WELLS IN DEPTH - Katy Jordan
|Wiltshire Healing Wells and the
Strange Case of Purton Spa
by Katy Jordan
The core of this paper was given as a short presentation at a seminar on The Social History of the Spas, held at the University of Sussex on October 11th 1997. I am no spa historian, but a spare-time folklorist with a keen interest in the wells, springs and spouts of my home county of Wiltshire. My main aim in going to the seminar was to learn more about spas and their history, but I had been invited to speak briefly about healing wells so as to give some perspective on traditional healing waters in the folk tradition.
Of course, I had found it impossible to research wells without learning something about spas, and vice versa. The two areas are constantly overlapping, although cases where traditional healing wells have become spas are less common than one might expect. As the aim of the seminar was primarily to examine spas, I confined my comments to Wiltshires healing wells and the conditions they traditionally cured; and then focussed on a traditional healing well which later became a spa: Salts Hole at Purton Stoke.
Pafford writes of Wiltshire that 'most of the reputed medicinal wells...are in the north and north-western part of the county. They are not found in the chalk land' (Pafford 1953, p.3).
My instinct is always to verify comments like this particularly when I know of healing wells in other parts of the county. But by and large Pafford is right, as my distribution map shows. The bulk of the healing wells are in the west and north. The question is, why?
Pafford argues for the geological reason that the saline mineral waters on which the bulk of the spas were founded all probably arise from deep paleozoic strata which form a long ridge to the south and west of Swindon. He shows that many of the wells occur at junctions of two or more geological formations, and gather further minerals, particularly corallian and iron deposits, on their way to the surface.
Of course, Pafford is largely concerned with spas, where the waters have been tested and shown objectively to have beneficial mineral content, and for these the geological explanation may be the valid one. But it will not do for traditional healing wells which are centres of folk belief rather than scientific fact. Here the placebo effect is probably the chief factor of the cure the comfort of taking control and doing something to alleviate your condition and there is no necessity for this healing water to have any particular mineral content.
So we find healing wells of various kinds outside this geographical area. Not many, but they are there. It is my contention that there were once many more, and that we have lost them for demographic and social, rather than geological, reasons.
Holy and healing wells were (and still are) generally known only in the close locality, and in the past they were valued by the people most in need of their help, the poorest members of the parish who could not afford a doctor. Only if some member of the leisured classes has bothered to note down the local belief in a well do we learn of it. And so it is to John Aubrey in the seventeenth century, and to the later Victorian antiquarians and lady local historians, that I am indebted for most of my information on healing wells in the county.
Wiltshire is a county of strongly-defined regions, 'as different as chalk from cheese.' The bulk of the market towns of any size fall in the west and north-west the cheese rather than the chalk. Outside we have Salisbury, with Wilton nearby, Marlborough, Devizes, and the Victorian and current-day sprawl of Swindon. Otherwise there are large tracts of countryside dotted with villages and hamlets; and in the centre, the wasteland that is Salisbury Plain.
So where would the bulk of the recording leisured classes be likely to live in this county? Apart from the lords of the manor and the clergy in the villages, it is reasonable to suppose that the largest concentrations of antiquarian collectors of the upper and middle classes would be in the populous areas, in and around the market towns, most of which are in the north and west. And there are simply more people in these areas to keep the memory of the wells alive. This I believe to be the real reason why the healing wells we know of are mainly in this area.
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