WHOLLY WELL READ - Henry Taylor (1999)
Wigan: North West Catholic History Society, 1999.
By Henry Taylor (edited by A.J. Noble)
Henry Taylor was a professional architect and gentleman antiquarian. He was also a man with a passion: a passion for crosses. In the later half of the nineteenth century he began a systematic survey of crosses in the county of Lancashire. Later, this county survey was extended to include churches, geographical features, prehistoric remains, place names, superstitions and, fortunately for the readers of this journal, 'holy' wells.
His 1906, single-volume tome detailing the crosses and 'holy' wells of Lancashire is rather difficult to get hold of these days. A condensed version was republished by the North West Catholic History Society in 1993, but the information was not only almost a century out of date but, well, condensed! It did serve a useful purpose though, as it encouraged some readers to revisit the sites that Taylor listed and update his information.
One such modern-day antiquarian is A.J. Noble who has updated Taylor's data for the Lonsdale Hundred, the coastal area around Morecombe Bay which includes Lancaster and Barrow-in-Furness. Over 160 sites are included in this volume, including some that Taylor missed. That number includes 66 well and spring sites. Each site is briefly described, and given a six-figure Ordnance Survey Grid Reference. Wherever possible Noble has estimated the grid reference of the sites that he has not been able to locate (Taylor neglected to provide grid references). Ninety of the sites are accompanied by a black and white photograph by Mr Noble himself.
So that's what it is all about. Now what is it like? Well, it would be easy to criticise this book for being a little dull, but that would be rather unfair because it does not pretend to be anything other than a utilitarian guide to the sites in the area. It simply informs the reader about the condition and location of the extant cross and well sites, and estimates the position of the sites that Noble was unable to unearth. Thus it paves the way for others to try and find them, or at least what has happened to them in the intervening century. And this it does well. The copious illustrations give a good idea of what to look for, and the directions and grid references appear to be sufficient to enable their painless location (although I have yet to try it out in the field).
Unfortunately, it does look as though the publisher tried to keep costs minimal by cramping the style and cutting back on the information content. Taylor's 1903 paper in the Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society, which covered the same area, ran to 110 pages, so, presumably, more information is available in the original publication. However, the publishers have done well to produce such a specialised book so cheaply in this age of rising production costs. It is amazing what can be done with a home computer and flatbed scanner these days.
The area is subdivided into Lonsdale North and Lonsdale South, and the sites are listed according to their parish, a perfectly logical arrangement which would facilitate the planning of trips if accompanied by a location map and a decent location index. Both of these items are missing and either would have improved the usefulness of this volume by miles.
Full credit must go to Noble for including not only Taylor's 'holy' wells but all named wells he could find - 66 is a pretty healthy number for such a small area. Unfortunately, and this is obviously not a criticism of the editor or publisher, many of the sites are no longer visible. Reading through this book can be a pretty depressing experience as the phrase 'this well is now lost' crops up with alarming frequency. Ironically, this is precisely why I think we need books such as this, to remind us of what we once had and to warn us of what we are losing. Fifty percent of the sites in this volume can no longer be seen in the field, and of those that do remain, a significant proportion have 'dried up' or been 'covered over'.
The publisher hopes that the rest of Taylor's mighty tome can be revised in a similar fashion and published as a series covering the whole of Lancashire. Despite my minor criticisms of the production, this is a very useful addition to the well enthusiast's bookshelf and represents an initiative that should be encouraged by everybody who cares about about our watery heritage.
Reviewed by: Rich Pederick
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