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Saturday, 30 May 2015

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The search for West Cumbria’s holy wells

Alan Cleaver peers into Cumbria's holy wells...

Gosforth holy well: This lies about half a mile east of the church. It has a rather ugly metal cover and is fenced off. The other fencing marks the boundary of a small chapel that used to exist on the site

IT’S hard to imagine the days before tap water. Being able to turn on a tap at any time of the day or night and have clean drinking water pour out of it non-stop is considered almost a necessity today.

But turn the clock back a little over a hundred years and clean, healthy, accessible water was hard to come by.
In many rural areas, water came from springs – also called wells – and had to be carried home. (In urban areas communal fountains were often provided by the council). These springs of fresh water were vitally important and it’s perhaps not surprising that some became imbued with magical qualities.
Legends of the water never freezing or running dry became associated with some of them. Others were linked with healing or magical qualities. And some became associated with a particular Saint, for example St Catherine’s Holy Well in Eskdale.
These ‘holy wells’ became more shrines than simply sources of drinking water. And on various festivals and holy days (such as May Day) the local community would hold some celebration at the well. In Derbyshire and other parts of the north, this would often include well-dressing, where elaborate floral decorations would be set up around the well. The Derbyshire tradition continues to flourish but in Cumbria and many other regions the tradition and even location of holy wells are in danger of being lost.
It’s a far cry from the 19th century when the danger was that such holy well traditions were actually proving too popular.
At Clifton, near Penrith, the first Sunday after Ascension was known as Shaking Bottle Sunday, or Sugar Water Sunday. The nearby Clifton Well was decorated with flowers and its water mixed in bottles with some sugar to make a sweet drink. But the celebrations grew year on year until by 1824 – when they included wrestling and cock-fighting – they were banned by the Bishop of Penrith.
Curiously the location of many ‘lost’ holy wells are only known about today because the wells fell into disfavour with the local church who tried to destroy or ban the use of the wells – their precise location then being marked in church records.
Mixing spring water with sugar or liquorice provided local children with a cheap treat – in effect, an early version of Coca Cola! It was also known as Spanish water, or just ‘Spanish’.
Despite the popularity of holy wells, the arrival of tap water saw these wells quickly forgotten, neglected and even built over. St Nicholas’ Well in Carlisle was lost when the railway was built over it.
In many parts of the country, holy wells have been restored and have become popular tourist spots and helped preserve a valuable part of our history. Only Stanger Spa in West Cumbria has been rescued to date but it would be nice to see more made of the likes of Gosforth holy well.
Various attempts have been made to catalogue the wells before they vanish completely. Here we list some of West Cumbria’s more famous holy wells. If you can name any more, do let us know:
St Catherine’s Well, Eskdale
ST Catherine’s Well in the magnificent Eskdale Valley appears to have been the host of an annual fair known as the Dogskin fair, held on the Saint’s day (November 25). Further details have proved elusive, but there may be some connection with the Catty Fair held at St Catherine’s Church on the same day. Then, yarn used to be hung on the churchyard wall. The well is less than quarter of a mile from the church, and it is unlikely the area supported two fairs on the same day.
Legend has it that in the Sixth Century a hermit lived on Arment Hill – quarter of a mile east of the parish church of Saint Catherine. People used to travel miles to seek his prayers and healing.
St Catherine’s Well was excavated by the Cumberland and Westmorland Archaeological and Antiquities Society in 1925, under the auspices of Mary Fair.
For a while the well water was used for baptisms but within a few years of the excavation, it had once more become overgrown.
Its precise location is now unclear but Eskdale’s Local History Society is holding a holy well walk on Monday, March 29 when it is hoped the site will be rediscovered. If you wish to join the walk, it starts at 6.30pm from St Catherine’s Church, Eskdale.
Holy Well
THE well at Gosforth is still visible today. It is situated about half a mile from the church.
A tradition was recorded in 1884 from a former tenant of Gosforth Hall, West Cumbria, that at certain festivals (not specified) wine was poured in to a well and the people were encouraged to catch it as it came out of the spout – though it must have been well diluted by then. At the time this story was told, the location of the well was lost. Old maps showed the ruins of a chapel about a half mile away from the present church, with the site of the well marked by it, but the well’s position was added to the maps as a matter of tradition; there was no actual well on the site marked. It was only found again when the ruins of the chapel were excavated in 1901, for there was the well in the middle of the chapel, which was built symmetrically around the sacred spring. Today the ruins are virtually overgrown again, but the well is topped by a concrete slab with an inspection cover.
The water remains beautifully clear and the original stone work inside the well is still visible. A well at Bothel was said to have run blood on the day of Charles I’s ‘martyrdom’; this may be a memory of a similar kind of ceremony to the one at Gosforth.

Stanger Spa
STANGER Spa, near Cockermouth, is perhaps the most prominent spring still surviving thanks to some restoration work by the Cockermouth And District Civic Trust in 2000, which preserved the building surrounding it.
The well is a couple of miles south of Cockermouth and easily reached via a public footpath.
A plaque on the well records that the water was so famed for its curative properties in the mid-1800s that it was sold at 6d a bottle. However by 1901, Bulmer’s History and Directory of Cumberland reported that the well “is now very little frequented”.
Physical or Physika Well
REFERENCE is made in Frizington Remembers by residents of Greenvale Court of a holy well near the village. “Walks to Dub Beck at the foot of Steele Brow or to physical or physika well were popular during the summer holidays” the book relates.


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