St Anne’s Well – a lost special place found again.

The remnants of St Anne’s Well Siston

One website I looked at today describes St Anne’s Well as “the most dangerous well in Britain” – and having walked down the now busy road from the Church towards the well, it’s hard to disagree. Nowadays it’s a shadow of its former self. The cast iron sign has disappeared with the stone surround, and if it weren’t for the fact that the sodden ground was wet enough for a flush of water from under a couple of stone lintels I’d never have found it unless I’d remembered exactly where it is. I think I visited it once with Madame in the 1970’s when it wasn’t much more than a muddy puddle filled with debris; but yesterday it was a proper spring, rather than a well.

Sixty five years ago I was searching for books on magic in Bristol Central Reference Library – this was an early teenage obsession – and I found an antique volume which referred to several holy wells within a bike ride of where I lived. So St Anne’s became the first holy well in a long succession of them, beginning a side obsession with OS maps. There is something inexplicable but deeply spiritual about wells and springs. The thought of clear water emerging from underground, often pulsing gently, must lead almost anyone to pause and reflect. Being a determinedly non competitive student I even managed to persuade Jimmy Munn our sadistic PE teacher to let me devise my own cross -country run which took me past the well and excused from him having to cope with my chaotic inability to add anything to team games. Although my knowledge of nature was as spare as it was of the offside rule, it was where I fell in love with solitary walks and natural history.

So on Friday I went back with the other two Musketeers from Bath Natural History Society to check out the the recently designated Forest of Avon (with St Anne’s well at the centre) for a potential field trip next year. It was muddy as hell, but the sun shone for at least part of the day as we searched the fields and hedges for potential bird nesting sites, butterfly food plants, plants in general, spiders and insects as well as fungi. As ever we joked and joshed our way around the site taking photos for later identification and noting hazards for the inevitable risk assessment form. At one point I was kneeling to lift a stone so my companion could search for spiders and I steadied myself by placing my hand in a soft dog’s turd! Should I perhaps put that on the risk assessment? I do wish all dog walkers would pick their dogshit up and dispose of it properly (in some other way than hanging it on trees).

One topic of discussion among us was what precisely had introduced us to natural history. I always feel a bit typecast as a retired vicar but none of us are typically academic, all of us are largely self-taught, and all of us would acknowledge our debt to past mentors – often self-taught volunteers themselves. Of all scientific disciplines, natural history relies on a huge voluntary effort to record what’s on the ground and submit those records to national databases. The challenge these days is how to recruit enough new volunteers to track the environmental disaster of species extinctions in the hope that one day soon we can develop the tools for reversing it.

What struck me was that over the past 60 years what was once a farm has become a ‘site’ or a reserve. The thin line of trees adjoining the brook has thickened to about 20 feet wide, and the fields seemed to have been returned to a regime of mowing once a year. No grazing is going on according to a dog walker we met. Many hundreds of trees have been planted over the past 20 years or so and so the wildlife potential has improved beyond measure. We watched a kestrel making use of a power line that crossed the site and saw magies rooks and carrion crows as well as hearing a raven somewhere near. All the other usual suspects were around. My companions were getting excited about the possibility Brown Hairstreaks in the tall and thick hedges (untouched by the flail mower for years). I was thinking about orchids but loving the architecture of the skeletal remains of teasels.

Anyway, that’s enough wildlife gossip. What surprised me most of all was that in spite of our sceptical and irreligious culture, someone had built a little shrine in memory of their mother, on the edge of the brook and opposite the well. It gave us all cause for a moment of contemplative silence.

Having dipped my toes into the water, an unexpected turn.

The steps leading down to St Non’s Well.

You might justifiably think that this post is a fragment that escaped too soon. But I reached the last two words – “I did” – and felt strongly that I should stop before wading into a pointless attempt to explain or justify what happened. The previous post – “Suspend disbelief – dip toe in water” – gives more detail and sets the scene.

You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid.

TS Eliot – from “Little Gidding”

So since I’ve been mentioning St Non, I owe an explanation of her place in history, which won’t take long since almost nothing reliable is known about her except that she was the mother of St David and legend has it that she gave birth to him on a clifftop in the midst of a thunderstorm near the place where the ruins of an original chapel and the well can now be found. As supernatural endorsements go I suppose that’s a ten out of ten. I always assumed that this birth took place amidst the shrubs and bracken but I have seen a suggestion that she might have been living in a cottage there. Most of the other stories about her emerged during the next 500 years and were catalogued by Rhyfarch around 1095 – five centuries later. What’s undeniably true is that this became a place of pilgrimage quite soon after her death and continues to attract pilgrims even in this secular age when, from my own experience, most walkers fail to notice the well and go straight to the chapel ruins where they take a photo and walk on. There’s a modern chapel nearby which was built in the 1930’s and includes a good deal of ecclesiastical archaeology recovered from the area and built into the unusual altar. The chapel seems to be used only for occasional weddings now. For me, neither the modern chapel nor the ancient ruins hold much attraction; but the well is different.

I’ve been fascinated by and drawn to wells ever since I was a schoolboy. I would pore over the local OS map and search them out. My first ever was St Aldhelm’s well near Syston which turned out to be a fairly miserable puddle but which was reputed to be good for healing eye complaints. Wells, springs and resurgences – perhaps because their water appears to come from nowhere – have a naturally mysterious quality. As for the links between wells and saints, my best guess is that it’s metaphorical and poetic rather than factual. What’s really important is the capacity of the water, emerging from the unknown, to evoke a change of mood, a kind of meditative openness – if only the pilgrim allows it.

The logical, scientific mind would have none of this of course. “So Dave, your supposedly healing well is dedicated to a saint who probably had nothing to do with it and probably never visited it. Furthermore we now understand exactly how the water, falling as rain, percolates through the ground and emerges at the well, and the supposedly healing properties of the water cannot be identified by the most detailed analysis.” and I would reply “Every word you say is true; but in such a limited way you miss the point altogether. The well, the stories of saints and the water are nothing more than the setting in which the real work is a kind of silent dialogue between the pilgrim and what one 15th century Christian mystic called “The cloud of unknowing”.

No-one knows or ever could know what the emerging water says, because – in exactly the approach of Taoism, Zen Buddhism, Christian mysticism and almost any other religious tradition – the Word – is only heard in the silence when every preconception, theological assumption or personal pleading is put aside. All of which was a rather long winded answer to the question – “Did your ankle get better?” – Well, thanks for asking – but no, not really. On the other hand I did.”