The Three Treacle Wells of Longwitton

The Three Treacle Wells of Longwitton

In pre-Christian Britain there was a considerable belief in the power of the ‘treacle’ or healing well. Treacle is a word which in itself originally meant ‘healing’. Believing in water as the source of life, the people revered their wells as holy; a practise which continued rather than died out when Christianity came to these isles.

Dotted all around Britain you will find many treacle wells, in excavated settlements, ancient buildings and even located near churches. One such notable example is St. Margaret’s Well at Binsey in Oxfordshire, which has been a site of pilgrimage for many hundreds of years. Originally a pagan well, the well at St. Margaret’s came to be famed for its powers of fertility. Henry VIII and his wife Catherine of Aragon were said to have visited it when hoping for a male heir.

Northumberland is no exception. Indeed, there is a tale which finds its origin near the town of Longwitton which describes local belief in not one but three treacle wells, found deep within the woods.

The three treacle wells of Longwitton, it is said, were known throughout the north for their powers of healing. People travelled from miles around to drink the water and pray for the deliverance of disease; so many, in fact, that they drew the attention of a large and ferocious dragon. A local ploughman visited the wells that day and was surprised to find the worm lapping up the holy water with its long black tongue. As he watched the dragon disappeared from his sight. Had he not been still aware of the lapping of its tongue, the smell of its rank breath or the feel of its invisible eyes boring into him, he would not have known it was there.

From that day on, the dragon haunted the wells and would let no one approach. Many a gallant warrior approached to slay it; but all failed. The dragon, visible, made a formidable opponent indeed; but invisible, it was truly invincible.

In time a young man in search of great adventure heard of the Longwitton dragon and set forth to kill the loathsome creature. This young knight had luck on his side, for upon his travels he had come into possession of a magical ointment which would allow the wearer to see the unseen. As he entered the woods near Longwitton he anointed his eyes with the salve and charged forward to meet the dragon.

Though the young knight could indeed see the dragon, his attempts to slay it were foiled. He found that for every cut he gave the creature, the cut closed immediately. The dragon had no end of strength, but the knight had not and soon tired, as gallant as he was. After a day of battling with the dragon he was forced to retreat to Longwitton, ashamed at his failure, but determined to try again. Steeling himself for the day to come, he swore that he would rid the town of the dragon once and for all.

The next day passed as the first had done. However many blows he struck, the dragon recovered instantly. Exasperated, the young knight again retired to the village, cursing the strange enchantment which gave the dragon such strength. A suspicion then came to his mind, and when he rose the next morning he sought to test it.

Attacking less ferociously than before, the young knight noticed that the dragon would never stray far from the wells. He then saw that at all times the dragon’s tail was dipped into the healing waters; and thus, its secret was revealed. The young knight dismounted and, feigning defeat, he retreated further and further away from the wells. The dragon, sensing victory, surged forward. Quickly mounting once more, the knight charged behind the dragon, cutting off its path back to the wells. Thus outwitted, the dragon met its doom.

Rejoicing, the people of Longwitton buried the dragon and a feast was held in honour of the young knight’s bravery and cleverness. As for the famed treacle wells, they were restored to their old glory. Thanks to the story of the Longwitton dragon and its defeat which spread throughout the country, the wells were to be the destination of many pilgrimages; becoming ever more renowned as the years went by.

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3 Comments on “The Three Treacle Wells of Longwitton”

  1. Dear Marie,
    I don’t know if you have visited the Longwitton Springs recently but I was there just before Christmas and (assuming I was in the right place) found them looking neglected. I only found two and wondered if the other had been piped.
    The dragon seems to be well gone!
    I was wondering if the dragon represented the essentially mysterious and invisible power of the earth, which the Christian knight comes to slay. Be interested to talk to you about this.
    Malcolm

    • Marie says:

      Hello there, I’ve not been to Longwitton myself, this is a story I had heard of rather than explored myself. I am a bit jealous – though I’m surprised that there was anything there for you to see! I did wonder whether the ‘treacle wells’ were streams or actual wells or if the story was complete fantasy or folklore with just a tiny bit of truth in it. I do know that this story has a lot which compares it to other folklore – the Lambton Worm comes to mind – but the fact that there are three fascinated me.

      You do have a point and I can see where you’re going with that. I’ve not found any religious references to this story anywhere I’ve seen it (aside from the connotation of water for healing and thus being holy), but in one telling the young knight obtained his ‘magic ointment’ from a witch. I came across another story which featured ‘magic ointment’ (https://fettlereetly.wordpress.com/2011/03/19/the-magic-ointment/), this time obtained from a fairy, which seems to have had exactly the same effect, to see the ‘unseen’. In the other story the influence definitely comes across as pagan and the effect of it seems very pagan to me, giving the ability to see things which mortal men can’t. It is definitely up for debate though!

  2. Nice piece. Treacle wells are always an interesting side development in holy wells. In at least one case associated with a saint, St. Tecla, which seems a little forced. They are also confused by local lore to describe the rather muddy nature of the areas…not to mention a story about storing molasses! Please check out my blog http://insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.wordpress.com
    All the best Ross


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