When water first emerges from the Earth they’re known as ’springs’ of water; those with stone troughs or basins into which the water falls are ‘wells.’ I don’t see much difference misself! And if water was of any importance to our ancestors (anyone who thinks it wasn’t is probably a bit slow…), such a clinical definition is of little importance. Many water-sites possessed great healing or therapeutic properties, as evidenced by chemical analyses (mainly in Victorian times, when a bittova craze on these wells was in vogue), aswell as folk-tradition, plus vast numbers of subjective encounters. To ancient societies – indeed, to myself – water is our blood, or the blood of the Earth. Treating this liquid as little more than a ‘commodity’, aswell as polluting it, should be a criminal offence – simple as!
This is one of at least five wells dedicated to St. Hilda in North Yorkshire that my old colleague Graeme Chappell has uncovered over his many years of research. It’s sadly been destroyed, and accounts of it seem to be few and far between; but from the short description of it by Mr J.C. Atkinson (1894)—and helped out by its later title—we at least know where it once was.
In his account of the old roads in the village, Grape Lane was mentioned as far back as 1396, and close by, he wrote,
“is a spring called Seynt-Hild-keld, possibly where the so-called “Virgin pump” stands, or stood, not so very long since.”
This ‘ere “virgin pump” is shown in an old photo taken about 1890, just round the corner from Grape Lane where, today, is the car park on Church Street, opposite The Endeavour.
St Hilda was a 7th century saint who was reputed to have founded Whitby Abbey. Her festival date was November 17.
Atkinson, J.C., Memorials of Old Whitby, MacMillan: London 1894.
There seems to be very little information available about this holy well, lost long ago and now hidden beneath the foundations of a food superstore! It was found in close association with both a chapel and a hospital in St. Leonard’s name—both of which have also been destroyed. The water from here may have been used by the monks for patients in the hospital, but that’s purely speculative. St. Leonard was known to be connected with lepers, which may be something that the waters here were used to treat. But again, I’m speculating…
When the Ordnance Survey lads came here in 1853, the waters were still running and they subsequently added it to their map a few years later. The site was still visible when Erskine Beveridge (1917) came here, telling us briefly that,
“St. Leonard’s Well still remains a little to the south-east, and, though now built up, is recognisable.”
But a few years later it had been destroyed and its position was shown on the updated OS-map of 1926 as “Site of.” The old well had gone…
In 1897, when Butler wrote his history of the village, he told that a certain well, “adjacent to the Gattaway stream” (thought to be the Nethy Burn which passes Gattaway farm) was known to old locals as Brendan’s Well, with the name still surviving as ‘Bredni Well’. There were a number of large boulders around it that had been scattered by blasting, but which Butler thought were, “in all probability placed originally near the wall as a guide for pilgrims.”
The site was included in Ruth & Frank Morris’ (1982) survey, adding simply that the site was named “after the saint who lived here in the seventh century.” In the christian calendar, St. Brendan’s day was May 16.
When the local antiquarian Paul Hornby looked for the well, a local lady told him that she thought an occasional but regular boggy patch that appeared in her garden was due to the underground waters from St Brendan’s Well.
Butler, D., The Ancient Church and Parish of Abernethy, Edinburgh 1897. Page(s): 102
This once famous healing or spa well has long gone. It was located where the buildings that now constitute 104-105 Lambeth Walk presently stand: an area which the great London historian William Thornbury (1878) told was already “a favourite resort of Londoners, and celebrated for the variety of sweet-smelling flowers and medicinal herbs growing there,” complementing the healing waters before and during the spa craze. The great herbalist John Gerard did his collections here.
I can find no information regarding its early use by our peasant ancestors, so its written history simply begins when it had been appropriated by those well-to-do up-market types who took this medicinal spring for their commercial gain in the early days of the trendy spas. Supplied by two separate springs known as the Nearer and Farther Wells respectively, the Well House built here was “formally opened in April 1696” and subsequently had almost daily accompaniments of music, including French and country dancing! But as the popularity of the Lambeth Spa increased, so did its problems. Phyllis Hembry (1990) told that by July 1715, one visitor to the spa,
“was so depressed to find that the many people there were mostly rakes, whores and drunkards, idlers such as Guard officers, or young pleasure-seeker like attorneys’ clerks, mingling with loose women of the the meanest sort. The Lambeth Wells also became a public nuisance, so a dancing license was refused in 1755.”
The so-called Great Room which had been the place of great occasions by spa users ended up being the meeting place “for Methodist meetings.” Oh how the winter nights must have flown by…..
There was a decided improvement in the years that followed and social events at the spa increased again. It became what Thornbury said “was another place of amusement.” The Lambeth Wells, he wrote,
“were held for a time in high repute, on account of their mineral waters, which were advertised as to be sold, according to John Timbs, at “a penny a quart, the same price paid by St. Thomas’s Hospital.” About 1750, we learn from the same authority, there was a musical society held here, and lectures, with experiments in natural philosophy, were delivered by Dr. Erasmus King and others. Malcolm tells us that the Wells opened for the season regularly on Easter Monday, being closed during the winter. They had “public days” on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, with “music from seven in the morning till sunset; on other days till two!” The price of admission was threepence. The water was sold at a penny a quart to the “quality” and to those who could pay for it; being given gratis to the poor. We incidentally learn that there were grand gala and dancing days here in 1747 and 1752, when “a penny wedding, in the Scotch manner, was celebrated for the benefit of a young couple.”
By this time, a rival St. George’s Spa of had been created a short distance away on the parish boundary and with it, the popularity and attendance at Lambeth Wells began to decline. By the end of the 18th century, the rot had truly set in and its days were finally numbered.
As for the medicinal properties of these wells, little seems to have been recorded. Aside from repeating the common description of them being mineral waters, William Addison (1951) simply added that they were also purgative.
Addison, William, English Spas, Batsford: London 1951.
Shown on the 1855 Ordnance Survey map as a ‘pump’, in the grounds of Everingham Priory, the ‘seat’ of the lord of the manor, it was in an enclosure formerly open to the people of the village. It was filled in prior to 1923. The water was described as ‘abundant and excellent.’ Graeme Chapman, in his Yorkshire Holy Wells website states:
‘A few metres to the south of the site of the well the modern OS map marks the start of a stream (SE 8055 4250) which could be the original source of the Holy well’s water.’
The present writer has not been able to verify this from the materials available to him.
Everilda, also known as Everild and Averil, is recorded in the York Breviary, printed in 1493. She was a mid Yorkshire Saint who died around 700 CE. According to this source she was of a noble Wessex family who went to Yorkshire with companions Bega and Wulfreda, settling on land called Bishop’s Farm, an estate of the Bishop of York, St Wilfrid , which he gave to them, the place being then called Everildisham. There they established a nunnery, of which all trace is now lost. Her Saint’s day is July 9th. The name of St Everilda has been changed to ‘Emeldis’ in the dedication of the church at Everingham. Some historians claim the village is not named after her, but as a derivation of ‘ham of Eofor’s people’. The only other church known to be dedicated to her is at Nether Poppleton, some 17 miles north west of Everingham.
The water of the village and the mothers of Everingham are said to have been blessed by St Everilda, and the Reverend Smith wrote that over a fifty year period, no mother had died in childbirth.
Farmer, David, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1987
Raine, James, The Dedications of the Yorkshire Churches, The Yorkshire Archaeological and Topographical Journal, Vol II, 1873
Salisbury, Matthew Cheung, The Use of York: Characteristics of the Medieval Liturgical Office in York, Borthwick Institute, York, 2008
Smith, Rev William, Ancient Springs & Streams of the East Riding of Yorkshire, A.Brown & Sons, London, Hull & York, 1923
The site of the well, which was in the historic county of Middlesex, appears to have been on the west side of the present Moorefields Road just north of the junction with St Loy’s Road. The OS reference is an approximation. The restored circular well house to the south of the High Cross at the High Road – Philip Lane junction now popularly known as ‘St Eloy’s Well’ is not the historic well described in this profile.
Archaeology & History
The well was still in existence in 1876, but by the time of the revision of the OS map around 1894, it had been destroyed following building of the Great Eastern Railway’s Enfield branch line and the construction of terraced housing along the new St Loy’s Road.
So where was the well? The 1873 6″ OS map shows a field on parts of which the railway line and St Loy’s Road are now built, and a small area of water is shown in this field which is the likely position of St Loy’s Well on the eve of its destruction, when it was described as a dirty pool of water full of mud and rubbish. If this was the position of the well then it has now been completely built over…
It was described by Robinson in his 1841 History of Tottenham as being:
‘..in a field….on the western side of the High Road…surrounded by willows…it is bricked up on all sides, square and about 4 feet deep..’ ‘ In Bedwell’s time [it was]…always full of water, but never running over; the water of which is said to exceed all other near it.’.. ‘the properties of the water are similar to the water of the Cheltenham springs’.
Thomas Clay ‘s 1619 map of Tottenham, illustrated in Robinson’s book shows a field north west of Tottenham High Cross called ‘Southfeide at St Loys’. The Tottenham historian Wilhelm Bedwell described the well in 1631 as:
‘“nothing else but a deep pit in the highway, on the west side thereof;”….”it was within memory cleaned out, and at the bottom was found a fair great stone, which had certain letters or characters on it; but being broken or defaced by the negligence of the workmen, and nobody near that regarded such things, it was not known what they were or meant.’
This fair great stone with its ‘certain letters or characters that no one knew what they were or meant’ is intriguing especially in view of the well’s proximity to the Roman Ermine Street (Now the High Street). Were those mysterious characters spelling out an undecipherable Latin inscription on a Roman stone? We shall never know, but it hints at a pre-Christian origin or veneration of the well. Another hint is that before the Reformation there was nearby a chapel of St Eloy known as the Offertory, which may have been originally built to ‘Christianise’ a pre-existing heathen sacred spring. The Roman origins of the well are also hinted at (probably erroneously) by W.L. Bowles in 1830, writing of a ‘Druidical Tour’ that one Sir Thomas Phillipps undertook on the continent, first quoting Phillipps before adding his own conclusion:
‘“Near Arras in France, are found the mount of St. Eloi and the very name of a place, Tote. I have no doubt Druidical remains will be found there, if this be not the very country of Carnutes.”
Now let me observe, that Tote is Taute —Tot—Thoth, latinized into Tewtates by Lucan, &c. the chief deity of the Celts. St. Eloi is neither more nor less than the Celtic word Sul, turned into the Greek the Sun; and Elios, turned into the Catholic St. Eloi, as at Tottenham, Middlesex, anciently Tote-ham, the ham of Taute or Tent, where is also the sacred well of St. Eloi, or ‘Helios’, the Sun !’
Saint Eloi / Eloy /Loy / Eligius, is the patron saint of those who work in the alchemists’ metal of the sun – goldsmiths! He is also the patron saint of blacksmiths, farriers, and all who earned their livings from horses, and lived from around 588 to 660 to become Bishop of Noyon and the evangelising apostle for much of modern day Belgium. His feast day is 1st December, and he had a widespread cult in mediaeval Europe, including England. In addition to being a healing well for humans, one writer hints that the well’s waters may have been employed for healing horses…they certainly would have drunk from it with its proximity to what is now the High Street.
Around 1770, an artist called Townsend (the sources are unsure as whether it was a Mrs or Mr) produced a romanticised drawing of the well, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1770-1. It depicts a hermit beside the well (the Hermitage of St Anne stood to the south of High Cross prior to the Reformation) receiving an offering from a lady. It was engraved and sold as a print, and may be the only image of the well before its demise.
In 1819 – 20, John Abraham Heraud wrote a poem about St Loy’s Well, set in the time of St. Edward the Martyr, (the late 970s), entitled ‘ Stanzas in the Legend of St Loy‘ of which the most relevant verses are;
‘TOTEHAM! the Legend of thine olden day, To the last note hath on thine echoes died; But the Bard’s soul still lingers o’er the lay, To muse upon thy transitory pride The pride of times that hath been — blank and void— When all was Nature, big with many a song Of Chivalry and Fame, with Love allied— But Time both changed the scene — now houses throng Where once was solitude — and people crowd along.
Where now thy WOOD, that spread its misty shade O’er twice two hundred acres? — past away! And vain its PROVERB, as the things that fade, Earth, sun, moon, stars, that change as they decay! The lonely CELL, the tenor of the lay, Its grove, which hermit tendance loved to rear; And, St. LOY, mouldering to Time’s gradual sway, Thy rites, thy OFFERTORY disappear;— Forgot thy SPRING OF HEALTH no votary worships there!
Forgot, neglected — still my harp shall dwell On thee, thou blest BETHESDA of ST. LOY! As Fancy muses o’er the vital WELL On years of storied yore, with grief and joy, Exults they were — weeps Truth should e’er destroy! Thrice I invoke the Spirit of the Stream With charm she may not question, or deny, And, like a Naiad, o’er the watery gleam She rises to my voice, and answers thus the theme:— ‘
Heraud wrote a further poem mentioning the well, his ‘Tottenham‘ of 1820, the relevant verse being:
‘St. Loy! here is this fountain—emblem pure Of chaste unostentatious charity— Never in vain intreated, ever sure ; Yet o’er the marge thy waters fair and free Ascend not, overflowing vauntingly, But in thy bounty humble as unfailing, In grief, disease, and sickness, visit thee. But part in joy, changed by thy holy healing To manhood, strength, and life, thy far renown revealing. There is thy offertory, and thy shrine, Simple, inartificial ; nor of fame, Nor any honour, save that it is thine, And all its glory centres in thy name !’
Very little has been written of this site due to the fact that little seems to known about it. A few of the usual ‘official’ on-line catalogues mention it but information on the site is truly scant. It is shown on the earliest Ordnance Survey map of the region and the same cartographers describe it in the Ordnance Name Book (1873), saying briefly how St John’s Well,
“Applied to a very deep pump well situated in the court of the ancient portion of “Dunrobin Castle”. No information respecting the dedication or origin of this name can be obtained in the District.”
But an earlier reference than this is cited in Fraser’s (1892) work, telling us that,
“In the midst of the court within the castle there is one of the deepest draw-wells in Scotland, all lined with ashlar-work, which was built and finished before the house was begun. The well was known as that of St. John. In the year 1512 sasine (i.e. delivery of feudal property) of the earldom and castle was taken at the well. At other times sasine was taken at the castle, at its gates, or near the well.”
Subsequent to this, we read in Cumming’s (1897) definitive folklore work of the region how,
“(it) looks as if there had been a chapel of St. John on Drumrabyn. In that case it may have been one dependent upon Kileain (=Kirk of John) on Loch Brora, which was only ½ a mile further than Kilmalin.”
Having not visited the castle, I’m unsure whether or not the well can still be seen. Does anyone know…?
An old church dedicated to St Bennet once existed on the hill above where this spring of water emerges, but little is now left of the building. Thankfully the holy well hasn’t quite followed in the footsteps of the church. Miss Riley (1935) told us that it can be found “near the high-water mark…situated at the foot of a beautiful little glen which runs inland from the coast” – and from all accounts it is still there.
Shown on the 1880 OS-map of the region, the dedication to St Bennet is obscure. Mr Pullan (1927) suggested it derived from the 6th century St Benedict of Nursia, but this is improbable. The Royal Commission lads thought it more likely derived from “a Celtic foundation.”
The earliest description I’ve found regarding the traditions surrounding this well are by Hugh Miller (1835). He wrote:
“It is not yet twenty years since a thorn-bush, which formed a little canopy over the spring of St. Bennet, used to be covered anew every season with little pieces of rag, left on it as offerings to the saint, by sick people who came to drink of the water.”
But the tradition didn’t die out, as evidenced by a short article by Miss M.D. Riley (1935) in Antiquity journal where she gave us further valuable information about its folk history, saying:
“In order to insure the fulfilment of the wish it is essential that the wisher should drink the water and leave something of his personal attire. When the writer visited the spot there was a heterogeneous collection of ‘rags’ hanging on the branches.
“Mr Francis Scott tells me that the site is locally supposed to be the place of judgement. It is close to the ruins of St Bennet’s Chapel and the ground is said to be cursed as it was stoeln by the Church. Even at the present day the owner has to provide each year at Christmas-tide 8 cwt of oatmeal free for the poor of the parish. This has been operative since 1630 and though the owner has tested the matter in the highest court of law in Scotland, his appeal was not allowed.”
The tradition of giving offerings to the spirit of this well was still recorded in 1966.
Hiley, M.D., “Rag-Wells,” in Antiquity, volume 9:4, December 1935.
A mile to the west side of Crieff, in the grounds of the 18th century mansion known as Ochtertyre House, could once be seen the little-known sacred well of St Serf. Sadly its waters seem to have disappeared beneath the rising waters of the loch known as St Serf’s Waters—which is a pity, as the place was of importance in the annual traditions of the local people, who left offerings to the spirit of the place, as was common in days of olde. It was described in Mr Porteous’ (1822) account of Monzievaird parish, in which he told that,
“Nigh to this place is St Serf’s Well, and the moor whereon St Serf’s market is held. He was the tutelary saint of the parish of Monivaird. This well is a plentiful spring of water. About sixty years ago, our people were wont, on Lammas day, to go and drink it, leaving white stones, spoons, or rags, which they brought with them; but nothing except the white stones now appear, this superstitious practice being quite in oblivion. It has been useful in a strangury, as any other very cold water would be; for a patient, taking a tub full of it immediately from the well, plunging his arms into it, which were bare to the elbows, was cured.
“St Serf’s fair is still kept on the 11th of July, where Highland horses, linen cloth, etc., both from the south and north, are sold.”
Although the well is deemed to be ‘lost’, it is possible that its waters might be seen after a good drought. Please let us know if that happens.
St. Serf was said to have been a hermit and tutor of the more renowned St. Mungo.
Approaching the site from the north, walk along the Lane Head track, and along the path south-eastwards, then turn right onto the main footpath until coming to the stream. Follow the stream up the fell to the large clump of reeds, then follow your ears until you locate the spring! Or you can approach it along the main footpath from the Oakenclough – Galgate road. The well and the path to it
are on access land.
Archaeology & History
Fortunately recorded by the Ordnance Survey on their 1846 6″ map Lancashire XL, the story of St Ellen’s Well was taken up sixty years later by local holy wells historian Henry Taylor (1906):
“The site of this holy well is marked on the ordnance map at a lonely spot on Harris Fell, five hundred feet above the sea-level, four and a half miles in a north-easterly direction from the town of Garstang.
“Mr. A. King has kindly examined the site. He writes, 4th August, 1902: “We had no difficulty in locating the spot…. There is no outward indication of the place being used for curative means, and there is no stonework at all. It is a beautifully cold spring which is at the side of ‘Bonny Pad’, a pathway leading across the moor from Harris End, and it was grown around with rushes…. All I can glean about it is that one of the oldest inhabitants, when asked if he knew of it, replied, ‘It will be th’ holy well, you mean.'”
The original dedication of this remote holy well was clearly to St. Helen, and its presence next to the Bonny Pad or path may indicate a pre-Christian dedication to a local cognate of the Celtic Elen Luyddog, Elen of the hosts or ways. The Bonny Pad is shown but not not named on the 1846 map, and follows a broadly southwest to northeast direction from Harris End (again not named on the 1846 map) up to Grizedale Head on the southern edge of the Catshaw Vaccary. It was perhaps an ancient route used by farmers to take their animals up onto the fell for the summer, and return them to the lowlands in the autumn.
The western portion of Bonny Pad is not shown on the modern map and St Ellen’s Well is not marked, and both have it seems passed out of local memory. An elderly farmer I encountered on my way up to the fell had never heard of the Well.
It is certainly worth the walk if only for the delightful sound of this powerfully flowing spring, the water is pure and cold, and it commands a fine view over the Lancashire plain to the coast.
Taylor, Henry, The Ancient Crosses and Holy Wells of Lancashire, Sherratt & Hughes: Manchester 1906.
Wise, Caroline, “Elen of the Roads of Country and Town”, in Finding Elen – The Quest for Elen of the Ways, edited by Caroline Wise, Eala Press: London 2015.