Cerne Abbas, in Dorset, is a convenient place to stop off on the way back from several places which we visit in the West Country. It's famous for the priapic chalk figure on "Giant Hill", but there's also a well. I've known that "the Silver Well" was there for a long time, but only recently found it.
Of course, once you know where to look, there's a great big wooden post directing you to the well; as always, the trick is looking in the right place. Walk past the church towards the old priory, past the duck pond, and in through the gate of the burial ground. Then keep to the right hand path.
Girls were recommended to go there and pray to St Catherine for a husband, turning around three times as they did so: according to custom, there used to be a chapel dedicated to St Catherine on the hill directly above the well. Thomas Gerard's 1620 "Survey of Dorsetshire" notes that the well was "heretofore covered with a chapel to St Augustine. Whether there were two chapels, or only one, most traces probably disappeared during the dissolution of the abbey. There is a "Catherine Wheel" carved on the left hand stone flanking the well - the stones came from the abbey when it was destroyed after the dissolution and there are many around the village. Below is another, better preserved, wheel, on a stone from the Reredos of the Abbey Church, behind the New Inn.
The St Augustine story almost certainly dates from an attempt by the Benedictine Monastery, founded in 970 AD, to make it more attractive to pilgrims. This was the equivalent of putting a new ride into a modern-day theme park. The abbey had a colourful history and was reputedly burned and looted by King Canute: perhaps, as at Glastonbury, the monks needed the revenue for rebuilding.
The origin of the well is much earlier than the ninth century and was probably originally a pagan sacred site. The custom of dipping new-born babies into the well when the first rays of sunlight touch the waters hark back to an early Christian or perhaps pre-Christian ritual. Unsurprisingly, it has been linked in its "pagan-ness" with the giant carved into the hill above: in reality, there is no evidence that the giant is as old as the well, and the most likely explanation is that it's a lampoon of "England's Hercules" which was carved during a dispute between the local landowner and Oliver Cromwell.
As with most old wells, there are many superstitions about it. Suggestions that the well cures eye problems and infertility are fairly common. In this case there is a great deal of truth in them: the waters are clean, meaning that they will cure many eye problems associated with dirty water, and rich in iron, which will help certain types of fertility problems.
In terms of the spirit of the well, I can do no better than the words of the local guide: "Whatever its history, the well is a holy place full of peace and quiet. Respect it, and take some of its peace with you into the busy world".