Ventnor's St Boniface
The St Boniface Down is a significant part of the Ventnor Downs estate on the Isle of Wight. In the eighth century, the saint is believed to have preached in Bonchurch at Pulpit Rock. The down that towers above Bonchurch is named in his memory as is the legendary St Boniface Well.
Converting the Isle of Wight
The Isle of Wight was the last part of England to be converted to Christianity – this was only achieved in 686 when it was annexed by Cædwalla, the King of Wessex.
St Boniface – originally named Winfrith – was a Christian missionary from Wessex, based at a Benedictine monastery in Hampshire. It’s quite possible he visited Bonchurch – legend says he preached from Pulpit Rock in 710.
St Boniface on the Isle of Wight
The Norman church of St Boniface, located in Bonchurch, is dedicated to the missionary and one of the best examples of a Norman building on the Isle of Wight. A road, school and a local pub have also been named in honour of St Boniface.
The Bonchurch Festival takes place around the saint’s day on 5 June, and St Boniface Well is decorated with flowers since the ancient tradition of doing so was re-discovered in 2009.
St Boniface’s Wishing Well
The famous St Boniface Well is located on St. Boniface Down. Both are named after the eighth-century St Boniface. The well itself is now very difficult to reach, being on a steep part of the downs that is overgrown with holm oaks – attempting to find it is not recommended. A stone bearing a plaque has been placed on a plateau just above the site.
‘The popular belief was that, if the well was reached without once looking back, any wish formed while drinking the water would certainly be granted.’
- Description from 1867
A 1769 map of the Island shows ‘Holywell Spring’ on St Boniface Down, and other published accounts of the well appeared in the 18th century. By this time several myths and customs were already well established.
In 1796, Charles Tomkins wrote ‘Just above St Boniface Cottage there is a spring, which was formerly held in high veneration by the seamen. It was their custom, in passing this place, to lower the foretopmast in reverence to St Boniface. The youth of both sexes, on that saints day, used to resort to this spring, proudly decorated with chaplets of flowers, in order to regale themselves’.
In the 20th century, a large wood of evergreen holm oaks spread over the face of St Boniface Down making it difficult to locate the well.
By the 21st century the well was effectively lost. It was re-located again in 2009 by a National Trust volunteer. It's still possible to identify a saucer-shaped pit, but there is no longer any sign of water.
Other significant sites
At the far end of the National Trust’s car park on Ventnor Downs, there is a poignant reminder of the Dakota air crash that happened here some 50 years ago.
The Channel Airways Dakota accident occurred on 6 May 1962 when the scheduled passenger flight from Jersey to Portsmouth crashed into the cloud-covered St Boniface Down. The aircraft was destroyed, and 12 of the 18 occupants were killed.
It was amateur radio enthusiasts taking part in a competition who contacted the emergency services. Following the crash, it became mandatory for all airfields handling passenger traffic to be equipped with radio communication.
Explore the chalk hills above the Victorian seaside town of Ventnor for dramatic views, picturesque walks, a chance to spot the local goats, and some historic memorials.
Learn all about our work on Ventnor Downs including the wild goats, from their history and behaviour to their role as conservationists – and the annual goat round-up challenge.