Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Chad Well, Twyning

Twyning (pronounced Twinning) is derived from the Saxon 'tweoneum' and 'ingas', which roughly translates as "between place". And that's exactly what it is, a "between place" formed by two conjoining major rivers, the Severn and the Avon, which flow together (often with copious flooding) a couple of miles further south at Tewkesbury.

There are several River Avons in the UK but this one is the 'Warwickshire Avon' which flows through Shakespeare's home town. I find it somewhat softer and greener and more friendly than the Severn.

The River Avon, close to the site of the Chad Well.

Twyning is a pretty place and is a large parish in two parts, with its church forming the centre for a kind of sub-village (called Church End) a mile or so south of the main village of Twyning Green. It also has a holy well, not in either of the two villagey bits but in a quite isolated location on the bank of the River Avon. This well is an unassuming and even somewhat neglected feature, about which very little is really known, although it's old enough to get its name in blackletter script on the Ordnance Survey map. There are no signposts to it but it's easily found if you take a walk southwards along the river bank from the Fleet pub in Twyning village, and is recognisable by the square section of post-and-rails fencing around it. Unfortunately it isn't possible to access it any closer than this fence, but you can see the logic in keeping it enclosed, otherwise somebody would certainly get an accidental dunking. It's flush with the surface of the field and quite well camouflaged with grasses.

The Chad Well is inside the square fenced-off area (top right) and flows out into the River Avon from a pipe underneath this log.

Generally called Chad Well, it's also known as St. Chad's Well and is clearly named after the 7th century missionary St. Chad of Mercia, an Anglo-Saxon Bishop of York and of Lichfield whose name (a British-Celtic name rather than a Saxon one) is attached to a great number of healing wells. Indeed he has become something of a patron saint for holy wells. The well is circular and about 2ft in diameter and 1ft deep, rimmed with stone. It comprises a capped spring, with the stone basin collecting the water which is then piped underground to the bank of the Avon.

The well, looking rather unsaintly with algae, nettles and a plastic bottle.

 Detail of the rim which is built from stone blocks. I don't know how old this stonework is.

During the 20th century the Chad Well became very neglected and by the mid 1980s it appeared to be nothing more than a patch of wet mud with a few barbed wire entanglements (see here for photos). Around 1987 it was cleared out and restored. These days it has become a bit overgrown with weeds and as you can see, has had some litter chucked in it. But it does still have a flow of water through it and underneath the layers of gunk it is still very bright and clear. Its outflow sploshes out a few yards to the east, through a pipe, and straight into the River Avon. The outflow is one place where you can access the water directly, though I can't vouch for how clean it is these days. I have a little self-anointing ritual I do with wells and springs but it doesn't involve taking the waters internally. Beware also of ferocious boot-sucking mud around the outflow site.

The outflow

Unsubstantiated local legends claim that St. Chad personally blessed the well as he was passing through on his way to Bristol. It may possibly be true, as he had a monastic cell at Pershore, which is not all that far away, and holy wells were often set up as points for baptism around and about the area. But dedications of wells to St. Chad are very common all over the country, and not necessarily an indication that he had anything to do with them. Chad apparently had a penchant for meditating while immersed naked in a freezing cold well in Lichfield (don't knock it till you've tried it) and as such he has become strongly associated with wells in a very general way. It's particularly common for healing wells to be named in his honour. Dr Bruce Osborne suggests that Chad Well may simply be a corruption of 'cealdwiella', meaning 'cold well'. But he also puts forward the idea that Chad's patronage of sacred wells is a Christianisation of the Celtic/Norse deity Ceadda, a god or goddess (gender is uncertain) of wells and springs. This I do find intriguing, because the name is strikingly similar to Cuda, a local Celtic goddess of Cotswold rivers and springs.

Either way, the bottom line is that the dedication to Chad may not indicate anything very much, other than that the waters had medicinal properties. Chad Well at Twyning was considered to be effective for eye disorders in particular, and also for skin complaints, with leprosy included on the list of conditions it was recommended for!

Church of St Mary Magdalene, Twyning 

The reasons for this healing holy well being established where it is, an isolated spot some distance from Church End, the oldest part of Twyning parish, are lost in the mists of time. But Twyning is a place which has been settled from earliest times, showing evidence of continuous human activity from the Neolithic period through the Bronze and Iron Ages, Roman and Saxon times. Its location between two big rivers was a good natural defence, and the confluence of rivers had a spiritual significance to the pre-Roman Britons, although there's no surviving evidence of a Celtic temple here. There was, however, a church of some kind as far back as the 7th century, i.e. St. Chad's time, and it had become established as a fairly important minster by the 8th century. The present church of St. Mary Magdalene was built in the late 11th century, though with a lot of subsequent alterations and rebuildings. The Victorians stamped their meddling misguided zeal on it, but nevertheless there are still parts of it which are original and the north wall features some reused Norman decorated stonework. It's likely that the church was built directly on the site of the former Saxon minster.

The main village, Twyning Green, with a road leading down to the river (and Chad Well)

Armstrong, B.E., A Short History and Guide to the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Twyning, Gloucestershire (church guide, 2002 edition).
Holy Wells and Water Lore forum, which includes some interesting photos taken in 1986-7.
Twyning Parish Council website has some info about St. Chad.
Online paper by Dr Bruce Osborne on St Chad: Patron Saint of Medicinal Springs.