The Silver Well

I'm indebted to The Source for the information that there's a well at Whitchurch Canonicorum. It was restored a few years ago and there was a well-dressing and a blessing. There's a grid reference on The Source, and I should have taken the GPS. Of course, If I had, we might not have found the church, but that's another matter. Both church and well were already, it appears, well known: just not by me.

sign for the well

We first attempted to get there in spring 2001, just around the start of the foot-and-mouth outbreak. We stopped for a nice lunch at the Ship at Morecombelake, on the main road. Then my long-suffering wife Sue drove us all round Whitchurch Canonicorum looking for the well, without success. We did find a marvellous church with a shrine and a legend. But no well.

Eventually, we drove to Seatown, to walk along a bit of the South Coast Path. The path was closed because of the epidemic. Opposite the Anchor at Seatown, there's an information board. We looked to see if there was anything else interesting and lo! there was "The Saint's Well" marked - just opposite the pub where we had lunch. Sue drove us back: we drove up Ship Knapp and found a sign, but the path to the well was also closed (the little green notice hanging on the fingerboard points out that the path is open again). At least now we knew that the well was in Morecombelake. We resolved to return, and did so a few months later, the day the National Trust generously re-opened some of the paths in the area.

St Wite's Well Water from the Well

After a disastrous false start, resulting in lunch at a Little Chef, quite the least pleasant meal I have eaten for some time, the day got better moment by moment. Yes, the path to the well was open. And yes, it's quite beautiful. A mist literally rolling in from the sea lent a strangely wonderful quality to the light and made the birdsong more intense. The little well stands in the middle of a field. It's beautifully restored, in contrast to the one at Holwell, and obviously well cared for. The water didn't look too clean, so I refrained from drinking, but it seemed appropriate to make a wish (and no, I'm not telling).

We walked on, down to St Gabriel's, where there are holiday cottages and a little ruined chapel, all that remains of the former fishing village.

St Gabriel's Church
Close by the settlement was also a modern version of St Wite's well, a cistern and inspection hatch channelling water for the houses from what would otherwise be a very muddy piece of field - and we found plenty of those, too. The mist was by now obscuring the views completely, and I was beginning to worry about getting lost, so we turned back and instead went to the church.

St Candida and Holy Cross

This is of course easier if you take the correct road first time. My faulty navigation didn't actually lose us the sump of the car, just nearly. At the second attempt, there was the church, which may or may not hold the answer to the question "just who was Saint Wite."

The church of St Candida and Holy Cross contains a rare survival of the reformation: an English shrine a saint's relics. Its survival is a mystery: a lead casket was sealed within the upper body of the shrine. During the winter of 1899-1900 movements of the walls and pavement started to destroy the tomb and during the repairs the following April, the casket was discovered. It was inscribed "HIC REQESCT RELIQUE SCE WITE" and when opened was found to contain the bones of a small woman aged about forty.

St Wite's Shrine

So who was she? The hymn-writer, folklorist and hagiographer Sabine Baring-Gould has suggested that she is the fifth-century Breton St Blanche. Blanche is associated with "Blanche's Causeway", the luminous effect of trails of disturbed water in the sea (for example the wake of a ferry in the moonlight). But although Blanche is often identified with St Candida, it's unlikely that Wite originally meant "white". Certainly the church was still dedicated to St Wite in about 1200AD: the change to the Latin "Candida" happened some time between then and 1500. There is also a German "Wite", companion of St Boniface.

not quite Blanche's Causeway, but close

As with the story of the well at Cerne Abbas, I prefer the local legend, which seems to me more likely to have a nugget of truth. Rather than being a Breton, or German, with companions in high places, the local image of St Wite is that of a holy woman or hermit killed during a ninth century Danish raid. The well at Morecombelake could easily be that of an anchoress. There was a battle on Charndown Hill in 831, followed by general slaughter in the area. And about fifty years later, during a period when he was commemorating people who had died for the faith at the hands of the Danes, Alfred the Great built the chapel known as St Wite's Church, where the current church stands, possibly replacing an earlier chapel.

Bluebells for Sue

The next day, we walked up Golden Cap, highest point on the south coast, through Bluebells to where, just possibly, St Wite hung out a lantern to guide shipping. It was still misty and my last sight of the sea was luminous surf stretching into the mist - perhaps I'm wrong and Blanche was trying to tell me something after all.

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