Well, well, well, what have we here? In the days before we could go to our local GP for a prescription, the healing properties of natural water were depended on as a cure-all for many maladys, and in Oxfordshire, you were never far from a well with the ability to treat what ailed you. Here are seven of the top healing wells and holy springs in Oxfordshire.
This well in the churchyard of the Church of St. Margaret of Antioch in Binsey has attracted pilgrims since the middle ages, all hoping to benefit from the waters supposedly miraculous healing properties. According to legend, the well was created by Saint Frideswide, who had fled to Binsey to avoid the unwanted romantic advances of a Mercian prince. The prince was was struck by lightning and blinded as a holy punishment for lusting after her, but the compassionate Frideswide prayed for him and the holy well sprung up at her feet, its healing waters curing the prince and restoring his sight.
The well is credited with the ability to cure eye problems, soothe emotional problems and is even said to be able to cure the lame. According to oxfordhistory.org.uk, the nearby church was once adorned with crutches from the many people who benefitted from this miraculous ability!
St. Margaret's Well is also sometimes referred to as the original 'treacle well', a reference to Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, which features such a well. 'Treacle' is a play on the ancient word 'trickle', meaning a heading fluid.
Just across the lake from Blenheim Palace and not far from the site of the former Woodstock Manor can be found Fair Rosamund's well, one of a number of sites in Oxfordshire associated with Lady Rosamond de Clifford, mistress to King Henry II. Henry is said to have created a house within a maze at Woodstock in which he hid Rosamund from his wife, but Queen Eleanor eventually discovered Rosamund and gave her the choice of death by poison, or banishment to a nunnery.
Versions of the story differ on which of these options Rosamond chose (the history books suggest the latter), but the flat stones that surround the well are said to be the foundations of the house in which Fair Rosamund was hidden.
The precise nature of the well's healing properties are unclear, but even today Blenheim Palace's own brand of bottled mineral water still trades on the legend of Fair Rosamund!
Two ancient springs in Cornbury Park are at the centre of a curious yearly tradition for the people of Leafield and Charlbury. One spring is known as Wort's Well, the other as either Iron Well or Chalybeate Well. On Palm Sunday, children and adults would walk to the well, each carrying a bottle containing ingredients (typically a piece of liquorice, some sugar or a peppermint). Here prayers were said over the spring as each person in turn would add water from the well to their bottle. The contents were then mixed to create a concoction called Spanish Liquor that was believed to act as a general 'cure all', although the water from the Iron Well was believed by some to be particularly good for bad eyes!
A similar tradition to the one above is recorded at Finstock. In the early part of the 19th century, the people of Finstock were also still observing the yearly tradition of walking to a healing spring on Palm Sunday to make 'Spanish liquor'. The well chosen by the people of Finstock was Lady's Well, sometimes called Bridewell, which stands in a field a few hundred metres to the south of the village of Wilcote. Here they would mix water from the well with liquorice, sugar and peppermint to make a cure-all to help keep them healthy in the coming year.
Some have suggested that the name Bridewell might indicate that the well was once considered connected to St. Bridget, a saint known for her acts of healing. Going a layer deeper, others claim that St. Bridget was a Christianisation of the pagan goddess Bride, who was also associated with healing.
Ewelme's history has been shaped by its connection to the local spring and the water that flows from it. The same water fed the village's watercress pools that made the village famous and drove its economy during the l9th and 20th centuries. The same water that nourished the watercress is believed by some to have healing properties.
Henry VIII visited Ewelme on a number of occasions, and one legend is that Henry bathed in the village pool and the healing waters helped cure his ulcerous legs. A more amusing version of the same story is that his new Queen Katherine Howard playfully pushed him into the pond, a ballsy move considering Henry's harsh temper!
Perhaps the most enigmatic healing well on our list, very little appears to be known about the history of Cumnor Physic Well. It has been known as a 'physic well' since at least the mid-17th century and probably long before that. The term 'physic' is an archaic term referring to medicine or healing, indicating that the water from this well has long been prized for its healing properties.
Today the well's location a few miles west of Cumnor may seem fairly isolated, but the path leading past the well would have had a lot more traffic in the past, as it was on a comparatively busy route leading west out of Oxford via the ferry across the Thames at Bablock Hythe. Weary travellers would no doubt have appreciated the opportunity to stop for a drink of refreshing spring water, healing or not!
Old maps of the area to the southwest of the village of Tadmarton show that a holy well once stood at this site. However, if you visit the site today you are less likely to meet pilgrims in search of healing, and a lot more likely to run into flannel-and-polo-shirt-clad golfing fanatics! The whole area around this ancient site has been swallowed up by Tadmarton Heath Golf Club, and where once stood Holywell Farm, now stands the club house.
If you are willing to brave a few bunkers and dodge flying golf balls, you can reputedly still find what remains of the well itself, though it is somewhat obscured by modern pipework being used to syphon the water off for residential purposes. There is said to have once been a paved road leading west from the well to the site of Tadmarton Camp, an iron age hillfort which also once stood on what is now the golf course.
These are the big-hitters of Oxfordshire's holy and healing wells, but the list could easily be a good deal longer. There are a number of healing wells that existed in the past and are now either lost, such as the well from which Holywell Street in Oxford gets its name, or are sadly neglected, such as the Court Well in Thame. There are others about which very little appears to be known, such as Badger's Well near Appleton. Finally, although it is nether ancient, holy nor healing, no list of Oxfordshire wells is complete without mention of the grand (if somewhat incongruous) Maharajah's Well at Stoke Row!
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