Holy Well - Wiltshire Holy Wells - At the Sign of the Black Cat
Holy Well, near Biddestone

The star-bearing well

"East of Bitteston...is a spring - they call it a holy well, - where five-pointed stones doe bubble up (Astreites) which doe move in vinegar." (Aubrey 1969, 45) The seventeenth-century Wiltshire antiquarian John Aubrey notes with his characteristic air of scientific enquiry the outstanding feature of this most magical of Wiltshire wells. Holy well is a natural spring rising at a faultline between the cornbrash layer of the Great Oolite and its overlying clay. Blocks of masonry nearby indicate that the well once had a stone surround and drinking trough, but these have apparently been moved aside and now the spring has returned to its natural state, flowing from a hole in a fold in the land.

In the sandy bed of the spring can be found tiny fossils shaped like stars, which are constantly being freed from the fossil-bearing cornbrash by the action of the spring water, which brings them to the surface. These stars are the isolated stem parts, or columnals, of crinoids, the plant-like sea-creatures commonly known as sea lilies. Crinoids are related to starfish, hence the star-like shape of the columnals; and because they are made of calcite, they will indeed (if you can bear to destroy them) effervesce in a dilute acid solution like vinegar.

Certainly the stars have contributed greatly to the mystery of the well, and have given it its other name, the Starwell. The Travellers know it by this name, and have taken to visiting it in their wanderings around the West Country. Local folklore says that the stars are petrified flowerlets fallen into the water from the elder trees - witch-tree par excellence and much associated with wells - which grow around the well. This is a nicely scientific explanation, but although there are wells with petrifying water in Wiltshire, this is not one of them. It is a typical trait of folklore, however, to try to explain what cannot be understood, and we shall meet another instance of this at another Wiltshire well, Chattle Hole. 

Location

ST 880727, OS 1: 25 000 sheet 1152.

Holy well lies between Biddestone and Chippenham, in a field north of the crossroads by Stowell farm. Please note that there is no right of way across this field. Once through the field gate keep to the left of the stream, and follow the beaten path out to the spring, which flows into the stream from the far side. Wellington boots are essential for this one.

References

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

Oral Sources

Travellers visit Starwell. Mr. Steve Hunt, University of Bath 1994. (aged c.25)

Stars are petrified elderflowers. Local informant, University of Bath, March 1995. (aged c.65)

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Wiltshire Holy Wells

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At the Sign of the Black Cat