Holy Well

Well & tower


As a Christian holy site the well goes back to the Saxon era and the origins of the village.  Used for baptisms, it was in effect the village’s ‘church’.  After the Norman invasion, the existing stone church was built, finished off by its tower in 1510.  The octagonal building we now see was built by a former rector, Henry Richardson, in 1764, to protect the well (church springs are always called wells) and to restore its sacred focus, as both a font and source of healing waters.

The basic pattern is:  the Service of Sprinkling at Noon on a Saturday, from Easter to Michaelmas or, usually on the last Saturday of the month, with a Eucharist beforehand at 11.30am.  To which are added local pilgrimages, parish visits, and so on.

There is nothing immediately striking nor different, nor apparently holy about this place;  there are modern, working farms nearby and a busy main road.  This most ancient spring asks a little time and attention to enter into its healing.  As the second modern Latin inscription suggests, the power of this place will not be immediately obvious.

Just as church springs are called ‘wells’, so visitors to such sites who want to share in what they have to give are called ‘pilgrims’:  you have come from elsewhere, and will return.  Note how the path goes down to the font/tomb in which we are buried/baptized in Christ, before we rise again and walk upward to light and life.

Walk slowly down the path.
Let the age and simplicity of this place touch you.
Let the hurry and worry of your life fall away from you.
God has cared for many who have come here to seek his help.
Speak to him quietly and listen to his word.
Offer to God the names of those for whom you seek healing.
Drink some of the water.

The well is always ‘open’ (though the water level drops twice a day in the early morning and late afternoon as the water is taken by the next door farm).  There is, of course, nothing to prevent people coming whenever they wish, but we are more than happy to welcome parish groups.  It might make part of a summer’s day out into the Dales.  We have simple forms of the Mass, Prayers for the Sick, and the Sprinkling Service itself;  someone will give an introduction;  there is a toilet in church;  and we can make tea and coffee after the service.

Quod Publicæ Saluti bene vortat
Fontem hunc salutiferum et perantiquum
Tecto munivit Anno Æræ Christianæ MDCCLXIV.
That it might prove a benefit for the health/salvation of the community,
H. Richardson, Rector,
for this health-/salvation-giving and most ancient font/spring,
built a covering in the year 1764 of the Christian era.

Henry Richardson came from a wealthy and learned family.  Himself a Classics scholar at Oxford, his father a member of the Royal Society, his improvement of the well was a highly imaginative work, combining a deep respect for Christian history with all the scientific enthusiasm of the eighteenth century.
His use of Latin allowed him to express the richness of both a scientific and a devotional perspective.  In that language, there is but one word for both ‘font’ and ‘spring’ and but one word for ‘health’ and ‘salvation’:  he offers us, therefore, in the enigmatic ancient tongue, both a healthful spring and a saving font.
The words he uses in the Latin say far more than could be said in English.  The key word, perhaps, is salutiferum the accusative of salutifer.  ‘Health-giving’ is how it is often translated, which is not wrong, but rather limited.  The Latin word salus means both Salvation and Health.  No distinction between the two is made;  nor indeed had there ever been in the Church when Latin was the dominant language.  It is a modern practice to separate the one from the other.
What suggests that Mr Richardson intended both (English) meanings to apply to the well is the subtle symbolism of its shape.  The covering is an octagon surmounted by a circle.  We are thus presented with the two classic, symbolic shapes for a font.  The spiritual significance of this site is clear but not assertive.

pete ab eo et dabit tibi aquam vivam
1764 covered • Saxon origin • restored 2005
ministri autem sciebant

Ask of him and he will give you living water  John 4.10
But only the servants knew  John 2.9

The hidden quality of this holy well is continued in the modern inscriptions, carved by Anna Bowen as part of the restoration project.  In the centre is a brief summary of the three principal points of its history:  its origin, its covering and its restoration.
The encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well, told in John chapter 4 (especially vv. 4–15), offers the best context for understanding this holy well, and what it means.  In that narrative, John unfolds the mystery of faith and salvation.
The first text is taken from Jesus’ words to the woman, ‘If you knew the gift of God and who it is who asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.’  Moments later, she makes what is her first tentative confession of faith, ‘Lord, give me this water’ – Domine, da mihi hanc aquam.  She has still more to learn, but she has turned irrevocably to the source of life.  Her continuing dialogue with Jesus draws her still deeper into faith and closer to him.
The second text comes from the wedding feast at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine.  The gift was for everyone, ‘but only the servants knew’ of its miraculous and spiritual origin.  There is nothing magic about the water from this well (though it may have healing properties) but faith and understanding will (perhaps gradually) offer much more.
The Latin word ‘minister’ also alludes to Mr Richardson, who knew something about this spring that others did not perceive, and who has left us, in this elegant and enigmatic structure, a charming gift of God.

The form of service associated with a holy well is called The Sprinkling.  There is no set form for this devotion, but we follow the common pattern recognizable to anyone who has been to England’s most important shrine, at Walsingham.  There are three simple actions to the sprinkling:  (a)  a sip of water is first drunk, from the ladle held by the minister;  (b)  it is used to make the sign of the cross on the pilgrim’s forehead, a remembrance of the sign of the cross bestowed at baptism;  (c) finally, the rest of the water is poured into the cupped hands of the pilgrim, to be drunk, to be used for symbolic washing, or to be applied to a limb in need of healing.  In the context of this short service, it is a ritual participation in the gift of water at this holy site.  None of this, however, is obligatory.

The simple form of the Sprinkling Service

Although a Grade 2 listed building in its own right, the well was simply there for most of the 20th century.  The local farmer put in pipes and used the abundant water;  the slope was used as an unofficial tip – much of the old church heating system was unearthed when it was cleared away.
On Sunday, 9th September 2001, after the Patronal Festival, we went down and shared the Blessing of a Font, from the First English Prayer Book of 1549.  And so began its present revival.  The first major move was the formation of the All’s Well at St Mary’s Project, funded by the Local Heritage Initiative.
This was entirely community based, led by the amazingly energetic Beverley Parker, with Richard Greenwood an experienced Clerk of Works, Michael Bowley retired architect, Ron Jackson retired surveyor, and of course many others volunteers.
The interest and support grew and developed in ways that surprised us all, and more than compensated for the extraordinary corruption (politely rephrased as ‘bureaucracy’) that accompanies contemporary grants of public money.  It was hard work, but good fun – the supervised archaeological dig before the builders arrived was a first for all of us, with John Bugloss explaining details that would have alluded mere amateurs.
In 2005, the entire structure of Mr Richardson’s tecto was restored, and in the next year the path, paving and wall were completed.  14th July 2006 was a hot, sunny day and saw the village school children dressed up in 18th century costume for its grand (re-) opening.
Formal and informal services of sprinkling have developed gradually since then, from Easter to Michaelmas each year.

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