Taking the waters


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.205

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!)chalice well

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.html20160310_124159

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



10 thoughts on “Taking the waters

  1. Pingback: Behind the Book : The House at Ladywell – All That Mighty Heart

  2. Fascinating to read about sacred wells and springs., and now I have put Mottisfont on my list for a visit this year. We have St Anne’s Well in Caversham, a place of pilgrimage throughout the Middle Ages. The well is encased in a brick wall with a domed grid on top, on a pavement by a garden fence on Priest hill, at the corner with St Anne’s Road, but at least it is still there.
    On another point, as another Hale writer, I’m interested to follow your adventures with getting your book published. Good luck, however you decide to proceed.

    • Thanks, Beth. I’m waiting to see what my agent comes up with but I’m seriously thinking of self-publishing. And Mottisfont is lovely, particularly in June when the rose garden is stunning.

  3. Really fascinating. I know the Romans revered wells and often threw tributes in to them. I love wandering around NT properties, always so much information to discover. Just recalled, there is a natural well in my parent’s garden, which they walled in and put a flower bed on top when we were kids. It was always a magical place for us kids, because the land we built our house on was once owned by an old Dutchman who lived and died in an old cottage formerly on the plot. He had stables at the bottom of the garden in which we played and we used to believe he lived in the well and would get out and roam the garden and stables upset that we lived on his land. The well was so fascinating for us, our parents had no choice but to fill it in. Thanks for such an enjoyable post Nicola. Good luck too.

  4. I know Mottisfont well, visiting often when we go down south to our daughter’s in Lyndhurst. It’s a lovely place, and the well is as you describe. I was very interested in the others you describe and wish you luck with the book, Nicola.

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