Holy Wells
Holy Wells information
I've been fascinated by holy wells for many years. This sort-of arose out of my interest in churches and saints. In my teens the idea of the 'Celtic Church' caught my imagination (something to do with that romantic image of the Celtic fringe of Britain, all rain and unimagined antiquity), and gradually getting to know more about the Celtic saints I became aware that there were wells and springs named after them. When we went on a family holiday to Wales in 1984 we went looking for a few, and then discovered that there was a Holy Wells Research & Preservation Group recently established by Mark Valentine (funnily enough Mark was later part of Jennie Gray's Gothic Society too - odd how these things work out!). Anyway, that was that. Soon it became clear that the landscape was full of these strange and charismatic things called 'holy wells'. I ended up researching them wherever I happened to be - first in my native Dorset, then Oxfordshire, Leicestershire, Kent, Bucks, and now Surrey. I even wrote a book about them. Keeps me off the streets (but not out of the mud).

It's worth saying that 'holy wells' aren't always, or even usually, 'wells' in the modern sense of a dug-out structure designed to reach an underground source of water whether a spring or just water accumulated by seepage from the earth. The Anglo- Saxon word wielle from which we get the modern well meant a surface spring too, and in fact this is what most named wells are.

It's no surprise that the definition of 'holy well' has been argued over by students of the subject. Some wells are actually called 'Holy' in local tradition, while others bear the names of Christian saints. A very few have names which indicate some sort of pagan reverence in
the past. These are fairly clearly 'holy' by anyone's definition. But beyond them are whole classes of water-sites called by names which may, or may not, reflect some hidden or forgotten sanctity. Sometimes they are not named at all, but a story, miraculous property or piece of strange folklore attaches to them which makes them special and these are usually subsumed within the title of 'holy well'. Sometimes people think all holy wells had healing abilities or mineral properties, but this isn't so. In fact in the great majority of cases it isn't at all clear how a particular spring came to be thought of as 'holy'.

Sacred wells and springs can be found in all continents and cultures, and there is no clear 'story' that explains them all.  Sometimes you will still hear the old-fashioned view promoted that holy wells began as pagan sites and were adopted by the Christian Church and rededicated to saints who then displaced the old gods who were formerly worshipped there. This account derives from the early days of antiquarian and folklore study, and gradually became overlaid with pagan and ecological concerns. It's now mostly faded into the background as holy well enthusiasts have realised things are much more complicated. At a very few sites you can indeed trace development straight through from pagan times to Christian observances, but the past history of most wells is simply lost. Each episode in the history of human society has managed to create sacred water-sites in its own way, from pagan wells to Christian wells to spas to wishing wells.

Even after so many years I remain captivated by holy wells. They sit quietly awaiting rediscovery at the corners of fields or under hedges, keeping their secrets now as they have, in many cases, for thousands of years. Yet many are destroyed by drainage work, construction, farming, or sheer neglect, and as the British climate gets drier many wells here face disappearance and loss. Please go looking for them, and where you find them, care for them and remember them.

On other pages you'll find information about useful books on holy wells, and a list of my 'top ten'.
Holy Wells Top Ten
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