Old Wife’s Spring, Snaizeholme, North Yorkshire

Sacred Well:  OS Grid Reference – SD 8344 8474

Getting Here

The ‘Spring’ atop of Old Wifes Gill, on 1853 OS-map

From Hawes, take the B6255 road west-ish to Ribblehead, but only for 1km, where there’s the Cam Road track on your left.  Walk on here, and keep going till you’re looking down the valley past the very last house (those of you who wanna take the Pennine Way from Hawes will end up in the same place).  It’s one of the springs down the steep slope on your right! (check the attached link to the OS-map to work out which one you’re heading for)

Archaeology & History

Apart from a singular mention in place-name records, I have found no historical information (yet!) about this old water supply.  It was one of the great sites of the cailleach in our Yorkshire hills: a truly ancient and heathen place, all but forgotten and lost in the mythic landscape of our past.  And it’s a bittova dodgy spot getting right up to her down the rather steep hilly slope — but it’s truly well worth the trek!

The Old Wife's Spring, Snaizeholme
The Old Wife’s Spring

When I first visited this place, we took off from Cam Fell’s western side and ambled up the tops until the land gave us the beauty of Snaizeholme valley, which had us stopping, dreaming and wanting more as we sought to find this forgotten well. Most of you would probably come from the easier side of Hawes and walk along the path on the southern-side of the valley, or p’raps even wander up Snaizeholme valley itself – but I’d recommend a walk along the tops. Tis much much better!

If you’ve got the 1:25,000-scale OS-map, you’ll see the ‘Old Wife’s Gill’ running down the hillside. Get over the wall by the track-side and stagger down the steep slope. You’ll pass a small spring about 70 yards down – but this aint the one (though I think originally the Old Wife came from much further up Dodd Fell itself). You’ve got another 75 yards to go down before you get to the main spring – but if you’re old and fragile, unfit or fat, you’ll struggle like hell here!

The waters emerge from this very steep slope, surrounded by plenty of thorns and thistles, on a part of the hill where the land itself is slowly coming away. After a long dry-spell no doubt, this might be a little more secure; but when we came here She’d been raining on-and-off like hell and the waters were a-plenty. It’s difficult to actually locate the exact spot where the water first appears – but like I said, it seems to have, long ago, come from much further up the hill. As the photos show, the water’s nice n’ clear, good-tasting, and then continues along its downward stream – known as the Old Wife’s Gill – until hitting the small river at the valley bottom.

The Old Wife's Spring from below...
The Old Wife’s Spring from below

The other site in this valley which assures us of the cailleach’s validity comes from the place-name a few hundred yards further up the valley, seemingly giving source to the valley river herself: a Lady Spring or well, whose form once emerged close to the gate of the Cold Well close by. The third part of the cailleach’s form – the maiden or virginal – has been lost as far as local myth and literary records go.  But I’ve gotta come here a few more times to get an idea as to where this ‘lost’ water-source originally appeared. A number of streams run off the hills here into the curiously-named Snaizeholme valley (which etymologists assign to nowt more than a “place where twigs are” – which seems nonsensical), and as there’s been very little by way of human habitation screwing the land up, there’s a damn good chance we’ll find and recover the mythic history of the landscape here after a few more treks and dreams…

Other sites of similar mythic relevance which need checking include Carlow Hill (SD 770 858)at Stonehouse, Dentdale; and the great valley of Carlin Gill on the North Yorkshire/Cumbria border (SD 634 993 – Gambles 1995:39).

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

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