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HOLY WELLS OF CUMBRIA
Copyright © 2008 Gill Edwards
HOLY WELLS OF CUMBRIA
In 2006, I became a co-founder of the Cumbria Holy Wells Trust – along with Eileen Palmer and Tim Sowton. The holy wells of Cornwall and Derbyshire are well-known, but those in the Lake District and Cumbria are largely undiscovered – yet we have some real gems in this county. If you live nearby, or are visiting the area – either as a tourist, or for one of Gill’s workshops – you might wish to make a pilgrimage to some of the holy wells.
After two years of research, our first booklet, Holy Wells of Cumbria, which lists our choice of the Top Twenty holy wells in Cumbria, is now available from local Tourist Information Centres, or at Gill’s Living Magically workshops. It includes colour photos of every well, directions and a location map, as well as some general information about holy wells. (Note: The majority of the wells lie in North Cumbria and the Eden Valley.)
Water is an ancient symbol of the flowing God-force within, or the divine feminine; and in the Celtic tradition, water was a gateway to the unseen realms, or Otherworld. In Britain, the Celts venerated wells and springs — many of which were later Christianised and dedicated to saints. Early churches were usually built on or near to holy wells, which were used for baptism and other ceremonies. Holy wells and springs were often renowned for their restorative, magical or healing properties — as well as their inspiring beauty and tranquillity. Traditionally, they would not dry up in the hottest of summers, and would never freeze in the winter. Many wells were associated with ceremony or ritual such as pilgrimage, well-dressing and tying rag ‘clouties’. All of these were practised in Cumbria, along with community traditions that endured into the 20th century such as Shaking Bottle Sunday. However, many of the wells have been lost in recent decades. The Cumbria Holy Wells Trust aims to research, locate and publicise the surviving holy wells of Cumbria, and to promote their restoration. Our research continues...
Here are a few examples of holy wells from the HOLY WELLS OF CUMBRIA booklet (which you can purchase below):
Location: Half way along Great Asby village green, on the river bank directly in front of St Helens Alms House. (Grid ref NY 682132. OS map 91.)
Description: St Helen’s well is beside the river. It bubbles up continuously and freely from the base of a stony basin into a stone dipping pool some 9 foot square. The water cascades out of the pool over boulders into Hoff Beck which flows through the centre of the village, giving the pleasing sound of the voice of the river in the background. The pool is surrounded by a stone wall, topped with curiously shaped pieces of limestone. An iron gate leads into the enclosure, which has a feeling of deep and ancient peace. (EP's mother had an aching back from gardening, which was relieved within minutes of sitting by this lovely pool.) There is good parking on the other side of the river, and a footbridge leads over. St Peter’s Church nearby was rebuilt in 1812; unusually it does not carry the same dedication and no information about the well is found there.
Great Asby well
Location: Humphrey Head, Lower Allithwaite, near Cartmel - South of the Lake District. Just beyond car park on beach. (Grid ref SD 390739. OS map 97.) Marked as Holy Well Spa on large-scale maps.
Description: Stone structure set in a cleft in the cliff of Humphrey Head — a womb-like green setting, enclosed by hawthorn. Water spurts constantly from a small spout in the stonework. A warning sign above the spout reads ‘Danger — do not drink’, and the area is rather unkempt. The water tastes slightly salty. The aquifer is the source of the famous holy well of Cartmel Priory, renowned for its healing powers from the 1700s. The water is now bottled locally in Flookburgh as Willow Water, and is known to contain salicin — produced by rainwater washing through strata of white willow bark, built up over centuries. Salicin is used in making aspirin. Locals used to flock to the farmer’s field to drink from the spring after reports spread of its healing qualities. One Shetland pony in the field lived to the ripe old age of 47!
Humphrey Head well
Location: In village of Kirkandrews-on-Eden, in the Eden Valley. (Grid ref NY 354585. OS map 85.) *
Description: Known as St Andrew’s Well. Walk through the old graveyard, follow the footpath to the left of the yew tree down the hill. There is a spring to the right of a fenced bank. Follow the sound of bubbling water to the left of the fenced bank where the well lies. Enter a green and wooded womb surrounded by the sound of running water. The water wells up from the earth, where it forms a continuously replenishing brown pool which cascades into the corner of a stone trough forming a deep well of sweet water. The well was said to be ‘not affected by the most intense frost or the longest drought.’ Wellies needed — magical and enchanting woodland, but seriously squelchy mud.
Location: Eden Valley – between Ainstable and Staffield. Go about 400 yards along footpath signposted ‘Dale’, following field boundary. Well is up grassy slope to left. (Grid ref NY 37432. OS map 86.) Marked as Well on large-scale maps.
Description: Very atmospheric and peaceful — a wonderful site where you will wish to linger. The well is hidden in the hillside up and to the left of the public footpath (signposted ‘Dale’). Follow the field boundary wall and after 200 yards there appears to be ruins of an old well house on the left. There is a second, small walled spring here. Boulders farther up the hillside mark the well site, which is hidden from the footpath. The well-head is surrounded by blocks of Eden stone. Water rises into a circular stone trough, then bubbles quietly down beneath moss-covered boulders to an oval pond in a dip in the hillside. Clumps of iris flourish between the well and the pond. Sentinel stones of red sandstone surround the hollow in which the well is hidden. Beyond them are the green, gently rounded hills and woodlands that characterise the Eden Valley. A place of quiet simplicity, great power and beauty — well worth a visit. (This is definitely one of my favourite wells – Gill.)
The Holy Wells of Cumbria booklet is available from our Living Magically office for £4 including postage - or £3 if bought at Living Magically workshops, or at local Tourist Info Centres and bookshops.