Yorkshire’s Holy Wells & the Severed Head
by Edna Whelan
The cult of the severed head is important in Celtic tradition; and most of Yorkshire was once occupied by the Celtic tribe of the Brigantes, a confederacy of Celtic tribes subservient to an overruling royal dynasty. The reign of their queen Cartimandua was contemporaneous with that of Boadicea. The land which they occupied stretched from the River Calder northwards to the Tyne and extended from the east to the west coasts, and therefore they were a force to be reckoned with when the Roman cohorts headed north. Their nine large towns or settlements were noted by Ptolemy in the first century AD and included Catterick, Aldborough, Ilkley and York.
It seems strange therefore that amongst the two hundred or so holy wells in Yorkshire there are only three or four which have stone heads incorporated in their decorative structure, whilst Celtic or Celtic-style stone heads abound on buildings, walls and bridges all over the county.
The holy wells which are definitely associated with heads are, however, each very special. The only listed holy well in our broad acres, to my knowledge, is situated at Eshton in Wharfedale, not far from the town of Skipton; and this is named St Helen’s Well as are many of our wells in the north. We like to claim St Helen as being of Brigantine royal lineage as she was the wife of Constantius the First, who died at York, and the mother of Constantine the Great who was first proclaimed Emperor there [Turner, (1888); p. 200]. She is, rightly or wrongly, enshrined in our part of the world as a Yorkshire lass. St Helen, as a Brigantine princess, would also be related to Coel Hen Godebog, a post- Roman overlord of North Britain, who is now also known as Old King Cole [Phillips, (1976); p. 50].
The holy well at Eshton is of a unique design, having a slightly semicircular stone curb which retains the water at a certain level until it finds its way around and under the confining bounds. At either end of the curb are two deeply-carved square stones of strange design; and spaced along the waterside edge at intervals, are what seem to be three round stones with slight hollows in the top.
If, however, you kneel down on the curb and feel with your hands under the water beneath the three stones, you become pleasantly aware of a secret.
They are really the crowns of three stone heads, and it is possible to recognise by the sense of touch the eyes, nose and mouth of the faces which are submerged beneath the water.
The only person I knew who ever acquired a clear view of the heads was an archaeologist named Lionel Atkinson, who lived in the next village; and he told me that in a year of long drought the water level at the well was much lower than usual, and it was possible actually to see and examine the faces. He was of the opinion that they were not Celtic but of a much later date, as the features were more pronounced; and he thought that they might have been removed, in times long past from some religious establishment.
The water here was said to possess healing properties for eye diseases and a number of smaller ailments, and the custom was to mix the water of the well with sugar before drinking it. It is also mentioned in a commission relating to the Manor of Flasby in 1429 that there was a chapel-of-ease dedicated to St Helen standing beside the well.
The next holy well which features a stone head is situated on a forest ride three-quarters of the way up the wooded slopes of Witton Fell at the foot of Wensleydale. The track which leads to the well is called Castaway Ride and there is reference to;
‘a beautiful spring designated Cast-a-way Well, almost on the summit of the fell…There is another spring on the fell called Diana’s Well…This fountain is considered so pure that a very old rhyme is still current:
“Whoever eats Hammer nuts, and drinks Diana’s water [pronounced watter],
Will never leave Witton Town while he’s a rag or tatter”.
The nearby Hammer Woods contain excellent hazel nuts and the Witton people are proverbial for their attachment to the place.’
[Hope, (1893); p. 196; Whellan, (1859); p. 450].
Diana’s Well is marked on the Ordnance Survey map, and is relatively easy to find as it is sited beside the track a good mile and a half into the forest; but I have walked quite a few miles through the woods on this hillside and I have never come across any sign of Cast-a-Way Well.
As its name seems to infer, Diana’s Well has retained its Roman connection and has so escaped Christianisation.
The water of the well emerges from the mouth of a stone head which is set into a high wall made up of large slabs of stone; and this wall, in holding back the soil of the hillside, also forms one side of a grotto.
The features of the head resemble the Celtic style of carving, but at some time the face was split down the centre, maybe when the lead pipe which carries the water was set into the mouth. This damage so distorts the face that it is difficult to recognise the nose, but the eyes are clearer; and the ears on the sides of the head are plain to see.
As the water flows from the mouth it falls a few inches into a small stone trough and then spills over to the ground, where it runs away across the forest track and into the undergrowth.
All around and below the sides of the trough grow luscious ferns and tall grasses, and the well is sited so deep within the forest that no-one seems to be around the place except the birds, and the small wild creatures, and a million or two insects.
The stone head itself is said to be a gargoyle taken from the nearby Jerveaulx Abbey, and the only wisp of a legend is the remaining rhyme, as quoted above.
The local people in their wry humour have given the well another name: that of ‘Slavering Sall’!
My third holy well is a famous one, and is sited on the lower edge of Ilkley Moor above the ancient town of Ilkley. Its name is simply White Wells, the plural being represented by two bath houses into which the water which springs from the hillside has been piped. The plunge baths, one for men and the other for women, were built in 1760 by a certain Squire Middleton; but a reference to the wells contained in a letter written in 1709 by Dr Richardson of Bierley states that ‘Ilkley is chiefly famous for a cold well which has done very remarkable cures in scrofulous cases by bathing and drinking it’.
Only one of the baths is now accessible. This is quite large and is lined with stone tiles, and a shallow flight of steps leads down into the water. Set into the side wall of the bath is a stone head, and the water runs into the bath through its open mouth. The style of the head is definitely Celtic but it was made specifically for the baths when they were built.
The other bath is hidden beneath the floor of the house which is now used as living quarters for the custodians of the wells. I have been told by Mr Gavin Edwards, the archaeologist at Manor House Museum in Ilkley that the stone head was originally placed beside this bath.
There are two legends surrounding this well. The first one states that some time in the 1700s, a shepherd boy gashed his leg on a rock on the moor and, after bathing it in the water of the well, his wound was miraculously healed within a few days.
The second story is of a day in 1820 before the bath houses were roofed over, when the attendant at White Wells, one William Butterfield, arriving early to open up the doors, found that the key turned round and round in the lock and seemed to melt. On managing to force the door open he found to his astonishment a group of fairies frolicking by the water. They were tiny figures dressed in green and they disappeared over the wall and into the heather when he surprised them [Smith, (1878); Bord & Bord, (1985); p. 113]. There is no Christian saint associated with the well. The lady who used to look after it once told me that sometimes, when she visited the bath house early in the morning or late in the evening, she could hear a strange rhythmic sighing sound above the noise of the water, which seemed to come from the ground beneath.
The moors above Ilkley are famous for their large number of prehistoric remains, including stone circles, cup-marked stones and cairns, and also the singular Swastika Stone.
Although these three particular holy wells have heads enclosed within their framework none of them have legends of the severed heads of saints associated with them as in other parts of the country. This must have a logical explanation which at the moment eludes me.
There is another holy well sited on the outskirts of Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire, which is named Green Springs, and which had two stone heads set into the wall just above the trough which contains the spring water. These Celtic-style archaic heads are no longer there because of modern disrespect for our ancient heritage. One weekend some thief stole one of the heads, to the horror and dismay of local historians, and therefore the second head was removed and taken away to a safe place.
This story was reported in the local paper and found its way into the Northern Earth magazine; but I cannot give a further description of the well itself as I have never – as yet – visited it. Nor do I know anything of its history. However, the association of the heads must give it some importance.
Another water source, in the woods near Adel on the edge of the suburbs of Leeds, is called the ‘Slavering Baby’. Here at one time the water emerged, once more, from the mouth of a stone head, but now the water trickles from the side of the stonework. There was once a tea house here, but as there are no other references or records attached to the place I hesitate to list it as a holy well and think it is merely a Victorian drinking fountain. I could be proved wrong.
Bord, Janet & Colin, (1985); Sacred Waters, London: Granada.
Hope R.C., (1893); The Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England, London: Elliot Stock.
Phillips, Guy Ragland, (1976); Brigantia, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Smith, Charles C., (1878); ‘Fairies at Ilkley Wells’, in Folk-Lore Record 1, pp. 229-31.
Turner, J. Horsfall, (Ed.), (1888); Yorkshire Folklore Journal 1.
Whellan, T., (1859); The History and Topography of the City of York and the North Riding of Yorkshire. Beverley: Author.
Text & Illustrations © Edna Whelan (1998)
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