The Mother Fountains of Stape and Keldy

I shot this short video of the Roman well in the wood at Cawthorne last weekend.  I will never be a cinematographer, but at least you can hear it! The sound of its vibrant flow was what struck me most about it.

I am in the unconquerable North, where the invaders have marked this place most vividly with ruins and linguistic remains, but perhaps what outlives the Roman Occupation and the Viking Age is the Wyrd, the soul of the land full of stories which now only come to us as fragments. Perhaps they must be re-imagined. Rob Wildwood is doing some of this, and this blog post is worth a visit.

A clear path meanders through an ancient, intimate woodland and a gigantic choir of rhododendrons marks the spot of the Roman Well. The well itself is a dark hole in an earthen bank which flows into a brick trough beneath the rhododendrons. According to Edna Whelan and Ian Taylor in Yorkshire Holy Wells and Sacred Springs, this spring was used for drinking water until recently (perhaps the 1980s?)

The Roman Well in the Keldy Wood
The Roman Well in the Keldy Wood

Perhaps it is the forest seclusion or the clear flowing cool water that suggests both sacredness and the practical. At one time these were one in the same. What sustained life was also divine.

The clear water in the brick trough. Water Shrine at Keldy Wood
The clear water in the brick trough. Water Shrine at Keldy Wood

No doubt this well was used by the Romans and the people who were here before that invasion.  The well is named after the Roman camp which is not far away. But the wood– Keldy– is named after the spring.  Kelda is Old Norse for a spring or well.  Keld is a frequent place name in the North of England.

Mike walking on the old Roman camp near Keldy, North Yorkshire
Mike walking on the old Roman camp near Cropton, North Yorkshire

The Roman camp is well marked with many signs that correspond to a guide which can be had at the New Inn (which has pretty killer beer, it must be said). Though I haven’t had a look at the guide and prefer its current manifestation as a mysterious, fey landscape which suggests many sleeping giants or fairy portals that one could perhaps see the entrance to at twilight. The views from the camp are spectacular– you can see to the moors in the distance with their big skies above.  No doubt this was a strategic placement, but it is more interesting to think on the Roman ruins and their fantastical Dark Age meanings– I highly recommend The Real Middle Earth by Brian Bates which discusses this.

We also visited the roadside shrine of the Old Wives’ Well at Stape. The well-used road disguises this place– you must look out for a little clearing of a path amidst the wild thistle and nettle jungle that surrounds it. Though of all the wells we have visited in North Yorkshire, this seemed the most visited and loved.

The Old Wive's Well at Stape.
The Old Wives’ Well at Stape.

It is a Rag or “Clootie” well– meaning traditionally people leave bits of clothing belonging to the sick in need of healing.  Ribbons and a little angel trinket had been tied to the nearby tree, and a candle, long since exstinguished, lay submerged in the water.  A wooden rail marks the area, but seems out of place.  Still, it is a marker that the Forestry Commission have acknowledged this place.   The Yorkshire Holy Well site says this well was once  on open moorland before tree planting began– and it does have a feeling of seclusion and salvage amidst a big working forest.  According to Whelan and Taylor, there is historical evidence that Wade’s Causeway, the old Roman road on the moors, ran by this spring.  Wade’s Causeway is one of my favourite places on the moor, and perhaps the earth. Some say this road is not Roman at all but prehistoric, or perhaps Medieval, and that it has also been called the Old Wife’s Way. The giant Wade had a wife named Bell, and he built the road for her so she could go milk her giant cow in Pickering, or so the legend goes.  So maybe she is the old wife and this is her well. And maybe she is many other things, as the old wife is always the ancient Pagan Earth mother, but I digress.

"Fons Natalis" the mysterious inscription on this water shrine.
“NATTIE FONTEN” the mysterious inscription on this water shrine.

The mysterious inscription- I’ll admit I couldn’t read it and am going by Whelan and Taylor’s account– “NATTIE FONTEN” could mean many things.  By their account, it could be a corruption of “Fons Natalis” a Celtic water nymph.  The Yorkshire Holy Wells site proposes the inscription could read “MATTIE FONTEIN” perhaps meaning “Mother Fountain”, and this conjecture continues there as well as at the Modern Antiquarian site.  Words! Here is one such fragment of meaning left to us, and what to make of it? Part of me wonders if its the name, surviving even in its uncertain form, which has invited visitors, the offerings and even the wooden fence marking the spot as somehow important, something the other wells we’ve visited do not enjoy.

For jewellery inspired by water spirits and pagan places, like these Mermaid Lanterns, visit my  Etsy shop.
For jewellery inspired by water spirits and pagan places, like these Mermaid Lanterns, visit my Etsy shop.

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