OS Grid Reference SD 6637 1992. About a mile south-east of Abbey Village, near Blackburn, Lancashire, stand the scant ruins of Hollinshead Hall, a 14th century building that was actually a manor house and home to the famous Radcliffe family of Ordsall near Manchester. In the enclosed garden of the ruined hall is a well-house containing a holy well that used to have healing properties.The origins of the name Hollins-head probably derived from the Saxon place-name ‘Holy Head’ or even ‘Helig Weald’ which refers to a holy well or spring. Though the name ‘Holy Head’ might perhaps be derived from the well-head – the stone lion’s head in the well-house from the mouth of which the water issues. The well-house was probably a baptistery to which Roman Catholics resorted to during Penal times when priests were in hiding and any form of gathering in such a place was outlawed. Follow the Tockholes Road south out of Ryal Fold for about ½ a mile, then walk along the track on the right-hand side through the woods for 335 metres leading to the ruins of the hall, farmhouses, gardens and the medieval well-house.
The author John Crawshaw writing in Source – The Holy Wells Journal, gives us a fair bit of interesting information with regard to the holy well. He says that: “The early history of the well is scanty, but it seems that a medieval well-house (with a superb vaulted stone roof) was ‘restored’ at some date during the 17th century.
“This restoration was probably carried out by the owners of the land on which the holy well stood, the powerfull recusant Radcliffe family of Ordsall Hall near Manchester.
Mr Crawshaw goes on to say that: “Unfortunately, though I have been researching its history for some years now, I have not been able to discover the holy wells’ dedication, which has been lost. Doubtless the site was very important, for the well-house itself is very grand indeed, and houses two baths in the form of rectangular cisterns, and there is also a fine retaining wall to the right of the compound, bearing traces of the Radcliffe coat-of arms. A member of the Radcliffe family lived in a house near the site, and it is highly probable that the well-house was a secret mass-centre and baptistery, a focus for recusant life in the area. I believe that there is sufficient evidence in the style of the building to show that is is a ‘disguised’ holy well house, perhaps built when persecution became a little easier during James the second’s reign: at any rate the style of the building is very much that of c. 1680s Lancastrian master masonry.
“On the hillside, immediately behind and above the well-house, is a pool which probably represents the original holy well. It is a pretty big pool, oval-ish, and lined with ancient stones. The spring issues from the earth at the right-hand side, fills the pool, and from thence the water falls down into the two cisterns within the well-house itself.
“Hollinshead Holy Well has a vague reputation of being haunted and also that its very pure water is good for eye troubles. Hollinshead Hall is referred to in Twycross’ Mansions of England (1846), where the well-house is mentioned, said to have been formerly called ‘The Holy Spring’, and visited by pilgrims who came for the water.
Mr Crawshaw says of his visit to the well: “Visiting it on 18th October 1994, I was delighted to find that the holy well-house had not been vandalized, as I been informed recently. It is still in good order, except for some obscene graffiti and the fact that the door to the well-house is now locked with a large padlock, so that access……..is not now possible. However, the interior of the well-house can easily be seen through the two windows in the façade. The original pool behind the well-house is still full of water, and access to this pool is unrestricted.
“The well is still referred to locally as a ‘Holy Well’, and I was present, back in late September 1988 at a well-dressing ceremony (the very first one to be held) at the Well. This was organized by the local Anglican priest, and very well con-ducted it was, too, says Mr Crawshaw.
Author Richard Peace in ‘Lancashire Curiosities’, puts the question with regard to the holy well: Pagan or Catholic Spring? He says that: “Amidst the gardens of the ruined Hollinshead Hall lies a well-preserved outbuilding housing a stone carved lion’s head that emits a small spring of water. The spring falls into a central channel, surrounded by cisterns and benches on either side. This fascinating building is Hollinshead Well, whose original purpose is hotly debated. Its origin seems likely to be ancient. The vaulting inside may be from the 15th century whilst the covering is from the 18th century. Some believe it to be of pagan origin as it reportedly contains the water of five separate springs, signaling the presence of the water-goddess. More recently its seems to have been used as a Catholic baptistery, with the two cisterns perhaps being used for male and female baptisms. Records show medieval pilgrims visited the well to try and cure ophthalmic complaints.”
The author Edward J. Popham, writing in 1993, says this holy well used to be known as Ladyewell (Our Lady’s Well) and then locally called St Leonard’s Well. Presumably he is referring to the Hollinshead Well? It seems that he is.
Sources and other related websites:-
Crawshaw, John, (Hollinshead Hall Holy Well), Source—The Holy Wells Journal, New Series No 2—Winter 1994, Pen-y-Bont, Bont Newydd, Cefn, St Asaph, Clwyd, 1994.
Peace, Richard, Lancashire Curiosities, The Dovecot Press Ltd., Stanbridge, Wimborne, Dorset, 1997.
Popham, Edward J., Where Shall We Go In The Ribble Valley? The Salford Catholic Truth Society, 1993.
© Ray Spencer, The Journal Of Antiquities, 2017.