Almost by definition, Holy Wells are the meeting place of the tangible and the intangible - the drinkable and the dowsable. On a surprisingly damp and chilly Sunday afternoon in May, 25 dowsers and friends turned up to find out more about this largely forgotten phenomenon.
Landscape historian Terry Faull has made a comprehensive study of these sacred springs in the South West - concentrating on the ancient Kingdom of Dumnonia, which stretched from what is now the west of Somerset, down to the Scilly Isles.
The first surprise for the audience was to discover just how many Holy Wells still exist. With over 200 in Devon alone, they are not an isolated curiosity, but a widespread and well-documented part of the social and physical landscape.
The next revelation was just how recently some of the sites had drifted out of use. Terry was able to describe written records of regular activity at many locations, well into Victorian times, and occasionally right through the 20th Century and up to the present day.
The origins and physical history of Holy Wells are shrouded in time. Even with some documentary evidence dating back to Roman times, the springs and their properties pre-date Caesar by millennia. Throughout the Celtic and Romano-Celtic periods the wells were in constant use - evidenced by the presence of votive offerings. Even after the Saxon invasion had destroyed much of the Celtic hierarchy and infrastructure, the sites continued to be revered. Only following the progressive Romanisation of the Christian church after the Synod of Whitby in 663 did the Holy Wells fall (or were rendered) into disuse.
However, as with all phenomena with a demonstrable purpose, the sites continued to attract covert pilgrims. In a world long before the NHS, the possibility of healing from a proven source would have been an irresistible magnet for the sick and their relatives. The new model church was awakened to this opportunity and, if they could not suppress the heretical superstition, at least they could make some income from it. Do-it-yourself private healthcare was born.
This latter set of circumstances has a resonance with the dowser, for only through the obvious benefits of dowsing (in its role of water divining) did dowsing, as we know it today, surreptitiously survive its banning under the Witchcraft Acts.
Although the belief in the healing properties of Holy Wells is well-known, Terry has found that this is not just a generalised concept. At over half of the documented sites there is a tradition of the healing of the eyes and of visual complaints. To this day, a number of places are still called Eyewell, or one of its derivatives. The persistence of the Holy Well, despite proscription and abandonment, only heightens the reality of the original attraction of the wells. People, with a very different world-view to our own, had discovered that water from certain places was more beneficial physically, and perhaps spiritually, than from others. They remembered and venerated the places and - perhaps rather remarkably, given the history of recent centuries - the successors of those distant people are still taking note of those properties into the age of the Space Shuttle.
Terry was keen to present a balanced view of the present state of the sites. Some had fallen into disrepair, some were forgotten altogether - misguided landowners had even destroyed some in quite recent times. Others had been smartened up sympathetically - while a few had been remodelled with hideous Victorian superstructure. However, a few were still in - or were back in - everyday use. The Cloutie Wells of Totnes, and Madron are comparatively well known - while others, such as Bath and Glastonbury, have entered the pilgrimage Premier League. One well, situated in a Hotel in Tavistock, even sells the Holy water from its source.
Terry spent most of his talk discussing and describing his images of Holy Wells garnered from across the region, with an emphasis on those in the TDs area. The depth and breadth of his knowledge of this (admittedly niche) subject was most impressive. Terry has journeyed himself from interested academic to passionate promoter of the Holy Well cause. Perhaps his most valuable contribution to the subject has been to carry the fading baton of knowledge into the Internet age.
For the dowser, a Holy Well is one of those places where one world - or world-view - meets another. Like dawn or dusk, birth or death, seashore or horizon - the Holy Well can be the gateway to another eternity. As Terry so eloquently implied, it is where documentary evidence merges with esoteric mysticism to create some very special places.
I was deluged after the talk with requests to include Holy Wells in our forthcoming programme - and I have subsequently had the tacit agreement from Terry that he would be willing to guide us on a Holy Wells field trip sometime next year.
Terry sold a boxful of his autographed books (Secrets of the Hidden Source - Hallsgrove - ISBN 1-84114-354-5) after the event.
As a footnote, our interest in Holy Wells has been matched by Terry's own awareness of dowsing. A case of mutual synchronicity.
Many thanks indeed to Terry Faull for an excellent and compelling presentation; to Pete and Jenny for organising - and re-organising - the Hall; to the North Hill Village Hall Committee for making us welcome, and to John and Ruth for providing and serving much needed refreshments throughout.