Tag Archives: Holy Wells

Custom contrived: Blessing Speen’s Lady Well, Berkshire

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“This well is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, after whom the church is also dedicated.  However, the spring around which the well was built is much earlier than the church, and it may have been a sacred spring renowned for healing powers in pre-Christian times.  The present well was constructed in the mediaeval period, and restored in 1902 in celebration of the coronation of Edward VII.”

The wording we have used in recent years to announce the Blessing

Berkshire is not over endowed with calendar customs so when you hear of a new one (new to you that is) it is good. Considering this is associated with a holy well, which hopefully you may be aware I blog about as well (see here in March) even more good to hear. New church customs can be transitory in their nature and sometimes do not survive the enthusiasm of the vicar who often are responsible for re-founding or inventing them. This one although details are scant appears to have survived  a number of vicars.

The Lady’s day

 

Every year the service is done near or at the church’s Patronal Festival, this being the 15th August, which is the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The custom has been undertaken for decades however the exact date of its foundation could not be found.

The Newbury Weekly News on the 17th August 2010 stated

“Parishioners of Speen turned out in force on Sunday to continue the traditional blessing of the Lady Well at St. Mary’s church. Around 70 members of the congregation attended. Leading the procession was Rev Canon David Winter, followed by cross-bearer Alan Booth and incense-burner Derek Shailes. Church wardens Jane Burrell and Brian Nobles were also among the procession, which followed the patronal festival service at the church. Around 50 of those who attended also joined for a lunch to mark the blessing of the Lady Well, which is thought to date back before 452 A.D.”

The ceremony begun as noted with a procession following the cross-bearer out of the church and down the lane to the well its a short distance but enough for a decent procession. Here the well is dressed. However, don’t expect Derbyshire style attempts this is a delightful low key affair with posies and bunches of flowers.  The water is not forgotten and it is sprinkled amongst the congregation. Apparently before the last five years, the liturgy was dependent upon whoever was taking the service now it goes as follows:

INTRODUCTION  In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. All Amen  Our help is in the name of the Lord, All Who has made heaven and earth.  The Lord be with you. All And also with you.   

PSALM 65 1 Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion:  to you that answer prayer shall vows be paid.

  To you shall all flesh come to confess their sins;  when our misdeeds prevail against us,  you will purge them away.

 Happy are they whom you choose, And draw to your courts to dwell there.  We shall be satisfied with the blessings of your house, even of your holy temple.

 With wonders you will answer us in your righteousness, O God of our salvation, O hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.

 In your strength you set fast the mountains and are girded about with might.

 You still the raging of the seas, the roaring of their waves and the clamour of the peoples.

 Those who dwell at the ends of the earth tremble at your marvels; the gates of the morning and evening sing your praise.

 You visit the earth and water it; you make it very plenteous.

The river of God is full of water; you prepare grain for your people, for so you provide for the earth.

  You drench the furrows and smooth out the ridges; you soften the ground with showers and bless its increase.

 You crown the year with your goodness, and your paths overflow with plenty.

 May the pastures of the wilderness flow with goodness and the hills be girded with praise.

 May the meadows be clothed with flocks of sheep and the valleys stand so thick with corn that they shall laugh and sing.

 Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit;  as it was in the beginning is now and shall be for ever.  Amen.”

The blessing going as follows:

“BLESSING OF THE WATER   

 As St Francis prayed with great gratitude for Sister Water, so we too come in prayer to God today, full of thanks for the life-sustaining generosity of his wonderful gift of water.     In her mysterious beauty, water causes the desert to bloom.  Each tiny drop among countless thousands of other drops does its work to water seeds and plants, to provide harvests to feed us and all creatures, to quench our burning thirst.     Like the body of the earth, our bodies too are over three-quarters’ water.  We are a water people.  We are a water planet.     O compassionate Creator God, whose spirit breathed over the waters at the dawn of creation, we seek forgiveness for our mindless use of water, we beg for wisdom to understand better how to conserve and cherish water, we ask healing for the ways that we abuse and contaminate water.     And what we ask for the creation around us, we ask too for our inner lives.  We welcome the gentle rain of your grace into our souls.  Come free us from hatred, greed, fear and our lack of love for your gifts to us.  Refresh us and renew us with your living streams of water that we may flow green and moist with life, hope and love for all that you have made.     We make this prayer through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen

We bless this well in the name of God, the Father who created us, the Son who redeemed us, and the Spirit who overflows with life within is.  Amen”

Then the following hymn is sung:

“HYMN All creatures of our God and King, Lift up your voice and with us sing: Hallelujah, hallelujah! Thou burning sun with golden beam, Thou silver moon with softer gleam: O praise Him, O praise Him, Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!

Thou rushing wind that art so strong, Ye clouds that sail in heaven along, O praise Him, hallelujah! Thou rising morn, in praise rejoice, Ye lights of heaven, find a voice: O praise Him, O praise Him, Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!

Thou flowing water, pure and clear, Make music for thy Lord to hear, Hallelujah, hallelujah! Thou fire so masterful and bright, That givest man both warmth and light: O praise Him, O praise Him, Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!

Let all things their Creator bless, And worship Him in humbleness, O praise Him, hallelujah! Praise, praise the Father, praise the Son, And praise the Spirit, Three-in-One: O praise Him, O praise Him, Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!”

All in all a great evocative holy well and it is great to see that it is still celebrated by its community.

Church Warden Jane Burrell, and obtained some photos about the annual service which is enacted there each here.

Custom demised: Visiting Downpatrick’s wells on Midsummer’s Eve, County Down

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Midsummer is a time often associated with visiting wells. In the July 1817 Hibernian Magazine it is reported:

“At Struel, near Downpatrick, there is a ceremony commencing at twelve o’clock at night on Midsummer Eve. Its sacred mount is consecrated to St. Patrick ; the plain contains three wells, to which the most extraordinary virtues are attributed.”

The account continues:

“Here and there are heaps of stones, around some of which appear great numbers of people, running with
as much speed as possible ; around others crowds of worshippers kneel with bare legs and feet as an indispensable part of the penance. The men, without coats, with handkerchiefs on their heads instead of hats, having gone seven times round each heap, kiss the ground, cross themselves, and proceed to the hill ; here they ascend, on their bare knees, by a path so steep and rugged that it would too difficult to walk up. Many hold their hands clasped at the back of their necks, and several carry largo stones on their heads. Having repeated this ceremony seven times, they go to what is called St. Patrick’s Chair, which are two great flat stones fixed upright in the hill ; here they cross and bless themselves as they step in between these stones, and, while repeating prayers, an old man, seated for the purpose, turns them round on their feet three times, for which he is paid; the devotee then goes to conclude his penance at a pile of stones, named the Altar. “

The report concludes by stating:

“While this busy scene is continued by the multitude, the wells and streams Issuing from them arc thronged by crowds of halt, maimed, and blind, pressing to wash away their infirmities with water consecrated by their patron saint, and so powerful is the impression of its efficacy on their minds, that many of those who go to be healed, and who are not totally blind, or altogether crippled, really believe for a time that they are by means of its miraculous virtues perfectly restored.”

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Francis Dixon Hardy in his 1840 Holy Wells of Ireland provides greater details;

“About one mile and a half to the east of Downpatrick, and within about half a mile of Slieve-na-Grideal, one of the most celebrated of the ancient Pagan high places is a hill of about 150 feet of perpendicular elevation, called Struel Mountain, which remains uncultivated, producing a little mixture of grass and shamrock, with a few hawthorns, and an abundant crop of furze. At the foot of this hill, which is looked upon as holy ground, at about two miles distance, a monastery, built, as it is said, by St. Patrick and St. Bridget, formerly stood; near which is a well, bearing the name of the former saint, and supposed to possess extraordinary virtues, both in healing the diseases of the body, and in cleansing the pollutions of the soul; a sacred stream, supplied by this spring, runs unpolluted by any other stream until it arrives at Struel. It then flows through the consecrated plain, by a channel covered over with flags and large stones, and supplies in its course two of the four wells which it originally fed. Two of these wells, which are in a higher situation, appear to have been formed by hollowing out a little ground near the course of the rivulet; while the water enters the other two by spouts, having a fall of three feet into one, and six into the other. To these there are coverings in the form of sentry-boxes; the covering of the third is of the form and size of a moderate pig-sty; and that of the fourth is a kind of little cottage, consisting of two apartments.”

He continued rather disparagingly:

“To this place about one thousand people resort every midsummer, for the purpose of doing penance. They come from all parts of Ireland, and even from England and Scotland. Besides these, there is always a large crowd of spectators, amounting probably to another thousand. For the comfort and accommodation of both, a number of tents are erected in the plain, where whiskey is sold, and entertainment of every kind is afforded. The ceremonies commence upon the Sunday preceding, and commonly end upon the Sunday succeeding midsummer-day. As it is not necessary, however, that each penitent should continue here during all this period, few remain longer than one half of the week. The latter half seems to be regarded as the more holy; for the place is, during that time, more frequented, particularly on the last day, which is for that reason called “big Sunday.” No one appears to act as a general superintendent, but the multitudes appear to be left to themselves in submitting to the penance, and performing the ceremonies with which it is connected.”

Downpatrick Struell wells By Ardfern – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8104076

He continues:

“This portion of the penance being over, the penitents descend into the plain, where they move round certain cairns of stones, some crawling, and others running, as before. Each individual, however, must here carry a stone, which he adds to the heap. These cairns are in groups of seven and twelve, which respectively denote the days of the week, and the months of the year; or, as some will have it the seven churches and the twelve apostles. Around these they go seven times, or seven times seven, and twelve times, or twelve times twelve – measured as before by their various degrees of criminality. The next part of the ceremony is to proceed to the large well, termed the body-well, or, by some, the well of sins.  Before entering it, however, they approach with profound reverence a flag of freestone, which is placed in the wall, and is possessed of some peculiarly sanctifying powers. This they touch with their fingers, and then cross themselves repeatedly, and thus become prepared for the purifications of the holy wells. If they can afford a few pence of admission money, they may enter the larger well, where they have room to undress if not, they must content themselves with the second or limb-well, into which they are admitted free of expense, being obliged, however, to strip themselves in the adjoining fields. All modesty is here thrown aside. As they approach the well, they throw off even their undergarments, and with more than Lacedemonian indifference, before the assembled multitudes, they go forward in a state of absolute nudity, plunge in, and bathe promiscuously. After such immersion, they go through the ceremony of washing- their eyes, and conclude the whole by drinking from the fourth well, called by some the well of forgetfulness, and by others the water of life.”

Like many customs involving large numbers the side entertainments developed:

“Thus end the ceremonies of the day. Those of the evening follow, and form a remarkable contrast. The employments of the day seem to be considered as the labours of virtue, those of the evening are her rewards, by which they are amply compensated. Their eyes, after having been bathed in the sacred stream, instantly discover the flowery path of pleasure, which conducts them to the tents prepared for their reception, where they are supplied with copious draughts, of which the water of life was but a faint emblem. In these tents, and in the adjoining fields, under the canopy of a pure sky, they spend the whole night, quaffing the soul-inspiring beverage, and indulging in various gratifications to which the time and place are favourable; for it is understood, that while the jubilee continues, and as long as the happy multitudes remain on the sacred ground, they cannot contract new guilt.”

Sadly, no more, the springs remain but few people visit at Midsummer. They continued until the 19th century but a combination of a drop in water levels and prohibition of devotional exercises by the ecclesiastical authorities due to rowdy behaviour meant the custom slowly died out. People still visit the wells but perhaps the springs are now doomed as 2006 Environment and Heritage Service officials stated that the wells were drying up and two no longer contained water.

Custom demised: Visiting St. Helen’s Wells on St. Helen’s Feast Day

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After St. Mary or Our Lady, the greatest number of Holy wells across Britain are dedicated to St. Helen. St. Helen, the mother of the first Roman Emperor to adopt Christianity is a complex folklore figure and authorities have placed her birth at Colchester Essex where there is a well and chapel dedicated to her. It is reported that at Rushton Spencer in Staffordshire, processions were associated with the date 18th August, St. Helen’s Feast Day. Baines notes in his 1836 History of the County of Lancashire:

“Dr. Kuerden, in the middle of the seventeenth century, describing one in the parish of Brindle, says: ‘To it the vulgar neighbouring people of the Red Letter do much resort with pretended devotion, on each year upon St. Ellin’s Day, where and when, out of a foolish ceremony, they offer, or throw into the well, pins, which, there being left, may be seen a long time after by any visitor of that fountain.’”

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The Med. Mvi Kalend notes a similar custom was he states:

“observed some years ago by the visitors of St. Helen’s well in Sefton, but more in accordance with an indent ractice than from any devotion to the saint”

At Walton, near Weatherby, Yorkshire, villagers would also visit their St. Helen’s well whose water was said to be effective as a cure for many ailments on this day. A story is told that once the infamous highwayman Swift Nick Nevison was on St. Helen’s Day, found having fallen asleep after drinking from the well, but still alluded capture after an ill attempted capture attempt by some local youths!

Hatfield’s St Helen’s well – rags tied after a service at the well although now not on St Helen’s day!

In Great Hatfield, Yorkshire, there St. Helen’s Well was restored on the 18th August in 1995 and since then on or near the feast day, a service is held at the well. Perhaps not the same as the times of old, and although no one betakes of the water it clearly has become an important part of the spiritual landscape of the community.

Custom survived: May Dew collection, Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh

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“On May-day in a fairy ring We’ve seen them, round St. Anthon’s spring, Frae grass the caller dew-drops wring, To wet their ein, And water clear as crystal spring, To synd them clean.”

Poet Robert Fergusson

Go to bed or stay up all night?

After experiencing the dizzy delights of Edinburgh’s Beltane I had to make a decision to wait a few hours or go to sleep and wake up early – the sunrise

Now the second decision how long does it take to get to the summit:

The usage of May Dew is a well-know custom across the country but the only place which appears to still entertain it is Edinburgh. An account in:

“At Edinburgh about four o’clock in the morning there is an unusual stir; and a hurrying of gay throngs through the King’s Park to Arthur’s Seat to collect the May-dew. In the course of half an hour the entire hill is a moving mass of all sorts of people. At the summit may be seen a company of bakers and other craftsmen, dressed in kilts, dancing round a maypole. On the more level part is usually an itinerant vendor of whisky, or mountain (not May) dew. These proceedings commence with the daybreak. About six o’clock the appearance of the gentry, toiling up the ascent, becomes the signal for servants to march home; for they know that they must have the house clean and everything in order earlier than usual on May-morning. About eight o’clock the fun is all over; and by nine or ten, were it not for the drunkards who are staggering towards the ‘gude town,’ no one would know that anything particular had taken place.”

Dew you know why?

Peter Opie in his 1964 article for Folklore, Proposals for a Dictionary, Arranged on Historical Principles, of English Traditional Lore did the sterling task of assembling all the information on May Dew and saw four principle themes develop:

“Used a medicament, cosmetic or telling the future. 1602 PLAT Delights for Ladies (1611 H 8 b). Some commend May-dew gathered from Fennell and Celandine, to be most excellent for sore eyes. c. 1691 AUBREY Nat. Hist. Wiltshire (1847, 73). May dewe is a very great dissolvent of many things with the sunne that will not be dissolved any other way: which putts me in mind of the rationality of the method  used by Wm. Gore, of Clapton, Esq., for his gout, which was to walke in the dewe with his shoes pounced; he found benefit by it. I told Mr. Wm. Mullens, of Shoe Lane, Chirurgion, this story, and he sayd this was the very method and way of curing that was used in Oliver Cromwell, Protectour. I808 JAMIESON Scottish Dict. Rude [Northern Scotland]. Great virtue is ascribed to May-dew. Some, who have tender children, particularly on Rude-day [3 May], spread out a cloth to catch the dew, and wet them in it. 1850 Notes & Queries Ist Ser. II 475. They say [Launceston, Corn wall] that a child who is weak in the back may be cured by drawing him over the grass wet with the morning dew. The experiment must be thrice performed, that is, on the mornings of the Ist, 2nd, and 3rd of May. 1883 BURNE Shropshire Folk-Lore 19o. I knew a little idiot boy whose mother (fancying it was weakness of the spine which prevented him from walking) took him into the fields ‘nine mornings running’ to rub his back with May-dew. She explained that the dew had in it all the ‘nature’ of the spring herbs and grasses, and that it was only to be ex pected that it should be wonderfully strengthening. 2. Used as a cosmetic. 1667 PEPYS Diary 28 May. After dinner my wife away down with Jane and W. Hewer to Woolwich, in order to a little ayre and to lie there to-night, and so to gather May-dew to-morrow morning, which Mrs. Turner hath taught her as the only thing in the world to wash her face with; and I am contented with it. 1791 Morning Post 2 May. Yesterday, being the first of May, ac cording to annual and superstitious custom, a number of persons went into the fields and bathed their faces with the dew on the grass, under the idea that it would render them beautiful. [Brand I, 1813, 184.] 1850 Notes & Queries Ist Ser. II 475. The common notion of im proving the complexion by washing the face with the early dew in the fields on the Ist of May extensively prevails in these parts [Launceston, Cornwall]. 1952 Opie Schoolchild MS (458/2/47) Girl 14 Kirkcaldy. On the first of May you wash your face in the dew and have a good complexion all year round. 3. Considered especially efficacious when gathered from hills and/ or before sunrise. 1626 BACON Sylva Sylvarum ? 781. I suppose that he who would  gather the best May-Deaw, for Medicine, should gather it from the Hills.. 4. The rite of gathering or ‘washing’ in May-dew considered auspicious….. c. 1900oo Maclagan MS (BANKS Cal. Cus. II 224). On the first day of May girls went to wash their faces in the dew and wish before sunrise while doing this they name some lad and wish in their own mind that he may become their sweetheart and they get their wish. 1952 Opie Schoolchild MS (476/9/16) Girl 14 Aberdeen. It is said to be lucky to wash your face in the early morning dew on the first of May. 1957 Opie Schoolchild MS (999a/6/3i) Girl ii Penrith. On the first of May you wash your face in the dew and you are supposed to marry the first man you meet.”

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Despite claims that it died out in 1930, there has been reference to it since. For F. Marian McNeill in 1968 notes in ‘The Silver Bough Volume Four that:

“the May dew, in a word, was the ‘holy water’ of the Druids. Those on whom it was sprinkled were assured of health and happiness and, tradition has it, where young women were concerned, of beauty as well, throughout the ensuing year. To this day, all over Scotland numbers of young girls rise before dawn on the first of May and go out to the meadow or hillside to bathe their faces in the dew.”

McNeill (1968) highlights Arthur’s Seat stating that it:

“….is a favourite meeting place, and nearby is St. Anthony’s Well, to which many used to resort to “wish-a-wish” on this auspicious day. This picturesque survival of the old pagan rites, together with the Christian service on the summit of the hill, draws hundreds of people to the site. As dawn approaches, numbers of young girls dally on the slopes of Arthur’s Seat, laughing and chattering as they perform the immemorial rite, and are regarded with amused tolerance by the majority of the arrivals as they climb to the summit to join in the Sunrise Service.”

By the 1940s a service had developed on the summit. The 1961 Glasgow Herald of the 2 May  recorded:

“About 1000 people climbed Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh, yesterday to take part in the twenty-first May Day sunrise service, and to follow the old tradition of washing their faces in the morning dew.”

Certainly, several photos survive showing women washing their faces taken in the 1960s, in 1963 a 1000 climbed to reach there at 5.18 am and the Scotsman shows various photos in 1965 showing girls washing their face. By the late 80s it was still attracting reporters but numbers had dwindled to hundreds. Was it lost? Undoubtedly, there would be enough people turning up to warrant a commercial exploitation as the Scotsman added in 2008 in an article if you do one thing this week:

“Pop along to the car park near the foot of Arthur’s Seat, by the Palace of Holyroodhouse, at 10am on Thursday and you’ll find therapists from Serenity in the City spa uniting new and old beauty traditions. The first ten people to arrive will get a free ILA energy spray mist gift (worth 35) – and if having a wash in the dew isn’t for you, pop along to the spa for a facial.”

Dew going up?

It would appear that at least knowledge of it still survived. I had combined my visit with attendance to the Beltane fire festival on Carlton Hill which finished at 1! Working out on the map that it would take 1 or so to walk and that dawn was around 5.30 it I set my alarm clock at 3.30!

Arthur’s seat was cloaked in darkness when I arrived but I was not alone. On the way up I noticed St Anthony’s Well marked by a small round stone basin and a large stone.  This was the site also associated with May dew as in 1773 Edinburgh poet Robert Fergusson and others later noted above. I peered inside it was dry. Once I had reached the top there was a small group of around 10 people of varying ages. The skies were cloudy but then at that moment the clouds cleared and a red orb could be seen.

Dew want to?

I kept making enquiries and was met by a blank stare. The majority of people on the seat appeared to be tourists of one sort or another me included. Perhaps the custom was extinct? However, a small group of local women I met on the way up, I asked were aware of it and one said I did it last year…but wouldn’t this year as I cannot be sure if it was dew or due to a dog. It seemed an odd rationale and maybe it was tinged with some degree of regret. Did it not work?

What dew looking for? 

Then I saw a lady and her husband walking down from the peak looking towards the floor. When she brushed her hand against some grass I knew what she was up to. I rushed down and she confirmed it…we looked together and there appeared a patch which she rubbed both hands over and then across her cheeks gleefully.

A few moments later I asked another lady and she said she was planning to. I offered to help. Strangely, like everything when you are looking for it you just cannot find it. We looked, inspected, crouched, brushed…no. To be honest there isn’t much grass at the summit. Walking down a bit there was a large patch of grass and mossy…she touched it and excitedly full of glees, said ‘yes here’s some’ then at that point she plunged her hands onto it rubbed it up and down and smiling applied. Her companion, her aunt also obliged. ‘I didn’t do it last year and felt ugly all year’ she said.

All this bizarreness was overlooked by some American tourists fresh over from Utah. I explained to them and they too become eager to find some. First they tried a small patch below the trig point…one said she couldn’t be sure it was wet might be just cold. I said about the patch I’d found and quickly they popped down and jumped into the crevice where the mossy grass lay. ‘This is it…it’s wet’ and duly or should I say dewly did it all over again. Laughing and finding the whole thing amusing and who wouldn’t.

Dew drop!

On the way down I meet a fair number of people going up – most of them attendees of the Carlton Hill event – perhaps it was more tradition just to come up rather than see the dawn!

More bizarrely my eye cast to St. Anthony’s Well it was now full of water. Dew? Mysterious source? Or something emptying the water bottle? Perhaps that had become a tradition in its own right?

So if you are on Arthur’s Seat on May Morning worth a go…it might even work!

Custom demised: Fig Sunday

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Palm Sunday known locally as Fig Sunday was a minor hamlet festival. Sprays of soft gold and silver willow catkins called ‘palm’ in that part of the country, were brought indoors to decorate the houses and worn as buttonholes for churchgoing. The children of the house loved fetching in the palm …..better still they loved the old custom of eating figs on Palm Sunday. Some of the more expert cooks among the women would use these to make fig puddings for dinner.’

Flora Thompson Lark Rise to Candleford

Fig Sunday was an alternative name for Palm Sunday and it appears to have been observed as a custom across the country. It is noted that at one point it was observed in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Dorset, Wiltshire, Northampton and North Wales. In Hertfordshire it is recorded in the village of Kempton:

“It has long been the custom for the people to eat figs – keep warsel! – and make merry with their friends on Palm Sunday. More figs are sold in the shops on the few days previous to the festival than in all the year beside.”

In Buckinghamshire it is noted that:

“At Edlesborough, Buckinghamshire, the children procure figs and nearly every house has a fig- pudding.”

In Dunstable, Bedfordshire:

“For some days beforehand the shop windows of the neighbouring town are full of figs and on Palm Sunday crowds go to the top of Dunstable Downs, one of the highest points of the neighbourhood, and eat figs.”  

In the 1912 Byways in British Archaeology by Walter Johnson he observes that a:

 “Ceremony was carried out on Palm Sunday by the villagers of Avebury, Wiltshire, who mounted the famous Silbury Hill, there to eat fig cakes and drink sugar and water. The water was procured from the spring below, known as the Swallow Head.”

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The author observes that real figs were often replaced by raisins as they were in the west of England and Wessex.

Why figs?

“when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet.”

The Gospel of St Mark

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Palm Sunday is so called from the custom of eating figs on that day but why them? The main claim is that on Christ’s entrance to city on Palm Sunday he cursed a fig tree for not having any fruit, a barren tree, being hungry he then cursed it. Another claim is that the practice arose from the Bible story of Zaccheus, who climbed up into a fig-tree to see Jesus.

Sadly although a few food bloggers might promote fig pudding making on the day, Fig Sunday as a community custom has long ceased.

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.