St Anthony’s WellGloucester
Near Gunn’s Mill,
Flaxley
Gloucestershire GL17 0EA
 

 

The Forest of Dean in West Gloucestershire has several ‘sacred’ springs but St Anthony’s Well is probably the best known and certainly the most strange. In the middle of Welshbury Woods, is an old stone bathing pool fed by a permanent spring.

Location
The spring bubbles up from below the north ramparts of the Welshbury Iron Age Hill Fort. Archaeological finds of prehistoric flint implements, Iron Age and Roman artefacts beside the source, prove that this spring has had a ritual significance for thousands of years.
 
History
However, we do not have written evidence of its existence until medieval times when it is linked to St Anthony. It is generally believed that it was the monks of Flaxley Abbey that promoted its link with this saint. The Cistercian Abbey of Flaxley was founded in c1150.
 
The next written evidence of the well’s existence is in 1669. In a 1794 publication called the ‘Universal Magazine’ there is an unsigned letter in the June edition detailing an account of a visit to St Anthony’s Well. Even more interestingly, the letter was accompanied by an illustration which shows the well as we see it today.
 
In the 19th century the Forest was a haven for Non Conformist religions. Richard Snaith, minister of Cinderford (Particular) Baptist Chapel was conducting baptisms at the Well in 1862. Considering these would have involved total immersion in the icy waters, you have to admire the commitment of these converts to their religion! The meeting had a chapel in Flaxley Meend and is not recorded after 1879.
 
The Well is also recorded on an Ordnance Survey map of 1881.
 
On 4 July 1985 St Anthony’s Well was scheduled as a Grade II Listed Building by English Heritage. The listing describes the site as:
 
"Well or spring, probably late C18: squared, coursed stone with irregular coping. Spring and bathing pool in line. Spring rises in square well, sheltered in square-headed recess in wall about 1m high in bank. Water runs in pipe to bathing pool, sunk into ground: pool about 3.5 x 2.5m in plan, reported 1.5m deep. A flight of steps between retaining walls leads down in centre of long side to bottom. Outlet at high level by a stone trough, set off centre, across top of wall about 1.4m thick. Water runs thence down bank to stream, on centre-line of pool. Probably largest and most picturesque holy well in Gloucestershire." (Committee for Rescue Archaeology: Avon, Gloucestershire and Somerset, 1977 report)
 
Accommodation - Search & Book through Expedia here: 
 
Today
St Anthony’s Well is exactly as described all those centuries ago. The ancient stone well head and bathing pool stand all alone in beautiful beech, oak and hazel woods. The water is crystal clear and usually 50F degrees (10C degrees). The water is believed to contain iron and lime, which comes from the strata through which it percolates – so there could be some reason for its claimed efficacy in easing rheumatism and arthritis.
 
There are indeed 12 slippery stone steps descending to the bottom of the large stone bath. As a child, this writer was told that the steps represented the months, so the fifth step was where you had to stand in May, and so on. No matter when we visited, I never got beyond the second step, it was too cold.
 
Although the stone bath is quite large measuring approximately 11 ft. 6 in. by 8 ft. by 5 ft., the volume of water coming from the spring is sufficient to overflow the pool and run down the hill as a stream. This stream is called Westbury Brook and flows through Flaxley Valley on its way to the River Severn.
 
This stream provided power to work Gunn’s Mill at the bottom of the hill, and the mills and furnaces scattered along Flaxley Valley.
 
Cures
The ‘holy’ water from the well was reputed to cure all manner of skin diseases, even leprosy, rheumatism, arthritis and eye problems but only with the help of some rituals. The most popular ones involved the need for numbers of consecutive visits, the 9th of May and sunrise.
 
For centuries, authors have recorded the miraculous healing powers of the well’s waters. Rudder in his “New History of Gloucestershire” (1779) states that: “Bathing in this water is an infallible cure for the itch, and other cutaneous disorders; and a gentleman of Little Dean assured me, that his dogs were cured of the mange after being thrown into it two or three times. The water is extremely cold.”
 
Nicholls (1858) adds that: “...its peculiar efficacy being combined with the rising of the sun, the month of May, and the visits to it being repeated nine times in succession.”
 
Even in 1951, Brian Waters, "The Forest of Dean" (1951) writes “... Though this water is salubrious without being efficacious, there is a local tradition (founded no doubt by the monks) that the bath is a cure for rheumatism to any one visiting the pool on twelve successive days, descending one step the first day, two the second, until on the twelfth day the floor of the pool is reached. This would be something of an ordeal, since after the ninth or tenth day the sufferer would be out of his depth, while even on the hottest day in summer the pool is deliciously icy. The well is also held to be good for skin diseases if visited in the month of May at the rising of the sun on nine successive days.”
 
In the 18th century St Anthony’s help was being sought for finding lost valuable possessions. This was achieved by dropping a crooked pin into the large pool and wishing for the return of the missing object.
 
Whatever you believe, it is certainly very refreshing to dip aching, tired feet into the clear water, sit back and revel in the beautiful stillness of the woods.
 
Accommodation - Search & Book through Hotels.com here: 
 
Finding the Well
Where the stream passes under the road at Green Bottom, a path leads up the hill into the woods. Just follow the path beside the stream. The walk is about half a mile (800 metres).
 
On the way you will pass a 17th century charcoal burning blast furnace. Several of the Gunn’s Mill furnace buildings remain and the site is now a scheduled monument as it is the finest remaining example of a charcoal blast furnace from this period in the country.
 
Getting There
By Car
- From London:
Take M4 to Swindon and come off at Exit 15. Take A419 signed to Cirencester and then A417 towards Gloucester. Cross M5 and remain on Gloucester by-pass by following A40 Ross-On-Wye and then Chepstow A48, thus avoiding Gloucester town centre. Continue on A48.
 
- From Gloucester:
Take A48 Chepstow and continue through the village of Westbury-on-Severn. After the village take the second road to the right; sign showing Flaxely/ Mitcheldean. Continue on this road for 2.7 miles (4.3 km) through Flaxley to Y-junction and its grassy triangle. Straight over up unmade road to ruined Gunn’s Mill.
 
- From Ross-On-Wye:
Leave Ross on the A40 Gloucester road. Continue through Weston-Under-Penyard, and in Lea take first Right signed B4224 Mitcheldean (this is 4 miles (6.4 km) from Ross). Continue into Mitcheldean and at T-junction turn Right and continue through village to mini-roundabout by The Lamb public house. Crossing A4136, take road signed Flaxley - Abenhall Road. Gunn’s Mill is 1.7 miles (1.7 km) on the right.
 
- From The South West: 
Proceed on M4 West following M48 Chepstow signs to cross old Severn Bridge keeping in left lane and take first Exit (2) off bridge signed A466 Chepstow (A48). At 1st roundabout take exit signed Chepstow A48 and continue on A48 for 18 miles (29 km), passing through Lydney, Blakeney and Newnham.
 
After passing next Texaco Garage on Left, at top of hill Turn Left signed Flaxley/Mitcheldean. Continue for 2.7 miles (4.3 km) through Flaxley to Y-junction and grassy triangle. Straight over up unmade road to ruined Gunn’s Mill. 
 
Google Maps - St Anthony's Well (approximate)