Sacred/Holy Wells of Devon, Britain and Beyond
Thoughts of wells may bring many different meanings and images to mind. A place to collect water, a site of reflection, a place for prayers and offerings or a place to throw coins and makes wishes. Wells may be grand, surrounded by stonework and a site of tourist interest or may be derelict and overgrown as nature seeks to reclaim them. There are many stories stemming from different worldly cultures involving wells which include stories of spirits and of healing, rhymes regarding the unfortunate fate of animals and darker tales of trapped spirit’s…The Ring being based on such a tale and not easily forgotten! The above tells that there is little doubt that wells and water have had a significant impact on us throughout the ages and water is of course a constant that has outlasted religions, races and seen a long and personal history of our lands.
So, what is a sacred well and why the differentiation between that which is ‘sacred’ and that which is ‘holy’.
To start it is important to note the relevance of water to ourselves as human beings, a subject that merits articles of its own. We know that water accounts for approximately threequarters of our physical mass and is essential to our survival. Pagan religions acknowledge water as one of the five main elements and Christian religions baptise their infants in holy water to cleanse and to purify. Recent research by Masaru Emoto indicates that water is influenced by our thoughts and emotions, when studying water crystals clear patterns of beauty and symmetry were observed in response to positive phrases such as ‘love’ and ‘friendship’ and harsh, unformed crystals were observed relating to words such as ‘hate’ and ‘war’. He also investigated the response of water to prayer and found the response to produce water crystals pleasing to the human eye and forming exact shapes in response to the prayers offered. It can be questioned whether this research is proving something that humans have long suspected regarding water having magical properties.
Wells have long had a practical use but their veneration as ‘sacred’ (Pagan) or ‘holy’ (Christian) is dependent on many factors according to the folklore of the area where they are located. This may include stories or rituals associated with the site, recordings of well water having healing properties, belief that the water flow has been influenced by a Pagan Deity or Christian Saint or belief that the well is protected by a spirit. Wells were often attributed with miraculous healing properties, the ability to grant wishes along with other properties. Historians tell us that it became popular to toss a bit of silver into the well as an offering to a particular god or goddess of the area, a custom we still observe today in the well-known ‘wishing wells’. It is believed that it is the power of the spirit/deity or saint who makes the water flow and imbues the water with healing properties which is why there are many sacred pilgrimage sites of wells and water.
It is likely that to our ancestors the presence and eruption of spring waters may have appeared of miraculous origin and therefore deserving of veneration. Wells may also bring imagery of the classic ‘witches cauldron’ which when Christianised underwent a process of transformation to emerge as the origin of the Holy Grail (Leger Gordon 1994). A well closely associated with Holy Grail legend is the Chalice Well in Glastonbury. The waters are said by some to represent the blood of Christ and to stem from the spot where Joseph of Arimathea buried the Grail; others say the well itself is a living Grail that pours forth healing waters from the depths of the earth. For others the waters symbolise the essence of life and a continuous spring like Chalice Well is a direct expression of our life force gifted to us by Mother Earth and the reason many wells have associations with ‘Our Lady’. Regardless of beliefs a visit to the Chalice Well is calming and restorative and highly recommended. (www.chalicewell.org.uk)
Fitz’s Well – Beside the Battle Camp road above Okehampton Park and marked by a granite cross. Previously a ‘holy well’ and now viewed as a ‘wishing well’. Folklore emphasises its potency on Eater Morning when young men and women would use the waters to ascertain their chances of marriage in the coming year.
Well at Coffinswell, Newton Abbot – Every New Year’ Day, just after midnight the ghost of a white lady rises from her nearby burial place and strides towards the churchyard.
St Gadula’s Well, Old Totnes Road, Ashburton – Said to have healing properties, especially good for the eyes.
The Golden Well, Bovey Tracey – An Unknown St Mary was welcomed by a local village priest and his wife and bestowed good fortune on them for their kindness. Frogs of the spring waters were turned golden as a reminder to her promise!
Leech Wells, Totnes – Three springs will be found here. One for healing, one for good luck and one as a place for veneration. This is a site still actively accessed and venerated today.
Well in Abbotskerswell – One of five wells in the county which is recorded in the Domesday book.
Lidwell, nr Bishopsteignton - Legend has it that the priest of Lidwell lured passers-by to the chapel before robbing and murdering them - and then dumping their bodies in the well.
Bradley, Holy Well, nr Newton Abbot - It is known locally as a wishing well and said never to dry up. A baby born blind was bathed in the water and gained its sight.
Exeter, St Sidwell's holy well - Over the years the well has been re-dug, built over and diverted so that today identification can be difficult. Named after a saintly maiden who was murdered with a scythe. The site of this well - which reputedly began to flow where the saint's head fell - is near the junction of York Road and Oxford Street. Its water was valued for skin and eye complaints.
Hatherleigh, St John's Well - The dedication of the well is to St John the Baptist. It has been noted that this was the most common dedication for holy wells in the county with the exception of those devoted to St Mary or Our Lady by various writers/historians.
A well of another kind!
Another well-known but less holy well is that of the ‘petrifying well’ in Mother Shipton’s Cave in Knaresborough, Yorkshire. The water turns whatever is placed beneath it into stone. Leave an item beneath and return a year later to find a stone item in its place – a result of calcite crystals forming. See www.mothershiptonscave.com.
The Secret Life of Water – Masaru Emoto The Book of English Magic – Phillip Carr – Gomm and Richard Heygate. Holy Well – Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Holy_well Devon’s Holy Heritage - http://www.bbc.co.uk/devon/outdoors/walks/holy_wells.shtml The Witchcraft and Folklore of Dartmoor – Ruth E.St.Leger-Gordon