What are holy wells?
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.