MENTION the word "sprite" these days and most people think of lemonade. But, in earlier times, sprites were the many water deities that ruled our distinctly watery island. And, if you had any sense, you gave them offerings – or a very wide berth indeed.
Rivers, lakes and springs were sacred to the ancient Celts, and water goddesses were worshipped in Britain, long before the Romans arrived with their own water deities. When the Romans settled here, they took over the Celtic shrines, appointing their own water nymphs to look after them. Even the shrine to the water goddess at Bath was re-christened "Aquae Sulis".
The names may have changed, but to our ancient forebears, these watery places were still sacred and demanded their rightful dues. In the Midlands and more northern parts of Britain, people worshipped a Celtic water goddess called Coventina. Legend has it that Coventina was the water goddess featured in Arthurian myth as 'The Lady of the Lake', the keeper of Arthur's magical sword, Excalibur.
These ancient beliefs lingered long after Christianity had ousted the old religion of the Druids. And, in an island as wet as ours, the old customs carried a lot of weight. With all the flooding we've had this winter it's easy to see why our ancestors felt the need to appease mighty rivers and lakes.
Hence, our major rivers like the Thames and Severn were seen as supernatural beings. And minor streams, springs and wells were thought to be ruled by sprites and even mermaids.
Running water in particular was held sacred, the water from these sites often believed to cure eye and skin ailments. Of course, some springs have been noted for the restorative effects of minerals present in the water, as at Malvern, Bath, Cheltenham and Leamington. But it may also have been a desperate plea for help in days when healthcare was, at best, rudimentary.
Sacred springs were also said to help the many leprosy victims of earlier times. A 1751 edition of 'England's Gazetteer' mentions the sulphurous waters at Brewood's Lepers' Well, noting how "it is used at present by both man and beast against cutaneous diseases so that many of the inhabitants boil their meat in it and brew with it."
Another contemporary account in Nightingale's 'Beauties of England' tells how Brewood folk celebrated with processions, "at the annual celebration of well-dressing there."
Similar rituals occurred in the Black Country, notably in West Bromwich, at the town's ancient, St Augustine Well. Black Country historian G.T. Lawley says it "was the custom, every year, to adorn the holy well with garlands, to the accompaniment of music and dancing, in honour of its patron, St Augustine."
These days, well dressing celebrations survive in parts of Staffordshire and Derbyshire. But they were once common nationwide.
As Christianity took hold in Britain, early churches were built over the ancient, pagan shrines, many of which were linked to sacred springs and holy wells. Traditionally, people left offerings at these sites, hoping for healing cures or other blessings – or simply to placate sprites that were often known to be fickle. The custom of throwing coins into wells and fountains is a relic of these ancient beliefs.
In common with most parts of Britain, the Black Country is positively awash with sacred springs, wells and their associated sprites. St Giles Church in Willenhall is sited near a holy well. In much earlier times, folk flocked to the well, St Giles being the patron saint of lepers and the lame.
Christian saints to whom the churches were dedicated took on the work done by the pagan sprites and water goddesses. And it seems they often had their work cut out!
St Giles was also the patron saint of nursing mothers, epileptics and those who suffered night terrors so he was never short of offerings. In those days when starvation and disease were ever-present, it's easy to understand how people hedged their bets, making offerings to the saints as well as to the older deities. Especially if they were working in tandem, in one place.
These days, you only have to look at an A to Z of the Black Country to see how many place names recall old springs and wells. Oldbury has Spring Walk and Crosswells Road, Rowley Regis has Springfield, and there is Springhill, in Penn, Wolverhampton. There are many more across the Black Country.
In Medieval times, many wells drew crowds of visitors, and like other shrines were places of pilgrimage. In those days, the holy wells would also have been "dressed" – or decorated with flowers and greenery, like the well dressing we still see in the Peak District.
Medieval Bilstonians were very proud of Cruddley Well, said to be near Proud's Lane. Possibly named after a Saxon saint called Credda, the healing waters of the well attracted countless hopeful pilgrims. But, as with most of these ancient sprites, there could be a darker side. The Bilston well bore a sinister Latin inscription. When translated, the rhyme warned people to make a donation – or the devil would laugh at them! Of course, this could just have been the church cashing in on the fears of our more superstitious forebears.
As the centuries passed, and folk became less superstitious, belief in sacred wells and their healing powers began to wane By the early 19th century, Bilston's Cruddley Well was simply a source of drinking and household water. In 1830, the well ran dry and was filled in, the spring waters having been swallowed by local mine shafts. Many other ancient Black Country wells suffered a similar fate.
Wolverhampton and its environs seemed to have more than its fair share of holy wells – the city's Saxon founder, Lady Wulfruna, frequenting several of these. One of these, named after the Saxon princess, was said to have miraculous healing properties, attracting many pilgrims.
Lady Wulfruna's Well may have been at Dunstall. But historian G.T. Lawley believed it was at Spring Vale, near Bilston, as he says that Cann Street in Spring Vale used to be called Holywell Street. Whatever the case, he says "the custom of well dressing was observed there."
Not far from where I live in Penn, there is Showell Lane – the name thought to be recall an important holy well or "show" well. The area lies on sandstone, and nearby Orton Ridge, near Wombourne, also has its own sacred well. Until as recently as the late 19th century, the well had streams of visitors.
The well is cut out of the sandstone ridge and was sacred to the Virgin Mary, and no doubt to an older water goddess. G.T. Lawley says: "The well is still a favourite resort of local pleasure seekers who go to drink of the cooling and delicious beverage and ruralise in the adjacent wood."
It remained a popular Sunday picnic spot for Wulfrunians until well into the 20th century. But, whether or not they believed in the old customs by then is debatable.
The Lady Well is still there, tucked away on the wooded slopes of Orton Ridge. Some say a hermit lived there, and there are remains of an old cottage nearby. If you go there today, you'll still see coins lying in the water.
Perhaps we are not so very far removed from our forebears after all.