Holy? – Well, Well, Well!

Holy? – Well, Well, Well!

The veneration of water extends back “well” into prehistoric times.  Ritual offerings were placed in it, shrines, temples, stone circles and avenues were built next to it, and ritual shafts and wells have been dug into and towards it.   Even today people continue to throw coins into wishing-wells and fountains.

Local stories, legends and archaeology all show that the good burhgers of Marlow and its environs were by no means immune to the lure of water.   A well in Bisham was said to cure people with bad eyesight, and the Hughenden dragon’s dragon-pool exists to this day next to the road from Terriers (though, somewhat sadly, its flayed skin has gone!)

An Altar from Covantina’s Well
An Altar from Covantina’s Well

But what is a holy well?  A holy well or sacred spring is a well, small pond, spring or minor body of water that was revered by Christians or Pagans, usually both.  Many belong to local folklore and are imbued with mystical properties, such as healing, good luck or wealth creation.   Many were said to flow where a (thirsty?) saint had struck the ground with his staff.
Many of the stories of wells probably date to Celtic times.

The Celts practised an outdoor religion, with sacred groves of trees, sacred rivers, streams, pools and springs. They revered the head – whether the head of a well or of an enemy, as the source of the attributes they admired most.  They carried home the heads of vanquished enemies and displayed them to visitors. They used carved heads as decorations, which can still be seen on many Celtic artefacts.

As with many practices, the Christian church simply took-over and “Christianised” some ancient rituals, possibly as it was easier than eradicating them.  This worked well with water cults and many wells were converted for use in Christian baptisms.  Chapels and baptisteries were built next to them, many of them grew into the churches of today, such as High Wycombe’s All Saints, which seems to include both Celtic & Roman remains.  Within a few feet of the church are the sites of both a Roman well and of tales of another well immediately east of the Chancel.

Some wells were said to have the ability cure all illnesses, others were highly specific, with eye troubles being the commonest.  Others were reputed to heal infertility, rickets, whooping cough, rheumatic pains, skin complaints, indigestion, deafness, headache, toothache or even madness.  Although rich, ritual offerings could be expensive and impressive, most people would leave a simple pin, pebble, or a piece of clothing tied to a nearby tree.  Nobody understands the significance of this – is the cloth a gift, or was it hoped that the disease would transfer to it, and disappear as the rag rotted away?

Folklore has tales of holy well water divinities that took many forms, from fairies and mermaids to ghostly women in white or animal forms.  Many wells had sacred fishes or eels that were highly respected.  Their movements were said to predict future events – such as the course of an illness or love affair.

One of the country’s richest holy well sites in the UK is Northumberland’s  Coventina Well, where they found 14,000 coins as well as stone and bronze heads, a human skull, models of animals, jewelry, pottery, and twenty-four altars – many carved with water nymphs and goddesses.

In their heyday there were thousands of holy wells spread across the country and many still survive.  Indeed, in some parts of Ireland and Scotland, pilgrims still visit occasionally.

A well dressed Tissington well
A well dressed Tissington well

Well dressing

Well dressing, or flowering is a summer custom where wells are decorated with flower petals. The custom is mainly linked to the Peak District but was only celebrated in one or two villages by the 19th century when the Duke of Devonshire reintroduced it to commemorate supplying Buxton with water.

The origins of well dressing may be Pagan, though some think it was to give thanks for the purity of specific wells during the Black Death.  Well dressing was revived, almost singlehandedly, by the Shimwell family in Tissington in the 1920s and 30s,

But let us move closer to home and a look at some of the many local wells.  Unfortunately there is no comprehensive or even generally agreed list – perhaps because almost all wells were once considered holy.  These are just some of my favourite local wells, with the stories that surround them:-Bisham
We know there was once a holy well in Bisham because Bishop Erghum of Salisbury tried to stop people visiting it!  He covered the well with stones but some ‘sons of the devil’ from Marlow and High Wycombe removed them and quickly restored the well to use.

A 14th century account tells of a bird that sat in the tree overhanging the well – it was so tame it could be easily handled.    Then we hear of an hermit who took up residence in the tree alongside the bird – no doubt so he could plunder the offerings!

The well still existed in 1905 and although I haven’t visited it, Alan Carver wrote that he followed a stream by Bisham Abbey and then a tributary that led to a small clump of trees to a spring.  In the banks were old brick walls, possibly Victorian, indicating that it had once been properly cared for.

A Roman well under pavement in High WycombeHigh Wycombe

One report mentions not one but six holy wells in Wycombe – Malmers Well, Castle Well, Bowden Lane Springs, Priory Wells, St Mary’s Well and the Round Basin and indeed all of  these were once the site of wells (there are many other sites as well).  The first of my two favourite Wycombe wells is by All Saint’s Church (see above).  Although I couldn’t definitely identify the well to the east of the Chancel, the site of the Roman well sits prosaically under the pavement opposite, outside the Polish food and bicycle shops.

The Round Basin well was at the east end of the Rye, which fed the watercress beds past Bassetsbury Manor.  The water from this well may have been used by St Wulftstan in one of his two Wycombe miracles (see December 2010 issue).  The well was regularly visited by pilgrims until this was forbidden by Bishop Hugh of Lincoln soon after Wulfstan’s death.

Bapsy PoolTaplow

Bapsey Pond in the grounds of the Buddhist Nichiren Shoshu’s manor house in Taplow is amongst the most significant holy wells in the UK (it is only accessible, with permission, see the background image of the pond on the last page).  The spring that fills the pond once rose at the top of the hill besides the church of St Nicholas, which was demolished in 1828, and the spring culverted to the pond. This was also the site of the stunning Taplow Anglo-Saxon hoard, which was the UK’s richest treasure before Sutton Hoo.

Legend says St Birinus converted the local chieftain and baptised him in this pool.

Lane End wellLane End

Black Well is a brick-built keyhole shape well – a type known from other ancient wells, but sadly we don’t know its history, other than it was renovated in the 1980’s and a plaque records it as circa 1850.

The Dragon’s Pool in Hughenden is named after a dragon that terrorized the area. The October 1758 edition of The Gentleman’s Magazine ran a letter from Edgar Bochart, who told of his visit to the area where, on a farm wall, he found a painting of a dragon-like creature and a pencilled record of its history.

It said that in 1578 a woman from the farm was troubled by a large water serpent, which she often saw while pulling water from the well.  Being frightened she told the neighbours who, planning to kill it, hid behind some briars near the pond. The woman acted as a lure to the serpent, the neighbours sprang and the dragon was slain.  To mark the event the dragon’s skin was stuffed with straw and hung outside the house.  Eventually the skin rotted and the likeness of the creature was painted on the wall.

Hartwell’s Egyptian wellHartwell

The Egyptian well at Hartwell near Aylesbury is said to have been named by Julius Ceasar, who saw a hart drinking there while campaigning during the invasion of Britain.

Actually it was built in the 1840s by the eccentric Dr Lee, a campaigner for teetotalism.

Stay traveller! Round the horse’s neck the bridle fling
And taste the water of the Hartwell Spring
Then say which offers thee the better cheer –
The Hartwell water or the Aylesbury Beer!

I’m afraid I would go for the beer!

By  Gerry Palmer


5 thoughts on “Holy? – Well, Well, Well!”

  1. Interesting article, not sure all those sites in Wycombe were holy but hats a long debate! You may be interested in my blog, I did a post on Bucks some while back and James Rattue’s book on holy wells of Buckhamshire. It’s worth getting if you can find a copy.

  2. Hi we live in East Sussex and have uncovered an ancient well. On our land. It is egg shaped. It is a foot below ground level. It has been filled in with bricks . It does have a foot of clear water, above the bricks which fills up when water is scooped out. Our cottage is not listed. Should we notify the parish council, or is this not necessary? Also can we get a grant for a professional well restorer to clear it out? Our cottage dates 1677. Also could you tell me what the well top would have looked like? Thanks

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