Sacred Well: OS Grid Reference – SE 1181 4677
Also Known as:
This place is one of the first things you see when roving the northern edge of Ilkley Moor. Tis the small white house, perched on the hillside, which you can reach via the old track bending round to it on the west side, or the steep footpath which goes roughly straight uphill from the road, just above Ilkley Town centre, up (both) Wells Walk or Wells Road. If you go just a few hundred yards up these roads, as the road bends and the moor opens up ahead, you’ll see the white building above you. But if you’re truly useless at finding your way about, ask anyone of them there locals…
Archaeology & History
The White Wells, Ilkley Moor
The White Wells have been described by countless writers over the centuries and attested as one of the great healing wells of the region. It was, without doubt, one of the most important water supplies to the indigenous Britons living on the moors here. One of their settlement sites is above the cliffs behind the modern position of the wells — though archaeological work has yet to be undertaken been. Cup-and-ring marked stones scatter the edge of the ridge right above where the waters originally appeared (a few hundred yards further up the slope on the hillside, just below the trees); and the folk-memory of our ancestors living here is found in several adjacent sites known by ‘fairy’ place-names.
But today it looks nothing like it would have done when the ancient people of the moors drank these waters, nor even when the Romans came here. For the white building which today houses the well was built around 1760 by the local Squire Middleton and originally contained three plunge baths in which folk would take the ‘cold water cure.’ (These were looked after by William Butler and his wife and were typically used by the gentry of the period, who it seems didn’t mind too much having to walk up the hillside to bathe in the “mellifluent, diaphanous, luminous waters.”)
Carved 'celtic' head, from which the water now emerges
The water in the house (you can go in and have a look), which now empties into a plunge pool, pours gently from the open mouth of a ‘celtic head’ – thought by some modern pagans to be ancient, but in fact is barely 200 years old. The water at White Wells originally emerged from the Earth several hundred yards further up the slope, above the present position of the house, much closer to the moor edge near the bottom of the steep slope where the pine trees cling, amidst rocks, moss and lichen. Here is where the original waters were first borne.
Long held as being curative, the first detailed description of the place was in Thomas Short’s (1734) magnum opus, where he said:
“Ichley-spaw springs out of the middle of a mountain, a mile high, and consists chiefly of lime stone and freestone. The water is very clear, brisk and sparkling; has no taste, colour nor smell different from the common water, is of the same weight. Its bason and course are of no other dye than that of a common spring. About thirty-five years ago, there were a house and a bath built, about a furlong below the original spring, which spring was brought down in stone-pipes. The first spring, near the top of the hill was very weak and small; this, very large and strong; whereby there appears to be a large mixture of other springs with this; since which time, it has fallen much sort of its former great success. Twenty yard above the drinking well (over which is built a small house of a yard square on the inside) they have cut thro’ an original spring of common water. There are several old lime-kilns a little above this. The water is first whitish, then blackish purple with solution of silver; it’s very clear, and has a purplish pellicle, with solution of sublimate; it was first white, then clear in the middle, and a white mucus at the sides and bottom of the glass, with solution of Sugar of Lead; very clear, with Oil of Tartar; whitish, with Spirit of Hartshorn; and the same as common water, with all the other trials. Five pints of this liquor exhaled left seven grains of sediment, the salt whereof dissolved in distilled water, tunred solution of silver pruple; was white with Spirit of Hartshorn: therefore tho’ this water is of the greatest esteem and repute of any in the north of England, in the King’s Evil and other old ulcers; yet it derives these effects neither from its fixt nor volatile parts; but wholly from the coldness and purity of the element, its drying nature from the lime-stone it washes, tho’ a great part of it comes from blue clay.”
In 1830, one Thomas Shaw said of the place,
“The water is, perhaps, for its purity, tenuity and coldness, the best qualified to be of utility for relaxed and sedantry habits of any water in this part of the country. It has frequently been analysed, but the decomposition always proved that it contains no medicinal quality. In my opinion, it is its purity and softness only, which makes if more efficacious, by passing sooner and to the utmost and finest limits of the circulation than any water known.”
But although many cures were claimed of the waters here, as Kathleen Denbigh (1981) wrote:
“According to a 1977 analysis, it is simply a clear, colourless spring water of moderate hardness, organically pure and free from metallic contamination and coliform organisms.” — i.e., it’s good clean water!
When the place gained a reputation as a spa, it was frequented by such notaries as Charles Darwin, Frederick Delius and Prof. David Baldwin. But even before this, in 1709, Dr Richard Richardson of Bradford—a reputable naturalist but also with considerable interest in ancient and occult matters—wrote that the site “has done very remarkable cures in scrofulous cases by bathing and drinking of it.”
Popularly believed in local lore to have been a place held as sacred to the Romans, I’m of the opinion that the local ‘goddess’ Verbeia was resident here. A thought also mentioned by G.T. Oakley (1999) in his book on the subject.
Legend tells that the medicinal properties of the waters were first discovered hundreds of years ago when an old shepherd, walking over the moors, damaged his leg. Upon bathing it in the waters here, it soon healed.
Rare photo of William Butterfield (the old keeper of White Wells), who reported seeing 'little-people' here
In the Folklore Record of 1878 we find a fascinating tale about these waters, alleged to have happened to the old keeper of the place, told by a local man John Dobson, and which cannot go untold:
“William Butterfield…always opened the door first thing in the morning, and he did this without ever noticing anything out of the common until one beautiful, quiet, midsummer morning. As he ascended the brow of the hill he noticed rather particularly how the birds sang so sweetly, and cheerily, and vociferously, making the valley echo with the music of their voices. And in thinking it over afterwards he remembered noticing them, and considered this sign attributable to the after incident. As he drew near the wells he took out of his pocket the massive iron key, and placed it in the lock; but there was something “canny’ about it, and instead of the key lifting the lever it only turned round and round in the lock. He drew the key back to see that it was alright.and declared, “It was the same that he had on the previous night hung up behind his own door down at home.” Then he endeavored to push the door open, and no sooner did he push it slightly ajar than it was as quickly pushed back again. At last, with one supreme effort, he forced it perfectly open, and back it flew with a great bang! Then ‘whirr, whirr, whirr’, such a noise and sight! All over the water and dipping into it was a lot of little creatures, all dressed in green from head to foot, none of them more than eighteen inches high, and making a chatter and jabber thoroughly unintelligible. They seemed to be taking a bath, only they bathed with all their clothes on. Soon, however, one or two of them began to make off, bounding over the walls like squirrels. Finding they were all making ready for decamping, and wanting to have a word with them, he shouted at the top of his voice—indeed, he declared afterwards, he couldn’t find anything else to say or do—”Hallo there!” Then away the whole tribe went, helter skelter, toppling and tumbling, heads over heels, heels over heads, and all the while making a noise not unlike a disturbed nest of young partridges. The sight was so unusual that he declared he either couldn’t or daren’t attempt to rush after them. He stood as still and confounded, he said, as old Jeremiah Lister down there at Wheatley did, half a century previous, when a witch from Ilkley put an ash riddle upon the side of the River Wharfe, and sailed across in it to where he was standing.1 When the well had got quite clear of these strange beings he ran to the door and looked to see where they had fled, but nothing was to be seen. He ran back into the bath to see if they had left anything behind; but there was nothing; the water lay still and clear as he had left it on the previous night. He thought they might perhaps have left some of their clothing behind in their haste, but he could find none, and so he gave up looking, and commenced his usual routine of preparing the baths; not, however, without trotting to the door once or twice to see if they might be coming back; but he saw them no more.”
Along with sightings of ‘little people’, ghosts have been seen at the White Wells. It is thought that the strange apparition which presented itself to a householder here in 1982—the ghostly figure of a young girl, weeping at the water’s edge—was that of little Ann Harper who, in August 1793, at the age of nine, drowned in the well when bathing.
Earthlight (UFO) phenomena have also been reported here over the years—the most dramatic of which was alleged to have taken place at the top of the slope above the original source of the wells in 1989, when a police officer reported and photographed a “little green man” on the geological prominence just behind the wells. He went on to narrate a typical UFO ‘abduction’ event, but much of this was psychogenic and the mythic undertones echo precisely the medieval lore of abduction by faerie.
The Fortean researcher David Barclay found in his dowsing investigations here that there were spiral patterns all round the place. “At first these were in no order,” he wrote, “but through a period of over twenty visits to the place, I established markers which indicated the spiralling patterns of the energy” within the Earth immediately adjacent to the White Wells. These spirals were nearly always in a clockwise direction. In further studies here, he and I came to know a Mrs Elsie Hill, who had done some quite striking automatic drawings of the place. “In her pictures,” he wrote, “appear a prominence of spiral-forms and faerie creatures which, she believes, inhabit White Wells.”
…to be continued…
Bennett, Paul, The White Wells, Ilkley Moor, Heathen Earth: Keighley 2009.
Bogg, Edmund, Upper Wharfeland, James Miles: Leeds 1904.
Collyer, Robert & Turner, J. Horsfall, Ilkley, Ancient and Modern, William Walker: Otley 1885.
Denbigh, Kathleen, A Hundred British Spas, Spa Publications: London 1981.
Granville, A.B., Spas of England, Henry Colburn: London 1841.
Oakley, G.T., Verbeia: The Goddess ofWharfedale, Rooted Media: Leeds 1999.
Shaw, Thomas, The History of Wharfedale, Otley 1830.
Short, Thomas, The Natural, Experimental and Medicinal History of the Mineral Waters of Derbyshire, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, privately printed: London 1724.
Speight, Harry, Upper Wharfedale, Elliott Stock: London 1900.
Whelan, Edna and Taylor, Ian, Yorkshire Holy Wells and Sacred Springs, Northern Lights: York 1989.
© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian