St Anne’s Well, Buxton, Derbyshire, England.
I went looking for a quintessential Celtic Beltane activity – well dressing – and discovered one that encompasses Celtic, Roman, and Christian traditions.
Buxton has attracted quite a few people across the ages, due, at least in part, to its geothermal spring. The area was settled by Mesolithic and Neolithic peoples. The Romans called the site
Aquae Arnemetiae, which translates as ‘The Waters of The Goddess of the Grove’ , indicating that the Celtic inhabitants worshipped at the site. The hot waters of the spring, which is rich in iron, were incorporated by the Romans into facilities for bathing. Archaeologists have discovered Roman coins at the spring – votive offerings for the goddess – with dates ranging through the entire period of Roman occupation.
A Christian chapel was eventually built at the spring, and it became a pilgrimage site recognized for miraculous cures. The spring was eventually known as St. Anne’s Well, but a church dedicated to St.Anne was not built until 1625 – and it was located at the other side of Buxton from from the Well.
In the 16th century, the Earl of Shrewsbury built a hall to provide accommodation for the many visitors seeking the curative powers of the warm, iron-rich waters. A century later, the Duke of Devonshire developed the Buxton spring as a spa, with swimming pools filled with warm water from the spring. In the course of this enterprise, the trees on the site of the sacred wood of the Celts were cut down, and the public well moved to its present location. The spa never became as popular as Bath, though the swimming pools were still in use by the public until the 1970s.
Throughout the history of human settlement in Buxton, the inhabitants recognized the life-giving importance of the waters of the spring. A recent example of this is the tradition of Derbyshire well-dressing. The art, in which intricate designs are created by pressing flowers, seeds and berries into wet clay spread over a sturdy wood board, was first recorded at St. Anne’s Well in 1840. It continues today, with well dressings and festivals in the spring and summer.
On this Beltane, I invite you to join me in wonder at the continuity of belief in the powers of a sacred spring across the centuries by people who venerated many gods, and people who worship just one.