Let’s move off death for once and discuss birth: new life in the face of all this archaeodeath! Still, wells can be commemorative too…
Now I have discussed holy wells elswhere in this blog as places of pilgrimmage and thus places where healing is sought for body and soul from the Middle Ages and sometimes up to the present. They are also places where cures are commemorated and they can acquire churches and churchyards close by. For example, I have discussed the Welsh examples of Penmon, Llandegla and Holywell. I also regularly encounter wells at heritage sites including castles as at Castell y Bere, Caergwrle and Denbigh as well as lavas in monastic cloisters as at Valle Crucis Abbey.
However, I struggled to understand wells since my childhood: my closest was impenetrable. Hence, I couldn’t quite understand who they were supposed to operate.
This is because my closest well was in Caversham, Berkshire (but historically in Oxfordshire): St Anne’s Well on Priest’s Hill where it joins St Anne’s Road. I remember peering in as a kid and not understanding how water was drawn from it.
Situated on the scarp of the chalkland ridge above, and evidently on an historic route towards, the ford crossing the Thames now marked by Caversham Bridge, it was evidently a popular place of prayer and pilgrimage from the Middle Ages.
St Anne – the mother of the Virgin Mary – was associated with childbirth (among other things). Hence, she also received a later chapel on Caversham bridge dedicated to her. This was a watery landscape of labour!
Framed by large beech trees, the modern St Anne’s well is a place where its monumental well-head – Edwardian in date – is fully commemorative. The well was lost and rediscovered in 1906 and the well-head dates to 1908. It has an inscription recording the importance of the site. There was once a pump to draw water from the well, but now it is dry. Thus, the well-head now caps and seals against its use to draw fresh water and prevents accidents and large objects being thrown in. The stone, bricks and iron railings protect the well from people, and people from the well. There is also a bench with a memorial plaque, showing that this site of repose on the hill retains a ‘special’, if not ‘holy’ significance for some local people.