What are holy wells?

The stone cross and medieval statue of St Paulinus at Lady's Well, Northumberland

Holy wells are springs, pools, or small bodies of water associated with spiritual or religious beliefs and practices. Although some holy wells are said to be guarded by water nymphs or fairies, the vast majority have Christian associations. Thousands of holy wells can be found throughout Britain and, although many are cared for by local people and conservation organisations like the National Trust, others have been left to ruin over the centuries.

Ancient holy waters

During the pre-Christian era, people throughout Europe began to associate certain bodies of water with spiritual qualities. There is much debate around the antiquity and past function of surviving holy wells, but there is no doubt that many ancient Britons revered the mystical quality of running water and came to associate it with wisdom, healing, and fertility. 

Early Christian and medieval holy wells

Although some ancient sites were appropriated by the early Christians, many holy wells were established during the medieval period. Architectural structures were often built to indicate a holy well, some of which were named after ascetic Saints. For example, St Bertram’s Well in Ilam Park, Derbyshire, is named after an eighth-century King who, following the death of his wife and child, built a hermitage in which he could live in prayerful solitude.

Many of these holy wells became known for miraculous qualities, with people declaring that their illnesses had been cured or their prayers answered after making a pilgrimage to the well and praying to the patron saint.

Holy wells and the Reformation 

In the immediate aftermath of the Reformation, some holy wells were viewed as seditious: relics of paganism and the medieval cult of saints, and duly deemed irreligious by certain religious reformers. Some holy wells even became points of focus of resistance to the state Church. However, as approaches to religion evolved, so too did attitudes towards these spiritual sites, and indeed many Protestants continued to visit holy wells, some of which were later re-branded as spas.  

Holy wells today

Many holy wells have been neglected and several are inaccessible, overgrown, and even forgotten. St Morwenna’s Well in Cornwall, for example, is relatively difficult to access due to its precarious position halfway down a cliff.

However – if one knows where to look – it is still possible to visit holy wells across Britain and to witness the rituals associated with these sites. For example, in the Peak District, the folk practice of well dressing endures, whereby holy wells are decorated with mosaic-like patterns made of flowers and other natural products.

Holy wells in our care

Lily lake in Six Wells Valley at Stourhead, Wiltshire

Stourhead 

There are six possible holy well sites found throughout the Stourhead estate and gardens, with ongoing debate as to their origins and historic purpose. The earliest reference to holy wells at Stourhead is by the sixteenth-century antiquary, John Leland.

The Parish church of St Morwenna and St John the Baptist at Morwenstow, Cornwall

Morwenstow 

The holy well at Morwenstow is marked out by a small brick structure. It is located roughly 14 metres down the cliff, just west of the church which is also named after St Morwenna, the sixth-century patron saint of Morwenstow.

Heather on Ventnor Downs, Isle of Wight

Ventnor Downs 

The location of the St Boniface holy well on the Isle of Wight was obscured by woodland until the well was re-located by a National Trust volunteer in 2009. The well is on an extremely steep slope and is difficult to reach, however there is an informative plaque just above it.

St Bertram’s Well in the grounds of Ilam Park, Derbyshire

Ilam Park 

Visit St Bertram’s Well in the grounds of Ilam Park, named after an eighth-century King who built a hermitage in which he could live in solitude following the death of his wife and child.