St Aldhelm's Well - Wiltshire Holy Wells - At the Sign of the Black Cat
St Aldhelm's Well, Malmesbury

The 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.

aldhelm.jpg (22764 bytes)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 Wessex , and founded several monasteries, including the one at Bradford-on-Avon where tradition says that he also built the little Saxon church.  When the diocese of Wessex was divided in two he was appointed first Bishop of the western half, and established his see at Sherborne.   He was apparently an unorthodox preacher, keeping his listeners' attention with clowning and songs.  He loved language and books, and wrote many songs and hymns to help the poor and illiterate people of his diocese understand the message of the gospels.   He died in 709 while visiting Doulting in Somerset ; Doulting has its own well of Saint Aldhelm, which has a fine wide bathing pool.

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 Wessex people.

References

Aubrey, John (1969). Aubrey's natural history of Wiltshire / ed. by John Britton. New. ed. New York : Kelley. [Facsimile reprint of 1847 edition]

Gomme, George Laurence (1901).  Topographical history of Warwickshire, Westmoreland and Wiltshire.  London : Elliot Stock.  (Gentleman's Magazine Library; 13)

Great Western Railway (1908).  Wonderful Wessex : Wilts Dorset and Somerset from Salisbury Plain and the Severn Sea to the English Channel London : GWR.

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