This ‘holy well of the dragon-slayer’ could once be found close to where old Cowgate meets St Mary’s Street. Highlighted on an old map of the city around 1540, and on Mr Bryce’s sketch of the old inner city at the end of the 19th century, we do not know when the Well acquired its name, but it may have been by an early group of jews, to whom the saint was important. Hereby in 1779 was listed a small piece of land called the ‘Silverwell Close’ which both Watson (1923) and Harris (1996) thought was a corruption of the St Michael’s Well, somehow. Watson (1923) explained that St Michael’s
“connection with fountains, or a ‘silver well’, is probably due to the legends of the miraculous spring of Monte Galgano in Apulia and Mont-Saint-Michele in Normandy.”
In Ruth & Frank Morris’ (1981) survey of Scottish holy wells, they report how, in the 16th century, this forgotten site was “a favourite resort” of local people. They told how,
“in 1543 an act of penance was ordered to be performed at the fountain of St. Michael.”
St Michael was a powerful mythic figure to the Muslims, Christians and Jews. In the old calendar in Scotland his festival date was September 29th and known as ‘Michaelmas’ (although other dates have been ascribed by the varying sects in other countries). In truth, this site should be highlighted for tourists, pilgrims, historians and religious followers alike due to the importance this mythic figure once held in the various pantheons.
Pretty easy really. Get to the ancient St. Michael’s Church on the dead-end road just outside of Linton village. As you approach it, look into the field on your right. Y’ can’t miss it!
Archaeology & History
This is an oddity. It could perhaps be little more than one of the Norber erratics found a few miles further north — but it looks more like a smaller version of one of the Avebury sarsens! Just under six-feet tall, it was shown to me by Adrian Lord yesterday (when the heavens subsequently opened and an outstanding downpour-and-half followed), who’d come across it only a week or two earlier themselves when they visited the ancient church next door. The stone certainly aint in any archaeology registers (no surprise there); and as one local man we spoke to yesterday told us, “there used to be several other standing stones in the same field, cos I remember ’em when I was a kid. ” The gent we spoke to seemed to know just about everything about the local archaeology and history of the area (one of those “damn good locals” you’re sometimes lucky to find!). He told us that the other stones which used to be there had been moved by the local farmer over the years, for use in his walls. So it seems that this is the last one standing. What looks like several other fallen stones can be seen further down the field, just next to the church. But this one’s pretty impressive.
The church of St. Michael next door was, tells the information inside, built upon some old pagan site — which gives added thought to this upright stone perhaps being the ruin of an old circle, or summat along those lines. The church, incidentally, is built right next to the River Wharfe.
Not far from here we find an almost inexhaustible supply of prehistoric remains at Grassington and district (less than a mile north). A huge excess of Bronze- and Iron Age remains scatter the fields all round the town. And aswell as the Yarnbury henge close by, there is — our local man told us, “another one which no-one knows abaat, not far away”!
The folklore of this area is prodigious! There is faerie-lore, underworld tales, healing wells, black-dogs, ghosts, earthlights – tons of the damn stuff. But with such a mass of prehistoric remains, that aint too surprising. And although there appears no direct reference to this particular stone (cos I can’t find a damn reference about it), the old Yorkshire history magus, Harry Speight (1900), wrote of something a short distance away along the lane from the church. He told that,
“In the field-wall beside the road may be seen some huge glacial boulders, and there is one very large one standing alone in the adjoining field, which from one point of view bears a striking resemblance to a human visage; and a notion prevails among the young folk of the neighbourhood that this stone will fall on its face when it hears the cock crow.”
Just the sort of lore we find attached to some other standing stones in certain parts of the country. And in fact, from some angles, this ‘ere stone has the simulacrum of a face upon it; so this could be the one Speight mentions (though his directions would be, unusually, a little out).
There are heathen oddities about the church aswell: distinctly pre-christian ones. An old “posset-pot” was used for local families to drink from after the celebration of a birth, wedding or funeral here. And at Hallowtide – the old heathen New Year’s Day,
“certain herbs possessed the power of enabling those who were inclined to see their future husbands or wives, or even recognizing who was to die in the near future.”
And in an invocation of the great heathen god (the Church called it the devil), Speight also went on to tell that:
“The practice at Linton was to walk seven times round the church when the doomed one would appear.”
In a watered down version of this, local people found guilty of minor transgressions in and around Linton (thieves, fighters, piss-heads, etc),
“was compelled to seek expiation by walking three time around Linton Church.”
This would allegedly cure them of their ‘sins’! Rush-bearing ceremonies were also enacted here. On the hill above, the faerie-folk lived. And until recently, time itself was still being measured by the three stages of the day: sunrise, midday and sunset; avoiding the modern contrivances of the clock, and maintaining the old pre-christian tradition of time-keeping. Much more remains hidden…
Speight, Harry, Upper Wharfedale, Elliott Stock: London 1900.
Having not been here, I can’t say for sure exactly where this forgotten site happens to live! It may be the one shown on modern OS-maps, behind the old post office, on the west-side of the village, but I aint sure. If any local people out there who can help us, we would be hugely grateful!
Archaeology & History
Not to be confused with the other St. Michael’s Well a few miles away in the village of Well, this is a little-known holy well that was described by the historian H.B. McCall (1910), who wrote:
“As Burneston had Saint Lambert’s Fountain, mentioned so early as the 12th Century, so Kirklington possesses its holy well, beside the old Mill House on the north side of the village. Althoguh its name has now passed from the popular remembrance, it is provided in a lease of lands to Roger Croft, in 1628, that his cattle shall have right of access to go into the water near unto a spring called ‘Michaell-well’. both in winter and summer; and we are left in no doubt as to where the spring was situated, for Mrs Alice Thornton has recorded that her father brought water to the Hall in lead pipes from a cistern of the same metal, “near St. Michael’s Well near the mill-race.””
Does anyone know anything more of this all-but-forgotten site?
A short distance to the north in the same village, another sacred water source known as the Lady Well can also be found.
McCall, H.B., Richmondshire Churches, Elliott Stock: London 1910.
Found near the bottom of Holly Hill, as Graeme Chappell tells us, this old site “is located by the side of a narrow lane on the west side of the village of Well (aptly named). The OS map places the well on the north side of the lane, but this is only the outflow from a pipe that carries the water under the road. The spring actually rises at the foot of a small rock outcrop, on the opposite side of the road.”
Archaeology & History
Although the village of Well is mentioned in Domesday in 1086 and the origin of the place-name derives from “certain springs in the township now known as The Springs, St. Michael’s Well and Whitwell,” very little appears to have been written about this place. Edmund Bogg (c.1895) wrote that an old iron cup — still there in the 19th century — was attached next to this spring for weary travellers or locals to partake of the fine fresh water. Nearby there was once an old Roman bath-house and, at the local church, one writer thinks that the appearance of “a fish-bodied female figure…carved into one of the external window lintels” is representative of the goddess of these waters. Not so sure misself — but I’m willing to be shown otherwise.
Around 1895, that old traveller Edmund Bogg once again wrote how the villagers at Well village called this site the Mickey or Mickel Well,* explaining: “the Saxons dwelling at this spot reverently dedicated this spring of water to St. Michael.” A dragon-slayer no less!
Although not realising the Michael/dragon connection, the same writer later goes on to write:
“There is a dim tradition still existing in this village of an enormous dragon having once had its lair in the vicinity of Well, and was a source of terror to the inhabitants, until a champion was found in an ancestor of the Latimers, who went boldly forth like a true knight of olden times, and after a long and terrible fight he slew the monster, hence a dragon on the coat of arms of this family. The scene of the conflict is still pointed out, and is midway between Tanfield and Well.”
This fable occurred very close to the gigantic Thornborough Henges! It would be sensible to look more closely at the mythic nature of this complex with this legend in mind. A few miles away in the village of Kirklington, the cult of St. Michael could also be found.
Bogg, Edmund, From Eden Vale to the Plains of York, James Miles: Leeds n.d. (c.1895)
Smith, A.H., The Place-Names of the North Riding of Yorkshire, Cambridge University Press 1928.
* In old english the word ‘micel‘ (which usually accounts for this word) means big or great. On the same issue, the ‘Holly Hill’ in the case here at Well actually derives from the holly tree and NOT a ‘holy’ well. However, check the folklore of this tree in Britain and you find a whole host of heathen stuff.