This little-known site is thought to be the ‘Well’ that is still marked on modern OS-maps at the grid-reference given here, on the north side of the A92 at Balmossie Bridge, although no names are cited on any of the official maps to confirm this. When Brotchie & Herd (1980) described the old well in their photo-history of the area, they told that it was found “at Balmossie Den,” adding that
“the area is much overgrown now, but the well still exists. It is inscribed, ‘Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again T.E. 1847.’ These initials are of Thomas Erskine of Linlathen who had the stone erected on the supposed site of a medieval holy well.”
Just below here used to be the remains of an ancient chapel, which Tom Erskine thought gave this well holy sanctity. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the site gained repute as a wishing well, where people left offerings for the spirit of the waters in exchange for health and other good deeds. The area of Broughty Ferry and Monifieth was a seat of the Culdees, with ancient trees and land hereby dedicated to St Bridget and Our Lady, although there remain no extant traditions indicating that this site had any direct associations with such mythic figures.
It can be found by taking a road off the A132 (Wickford Road) which leads to Stock (directly opposite the Parish Church), continuing until you reach another minor road to Rettendon. A short way up this road it forks. Take the road to the right & continue until one reaches a minor drive to Poplars Farm (distinctive with its trees each side of the drive). Continue up here until one passes the house to a small piece of tarmac. Here a footpath continues directly in front, continue until one reaches on the left a gate. Enter through here, and head across the field towards a notable tree, and a gap in the hedge. To the left, follow the edge of the field, until one sees another opening into the well. The approach from the south is the only route worth considering as northerly access is blocked by a fence. It can be extremely muddy, so good footwear is advisable.
Archaeology & History
Philip Morant (1763-8) is the first to mention it, suggesting that the settlement is named:
“..from a considerable Running well in the Parish.”
Again, Chandler (1896)—noted in Collins (1986)—emphasises:
“a remarkable spring of water on Poplars Farm, which is always running and has never been known to fail.”
Despite this obvious assumption, Ekwall (1936) suggested that the prefix originates from O.E rune for ‘mystery’ or implying a well possessing a secret of some religious observance. This is suggestive of the strange legends and traditions involved with the site. Alternatively it could derive from hruna referring to the tree trunk—and it does arise in a copse. A roman road runs by here.
The only reference to a religious site appears to be in 1602 when the parish register records ‘Shrine of the Bl. Virgin of RunnyngeWelle’. However, stone remains found over the years around the well may support the idea of a well chapel; these remains were two pieces of limestone window mullion and a piece which appears to be part of a step as well as pieces of Kentish ragstone.
According to Bazille-Corbin (1940), Runwell is steeped in lore and legend. One must take these stories as possible antiquarian fancy as there does not appear to be any concrete evidence for them. Doubtless some of it is true, other bits not. He states that in the Sixth Century AD, Christian missionaries Lucus and Lucilus visited Essex and found a scene of paganism here, built a chapel, and rededicated the well to “Our Lady St Mary.” The floor of this chapel had a unique designed cross, with black flint and red strawberry stone, to show the teachings of the tenets of the Christian Faith.
To protect this and collect subsequent devotional gifts, a nunnery, of six members, was developed around the site. They tended to the shrine, well head and the statue of Our Lady, to which many miracles were attributed. Little evidence exists concerning this foundation, but it is believed to have been dissolved in the 16th Century. Locally it is said parts of the nunnery were incorporated into the nearby farm-house ‘The Poplars’. In the 1980s, Andrew Collins, searched for records of this local priory, but found none.
Another legend connected with the well accords that a young nun, Sister Lucy, after renouncing her vows, found the outside world not to her liking and returned in repentance, one snowy night, to the chapel for forgiveness. Yet, upon reaching the chapel steps, she slipped and fell into the icy waters of the well. (cf. The Single or St. Thomas’ Well at Ifield, Kent)
Her ghost is said to haunt the area, preserving perhaps the memories of these past water deities. This is enforced by the belief by some authorities that the well’s dedication indicates a Christianisation of the Iceni goddess Epona. This is supported by these horseshoe-shaped motifs, and that the approach to the well being haunted by a horse.
Andy Collins (1986) was informed that a concrete water tank was installed over the spring. This proved to be inaccurate, but the well was defined by a concrete chamber. Collins thought that this may be the remains of some adaptation for a spa bath, but no hard evidence was forthcoming regarding this.
It certainly had passed through considerable years of neglect, as noted by the Runwell Rector John Edward Bazille-Corbin (1942), who said it was “in much need of dredging and cleaning out.”
The photo shown in Collins’s (1986) work shows a concrete lined rectangular pond, defined by corrugated iron. He was thus responsible for its repair and clearing away the years of neglect, also revealing the concrete rectangular pond, which was reached by a series of steps from its north side. A flight of steps appear to enter the well itself from the front. The body of water is of considerable size and depth and one could easily immerse oneself in it. When I last visited here, the water appeared murky but a sample revealed (apart from the pond fauna) a remarkable clarity.
Within recent years the well appears to have attracted a ‘cult following’, clearly manifesting itself in two ways. One is a seasonal Boxing Day walk to the well started in 1975, which is still undertaken (see link, below). The other more traditionally is the attachment of rags or cloutties to the surrounding shrubbery. Such activity, although probably done by those ‘in the know’ rather than any continuation of any local tradition, is the only such example I have come across in East Anglia—although recent photographs fail to show this and it appears that the tree has been cut down where these have been placed and the area opened up.
Bazille-Corbin, J. E., Runwell St. Mary: A farrago of History, Archaeology, Legend and Folk-lore, 1940.
Collins, Andrew, “Devilish Mysteries at Runwell,” in Essex Countryside Vol. 33 no.431, p38-39, 1985.
Collins, Andrew, The Running Well Mystery, 1986.
Ekwall, Eilert, Studies in English Place and Personal Names, Lund 1931.
Ekwall, Eilert, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names, Oxford 1936.
Morant, Philip, The History and Antiquities of the County of Essex – 3 volumes, London 1763-8 (reprinted by EP: Wakefield 1978).
From Alva, take the signs to walk up the gorgeous Alva Glen gorge, past the site of the Dwarf’s Tomb, over the bridge past the first waterfall and up footpath into the glen. The path runs parallel with the gorge and a few hundred yards along you’ll reach a small footbridge. Immediately before this, on the right, coming down through the crags by the side of the path, the waters fall from the well in question.
Archaeology & History
The history of this site is seemingly hidden. Little has been written of it and its dedication to some ‘Lady’ is an oddity. I can find no specifics telling who the ‘lady’ in question is. The other Lady Well at Tillicoultry, a mile or two east, is equally bereft of historical certitude. Whether it is another dedication to the supposed ‘virgin’ Mary of the christian cult, or a local lady whose name has long since been forgotten, we do not know. Additional info on this site would be most helpful.
Shown on an early postcard of the Ava Glen and highlighted in Mr Pithie’s (1982) work, the waters here—running down the crag-face from a spring at the top—are fine, fresh and almost sweet-tasting, rich in minerals and healthy nutrients no doubt. Without doubt, I’d recommend a drink of this every time you walk past here! (apologies for the dark photo – I’ll get a better one next time we’re up there)
Corbett, L., et al., The Ochil Hills, Forth Naturalist & Historian 1994.
Pithie, A., Views of Alloa and the Neighbourhood, Clackmannan District Libraries 1982.
Acknowledgements: Grateful thanks to Lisa Samson for help with directions.
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.