Widecombe History Group Discussion on Fire & Water. - Holy Wells etc.


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We began the evening by inviting Reverend Derek Newport, Rector if our Parish to say a few words about the significance of ‘Fire & Water’ in connection with religion and the part that it has played therein through the ages. He explained that it has to be realised that early pagan practices were incorporated into Christian activities. Water is referred to in early religious documents from before Christianity, for example in Jewish Faith, water for the action of cleansing was very important. The parting of The Red Sea in Jewish history meant that water continued to be important, ‘passing through the water’ became part of their initiation. The Christian Church took this on as ‘The Water of Baptism’. Early practice was total immersion in water, held under until you nearly drowned, then released to bob up again as into a new life. The symbolism of dying in the old life and being reborn into the faith. Another example of the use of water was of Christ turning water into wine, so there were a huge amount of examples in religious writings where water was very important in the symbolism of life. It can therefore be seen how crystal clear water gushing out of the earth, was a symbol of life, and many places where these wells/spring were took on a special meaning in the life of the people of that time.

A well, may not mean a hole dug in the ground which fills with water and the water hoisted out by a bucket or pump, springs and other sources bearing the name ‘well’, were initially sources of pure drinking water. Dockwell Wells on Bittleford Down and Southcombe Wells at the top of Southcombe Hill are just two such places. The question was then raised of whether the Village or Saxon Well, situated opposite the Old Rectory, just below the Post Office, at Widecombe, has been known as a ‘Holy Well’. The general consensus of opinion amongst the senior and long standing member of the parish, at the meeting, was that they had never heard of it referred to as such.

Those living in the Newpark cottages had a right to draw water from a spring in the field nearby and this right is still exercised. Returning to our village well, mention was made of how one lady always went there to collect water for the church flowers. Could this have a bearing on its connection to the church?

Looking at the wider parish, mention was made of ‘Slades Well’ up under Chinkwell/Honey Bags, yet another Williams Well on the parish boundary under Blackslade Newtake at Blackslade Mire, and two wells known as Under Wells, below Leusdon House. The word ‘Shute’ was discussed, a place again where water came out of the ground or a hedge, collected in a granite trough and used for drinking or washing, and the overflow from the trough then ran on as a stream. All these places were so very important to the inhabitants of individual houses, hamlets, groups of cottages, farms and villages alike. Mains water only reached this parish in the 1960s, so until then all these water sources were maintained and revered. Water is the food of life - without it no life can be sustained. The two water shutes at Forder Bridge, Ponsworthy were mentioned, this brought on a very lighthearted reference to the recently erected signs there, some six feet high, which refer to the site being liable to flooding, this was greeted by considerable amusement. Is this ‘Common Market Rules gone mad"? Here is a lesson, on how to destroy a picturesque village by the erection of useless signs. Names of places and fields names, allied to water were then mentioned, Lizwell, Wellpark, Shallowford, Cockingford, Drywells, Dockwell, the list is considerable, this could lead to a further discussion on "The Origin of Place Names in the Parish’, how they were derived. This can only be conjecture, the clock can not be turned back when discussing much of historical interest, and all suggestions and options should be recorded, no-one claiming that theirs is the definitive answer. Many individual wells still exist, some are still used, some are forgotten and in very wet spells of weather they have been known to bubble up, much to the surprise of house holders that did not know of their existence. Some of these are situated in the house, and can cause havoc with modern furniture and fitted carpets, flooding from indoors is an additional hazard, in comparison with external water flooding into a house. Christian Hayes,(Cressinhayes) at Lowertown, where Monks are reputed to have lived several hundred years ago, and Tremills at Lower Dunstone are two examples of internal wells. The skill of those that built wells was mentioned, some dug through solid rock, some needed an internal wall built with stone or brick, some are lined with large pipes.

The practice of the farmer’s wife taking pans of milk to cool in shallow troughs in fields and woods fed by a continual supply of fresh water, was remembered, spring water has a virtual constant temperature summer and winter. Four Holy Wells at Ashburton were mentioned, Lad or Lady Well at St Laurence Lane, legend has it that any young lady who was to be married in that year, would go to the well early on Lady Day, 25th March, which until 1756 was New Years Day, and if she saw the rays of the sun reflected from the well, it was a good omen for her future. In the Old Totnes Road is Gudula’s Well, dedicated to St Gudula, Patron Saint to the blind, and the water was reputed to be good for the eyes. Dropping Well near Pear Tree Cross and Stidwell.

Water worship dates back to very early days and can be traced back to the middle east and as those persecuted there, migrated all over Europe, they brought their beliefs with them. Pagan belief that water coming from mother earth was a pure source of life. Beside many wells is a sacred tree - the connection of earth with the sky. The Sun, fire, the Earth, water, and between the two the tree joining them two, this signified life and growth, many trees were used to hang little letters and tokens of belief, requests for help and thanks for improvements associated with these wells. Early people found that some ‘wells’ had curative properties, due to minerals and elements, this possibly led on to ‘wishing wells’ where people would wish or pray for help according to their beliefs, this can be carried forward to places such as Lourdes. All this discussion led to the conclusion that no matter how far you go back into history and whatever religious belief one has, including the beliefs of tribes in the most isolated areas of the world these two elements of life, Water and Fire, play a most significant part in their lives.

The well documented Thunder and Lightening storm that hit this parish in 1638 was brought into the conversation and there was a similar event two years later in the Parish of St Anthony in 1640 just across the county boundary in Cornwall, details of this could prove interesting. A slight variation on the Widecombe Legend was that the bellringers were up in the ringing chamber playing cards while the service continued in the church, THAT is why The Lord sent the storm, to punish them! Up to quite recent years the playing of cards on a Sunday was strictly prohibited by the church and by many families even in their own homes. The Widecombe valley has over the years witnessed some very violent thunderstorms. This led to the following incidents being mentioned. In August 1938, a terrific storm hit the area and the road at the top of Bonehill Lane was washed away to the extent that it was possible to walk under the moorgate, there at that time, Buckland-in-the-Moor had its bridge washed away, Ashburton was badly flooded to about five feet of water in the centre of the town, six ponies killed at Riddon Ridge about fifteen years ago, a lightening strike on the west side of Easdon Coombe, near Oldsbrim, another lightening strike at Pudsham Down, in both of these cases the bracken did not recover for several years. A thunderbolt once came down through the fields at Northway and ploughed up Bill Norrish’s potatoes. Ball lightening another phenomena, was recorded at Bittleford Parks, it entered the house through the window without cracking the glass floated around the room and then dissolved away leaving a sulphurous smell. Other stories of telephones being blown apart, electrical wiring being melted, trees and property damaged, and livestock killed are numerous and the power of such storms are frightening. The skin of a bullock killed by lightening feels and rustles just like brown paper. Pagan festivals also worshipped the moon, and the reflection of the sun which generated the light, this led to fire festivals, recognising the importance of the sun, and this was celebrated by beacons on the hills, these were believed to retain the strength of the sun till the next morning. Fire was also used as a curative against disease, an early form of sterilisation. Cattle were driven through fire or smoke to remove ‘ticks’ and other parasites. Even the material such as ferns that were used as bedding or carpets in the house were periodically burnt to purify the house. The Fire God somehow became associated with the devil, why? It is understood that at Holne Church on Easter Sunday Morning 2003, new fire was lit at the Church Door and brought into the Church. This old Christian practice is undoubtedly an example of how when Christianity came to Britain, some of the old pagan practices were incorporated into the ‘new faith’, rather than the ‘missionaries’ of that time trying to stamp out all the inhabitants natural beliefs, clever! The practice of lighting a candle on the altar could have also came through this action. At Christenings a lighted candle is also used as a sign of the light of the sun and the strength of the sun to encourage growth.

It can be seen how in those early days, when the elements were not quite so well understood as we think they are today, the power, the wroth, the goodness of fire in all its forms, and the water in all its moods, had to be worshipped so as to harness it to the benefit of the human race.

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