Some Ancient Wells, Springs and Holy Wells of the Cotswolds
by Laurence Hunt
In 1928 a book on the Ancient Wells, Springs, and Holy Wells of Gloucestershire was published by a civil engineer with the rather unlikely name of R.C. Skyring Walters. Today the book is rare and a collectors’ item. In recent years I have attempted to locate and visit the wells that he describes whenever I have visited the county. What follows is a description of some of the more interesting wells which remain (plus comments on a few that don’t!).
Mr Walters strayed beyond the county boundary several times in his book, and I have done likewise, and also included a few wells that he omits. All my sites fall within the loose confines of ‘the Cotswolds’, hence my title.
I have tried to stress the present condition of sites and clarify their exact locations. A sketch map and grid references are included. Please note several wells are on private ground and right of access is not implied: I have always found owners only too keen to grant access once they appreciate that interest is genuine.
- BISLEY, Seven Wells (SO 903 059).
Situated in the village of Bisley, by the side of a lane leading off the main street. The springs emerge from the hillside below the church. The structure which today surmounts the springs dates from 1863 and consists of a semi-circular stone enclosure with five Gothic arched openings from which water emerges, falling first onto a stone shelf and then into a large gravel-lined pool. The two remaining springs issue from the ends of the wall on either side of the enclosure, and flow into stone troughs. The total flow of water is considerable.
The wells today are noted for the well-dressing ceremony which takes place annually on Ascension Day. The present form of the ceremony was established in the 19th century by the Rev. Thomas Keble who was also responsible for the restoration of the well. The ceremony is a popular local event and is beginning to attract considerable crowds reminiscent of some of the Derbyshire well-dressings. After a short service in the church, the vicar, a band and villagers process to the well where the well is blessed and decorated with flowers. The ceremony still has much traditional atmosphere unlike many of the Derbyshire well-dressings which are becoming more like floral art displays for tourists.
- CALMSDEN (SP 045 086).
A small hamlet between Cirencester and Chedworth. By the junction of the North Cerney and Cirencester roads stands a tall cross of local stone which surmounts a copious spring. This cross probably dates to the 14th century and would seem to represent a good example of the Christianising of an anciently revered spring.
- CHEDWORTH (SP 053 121).
Interesting to compare with the previous site; here an ancient spring issues from the wall beside the gate into the churchyard. Again the spring no doubt predates the Christian site. Today the spring is intermittent although water rises nearby feeding the manor lake.
- EYFORD, Milton’s Well (SP 152 243).
A well noted for its associations with the poet Milton. He is said to have written part of Paradise Lost here: the title of this work is sadly appropriate for the present condition of the well.
The well is on private ground in Eyford Park, once the seat of the Dukes of Shrewsbury. A short distance from the lodge on the A436 (where permission to view should be sought) a footbridge is seen over the river Eye. On the far bank are the remains of the well.
The first visible structure is a relatively modern and dull stone building which would appear to cap the former spring. A short way beyond is all that remains of the old well: a short stone wall with a filled-in arch, behind a hexagonal stone-lined hollow in the ground, which on my last visit was full of leaves and logs. This was once water-filled and over it stood a charming canopy, somewhat reminiscent of a small bandstand. It is shown in a photograph in Skyring Walters’ book. The very weathered inscription in the arch behind the well reads:
‘Tis said beside these lovely glades,
These crystal streams, these sylvan shades,
Where feathered songsters on their wing
In heavenly chorus join and sing,
That Milton penned immortal lays
On paradise and heaven’s praise,
Each object there that greets the eye
Raises the poet’s thoughts on high,
No earthly things can there intrude
On lovely Eyford’s solitude,
But beauteous nature reigns supreme
And paradise is all his theme.’
The above lines were written by a friend for Mrs Somerset D’Arcy Irvine, who restored and embellished this ancient well in the year 1866. Beside this spring Milton wrote Paradise Lost.
One only wishes some present day ‘embellisher’ could do something to restore this well to its former state. The setting is idyllic.
- HEMPSTED, Our Lady’s Well (SO 814 173).
In contrast with the previous site a well-preserved well, easily accessible and marked on the Ordnance Survey map. The well is ¼ mile north of Hempsted church, overlooking the River Severn. Follow the path on the right after entering the churchyard and keep to the path beyond the far churchyard gate. The well is in the sloping field, past the cottage visible at the end of the field beyond the churchyard.
The well building is a tall structure built entirely of large limestone blocks. On the west side is a small arched opening, formerly closed with an iron door. In front of the well water issues into a long stone trough. The north and south walls are plain, but in the gable of the east wall is a very worn sculpture which appears to show a large figure standing between two smaller figures. Walters quotes Canon Bazeley who suggested it may represent St Anne standing between her daughter St Mary and an angel (or perhaps her husband), arguing that the well was probably connected with the nearby priory of Llanthony on the outskirts of Gloucester, which was dedicated to St Anne in 1136. He suggests the well may once have been dedicated to St Anne, possibly originally deriving its name from the similarity of the sound of ‘Anne’ and ‘Wan’, implying a pre-Christian pagan well here dedicated to the god Wan (= Woden). Hope quotes the sculpture as representing the Virgin addressing a crowd. In recent times the well has always been known as Our Lady’s Well supporting Hope’s interpretation.
The well was considered to have medicinal properties until recently. Ancient earthworks survive just to the east of the field containing the well. Some form of protection from cattle would be desirable as they are begining to undermine the sides of the well when descending the bank to drink.
- KEMBLE, Lyd Well (SO 989 985).
In terms of the volume of water, this well must be considered as the present-day ‘Thames Head’ (but see also Seven Springs, No.16) and is often most impressive to visit. The well is easily found by following the public footpath which links the A429, where it crosses the disused railway line to Cirencester just northeast of Kemble, and the A433 near the traditional site of the Thames source (981 994, see below). The path follows the infant Thames and the well lies in a small walled enclosure on the east side of the valley.
In dry weather the well will be seen to consist of a circular iron grating with water below. In wetter weather the grating will issue forth a large volume of water which floods much of the walled enclosure surrounding the spring, before escaping through holes in the enclosure wall and away down the valley. The force and clarity of the water emerging from the well under such conditions is most notable.
The historical ‘Thames Head’ is one mile northwest just below Trewsbury House and hillfort. Today however the site is barely worth a visit: the statue of Father Thames which once stood here has been moved to St John’s Lock near Lechlade as it was being vandalised here, and the ‘spring’ is now dry (although dowsers confirm that the water still flows below ground). The stone-lined hollow under the tree which marks the former source of the Thames is today more normally full of leaves and litter.
- LOWER SWELL, Our Lady’s Well (SP 177 258).
A tiny well on the right of the driveway to Abbotswood (public right of way on foot) from the A436, just to the east of Lower Swell village. The well is still water-filled and covered by a low-arched stone structure. I can find out little about the well save for the often quoted legend of the nearby standing stone (at 171 249) coming at midnight to drink at the well.
- LUCKINGTON, Hancock’s Well (ST 840 846).
A short distance from the village of Luckington on the B4040 to Sherston the road swings north avoiding a widening of the River Avon valley floor. Between the road and the river is Hancock’s Well – it is invisible from the road but roughly in line with the gate into the field. The well consists of a stone-lined hole in the river bank with dry-stone walling and a horizontal stone lintel slab. From this opening pours forth a considerable flow of water. Hancock was presumably a former owner of the well. Aubrey notes that ‘Hancock’s Well at Luckington is so extremely cold that in summer one cannot long endure one’s hand in it. It does much good to the eies. It cures the itch, etc. By precipitation it yields a white sediment, inclining to yellow like a kind of fine flour. I believe it is much impregnated with nitre.’
- MATSON, Holy Red Well (SO 848 153).
This well must have one of the oddest locations of any holy well today. It is now within the grounds of the dry-ski slope complex on the east side of Robinswood Hill, south of Gloucester. It is surrounded by iron railings and is under a tree, and is visible from the car park. I was allowed free access in order to take photographs.
The well is strongly impregnated with iron and overflows into a small (modern) lake which is stained orange near the well. The water flows from a square trough into another trough of semi-circular shape, before overflowing into the adjacent small lake. It originally fed a trough by the roadside below (now destroyed).
The well was once in the hands of Llanthony Priory (Gloucester), as was Lady Well, Hempsted (No 5).
Walters refers to the trapezoid stone slabs surviving adjacent to the well which if placed around the troughs would form a kind of Maltese Cross. These slabs have now disappeared. The water was noted for being good for sore eyes and was much resorted to. Today it bubbles away unnoticed by the vast majority of the nearby skiers.
PAINSWICK (SO 86 09).
An attractive town with a famous church, near the Cotswold Scarp. There are many springs here but two seem to be of particular note:
- St Tabitha’s Well (SO 867 097).
Issues from the roadside halfway down Tibbywell Lane which leads to the mill in the valley bottom. A simple stone spout pours water into a small pool which then drains away under some stone slabs. The street name is an intriguing derivative of the well’s name!
- Washwell (SO 872 100).
Reached by following the narrow lanes to the northeast of the village centre. Situated next to a barn by the side of the track which forms the start of the public right of way to Painswick Lodge. A natural spring issuing from a dry stone wall, now alas collapsing. Walters records that laws for the protection of the purity of this spring were passed at least as far back as the time of Henry VI.
- PURTON STOKE, Salts Hole (SU 084 906).
On private ground but easily seen from the public right of way which leads from Purton Stoke west towards Stoke Common Farm, and Bury Hill. A saline well now covered by an attractive octagonal building dating from the last century when an attempt was (briefly) made to turn the well into a fashionable spa.
A plaque on the building records that the water was analysed by D. Voelcher in 1860 but reveals no details about the results of the analysis, save that the water was ‘sulphated and bromoidated’.
ROBINSWOOD HILL, Gloucester (SO 84 15).
Springs on Robinswood Hill have been used to supply Gloucester with water since early medieval days. Two interesting wells are today to be found within the Robinswood Hill Country Park:
- The Well Cross (SO 839 158).
A most intriguing structure: a recumbent 13th century chamfered stone cross supported by large limestone blocks covering a dry hollow which presumably was once a spring. The site is now neatly fenced with a Country Park sign announcing its name. Its location is marked on the Country Park map at the car park which is only a few minutes away. There was little water flowing from the well in Walters’ day but he suggests the water was as rich in iron as that at Matson on the east side of the hill (see site 9).
- The Well House (SO 841 157).
Higher up the hill behind the Well Cross and easy to miss in the maze of paths is a stone structure known simply as the ‘Well House’. Built of large oolitic limestone blocks, with metal rods protecting the opening, this little building once covered an important spring which was once piped to Gloucester. Today the water emerges from a pipe a short distance away and runs away down an overgrown valley.
- SAPPERTON, Cassey Well (SO 952 022).
Walters records this ‘curious spring’ rising exactly on the watershed between the Thames and the Severn. A visit to the site today, ¼ mile along the public footpath leading from the A419 to Sapperton, will reveal little water. What does survive however is a steep narrow hollow (rather like a limestone swallow hole) surrounded by a dry-stone wall and with several trees growing from it. Is this connected with the well I wonder?
- SEVEN SPRINGS (SO 968 169).
These springs just to the west of Seven Springs crossroads on the A435/A436 form the alternative ‘source of the Thames’ (see Kemble, Lyd Well, No.6). Lyd Well is a more powerful spring, but the tributary of the Thames (the Churn) which these springs feed is considerably longer than the headwaters of the ‘official Thames’ near Kemble. Which you consider to be the ‘true’ source of the Thames depends on whether you consider length of watercourse or strength of spring to be the criterion: Lyd Well is certainly the more impressive when in full flow.
Seven Springs consists of a large tree-lined hollow below the A436 near the Seven Springs Hotel, into which trickle several rather feeble springs – it is certainly difficult to recognise seven distinct flows. Stone steps lead down to the pool of water into which the water flows.
- SHEEPSCOMBE, Holy Well (SO 887 106).
This spring is hidden away in the deep valleys of the west Cotswolds near Painswick. It lies just south of the minor road which leads westward from Sheepscombe village and joins the A46 between Painswick and Paradise village. Shortly after leaving Sheepscombe a lane branches off northwards towards Prinknash. Just past this turning the road drops steeply into a small valley and the small wood on the far side of the valley conceals the well. The land is private and water is still used by the farm lower down the hill.
The well consists of a large rectangular stone-lined pool into which flows the spring. A large tree has unfortunately fallen right across the well: it has not caused any significant damage but does rather obscure the well (and make a decent photograph very difficult!). No legends or history seem to have survived but it always seems to have been known as a holy well.
- SHELDON, Holy Well (ST 880 727).
Mentioned by Aubrey in his Natural History of Wiltshire where he recommends its waters to be taken with ‘syrup of violettes’. Situated near Stowell farm, about 3 miles west of Chippenham, the well is to the west side of the minor road which runs from Sheldon Manor to Corsham, at the point where pylons cross the road.
The site has suffered from damage from cattle and today consists of many scattered stones around a spring which feeds a tributary of the Avon. A few stones remain mortared together forming the stump of some former structure over the spring.
- SOUTH CERNEY, Boxwell Springs (SU 058 975).
Walters tells us that ‘this fine spring delivers a million gallons to the Thames in the driest of summers. The water wells up from under the ground churning up particles of white limestone in the muddy bottom of the pond’ producing’a curious effect’.
Alas! today extensive gravel workings in the area have caused this well to dry up totally and are coming close to threatening the site itself.
The location of these once-intriguing springs is by the side of the disused canal reached down a lane off South Cerney main street just south of the church.
STOW ON THE WOLD
There are two notable wells here; both are marked on the Ordnance Survey map.
- Stow Well (SP 194 262).
For centuries the main public water supply for Stow on the Wold. Reached down a lane to the northeast of the town centre, and now the focal point of a small picnic site. It consists of a large stone tank into which a pipe issues water. It is never known to fail.
- St Edward’s Well (SP 191 245).
Situated in private woodlands on the east (right) of the A429 as it climbs up the hill to Stow from the south. Very little remains to be seen. Walters described the well as ‘much in need of repair’ in the 1920s. Judging from its present appearance his words have still to be heeded.
The surroundings of the well were once a landscaped garden, all now heavily wooded and overgrown. The well is a stone-lined hollow and appears as a cross between a rockery and a small grotto in Walters’ photograph. Today it is difficult to identify the exact hollow – there are several which could be the well – but the water still collects in the large depression below the site of the well.
The well’s dedication is most likely to be to the martyred Saxon king, although Walters also cites two other alternatives: St Edward the Confessor, or a local hermit martyred at Puckle church in 946. He also refers to a cross and inscription which once stood over the well: these have now vanished.
- Aubrey, Natural History of Wiltshire. 1663.
R.C. Skyring Walters, Ancient Wells, Springs and Holy Wells of Gloucestershire. 1928.
This article was originally written for publication in SOURCE (first series), but SOURCE ceased publication before it could be used.
Although nearly 6 years late we are pleased to present it now. Laurence Hunt has asked us to point out that the well descriptions are as viewed by him in the late 1980s, and are therefore not necessarily the current state of the sites.
Text & Illustrations © Laurence Hunt (1994)
Designed & Maintained by Richard L. Pederick (© 1999) | Created 03/12/99