England is full of natural springs. Every time I come here, I seek them out. There is nothing like drinking pure water, straight from the depths of the earth. Almost all of the springs and wells in England are dedicated in one for or another to the sacred. As if often the case, most sacred springs were regarded as such by pre-Christian peoples who lived closer to the land and revered the spirit of place. Locations like mountain peaks, caves or a fresh water springs all had associations with a particular spirit, or the Great Mother goddess of the land herself. Over time many of these spirits became associated with specific Celtic gods and goddesses such as Sul, goddess of the thermal springs in Bath, or Brigid, goddess of healing, music, poetry and smith-craft. As Christianity moved across the land, most of these sites were appropriated by the Church, renaming the springs after the Virgin Mary or Christian Saints.
In Cerne Abbas, Dorset, there is a beautiful spring known as the Silver Spring, or officially as St. Augustine’s Well. It is located in a small tucked-away corner of the Cerne Abbas Abbey, and is shaded by over-hanging trees. On the hill beyond the well there is The Giant of Cerne Abbas: a huge image of a man with a giant phallus carved out of the chalk hillside. He is the main tourist attraction for Cerne, and the villagers regard him with both playful and serious respect. The Silver Well acts as the energetic balance point of the feminine, offering quietude, healing and solace to those who visit.
The spring’s most current patron saint was established by monks from the abbey in the 11th century. St. Augustine of Canterbury (d. 604 AD), said to be responsible for converting England to Christianity, supposedly struck the ground with his staff, thus producing water. No patriarchal symbolism there, eh?
On a plaque in the abbey grounds, another legend suggests St. Edwold came to the spring after dreaming of a silver well. While out walking the land, he happened upon a shepherd. He gave the shepherd silver coins in exchange for bread and water. In return, the shepherd showed St. Edwold the spring, which he recognized as the spring from his vision.
The Silver well was associated with the feminine long before legends of patron saints and continues to hold folkloric traditions. This is made clear by the spring’s association with fertility and love. Women who wish to become pregnant drink from the well to cure infertility. Young women looking to find a husband used to the well as an oracular site or drank from the well while praying to St. Catherine.
Above the well, a rose bush stretches toward the water. Tied to it’s branches, are colorful ribbons and small rolled-up pieces of paper with prayers written inside. This is not an uncommon sight at holy springs in Britain. You find a similar tree on Wearyall hill and another over the Chalice Well, both in Glastonbury, Somerset. For me, these prayer trees symbolize a harmonious way humans interact with the sacred landscape, without needing to build a church on top of it to mark it as holy. I love the multi-colored prayers, ribbons fading in vibrancy as sun and weather do their part. A small exchange between human and spirit of place, an offering perhaps, a wish.
To this I offer my own: a prayer for the water to return to California. I live in Northern California. Beautiful, wild, river and pine California, which is currently suffering from a horrendous drought. The week I left for Europe, two massive fires broke out, consuming vast amounts of land, homes and our beloved Harbin Hot Springs. Ultimately, my prayer is for people to initiate change. A change in our commercial agriculture system, that so bleeds the land of her water, draining California’s central valley aquifer and demanding a kind of production from the land that is unsustainable, to put it kindly. May we each do our part to find new and old ways to nurture our relationship to food, pollination and consumption.