Back in the days when Lords had manors and Knights went on quests there lived a squire and his daughter. They were not rich but compared to most people they were not poor. Home was a small manor house at Whitstone near Bovey Tracey. The Squire’s daughter was a beautiful girl who spent her time walking the old moorland tracks. One day whilst walking along Furzleigh Lane she met an old hermit who lived in a small, dark cave. He was well known in the area for being a man of letters and a healer. The townsfolk, both rich and poor would often visit him with their ailments most of which he cured with the help of herbs and potions. Over time the Squire’s daughter became a frequent visitor to the cave where she and the hermit would talk for hours on end. He would tell her of distant lands and of kings and saints. He taught her many things including the art of healing and herbal lore. One day during one of her lessons a young knight from nearby Crownley called on the hermit, he had a wound that wouldn’t heal and wished to seek help. The hermit told the girl to attend to the knights wound which she obligingly did. As she applied a salve they both looked at each other and instantly but secretly fell in love. The knight was told to come back the next day to get his dressing changed. That night each in their own beds they looked at the huge moon and dreamed of meeting again at the hermits cave.
Morning came and hurriedly the girl got out of bed, she went to the basin to wash and to her horror she saw huge white spots all up her arms. Her first thought was that she had caught leprosy and so she immediately went to the hermit for help. As she approached the cave the old man could see she was in distress and asked what was the matter. She wept bitterly as she showed him her arms and implored him to tell her if she had the dreaded disease. The hermit reassured her it was not leprosy but it was salt-rheum (an old term used describe skin complaints) and with the help of prayer and herbs he could cure the problem. Having put her mind at rest he sent her home and told her to return in the morning when he would have prepared some medicine for her cure.
The old hermit gathered his medicine bag and made off up towards the moor. On his way he met the young knight who asked where he was going. The old sage related what had happened and explained he was going to collect the necessary herbs for the Squire’s daughters cure. The knight was alarmed at the story and offered to accompany the hermit to help collect the plants and herbs.
The next day the girl arrived at the cave to find that the healer had prepared a decoction for her to drink and a salve for her to smear onto her arms. It was obvious to the hermit that both the girl and the knight were in love with each other but that neither of them realised that the feeling was mutual so he also gave her a small pot of honey. This he explained must be taken to Ashwell Spring each morning where a spoonful must be added to a fresh pitcher of the well water and then drunk. Having done so for a week her skin problems would have been cured. He then told her to go home and take the medicine he had prepared. Shortly after she had gone the knight arrived at the cave, he had come to get his dressings changed. Having done so the hermit then told the young man that although his wound had nearly healed he must, starting from the following day, go to Ashwell Spring every morning to drink ‘sweet water’, this he could get from a young lady who would also be at the well. The following day was Palm Sunday and after church the girl and the knight made their separate ways up to the well. As the hermit had planned they both explained why they were there. The following conversation soon led them to telling each other of their true feelings and realising that they were both in love they agreed to get married.
After getting the Squire’s permission for the wedding a date was fixed for 12 months time on the Thursday after Easter. The time flew by and before they knew it they were stood at the altar getting married. The church was packed with local well wishers and the old hermit had ventured down from his cave to see the results of his handywork. The couple lived a long and happy life and were great benefactors to the people.
Since that day, on every Palm Sunday the young people of Bovey Tracey met and drank sweetened water at the spring, mainly for health reasons but also in search of prospective partners.
Tregoning, 1993, pp.85-6 states that the tradition of drinking ‘sweetened water’ at Ashwell Spring carried on well into the 1880’s as it is on record that the Landlord of the Bell Inn would on Palm Sunday take a party of young people up to the spring to drink the water mixed with honey. This was done to ward off infections of the skin and to give a clear healthy complexion to the youngsters. He also notes that the Ashwell Spring is now covered over and until the late 90’s flowed down into St. Mary’s Well.
Faull, T. 2004 Secrets of the Hidden Source, Halsgrove, Tiverton.
Kennedy, V. 2004 The Bovey Book, Cottage Publishing, Bovey Tracey.
Tregoning, L. 1993 Bovey Tracey an Ancient Town, Cottage Publishing, Bovey Tracey.