The Holy Well at Holwell
Some wells, such as the Silver Well at Cerne, have an aura of peace about them. You go there to experience the atmosphere. I must admit that, for me, the Holy Well at Holwell, twenty miles north of Cerne, is not one of these. This is a well for trainspotters: if you have an anorak and a book of wells to tick off, you'll be right in your element here. It did, in fact, partly lead me to another train-spotting exercise about wells.
I can think of two other reasons, though. The first is that you can learn a fair amount about the area just by finding it, and the second that if for some reason you wanted to make a wish and leave an offering, you could pretty much guarantee that it would be undisturbed. And it's enough effort to count as a pilgrimage.
Just finding the place to start from is difficult enough. The boundary signs for Holwell imply that about a nine square-mile area is all Holwell. That's not really so: the Department of the Environment have subsumed a number of other villages into the offical area. Holwell itself is north of what appears to be the main centre, about half a mile to the east of the main road from Pulham (on the B3143) to Bishop's Caundle (on the A3030). Holwell is itself on the Caundle Brook, which is a tributary of the Stour. Stourton Caundle had the most western mill on the Stour and its tributaries, and is also one of the villages where stave dancing was recorded.
Now that we've placed Holwell firmly on the map, a word of caution. You should notice St Lawrence's Church from well outside the village. Once you can see it, if you're in a car, park somewhere convenient. This will allow you to savour the gentle walk into the village. Or, to put it another way, it prevents you having to annoy the householders beyond the church in order to turn round. Take some time to enjoy the church and the village, and ponder why the church should be so large. Think of it as demography in action.
Ah yes, the well. Gentlemen, I recommend long sleeves. Ladies, I seriously suggest trousers rather than a skirt. And that's just for the footpath. Do not be seduced by the track to the left, which looks as if it goes where the map says the well is. Broad and straight it may be, but rather than hell as tradition would imply, it leads to a farmyard and a dead end. The path of the righteous is the narrow muddy one just to the left of the church as you look at it from the road. Yes, I kid you not. Just push straight through the overhanging prickly trees and you will find...
...well, more overhanging prickly trees actually. Push on further and you'll be rewarded by a fine bridge over the Caundle Brook, a fast flowing river. Savour the peace of the bridge. Move further on, now, and look down (given the state of the path, this is advisable in any case). In about fifty yards, the mud gives way to three pre-cast concrete culverts.
On your left is the well. Look in the trees there and you'll see it. Well, you might, if you know what you're looking for. That's it there. Walk past the trees and there's a flat bit of compacted vegetation. The well itself is fenced off, if the four pieces of wood justify the word "fence". And, indeed, if the area of brackish water justifies the word "well". I suspect that the fence is there to cover the landowner for insurance purposes in case someone manages to find enough water to drown.
Apparently, the well was excavated and found to have steps, like a traditional baptismal well. Its current (May 2000) situation is a bit of a shame, because with a little work it could be as much a feature of the area as the one at Cerne. Certainly, if I owned it, I'd be tempted to clean it up and make something of it. Meanwhile, do whatever you will, tick the well off in your book and head for civilisation. Holwell having no pub, I recommend the Trooper in Stourton Caundle. Read up on Stave Dancing while you're there. For all-day opening, posh food and a museum, Sturminster Newton is only just along the road. This also has a museum (Thursday and Sunday, other times by appointment) on the road out to Hinton St Mary and in the other direction, adjacent to the main road, is a watermill (Sat, Sun, Mon and Thurs, Easter to September - you can look round it, and there's a path into town across the recreation ground).