeleton with a knife, pins, buckles and beads. Black Field is the site of the Roman settlement, and Roman ghosts have been seen here (Wiltshire 1984, pp. 25-6). Nickamoor Field lies just west of Black Field beside the River Kennet. A placename of the sixteenth century, Nicapooles Croft, may refer to this very field, or to another associated with it. Centuries have passed, and we will probably never know the exact location of Nykerpole, the nicor-pool of Anglo-Saxon times which gave its name to Nicapooles Croft and Nickamoor Field (Gover 1939, p. 499). The nicor was a great water-dwelling monster of the dragonish or sea-serpent type: two nicras are described in Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon epic poem of the early eighth century. Nowadays the nicor lingers most notably in the Knucker Holes of Sussex, great deep pools of water in whose bottomless depths lurked the Knucker itself (Simpson 1973, pp. 37-42). But it is clear that, centuries ago, Wiltshire too had its Knucker which perhaps, like its Sussex cousins, would come crawling up out of its pool to terrorise the people of the gentle Kennet valley.
Location: Nicamoor Field is at SU 214 694, Sheet 1186. Footpaths run either side of the River Kennet.
Bridewell Springs : well of the White Horse
These springs, between Westbury and Bratton, lie below Bratton White Horse at the foot of the steep escarpment which borders Salisbury Plain. Springs break all along this scarp, which runs around the west and north side of the Plain from Warminster to the Pewsey Vale. In the nearby village of Bratton, Bridewell is pronounced Briddle, and it seems that this is the more authentic pronunciation, for earlier forms of the name are Brudewelle (1341), Breddel Spring (1773) and Briddle Spring (1830). Gover et al. suggest that the name means ‘bride’s spring’, and that it is perhaps a fertility spring (Gover 1939, p. 150). The fertility element seems likely whether the name derives from the Anglo-Saxon bride, a woman about to be married, or from St Bride or Brigid, the patron saint of midwives and newborn babies (Jones 1994, p. 59). It is widely accepted that the cult of St Brigid derives in part from the Celtic triple goddess Brigid or Brid: ‘She would appear to have survived in Irish tradition in the guise of the Christian saint, Brigid of Kildare, whose cult was extremely popular…and who is commemorated all over Britain in church dedications and holy wells.’ (Ross 1993, p. 289).
However, local folklore has nothing to say about this. What they do say in Bratton is that, when Bratton church clock strikes midnight, the White Horse goes down to Briddle Springs to drink . This is a typical piece of folklore in two quite different ways. Many landscape features – usually stones, but statues and hill-figures too – are said to wander about when certain conditions are met: the Diamond Stone at Avebury crosses the road when it hears the clock strike midnight, for example (Grinsell 1976, p. 113). But very often these stories are a joke to take in the unwary: the Diamond Stone could not possibly hear the clock strike. The joke in this case, which Bratton folk would know, and the gullible visitor would not, is that Bratton church does not have a clock.
Location: ST 892 518, Sheet 1200. Park at the Westbury White Horse viewing point on the B3098 near Fair View Farm. Walk up the unsurfaced road which runs ENE towards Bratton: this is the old Westbury Road and is a bridleway. Opposite some farm buildings take the track right which leads back towards the B3098. Halfway along here on the right in a deep overgrown hollow are Bridewell Springs.
Chattle Hole : the Devil’s cauldron?
Chattle Hole lies beside the River Wylye in woodland between Corton and Boyton south of Warminster. Once perhaps this was indeed the deep, cauldron-shaped hole with a spring at the bottom, of which earlier authors write, but now it seems little more than a semi-circular depression in the great bank above the river. The area is clogged with beech-mast and other debris, and the spring which once flowed at its base has apparently dried up or been buried.
The derivation of the name Chattle Hole is difficult: the place-name volume for Wiltshire offers no explanation. Goddard suggests a derivation from ‘cetel’, an Old English word meaning cauldron (Goddard n.d., p. 115). More likely, I suspect, is a derivation from the ubiquitous name chadwell, meaning cold spring. We have seen how -well suffixes often contract to -le; the consonant ‘t’ is simply ‘d’ unvoiced, and Chaddle could easily change to Chattle in ordinary speech. In Wiltshire dialect pronunciation the two are in any case almost indistinguishable.
Whatever the derivation, local tradition makes this a Chapel Hole, and it may be that the story has been created, as so often happens, to explain a name which nobody now understands. Noyes tells us, ‘the people say that here a chapel was once, and that the devil caused the earth to open and swallow it up.’ (Noyes 1913, p. 203). In April 1995 I mentioned this story of the chapel to the local man who lives in the bungalow just across the road from Chattle Hole. He told me, ‘They say when they were building it, every morning when they came back they found all the stones had been moved to the bottom of the slope’  This tale of the moving of the stones during the construction of a church or chapel is another recognised folklore type: we find it again in Wiltshire at Limpley Stoke, where this time the Devil moved the stones from the bottom of the hill to the top, to where Limpley Stoke church now stands.
Location: ST 943 400, Sheet 1220. Chattle Hole is in the woodland between the River Wylye and the B3095. There is no right-of-way to the Hole, but it is possible to creep through the hedge by a great ash-tree and follow a narrow path along the slope to where the ground begins to shelve away down to the river. This is all that is left of Chattle Hole. The river-bed is quite firm at this point and the river shallow, so it is quite practical to wade out to look back at the Hole. Take care at the very edge where the mud is soft – I went in over my ankle and in traditional fashion left a shoe behind when I pulled my foot out!
Salts Hole : a Victorian spa
Salts Hole, at Purton Stoke, is the only traditional healing well in Wiltshire to have developed into a spa. Local tradition tells a fine tale of how the spa came to be discovered. It is said that for centuries the ordinary local people had used saline water from the spring as a medicine. So it was that when in the 1850s the owner, Dr S.C. Sadler, drained the area and fenced off the spring, there was a tremendous outcry. People claimed that the spring had been used ‘time out of mind,’ and that when they were ill they drank the waters and were always cured. So strongly did they feel that soon the railings were broken down by people wanting to drink the water. The situation might have got very much worse, but Dr Sadler himself contracted a serious illness and decided to try the water, which greatly improved his condition. The water was by eminent chemists, and found to be unique. So it was that, in 1859, Purton Spa came into being, and the locals’ belief in the healing powers of the water was shown to be well-founded.
In fact, leaflets and newspaper reports published at the time tell a less sensational tale. In the process of draining his field, Dr Sadler inadvertently drained and filled in the spring. As soon as he became aware of the strength of local feeling he had it re-opened and, interested to see locals coming to drink the water, had it tested: it proved to be similar to the Pyrmont spring water. Nowhere in the contemporary accounts I have seen so far does it say he fell ill himself; and I cannot but think that if he had been cured by the waters he would have used this as a recommendation in his advertising material. It seems that local accounts have altered events in the locals’ favour, casting Sadler in the role of repressive landowner and creating a more dramatic tale in the process.
What is incontestable is that a charming octagonal pump room was erected over the spring, and a pump installed. For a short time between 1859 and 1870 visitors came to Purton in search of peace and quiet, clean air and healing waters, putting up in local houses or staying at the Spa Boarding House. The water was sold widely during the later nineteeth century, and again after the First World War. During the 1920s Mr F.G. Neville carried the water around the Swindon area in a pony-and-trap, and later by car. It retailed first at sixpence a bottle, and then for eightpence, or a shilling carriage paid. Purton Museum has various letters containing testimonials to the beneficial effects of the saline waters (Anon 1881; Pafford 1952-3, pp. 28-29; Robbins 1991, pp. 97-8).
Today Salts Hole looks very much as it did in the nineteenth century, though sadly aged by time and damp. The doors to the pump-house have disappeared and the well-head can be seen through the gaping doorway. The well is covered by a great stone disc, the hole at its centre covered in its turn by a circular wooden cover with a handle. It was into this stone cover that the pump was set. The rest of the interior of the pump-house can be glimpsed, with a fireplace and plastered walls, now badly marked with damp. The plaque over the door of the pump room proudly proclaims:-
THE ANCIENT SALTS HOLE. SULPHATED AND BROMO-IODATED SALINE WATER ANALYZED BY D.VOELCKER 1880
It is curious, by the way, that the only structural part of the pump-house to have disappeared should be the doors. It is well-known in Wiltshire that they have no doors in Purton : so much so that, should you forget to close the door behind you, the cry goes up: ‘D’you come from Purton?’
But there is actually a good reason why the doors are missing from the pump-house, as the current owner of Spa House, Mr Roberts, told me in October 1997. Apparently ‘various people about the place’ were (and are) so keen to continue drinking the healing waters that they systematically and repeatedly forced the doors to get to the well . In the end Mr Roberts gave up the struggle and has simply stored the doors in his barn. It seems that locals feel as strongly now about their right to drink the waters of their healing well as they did back in the 1850s when Dr Sadler tried to drain it.
Location: GR 084 906, Sheet 1134. At the crossroads on the B4553 in Purton Stoke take the road running west through the village. At the point where the lane bends sharp left, continue on the right-of-way straight ahead down an unclassified road with a good tarmac surface between wide grass verges. Salts Hole stands on private land in a narrow band of trees to the right of the lane, but a good view can be had from the rustic gate by the grass verge.
Anon., (1881). Purton Spa, with a brief account of the history, properties, uses and effects of its bromo-iodated & sulphated spring. London: W.G. Bunting.
Aubrey, John, (1969). Aubrey’s natural history of Wiltshire / edited by John Britton (new edition). New York: Kelley. [Facsimile reprint of 1847 edition].
Briggs, Katharine, (1977). A dictionary of fairies, hobgoblins, brownies, bogies and other supernatural creatures. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Bord, Janet and Colin (1986). Sacred Waters: holy wells and water lore in Britain and Ireland. London: Paladin.
Goddard, C.V. (n.d.). Wiltshire and general folklore and tales: notes of beacons, gibbets, holy wells. [Manuscript notebook in collection of Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, Devizes].
Gover, J.E.B. et al. (1939). The place-names of Wiltshire. Nottingham: English Place-name Society.
Grinsell, Leslie V. (1976). Folklore of prehistoric sites in Britain. Newton Abbot: David& Charles.
Hooker, Richard (1977). A local history project on Limpley Stoke. [Unpublished typescript in Wiltshire Local Studies Library, Trowbridge].
Hope, Robert Charles (1893). The legendary lore of the holy wells of England. London: Elliot Stock.
Jones, Alison (1994). The Wordsworth dictionary of saints. Ware: Wordsworth.
Lewis, William (1889). Rambles about Bath. Bath: Herald Office.
Noyes, Ella (1913). Salisbury Plain: its stones, cathedral, city, villages and folk. London: Dent.
Pafford, J.H.P. (1953). ‘The spas and mineral springs of Wiltshire’. Wiltshire Archaeological& Natural History Magazine, 55, 1-29.
Robbins, Alec (1991). Purton’s past. Purton: Purton Historical Society.
Ross, Anne (1993). Pagan Celtic Britain: studies in iconography and tradition. Rev. ed. London: Constable.
Simpson, Jacqueline (1973). The folklore of Sussex. London: Batsford.
Wiltshire, Kathleen (1984). More ghosts and legends of the Wiltshire countryside. Melksham: Colin Venton.
Whitlock, Ralph (1976). The folklore of Wiltshire. London: Batsford.
|1.||Travellers visit Starwell. Mr. Steve Hunt, University of Bath 1994. (aged c.25).|
|2.||Stars are petrified elderflowers. Local informant, University of Bath, March 1995. (aged c.65).|
|3.||White horse drinks from Bridewell springs. Mrs. Jean Morrison, Bratton, May 1994. (aged 82).|
|4.||Stones moved at Chattle Hole. Mr. Smith, Corton, April 1995. (aged c.70).|
|5.||No doors in Purton. Mr. F.J. Jordan, Pewsey, 1984. (aged 68).|
|6.||People still drink the waters at Salts Hole. Mr. Roberts, Spa House, Purton Stoke, October 1997.|
Text © Katharine M. Jordan (1998) | Illustration © Alison Borthwick (1998)
Designed by Richard L. Pederick (© 1999) | Created 03/12/99