OS grid reference SD 8039 6538. The Ebbing and Flowing Well is, perhaps rather annoyingly, located at the side of the busy B6480 (old Clapham road) out of the village of Giggleswick, about two-thirds of the way up the steep and ‘often very busy’ Buck Haw Brow, opposite Settle Golf-course. It’s about 1 mile north-west of Giggleswick and one-and-three-quarter miles from the town of Settle. The rocky and tree-covered Giggleswick Scar, formed from the South Craven Fault, towers above the curious holy well, which has long been famous for its abilities to “ebb and flow” though this does not occur as much as it used to do – due probably to the mining that now takes place over and on top of the scar, or some other atrocity. I should point out here that ‘it is quite dangerous to stand and view the well’ as there is a constant flow of vehicles rushing past the site and, it is therefore very difficult, if not dangerous to attempt to take photographs – so please “be warned” and do please stay very safe.
The well has been famous over the centuries for its strange and curious ability to ‘ebb and flow’, indeed so much so that in the past local people have tried to dig down below the well in order to find out ‘why it does this’, though probably without actually establishing what causes such a thing to take place, if it really does, and now on rare occasions. We take the word “ebb” to mean flow back, fall, drain and subside, and the word “flow” to mean issue forth, pour forth, pour outward, refill and well-up. So is that what the well does? When the well does flow it flows under the road to emerge in a wet, muddy mess, on the opposite side of the road and, sometimes flows over the road itself, but mostly it simply wells-up to fill its square-shaped stone chamber, and then without much warning drains-away and ‘goes back’ into the limestone scar – probably from one of the deep caves that is undoubtedly linked-up with the well somewhere along the way. Author Brian Spencer in his book ‘The Visitor’s Guide To The Yorkshire Dales‘, says of this strange phenomana:
“On the rare occasions that the well functions, it rapidly drains, and then after a pause refills itself. This is due to a unique double chambered cave somewhere behind the well which causes a sudden syphoning effect inside the hole and temporarily cuts off the flow of water.”
In the much acclaimed tome ‘Folklore Myths and Legends of Britains’, by Reader’s Digest, we are given a more Folklore-ish angle to this:
“Near to Giggleswick Scar is an oddity of nature, the Ebbing and Flowing Well. An explanation for its behavior is that a nymph who was being chased by a satyr prayed to the gods for help. They turned her into a spring of water, which still ebbs and flows with her panting breaths.
The 17th-century highwayman, John Nevison, is said to have evaded capture by letting his horse drink at the well. The water gave the horse strength and Nevison escaped by leaping from the top of a cliff, still known as Nevison’s Leap.”
In the past a few historians have tried to associate the Ebbing and Flowing Well with a local north-country saint – in this case St Alkelda – who is still venerated at the church in Giggleswick and, also at the church in Middleham, north Yorkshire, where she is said, according to the legend, to have been murdered by two Danish women in c 800 AD, or maybe in the 10th century so say some. Alkelda was an Anglo-Saxon princess and also a ‘devout’ Christian. One day she was approached by two pagan women who murdered her with a ‘thick scarf’ which they pulled tightly around her neck; this terrible crime probably took place where the church of Sts Mary & Alkelda now stands, or ‘maybe’ beside the well that is also named for her; and the church houses some fragments of a 15th century stained-glass window which depicts the saint’s martyrdom.
The church of St Alkelda at Giggleswick apparently still uses water from the Ebbing and Flowing Well in its baptism services and, “a 19th century stained-glass window depicts the spirit of the well in the form of an angel hovering above the waters. This is a Christianised version of the pagan water-spirits, called undines”, according to author Bill Anderton in his work ‘Guide To Ancient Britain’. But did St Alkelda even exist because her name could simply be a corruption of the Old English words ‘Hal Keld’ (Halig Keld) – meaning “holy well”. The renowned author Jessica Lofthouse explains this in her book ‘Lancashire Countrygoer’, she says:
“Ghikel was probably a Norseman whose “wick” or farm was here. Also the ebbing and flowing well, not so far away, was a “gugglian” or bubbling spring: the wick by the gurgling well could be a derivation. But who cares—or whether or no there was a Saxon Princess martyred at the hand of pagan Danes to give St. Alkelda’s its name. Or was the well where the Celts worshipped a spirit of water, later sanctified as a holy well, and as the “helig keld” did it give the first church its unusual name?”
Authors Janet & Colin Bord in their renowned work ‘Sacred Waters’, have little if anything to say about the well only that: “Sadly the well no longer ebbs and flows.”
Anderton, Bill., Guide To Ancient Britain, Foulsham, Slough Berkshire, 1991.
Bord, Janet & Colin, Sacred Waters, Paladin Books, London W1X, 1986.
http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/925879 © Copyright Humphrey Bolton and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.
Lofthouse, Jessica., Lancashire Countrygoer, (second edition), Robert Hale, London SW2, 1974.
Reader’s Digest, Folklore Myths And Legends Of Britain, (Second Edition), The Reader’s Digest Association Limited, London, 1977.
Spencer, Brian., The Visitor’s Guide To The Yorkshire Dales, Hunter Publishing Inc., Edison, NJ, USA, 1986.