The Ladywell at Speen

by Michael Bayley

   The Ladywell at Speen, in Berkshire (44582.16800), is one of the forgotten holy wells of Britain. As an historic place, it is probably as much older than Speen, as Speen is than Newbury.

Before the Romans built their fine new straight arterial road from their city of Cirencester, through Cricklade to Speen, and then on to Silchester and Winchester, there was an older crossing of the river Lambourne to Speen and then on over the river Kennet to Broad Laying. Speen’s l3th century church of St Mary the Virgin and its adjacent Ladywell lay on this road between the two river crossings, perhaps suggesting that this was a local holy place before the coming of the Romans.

Today, the road is not much more than a grassy ride or rough track leading down to the church from the Bath Road. A short distance down this track there is a turning to the right to the Ladywell, which still overflows with water among the nettles and thistles near the small valley bottom. It was once protected by a fence: perhaps really a belated Victorian effort to enforce the decision of the Council of Aries in 452 AD which forbade well worship. (Our own King Canute had another go at prohibiting well worship in the 10th century, but this was no more successful than his command to the waves of the sea to turn back.)

In the recent past, like so much of our oral history and such traces of the old pagan religions as remain, belief in the powers of Ladywell have only been kept alive by the grannies and the children. Local schoolchildren were in the habit of visiting it to throw a coin into its water to make a wish for success in some test or exainination they were about to sit. Sweet-papers in the mud confirm that it is still patronised by children.

However, there is a tenuous local tradition that the waters of the well have the miraculous property of being able to cure eye diseases and other ills.

The last person to try to promote the healing properties of Ladywell was Doctor Parzianus Fisher, a travelling quack, who came to the Holy Thursday Fair for cattle and horses in Newbury. His efforts were not appreciated by the villagers of Speen: probably because of the company he kept – and the fact that the profits were to go to the Doctor.

There is supposed to be a remarkable echo in the valley where the Ladywell is situated, but it could be more than an echo, because a 20th century resident of Speen has seen a ghostly figure standing beside the well.

[This article is taken, with permission, from Mr Bayley’s as yet unpublished book, Holy, Healing and Ancient Wells in the Thames Valley: for notes on which, see Source 2, p.7.]

Text & Illustration © Michael Bayley (1995)

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