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 seem to remember learning about it in the early nineteen-seventies, but despite several vists in the eighties and nineties, it was only in 1998 that I finally 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.
At first sight the well appears to be far below the level of water in the village pond, but this is an illusion of the topography. When it is running freely, the waters are fine to drink, indeed, they flow beneath the graveyard to the village and local residents used them as their drinking water until the 1940s. In late summer and autumn it can, however, become somewhat stagnant. When last I was there, it was clear, but there were some small things a bit like shrimps which I took care not to ingest.
The well is officially named for St Augustine. One of the tales about his travels is that he visited Dorset. While there he met some shepherds grazing their flocks and asked them whether they would prefer beer or water to drink. The temperate shepherds replied "water", whereupon St Augustine struck the ground with his staff, crying "Cerno El" as the water splashed out. The words are both Hebrew and Latin for "I perceive God" and supposedly a pun on Cernel, then the name of the village.
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.
In any case, I prefer the story of St Edwold, a brother of the Mercian king, who one day had a vision of a silver well. He went wandering through the countryside to search for it, and when he came to Cerne he gave some silver pennies to a shepherd in return for bread and water. The shepherd showed him a well where he could drink and St Edwold recognised it as the well of his vision. Edwold then either founded or joined a small community of hermits by the spring and lived there until his death in 871.
The origin of the well is much earlier than the ninth century: it 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. The trees surrounding the well itself are known as the "twelve apostles" and to this day, one can see ribbons and rags tied to the branches.
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".