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).|
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.
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,
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'.
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.
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'.