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A sacred pool

Around Holystone

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The sream running from Lady's Well down to Holystone

The Lady’s Well

Just outside the small village of Holystone is a surprising sight, an atmospheric little pool surrounded by a grove of trees.

The water tank, which is what it is in essence, has had several purposes over the centuries. It was probably built by the Romans to serve as a watering place on the road from High Rochester Roman fort to the River Aln, which passes nearby. They captured the natural spring with a low stone retaining wall to create a large, rectangular pool of clear water.

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Lady's Well

According to legend, in Saxon times the water was used for the baptisms of early Christians. It is said that in AD 627 St Paulinus baptised 3,000 Northumbrians here. He was a 7th century Roman monk sent by Pope Gregory I to the Kingdom of Kent in south-east England with a mission to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity. He served in Kent until AD 625, when he accompanied Aethelburg, the sister of King Eadbald of Kent, to Northumbria for her marriage to King Edwin. There Paulinus managed to convert the king and his leading nobles to Christianity and began to spread his mission throughout Northumbrian territory. He was named the first Archbishop of York and died in AD 644. It is now thought that the myth associating him with Holystone stemmed from a misreading of the writings of the Venerable Bede, and that if he did baptise 3,000 people at one go, this took place in York rather than here. Nevertheless the story persists in many descriptions of the site.

More plausible is a link to the 6th century St Ninian, Bishop of Whithorn in south western Scotland between AD 500 and AD 550. He is said to have preached here and baptised his converts to Christianity in the waters of the well pool. Certainly he has been linked to numerous wells beside Roman roads throughout Northumberland, and it’s quite possible that he did visit in an attempt to spread Christianity, but again any association between him and the well is unsubstantiated.

In Medieval times, the pool was dedicated to the Virgin Mary by the Augustinian nuns in the priory at Holystone, now long gone – closed down by Henry VIII during the Reformation and its stones used for building Harbottle Castle. It was at this time that the name of Lady’s Well became attached to the pool.

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Statue of St Paulinus

It later fell into disrepair but was repaired in 1780 when the stone edging walls were rebuilt and a 15th century stone statue of St Paulinus was brought from Alnwick Castle and placed in the centre of the well. It is likely that the stone slab at the east end of the tank may also date from this time; this may have served as some sort of altar (although again the legends about St Paulinus claim that he knelt here, making it a holy stone, from which derives the name of the village).

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NT sign

During this period the well was thought to have healing properties so became a destination for those seeking cures as well as for pilgrims worshipping Our Lady and/or St Paulinus.

In the second half of the 19th century the statue was removed from the centre of the well to the south west end and a stone cross erected in its place. The statue is situated within the socket hole of a large roughly squared stone of unknown origin and date but not unlike the base of a medieval cross – some say that this, not the ‘altar’ stone at the far end of the pool, is the holy stone that gave the village its name.

The powerful spring that feeds the pool continues to serve as the source of Holystone village’s water supply. Signs at the site ask visitors not to disturb the water in any way. This is such a tranquil spot, with an air of mystery about it, that the mood itself is not conducive to messing around, talking loudly or causing any such disturbance. Certainly when we were there the other visitors we saw were on the whole respectful , with even the couple of toddlers running around easily dissuaded by their parents from throwing anything into the water, as if they too felt the atmosphere a little.

Incidentally, although as the sign indicates this site is owned and managed by the National Trust, there is no charge made to visit, nor any donation requested.

Rather than walk directly from the village we followed a suggestion in a small guide book we have for Northumberland walks and parked in the Forestry Commission car park a short drive away. It was a pleasant short walk through the woods and across a rather over-grown meadow to reach the pool.

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Walking through the forest and past the stream that runs away from the pool

We returned via a farmhouse at the edge of the village, across some fields and back to the car park along the road.

Woodhouses Bastle

On the way back we stopped at Woodhouses Bastle, which I’d spotted at the side of the road into Holystone. A bastle is a defensible farmhouse. These were built in this region as a response to the warring conditions along the English/Scottish border during the 16th and 17th centuries. Woodhouses is considered one of the best surviving examples. It sits on private land but it’s possible to get close to it by climbing a permissive path along the edge of a field, which is what we did to get some photos.

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Woodhouses Bastle

A little further down the road we encountered this typical Northumbrian traffic jam. The sheepdog seemed to have been given the afternoon off as he was sitting in the tractor which was doing all the work of herding the sheep!

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Northumbrian traffic jam

Posted by ToonSarah 03:57 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged buildings water religion history statue houses woods farm pool saints Comments (14)

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