Until I started writing a book about a holy well I had no idea how many of them were scattered around the British Isles. There are dozens of them! Some long gone and only remembered in the name, others reduced to a muddy puddle in a field, and some that still provide ‘healing water’ and solace to anyone who visits.
According to Wikipaedia: A holy well or sacred spring is a spring or other small body of water revered either in a Pagan or Christian context, often both. Holy wells were frequently pagan sacred sites that later became Christianised. The term ‘holy well’ is commonly employed to refer to any water source of limited size (i.e. not a lake or river, but including pools and natural springs and seeps), which has some significance in the folklore of the area where it is located, whether in the form of a particular name or an associated legend…
A well can be guarded by a spirit – an animal, a nymph, a dryad – though with the advent of Christianity many of the waters became the preserve of Christian saints.
In my latest book (currently in the hands of my agent), the holy well in question is known as the Lady’s Well and the locals are happy to let the incoming Christians believe it is dedicated to the Virgin Mary – but the Lady of the Well is a much, much older guardian.
My first inspiration for the Lady’s Well was not far away at the National Trust property, Mottisfont Abbey. As a member of the NT I often go to wander round the gardens, particularly the magnificent rose gardens and stand and gaze at the Font. This is a spring which is still flowing in the grounds – it’s approximately 12′ deep and 12′ across and at some stage in its history it was lined with clay. http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/mottisfont
Another research trip took me to Rockbourne Roman villa which was discovered by a farmer digging out a ferret in 1942. This is also in Hampshire and well worth a visit. More details here – http://www.hampshire-history.com/rockbourne-roman-villa/ And a not-very-brilliant photo of the Roman well – taken by me.
A bit further away from home is the peaceful and mystical Chalice Well at Glastonbury, at the foot of Glastonbury Tor. It is said that the red colouring of the water dates from the legend that Joseph of Aramathea visited the West Country and that he not only planted the famous Glastonbury Thorn, but that he hid the chalice from the last supper in the well – the chalice that caught drops of Christ’s blood. Alternatively, the colour comes from the iron nails used in the Crucifixion. If you don’t like either explanation, it could just be that there’s a lot of iron in the water! Read more here: http://www.chalicewell.org.uk/ (Photo taken from their website so I hope they don’t mind as I’m being complimentary about it!)
The most recent trip was to the Wishing Well at Upwey, near Weymouth. As my elder daughter was named after Princess Amelia, the youngest daughter of King George III, I was intrigued to discover that the king was a frequent visitor to Upwey and used to take the waters in a special gold cup. http://www.upweywishingwell.co.uk/history.html
My fictitious well is a very loose amalgam of these wells, with characteristics of its own, of course and it’s been fun visiting and making notes. Needless to say the Resident Engineer comes too but it’s no hardship to him as he’s interested in practical history – and there’s little that’s more practical than a well. Besides, these sites invariably have excellent tea-rooms! Or a nice pub nearby.
To read more about the sacred springs of these islands, check out this fascinating and informative website.
Sadly, you’re not supposed to drink the water these days, but as I’ve tasted the er – interestingly-flavoured waters at Bath, in the Pump Room, I can’t say I mind particularly.http://www.romanbaths.co.uk/walkthroughs/sacred-spring-and-associated-objects