Some have mocked me for my occasional by-line, ‘guardian of St Mary’s Well’. But I am most proud of it. The well-head has just been repaired; now we are seeking a grant to create an access-for-all path down to it, for it stands in a hollow at the lower end of the churchyard.
The structure is eighteenth century and a listed building in its own right. Simple and elegant, it is a stone octagon surmounted by a round mill wheel (the parish stands at the edge of the Pennine millstone grit). Around it runs a Latin inscription, FONTEM HUNC SALUTIFERUM ET PERANTIQUUM TECTO MUNIVIT HENRICUS RICHARDSON RECTOR A. Æ. C. MDCCLXIV. QUOD PUBLICÆ SALUTI BENE VORTAT.
The usual, unimaginative translation speaks of ‘this health-giving and ancient spring’ and imagines the good rector, Henry Richardson, to have been a public health philanthropist before his time. But this surely ignores his use of perantiquum, not ancient but most ancient, as well as the ambiguity of salutiferum: salus and the words that derive from it means both ‘salvation’ and ‘health’ – the distinction in the two English terms is not present.
This has become something of an issue, for if we get the grant, we will gain a path, but will also be required to put up an interpretation board. What can we put on it? Do we have to pretend that people chose a churchyard as the best place to find clean water? Yet the pressure to give a secular explanation is intense.
If you think about it, a churchyard may develop and a church be built around a well, if it has been a holy site; but a well is not something you build inside an existing churchyard. The good rector’s enigmatic inscription suggests an awareness of what seems most probable, namely that the spring is the oldest church site in the village, mid-Saxon period, close to the old Roman road.
As such it is a place that evokes great interest, fascination and affection, and it is a focus for the renewal of baptismal promises and other processions, and personal reflection. But like the medieval church itself, it is the hallowed building that conveys God’s message, not an interpretation board. Explaining mysteries is an impossible task.