Monday, 11 March 2013

Binsey Treacle Well

In the post on Port Meadow, I mentioned the Binsey Treacle Well.  This led to an interesting conversation in the Rusty Bicycle, as to what a treacle well is, and why they haven't heard of it.  Turns out everyone knows the story of Rosamund the Fair and Henry II at Godstow Nunnery (I love Oxford), so we'll park that one for a while, and concentrate on the black stuff.

I remember when I first heard of the well my thoughts immediately turned to visions of The Goodies, in the episode where they open a clotted cream mine in Cornwall.  Surely, in Binsey, I was going to be confronted by a gushing torrent of thick gunge, like the outfall from some Asiatic factory with dubious health and safety practices.  Sadly, the reality is it's a damp hole in the ground - there isn't even a lion's mouth for the fluid to come out of.   However, the background is only slightly less prosaic than my over-active imagination.

Lewis Carroll of course has a treacle well in Alice in Wonderland, so I'm in good company, but this is "treacle" in its medieval usage of balm, or unguent.  Essentially, it's a spring with purported healing powers which miraculously sprang forth in response to the prayers of St Frideswide. Oxford, of course, is a city of odd saints - Ebbe, Frideswide, Aldate, etc.  The city patron is the second of these, Frideswide, who was once the subject of one of the finest, shortest sermons I've ever heard.

Picture the scene; a dessicated church in the centre of Oxford, Mattins drawing to a close on St Frideswide's Day and an equally dessicated vicar mouting the pulpit.  The thin, crackly reed of his voice begins:

"Very little is known of St Frideswide. She lived. And, we may infer from her canonisation, she was good. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost Amen."

Anyway, I digress. Referring to Westwood and Simpson's Lore of the Land, we discover that Frideswide had established a religious community in Oxford in about 700AD, under the protection of her father, who was the local potentate.  On her father's death, a chap called Algar of Leicester decided it would be rather a good scheme to be married to Frideswide, so pitched up and offered to do the decent thing.  Upon being rebuffed he decided that kidnap was the next best option, and essentially made a lunge for her, whereupon our city's patron took to her heels Tam Lin style and made a run for it.

Crashing through the swamps to the west of the city, she ended up on the then island of Beltona (modern Binsey) where she found sanctuary, had a bit of a pray, and brought forth the healing waters.  Following Frideswide's death, the well at Binsey became an important site of pilgrimage - at one point there were over 20 hostels at Seacourt (now a glamorous park and ride destination) to cope with the throng.  It was all a bit like the ghats in Calcutta (on a smaller and noticeably less Indian scale, obviously), with people coming to avail themselves of the miraculous cure.

Post reformation, it all went rather quiet, until in 1874 the local vicar decided to do a bit of "restoration." As with most things the Victorians touched, this bears about as much relation to what had been there before as the Olympic Park in London does to the pre-blitz East End. Now, it's slightly off the beaten track, but it's worth a look, if you ever find yourself in The Perch with  20 minutes to kill.  You can cheat, and used google to find out what you're supposed to be looking for, but I'm not going to put up a picture, so you can do a bit of proper exploring if you want!

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