The Silver Well
Location: Cerne Abbas.
St. Augustine's Well
The site known as St Augustine's Well was originally the Silver Well. Here St Edwold, a member of the Mercian royal family who left his native land to become a holy man, lived until his death in 671, in a small hermitage. ( Thus William of Malmesbury ). Cerne Abbey was founded in the 970s, although they may have chosen the site because of its association with the saint of an earlier century. Edwold was told in a vision to travel to Silver Well; when he came to Cerne, he gave silver pennies to a shepherd in return for bread and water, and the man showed him the well, which he recognised as fulfilling the vision.
Later, in the 11th century, the monks of Cerne felt a desire for a more exalted origin, and hired an itinerant hagiographer called Gotselin to provide it. He composed a new legend ascribing the well to St Augustine. The saint was travelling in Dorset when he encountered some shepherds; he asked them what they would prefer to drink, beer or water, and when the temperate shepherds asked for water, he struck the ground with his staff and created the spring. Or, while in a vision he struck the ground to make the spring run out, crying 'Cerno El' , which is Latin and Hebrew for 'I see God' and forms a pun on the village's old name of Cernel. The legend goes on to describe an adventure of Augustine with the folk of an outlying village who tied fishtails onto his robes; this is taken from a Canterbury story.
The well has had a triple reputation, as being an oracular, a healing, and a wishing well. 'If anyone looks into St Austin's Well the first thing on Easter morning he will see the faces of those who will die within the year' (1897). This story is now told, at Cerne as at elsewhere, of waiting in the parish church. The well 'works wondrous cures. I have had a case told in all detail while sketching the lovely spring' (1888). It was prescribed for sore eyes and general ill health (1897). It was thought wholesome to plunge new-born babies into the chill water, 'the infant being dipped just at the time when the sun first begins to shine on the water' (1893). But the sun would have to penetrate the leaves of several well-grown trees.
A newspaper columnist in 1850 alludes coyly to the local belief that women drinking at the well would become pregnant. Presumably the use of the spring as a wishing-well to gain husbands is part of the same belief. Girls were to drink from the water, put their hand on part of the fabric known as the wishing stone, and pray to St Catherine for a husband. In another version, the spring is a wishing-well pure and simple; you are to make a cup from laurel leaves, fill it with the water and face south to the church, then drink it while you wish (both traditions 1957). These beliefs are tangled up with the custom of praying to St Catherine for a husband, which was practised at the site of her lost chapel south of the village on a hill, and with the practice of invoking the Cerne Giant to cure sterility: Giant Hill lies just over a field from the well.
This site is the only holy well in Dorset to have had a shrine; Leland records that there was a chapel to St Augustine built over the spring. This seems to have been demolished and replaced by some simple but beautiful stone channels which surround the spring's breaking-point and lead it to the south. A few stones beside the well - one of them presumably the wishing stone - have come from the ruins of Cerne Abbey; one of them bears a Tudor Rose, and so must date from the last great phase of re-building. The well lies in a hollow, four or five feet below the level of the surrounding field (the parish graveyard). It is surrounded by lime trees, known in the village as the Twelve Apostles.
Dorset Holy Wells by Jeremy Harte, Living Spring Journal(First Series, 1985), 1, pp.3-8
Footnote: Jeremy Harte has been investigating folkore for 24 years, since the days when he grew up in Abbotsbury, Dorset. After graduating from Cambridge, he worked in the archaeological section of the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester before training as a curator. His is the author of numerous folklore related articles and publications such as 'Cuckoo Pounds and Singing Barrows' (published by the Dorset Natural History and Archaeology Society, 1986), an extensive study of the folkore of Dorset, and the acclaimed Research in Geomancy in 1990-1994 and the recent publication 'Exploring Fairy Taraditions' (Albion Press, 2004) as well as other books on industrial archeology and local history. At present he is the curator of Bourne Hall Museum in Surrey.