Shown on the early 25-inch-to-the-mile Ordnance Survey map of the area, this is a frustrating site. In Thompson’s (1870) early history of Welton village, he says very little about this place, other than:
“Then there is Saint Ann’s Well, which supplies Welton House with spring water.”
Even worse is the fact that in William Smith’s (1923) survey of East Yorkshire holy wells, he merely copies Thompson; and in Jeremy Harte’s magnum opus he does exactly the same thing! Not good. Thankfully the local artist and singer, Gaynor Perry, helped us out big time! She grew up in this area and used to play here when she was young, but at the time she had no idea that the well where she’d played had any magical traditions attached to it. This discovery happened many years later. Regarding the present condition of the well (as of 2017), she told:
“The well has been covered with stone slabs for a long time (and) a tree has tried to grow over it. It has been sheltered here over the years in the grounds of Welton House, a large estate which was demolished in 1952.”
The well can still be seen in the small copse of trees immediately north of St Anne’s College. There is the possibility that this holy well gave its name to the village of Welton itself. First mentioned in 1080 CE, the place-name means “the well near the farm,” (Smith 1937) although there is no direct linguistic association with St. Anne, so we don’t know for sure.
St. Anne is a curious saintly figure and one of my personal favourites. St Anne (saint’s day – July 26) was a giant in early christian and Islamic myths. An apocryphal figure, She was the Great Mother of the mother of Christ—the Virgin Mary—and was Herself a Virgin until, in Her old age, after seeing a bird feeding a chick, decided She wanted a child and so eventually gave birth to Mary. An old woman giving birth when the Springtime appears (when birds and other animals become fertile) is the same motif found in the lore of the Cailleach in Ireland and Scotland (and parts of northern England). A pre-christian mythos would is highly probable here.
Very little is now known about this sacred site that was once found “a few hundred yards east from the New Church at Low Harrogate.” (Hunter 1830) Even most of travellers and medical experts who wrote about the numerous Harrogate wells in the 18th and 19th century bypassed its quietude; and by the time Mr Hunter wrote about it in his great descriptive catalogue, its healing or medicinal qualities had been forgotten.
He told that “the spirit in the water…or that with which it is infused, has long been most actively engaged in adding real or fancied comforts to the (Harrogate) Fair, and is now in much more general use” than the two other holy wells in the town. It was, he said, “the best water for making tea and more extensively used for that purpose than any in the neighborhood of Harrogate.” It would also appear to have been built over at some time in the not-too-distant past…
St Ann (saint’s day – July 26) was a giant in early christian and Islamic myths. An apocryphal figure, She was the Great Mother of the mother of Christ—the Virgin Mary—and was Herself a Virgin until, in Her old age, after seeing a bird feeding a chick, decided She wanted a child and so eventually gave birth to Mary. An old woman giving birth when the Springtime appears (when birds and other animals become fertile) is the same motif found in the lore of the Cailleach in Ireland and Scotland (and parts of northern England). Pre-christian lore at this old well would seem evident here.
Hunter, Adam, The Waters of Harrogate and its Vicinity, Langdale: Harrogate 1830.
The cross is at the roadside on the south side of Barton Lane at the cross roads with the minor road between Cross House Farm and Barton House.
Archaeology and History
All that survives is the socketed base of a mediaeval cross on a raised paved platform with low raised square section pillars at each corner. Behind the original cross socket stands a large stone block (Described in the Historic England citation as “probably part of a cheesepress“) surmounted by a pyramidal block upon which a modern carved stone cross has been placed.
Henry Taylor (1906) writes in his Ancient Crosses and Holy Wells of Lancashire:
“Barton Cross. These words occur on the map in ancient Gothic letters in Barton Lane, one and a half miles in a westerly direction from Goosnargh Church, showing that in the year 1848 a complete cross stood here. The site is at the intersection of country lanes, and the map shows a small recess or lay-bye in which the cross was planted. Mr. Collinson [Reverend S.E. Collinson, Vicar of Broughton] writes that the base was thrown into a neighbouring pit at the time Daniel’s pedestal was buried. The base and part of the shaft of the Barton Cross have lately been restored to the old site. A new cross has been erected just behind by Mr. Myerscough. Mr. Collinson tells me that in going through some of the old parish registers he found an entry referring to ‘Barton Christ’. He not unnaturally thinks that there must have been a figure on the Cross giving rise to the name. Nothing else would account for it. The neighbourhood of Barton (a pre-Norman settlement) is interesting and deserves a thorough investigation.”
The ‘Daniel’s pedestal’ refers to Daniels Cross, near Broughton, of which Taylor writes:
“The base was removed about sixty years ago. It is now in a neighbouring pit. The facts were obtained from an old man who helped at the destruction of this landmark.”
The pyramidal stone block upon which the modern cross stands is inscribed on the northern face: “Barton Cross re-erected by Councillor R. Myerscough of Preston 1901” while the southern face is inscribed: “Refurbished by Barton Parish council 2000“.
The well is all dried up today, but its remains are about 200 yards north of the river Wharfe. Sam Brewster (1980) told the easiest way to find it: “To get there from Thorp Arch you take the trackway that goes to the south of the church and follow this until you are walking alongside the river; eventually you will come to a barrier of barbed wire near some old disused water-works; get under or over this barrier and turn 90 degrees to your left, following the barbed wire until you come to a wood, the other side of the barbed wire; go into the wood and turn right; keep exploring near the edge of the wood until you find a tree under which is a hollow which used to be St. Helen’s Well.” Once here you can see where the water used to flow down a narrow channel and under a little bridge.
Archaeology & History
This ancient and well-known healing spring is shown on early OS-maps emerging a short distance north of the River Wharfe besides St. Helen’s Beck in Chapel Wood, adjacent to the Kirkstall Ing or field. In the western fields close by was once an ancient chapel and, closer to the holy well, once “stood St. Helen’s (or St. Helena’s) Cross, which is somewhat crudely represented in Dr. Whitaker’s History of Craven“, (Speight 1902), illustrated here.
This well possesses a prodigious occult history yet is curiously absent from most studies on the subject. The place is said to have been a respected holy site that was venerated long before the Romans arrived here. Found at a place called the Rudgate — but known locally as St. Helen’s Ford — it is also said to be haunted. Angela Smith (n.d.) considers the traditions surrounding the well to be pre-Roman, and the curative waters would certainly have been known of at the time of their occupation here,
“because it lies at the side of Roman road No.280, just north of where it crosses the River Wharfe at St. Helen’s Ford, leading to the Roman fort at Newton Kyme.”
Several species of psychoactive plants grow adjacent to the well, which are thought by Phillips, (1976) Devereux (1992) and I as serving ritual shamanic purposes. The likelihood is more so than not. The oracular nature of the site which R.C. Hope (1893) and others have described here is particularly interesting: in traditions the world over, oracles were often consulted after the ingestion or use of sacred plants, such as are found here.
Due to the sacred nature of this spring and its importance in local folklore and history, it should be recovered from its present state. The fact that this place was highly important as a ritual and sacred site to christians, pagans, Romans and peasants alike, and now hides all-but-lost and forgotten is a disgrace.
A fascinating tale hangs over this still-revered holy well which legend tells had a chapel standing adjacent, dedicated to Helen in the 7th century – although no trace of it is visible today. Local historian Edmund Bogg (1904) recounted how a local sexton told of “padfoots and barguests and ‘that grim foul beast with clanking chain’ which on dark nights kept its vigil” near St.Helen’s Well. Padfoots and barguests are Yorkshire names for spectral black dogs, said to be bringers of death and misfortune (they are one of several remaining folk-ingredients from the Underworld myths in British shamanism).
Folklorist Guy Ragland Phillips (1976), referring to an article in The Dalesman in 1971, told how a Mrs Dorothy Tate as a young girl used to visit the site and would tie pieces of rag on the bushes aside the place as grateful offerings to the spirit of the well. She said however, that she had gone about doing this in the wrong way, as according to tradition such offerings are to be done secretly. The article showed a photograph of Mrs Tate (from 1908) tying one of the memaws to the wych-elm tree overhanging the old spring.
People visited the well – probably on August 18 – to divine the future with the oracle which Hope (1893) described as being here, always in the dead of night without being seen, leaving before sunrise. It has been visited by thousands of people over the centuries, with gifts of rag-hangings, pins and other memaws. Such offerings continue even to this day. When Harry Speight (1902) visited St. Helen’s Well at the turn of the century, he related how as many as forty or fifty hangings would be left at any one time on the branches of the trees. He wrote:
“The water is beautifully soft and clear, and in former times was much resorted to as a specific for sore or weak eyes. There are two other springs close by, which were also held to be sacred, but they do not bear any particular dedications. An old plantation a little north of the well is known as Chapel Wood, which commemorates St. Helen’s chapel and the ancient church at Bilton, three miles further north, and about a mile to the east of the Roman Rudgate, is also dedicated to St. Helen.”
A few years before Speight’s visit here, Dr Fred Lees and the botanist, Robert Baines, visited St. Helen’s Well, and wrote similarly of the lore and memaws they found there:
“There are veritably hundreds of these bedizenings affixed and removed surreptitiously (probably before sunrise), according to an unwritten law, for none are ever caught in the act. And yet during the summer months a careful observer may detect almost weekly evidence of a shy communicant with the ghostly genius of someone¾country maid or her dumb shy swain. What murmured litany (if any) had to be said is lost; most likely nothing more was necessary than the unspoken wish…Pieced together and codified, fact and heresay testify as follows: ‘The visitor to the grove, before rise of sun, has to face the tree [a wych-elm overhanging the well] to detach from his or her own person some garment, to dip it in the well, and having knotted or whilst hanging the fragment to any convenient twig…is to breathe a ‘wish’ telling no-one what that wish may be; these conditions strictly observed, what is desired shall come to pass.'” (in Phillips, 1976)
When the archaeologist C.N. Bromehead (1935) and geologist J.V. Stephens came to the site in the 1930s, despite the fall of the well, he was surprised to find local peasants still respecting the spirits of the site, reporting:
“There is now no well or visible spring, but from the position at the lower margin of a gravel terrace it is obvious that water would be obtained by digging a few feet; a small stream flows just east of the site… It is curious that the hanging of rags should survive when the actual well has vanished, but the writer has visited the spot many times in the last seven years and there are always plenty of obviously recent additions. The custom is to stand facing the well (i.e., due west), preferably after sunset, wish, and then attach something torn from one’s clothing either to the big tree — wych elm — or to any of the bushes. Probably the custom is largely maintained by vagrants who frequently camp in the wood, but it also has its attraction for courting couples from the neighbouring villages!”
Such offerings at the site of St. Helen’s Well are still left by locals and some of the plastic pagans, who tie pieces of artificial material to the remnants of the wych-elm and other trees, which actually pollutes the Earth and kills the spirit here. Whilst the intent may be good, please, if you’re gonna leave offerings here, make sure that the rags you leave are totally biodegradable. The magical effectiveness of your intent is almost worthless if the material left is toxic to the environment and will certainly have a wholly negative effect on the spirit of the placehere. Please consider this to ensure the sacred nature of the site.
…to be continued…
Bogg, Edmund, Lower Wharfeland, the Old City of York and the Ainsty, James Miles: Leeds 1904.
Brewster, Sam, ‘St. Helen’s Well,’ in Wind & Water 1:4, 1980.
Bromehead, C.N., ‘Rag Wells,’ in Antiquity IX, March 1935.
From the Chester ring road head into north Wales along the coast road (A548) from Connah’s Quay for about 13 miles taking you through Flint. After 12 miles turn left into Holywell town (Treffynnon). At the western end of the town go down the Greenfield-Mostyn road back towards the A584 taking you down a hill. After 500 hundred yards you arrive at the holy well/shrine and pilgrimage centre on the right-hand side; there is parking on the opposite side of the road. There is a small entrance fee, but as well as the famous healing well and bathing pool, they have a gift shop, toilet facilities and a late medieval/Gothic two-storey structure that is built over the polygonal, vaulted well chamber, whilst at the side (at the corner of the hill) stands another Gothic chapel from 1500.
History and Legend
According to the well known legend, a young Welsh girl called Winefride or Gwenfrewi, was the daughter of patrician parents, Thenith (Thewyth) and Gwenlo, who lived at Bryn-y-Castell (Treffynnon) at the beginning of the 7th century AD. She was a very religious girl who was known for her kindness and charities to people in the area that was then called Tegeingl (after the Decengle tribe). Winefride grew up to be a very beautiful young woman which troubled her because she had no wish to marry, only to live a life of chastity and serve God as only she knew how.
One day a local chieftain from Hawarden (Penarlag) called Caradoc ap Alyn came hunting in the area. He became very thirsty so stopped off at the house where Winefride lived with her parents. However, on this particular day her parents were attending the local church where St Beuno, her uncle, was conducting a service. Prince Caradoc soon began to seduce her so she ran to the church but with the prince in hot pursuit. When he caught up with poor Winefride, she again resisted him so he took his sword and beheaded her. Her severed head fell to the ground and rolled down a hill and where it came to rest a spring of water gushed forth from the ground. Her parents and uncle came rushing out of the church at which point St Beuno cursed the evil prince, who was calmly wiping blood from his sword, causing him to sink into the ground — never to be seen again. St. Beuno then placed the severed head back into place, restoring Winifred to life again but leaving her with a thin scar round her neck.
Later, Winifred was entrusted for her education to St Beuno whom sent her to various holy men including St. Elerius at Gwytherin near Llanwrst. Here she became abbess of a convent that had been founded by Elerius, with his mother St. Theonia as first abbess; and it was here for the next 40 years that Winifred lived out her life. She was said to have died at Gwytherin in either 65o or 670 AD. Her body was first interred in the churchyard there, however in 1138 her relics were transferred to Shrewsbury Abbey. Sadly however, her shrine there was destroyed in the 16th century and now only a few relics remain with a finger-bone being housed at a convent in Holywell.
Mythology and Folklore
The holy well and shrine of St. Winifred at Holywell became a place of pilgrimage during the middle-ages and many miracles of healing were wrought there. The sick were cured of infirmities of the legs and body; crutches were left at the well and many were cured of leprosy, eye complaints, loss of hearing, being not able to bear a child, mental illness, palsy and lung disorders etc. During the Reformation the holy well suffered much, but from the 17th century onwards pilgrims were returning to the holy place and, more recently it has become the Welsh Lourdes and still pilgrims come in droves from all over Wales and beyond. The vaulted Gothic structure covering the well shrine is richly carved with bosses depicting various characters including St Beuno, Earl Stanley, Lady Margaret Beaufort, biblical characters, animals and an abbot of Basingwerk abbey, but there is also much recent graffiti too. A tall statue of St Winefride looks down over the well while candles burn all around. In the larger bathing pool outside, a stone lies at one side — this is claimed to be where St. Beuno sat whilst teaching his young niece. Red stains on stones at the front of the well-basin were long taken to be the martyr’s bloodstains, but now these are thought to be iron oxide pigmentation on the lichens. Today the people still come either to bathe in the special pool, throw coins in the well, or fill bottles with holy water from a tap on the wall. Faith in miracles of healing is still much in evidence here and may it continue to be for many years to come. Everyone is welcome here, you don’t have to be a Roman Catholic!
Bord, Janet & Colin, Sacred Waters, Paladin: London 1986.
David, Christopher, Saint Winefride’s Well – A History and Guide, Gomer Press: Llandysul 2002.
Edwards-Charles, Thomas, Saint Winefride and Her Well – The Historical Background, Holywell 1962.
Heath, Sidney, In the Steps of the Pilgrims, Rich & Cowan: London 1950.
Jones, Francis, The Holy Wells of Wales, University of Wales Press: Cardiff 1992.