Right across Europe, and probably beyond, there are places were water is held to be sacred. Offerings are left, and prayers said. In England there are hundreds, possibly thousands of holy wells dotted through the landscape, often neglected and overgrown. Hundreds more have been lost.
There are hundreds, too, in Scotland, Wales and especially Ireland, where a much higher proportion are still in regular use.
In many places, rags, handkerchiefs or clothes are tied to the trees above or around the well. The sympathetic-magic idea about this custom is that as the rag rots away, so does your illness. This seems to be an incredibly widespread custom - I have seen rag-trees in Armenia (though not associated with wells) and come across referneces from as far afield as Tuva in central Asia.
There is a fast-increasing body of people studying and reclaiming this forgotten part of our common inheritance. The best selection of resources can be found here: Holy Wells.
I now have here a digital version of Hardy's 'Holy Wells of Ireland', from the mid-19th century. This is a fascinating and rare little book, and although written from a vituperatively protestant perspective, offers many insights. It focuses chiefly on the pilgrimage to and stations at the sanctuary of Lough Derg in Donegal.
Below is a selection from the photographs of wells that I have taken over many years, organised vaguely geographically. These are thumbnails - clicking on them will take you to a larger image.
|Burton Dasset well, Warwickshire. A fine English well.|
|The well at Sancreed in Cornwall. One of the most atmospheric wells I've been to. Hidden away within a hedge, one climbs down into a dark chamber. The trees overhead are festooned with rags.|
|The Wizard's Well on Alderley Edge, Cheshire.
One can just see the picture of the wizard's face, and below, the insciption: 'Drink of this and take thy fill for the water falls by the wizhard's will'. Mysterious and undatable, it relates to the local legends famously retold by Alan Garner.
|This well, if such it is, is at the abbey of Strata Florida in mid-Wales. It's in a curious central position, just W of the main crossing. The official guide book just marks it 'of uncertain date' on the plan. Anyone got any ideas?|
|Clouties (rags) at the well of Munlochy, on the Black Isle.|
|St. Mungo's Well, built into a wall in the SE corner of Glasgow Cathedral. The way that the wall has been built around the well implies that the well must surely have been there first...|
|Doon well, Donegal. One of the most famous wells in Ireland. A circlular path is worn around the two thorn trees by the stations of pilgrims. Crutches have been left behind in thanks, as a sign of healing.|
|Struel wells, Co. Down.|
|In the beatiful setting of the Kloster Unser Liben Frauen in Magdeburg, this structure is claimed to be a well-house. It looks right, but, if so, the well itself has been paved over. Does anyone know any more???|
|Holy well above Sveti Ivan Rilksi, Rila.
This is not at the famous Rila monastery, but a few miles up the valley, where there is a chapel, this well and the "saint's cave", which is formed in a space under giant boulders. The station involves going up through the cave, climbing up an awkward chimney.
Last updated 7.7.09