Some Holy Wells in and Around Preston
by Norman Darwen
The area around Preston in central Lancashire has a history of settlement stretching back into prehistory, with all the periods since then represented by archaeological finds or historical documentation. Christianity probably reached the town in the seventh century - the first church there was dedicated to St Wilfrid, who travelled throughout the North and was largely responsible for persuading the Synod of Whitby to accept the ways of the Roman Church in 664 AD. Until 1974 the coat of arms of the borough of Preston incorporated Wilfrid's emblem of the lamb (the football club's badge still does), and there is a possibility that the name of Preston - the Priest's town - may refer to this saint who was known for building many churches. Throughout the Reformation, the town clung to the Roman Catholic faith, and even today the tradition is still strong and the religion thriving.
There is, however, little visual evidence of the town's long history. Situated at the lowest crossing of the River Ribble (which, legend states, claims a human life every seven years), the town has often been a battleground. Robert the Bruce burnt it to the ground in 1323, and during the Jacobite invasion of 1715 the town was again razed. Additionally, the town was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, and at present the Central Lancashire New Town development has radically transformed the area in the last few years. As a result, many of the sites of the old town have vanished and been forgotten. This applies particularly to the holy wells and curative wells, and most of those mentioned in the following survey exist only in the old documents, though with so much building and re-building happening at present, there is a possibility that long-lost sites could be uncovered.
Holy Well, Ingol
Ingol is now a suburb of Preston, about two miles to the north-west of the town centre. According to Henry Taylor (1906), this well was a 'walled-in structure reached by a flight of steps, but it has now disappeared owing to landslips'.
St Catherine's Well, Lea
Lea is another suburb to the north-west, much built up since the last war. Taylor writes: 'The words "St Catherine's well" appear on the 1848 ordnance map in ancient Gothic letters close to the north bank of the Ribble, a quarter of a mile north of Lea marsh and three miles west from Preston market place. The site is two miles west from Penwortham Priory. The well has been disused for some years'.
Spaw Baths, Preston
Taylor writes: 'The words "Spaw Baths" occur on the 1848 ordnance maps in the grounds attached to Marsh House, three hundred yards west of St Mary Magdalene's Hospital, a quarter of a mile south-east from the Benedictine monastery, and the same distance north of the Ribble, and they may in all probability record the site as in so many similar instances of, another Holy Well'. In this area, there are at present a "Spa Road" and a "Wellfield Road", old streets of housing and warehouses.
Our Lady's Well, Preston
The site of this well is about three hundred yards east of the supposed site of the previous entry, on Marsh Lane. Taylor wrote: 'The site is marked on the ordnance map at a spot about one hundred yards north-east from the Franciscan friary, from which it is now separated by the Lancaster Canal. To the east of it is Ladywell Street. Baines states that at a short distance from the Friary, there was an ancient well called Lady Well, frequented within living memory by the devout. Mr Hewitson, in his History of Preston, says that he examined the site in the year 1883, but could find no trace of the well. It was probably destroyed when the canal was made. Mr Hardwick, writing on 'Well worship' [Traditions, Superstitions and Folklore, p.218] remarks that water, both in ancient and modern times, has been largely employed as a symbol of purity, and in the Roman Catholic church especially has been consecrated to religious purposes and rendered 'holy'. He writes, "Hence, it is not surprising that many springs, and especially in the neighbourhood of religious houses should in the Middle Ages have been invested with a sacred character, or that superstition of a more ancient or heathen origin should yet as it were haunt their precincts. Many such wells, as those in connection with the 'Old Friary' at Preston which gave the name to Ladywell Street in that borough, like that which performed a similar office for the late, notorious 'Holywell Street' near The Strand in London, have passed away, and left nothing behind but the street nomenclature referred to...."
The canal has now also vanished, supplanted by the railway. It is interesting that some slight memory of this well does still linger among Preston residents; about twenty years ago, my father told me that the well was now under Ladywell House or the adjacent railway sidings. This corresponds almost exactly with Taylor's directions. The receptionist at Ladywell House, British Rail's divisional headquarters, mentioned some old stones in a corner as possibly being 'something to do with the well maybe', but with a date of 1850 prominent on one of them, this seems unlikely as the well would have disappeared long before that if it vanished when the canal was built. However, some idea of the sanctity of the site still remains, if only slightly - she thought that she perhaps was working on the former site of a convent. Finally, I can remember as a child that there was a story that the area around Ladywell Street was haunted by a horrible monster.!
Spa Well, Wellington Terrace, Preston
This well was 'near to the end of Wellington Terrace, at the side of a footpath leading down to the marsh', according to Anthony Hewitson (1883). It was supposed to have 'strengthening qualities', by external application, and was popular - many children were taken to it. This and the following entry probably vanished when Preston docks was built.
Spring, Ashton Quays, Preston
This spring on the west side of Ashton Quays, adjoining the road which in 1883 ran along the edge of the Ribble, was reported to have medicinal virtues.
Well, Avenham Park, Preston
In the south-east corner of this park, there is a drinking fountain (at least there was a couple of years ago, and may be still). The fountain stands on the site of a well which legend states never ran dry, and which was resorted to by people with eye ailments. Hewitson writes that 'owing to certain impurities in the water found by analysis, the well was ultimately done away with.' The fountain records the site but uses a different water supply.
Boilton Spa, Preston
Hewitson describes this well in some detail: 'In a field below Boilton House, which stands upon the eastern side of Boilton Wood, and about half a mile from Red Scar, there was, formerly, a medicinal well. It went by the name of Boilton Spa, and it is said that its water cured consumption. This well was in the form of a double trough, two yards long and two feet broad, and was approached by about half a dozen descending steps. The water came out of the breast of Boilton Wood, and in front of the drain or pipe by which it entered the well, there was a piece of carved work, in the shape of a human head, through the mouth of which the water ran into the receiving trough. This medicinal well was often visited, and it is said that thousands of gallons of the water was carried to Preston by consumptive people. The well was done away with, and the water drained off, about thirty years ago, by the late Colonel Cross.'
Interestingly, recent excavations have discovered a Roman Road in the area, and due to the nature of the finds related with this, archaeologists feel there is a strong possibility of a small Roman settlement somewhere nearby, as yet undiscovered.
Saint Mary's Well, Penwortham
The site of this well is still marked on Preston street plans. Henry Taylor wrote of it (1906): 'On Penwortham Brow, by the side of the High Road leading down into Preston, and one sixth of a mile south of the Priory, we find on the ordnance map, in ancient Gothic letters, "St Mary's Well". The sanctity of this Holy Well seems long ago to have disappeared. Atticus thus writes of it in the year 1872: "On the lower side of the Preston and Liverpool Road, and not far from the entrance to the Avenue, there is a spring of water which now runs into an oblong stone trough, and which for generations has gone by the name of St Mary's well. Many people, particularly Irish, assign to its water miraculous properties. The well is now closed over and has only a pipe in front. This alteration was made a few years ago in consequence of the manner in which Irish and other people polluted the water by washing themselves in it."'
The road next to the site is now designated as the A59. There was once a track through the field, which ran by the holy well, but all that remains now are a few steps in the hedge opposite the War Memorial. The whole area has changed radically in the last three years with the building of the Preston ring road, and the part of the field which seems to have contained the well has been 'landscaped', i.e. it has been covered with soil and planted with trees. However, in what remains of the field is a long, thin hollow, which may have a connection with the well spring - in around thirty years of passing it on the bus, I cannot remember ever seeing it without water. Around the sides of the field are many odd pieces of masonry, which seem to be part of boundary walls.
As already mentioned, the well was near to Penwortham Priory, of which nothing now remains, except street names such as 'Monk's Walk' and 'Whitefriars Drive', to indicate its location. When I asked an old man climbing the hill if he knew anything of the well, he replied that he seemed to vaguely remember something about it being 'down in the bottom of the field, and what's more, there's an underground tunnel goes from it to Saint Mary's Church' (ley hunters will recognise this piece of folklore). On older maps, the track across the field by the well continued on the other side of the A59 (where the War Memorial now stands) as 'Church Avenue', which now comes onto the main road further up the hill. At the end of the avenue is Saint Mary's Church; there has been a church on this site since AD 664, and the graveyard contains a mound called Castle Hill, which has yielded evidence of use in Saxon and Norman times, and there is a strong, though as yet unconfirmed, possibility that it was a prehistoric tumulus. In his book Brigantia, Guy Ragland Phillips states that the mound is aligned with a major crossroads in Warrington. The vicar of St Mary's was unable to supply any information about the well, but suggested it might be marked by the stone cross half-way along Church Avenue, which is in fact a boundary marker, and a small stone inlaid into the ground next to it confirms this. It is worth noting, though, that the base of the cross is a different kind of stone from the rest, and could indicate a more ancient use than the nineteenth century one usually attributed to it.
It is also worth mentioning a local legend of a ghostly platoon of Roman soldiers, led by a centurion, which is reported to have been seen on several occasions around the bottom of Penwortham Hill, which is very near to the well site.
Finally, I would advise anyone looking for the well to wear wellingtons. When I visited there in January 1986, the field was a huge boggy mess, into which I sunk above my ankles several times!
St Anne's Well
A newspaper columnist in the last century wrote that a well or spring with this dedication once existed near Penwortham Church. It was certainly not in use in 1883 as in that year, a Canon of the church is quoted as saying that Saint Mary's Well was the only supply of fresh, clean water available to the population of Penwortham. There is, however, a map which shows a well with this dedication on the opposite bank of the Ribble from the church - in other words, in Preston, in the area now concreted over by the docks. If the map is correct, this well could be the 'Spaw Baths' mentioned earlier, or a completely different one.
Our Lady's Well, Fernyhalgh
After this list of vanished or forgotten sites, it is a pleasure to document the well at Fernyhalgh, the best-known Holy Well in central Lancashire. In response to a query about public transport to Fernyhalgh, the man behind the enquiries desk at Preston bus station told me there isn't any, and then went on to relate how he used to go there as a child, describing the holy well and its surroundings!
Fernyhalgh (pronounced 'Ferny'uff) consists of a few farms about three miles north-east of Preston. According to one source, the name means a 'Hidden, holy place', which certainly has some bearing on the legend collected by the Parish priest, Father Christopher Tootall, from his parishioners around the end of the seventeenth century. In 1471, a merchant, who was caught in a violent storm on the Irish Sea, vowed that if he was saved, he would undertake some work of great piety. The storm passed, and he reached the Lancashire coast unharmed, where he was instructed by a miraculous voice to search for a place called Fernyhalgh, and build a chapel where he found a crabtree bearing a fruit without a core, and a spring under it. After searching for a long time without success, he reached Preston, where he took lodging for the night. Soon afterwards, a serving girl excused her late arrival to him, saying that she had been pursuing a stray cow to Fernyhalgh. He was guided there the following day, finding the tree and spring, and also an unexpected statue of the Blessed Virgin. Here he built a chapel to 'God's honour and service'. Over the years, the place became a centre for pilgrimage, and the well was visited by people seeking cures for numerous afflictions.
It seems very likely that the statue discovered by the merchant belonged to a chapel which existed by the well long before. Documents exist which tell of a chapel on the site in 1348; perhaps this had fallen into disuse by 1471.
Hewitson described the well as it was in 1883: 'About a quarter mile south of Fernyhalgh Roman Catholic Chapel, there is a notable well, "Our Lady's Well". It stands on one side of and not very far from the road leading to the chapel. This is a very old well, and may still be seen. It is in the centre of a stone square, and is approached by half a dozen steps....'
The same description holds true today, with the addition of a niche containing a statue of Our Lady holding her Son, which overlooks the well. The well itself is in the garden of Ladywell House, though there is free public access from the road. The house is still in the hands of the Roman Catholic church, and is used as a Vocations Centre, and there is a small, very restful chapel on the upper floor. The house is near the site of the original chapel (of 1471), demolished in the reign of Edward VI.. The present Roman Catholic Chapel is on the same lane as the well, and should be visited by all those interested in the well, as it contains a beautiful painting of Our Lady of Fernyhalgh. Leaflets describing the history of this shrine to Our Lady and postcards of the well are also available here.
Father Hawkins, the director of Vocations for the Lancaster diocese based at Ladywell House, told me that in fine weather, many pilgrims still come to the Well. All of Preston's Roman Catholic schools run trips to it. When I visited the well on a very wet and windy 4th January 1987, there were several bunches of fresh flowers by the statue and around the well itself, including one bunch with the dedication: 'To Our Lady, thank you for the birth of your Son'.
There was some possibility that Ladywell House could pass into secular ownership, in which case the future of the well would be uncertain. However, in August several Catholic churches in Preston displayed notices about the well, encouraging people to visit it. The Bishop of Lancaster has suggested there should be a movement to re-establish 'Ladyewell as a place of pilgrimage in Mary's honour and as a centre where many of the treasured and sacred objects associated with the martyrs could be housed and viewed.' He points out that at least seven canonised or beatified martyrs who suffered under the persecution of Catholics, were born, lived and worked within three miles of Ladywell.
Donations for the maintenance of the well shrine may be sent to; Rev. Parish Priest, St Mary's, Fernyhalgh Lane, Grimsargh, Preston, Lancs., PR2 5RR.
Although nearly all the wells in the above survey are now lost, it is heartening that archaeologists in Central Lancashire have recently become aware of the value of these sites. In a recent publication, John Hallam notes: 'If any of the recorded well sites are involved in future developments, archaeological surveillance would be desirable to check for the presence of Celtic sacrificial objects'. Hopefully, though, the population of Preston will continue to remember the one active Holy Well in the area. As Father Hawkins said, it would be a shame to see Fernyhalgh become something as trivial as 'a wishing well'.
Thanks to my father-in-law, Mr E. Farrelly, for providing transport to Fernyhalgh, when the weather was particularly bad.
Anon (n.d.); Our Lady's Lancashire Shrine (St. Mary's Fernyhalgh), available from St Mary's Church, Fernyhalgh.
Cotterall, John (1985); North Meols to South Ribble, Neil Richardson Publi., Swinton, Manchester.
Eyre, Kathleen (1976); 'Lancashire Ghosts', Dalesman.
Hallam, John (1986); The Surviving Past, Countryside Publications, Chorley, Lancashire.
Hewitson, Anthony (1883); History of Preston.
Sterling, Jane (1974); 'Dark Age and Norman Lancashire', Dalesman.
Taylor, Henry (1906); The Ancient Crosses and Holy Wells of Lancashire, Sherratt & Hughes, Manchester.
Text & Illustrations © Norman Darwen (1988)
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