Old Wives’ Well, Stape, Pickering, North Yorkshire

Sacred Well:  OS Grid-Reference – SE 7944 9406

Also Known as:

  1. Nattie Fontein

Archaeology & History

Old Wives Well, 1848 OS-map

The history of the site is scanty to say the least.  It first seems to have been recorded when the Ordnance Survey lads came here in the 1840s, although they left no record as to why the site was given such a dedication.  It’s a decidedly pre-christian title as the name “old Wife” is usually indicative in northern counties as being related to the primal Earth deity of northern England and lowland Scotland (when we reach the Highlands and Ireland, She becomes known—amongst other names—as the cailleach).  However, apart from its name we have no additional information.  Neither the holy wells writer Edna Whelan (1989; 2001), nor hydrolatry researcher Graeme Chappell were been able to find anything about the place in their own researches.  And so we must go on name alone…

The waters bubble up into a small stone-lined chamber with the words Nattie Fontein carved into the lintel.  This is something of a mystery in itself, for, as Edna Whelan (1989) told,

“it would be most unusual for the word fonten to be used for a spring in North Yorkshire: ‘keld’ is the local word.  The rather roughly inscribed word may be a corruption of Fons Natalis, the name of a Celtic water nymph.”

Graeme Chappell (2000) meanwhile, noticed in a visit to the site in June 1999,

“that the N and A in “NATTIE” are carved in such a way that the word could be read as “MATTIE FONTEIN” perhaps meaning “Mother Fountain”. This might then be another reference to the Old Wife?”

He then goes on to note how,

“the latin word ‘natalis‘ meaning ‘birth’ and its link with the roman Festival ‘Dies Natalis Sol Invictus‘ (day of the birth of the unconquered sun) which took place on the 25th December. Natalis also gave rise to the welsh word ‘Nadolig‘ – meaning Christmas.”

This Yuletide element has an intriguing relationship with the name of the well; for to the west of Yorkshire’s borders into Cumbria there was annual gathering known as Old Wives’ Saturday that took place on the first Saturday after Christmas, or first Saturday of the New Year in a person’s house or inn, where a feast was had to bring in the New Year; but there is no known written lore of such a tradition here.

Nowadays the old tradition of hanging rags on the trees surrounding the well as offerings to the spirit of the place (known as memaws in parts of Yorkshire, and clooties in Scotland) has become a regular practice of those who hold such sites as sacred in their own way.  Whelan mentioned seeing memaws here in the 1908s, but the Northern Antiquarian contributor Jon Barker told that, “The rags are a comparatively recent addition to the well, it is not a tradition there. When I used to go in the ’60s therewere no rags.”

On an even more curious note: very recently (from when this profile was written), the Northern Antiquarian contributor and photographer James Elkington visited Old Wives’ Well for the first time.  It was a grey overcast day and when he arrived here, there was a woman ahead of him at the head of the well.  I’ll let him tell the rest of it in his own words:

The Old Wives Well, Stape  (James Elkington)
Old Wives Well at Stape (James Elkington)

“In front of the well was a lady dressed in what looked like a white nighty, she had her back to me.  There was a candle lit nearby, and her hands were in the water moving slowly about like she was washing something.  She had long dark shoulder length hair.  As I was about 25 feet away I was sure she wasn’t aware of me, and I thought it would make a good photograph.  I quietly put my bag on the ground and got my camera out, and looked up and…she was gone!  I couldn’t have taken my eye off her for more than 5 or 6 seconds.  I looked all around and there was no sign of her.  Even if she had legged it through the woods I would have seen her.  I think it was then that I realized that I may have had ‘an encounter’.  I quickly took three pics of the Well and got the hell out of there!”

He rang me once he had regained his senses in a somewhat emotional state and recounted over and over what had just happened.  Whether this was a visual manifestation of the genius loci of the we can’t say.  But such encounters are not unknown at numerous sacred water sites all over the world.  We can only hazard a guess that this is what he was fortunate to encounter.

Just a few hundred yards north is the old Mauley or Malo Cross, which may or may not have had some mythic relationship with our Old Wives…

References:

  1. Chappell, Graeme, “Old Wives’ Well, Stape,” YHW 2000.
  2. Elgee, F., Early Man in Northeast Yorkshire, Frank Bellows: Gloucester 1930.
  3. Whelan, Edna, The Magic and Mystery of Holy Wells, Capall Bann: Chieveley 2001.
  4. Whelan, Edna & Taylor, Ian, Yorkshire Holy Wells and Sacred Springs, Northern Lights: Dunnington 1989.

Links:

  1. Yorkshire Holy Wells

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

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