Wells and Trees
by Val Shepherd
The fact that certain types of tree have a long traditional association with holy wells is not well known. The presence of trees is sometimes noted, in passing, in books and articles about wells in Britain and in other lands, but not often considered as an integral part of the well site. As someone interested in wildlife and folklore I could not help but notice the trees growing by wells when I was researching my book [Shepherd 1994].
There are historical and folklore records which make it clear that the tree/well association is no accident.
The first tree connection which I note is that hazel is the wood which is used in dowsing to detect water. In Ireland the sacredness of trees was intrinsically bound to that of the wells beneath. One tradition states that anyone removing or desecrating a sacred tree would suffer injury or death [Bord 1986, pp. 98-9]; and Monzie Well in Perth lost its power when two guardian trees were felled [ibid., p. 101]. At Ffynnon Digwg, Caernarvonshire, thunder would break out if the hawthorn nearby was cut down [Jones 1992, p. 19].
Sacred trees with strong well connections in Wales are noted by Jones. They are hawthorn, ash, oak, holly, elder, hazel, yew and rowan. The same trees are associated with the sacred groves (nemeton) of the Druids. In Ireland the tree connections in order of frequency are: hawthorn, ash, oak, willow, elder, holly, rowan, alder, elm, yew and fir [Milner 1992, p. 139].
In Yorkshire hawthorn and ash are also the most frequent. The wells where they appear are not all 'holy' but I think that any well or spring which was used as a water supply might have been given its guardian tree, and the present-day trees could be the descendants of those originals. Today in some places of sparse tree-cover where a well is sought, a lone thorn may indicate the well's position, as Rob Wilson found when looking for Robin Hood's Well, Hurkling Edge, South Yorkshire (SK 2350 9470): [Wilson 1991, p. 18]. Robert Graves in The White Goddess suggested that sacred hawthorns grew over wells in the Goidelic Celtic provinces, which included Yorkshire [Graves 1990, p. 175].
The following are examples of tree/well connections, listed under tree species.
There are well-known folk traditions about hawthorn, also called quickthorn and may. It is protective against sorcery; a fairy tree; a Celtic peasant tree. It is sacred to the Roman goddess Maia and the 'White Goddess' who regenerates in Spring. A magic tree. Trees with deeply-serrated leaves are trees sown by lightning, and so originate in a magical way [Baker 1978, pp. 107, 111]. Sprigs of may blossom were placed around farmyards, and adorn the May Queen at Beltane on 1 May: originally fertility rites. Solitary thorns were respected, but not those forming a hedge (planted for utility purposes).
In West Yorkshire I found a single hawthorn growing at Lady Well, Hartshead (SE 1790 2350) [Shepherd 1994, pp. 62-3]; Margaret Well, Barden Bridge (SE 0546 5807); and at a well at Hesp Hills, Bingley (SE 1045 3860). Fairy Well, Harmby (SE 1243 8969) has two hawthorns and an elder growing over it [Whelan & Taylor 1989, p. 32]. Ffynnon Cae Moch, Glamorgan, was a rag well, where the rags were attached to a hawthorn [Jones 1992, p. 19].
Elder must not be cut or dire consequences ensue. Some are witches' trees and some are fairy trees, and the white blossoms represent the white goddess. It is another lightning-sown tree [Baker 1978, p. 111].
At Fairy Well, Roberttown (SE 1981 2308) [Shepherd 1994, pp. 63-4], there is a large elder within a hawthorn hedge. At Abbey Well, Norr (SE 0972 3638) [ibid., p. 48], there is an elder nearby, and a larger one used to grow nearer to the well. Francis Jones mentions elders (yscawen) found by Welsh wells [Jones 1992, p. 8].
Ash was a sacred tree in Scandinavian countries and in Britain. It is Yggdrasil, the legendary tree associated with the god Odin. At its roots was a wonderful fountain called Fate where the Norns lived. The Norns were called Fate, Being and Necessity. They watered the tree each day with water from the well, and whitened it with clay from the well, preserving its life: the waters fell to earth as dew [Davidson 1964, p. 26; see also Jones 1992, p. 186].
Many Ashwells and other place-names in Yorkshire stem from this. Holy Well Ash, Bradford (SE 1660 3420) [Shepherd 1994, pp. 13-15], was a popular resort in the 18th century. There were two other Ashwells, in Bradford and Helliwell. Syke Well, Priestley Green (SE 1326 1206) [ibid., p. 65], still has ash trees growing around, as have Peggy Well, Riddlesden (SE 0655 4413) [ibid., p. 52], and True Well (SE 0282 4016): now dead [ibid., pp. 50-1]. White Well, Harden (SE 0890 3835) [ibid., p. 48], has a living ash over it.
Jones notes five Welsh wells associated with an ash. An ash over St Bertram's Well, Staffordshire, was not to be damaged [Milner 1992, p. 137: citing K. Thomas, Man and the Natural World].
Oak has always been a major sacred tree, representing strength and truth. Fairies lived in them; and when mistletoe was found growing on oak the Druids thought it especially sacred.
Healy Well Oak, Drighlington (SE 2322 2879) [Shepherd 1994, p. 62], near Bradford, was a holy well, though no tree grows there now. Jones states that crutches hung on an oak growing above Llancarfan Well, Glamorgan [Jones 1992, p. 186]. A great oak grew above Priest's Well, Monmouth; and Ffynnon Dderw, Carmarthen, stood in an oak grove [ibid., p. 195].
Hazel counters witchcraft in Ireland. Hazel wands are used to find water. It was a sacred tree of the Celts. Hazel nuts endowed with wisdom fell from the 'Nine Hazels' at the mythical Connla's Well which was 'under the sea', and were eaten by sacred salmon who took on the qualities of wisdom from the nuts. (The movement of fish in the wells was a divination device.) Another Connla's Well was in Tipperary. Hazels grew in Avalon by the sacred pool (Chalice Well?) which also contained a salmon; and in Wales hazels grew at Ffynnon Cyll and Ffynnon Collen, both in Carmarthenshire.
Diana's Well near East Witton, Wensleydale (SE 1353 8521), is also associated with hazel (Whelan & Taylor 1989, p. 41), and the only one I know of in Yorkshire.
'Holly bears the crown', the crown of thorns, and so it became a holy tree. There are two very old hollies growing behind Tombling Well, Calverley Wood (SE 2056 3788) [Shepherd 1994, 55-6], near Leeds. Jones finds holly (celyn) associated with Welsh wells [Jones 1992, p. 8].
Although yew is associated with the dead and graveyards it also symbolises immortality, as it is such a long-lived tree, and renews itself by putting out new shoots around the old trunk. It is one of the five magical trees of Ireland. Jones mentions six Welsh wells associated with this tree, including Ffynnon Beuno, Merioneth, where cattle were sprinkled with yew boughs which had been dipped in the well. Yews grew over St Fagan's Well, Glamorgan, and over Ffynnon Bedr, Llanbedrycennin, in Caernarvonshire. In Wales, according to the Welsh Laws, a yew dedicated to a saint was worth 120 pence, but otherwise only 15 or 20 pence [Jones 1992, p. 19].
Rowan is a protective and oracular tree. Branches were fixed to cattle sheds and over house doors. In Wales rowan sometimes grows in graveyards alongside the more usual yew [Milner 1992, p. 65] to watch over the spirits of the dead. Children decorated Priest's Well, near Narberth, with 'mountain ash' on May Day in order to keep witches away [Jones 1992, p. 129].
Blackthorn is 'unbeloved of men', a tree of black magic and blasting. Witches used the thorns for sticking into wax effigies [Graves 1990, p. 200]. Needless to say, it was not planted at wells; but the spikes of the tree thrown into a well indicated the faithfulness or otherwise of a lover [Bord 1986, p. 88].
This tree has no sacred associations but it so easily seeds that it could be found growing next to wells. An old sycamore is the 'money tree' at the holy well of St Fintan near Portlasie, Ireland. Tradition states that St Fintan dropped some water on the tree and the damp hollow in the trunk bears a trickle of holy water. Pilgrims used to tie clothing to the tree, but more recently hammered coins into the bark, so that its base is now more metal than wood [Milner 1992, p. 136].
Many trees at holy wells in Ireland were said to give travellers protection from drowning if they took a piece of bark. There were wells that had fish or eels in them, and which 'invariably' had holy trees growing over them [Jones 1992, p. 108]. Many wells were meeting-places, and often village wells were near to other important features such as the tree where the 'moot' was held. One well in Wales was dressed with mistletoe, and another dressed with sprigs of box. Initials were often carved on trees, for example at Ffynnon Gwaenydd, Caernarvon; and 'a pine tree growing over a well never sheds its needles'. An old Irish text states that voyagers coming to an island found a well 'overshadowed by a tree' in which birds were singing the 'canonical hours.'
I have given plenty of examples of tree/well connections. There are undoubtedly many more. I hope this initial survey encourages others to observe and note the trees growing at wells in different parts of the country.
Baker, Margaret, 1978, The Gardener's Folklore. Readers Union Book clubs (Newton Abbot).
Bord, Janet & Colin, 1986, Sacred Waters: Holy Wells and Water Lore in Britain and Ireland. Paladin.
Briggs, Katherine, 1976, A Dictionary of Fairies. Penguin.
Davidson, H.R. Ellis, 1964, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Pelican.
Graves, Robert, 1990, The White Goddess. Faber & Faber.
Jones, Francis, 1992, The Holy Wells of Wales. University of Wales Press (Cardiff).
Milner, J. Edward, 1992, The Tree Book. Collins & Brown.
Shepherd, Val, 1994, Historic Wells In and Around Bradford. Heart of Albion Press (Wymeswold).
Whelan, Edna, & Taylor, Ian, 1989, Yorkshire Holy Wells and Sacred Springs. Northern Lights (Dunnington).
Wilson, Rob, 1991, Holy Wells and Spas of South Yorkshire. Northern Arts Publishing (Sheffield).
Text © Val Shepherd (1994)
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