With all the rivers, streams and brooks that issue from the high moor it is not surprising that there are numerous wells and springs dotted around the landscape. Mention the word ‘well’ and many people conjure up an image of a circular wall over which stands a roof with a windlass handle sticking out. Sadly on Dartmoor that is not always the case, in fact in most instances nothing could be further from the truth. The only ‘true’ well on the open moor that once had a canopy was Fice’s Well and that has long since disappeared. When not connected with a settlement the term ‘well’ refers to a natural spring and will often consist of a boggy area from which water issues. Needless to say the water that flows from the wells and springs is usually ice-cold, crystal clear and sweet tasting. When I was living near Chagford the cottage had its own underwater spring and that water was always cool and refreshing.
What is slightly puzzling is that amongst the Dartmoor wells and springs there are very few that could be deemed as Holy Wells and less with legends attached to them. This is not to say this never was the case as it may well be that any holy association has been lost in the mists of time. Below is a list that I have compiled over the years of the major moorland springs and wells, these names have been gleaned from old books, maps and records and I ma sure it is by no means complete:
|OS Grid Ref.||
|OS Grid Ref.|
|Bellever Combe Well||SX ???? ????||Saxon Well, The (AKA The Wishing Well)||SX 7177 7673|
|Belstone Well (HW)||SX 6202 9347||Shere Well||SX 7107 7640|
|Broady Well||SX 6592 6653||Slade’s Well||SX 7280 7840|
|Deadlake Well||SX 5553 8484||Southcombe Well||SX 5607 6760|
|Dick’s Well||SX 5512 8605||St. John’s Well (HW)||SX 4792 7391|
|Dinah’s Well||SX 6845 8003||St. Leonard’s Well (HW?)||SX 5521 8822|
|Druid’s Well||SX 7162 8621||Wapsworthy Wells||SX 5520 8822|
|Fernworthy Well (submerged)||SX 6621 8396||Wild Tor Well||SX 6272 8762|
|Fice’s Well (AKA Fitz’s Well) (LW)||SX 5762 7583||William’s Well||SX 7356 7511|
|Fitz’s Well (AKA Spicer’s Well) (LW)||SX 5920 9387||Yarner Wells||SX 7750 7822|
|Fitz’s Well (HW)||SX 4744 7392||
|OS Grid Ref.|
|Gulwell (AKA St. Gudula’s Well) (HW)||SX 7533 6931|
|Harbourne Well||SX 695? 651?||Ashwell Spring (LW)||SX ???? ????|
|Hatch Well, The||SX 7028 7748||Chapel Lands Spring||SX 6050 9338|
|Hawke’s Well (AKA Ox Well)||SX 7432 7654||Coppathorn Spring||SX 5943 6882|
|Holne Well||SX 6790 6870||Golden Spring||SX 6230 9185|
|Lady Well (HW)||SX 6390 9411||Goose Eye, The (AKA The Goose Nest)||SX 7403 7577|
|Lady Well||SX 6830 7673||Holwell Spring||SX 7407 7789|
|Parford Well||SX 7123 8970||Peter’s Spring||SX 65?? 72??|
|Pascoe’s Well||SX 5807 7500||Silver Spout, The||SX 6992 7391|
|Pollerd’s Well||SX ???? ????||Stidwell Spring||SX 7350 7294|
|Rit Well||SX 6694 7483||Willaby Spring||SX 5940 7012|
|HW = Holy Water LW = Legendary Water|
But what is the fascination with well-heads and springs that even today urges us to toss a coin into their mystical waters in some vain home of receiving a blessing or piece of good luck? For a hint of the answer one must delve back into the prehistoric pagan days when springs were regarded as being the portal between the underground world where the spirits dwelt and that of the living. It appears that our ancestors have always sought help for cures, vengeance, repentance or improvement in fortunes by depositing votive offerings to the deities associated with water sources. Many will say that the early water cults wore a heavy ‘Celtic’ influence, as I have stated many times there is no such thing as a Celtic race. Janet Bord echoes these sentiments when she notes that:
“It is now in many quarters an accepted ‘fact’ that many aspects of holy well belief and ritual date back many centuries, and indeed were ‘part of an archaic Celtic inheritance’; but recent impartial research has shown that the oft-claimed Celtic influence is much less certain, and that the identification of the Celts as the originators of much of the lore and practice we today study has been embraced with over-enthusiasm. Indeed, all that the Celts may have had in common may have been their language, as it is now increasingly believed that the blanket term ‘Celts’ comprised a number of differing peoples rather than a specific and united Celtic race.“, (2006, p.18).
There can be no denying that some of the beliefs of the water-cults sprang (forgive the pun) up amongst the Iron Age tribes and that they developed certain springs as healing or worship centres. In Britain the practice was accelerated by the Romans who added their own elements to mystical aspects of springs. The shrine at Bath demonstrates a combination of Iron Age and Roman beliefs insomuch as it was dedicated to the goddess Sulis Minerva. Sulis was an Iron Age deity and Minerva was a Roman goddess which shows the integration of the two cults, with Minerva absorbing the identity of Sulis. In later Christian times many of these wells became associated with saints or miracles, indeed it has been suggested that there are only four ways in which a well or spring became ‘holy’:
1) A holy person struck the ground with their staff after which a spring suddenly gushed forth.
2) A saint lay down in a particular spot and slept and when they awoke a spring issued water.
3) A saint was slew and the spot this happened turned into a spring, this is especially true if they were decapitated.
4) The body of a dead saint was temporarily laid on the ground and when lifted up a spring was seen to gurgle up from the earth.
I would add a fifth, when a Pagan well was Christianised to make it easier for the people to worship the new ‘God’. Either way, Pagans or Christians there is very little evidence of either to be found amongst the wells and springs of Dartmoor. Clearly one would not expect to see any Roman influence on the beliefs of water cults as they never inhabited the moor. There is possibly slightly more Saxon influence to be found on Dartmoor, for instance Holwell Spring would originally have been Hael Wælla or ‘Holy Well’ and there is a possible Saxon connection with St. Gudula’s or Gulwell at Ashburton. During this period several attempts were made to dissuade people from worshipping at the springs and wells by denouncing such heathen practices. The Normans listed the places where wells were seen as important in the Domesday Book and the only one that occurs on the fringes of Dartmoor is Crochwelle or modern Crockernwell. At this time, Christianity was under the rule of Rome and the so-called threat of ‘Celtic Christianity’ had disappeared thus resulting in the relaxing of the use of holy wells. This came in the shape of a canon stating that well cults were to be allowed under licence of the bishop. The popularity in pilgrimages to these wells grew and grew and monasteries, hospitals etc began to grow up beside any such holy place. Suddenly they became a money-spinner for anyone fortunate enough to have or invent such a feature on their lands. As time passed the popularity of holy wells began to wain although it is fair to say there is something of a resurgence today.
But again, throughout the early historic period there is very little evidence for such practices at the Dartmoor wells and springs. Admittedly there are probably several more sites hidden deep inside ancient documents that are awaiting discovery, Faull (2004, p.27), notes such a document from 1333 where it states: “Halgwille juxta Hexworthy“, could this suggest that near Hexworthy was a holy well? Just as a comparison, Faull (p.31) lists 91 holy wells in Devon of which 60% were believed to have curative powers, 24% were used for baptisms and 16% were wishing wells. Amongst these numbers are the Dartmoor examples but excluded are the wells and springs that rise on the open moor or if you like the ‘genuine’ wells. But if you want to play with numbers then using all the Dartmoor wells and springs and classifying them as Ordinary, Holy, Wishing and wells with legendary connections we arrive at the following:
So, there is the puzzle, all those wells and so little tradition, could it just be that moor folk regarded water as a necessity of life and not something to be worshipped or revered? Afterall it is not as if water is a rare thing on Dartmoor.
Bord, J. 2006 Cures and Curses – Ritual and Cult at Holy Wells, Heart of Albion Press, Loughborough.
Faull, T. 2004 Secrets of the Hidden Source, Halsgrove Publishing, Tiverton.