Patient Heal Thyself! Wiltshire magazines Joan Smith visits Wiltshires Healing Wells

PUBLISHED: 12:46 11 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:09 20 February 2013

The tree that marks the site of Hancock's Well

The tree that marks the site of Hancock's Well

Joan Smith goes back to an age when the NHS was a distant dream and visits the location of some of the ancient healing wells in the county.

Joan Smith goes back to an age when the NHS was a distant dream and visits the location of some of the ancient healing wells in the county.

In years gone by, our Wiltshire ancestors believed in the powers of local wells and springs to heal minor illnesses. Many wells were reputed to heal eye ailments, others were good for skin complaints, problems with digestion, or were just general cure-alls. For the poor, who could not afford a doctor, the springs offered hope of a cure. To the leisured classes and the historians they were a source of curiosity, and it is thanks to them that records of the healing wells exist.

Sadly few remain visible, but one that can be easily found is Eye-Well at Market Lavington. Situated at the side of the B3098, the small stone trough still has the chain attached to it which used to hold a drinking cup. John Aubrey, writing in The Natural History of Wiltshire in the 17th century, recorded the existence of a good salt spring near the town. As the name suggests, the spring was reputed to cure eye ailments. In Wiltshire Folklore Kathleen Wiltshire relates a tale dating back to 1890 of children on their way home from their governess being asked to fetch water from the well for an old woman going blind from cataracts.

Another healing well, still visible today, is Hancock's Well at Luckington. Situated just north of Brook End, the water flows down a stone culvert into the Bristol Avon. Aubrey wrote of this that the water was so cold, even in summer, that it was difficult to put a hand in it for long. He recorded that, 'It does much good to the eies (sic) It cures the itch & co.' Describing the properties of the water and commenting on its yellowish precipitation he speculated upon why it might have healing properties, concluding that the water was impregnated with nitre, the soil in the lane leading from the well to nearby Sapperton being rich in the mineral. The nitre Aubrey refers to may be sodium nitrate, a form of salt which is very soluble in water.

He described the same white/yellow colour at Stockwell, which he described as being at 'Rowd' but which can actually be found flowing beside Stoney Lane in Bromham. Of the water of Stockwell Aubrey wrote, 'It changed not colour with powder of galles; perhaps it may have the effect of Epsham water.' The Epsham to which Aubrey referred was Epsom. A spa had been established there in the early 17th century, when a spring had been discovered which contained magnesium sulphate, commonly known as Epsom salts. The Epsom spa was well renowned at the time for its healing properties; unsurprising then that Aubrey should speculate on a similarity between the waters of Epsom and Stockwell. Aubrey also recorded that the local inhabitants told him that the water of Stockwell washed very well and was much used for the making of medicines. Like many other wells, it was reputed to be good for the eyes.

Records exist for a medicinal well at Wootton Bassett as far back as 1670. Salt Spring, as it was known, was an intermittent spring which rose in a field, up through an iron pipe into a brick-enclosed well. Aubrey also wrote about this spring, quoting a letter dated 18 May 1691 from an acquaintance, a Mr T Hanson of Magdalen College, indicating the existence of a medicinal spring at some distance from the town. Mr Hanson had been told that a Dr Willis had given his judgement of the waters and had compared it with waters to be found at Astrop. This was likely to be a reference to the St Rumbald's Well at Astrop in Northamptonshire, a mineral spring much frequented in the latter part of the 17th century.

Writing about the Wootton Bassett spring in 1896, WF Parsons noted that during the summer 'large quantities of the water are taken away by visitors from... a radius of ten miles or more'. Although he doesn't say what the spring was reputed to cure in humans, he does say that the field in which the spring rose was usually reserved for pasturing young cattle, 'as it has long been known that they enjoy there an immunity from the disease known as "quarter evil"'. Sadly, the spring seems to have been lost for ever in 1960 during building works for the M4 motorway. The motorway engineers piped an outlet to it, but the spring has not been seen since.

Despite the local reputations of the above wells, and many more, to date there is no scientific evidence to suggest that they did indeed possess healing qualities. Perhaps the ability to take some action against their ailments, and the belief in the properties of the waters, was what helped our ancestors to overcome their illnesses.

Joan Smith

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