There had once been hundreds of holy wells dotting the countryside where pagans sought cures and blessings. Most sites were sainted by the early Church then destroyed by less tolerate Christians. Eventually, the holy wells were simply lost to neglect, forgotten by the shifting generations. She tended this sacred spot in exchange for a bit of coin. The well was near Hadrian’s Wall, drawing in a parade of curious travelers who followed her handmade signs to the site. Older residents seeking grace would tie a wishful cloutie to the tree outside the structure and wander home. Tourists, though, would drop coins into the shallow well to beg their favors, because tourists believed that everything has a price tag.
-- Excerpt from The Sheltering Stones
Actually, there were thousands of holy wells throughout the glens of England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. The springs were often contained in stone structures--sheltering stones—by pagans who believed that the contained water had healing powers. The steadfast popularity of holy wells lead the early Roman Church to embrace the watery temples, attributing the shrines to various Christian saints in their drive to convert pagans to their order. If that didn’t work, the sites were destroyed. This harkens back to Sterling Rosemont’s observation: What the Church couldn’t explain, it buried.
Most remaining holy wells are quite small and subject to neglect, making an accurate count sketchy at best. Indeed, it is easier to spot an accompanying cloutie tree bedecked by raggedy cloth tokens from travelers who still hope for a touch of magic to heal the wounds gathered in life.
Inspiration for The Sheltering Stones sprung from a holy well that I visited in Cornwall: the Dupath Well (yes, as in a certain Dean Dickie Dupath introduced in the series’ third installment). The sixteenth-century holy well is farmbound and features a fascinating, unusually large structure over the sacred pool, but the well still captures the magic and mysticism of medieval times. Don’t forget to bring your cloutie!
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