Holy Well: OS Grid Reference – SE 451 458
The well is all dried up today, but its remains are about 200 yards north of the river Wharfe. Sam Brewster (1980) told the easiest way to find it: “To get there from Thorp Arch you take the trackway that goes to the south of the church and follow this until you are walking alongside the river; eventually you will come to a barrier of barbed wire near some old disused water-works; get under or over this barrier and turn 90 degrees to your left, following the barbed wire until you come to a wood, the other side of the barbed wire; go into the wood and turn right; keep exploring near the edge of the wood until you find a tree under which is a hollow which used to be St. Helen’s Well.” Once here you can see where the water used to flow down a narrow channel and under a little bridge.
Archaeology & History
This ancient and well-known healing spring is shown on early OS-maps emerging a short distance north of the River Wharfe besides St. Helen’s Beck in Chapel Wood, adjacent to the Kirkstall Ing or field. In the western fields close by was once an ancient chapel and, closer to the holy well, once “stood St. Helen’s (or St. Helena’s) Cross, which is somewhat crudely represented in Dr. Whitaker’s History of Craven“, (Speight 1902), illustrated here.
This well possesses a prodigious occult history yet is curiously absent from most studies on the subject. The place is said to have been a respected holy site that was venerated long before the Romans arrived here. Found at a place called the Rudgate — but known locally as St. Helen’s Ford — it is also said to be haunted. Angela Smith (n.d.) considers the traditions surrounding the well to be pre-Roman, and the curative waters would certainly have been known of at the time of their occupation here,
“because it lies at the side of Roman road No.280, just north of where it crosses the River Wharfe at St. Helen’s Ford, leading to the Roman fort at Newton Kyme.”
Several species of psychoactive plants grow adjacent to the well, which are thought by Phillips, (1976) Devereux (1992) and I as serving ritual shamanic purposes. The likelihood is more so than not. The oracular nature of the site which R.C. Hope (1893) and others have described here is particularly interesting: in traditions the world over, oracles were often consulted after the ingestion or use of sacred plants, such as are found here.
Due to the sacred nature of this spring and its importance in local folklore and history, it should be recovered from its present state. The fact that this place was highly important as a ritual and sacred site to christians, pagans, Romans and peasants alike, and now hides all-but-lost and forgotten is a disgrace.
A fascinating tale hangs over this still-revered holy well which legend tells had a chapel standing adjacent, dedicated to Helen in the 7th century – although no trace of it is visible today. Local historian Edmund Bogg (1904) recounted how a local sexton told of “padfoots and barguests and ‘that grim foul beast with clanking chain’ which on dark nights kept its vigil” near St.Helen’s Well. Padfoots and barguests are Yorkshire names for spectral black dogs, said to be bringers of death and misfortune (they are one of several remaining folk-ingredients from the Underworld myths in British shamanism).
Folklorist Guy Ragland Phillips (1976), referring to an article in The Dalesman in 1971, told how a Mrs Dorothy Tate as a young girl used to visit the site and would tie pieces of rag on the bushes aside the place as grateful offerings to the spirit of the well. She said however, that she had gone about doing this in the wrong way, as according to tradition such offerings are to be done secretly. The article showed a photograph of Mrs Tate (from 1908) tying one of the memaws to the wych-elm tree overhanging the old spring.
People visited the well – probably on August 18 – to divine the future with the oracle which Hope (1893) described as being here, always in the dead of night without being seen, leaving before sunrise. It has been visited by thousands of people over the centuries, with gifts of rag-hangings, pins and other memaws. Such offerings continue even to this day. When Harry Speight (1902) visited St. Helen’s Well at the turn of the century, he related how as many as forty or fifty hangings would be left at any one time on the branches of the trees. He wrote:
“The water is beautifully soft and clear, and in former times was much resorted to as a specific for sore or weak eyes. There are two other springs close by, which were also held to be sacred, but they do not bear any particular dedications. An old plantation a little north of the well is known as Chapel Wood, which commemorates St. Helen’s chapel and the ancient church at Bilton, three miles further north, and about a mile to the east of the Roman Rudgate, is also dedicated to St. Helen.”
A few years before Speight’s visit here, Dr Fred Lees and the botanist, Robert Baines, visited St. Helen’s Well, and wrote similarly of the lore and memaws they found there:
“There are veritably hundreds of these bedizenings affixed and removed surreptitiously (probably before sunrise), according to an unwritten law, for none are ever caught in the act. And yet during the summer months a careful observer may detect almost weekly evidence of a shy communicant with the ghostly genius of someone¾country maid or her dumb shy swain. What murmured litany (if any) had to be said is lost; most likely nothing more was necessary than the unspoken wish…Pieced together and codified, fact and heresay testify as follows: ‘The visitor to the grove, before rise of sun, has to face the tree [a wych-elm overhanging the well] to detach from his or her own person some garment, to dip it in the well, and having knotted or whilst hanging the fragment to any convenient twig…is to breathe a ‘wish’ telling no-one what that wish may be; these conditions strictly observed, what is desired shall come to pass.'” (in Phillips, 1976)
When the archaeologist C.N. Bromehead (1935) and geologist J.V. Stephens came to the site in the 1930s, despite the fall of the well, he was surprised to find local peasants still respecting the spirits of the site, reporting:
“There is now no well or visible spring, but from the position at the lower margin of a gravel terrace it is obvious that water would be obtained by digging a few feet; a small stream flows just east of the site… It is curious that the hanging of rags should survive when the actual well has vanished, but the writer has visited the spot many times in the last seven years and there are always plenty of obviously recent additions. The custom is to stand facing the well (i.e., due west), preferably after sunset, wish, and then attach something torn from one’s clothing either to the big tree — wych elm — or to any of the bushes. Probably the custom is largely maintained by vagrants who frequently camp in the wood, but it also has its attraction for courting couples from the neighbouring villages!”
Such offerings at the site of St. Helen’s Well are still left by locals and some of the plastic pagans, who tie pieces of artificial material to the remnants of the wych-elm and other trees, which actually pollutes the Earth and kills the spirit here. Whilst the intent may be good, please, if you’re gonna leave offerings here, make sure that the rags you leave are totally biodegradable. The magical effectiveness of your intent is almost worthless if the material left is toxic to the environment and will certainly have a wholly negative effect on the spirit of the place here. Please consider this to ensure the sacred nature of the site.
…to be continued…
- Bogg, Edmund, Lower Wharfeland, the Old City of York and the Ainsty, James Miles: Leeds 1904.
- Brewster, Sam, ‘St. Helen’s Well,’ in Wind & Water 1:4, 1980.
- Bromehead, C.N., ‘Rag Wells,’ in Antiquity IX, March 1935.
- Devereux, Paul, Symbolic Landscapes, Gothic Image: Glastonbury 1992.
- Hope, R.C., Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England, London 1893.
- Ni’Bride, Feorag, The Wells and Springs of Leeds, PPP: Preston 1984.
- Phillips, Guy Ragland, Brigantia, RKP: London 1976.
- Smith, Andrea, Holy Wells Around Leeds, Bradford & Pontefract, unpublished thesis.
- Speight, Harry, Lower Wharfedale, Elliott Stock: London 1902.
- Whelan, Edna, The Magic and Mystery of Holy Wells, Capall Bann 2001.
- Whelan, Edna & Taylor, Ian, Yorkshire’s Holy Wells & Sacred Springs, Northern Lights: York 1989.
© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian