Holy Wells as Ancient Monuments

by Edna Whelan

     In the preservation of holy wells, which is a daunting subject but not an unsolvable problem, it may be of help to know that there are government Acts which are of assistance in the conservation of Ancient Monuments, which surely includes holy wells.

     In the Town and Country Amenities Act of 1974 a duty was placed on local planning authorities to designate conservation areas, i.e. areas of special architectural or historic interest, the character of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance. Conservation areas may be as large as City Centres, such as York, or just small groups of buildings.

      Whilst the local authority has this statutory responsibility, much in practice depends on local residents as members of the Town or Parish Council, amenity group, or as private individuals. They can exercise considerable influence both by keeping a watchful eye on the local scene or by improvement projects themselves.

     As for finance, scheduled ancient monuments in need of repair may be eligible for grants from a variety of sources. The Civic Trust administers funds and has information on this aspect.

     Another relevant Act is the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act, 1979, which is long and tedious reading, but Part II of which I will endeavour to summarise. This confers new powers for the carrying out of rescue archaeology prior to the commencement of development which may destroy archaeological remains on a site.

     A discussion paper issued by the Dept. of the Environment in 1981 on part of the Act, states that certain areas nay be designated as areas of archaeological importance but stresses that designation only serves to introduce possible mandatory delay at development for archaeological work.

     Areas so designated are in effect archaeologically expendable in that it is only the information held within the site that is extracted, while the context is destroyed or altered - but it is possible that a designated area may contain a monument already scheduled, or sometimes such a monument will be discovered during rescue work, and thus the site will be protected under the requirements for scheduled monument consent. It is noted that there is provision for compensation to be paid in such circumstances.

     The above underlines the importance of getting holy wells scheduled, more details of which are given below. The 1979 Act goes on to say: 'Voluntary arrangements are well established whereby certain developers agree to provide access to sites for excavation purposes prior to development, and some...finance the excavation and preservation of remains.' The onus is again on local people to object strongly to planning applications effecting holy wells, either by petition or through local councillors on planning committees. An important archaeological or historical site may be one marked on the map or preserved in local knowledge by local hearsay. Any wells not on published Ordnance Survey maps may be in the O.S. Records, copies of which are with Archaeological Departments of County Councils.

     Those of us who wish to preserve the ancient sites and religion need to listen to accounts of folk lore. As Francis Hitching says: 'A myth may be defined as something which holds a great Truth, hidden until we are ready to understand it.'


Notes from, and Conclusions Derived from,
'A Guide to the Legislation on the Scheduling
of Ancient Monuments in England'
(Dept. of the Environment)


     The Secretary of State for the Environment is required to compile a schedule of monuments in order that these may be protected to a greater extent than is covered by the 'listing' of monuments.

1. 'Over the years it has been widely accepted that the rarer examples of monuments from our prehistoric past and very early historical times are almost automatically candidates for inclusion.'
2. The only statutory criterion is that the monument must appear to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. A monument is defined as being 'ancient' if it is of public interest for historic, architectural, traditional, artistic or archaeological reasons.
3. Other factors include the condition, period, rarity, fragility of a site. Documentary support from written records may give a monument's significance greater weight. Importance is attached to 'Group value', whereby the value of an individual monument is enhanced by its association with related contemporary monuments or those of other periods.

(It will be seen that the above considerations ought to work in the favour of many holy wells. It will be possible in some cases to suggest that they derive from the earliest times, and the acceptance of 'traditional' qualities as one criterion very much relates to the kind of lore and legends which are attributed to most wells. Similarly, the association of wells with churches, hill settlements, stone circles and standing stones, and other sacred features ought to mean that it is possible to include these wells in the scheduling of such monuments, as of 'group value'.).

4. The Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments reviews the Schedule on a county basis as a continuing process. It is open to anyone to suggest to the Dept. of the Environment that a monument should be scheduled.
5. A list of scheduled ancient monuments is published and available as a book(let). Many county authorities maintain a record too.

(Only the most noted holy wells, mainly those with some associated structure, are presently scheduled - it is hoped to feature these in a later issue. Clearly an important aspect of the 'Preservation' element of the Group's work must be to substantially increase the number of wells which enjoy this statutory protection, To make out a case for individual sites, well-informed research will be an essential factor.)

6. 'Scheduling' does not protect a monument in all circumstances but it does require the consent of the Secretary of State before any work is carried out. Failure to obtain this, or any damage or destruction to the monument, carries legal penalties.
7. Responsibility for repair and maintenance rests with the owner. Grants are available from local authorities or the Historic Buildings Commission, but are discretionary. They may be made to those wishing to acquire a monument, or assisting the owner with repair, maintenance and management.


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Text Edna Whelan (1985)

Designed & Maintained by Richard L. Pederick ( 1999) | Created 04/01/00