Shingle Bell - Wiltshire Holy Wells - At the Sign of the Black Cat
Shingle Bell, Limpley Stoke

Healing for the eyes

Aldhelm.jpgThe village of Limpley Stoke clings to the western slopes of the Avon valley, in this area known romantically as the Valley of the Nightingale. In Stoke Wood lies the ancient holy well called Shingle Bell. Springs break intermittently all through this hanging woodland, but Shingle Bell has cut a clear stream-bed out of the steep hillside. It is nevertheless a very insignificant spring, which was flowing only weakly when I visited it in May 1995.

Its folklore, however, is far from insignificant, for this both an eye-well and Wiltshire's only rag-well. "The waters in Shingle Bell Well have been held in great repute as efficacious in diseases of the eyes; tradition adds that sufferers, who received benefit from them, used to hang strips of rag or cloth on the branches of the surrounding trees as votive offerings." (Lewis 1889, 283).

Shingle Bell rises at the east end of what was once an old building, long demolished - discarded blocks of masonry can still be seen nearby - which may have been a chapel belonging to a small castle, traditionally known as Spy Castle, which stood at a point which gives fine views of the valley and hills around. (Ibid, 283) So here we have an eye-well, with its cult of simple rags hung on the trees around, which was perhaps Christianised by the building of a chapel above it. We have no definitive way of knowing whether the healing cult came before the Christianisation of the well, or indeed whether the well was sacred before the building of the chapel, but there may be a clue hidden in a local place-name. Stoke Wood was known in earlier times as Pucklewood. (Hooker 1977, 47) Now it is notoriously dangerous to make guesses about the meaning of placenames without early forms of the name to guide one: so I suggest the following as a possibility only. Well-names often contract to the suffix -le - for example Buckwell becomes Buckle, Botwellsford becomes Bottlesford - and it is just possible that here Puckwell-wood has become Pucklewood. Puckwell, as we find at the well of that name at West Knoyle, has devilish connotations, indicating the presence of some pagan god.

Location

ST 780614 OS 1: 25 000 Sheet 1183. 

Limpley Stoke lies either side of the A36 south of Bath. Starting from the Rose and Crown car-park on the A36, cross the road (carefully!) and take the public footpath through the kissing gate signposted to Waterhouse. About a hundred yards along here you pass an abandoned railway truck on the right, and almost immediately enter a small clearing. Leave the right-of-way and take the small path leading off the clearing ahead right (taking care not to tread on the Early Purple Orchid which is growing right in the middle of the path). A little way down the path is a rustic bench on the left, and Shingle Bell lies just down the slope opposite the bench. You will need wellington boots for this one.

References

Hooker, Richard (1977). A local history project on Limpley Stoke. [Unpublished typescript in Wiltshire Local Studies Library, Trowbridge]

Lewis, William (1889). Rambles about Bath. Bath : Herald Office.

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Wiltshire Holy Wells

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