Holy Well: OS Grid Reference — SD 3544 0128
It is best to start at the Punch Bowl Inn car park, Sefton, then travel a short distance along Lunt Road by St Helen’s church. A footpath/lane is reached where a barrier stands and about 10 metres opposite the main road beneath the undergrowth is St. Helen’s holy well, or what remains of it.
Archaeology & History
The well is now, sadly, capped off with an inscribed stone that recalls ST HELEN’S WELL. The well originally stood inside a rather nice little wellhouse with a pyramid-shaped, overlapping roof, with railings running around it. It was renowned for its icy waters which were especially good for people suffering from rheumatism, sprains, bruising and, also nervous problems. It had a hand pump at the side of the well-house to enable people to drink the water. But all this has now gone, though the church congregation still visit the site on the saint’s feast day and are still hoping that some day the well will be restored again.
It was probably a pre-Christian spring that in the Middle Ages turned into a pilgrimage site, especially so in the 14th century when the church was built close by.
In pre-Reformation times it was much in use, but later on and in more recent times it had become a wishing well; pins were thrown into the well by young folk. Apparently, if the pin could be seen at the bottom of the well a favourable outcome was likely with regard to good luck in a forthcoming marriage by a couple much in love.
To complement Ray’s entry, here are Mr Taylor’s notes from his Ancient Crosses and Holy Wells (1906), in which he wrote the following:
“This celebrated spring rises at a distance of three hundred yards in a westerly direction from Sefton Church. In the year 1891 the well was walled round, and a handsome canopy placed over it, from the designs of Mr John Douglas, at the cost of William Philip, fourth earl of Sefton. The traditions connected with this holy well are thus graphically summed up in the History of Sefton:-
“”We must not omit to mention St Helen’s Well, which springs near the first cottage in the Thornton Road, beyond the inn. Formerly a ‘pad-road’ only led from the well to the church, the Thornton Road passing through the Rectory grounds. In the Churchwarden’s accounts we find several items of expenditure incurred for the keeping in order of St Helen’s Well. Thus we read in 1758: ‘For a new Dish and Chain for S. Ellen’s Well, 2/-.’ Ashcroft [writing about the year 1819] tells us ‘that this well was once in great repute for curing rheumatism, strains, bruises and weaknesses of the nerves. It has no mineral quality, however, and he remarks that its principal virtue seems to have been its coldness.’ In different times great respect was paid to wells ’eminent for curing distempers upon the Saint’s Day whose name the well bore,’ and it was once the custom to decorate the wells of Holy Thursday with boughs of trees, garlands of flowers, etc, places in various devices, and after service in the church the parson and singers repaired to the well, where they sang psalms and prayed. The bottom of the well, which is of no great depth and very clear, may generally be strewn with pins which are dropped in by superstitious young country folks to denote to them the probability of their marriage, which is said to be near if the pin falls pointing towards the church. Pins and pebbles were often dropped into wells, and the circles formed thereby on the surface of the water (or the question whether the water was troubled at all) were used as omens by which the observers drew inferences of future events. Mr Hampson, in his Medii Ævi Kalendarium, says: ‘I have frequently seen the bottom of S. Helen’s Well, near Sefton, Lancashire, almost covered with pins, which I suppose must have been thrown in for like purposes.'”
“…Mr Gregson wrote: ‘With regard to the curious frequency of well dedication to S. Helen, I formed a theory many years ago that the S. Helen of the county of Lancaster is not unconnected with the Celtic S. Elian, who is a frequent patron saint of wells in North Wales. Do they not both draw a common ancestry from Ella, the water sprite?'”
- Caroe, W.D. & Gordon, E.J.A., Sefton: A Descriptive and Historical Account, Longmans Green: London 1893.
- Taylor, Henry, The Ancient Crosses and Holy Wells of Lancashire, Sherratt & Hughes: Manchester 1906.
© Ray Spencer, 2011