I say revived, for although the celebrations of this local saint were apparently established in the 1920s there does not appear to be any evidence of what form of celebration, if any existed, before this. This 1920s custom may have itself been short lived and indeed the 1951 revival of this may as we shall read not be related. One could easily say this is a contrived custom for although it likely that the parish commemorated a patronal day, what is undertaken today is pure supposition.
Despite living not far away and having an interest in holy wells, it has took me a long time to find out and visit this custom. A number of reasons appear to have compounded this – firstly bad weather (more of that later) and secondly the lack of any information about it. Indeed as regards the later, I once rang up and they said they did an event in November…clearly they were confusing it with Armistice Day…thankfully the internet has been more helpful, supported by an improvement to the event which arose in 2011 the 1050th anniversary of her birth – a well dressing.
Weather was not a problem when I arrived in the morning of 2013. Sun shone majestically over the delightful village and I turned in Kemsing just as the well dressing board was being wheel barrowed down to the holy well. I naturally helped lift it and put it into place. The well dressing was a fine attempt. The artists being two local ladies, one of which would appear to have the tradition running through her veins coming from Elmton in Derbyshire, a village with a well dressing tradition, albeit a modern one. Subsequently, the frame is soaked in a paddling pool each year and taken to the village hall where on a table the two worked away using templates to create their art over the week finally finishing on the Saturday before. In the last three years, since the 2011 festival, a well dressing has been undertaken place, last year’s was the Olympics, 2011’s was a picture of the village. This year’s was the harvest and delightfully it was rendered too with a good use of rhubarb seeds for a field and gravel for the signage. Next year’s is planned to be the First World War.
The small group admired their handiwork and then it was covered for the arrival of the church and its congregation.
Well they have arrived
A few minutes later this congregation, following their cross, but sadly no banner, and holding their posies, arrived. The service with the prayer which begins:
“Father each St. Edith’s day, we bring flowers to this well….”
Then the posies were placed upon the walls of the well, the service continuing with a reading of St. Edith’s hymn:
“At this well with great thanksgiving, blessed Edith we record, her short years of holy living, chaste handmaiden of the Lord, May we in her Lord believing, be like her his living sword.”
A thanks giving was given for the water and then the well dressing was revealed to the delight of the congregation. It was great to see that the well continues to be celebrated and the well dressing is a more than welcome innovation. The ceremony ends with prayers of intercession and a collect for St. Edith’s Day, Lord’s Prayer, hymn and blessing. It was a bit disappointing I felt that the support from the village was quite small, especially as everyone here seemed so inviting, but as the service was at 9.45, perhaps it was too early. I recommend moving the service an hour forward and more visitors may be attracted.
Well meet again
However, although the congregation now dispersed to their church hall for tea and cakes..this is not the end of the observation. For in the afternoon, a Catholic pilgrimage occurs from the nearest Catholic Church based in Sevenoaks. In 2013 they planned to meet at 3.00 with the Holy Rosary, prayers and St. Edith’s hymn, followed by the Benediction of the blessed sacrament in a nearby garden about 200 yards from the well.
Interestingly, Christopher Bells’ Centenary History of the Catholic Church of St Thomas of Canterbury states that Father Phillips, Sevenoaks parish priest from 1916 to 1946, probably revived it around the 1920s. An elderly parishioner told Mr Taylor that the pilgrimage was going in the 1930s, but this was actually on the 16th, not the nearest Sunday as of recent. It is possible that as the village was home of Catholic convert Monsignor Robert Benson, son of Edward White Benson, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1890s the observation may be older. I was told that now parishioners come from all part of the parish which covers the villages of Kemsing, Otford, Weald, Borough Green and West Kingsdown as well as Sevenoaks, some walking 8 miles as well journeying by car from London.
But the weather delightful in morning closed in and a note wrapped in plastic was affixed to the well read…moved to Otford Catholic church..that weather again…hopefully the weather will be more favourable next year and they will return.