Category Archives: well dressing

Custom revived: St Ann’s Day Pilgrimage to St. Ann’s Well, Brislington

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In medieval England, St Anne, a slightly apocraphyl saint, said to be the mother of Mary, was widely celebrated. On the outskirts of modern Bristol is one relic from this day. St. Anne’s Well is perhaps all that is left of a wider site, which included a noted chapel – indeed it is the chapel which has an older more venerable history. Said to have been visited by Henry VIIth and his queen, it is now lost beneath the urbanisation which has spread through Bristol suburbs. The delightful oasis of Brislington Brook and St. Anne’s Park similarly could have been swallowed up…but the effort of local groups has preserved its memory.

When I lived in Bristol, I knew of St. Anne’s Well but although I knew that it was visited by the local church never could find any details. I remember ringing up once and finding now further information – O the days before the internet. Now the church appears have forgotten the well, but not the locals who each Saturday nearest to the old saint’s feast day go in procession to the well.  The current celebration of this noted holy well is perhaps more of a contrived custom than revived perhaps but although it is largely stripped of its religious emphasis is no less significant.

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If you go down to the woods today!

Meeting at the pub beforehand were a curious collection of costumed punters…if you didn’t know you would blame the drink! Adults of all ages and children readily got into the spirit and as the number of potential ‘processioners’ assembled, the group posed outside of the pub, formed a procession with three knights of honour, banners aloft following a specially made flag depicting the well. Medieval music guided us as we weaved and wandered first through streets, down back passages and along streets – much to the bewilderment of people as they peered out of the windows – quintessentially British! Then as we were about to descend into the delightfully named Nightingale Valley, we stopped to hear the first of our medieval monologues – which gave us a good rest whilst we listened.

Well-watered walkers

Formally and informally over the hundreds of years many people had walked here to access the waters for whatever reason. However, first ‘modern’ processions to the well begun in 1880s with the beginning of local Catholic attendance. In 1927 the Reverend C F. Harman lead the first twentieth century procession to the well and held a service there as a result it became an annual event only declining apparently in the 1970s as the site became vandalised and slowly derelict. However, in 1986, on the anniversary the 500th anniversary of the visit by Henry VII. Then the procession was led by rural Dean Father John Bradley who according to Ken Taylor’s 2016 work on the well and chapel, The Holy Wells and Chapel of St Anne in the Wood, Brislington, Bristol:

“snaked through St. Anne’s Wood to the holy well where a service was held jointly with the Rev. Mark Waters, vicar of the church of St. Anne’s who had revived the custom.”

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In Phil Quinn’s 1999 work Holy Wells of the Bath and Bristol Region there is a photos of a small group of pilgrims at the well. He notes:

“Some 40 people taking part in 1996 service of blessing of the well. In this the priest takes water from the well and sprinkles it over those gathered around.”

Accordingly, this custom continued until 2005 but why it ceased is unclear, the church survives and is still as its website states ‘High church’ leaning!

However, this was a relatively small interregnum as on 26th July 2009 members of the Brislington Community Archaeology Project revived the pilgrimage not as Taylor (2016) notes:

“The date was not chosen for its religious significance, but because of its historical significance – this was not a pilgrimage in honour of St. Anne, but a public, guided walk into the history and archaeology of the site.”

Taylor (2016) notes:

“Ten people met at the Kings Arms in Hollywood Road, which is opposite Kenneth Road, where the medieval pilgrims are reputed to have camped prior to walking to the Chapel of St Anne in the Wood. Leaving the pub at 2.15pm the group followed as closely as possible the course of Brislington Brook, which led to the so called Pilgrim’s Path through picturesque Nightingale Valley. They arrived at the holy well at St. Anne’s Wood around 3pm, where several other people waited the arrival of the party.”

A further walk occurred a year later or so on Sunday 25th for Festival of British Archaeology and so the numbers double and at the well they added:

“more ribbons, pendants and other mementoes already there.”

By the following year, the procession had grown to around a hundred and the procession having members dressed up especially in medieval costumes. They were led by ‘King Henry VIIth’ and his Queen, ‘Elizabeth of York’. These royal personages being greeted by the Lord of Mayor of Bristol, who was also the councillor for Brislington.

This year also introduced some of the more theatrical elements of the walk, about a dozen monologues written especially by local people for the event were read along the route and beside the well.

In 2013 Discover Brislington Brook raised funds to deliver the pageant as well as raise local interest in the site via workshops with local schools and making procession puppets used in that year’s procession. By 2014 the pageant appears to have become a regular fixture in the local calendar. The procession now including traditional musicians and over 200 attendees. At the site of the well was organised a fair and BBQ.

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Alls well that ends at a well

The group, now swelled by some casual attendees made its way through the woods, along the stream, the children being enraptured by tales of wise women of the woods and trolls. Indeed, despite urbanisation being a few steps away, it was not difficult to believe their existence.  Soon the rather weary party arrived triumphantly at the well. The children enthusiastically rushed to peer into it and then throw things into it…oh well. More respectful children felt the urge to adorn it with paper pendant and these added to the ribbons which hang from the trees – evidence of more informal pilgrimage. Sadly, there was no BBQ or fair this year, which perhaps meant a rather deflated end especially for adults. However, it is clear that the procession remains a popular event locally and hopefully it will grow and with it help support the area and allow this ancient well to survive and be celebrated. If you are local or in the area next last weekend in July consider joining and remembering this ancient site.

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Custom demised: Visiting wells and springs at Midsummer

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Many wells and springs were believed to increase in proficiency either Midsummer (Eve or Day). Often such wells would be dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the saint whose feast day would be on that date. Some such as St. John’s Well, Broughton, Northamptonshire or St John’s Well, Shenstone, Staffordshire, whose waters were thought to be more curative on that day.  This is clear at Craikel Spring, Bottesford, Lincolnshire, Folklorist Peacock (1895) notes in her Lincolnshire folklore that:

“Less than fifty years ago a sickly child was dipped in the water between the mirk and the dawn on midsummer morning,’ and niver looked back’ards efter, ‘immersion at that mystic hour removing the nameless weakness which had crippled him in health. Within the last fifteen years a palsied man went to obtain a supply of the water, only to find, to his intense disappointment, that it was drained away through an underground channel which rendered it unattainable.”

Now a lost site, it is possible and indeed likely that the site now called St. John’s Well in the village is the same site considering its connection to midsummer.

Often these visits would become ritualised and hence as Hazlitt notes in the Irish Hudibras (1689) that in the North of Ireland:

“Have you beheld, when people pray, At St. John’s well on Patron-Day, By charm of priest and miracle, To cure diseases at this well; The valleys filled with blind and lame, And go as limping as they came.”

In the parish of Stenness, Orkney local people would bring children to pass around it sunwise after being bathed in the Bigwell. A similar pattern would be down at wells at Tillie Beltane, Aberdeenshire where the well was circled sunwise seven times. Tongue’s (1965) Somerset Folklore records of the Southwell, Congresbury women used to process around the well barking like dogs.

These customs appear to have been private and probably solitary activities, in a number of locations ranging from Northumberland to Nottingham, the visiting of the wells was associated with festivities. One of the most famed with such celebration was St Bede’s Well at Jarrow. Brand (1789) in his popular observances states:

“about a mile to the west of Jarrow there is a well, still called Bede’s Well, to which, as late as the year 1740, it was a prevailing custom to bring children troubled with any disease or infirmity; a crooked pin was put in, and the well laved dry between each dipping. My informant has seen twenty children brought together on a Sunday, to be dipped in this well; at which also, on Midsummer-eve, there was a great resort of neighbouring people, with bonfires, musick, &c.”         

Piercy (1828) states that at St. John’s Well Clarborough, Nottinghamshire

a feast, or fair, held annually on St. John’s  day, to which the neighbouring villagers resorted to enjoy such rural sports or games as fancy might dictate.”

Similarly, the Lady Well, Longwitton Northumberland, or rather an eye well was where according to Hodgon (1820-58) where:

People met here on Midsummer Sunday and the Sunday following, when they amused themselves with leaping, eating gingerbread brought for sale to the spot, and drinking the waters of the well.”         

When such activities ceased is unclear, but in some cases it was clearly when the land use changed. This is seen at Nottinhamshire’s Hucknall’s Robin Hood’s well, when the woods kept for Midsummer dancing, was according to Marson (1965-6)  in an article called  Wells, Sources and water courses in Nottinghamshire countryside states it was turned to a pheasant reserve, the open space lawn was allowed to grass over and subsequently all dancing ceased. In Dugdale’s (1692) Monasticon Anglicanum notes that at Barnwell Cambridgeshire:

“..once a year on St John Baptist’s Eve, boys and lads met there, and amused themselves in the English fashion with wrestling matches and other games and applauded each other in singing songs and playing musical instruments. Hence by reason of the crowd that met and played there, a habit grew up that on the same day a crowd of buyers and sellers should meet in same place to do business.”       

Whether the well itself was the focus for the festivities or the festivities were focused around the well because it provided water are unclear, there are surviving and revived midsummer customs which involve bonfires and general celebrations but no wells involved.

The only custom, revived in 1956, which resembles that of the midsummer well visiting is Ashmore’s Filly Loo.  This is the only apparent celebration of springs at Midsummer is at Ashmore Dorset where a local dew pond, where by long tradition a feast was held on its banks, revived in 1956 and called Filly Loo, it is held on the Friday nearest midsummer and consists of dancing and the holding of hands around the pond at the festivities end.

Another piece of evidence perhaps for the support of a well orientated event as opposed an event with a well is the structure of the Shirehampton Holy Well, Gloucestershire which arises in:

“‘A large cave … Inside, there is crumbling masonry – the remains of an ancient shrine or hermitage – and a pool fed by a stream which seeps through the floor of the cave. The rays of the midsummer sun are said to strike the centre of this pool, and seers used to read the future in its depths.”

It was suggested that the building was:

“duly oriented for midsummer day, so that it is clearly a mediaeval dedication to S. John Baptist.”

This unusual site may indicate the longer and deeper associations of springs and midsummer than is first supposed…or antiquarian fancy. Nowadays if you visit these wells at Midsummer you will find yourself alone…but in a way that may have been the way it had always been.

Custom survived: St. Walstan’s Day pilgrimage, Bawburgh, Norfolk

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“Come journey in St. Walstan’s way, Come make a start this joyful day; And as he turned from wealth and ease, Go forth in prayer to seek God’s peace.”

The hymn of St. Walstan

Laying in a small private orchard beside the Parish church, St Walstan’s Well has been, on and off,  the goal of many pilgrims over the centuries. Here beside the church was once his chapel and in times before the Reformation, it doubtless swarmed with pilgrims visiting the shrine and well. The most auspicious date to visit the shrine and well would be the saint’s feast day the 30th May. How many pilgrims, what stories of their journeys and stories are now unknown. Little is recorded of the site before the Reformation but thanks to a return of pilgrimage and a greater tolerance and acceptance from Anglican Church and adoption by a revitalised Catholic church, St Walstan is now regularly remembered.

Saints alive!

Who is St. Walstan? He’s a little known saint today but his spread was once considerable through the agricultural heartlands of East Anglia and beyond. A Saxon saint, said to have been of royal lineage, who forwent this to be a farm hand, giving his riches to the poor. He died on the 30th May 1016, and legend tells us that three springs arose, one at his place of death, at Taverham, another, Costessey, where a cart pulled his body dragged by two white oxen and the final at Bawburgh, where his body was laid to rest and a shrine established which was very popular. Indeed, in a region rich with such shrines it attracted considerable miracles and money, it and his nearby well being the goal of man and beast. Then the reformation came, the shrine dismantled and attendance at the well discouraged! Put you cannot put a good saint down…nor more importantly his well.

Spring back

This revival in the importance of St Walstan’s Well can be traced back to the 1790s when an anonymous letter on the subject of wells and baths in the September of Gentlemen’s Magazine:

“My business has very lately obliged me to make a tour through this country, at all the market towns and even at every village I stopt at, I was informed of its wonderful efficacy in curing all disorders. The resort to this spring has been very great all this summer. I was assured by a person who was on the spot, that there were frequently 2000 people there at a time, particularly on Sunday mornings; and that the spring was frequently emptied, not so much by the quantity drank on the spot, as what was put into bottles, casks, and barrels, to be transported to the remotest parts of the county.”

Author J. C. Husbenbeth in 1859 Life of St Walstan, confessor wrote recording around the end of the 18th Century partly collaborating this:

“An old man died not long ago at Babur, who was known to the writer, and in his younger days kept an inn there, which was frequently by crowds of visitors to St Walstan’s Well.”

The Norwich Gazette noted that these crowds often resulted in trouble, and in 1763 it reported that:

“much confusion ensued …..and many heads were broken in the scuffle.”

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pilgrims bless themselves at the well

Still waters run deep

A number of cures were associated with the well and these combined with the spreading Anglo-Catholic ethos of the Oxford Movement renewed worship of the well. Among the colourful characters to have been connected with this revival at the time was Father Ignatius. He founded a monastic settlement called the Third Order in Norwich and led the first official pilgrimage to the well in 1864. Those attended it could have described it as did one of them Baronness de Bertouch:

“A Public pilgrimage in full feather to the St Walstan’s Well – a said to be miraculous source of water, four miles out of Norwich referred to on the programme of old world religious revivals. It was hundreds of years since a single pilgrim had dipped his cup into that long forgotten spring, or breathed a prayer to its derelict Patron; so the occasion was an historical one, and worthy of the pageant with which it was commemorated by the Monks and their contingent.”

Nearby Norwich, a strongly Protestant city viewed the whole affair differently as unwanted Popery and many opponents tried by any means possible to discourage the activities. To prevent any conflicts on the day of the procession it was suggested that constables should be placed on specific cross roads to monitor and thus remove any problems. Ignatius ignored this problem and marshalled his 400 pilgrim’s to the well. The crowd of pilgrims being so great that they moved as:

‘one long flexible column through the town.’

Critics in the press ridiculed their actions, a broadsheet entitled ‘The Monks Pilgrimage to Bawburgh’ was printed by Robert Cullum of Norwich and scathingly described their activities in a poem ridiculing the miraculous waters in the cure of Brother Stumpy’s leg:

“Why what in the world were these Monks now about,

They’re Lately been having a rather grand turn out,

To astonish the joskins the whole country round,

Such a set of poor simpletons elsewhere can’t be found.

Then down to the well the country Johns got,

To gather the moss and they did get a lot,

The Monks paid them well and also did say,

They should want plenty more on some future day

Last Week they slipp’d out of Town one by one,

And people were puzzled to know where they’d gone,

In a fly there fine dresses and gimeracks were carried,

And some said that Blazer was gone to be married.

There’s Old Ginger Giles he vow and protest,

That he won’t work for farmers the Monks pay him best,

Seven shillings a week is not worth looking arter,

He can get twice as much from selling the water.

But soon they meet on the Earlham Road,

And some of the finery began to unload,

Pockthorpe famed Guild this rum lot would beat,

All it warned was Old Snap to make it complete.

The People of Bawburgh they never did ill,

And don’t know the want of a doctor or pill,

But if it is true what they say unto me,

‘Tis by using the water in making the tea.

 

‘And when all were muster’d under the trees,

Down went the whole lot right on to their knees,

On the dusty road Monks and Women were seen,

With their fine Sunday Dresses and smart Crinoline

There’s old mother Smith that lives by the Cock,

Declares that whenever she washes her smock,

With the water although she now getting old,

If she puts it on wet she never catch cold.

 

Then up they all got and made a great noise,

for some begun singing at the top of their voice,

Each village they came the people turned out,

For they could not imagine what t’was all about,

Brother Stumpy too met a wonderful cure,

You remember the wooden leg he had to be sure,

After bathing it well for an hour or two,

A beautiful new leg appeared to view.

 

But at Bawburgh is said that they have found out a well,

The water of which all others excel,

It will cure all complaints of those who receive it,

And keep out the Devil if you can believe it,

 

Poor neighbour goose who in St Lawrence now dwell,

Strange is the tale I’m about to tell,

Though the mother of eight children of late it is said,

Through drinking Holy Water, looks more like a maid

When they got there with fasting they turn’d very faint,

All were eager to drink at the well of the saint,

And some simpletons were heard to declare,

They could without victuals the rest of the year.

The blind made see, the lame made to walk,

The deaf made to hear and the dumb made to talk,

If you like to believe all the cures they tell,

That’s done by the water and moss from this well

Such a sight there was seen when they’d got to the well,

For flat on their faces these Pilgrims all fell,

And began kissing the ground as if they were crazed,

While the poor people looked on amazed.

Then down to the well the country Johns got,

To gather the moss and they did get a lot,

The Monks paid them well and also did say,

They should want plenty more on some future day

Brother Magentis then said that when the saint died,

(Though between you and me I think that he lied)

The water was seen from this place to run,

And thousands of cures by it had been done.

 

Now take my advice, don’t be galled by such stuff,

Of Monks and Miracles were had quite enough,

If you go to their chapel and learn at their schools,

You’ll find that they think you a great set of fools.

They’ll make you believe every Pulk hole they find,

Sprung up where some saint died if they have a mind,

But I hope folks know better in the present age,

And won’t join the monks in their next Pilgrimage.”

The pilgrims decorated the well with flowers and lights. Various vials and vessels were filled and handed out among the crowd. Locally people begun to realise that the water was still profitable; Ginger Giles, the supplier, stating that he received more money from selling its water, than from working on the local farm. However the anti-popish feeling ran high and sadly the Order suffered under physical and literary abuse, and after a scandal involving the luring away of a young boy, Father Ignatius, in 1866, left following a serious illness.

However despite this scandal the well was not forgotten. Indeed the revival had the desired effect in re-establishing the power of its water, the Norwich Mercury even noted effectiveness in the cure of sick animals. In 1912, the Third National Catholic Congress, organised a mass pilgrimage to the well, after a successful one to Walsingham. It was the result of this congress that the first chronicled and official miracle of the twentieth century occurred, after a London man attending the pilgrimage took back with him some moss. Later that year he found his eyes failing and was diagnosed to be becoming blind. Yet after washing his eyes in the well’s water and placing the moss on his eyes for four days – and his eyes were restored. He vowed to make a second pilgrimage and did the following September. This story had been circulated and another Catholic Pilgrimage was organised. This procession starting in the grounds of Bawburgh Hall, and Mr Sparrow the farmer again helped with the water access, however someone was over zealous by bringing a gallon-sized beer bottle.

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Pilgrims pass Chapel Farm – a clue to an ancient pilgrim route?

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The banner held proudly aloft

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Through the fields they travelled..

Well look who’s here!

Despite the anti-pilgrimage opinions it would only 20 years for the Church of England moved towards revitalising the saint and that year saw the first of many Anglo-Catholic Pilgrimages and even worship of the saint included Bawburgh Methodists. Today there is a regular service at the well on the saint’s day 30th May.

In 1976 there was established an Anglo-Catholic pilgrimage. Indeed since the 1970s every year there has been an observance of the custom, with the Methodist joining in 1982. In 1989 an interfaith pilgrimage from Taverham to Bawburgh was established to recognise the saint’s adoption by the British Food and Agriculture year. How things have greatly and thankfully changed from the ‘stumpy’ protestations!

Actually there are three separate observations – on the Sunday nearest to St. Walstan’s Day for Anglicans and the Sunday after St. Walstan, the first in June for Catholics processing from the local Catholic Church at Costessey, with the Orthodox coming the week after. However, in the last few years the first two days have coincided in the calendar and thus the observation combined. The Catholic church processing and being met on the old packhorse bridge by the local Anglican church. A school visit on the 30th for children even being organised on year with an re-enactment of the cart carrying the body of the saint.  In 2016, the community commemorated the saint’s millennia again with a joint celebration with the Bishops of Norwich/East Anglia, Rt Reverend Grapham Jones and Rt Reverend Alan Hopes (both Catholic and Anglican).

Well trod

For the commemoration of the 1000th anniversary of his death, the village established a number of events. In the church was a flower festival based on the saint’s life and a special extended processional pilgrimage walk. In the village I even saw a man carrying an old scythe like St. Walstan.  A large group had assembled for the mass pilgrimage from Marlingford village hall for this walk, I waited for the man with the scythe to lead us – he didn’t turn up – did I imagine it At the hall I asked one of the organisers why this route. Apparently there was evidence that the route, now over private land, was an old pilgrim route – it does pass by a chapel farm – although more functionally a procession with large numbers from Taverham, the place of his death to Bawburgh, would be problematic for safety purposes. A shame but the essence of a pilgrimage was upheld nevertheless, and if we were walking in the footsteps of ancient pilgrims that added to it. The walk, which was around 3 miles took in some of the great agricultural landscapes that would have made this farming saint at home. Indeed half way we rested and paused to give thanks for what Norfolk and its agriculture had provided and the people who’s livelihood depended on it. The walk continued, with the banner of St Mary and St Walstan Catholic church proudly leading the way. Soon the church was in sight and after a long walk it was a welcome site.

Alls Well, that ends well

The procession made its way via St. Walstan’s Well, sadly we couldn’t refresh ourselves there as the water was unfit for drinking, fortunately there was tea and coffee available, a much needed physical refreshment. At the well a medieval band played and song, a St Walstan inspired madrigal, as the weary pilgrims took a blessing from the well’s water instead from bowls by the side. Some attached blessings to a tree nearby, a resurrected St. Walstan’s bush perhaps said to lie nearby. I went for the tea and coffee.

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BBOGOF – Bishops Buy one get one free!

In a field near the church and well, a large congregation had gathered, augmented by the pilgrims, to hear the unusual sounds of a joint Anglican-Catholic service, at one point read in union, which I must admit was quite unusual. The Catholic Bishop recalling the legend of St. Walstan and hymns included one dedicated to the saint. The Bishop double act entered the congregation and went around sprinkling blessings with holy water – although the Catholic bishop seemed a bit more expedient and appeared to cover more ground! The service ended with the clergy praying homage to the Well and remembering the saint and the gift of his water. Remarkable for such an obscure saint that his memory is still important 1000 years on..but then again very little has changed to mean that his message is no longer relevant !

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Wait all this time for some clergy and nine come at once. The Bishops bless the well.

Custom contrived: St. Richard Festival, Droitwich

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The Richard festival illustrates how an ancient feast day can be used to create a local event which celebrates the town’s claim to fame – it’sbrine pits in a manner which incorporates all the classic aspects of a May festival: Morris Men, maypole dancing, historical reenactment and err… classic cars.

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The town had some history of celebrating these brine pits. John Leland in his Itinerary, written around 1540 gives the legend:

Some say that this salt springe dyd fayle in the tyme of Richard de la Wiche Byschope of Chichester and that after by his intercession it was restored to the profit of the old course. Such is the superstition of the people. In token whereof, or for the honour that the Wiche-men and saulters bare unto this Richard their cuntre-man, they used of late tymes on his daye to hang about this sault spring or well once a yeere with tapestry, and to have drinking games and revels at it.”

John Aubrey noted that:

“on the day of St Richard the Patron of ye Well (i.e.) saltwell, they keep Holyday, dresse the well with green Boughes and flowers. One yeare sc. Ao 164-, in the Presbyterian times it was discontinued in the Civil-warres; and after that the spring shranke up or dried up for some time. So afterwards they kept their annuall custome (notwithstanding the power of ye Parliament and soldiers), and the salt-water returned again and still continues.

This appears to have been an early record of well dressing in the country, albeit not as elaborate as those of Derbyshire today and simply arches over the well to give thanks. When this custom fell into abeyance is unclear, but it was probably around the Reformation, although according some sources his statue, erected 1935, was dressed on the 3rd April until the 1990s but details are difficult to find.

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A new custom ready salted

What exists today is a celebration with a modern twist, not exactly a revival, but an concoction of what these events should have. it combines elements of the traditional custom with modern twists. Arriving in the town one comes face to face with Morris Men whacking sticks close to vintage Morris Minors. The cars are indeed such a big attraction they’ve taken over the billing and the event us renamed St Richard’s Boat and Car Festival, and these cars rather surreally spreads through the quaint streets of the town.

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However the wells are not forgotten. The replica Upwich pit and a brine pump in town are imaginatively dressed in honour of the saint with a model of a swan made of flowers and other flower dressing. In the last few years a local Probus 87 group, a local business group, have reenacted the blessing. Now a group dressed as friars wind their way from the church carrying a banner with the saint and a floral cross. At the well a ‘bishop of Chichester’ blesses the pit. After such a traditional aspects it’s back to the puppets, boats, classic cars…all in all a splendid advert for the town.

Custom revived: St. Edith’s Day, Kemsing

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DSC_0135I 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.

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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.

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Well met

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.

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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….”

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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.

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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.

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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.

Custom survived: Bisley Ascension day Well dressing

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The three days before Ascension Day it never stopped raining, so it was with some trepidation that I made my journey to Bisley for their annual water based celebration. Rain was on the forecast, but I noticed oddly enough a gap both geographically and temporally was noted on the weather website and that was good enough for me. Of course, rain would be wholly appropriate on a day when thanks is traditionally given for water, a little odd since the day commemorates the Ascension of Jesus, which of course is the reverse!

Well positioned

Bisley is a delightful village, high above Stroud, it has all the great features of a classic Cotswold village with a historic old pub, The Bear with its association with the Bisley Boy legend ( a story of a switch between a local lookalike and a child Elizabeth I), a lock-up and those traditional delightful Cotswold stone cream buildings..and a picturesque well head situated below the church’s rocky outcrop. This well head, encloses seven springs, the name given to the site, of which five flow with considerable power through Gothic pointed arches and into a trough which lines the walling. Another two at the front gable fill large troughs. The water looks delightfully refreshing.

Well thought of.

The custom is one of the oldest Well dressing customs continually done in England; the only one outside of the Derbyshire-Staffordshire region with any pedigree. There are after all tens of well dressings and I don’t yet intend detailing all, but one so unique geographically and old needs mention. Surprising, it is still little known, cursory mention is made of it in well dressing volumes and even Katherine Brigg’s 1974 work Folklore of the Cotswolds ignores it!

Debate exists over whether in 1863 the custom was revived, transferred from Derbyshire or the pure invention of the noted vicar Thomas Keble. Being the brother of the more famous John of the Oxford movement it is fairly obvious that establishing such a custom fell into the remit of the Anglo-Catholic views they espoused. Certainly, the legend over the well was carved to cause controversy being a Catholic inscription of the version in the Common Book of Prayer.

The Reverend Keble repaired or built the well house, perhaps also giving the Seven springs name and having done so much effort thought it would be an excellent idea to celebrate this annually. Little appears to have recorded from this earliest day and the first mention of it is from Skyring Walters who’s 1928, Ancient Wells, Springs and Holy Wells of Gloucestershiresadly does not delve too deeply into their history and spends more time discussing Tissington.

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Bisley Boys (and Girls)

“The ceremony still has much traditional atmosphere unlike many of the Derbyshire well-dressings which are becoming more like floral art displays for tourists.”

Such states Laurence Hunt (1994) in Some Ancient Wells, Springs and Holy Wells of the Cotswolds in Source and I completely agree. One of the reasons why the Bisley dressings feel unique is the procession. Many Derbyshire well dressings have a brass band, so do Bisley, ably provided by Avening Brass Band, all have their clergy, but few possibly none carry the well dressings or have them carried by costumed children. These children are dressed in traditional Victorian Tudor blue coats and smocks for the girls. Joining them this year where two children from the twin town in Brittany with traditional Breton children’s dress. They carry the dressings because unlike those of Derbyshire they are wrapped in garland frames with moss and inserted flower heads made by a cross generational team of children, parents and grandparents. I was told that they take a day or so to make, which of course is shorter than that of Derbyshire, but they are no less picturesque or effective.

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Head from the spring head

There was short service in the Parish church, I decided as the sun was shining to listen from outside bathing in the bright sunshine. Then at around two the children appeared and collected their well garlands and after some to-ing and fro-ing to get those letters in the right order…ACSENSINO being an interesting word but not right! Then off they went following the brass band downhill to the wells.

At the wells, the two Star of Davids were attached to the front of the well house and the individual flower letters spelling ASCENSION were raised and an attached between each arch and in the middle the traditional flower letters and numbers AD 2014.

The other children and indeed some adults laid small posies in the long trough around the wells base, perhaps the most primitive of responses..ensuring that everyone in the village could commemorate this once valuable water source.

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At the well head, soon a large crowd assembled around and here on a small stage, the vicar, The Reverend Rosie Woodhall, read a watery reading of the Benedicite which ended with the fitting:

“O ye Wells, bless ye the Lord : praise him, and magnify him forever.”

The congregation sang and the wells were blessed and then a bit like a rock star, the vicar left the stage climbed back up the hill and disappeared out of view, which I thought a little strange,…perhaps the banter that I often expect from vicars at these events happened in the church above. Nevertheless, 2013 was the 150th anniversary and despite the rain that day, nothing appears to dampen the village’s desire to celebrate the wells and its 2014 celebration was a delightful remembrance of not only a once important source of water but a great vicar in the history of the Church.

Find out when its on

Calendar Customs …no specific site but there is a post on well dressing http://calendarcustoms.com/articles/well-dressing/and of course http://welldressing.com is your first port of call for all things well dressing naturally!

Copyright Pixyledpublications

Customs revived: Calder Valley Spaw Sunday

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In the book, Martyrs, maypoles and Mayhem Quentin Cooper and Paul Sullivan (1994) report:

“the celebrations were revived briefly in 1987, and the well in Cragg Vale near Hebden Bridge was decorated with flowers and branches. Several Morris teams turned up, everyone took a gulp of the liquorice infused water, and a great time was had by all. In 1988 however, the first Sunday in May suffered appalling weather: the booked Morris teams cried off, and the tradition was dead before the morning was out. It remained dormant ever since. “

Such can happen to revivals, but then in 2010 it was reborn again. But in this case you wait for one folk custom to be revived and you get two, for at the same time, Midgley resurrected their Spaw Sunday. In a good piece of organisation because the Midgley event is undertaken in the morning and that of Cragg Vale in the afternoon, allowing the custom junkie to attend two on the same day and not wait another 365 days!

Spring into action        

May Day or more precisely May Eve was often when the waters of local holy wells and springs were seen as particularly powerful in their properties. A custom linked to this was Spaw Sunday, the first Sunday in May, which was clearly a clever way to both legitimise a ‘pagan’ tradition by placing it on a Sunday and allow people not to miss work! Large congregations of people would visit these springs to take the water even though in some cases it takes and smelled pretty horrendous! The custom was found in Northern counties, but its stronghold was Yorkshire and in particular the Calder Valley.

Water a walk!

Midgley is a small hamlet above the larger town of Mythmolroyd. I decided to arrive by train and walk to Midgley. What a walk, passing the world famous clog factory and equally famous Calder Valley High School (of Pace Egging fame), I climbed higher and higher…only feeling better when I turned to see an elderly man a few feet ahead steaming full speed ahead! If he can do it, so can I! I overtook him with a sort of pride and glee which I should have had and after about 40 minutes reached Midgley. A sign proudly proclaimed Spaw Sunday and asking around I was directed to the old Pound where the walk would begin at 11.00.

There I found two girls setting up their dressing. They pottered about moving things here, moving them there…a career at the Chelsea flower show perhaps beckons. As 11 arrived, I was feeling a bit self conscious as no one appeared to there…then soon, three, four, ten, twenty and finally around forty people turned up.

We were given a warm welcome by the chairman of the community forum and a very informative discussion of animal pounds by the two girls. After they finished, we all followed our standard bearer to the next well. Here set up with a colourful maypole we were carolled by two local singers and down we went to the main Town well along the high street where a delightful comical poem was recited.

So far the walk had been an easy and relaxing pace on flat surfaces or down hill, now we turned upwards to the moor! A few walkers fell by the wayside but they missed a fine view of the valley and the remaining wells after returning to high street. At the end the assembled mass visit the community centre where the plan was to partake in dock pudding.

Midgley Spaw Sunday 2013 (119)Midgley Spaw Sunday 2013 (95)Midgley Spaw Sunday 2013 (187)

What’s up dock!

Dock pudding is a local delicacy, but not this year. Although it was promised as an après walk, the thick snows of January through to March had prevented it from sprouting and possibly for the first time even the world famous dock pudding championship was cancelled. Never mind I did have to return back to Mytholmroyd although the journey back was 10 times easier and 100 times quicker it felt.

Midgley is one of those hamlets where the local communities have changed, being so close to Manchester it has like other areas become a dormitory town for commuters…however now it seems that this commuter community is retired and fortunately keen to spend time again in their community and revive traditions which made it unique.

The origins of this custom is unclear, one of the organisers suggested an observance of it occurred in the 1970s and possibly 80s, The Bords sacred waters from 1984 say recently revived, but they were unaware whether this was a survival or revival. This custom consists of the dressing of the well and springheads of the small hamlet with banners and a wide range of flowers, objects and artwork. In the morning there was a perambulation around there were poems and recitations are consisted.

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What is unusual about Midgley’s Spaw Sunday is that no-one drank the water and the other side this was still undertaken and I was interested to see this. I spoke to the lady who wrote the article in The Guardian which directed my attention to revival the custom. She drunk some of the sulphur water at Cragg Vale and well…she was still alive. It was worth a go and I had packed my liquorice especially so off I went..

A Spa-rtan history?

The most famous of these was Cragg Vale which has a history dating back at least 300 years or details are scant. It certainly could be older but we cannot be sure. The earliest reference dates from 1789 in Watson’s History of Halifax Parish, and the custom was apparently to adorn the well with boughs and flowers and whether it was drink is unclear.  The height of its popularity was in the late 19th and early 20th with numbers being up to the 100s! In the Telegraph and Argus of 7th May 1909 there was the following report on Spa Sunday:

“’Spa’ Sunday, specially favoured in point of weather, was as popular as ever on the hills surrounding the town.  The Hebden Bridge Brass Band were out early, and discoursed music on the Erringden hillside.  Blackstone Edge and Cragg Vale were as usual visited by hundreds of people.”

Sam Hellowell’s History of Cragg Vale (1959) records in 1913:

“It being a nice day the crowd during the afternoon was a very large one, being many hundreds in excess of last year’s and the scene was of an animated character.  Testing the pungent water was much more generally observed than formerly.  The scene, however, contrasted very favourably compared with the very rough and rowdy conduct of generations gone by.  The local branch of the Independent Labour Party was represented with speakers.  The Hebden Bridge Brass Band was also present, as was the Steep Lane Mission Band.”

The Cragg Vale Spaw Sunday died out in the 1940s probably during the War. A revival in 1987 as noted above was short lived and consequently, the Spa spring itself became effectively lost falling like many sites in ruin and becoming forgotten out of site and mind.  This was until 2009 when the site was cleared, cleaned and new steps provided with a landscaped surrounding. Then on the first May in Sunday, 1st May 2010, it was again revived. Fortunately, nothing appears to have affected the custom since its revival in 2011. The present revival consists of a procession to the spring from presently the Hinchcliffe Arms Inn with the Rippondale sword dancers and resident clergy. The spa is then blessed and water sprinkled and drunk with liquorice and cakes served.

Sulphur and brimstone

I arrived at the Hinchcliffe Arms at good time, everyone was congregating with cake. The token clergy arrived jolly and enthusiastic and soon, the sword dancers, curate and local residents formed a procession. Through the fields we went following the stream, back onto the main road and then back down to the bridge where the spring lay.

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Here everything went a little off message, as soon as we arrived, we were subjected to a piece of fire and brimstone…which included a dig at a green man carved in a piece of wood in the village. Interesting to see that the 2000 year old battle with paganism continues. In a way this oration was classic Spaw Sunday because in the 19th centuries as noted these gatherings were attended by a whole range of tub thumpers. However, then the bombshell was dropped. She had received a phone call that said that no-one could drink the water!! No! I was looking forward to the convoluted faces as they drank the water. Why? The locals put it down to possible contamination due to last year’s ferocious floods. This also meant that the scattering of water in the blessing was not to be done. Never mind at least we would still have the blessing and I positioned myself so that I could get a number of shots. However despite a detailed order with hymns and Caedmon’s prayer we were subjected to more brimstone when God was called upon to rededicate the spring. This in particularly annoyed one of those assembled who challenged this view….but perhaps that was fitting for Spaw Sunday with its history of reforming Labourites and Temperance adherents was all about debate and argument. Long may the revival continue!

– images copyright Pixyled Publications