|St Aldhelm's Well, Malmesbury|
ancient hilltop town of Malmesbury is full of wells of all kinds. Many are
shaft-wells dating from the mediaeval period or later. Almost every household has
its well, and these all seem to be about 30-40 feet deep. At the bottom of the wells
the fresh water is constantly active, bubbling up from the water table far below.
But much older than these mediaeval wells is the small and secret spring known as Saint Aldhelm's well. It lies in a small alcove set into the wall of a private house in Gloucester street, and so is not open to public view in any way. The stone-built house encloses the well on three sides, and above one's head is a huge flat stone, like a sarsen stone, which perhaps has been associated with the well from long before the house was built around it. Water trickles from a pipe into a small pool, gravel-bottomed with one step down, and then runs away under the garden. Nobody is certain where the water comes from or where it goes. Around the well grows a delicate green plant which seems to be helxine or something very similar.
It is in this well that Saint Aldhelm is supposed to have "bathed in all weathers". (Gomme 1901, 170) Indeed one source describes the saint as "a veritable apostle of the cold tub" (GWR 1908, p.80). The well must have changed drastically in appearance and structure since Aldhelm's time, for there is no room to bathe more than one's feet in it nowadays. But back in the 7th century this would have been an open spring on the hillside, ideal for bathing - or for mortifying the flesh for the good of the soul, which is the usual explanation in folklore for the bathing of saints in holy wells.
Aldhelm was a remarkable man of his time. He was a relation of
the King of the West Saxons, and was educated first at Malmesbury and then at Canterbury
where he became a Benedictine monk. He returned to Malmesbury and in around 675
became Abbot there. He was concerned to improve the standard of education in
Saint Aldhelm is quite a significant figure in Wiltshire
folklore. John Aubrey tells us "The old tradition is that St. Aldelm, Abbot of
Malmesbury, riding over the ground at Hazelbury, did throw down his glove, and bade them
dig there, and they should find great treasure, meaning the quarre [quarry]."
(Aubrey 1969, p.42) In other words, it was Saint Aldhelm who discovered the great
Box Ground Stone beds, whose stone was used in the building of the Abbey at
Malmesbury. Aubrey also tells us that "There was a great bell at Malmesbury
Abbey, which they called St. Adelm's bell, which was accounted a telesman, and to have
great power, when is was rang, to drive away the thunder and lightning."
(Aubrey 1969, p.76)
Aldhelm is responsible for the naming of Bishopstrow, near
Warminster. The name means Bishop's Tree [AS treo], and the story of its naming comes
from the life of St. Aldhelm related by William of Malmesbury. He tells how Aldhelm
came to the village to preach, and before he started he planted his ash staff in the
earth. While he was preaching, the staff miraculously sprouted leaves, and
grew into a fine tree. Intent on his preaching, the bishop noticed nothing until the
shouts of the congregation made him aware that something very unusual was happening behind
him. When he left the village the miraculous Bishop's Tree remained as
evidence of the great miracle, and now we have only the placename to remind us of the
power of Aldhelm's preaching.
This tale may be depicted on the naive romanesque tympanum over the
door of Little Langford church. Here a figure holding a staff raises his hand in a
gesture of blessing, while to the right stands a stylised leafy tree with three birds in
the branches. Perhaps what we see here is Aldhelm planting the staff, and then the
staff grown into a tree some time later. Whatever the explanation in this case, it
is clear from these traditional stories that the deeds of Aldhelm have lived long in the
memories of his
Aubrey, John (1969). Aubrey's natural history of Wiltshire /
ed. by John Britton. New. ed.
Gomme, George Laurence (1901). Topographical history of Warwickshire, Westmoreland and
Great Western Railway (1908). Wonderful
|Wiltshire Holy Wells||
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