The Journal Of Antiquities

Ancient Sites In Great Britain & Southern Ireland

Grotto De Massabielle, Lourdes, Hautes-Pyrenees, Southern France

la grotto de Massabielle Lourdes (photo credit: Brunner Emmanuel Manu25 Wikipedia)

la grotto de Massabielle Lourdes (photo credit: Brunner Emmanuel Manu25 Wikipedia)

Latitude 43.097606. Longitude 0.058322. The famous 19th century healing shrine of the Grotto de Massabielle at Lourdes, in the Hautes-Pyrenees region, of south-western France is a cave and grotto located on the bank of the river Gave just beneath the Basilica of The Immaculate Conception (The Upper Basilica). Lourdes is a town in the foothills of the Pyrenees that became famous the world-over when on 18th February 1858 a young French peasant girl called Bernadette Soubirous experienced 18 apparitions or visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which continued until 16th July that year. The town of Tarbes is 5 miles to the north-east on the N21 highway.

The name Massabiele means ‘the old rock’ or ‘the ancient mass’. In the grotto is the famous miraculous healing spring that has cured many, many people of illnesses since the very day when it started to flow again after being dry for some considerable time. A simple altar stands in the middle of the grotto and in a niche upon a rocky ledge a very beautiful statue of Our Lady of Lourdes. Bernadette became a nun in 1866 at the convent of St Gildard in Nevers, France, where she died of ill health in 1879 aged 35. She was canonised as a saint in 1933 and her body lies preserved (incorrupt) in a crystal-glass reliquary in St Gildard convent church. Today the shrine at Lourdes is the most famous Roman Catholic pilgrimage centre in the world.

The small cave entrance forms the grotto of Massabielle close to the bank of the Gave de Pau river where Bernadette, her sister and a friend, came to collect wood for her families’ fire in 1858 – the site was at that time surrounded by a pig-sty and festering rubbish dump. It measures 27 metres (88 feet) in height, nearly 10 metres wide and 9.5 metres deep – the niche or crevice to the right-hand side where the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes stands is just under 4 metres high. Our Lady’s statue carved out of marble is 1.88 metres (6ft 2 inches) high and was sculptured by Joseph Fabisch of Lyons. The statue was placed in the grotto in 1864. She wears white with a blue girdle and rosary beads hang from her left arm, while yellow roses adorn her feet. Our lady looks serene with her hands raised together in prayer. Beneath the statue are the Latins words:- Que Soy Era Immaculada Concepciou – ‘I am the Immaculate Conception’.

The Grotto at Lourdes

The Grotto at Lourdes (Photo credit: Lawrence OP)

From what is known with regard to the miraculous healing spring which now flows into a large pool in the grotto it appears it had dried-up long before Bernadette came on to the scene, but during one of the visions (on 25th February 1858) Our Lady told the young peasant girl to scratch at the soil where water would then flow, and on the following day the spring was flowing very strongly forming a pool. From that day on miracles of healing began to occur and, indeed, have continued to occur with many sick and disabled people being miraculously cured after partaking of or, bathing in the holy water – something that many doctors have been unable to give any medical or scientific reasons for the many astounding cures. There are taps provided for pilgrims to collect the water in bottles, or simply to have a drink and, bathing facilities are provided for sick and disabled pilgrims.

Today Lourdes is visited by thousands if not millions of pilgrims coming from all corners of the world, not just looking for a miraculous cure, but to join in with the many religious services (there is the Underground Basilica of St Pius X) and processions that take place along The Esplanade. All go away feeling greatly uplifted and spiritually renewed, and some realise that they have received a miraculous cure. The water in the grotto has a very high mineral content and has frequently been examined by scientists – indeed carbonate of magnesia, carbonate of iron, chloride of sodium, chloride of potash, silicate of soda, iodine and ammonia have all been found in the water of the holy spring, along with other minerals too; the surrounding soil being rich in limestone. It can be drunk without any danger. But at the end of the day it is “perhaps” faith that is the true miracle here at the grotto in Lourdes.


Shields, J.A Rev., The Spirit of Lourdes, M.H.Gill and Son Ltd, Dublin, 1958.

Bordes, Joseph Father, Lourdes In Bernadette’s footsteps, MSM, Vic-en-Bigorre Cedex, France, 2005.

Ravier, Andre, Bernadette, Collins, London and Glasgo, 1979.

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Finn’s Well, Haggate, Lancashire

Finn’s Well, Haggate, Lancashire

OS grid reference: SD 8671 3582. Finn’s Well or Finsley Well is now rather forgotten, but it is still flowing. It can be found 1 mile to the south-east of Nelson town centre on Higher Causeway (at Marsden Heights) just before the village of Haggate. Walk along a track that goes along the eastern edge of Nelson Golf Course. The well is just at the edge of the golf links close by a wall. A farmhouse called Finsley used to stand where the rough trackway is, but this was demolished in the 1980s. The golfcourse was opened back in 1921 and is a privately run course. The well or spring, because that’s what it originally was, now mingles in quite well with the green links and bunkers of the golf course, having been recently restored to look like it is part of the place, or rather a delightful little pond at the edge of the fairway, perhaps!

The well is roughly oval in shape and edged all round with stonework. It measures about 70 feet in circumference and 20 feet across. There are two inlets, one, the main inlet issues with a steady, constant flow of water, while another inlet is largerly dry. At the opposite side there is an outlet which keeps the water-level the same all the time, even during very wet spells of weather and dry spells of weather. The depth of the water is not more than 6 inches at any time. Obviously the spring was used by the inhabitants of Finsley farm and other farms close by, but that no longer applies today because many of these buildings have gone. But I have no doubt the spring has been here for many hundreds, if not, thousands of years. It was probably the abode of a Norse chieftain or landowner by the name of Finn – the place-name Finsley probably means ‘Finns Hill’ or ‘the hill where Finn dwelt’. Many villages around here have Scandinavian names: Harle Syke means ‘Defensive ditch of Jarl’. Jarl being a Norse earl. Scholefield just north-east of the well is yet another Scandinavian name: Skali-feld meaning ‘Summer pasture or dwelling’. Haggate is thought not to be a Scandinavian place-name; it simply means: ‘hawthorne trees by the gateway’ (Hack Gaeta).

Finn’s Well, Haggate, Lancashire

The well has on more than one occassion been referred to as St Helena’s Well due to the fact that a farm or house called ‘St Helena’ stood close by a stone trig point that is in a somewhat sorry state. The trig point is number 54621. However, that building stood about a quarter of a mile to the west and was probably not connected with “this” well, despite the saint’s name often being associated with holy wells, and the building originally called St Helena was demolished in recent times. There is no Roman site in this area, although there have been some Roman coin finds at nearby Catlow and Castercliff Hillfort.

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St Doolagh’s Holy Well, Balgriffin, Co Dublin, Southern Ireland

Irish grid reference: O2112 4208. The holy well is located behind the church of St Doolagh to the north of Dublin and just off the R107 Malahide road at Balgriffin. The area known as Balgriffin is a small part of Malahide, one and half miles to the north – Malhaide itself being a suburb of Dublin city. St Doolagh’s parish church dates in part from the 12th century when it was an Augustinian abbey, but there was a church on the site back in the early 7th century AD – at which time it is thought that St Doolagh or Doulagh lived as a hermit here. He is, however, a largerly forgotten saint and nothing much is known about him. He may have been a disciple of St Finian and, in later life became a bishop. His feast day 17th November is still celebrated here at Balgriffin where his holy well can be found in a sunken area behind the church surrounded by trees; and a rather nice well it is too. In fact there are two holy wells here.

St. Doulagh's Church, Malahide

St. Doulagh’s Church, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The main holy well, St Doulagh’s, is located inside a small hexagonal-shaped well-house that has a pointed roof and two narrow windows at the back, one shaped like a cross, while at the front above the entrance door another narrow window. The building actually taking on the look of a small chapel or baptistry. Here the spring of water issues from what may originally have been a font, and then outside into a square-shaped baptismal pool or bath that has some steps ascending downwards. The well-house stands in a sunken area that is surrounded by low walls and, at the pool-side end, there are stone seats running around these walls for the benefit of pilgrims. On the saint’s feast-day 17th November pilgrims still come here hoping for a miraculous cure through the healing waters. At certain times the sunken area around the well-house is submerged in water forming a much larger bathing pool.

A short distance from the main well-house down some steps is yet another well. Yes there are two wells here. This building is octagonal-shaped and has an arched doorway with a narrow window above that. The spring called St Catherine’s well (St Catherine’s Pond) is located inside the little building. This well-house, like St Doulagh’s, is similar in design, and has also been a place of pilgrimage since at least the middle-ages, if not before that.

Inside the small, partly restored church there is a hermit’s cell where the low window is located and, also a penitents’ cell (not sure what the difference is). Also what is considered by some authorities to be the actual tomb of St Doulagh. Just down the lane stands a small cross on a modern, stepped base. This is shaped like a letter “T” and is probably one of only a very few tau crosses in Southern Ireland, dating from the early medieval period.

Click on the following link for a photo pf St Doolagh’s Holy Well,r:8,s:0,i:101

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Wulfruna’s Well, Wolverhampton, West Midlands

English: Lady Wulfruna's Well This memorial da...

Lady Wulfruna’s Well, Wolverhampton, by John M. Geograph & Wikimedia Commons

OS grid ref: SJ 9111 0050. The well called Wulfruna’s fountain stands near the top end of Gorsebrook road, just after the railway bridge and beside what used to be the race-course (it is now a trading estate). A little further along and you come to the A449 flyover roundabout. Also called Lady Wulfruna’s Well, today it is more of a fountain; it used to have a tap and drinking cup, but these are now gone and no water flows here. The fountain, which was set up in 1901, was restored back in 1980 by the local Civic society after falling into disrepair at the hands of “mother nature”.

Originally the well stood close by St Peter’s collegiate church where, in 994 AD St Wulfruna as she was later known, founded a convent dedicated to St Mary and endowed the first church. This place was later called Wulfrun’s Heanton (High Town) from which is derived the name of Wulfrun Hanton or, as we know it today, Wolverhampton. According to legend, Wulfruna was a noblewoman of the house of Mercia, possibly the grand-daughter of King Aethelred I. In 943 AD she was imprisoned by the Viking chieftain, Olaf, at Tamworth, but eventually she was released and in 985 King Aethelred II granted her land at a place then called Peoleshale (Pelsall). Her two sons Aelhelm and Wulfric became key-players in the royal houses of Northumbria and Mercia. Wulfric went on to found the abbey of Burton-on-Trent. A statue of Lady Wulfruna can be seen in the square close to St Peter’s Church in the town. A Roman column carved in the 9th century with Anglo-Saxon decoration stands by the south porch of St Peter’s. Lady Wulfruna (St Wulfruna) died at Tamworth in 995 or 996 and was buried there.

The well water originally had healing qualities that were said to be very therapeutic with strong medicinal values. In the Middle Ages and, indeed, upto the Victorian age, faithful pilgrims came here in the hope of a miraculous cure. And no doubt they did receive a miraculous cure because the well continued to be in use for many centuries after.

Photo of Lady Wulfruna’s Well is by John M.



St Anne’s Well, Kilmesantan, Co.Dublin

Irish grid reference: O1020 2161. The holy well is located to the east of the Upper Bohernabreen Lake (reservoir) along a path which winds through fields that are often muddy and rough some 250 yards to the north of Kilmesantan, in the Glenasmole Valley, 4 miles south of Tallaght. Originally dedicated to a Celtic bishop called St Santan or Sentan, but later re-dedicated to St Anne. Today the well is still a place of pilgrimage to many local people; it has a rough-walled granite surround and an arched roof with a large ash tree leaning over it, making it hard to find at the best of times. There also is a figurine of St Anne standing inside what looks like a caged structure, probably so that she doesn’t get nicked!

The well was always visited on St Anne’s feast-day 26th July for its curative properties; the water was known to be clear and cold coming from deep in the ground. It was regarded as a cure for soreness of the eyes and stomach aches etc – bottles of the water being taken away by pilgrims to be handed out amongst their families no doubt. The water from the well is said to run into the Upper Bohernabreen reservoir a short distance to the west.

250 yards to the south at Glassamucky is the old graveyard of Kilmesantan (O1015 2142) with a ruined church inside the square-shaped low walls. Originally the 13th century church which stands on the site of an earlier Celtic church, was dedicated to a St Santan, Sanctan or Sentan, a 5th century Celtic bishop and son of the king of Britain (Coel of Strathclyde?), according to the Book of Leinster, but who was also a missionary at Kirksantan, Isle of Man, and in north Wales at Llansannan, near Llangernyw, where he has a church dedication, and also at Llantrisant, Anglesey.

Only the south-east wall still stands, the rest of the building consists of foundation stones in a rectangular pattern among the gravestones. In more recent times the church was re-dedicated to St Anne. We know that the nave measured 16 by 36 feet, the chancel was 12 feet long and the walls a staggering 3 foot thick. Beside the gate there is a stone font, now broken at the back, that is over 2 foot high and 3 foot square, with a depth of nearly 1 foot. This was probably the font from the church and could be quite old. A crude Celtic stone cross was found in the graveyard some while back; it now resides in the National Museum of Ireland at Dublin.

St Oran’s Well, Colonsay, Western Highlands

St Oran's Well, Colonsay, Western Highlands

St Oran’s Well, Colonsay, Western Highlands

NR3922 9669. Near the north-western coast of Colonsay Island in the Western Highlands, in some pretty gardens belonging to Colonsay House, is the holy well of St Oran, known also as Tobar Oran. The well is on private land. Apparently the Irish saint, Oran or Odhran, who was the brother of St Columba and a follower of that great saint had a cell here at some point in the mid 6th century AD. He died on the Island of Iona where a chapel is still dedicated to him. Today the well is little more than a rectangular-shaped hole in the ground with some foundation stones around the edges, but it still has water flowing into it which, long ago, was regarded as miraculous with pilgrims coming here for curative purposes. And even today the well of Tobar Oran is still visited by pilgrims from far and wide.

Close by the well is a curious-shaped little cross that may date from the 7th-8th century AD. It measures 17 inches (0.37 metres) in height by 13 inches (0.33 metres) across and is made out of  local quarried stone with various carvings including what could be the face of Christ at the top; the bottom of the stone tapers away forming the shape of a fishe’s tale. The cross has very small arms three-quarters of the way up with spiral patterns. This type of decoration is quite prevalent in Ireland – so could this little stone have been carved by St Oran himself in the true Irish tradition.

Originally the stone stood at the nearby ancient Chapel of Ruisg Buidhe but it was moved to its present site in recent times – this is why the little cross is often called ‘The Ruisg Stone’ or sometimes ‘The Buidhe Stone’. The ancient chapel at Ruisg Buidhe perhaps taking its name from another saint from Ireland, St Buithe?

St Edith’s Well, Kemsing, Kent

Os grid ref: TQ5547 5868. St Edith’s Well can be found close to the High Street in Kemsing, Kent, 3 miles from Sevenoaks. Built into a wall at the side of the street there is a plaque with an inscription, and in the garden behind is the famous holy well of St Edith of Kemsing, a 10th century Saxon nun. She was, according to legend, the illegitimate daughter of King Edgar and Queen Wulfthryth. The restored and nicely-kept well has a rather odd-shaped walled structure surrounding it and a metal grill covering the water. Some steps descend down into the well which, it was claimed, had miraculous healing powers; indeed soreness and irritation of the eyes has been cured here and the well has been a place of pilgrimage since medieval times.

St Edith's Well, Kemsing On junction of St Edi...

St Edith’s Well, Kemsing, Kent (Photo credit: David Anstiss (Geograph)

On the wall plaque at the front of the well the inscription reads:- “St Edith of Kemsing AD 961-984. This well lay within the precincts of the convent where St Edith, daughter of King Edgar passed her childhood, and hallowed by her presence its waters became a source of healing”. The town’s signboard shows Edith as a young girl leaning over her well.

There is, however, some uncertainty about St Edith’s life. It seems she spent her childhood in a convent in Kemsing, but when she was older she was sent to a convent at Wilton where she remained until her death in 984 AD. She always refused to become the abbess of Wilton, or any other religious house, leaving the position at Wilton (c978) to her mother, Wulfthryth, instead. Edith would not even consider becoming queen upon her mother’s death, even though she was put under great pressure.

We know that a number of miracles were wrought by her great holiness, but austerity and devotion to God was always at the forefront of her time as a nun. She was also known for her charities to the poor and for her love of wild animals. After her death at the fairly young age of 23 miracles occured at her tomb and a shrine was set up in Kemsing to which pilgrimages were established, with her well a focus of healing. Her feast-day is held on 16th September and a procession still takes place in the town on that day.


Photo by David Anstiss:,

© Ray Spencer, The Journal of Antiquities, 2012 (up-dated 2019).