BUTTONS, BRAS AND PINS
(The Folklore of British Holy Wells)
First published at Lughnasa 1996
Our ancestors were much given to undertaking visits and pilgrimages to various wells, springs and other bodies of water which were reputed locally (and in some cases much further afield) to possess the power to heal, if not cure, illnesses of various kinds.
Janet and Colin Bord, who have undertaken much research into the folklore, traditional beliefs and practices connected to holy and healing wells (1), suggest that until the end of the last century the average British county had some 40 or more recognised such bodies of water. In some parts of the country, however, the concentration of holy wells and springs was much denser than in others. Along the areas commonly called the Celtic Fringe, ie Cornwall, Wales (especially Pembrokeshire in the south west) and up through Scotland there were far more than elsewhere. The counties of Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Shropshire also had rather more than their fair share compared to other parts of the country. Around 1895, for example, at least 90 wells were either still in existance in Cornwall or were still well remembered by local people (2), and Jones (3) records no fewer than 236 in Pembrokeshire, 180 in Glamorgan and 128 in Carmarthenshire, all in south or south west Wales, while Sant (4) records some 70 extant or still remembered wells and springs in Herefordshire. On the eastern side of England, however, wells appear to have been less common - or at least they seem to have fallen out of use and therefore disappeared more completely.
Some of the wells and springs were used for divinatory purposes, or for seeking blessings upon oneself and one's family, or for cursing one's enemies.
A large number, having been hijacked and "sainted" by the early Church, became places of pilgrimage connected with the cult of a local saint, such as the famous well of St Winifred at Holywell in North Wales which in the Middle Ages was one of the important pilgrimage centres in England and Wales. Many wells and springs had suitably Christian legends attached to them during the 7th - 9th centuries, during the main centuries of the struggle between the Christianity (especially of the Celtic variety) and paganism, usually to "account" for their discovery or origins. The well of St Kenelm in the Clent Hills a few miles south west of the West Midlands conurbation, for example, was claimed to have sprung from the ground at the spot where the martyred young king Kenelm was treacherously murdered and where his body fell. At St Ludgvan's well in Cornwall, local legend has it that the waters appeared in response to the hermit saint's prayers for something wondrous which would draw the heathen locals to his ministry (2). Both Gwynllyw's Well in Glamorgan and Illtud's well on the Gower peninsula (both in south Wales) originated when their respective saints stuck their staffs in the ground and fresh water sprang forth (3). St Milborough's well in central Shropshire originated when St Milburga, fleeing from persecutors, fell from her horse and cut her head; she commanded her horse to strike the ground with his hoof whereupon a spring gushed forth and she was able to bathe her head1.
A particularly clumsy example of this Church hijacking is shown in their account of Madron Well in Cornwall by the Misses Quiller-Couch where there was clearly an interesting confusion over the ‘saint' concerned:
"No clue can be found as to whom St Madron was, or whence he came; beyond the fact that helived in the hermitage which bears his name, nothing is known of him; there is even a diversity of opinion as to the sex of the saint, some writers speaking of him as a woman."
The majority of wells and springs, however, had a well(!)-attested role in early healthcare, and the commonest attributions of their powers were to the curing of eye problems, infertility and children's diseases such as rickets, paralysis (presumably polio) and whooping cough. Other, less common, "specialities" included lameness, insanity, skin diseases, leprosy and assorted palsies and agues.
Sometimes the connection with healing was indirect, as was the case of the story of the Lady of Llyn Y Fan Fach in the mountains of south Wales. The lady, who was a faery, was courted and won from the lake by the shepherd of Myddfai and agreed to marry him on condition that would not strike her needlessly three times. She brought with her faery cattle and bore three sons but in time the shepherd broke the geas and she and her faery cattle returned to her realms beneath the lake. She returned only once, many years later, to teach faery healing to her sons; they indeed became the famous Physicians of Myddfai whose medieval medical treatise has survived and is still in print (5).
Obtaining a Cure
Virtually all of the healing wells had their rituals which had to be performed in order to "activate" the power of the water. This usually involved visiting the place only on certain acknowledged days. The Christianised or "sainted" wells almost always had to be visited on the appropriate saint's day or on such dates as Easter Sunday or Whit Sunday. The commonest dates for the more pagan wells included all four of the traditional festivals, though Imbolc and Samhain were rather less popular on account of the poorer weather. Beltane and Lughnasa (Lammas) were both very popular, which should not surprise us when we consider how many wells seem to have been connected to the getting and keeping of children. The Summer Solstice and Midsummer's Eve (St John's Night, ie 24th June) were also extremely popular and so, to a lesser extent, was Twelfth Night.
Further, for many wells the appropriate or most efficacious time of day for the visit was specified, with dawn or just before sunrise being the most usual, as was the direction of approach to the well and the direction and number of times of circumnambulation. One of the commonest stipulations was the need for silence, if not for the entire duration of the ritual or visit to the well then at least for a substantial part of it. Thus to obtain the healing of a particular well the patient may have to visit at dawn on Beltane morning, approach from the east and walk three times deiseal around the well in silence before speaking the required words of prayer, drinking the water from the specified vessel and finally making the specified offerings. At wells where the patient had to arrive before or at dawn, it was almost universal that he had to have finished his business and be out of sight of the well before actual sunrise. Sometimes the patient had to wipe the afflicted part of the body with a rag dipped in the water, or arrive at the site with a rag bound round the relevant part of the body and the rag was subsquently hung on a nearby tree to rot.
At St Euny's well in the parish of Sancreed in Penwith, the Misses Quiller-Couch (2) recorded at the end of the last century that in order to benefit from the healing powers of the well, one had to visit and wash in the well on the first three Wednesdays in May. Baglan Well in Glamorgan cured children with rickets - but only on the first three Thursdays in May. Presumably the patient had to wash or bathe in the water, but beyond that we have no details.
At Aconbury in Herefordshire lie both St Ann's Well and Lady Well; the former is reputed to cure eye troubles, the most effective cures being effected by the first water drawn from the well after midnight on Twelfth Night. This water, which is said to bubble out of the ground, is called the "Cream of the Well" and supposedly gives off a blue smoke. So highly regarded was it that until a generation or so ago local women competed for that first bucketful after midnight4. In Wales, meanwhile, there was a belief that water drawn from a well between 11pm and midnight on New Year's Eve would turn to wine! 3
McNeill has left us a number of eyewitness accounts of rituals used in the early part of this century at various wells in Scotland which provide a record of practices now lost (6).
At the Holy Pool of St Fillan in Perthshire, which was used for curing insanity, the patient
"was led thrice sunwise around the pool, first in the name of the Father, then in the name of the Son and lastly in the name of the Holy Spirit. He was then immersed in the pool in the name of the Holy Trinity ...."
McNeill gives a particularly full account of a fertility ritual recorded of an unnamed well at Willie's Muir which was visited by childless women, led by an older woman, during midsummer's week. The women had to take off their boots and kneel by the water and
"rolled up their skirts and petticoats till their wames were bare. The auld wife gave them the sign to step around her and away they went, one after the other, wi' the sun, round the spring, each one holding up her coats like she was holding herself to the sun. As each one came anent her, the auld wife took up the water in her hands and threw it on their wames. Never a one cried out at the cold o' the water and never a word was spoken. Three times round they went. The auld wife made a sign to them. They dropped their coats to their feet again, synt (then) they opend their dress frae the neck and skipped it off their shoulders so that their paps sprang out. The auld wife gave them another sign. They doun on their knees afore her, across the spring; and she took up the water in her hands, skirpit (splashed it) on their paps, three times three. Then the auld wife rose and the three barren women rose. The put on their claes again and drew their shawls about their faces and left the hollow without a word spoken and scattered across the muir for hame."
Writing of the famous Madron Well in Penwith, West Cornwall, the Misses Quiller-Couch record that local people made pilgrimages to the well on the first three Sunday mornings in May for a cure for their children's rickets.
"Three times they were plunged into the water, after having been stripped naked; the parent, or person dipping them, standing facing the sun; after the dipping they were passed nine times round the well from east to west; then they were dressed and laid on St Madern's bed (a stone slab in the nearby ruined chapel - Ed); should they sleep, and the water in the well bubble, it was considered a good omen. Strict silence had to be kept during the entire performance, or the spell was broken."
River pools also were considered to have curative powers, especially if the water were taken from a spot over which the dead and living pass, ie from under a bridge over which the dead were carried for burial. McNeill records one instance in which water was taken from such a spot for curing the Evil Eye:
"It had to be carried home in complete silence, and particular care was taken that the vessel should not touch the ground - ie, there must be no contact between earth and water. A wooden ladle containing a piece of silver was dipped in and the victim given three sips of the "silvered water".
The remainder was then sprinkled over and around him.
The Giving of Offerings
Nowt is got for nowt, as we say in Yorkshire, and it went without saying that one paid for one's renewed health by leaving an offering for the spirit of the well or spring. Today there is a tendency again to throw a few coins into the water (a practice which had been very common in Roman times), though traditionally one left either a piece of clothing tied to a nearby tree or some other evidence of the cure anticipated. The tying of rags is the most common of these practices and is still in widespread use today, such wells being generally known as "rag" or "cloutie" wells, the idea being that as the rag rotted so the disease or illness withered until it had gone - so no instant cures were presumably expected. This presupposes that the rag left as a gift was of an organic, ie biodegradeable, substance, typically wool, linen or cotton. A visit to many sites today will reveal that modern understanding of this ancient practice leaves much to be desired as you can find scraps of nylon lace or string, polythene, even magnetic recording tape and other such synthetic (and therefore non-degradeable)
substances, tied to branches. According to the old lore, the diseases represented by these offerings would take a long time, if not a lifetime(!) to cure. On a visit to Madron Well in Penwith several years ago, I found a Berlei bra draped across several branches - persumably some sort of fertility spell. On a later visit last summer it had gone. Perhaps if "Madron" does indeed commemorate the "Mother" (as has been suggested by more than one writer) the donor had had sextuplets and come back to remove it!
While the leaving of rags seems to have been common practice in Scotland, Cornwall and Ireland, it was much less so in Wales, where the usual offering was a pin, bent or otherwise. Indeed, most of the handful of Welsh rag wells are to be found in Glamorgan. At Ffynnon Enddwyn in Merioneth, pilgrims threw pins into the water to ward off evil spirits. On St Agnes in the Scilly Isles, wreckers would resort to St Warna's Well and throw in bent pins on a daily basis with a prayer for a rich wreck.
At some wells it was the practice to leave some specific evidence of the hoped-for cure. At St Columba's Well in Donegal, whose waters were used to treat the lame and crippled, it was customary to leave behind a crutch, no doubt on the assumption that it would no longer be needed. The same was done at Ffynnon Trisant near Devil's Bridge in Cardiganshire and at Ffynnon Enddwyn in Merioneth. At some wells also it was the practice to prick one's finger with a pin to draw blood and then to throw the pin into the water as an offering, or to leave a button or bead. Alternatively, in some places, the practice was to hammer a coin or nail into a nearby tree, though at least one sacred tree has been killed by this dubious kindness and devotion. Modern practice tends to favour the burning of a bit of incense, the lighting of a candle or the laying onto the water of (subject to the season) a small posy of wildflowers tied with grass.
The practice of making offerings at (or to) bodies of water appears to be a very ancient one. There is considerable evidence dating from the early Bronze Age that items such as swords, helmets, shields and other pieces of metalwork (along with human beings) were consigned to rivers and bogs in considerable quantities. A number of very fine specimens of Bronze Age and Celtic weaponry and armour have been found at river sites throughout Britain and Europe, as well as considerable metal and human deposits in bogs in Denmark and north Germany. Two partiucular items whose photographs have long graced books on matters Celtic were found in mud in the River Thames during low water - a bronze horned helmet and a bronze shield decorated with inlays and spirals, while within Mercia itself various votive offerings have been found deposited at several points in the River Severn. Most recently, evidence has emerged from the River Trent in Nottinghamshire of deposits of human bones, particularly skulls, in the river during the late Neolithic or early Bronze Age, though there is no real evidence of deliberate human sacrifice.
Wells and springs were reputed in folklore to be the entrances to the Other Worlds and, like thresholds the world over, many of them had guardians - usually in the form of one or more fish. In the waters of Ffynnon Gybi (Gwyneth, North Wales) there dwelt an eel whose coiling (or not, as the case may be) around the legs of the patient indicated the success or otherwise of the healing petition, while in the Golden Well at Peterchurch (Golden Valley, Herefordshire) lived a trout with a chain around its neck (1,4). The trout's portrait, complete with chain, can still be seen high up on the wall inside mediaeval St Peter's Church in the valley. Another magickal or sacred fish inhabits Bromere Pool in Shropshire; this fish wears not a chain but a baldric and sword which were handed to him for safekeeping by local Anglo-Saxon hero Wild Edric who, it is said, leads the Wild Hunt across the Marches seeking Edric's lost faery bride, Lady Godda (7). The fish will only hand over the sword either to Edric himself or to his true and lawful heir. (No known healing associations here, but it's a good yarn!). At Acton Burnell in Shropshire the Frog Well was inhabited by (surprise!) frogs while serpents were said to have guarded Ffynnon Sarff near Caerrnarvon and Grinston Well in Pembrokeshire (a winged serpent in this case). Giraldus Cambrensis tells of a certain well in Pembrokeshire (without unfortunately identifying it) that there lived within its depths a viper which guarded a golden torc - and bit the hand of any would-be treasure hunters. Even more bizarrely, a fly (believed to be immortal) guarded St Michael's Well in Banffshire and Ffynnon Ddigwg in Caernarvonshire was believed by local people to be inhabited by "strange creatures resembling hedgehogs without their spikes". (3)
Some wells even appear to have had reluctant human guardians, for Jones records a tale about a Ffynnon Dewi (St David's Well) near to Henfynyw church in Cardiganshire: "An old man visited this well one Christmas Eve. He heard cries for help issuing form the well; a hand then rose and a voice asked the man to hold on tightly. He did so, but relaxed his hold. The hand then vanished into the well and the voice cried "I am bound for another fifty years." One gets the impression that the binding of this spirit to the well is not too far in essence from the traditional Border ballad of the magickal binding of Tam Lin to the wild rose bush in Carterhaugh by the Faery Queen.
These various guardians, and others too numerous to discuss in an article of this length, seem to represent, or to "be", the divinity or spirit of the spring and where they occur it is usually to them that the relevant offerings are made.
In many cases the exact details of the rituals to be carried out appear to have been lost before information about the wells and their associated practices was recorded. What remains, therefore, is often simply a record of a folk gathering, often of a social sort or of the nature of a pilgrimage. In many cases, though, there remained a tradition of visiting wells and springs on certain dates, even if it was unclear what one had to do when there! Hence Ffynnon y Foel in Montgomeryshire had to be visited on the 4th Sunday in Lent, Ffynnon Rhigos (also in Montgomeryshire) on Ash Wednesday and Ffynnon Stockwell in Carmathenshire on Palm Sunday. Meanwhile, at the Priest's Well near Narbeth in south Wales (the Arbeth of the Mabinogion) the tradition remained of dressing the well with rowan, for instance, while at Fynnon Llyffant dancing took place on the banks of the well and and at St John's Well in Glamorgan bonfires were lit - all at Beltane, while at Ffynnon Dduw in Caernarvonshire crowds gathered on the first three Sundays in July to play games and dancing also took place at at Ffynnon Erfyl (near Llanerfyl church) in Montgomeryshire on Whit Sunday, Trinity Sunday and Easter Monday (3).
The Irish seem to have had the most fun, however, for the Misses Quiller-Couch tell us that Irish pilgrimages to favoured holy wells
"were the occasion of such heathenish orgies that pipers, fiddlers, free libations of whisky, wild dances, fighting, quarrelling, and all manner of debaucheries, wound up a ceremony begun with penance, and ending like the festivals once held in honour of Aphrodite."
For myself, I confess to being a devotee of holy wells and springs and will usually go out of my way to visit them, and since I generally spend my holidays in either Cornwall or Pembrokeshire, well-visiting can be said to be a personal preoccupation. Several years ago I spent Midsummer's Night curled up in the long grass and wildflowers next to my favourite Cornish well (which shall remain nameless). The well itself is set back down and across a meadow in the corner of a field and occupies a dark little stone recess, about 18" high, set back into the bank under a hawthorn canopy. Whenever I visit the site, I bring away some of the water which I use sparingly for rituals until I can replenish it on my next visit. I always light some incense, add another rag to an overhanging hawthorn and float a candle on the still waters deep in the dark recess of the well housing. A single candle lights up the entire interior of the well housing and at dusk and after dark the effect is magickal indeed. Despite Midsummer's Night being one of the traditional nights for the Faery Rade to ride abroad, I saw no faeries and am still here. Perhaps next summer ....
The Future of Holy Wells
In many cases the future of our ancient holy wells and springs is not bright. During the 19th century the traditional beliefs and practices connected with sacred waters were constantly being eroded by the onslaught of non-conformist Christianity - the chapel mentality. Wales, Cornwall and vast swathes of Scotland came under the sway, indeed control, of various intolerant and highly patriarchal Christian sects which appear to have done a thorough job of suppressing knowledge of the sites and even of the existance of wells in some areas. By the end of the century, the Misses Quiller-Couch, for example, are unable to record anything more than the name of a number of Cornish wells, such as Lady Well at Padstow, which they comment had disappeared completely; in other cases, such as St Martin's Well at Looe, the well was secularised and harnessed to provide drinking water for the town; in the Malvern Hills, Jonathan Sant reports that the once-famous Prime's Well, which had been the spot at which Langland's hero in the 14th century visionary poem The Vision of Piers the Plowman had the vision with which the work starts, is now piped and bottled as Malvern Spring Water (4) and emerges onto supermarket shelves rather than onto an English hillside; elsewhere the sites of the wells were still known but all traditional belief about the special qualities of the waters had appeared to have died out, as had happened at Nanceglos Well and Holy Well at Sancreed, both near Penzance, and St Eunius Well near Redruth.
Unfortunately, during the course of this century things have become even worse. The Ordnance Survey has cut down on the number of holy wells and springs which it includes on its most commonly used series of maps (the 1:50,000 Landranger series) especially in areas where holy wells are thick on the ground. Unless you buy the more expensive 1:25,000 Pathfinder series, whose larger scale provides the space to include many more, you can pass within a few hundred yards of a neglected holy well and not know it. In the long run, therefore, visitors will be funnelled into visiting the most obvious sites while the less well-known wells are simply going to disappear - overgrown and choked by silt and weeds.
During my holiday in Cornwall last summer I spoke at some length with the local dowser, who was working on a farm at the behest of the farmer to locate the best spot to sink a new borehole. He told me that a particular problem which has emerged in Devon and Cornwall in recent years is that South West Water has now developed a policy of charging farmers for water from their own private wells unless the water can be shown to be for domestic use. Farmers with springs and wells on their land are understandably becoming somewhat reluctant to publicise their existance, so that in the coming years more wells are likely to disappear due to deliberate neglect or destruction. Even those which survive quietly on the farmer's land are unlikely to be drawn to the attention of outsiders and would-be visitors and pilgrims.
So what now?
Firstly, and most importantly, become aware of the tremendous heritage of traditional beliefs, practices and customs associated with these sites. The books from which I have quoted example and evidence in this article are for the most part easily available and there are others besides - in the past year or so Llanerch have reprinted an antiquarian study of folklore and practices associated with holy wells in Scotland which no doubt contains much more information than I have quoted here. Look out for reprints of Victorian and other antiquarian guides to the folklore and so on of your own area. Many have been reprinted in recent years surprisingly cheaply (because they are out of copyright) and contain information which has otherwise been lost. Become familar with those traditional practices and think about how you might adopt them or, if necessary, bring them back to life in your own practices.
Visit your library and spend an hour or so looking over the 1:25,000 maps of your area for wells which are not marked on the more common 1:50,000 ones. If you find any, these are probably the quieter, more secret and more neglected sites which are most desperately in need of your attention. If there are a few such sites in your area it may be worth buying the relevant map for about £3.50. And then - don your boots and visit them!
Visit them in the way that you do standing stones and stone circles. Pagans generally fall over themselves to visit stones but rarely accord the same veneration to wells and springs, though its strongly odds on that veneration of sacred waters by our ancestors considerably predates their raising of any stone circles or similar monuments.
If you have a holy well near to where you live - adopt it. Visit it not just once and then forget it again, only to go on to the next as if collecting badges. Visit it over and over again at different seasons, make a habit of taking offerings, try to make contact with the genius loci. Once some sort of contact has been established, try to work out if the well has a "season". For example, does it seem most powerful at Imbolc or at Midsummer? Is there any evidence to show what the traditional or existing practices connected with it might have been - the remains of a very faded and weathered ribbon on a tree, perhaps, or a piece of candle tucked between stones? Try to speak to local, especially older, people and find out what they know or remember about the place. Assuming that you are able to establish some idea of what was done at this place and when, (and if the site itself is willing - it may of course be more than happy being left alone!) include a suitable ritual there in your yearly calendar. Start small and unobtrusive - a few people doing a meditation, a not-too-visible ribbon tied on the tree, a bit of incense burned and some offerings of food for the local wildlife. Next year, providing the site is still welcoming, take a few more people and incorporate a bit of drumming, chanting or dancing, an overnight vigil or whatever else seems appropriate. Let the site be your guide - if you go too far or act insensitively it will surely tell you!
An excellent example of what can be done in this way is the work undertaken by Coventry Earth Spirit, and by Karl Stamper of the Fellowship of Isis in particular, in recognising and reclaiming the area of Canley Ford as a shrine to Segona, the Goddess of the River Avon. As well as being the target of regular clean-ups and litter-picks, and the site of regular quiet rituals, Canley Ford has become the focus for the annual People's Picnic on the Sunday before the Summer Solstice, providing a place for pagans and other interested people to meet and share food and honour the presence of Segona.
More work needs to be done for the holy wells and sacred springs throughout Britain. They must be sought, protected, venerated and cherished before it is too late and they are lost to us and our descendants. The work starts with each one of us.
1. Sacred Waters: Holy Wells and Water Lore in Britain and Ireland - Janet & Colin Bord (ISBN:0-246-12036-3)
2. Ancient and Holy Wells of Cornwall - M & L Quiller-Couch (Tamara Publications, Liskeard, Cornwall: ISBN 9-780951-282250)
3. The Holy Wells of Wales - Francis Jones (University of Wales Press, Cardiff: ISBN: 0-7083-11450-8)
4. The Healing Wells of Herefordshire - Jonathan Sant (Moondial Books. ISBN: 9-780952-499008)
5. The Herbal Remedies of the Physicians of Myddfai (Llanerch)
6. The Silver Bough - F Marian McNeill (Canongate Classics, Edinburgh. ISBN: 0-86241-23105)
7. Tales of Wild Edric by Richard "Mogsy" Walker (published in White Dragon at Beltane 1995)