OS grid reference: SE 0274 5326. In the corner of a field close to a wall beside the busy A59 road ½ a mile north of Draughton, north Yorkshire, is the ‘now’ much neglected and almost forgotten St Helen’s holy well. The well or spring, or what remains of it, is located close to Holywell Halt on the heritage railway line that is run by The Embsay & Bolton Abbey Steam Railway; the pretty little halt and the bridge opposite are both named after the well. The site can be reached from the A59 road between Skipton and Bolton Bridge. It is on the Draughton side of the road just before the railway bridge and on the opposite side of the road from the lay by. A wall stile hidden underneath some trees and bushes gives access to a footpath which passes close to the well. However, beware of the main road as there are vehicles coming along at often fast speeds.
St Helen’s holy well or spring is now very neglected and almost forgotten. It is in fact a large stone trough or tank measuring about 5 feet in length by about 2 feet wide, with a curved outlet at one end, and it looks to be quite deep. A metal pipe used to supply the stone trough with water from ‘a spring’ in the grassy bank opposite, but this has now gone and so the trough is replenished by rain water and overflows onto the surrounding ground which, at the time of my visit, was flooded with muddy water and very boggy. But when the ground is dried out I believe a flat area of ground with stones and pebbles can be seen around one side of the stone trough. Unfortunately, the stone trough is now used by thirsty cattle! The well was mentioned by Guy Ragland Phillips in his work ‘Brigantia’, in the mid-1970s.
So just how old is this holy site and has St Helen or Helena (248-330 AD) always been associated with the well? At a guess I would say it is Medieval although the spring was here way, way back. It was obviously a pre-Christian spring. So maybe the saint, who was the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great, was accepted as patron of the spring here in the the early Medieval period – at which time the cultus of St Helen was particularly strong in the Craven Dales. There is another St Helen’s Well at Eshton near Gargrave, north Yorkshire. But we know that St Helena was ‘not’ a native of Yorkshire, nor was she from anywhere else in Britain – despite what some early scholars say. She was born at Drepanum in Bithynia, Asia Minor, later to be called Helenopolis. St Helena journeyed to the Holy Land and according to tradition she re-discovered the true cross (Holy Cross) on which Christ was crucified.
Sources and related websites:-
Phillips, Guy Ragland, Brigantia, Routledge & Kegan Paul Books, London, 1976.