In Rob Wilson’s (1991) study on the saints and wells of South Yorkshire, he mentions this site which, it would seem, may have been lost to history. In Wilson’s site-entry for the St. Helen’s Well at nearby Barnburgh, he tells that,
“There may have been other wells in South Yorkshire dedicated to St. Helen… Two 18th century surveys by William Fairbank list St. Helen’s Fieldin Thorpe Hesley and St. Ellen’s Field in Wentworth.”
Around ten different wells are highlighted in the village itself on the first Ordnance Survey map of the area, with a number of others scattered in the surrounding fields. Any one of these may be the well in question. Much of the region was badly disfigured by the Industrialists in their usual desecration of the landscape, which may make any recovery of this site impossible. However, a foray into the whereabouts of William Fairbank’s survey could be worthwhile — and if St. Helen’s Field is one that remained untouched by local mining, the site could be recovered from its present “lost” status.
(Please note: the grid-reference cited above is an approximation until further data allows us to correct it.)
Wilson, Rob, Holy Wells and Spas of South Yorkshire, Northern Arts: Sheffield 1991.
First mentioned in Pipe Rolls and referred to by the founder of Wallingwells Benedictine Priory (founded around 1150 CE) as ‘juxta fonts et rivum fontium’, the site Wallingwell or originally Waldon-by-the-Wells, may be significant. The name refers to ‘bubbling wells’, but whether these wells were dedicated appears to be unknown, although it does seem likely. Indeed, an anonymous article from the Worksop Guardian dated 1929 on the Wallingwell Estate, shows the well arising under a rough stone work arch beside the site of a lake. Close by, appears to be a grotto of a similar construction. The article states that the grotto was built 250 years (from 1929 this suggests a date of 1679 which appears a little too early for this folly, a date in the 18th century being more likely). This was done by Thomas White using stone from petrified springs in Derbyshire. No reference is made of the well, but one assumes that it was built at the same time, but whether White was constructing a folly around an existing traditional site again is unknown.
Baker (2000) refers to the castle folly but fails to reference these sites suggesting that it had vanished. However, grotto and well still exist in the overgrown and forlorn garden to the back of the house. The grotto is well-preserved, although signs of ruination are evident and the urn within has gone.
The internal brickwork
The overgrown well
St. Mary’s Well is the most ruined. The archway appears to have fallen or been knocked down but the channel or basin the spring flows into still exists. Observation underneath a flattened stone covering the channel show that the spring flows from a pipe further up and under a series of neat brick arches. It is clear that the well structure was never accessible as it abutts onto the Lake, but was designed to be seen from the other side of the Lake. This view now is difficult due to the considerable plant growth obscuring the sites. It is good to see that the well still exists and hopefully the garden could be restored.
Extracted from R. B. Parish (2009) Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Nottinghamshire
From the village lane at the east end of Brook Street, take the footpath through the first gate and then over the stile into the woods on your left (north). Soon a clearing will appear on the left hand side as you climb the hill. Careful as you scramble down (look for a swing set up by local children) on the left hand side will be the Devil’s Pulpit.
Archaeology & History
The village name deriving from ‘Helmes’, the genitive singjular of the Old English masculine name Helm, or from helmes, the genitive singular of OE helm ‘a helmet, the summit of a hill, a shelter’, so that the name is either ‘Helm’s spring’ or ‘spring at the summit or shelter’—which does rather neatly defines its topography. However, other authorities suggest its gets its name from elm trees which once grew around the wells.
The site has an eerie but not unquiet atmosphere this is possibly due to the stone called the Devil’s Pulpit, a large approximately six-foot high piece of sandstone under which a small spring arises.
This Thompson (1999) in his Lincolnshire Wells and Springs notes local opinion thought was St. Helen’s, he said it tasted sweeten than the other waters (a fact that I cannot testify as the spring has appeared to have almost dried up the year I went). Binnall (1845) notes that the spring wells were regarded as possessing curative powers and rags were hung on the surrounding bushes.
The dedication of St Helen is an interesting one and can be seen as an outlier from those found widely distributed in Yorkshire (Whelan & Taylor, 1989), but rare in the adjoining counties of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. Harte (2008) in his English Holy Wells suggests that the name is spurious; and Rudkin’s (1936) Lincolnshire Folklore does not refer to it as such. However, in support of the view, I had no problem locally detecting the well using this name in the village (incidentally Harte makes an error referring to the springs as Aisthorpe Springs, these are clearly another site). There was supposed to be a chapel or church associated with the site, of which there is no trace or record.
Taken from R. B. Parish (2012) Holy Wells and healing springs of Lincolnshire
Cameron, Kenneth, The Place-Names of Lincolnshire – volume 6, EPNS: Nottingham 2001.
Harte, Jeremy, English Holy Wells, Heart of Albion: Loughborough 2008.
o’ Neill, Susanna, Folklore of Lincolnshire, History Press: Stroud 2012.
Rudkin, Ethel, Lincolnshire Folklore, 1936.
Thompson, Ian, Lincolnshire Springs and Wells: A Descriptive Catalogue, Bluestone: Scunthorpe 1999.
Whelan, Edna & Taylor, Ian, Yorkshire Holy Wells and Sacred Springs, Northern Lights: Dunnington 1989.
This once important healing stone that was moved a short distance (from grid reference SN 1775 1875 to SN 1770 1874 according to officials) to its present spot, around 1925, whilst having a long history according to the folk traditions of Carmarthenshire, was previously questioned as an authentic site by none other than Prof John Rhys (1875), following his visit to the site in the 1870s. Although Rhys seemed an isolated voice, some modern archaeologists have also questioned its veracity. It’s difficult to say precisely what the original nature of the stone may have been, but it was certainly accommodated in medieval times as a healing stone and used in conjunction with a pagan well – which was of course, accommodated by the Church. If the stone itself had a megalithic pedigree, as some have believed, we know not what it may have been…
As Janet & Colin Bord (2006) wrote, the stone “still survives, but to the casual observer it looks like any other abandoned block of stone,” sitting innocuously within the ring of trees surrounding the church. An early account of the stone was written by E.L. Barnwell (1872), who told:
“The present church of Llangan in Carmarthenshire is a wretched structure, built in 1820, and is about to be removed, as the population has long since migrated to some distance from it, and in a few years even the memory of Canna’s church having once existed here may cease. There is, however, a relic still left, which we trust will not be overlooked by the local authorities, as indeed it seems to have been hitherto ; for no notice occurs of it in the account of the parish in Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary or any other work. This relic is a rude stone, forming a kind of chair, lying in a field adjoining the churchyard, and about thirty or forty yards from it. When it was removed to its present position is unknown. There was also a well below the church called Ffynnon Canna; and there is still a small brook available, if required, for following the rules prescribed to those who wish to avail themselves of the curative powers of the saint’s chair. It appears that the principal maladies which are thus supposed to be cured are ague and intestinal complaints. The prescribed practice was as follows. The patient first threw some pins into the well, a common practice in many other parts of Wales, where wells are still thought to be invested with certain powers. Then he drank a fixed quantity of the water, and sometimes bathed in the well, for the bath was not always resorted to. The third step was to sit down in the chair for a certain length of time; and if the patient could manage to sleep under these circumstances, the curative effects of the operation were considerably increased. This process was continued for some days, even for a fortnight or longer. A man aged seventy-eight, still living near the spot, remembers the well and hundreds of pins in it, as well as patients undergoing the treatment; but, about thirty or thirty- five years ago, the tenant carried off the soil between the well and the watercourse, so as to make the spring level with the well, which soon after partly disappeared, and from that time the medical reputation of the saint and her chair has gradually faded away, and will, in the course of a generation or two, be altogether forgotten.”
In Wirt Sykes (1880) classic text, he told us that the field where the original Canna’s Chair may have been, possessed fairy-lore that we find at other sites, usually ascribed as prehistoric. He wrote:
“In the middle of this parish there is a field called Parc y Fonwent, or the churchyard field, where, according to local tradition, the church was to have been originally built; but the stones brought to the spot during the day were at night removed by invisible hands to the site of the present church. Watchers in the dark heard the goblins engaged in this work and pronouncing in clear and correct Welsh these words, “Llangan, dyma’r fan,” which means, “Llangan, here is the spot.””
Allen, J. Romilly, The Monumental History of the Early British Church, SPCK: London 1889.
Baring-Gould, S. & Fisher, John, Lives of the British Saints – volume 2, London 1907.
On the A65 road from Skipton to Gargrave, just at the eastern end of Gargrave, take the small Eshton Road running north over the canal. Go through Eshton itself, making sure you bear right at the small road a few hundred yards past the old village. Keep your eyes peeled a few hundred yards down as you hit the river bridge and stop here. Just 50 yards before this is a parking spot where some Water Board building stands. Walk back up the road barely 20 yards and you’ll see, right by the roadside, a small clear pool on your left, encircled by trees. Go through the little stile here and you’re right by the water’s side!
Archaeology & History
This is actually a listed monument (unusual for wells up North!), just off the roadside between Nappa Bridge and Eshton Hall. Two or three old stone heads (deemed to be ‘Celtic’ in age and origin, though I had my doubts) have recently been stolen from this holy pool close to where the water emerges from the ground, just beneath the surface. You can see where the water bubbles up strongly from the Earth when you visit here, forming the small pool in front of it, around which at certain times of year people still attach ‘memaws’ (an old word for ritual ‘offerings’) on the small shrubs. If you drink from here, just where the water bubbles up (careful not to fall in!), it’s freezing — but tastes absolutely gorgeous! And better than any tap-water you’ll ever drink!
Mentioned briefly in Mr Hope’s (1893) fine early survey; the earliest description of this site in relation to the mythic ‘Helen’ dates from 1429, where T.D. Whitaker (1878) described the dedication to an adjacent chapel, long gone. Whitaker’s wrote:
“…One of the most copious springs in the kingdom, St. Helen’s Well fills at its source a circular basin twenty feet in circumference, from the whole bottom of which it boils up without any visible augmentation in the wettest seasons, or diminution in the driest. In hot weather the exhalations from its surface are very conspicuous. But the most remarkable circumstance about this spring is that, with no petrifying quality in its own basin, after a course of about two hundred yards over a common pebbly channel, during which it receives no visible accession from any other source, it petrifies strongly where it is precipitated down a steep descent into the brook. To this well anciently belonged a chapel, with the same dedication; for in the year 1429, a commission relating to the manor of Flasby sat “in capella beate Elene de Essheton; and on the opposite side of the road to the spring is a close called the Chapel Field. This was probably not unendowed, for I met with certain lands in Areton, anciently called Seynt Helen Lands.”
When the old countryman Halliwell Sutcliffe (1939) talked of this healing spring, his tone was more in keeping with the ways of local folk. Sutcliffe loved the hills and dales and old places to such an extent that they were a part of his very bones. And this comes through when he mentions this site. Telling where to find the waters, he continued:
“Its sanctuary is guarded by a low mossy wall. Neglected for years out of mind, it retains still clear traces of what it was in older times. An unfailing spring comes softly up among stones carved with heart-whole joy in chiselling. Scattered now, these stones were once in orderly array about what is not a well, in the usual sense, but rather a wide rock-pool, deep here and shallow there, with little trees that murmur in the breeze above. Give yourself to this place, frankly and with the simplicity is asks. It does not preach or scold, or rustle with the threat of unguessed ambushes among the grassy margin. Out of its inmost heart it gives you all it knows of life.”
In the field across the road where the chapel was said to have been, we find another stone-lined fresh-water well bubbling from the ground into a stone trough (at grid-ref SD 93118 56958). The waters here are also good and refreshing. But whether this fine water source had any tales told of it, or curative properties (it will have done), history has sadly betrayed its voice.
The waters here have long been reputed as medicinal. R.C. Hope (1893) said “this well was a certain cure for sore and weak eyes.” Whitaker and others told there to be hangings of rags and other offerings (known in Yorkshire as ‘memaws’). Sutcliffe described,
“The pilgrims coming with their sores, of body and soul… The Well heard tales that were foul with infamies of the world beyond its sanctuary. Men came with blood-guilt on their hands, and in their souls a blackness and a terror. Women knelt here in bleak extremity of shame. The Well heard all, and from its own unsullied depths sent up the waters of great healing. And the little chant of victory began to stir about the pilgrims’ hearts…and afterwards the chant gained in volume. It seemed to them that they were marching side by side with countless, lusty warriors who aforetime had battled for the foothold up the hills. And, after that, a peace unbelievable, and the quiet music of Helen’s Well, as her waters ran to bless the farmward lands below. All this is there for you to understand today, if you will let the Well explain the richness of her heritage, the abiding mystery of her power to solace and to heal.”
And so it is with many old springs… The rite of memaws enacted at St. Helen’s Well is a truly archaic one: whereby a person bringing a cloth or stone or coin — using basic principles of sympathetic magick — asks the spirit of the waters to cleanse them of their illness and pass it to the rags that are tied to the adjacent tree; or perhaps some wish, or desire, or fortune, be given in exchange for a coin or something if personal value. The waters must then be drunk, or immerse yourself into the freezing pool; and if the person leaving such offerings is truly sincere in their requests, the spirit of the water may indeed act for the benefit of those concerned.
Such memaws at St. Helen’s Well are still left by local people and, unfortunately, some of those idiotic plastic pagans, who actually visit here and tie pieces of artificial material to the hawthorn 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 this site.
…to be continued…
Hope, Robert Charles, Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England, Elliott Stock: London 1893.
Smith, A.H., The Place-Names of the West Riding of Yorkshire– volume 6, Cambridge University Press 1961.
Sutcliffe, Halliwell, The Striding Dales, Frederick Warne: London 1939.
Whelan, Edna, The Magic and Mystery of Holy Wells, Capall Bann: Chieveley 2001.
Whelan, Edna & Taylor, Ian, Yorkshire Holy Wells and Sacred Springs, Northern Lights: Dunnington 1989.
Whitaker, T.D., The History and Antiquities of the Deanery of Craven, Joseph Dodgson: Leeds 1878.
From the centre of Stoke head west onto Glebe Street and just a couple of hundred yards or so south of the town hall is the minster church of St Peter Ad Vincula (St. Peter in Chains). Go into the large graveyard and there the ancient Saxon cross-shaft stands behind some modern iron railings. There are many other things of interest to see in the churchyard, including some old arches and monuments / gravestones in memory of some famous potters that made Stoke famous during the industrial revolution.
Archaeology & History
The Mercian cross-shaft stands 4 feet high on a 19th century square, socketed lump of stone. It is said to date from about AD 1000 when it was in use as a preaching cross, but could in fact be from earlier than that according to some local historians – perhaps it was originally a Christianized stone. The first Saxon settlement at Stoke (Stoiche) was said to date from c 800 AD. The cylindrical shaped shaft was discovered in 1876 by a gravedigger who spotted it being used as a door lintel inside the old church which was being demolished to make way for a newer church building. During its recovery the shaft broke in two so it was placed in storage, but in 1935 it was formally identified by Mr Charles Lynam who had it restored and re-erected in the churchyard.
Sadly the shaft is quite badly eroded with the carvings on one side being difficult to make out, but the front face has interlacing and scroll-work; there is some key-patterning on the sides and reverse side along with a series or section of small holes – these perhaps done in more recent times. The break across the middle of the shaft can still be seen today, but that does not detract from its great antiquity, the ancient monument being carefully restored. On the base there is an inscription that reads:
‘This fragment of a pre-Norman cross identified by Chas Lynam F.S.A. was re-erected near to its original position in the 25th year of the reign of H.M. King George V by P.W.L.Adams F.S.A.’
The well is located in the grounds of Waddow Hall close by Brungerley Bridge, near Waddington, in the Ribble Valley. The hall is just off the B 6478 road about three-quarters of a mile south-east of Waddington village. It is on private land, but you can see the well by walking along a footpath at the western side of the hall running along the banks of the River Ribble at the southern side of the hall grounds.
The legend originates from the 18th century although the well is a pre-Christian spring. According to this most often told ‘legend’ Peg O’ Nell was a servant girl at Waddow Hall. However, she often fell out with her masters, the Starkie family, often quarreling with and being disobedient to them. One night, in particular, Peg had a blazing row with Mistress Starkie after saying she didn’t want to fetch water from the well; the mistress was so enraged that she shouted at the servant saying “I hope you fall and break your neck”. At a later date this came true when on a particularly icy night Peg went to fetch water from the well, but on her way there she slipped on some ice and fell into the River Ribble, at a treacherous spot, and did indeed break her neck. From that time on there seems to have been a curse on the Starkie family – anything and everything that happened at the hall was blamed on Peg, or her ghost, which was now haunting the house and grounds. Mistress Starkie became so fed up with the curse that she took an axe and chopped off the head of a statue that had earlier been placed beside the well in memory of poor Peg. Thinking that by doing this the curse would come to an end, and it seems to have done just that, because afterwards peace and quiet seems to have come upon the hall.
Another legend or tale says that Peg dwelt by the well, perhaps as a kind of sprite, but that she caused a local Puritan preacher to fall into the River Ribble. As a punishment for this dastardly trick the head of the statue was chopped off. Folklore says that a water spirit or “sprite” lived in the well which was connected underground to the nearby River Ribble.
But the truth about this seems to be that the headless statue is that of St Margaret of Antioch who was beheaded for her faith in the early centuries of Roman rule. St Margaret’s feast day was on 20th July. Apparently, her statue was brought to Waddow Hall from either Sawley Abbey or Whalley Abbey where it had stood in its own niche, or possibly it came from a local Catholic church. The headless statue appears to be holding a bible in one hand; so it was probably placed at the side of the well in order to make the well holy and sacred to pilgrims who used to visit the site for healing purposes on the saint’s day. The head of the statue used to reside in an upstairs room at the hall, but it was lost for a time, only to be re-discovered and embedded into a wall at Brungerley farm not far from the bridge.
But we may never know what really did happen here because legend and folklore have become mixed in with other tales that may, or may not, be true. The holy well stands in a meadow in the hall grounds and is a square-shaped hollow in the ground where water still flows, possibly fed by the river close by. The statue still stands at the side; and fencing now surrounds this sacred site. The hall and grounds are still said to be haunted by a ghost, but whether it is Peg’s ghost we do not know, because this particular ghost is said to be hooded ? The curse itself used to claim a victim once every seven years; the screaming spirit of Peg would rise up from the murky waters of the river on stormy nights – an animal could apparently suffice as a victim, rather than a human. This story was almost certainly made-up probably to frighten the Starkie family who it was originally aimed at.
Waddow Hall is now a Training and Activity Centre, but it used to be a Centre for girl guides and during the second world war it was an isolation hospital.
The well can be reached along a narrow country lane to the east of the A6 road, some 3-4 miles north of Preston. Fernyhalgh is a tiny hamlet between the villages of Broughton and Grimsargh with pleasent countryside on all sides. The holy well of Our Lady is in the garden of a house with a Roman Catholic chapel and pilgrimage centre at the side of a secluded country lane; entrance through a little gate.
Archaeology & History
There was a chapel on this site way back in 1348, and the spring itself is obviously a pre-Christian one with its dedication to Our Lady – St Mary the Virgin. According to the legend, in about 1471 a merchant sailing across the Irish sea was caught in a terrible storm; afraid that he was going to drown he prayed to the Virgin Mary and vowed that if his life was saved he would undertake some work of devotion to her. Soon the storm cleared and he found himself washed-up but safe on the Lancashire coast but he himself had no idea where he was. At that moment a heavenly voice spoke to him and told him to find a place called Fernyhalgh and there build a chapel at a spot where a crab-apple tree grew – the fruit of which had no cores, and where a spring would be found. He began to search around for this sacred place but no matter how much he tried he could not find the place.
The merchant found lodgings in Preston and, was about to give up altogether, when he overheard a serving girl at the inn. She started to explain why she was so late on arrival. She went on to say that she had had to chase her stray cow all the way to Fernyhalgh. He asked her if she could take him to this place. In a short time he discovered the apple tree with fruit bearing no cores and beneath it a spring and also a lost statue of the Virgin and child. The merchant began to build a chapel close by in memory of Our Lady and soon pilgrims were visiting the holy well and receiving miracles of healing. However, during the time of persecution from the reign of King Henry VIII and through to the reign of King Edward VI the well was abandoned and left derelict; the chapel itself was demolished.
The holy well of Our Lady was fully restored in the late 17th century and a new chapel was built in 1685 when persecutions towards Catholics had eased. Again, the place became a place of pilgrimage and many miraculous cures were being recorded there; the chapel (which is now built onto a house) being used by religious sisters as a place of retreat. Today it is a renowned Roman Catholic pilgrimage centre with thousands of visitors coming from far and wide. The holy well stands within a rectangular enclosure with steps descending down; the well itself being a small-square shaped basin overlooked by a niche inside which stands the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus. It is very well cared for by the Catholic community with flowers usually adorning the site during the Summer months. Coins are often thrown into the well, though it is not regarded as a “wishing well”. Visitors are always welcome and, you don’t have to be a Catholic, everybody regardless of what persuasion you are can visit the well.