Holy Well: OS Grid Refence — SK 1371 5141
The genuine St. Bertram’s well is not easy to find and I recommend using the OS map carefully. It is reached by taking the footpath that leads off at the left passing the cross out of the village. Follow this until the end of the dry stone walling on the right and then divert from the footpath to the right where the well can be seen. The second well is easily found in the field between the church and the Hall.
Archaeology and History
Bertram is an interesting local saint, dating from around the 7th-8th century. Briefly, he is said to be of Royal Irish lineage but after making a princess pregnant, escaped to England where he sheltered in the woods around Ilam. The story is told by Alexander, a monk, in the 13th century who notes:
“They were in hiding in a dense forest when lo ! the time of her childbirth came upon them suddenly ; born of pain and river of sorrow! A pitiful child bed indeed! While Bertellinus went out to get the necessary help of a midwife the woman and her child breathed their last amid the fangs of wolves. Bertellinus on his return imagined that this calamity had befallen because of his own sin, and spent three days in mourning rites”.
As a result he became a hermit living in a cave in the valley near Ilam. Despite the earliest mention being Plot, the local geography is suggestive that this is the site of an early Christian hermitage site, although no mention of a well is noted in his legends it can be noted. Currently, the well is surrounded on four sides by varying low stone walling, about two feet or so at its highest (although it appears to have been built up and down over the time I have visited the well). The spring flows from a small, less than a foot square chamber, enclosed in stone and set into the bank through a channel in the rubble flow and out along the path towards it.
Since the 1990s, on the first Saturday in August, the Orthodox Church makes a pilgrimage to the site and blesses the well. Interestingly, literature available from the National Trust shop fails to mention this well, but notes a more substantial second St Bertram’s Well close by the church and surrounded by a rectangular stone wall with steps down, the water arises here at greater speed and flows into the nearby River Manifold. Visually it is more impressive and more accessible but whether there is any long tradition of this second well is unclear, but authors such as the Thompsons’s (2004) The Water of Life: Springs and Wells of Mainland Britain and Bord (2008) Holy Wells of Britain appear to have fostered its reputation.
Incidentally, the church boasts the remains of St Bertram’s shrine with foramina and the church yard has two Saxon crosses, making a visit to the village a must for those interested in early medieval history.
“St Bertram’s Ash… grows over a spring which bears the name of the same Saint… The common people superstitiously believe, that tis very dangerous to break a bough from it: so great a care has St Bertram of his Ash to this very day. And yet they have not so much as a Legend amongst them, either of this Saint’s miracles, or what he was; onely that he was Founder of their Church”
Such notes Plot (1686) The Natural History of Stafford-Shire, the earliest reference of this fascinating site. By Browne (1888) in his An Account of the Three Ancient Cross Shafts, the Font, and St Bertram’s Shrine, at Ilam, noted that the ash had gone, but the water was still being used. He states that:
“The late Mrs Watts Russell always had her drinking water from it.”
Extracted and amended from the forthcoming Holy wells and healing springs of Staffordshire R. B. Parish (2008)