WHOLLY WELL READ - Ian Thompson (1999)
Scunthorpe: Bluestone Books, 1999.
By Ian Thompson
This very useful small book represents a huge amount of fieldwork and bibliographic research on the part of the author, the more so since there has been no previously-published study of Lincolnshire wells on which he could draw. Thompson describes his book as 'an attempt to list and describe some of the more notable [wells of Lincolnshire] and generally to fulfil the role of a field guide' for historians and walkers, and he has confined his work only to wells which are currently in existence, and accessible to the public. It does, however, go beyond this stated aim in its appendix, where the author makes an attempt to list and analyse systematically the cultic elements found at Lincolnshire wells.
This is a small-format book, A4 folded to A5 and stapled, rather sparingly illustrated with hand-drawn maps and line-drawings. The only photographs are on the cover, but these are full-colour and very inviting. Why no photographs with the text, I wonder?
Following the general introduction, where he notes here, as in other counties, the worrying disappearance of many wells during the twentieth century, the author gives in his 'note on holy wells' a neat summary of the current popular theories, especially regarding the Christianisation of pagan sacred springs and the deposition of rags, pins etc. He notes that 'holy' does not necessarily mean 'Christian', particularly in the light of contemporary cults at wells. He gives a broad definition of holy wells which include unfailing and medicinal springs, and those with legends and folklore attached, and he has a nice appreciation of the uncertain nature of the antiquity of traditions, indicating a need for caution in how we interpret them.
A brief bibliography follows. This contains a couple of worrying errors and omissions: the Bords' study is given as Sacred Wells rather than Sacred Waters, and is described as 'the most up-to-date book on the subject'. Clearly Thompson is not aware of the major detailed study by James Rattue (1995). It is a highly selective list, but is just intended as a guide to further reading, so we need not be too critical. Generally his work is well (if a little erratically) referenced throughout, usually from within the text, so readers who want to follow-up and extend his research should have little difficulty tracking down the bibliographic sources. He does not reference his oral sources (why don't people do this? It's very annoying to folklorists!) other than in the vague 'an elderly inhabitant said' kind of way.
The main part of the book is the field guide. This is arranged alphabetically by settlement, then by well name. Each of the 58 wells is numbered individually, and these numbers relate to a map which shows their locations within the county. Each well has an eight-figure Ordnance Survey grid reference, and the author has obviously visited every site he describes, and gives guidance on locating the more difficult ones. The text pleasingly combines bibliographic research, contemporary verbal accounts, and his own fieldwork notes. Thompson writes accessibly and communicates his considerable enthusiasm for the subject.
The appendix contains a listing of possible cultic springs, arranged in tabular form and highlighting elements such as associated chapels, hermitages and healing cults. It is reminiscent of the far more detailed tabular analysis in Page (1990) and lifts this book out of the simple local study/field guide category into one of more general value to all students of holy wells and well-cults.
Nevertheless, this is, as its author intended, primarily a field guide, and will be of most value to those able to visit the sites described. In no way a major study, it is still the only systematic survey of Lincolnshire wells yet published in book form. As such it earns its place on every avid Wellie's bookshelf. It also fits nicely into a pocket, for those who, like me, may soon find themselves heading off to Lincolnshire in search of wells...
Page, Jim Taylor (1990). Cumbrian holy wells: a survey of the history and legend of ancient water sources in Cumbria. Wigan: North West Catholic History Society.
Rattue, James (1995). The living stream: holy wells in historical context. London: Boydell.
Reviewed by: Katy Jordan
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