Freda of Wensleydale, and the Fairy Well

The Fairy Well

  The Fairy Well is located in a field on the west side of Harmby village, 1 mile to the south-east of Leyburn in Wensleydale.

  A strong spring emerges on a grassy hillside in the field, with the water flowing into an old metal trough. Tumbled dry-stone walling partly surrounds the trough, while an old Hawthorn tree over hangs the well – a ‘Fairy Thorn’ perhaps ?

  We first visited the Fairy Well over 30 years ago with Edna Whelan and Ian Taylor, who were researching for their book Yorkshire Holy Wells and Sacred Springs (1989). This was in the days BC (before computers) when research involved reading books, visiting libraries, and contacting people for information. Edna had spoken to a local lady called Freda White who had grown up in Harmby, and knew the history and folklore of the well – even having written a song about it.

  Revisiting the well in 2010 found it pretty much unchanged except for the walling being a little more tumbled down. Unfortunately Freda White had passed away a few years earlier, so the opportunity to speak to her about the Fairy Well and her song had been missed. Although today there is virtually no information about Freda on the internet, it turned out that she was quite well known in the region for singing dialect songs and verse, and was affectionately known as ‘Freda of Wensleydale’. One of the few references to Freda is on the website of the Norwegian folk band Boknakaran. The bands singer Malvin Skulbru became good friends with Freda after meeting her at a folk festival in Richmond in 1989. Malvin was fascinated by the similarities between the old dales dialect and the Nordic language – a legacy from the early Scandinavian settlers in the Dales. To commemorate their meeting he wrote and recorded a song called “Freda from Wensleydale” which became well known in Norway, as it was played on the radio and TV. It is quite likely that Freda is more remembered in Norway than in her native country.

The Fairy Well
Malvin Skulbru (top) and Nigel Stockbridge

  In 1995 Malvin Skulbru encouraged Freda to record some of the songs and dialect poems, and this took place at the home recording studio of Nigel Stockbridge – a member of the Richmond folk band ‘Tap the keg’. Back in Norway the recording was made available on cassette, with copies also making their way back to the UK. The cassette included 14 tracks with Freda singing songs or reciting verse connected with the Dales, including Freda’s own Fairy Well song. Malvin provided an introduction to the album and accompaniment on some of the tracks.

  Although 20 years had passed, in 2015 an effort was made to track down the Fairy well song. Luckily Nigel Stockbridge still had a guitar repair workshop in Richmond, and he was able to forward our enquiry on to Malvin Skulbru in Norway. Malvin very kindly sent a copy of the recording on CD, along with several photos and clippings relating to Freda. So after many years of thinking the Fairy Well song may have been lost, it was again possible to hear it being sung by Freda.

  Listening to the recording of Freda singing and reciting poems is like a window into older times. She was not a trained folk singer or a polished performer – at heart she was simply an old lady from a village in Wensleydale, who had a love for the old songs and dialect of the Dales. This keen interest and passion, along with a ‘sprightly’ attitude, meant that she was happy to sing the songs, and felt that it was important for people to get a chance to hear them in their traditional form.

  By way of a tribute to both Freda, Malvin and Nigel, here is the recording of Freda singing her song about the Fairy Well at Harmby, and then Malvin’s song ‘Freda from Wensleydale’ in Norwegian.

Thoughts on the Fairy Well
  The Fairy Well song seems to relate to a piece of unrecorded folklore connected with the well – that a woman who danced around the well when the moon was full could not be taken by the Devil. The song suggests that the well specifically protected women, and that it could perhaps also make a woman skilled in the art of Butter making. Traditionally it was the women of the household who were the butter makers, and three generations of Freda’s own family had used the cold flowing waters of the well to preserve their butter. So this may have been a piece of family folklore.

  The question is how did the Fairy Well provide protection from the Devil? It was probably not through the Fairies, who were often regarded as fallen angels, like Lucifer himself. This raises the possibility that this strong flowing spring was at one time regarded as a holy well under the divine protection of some saint. There are references to a medieval chapel in a field between the well and the village, and it is not unusual to find a holy well connected with these small chapels – like Saint Simon’s well and chapel at Coverham, 4 miles to the south. Many holy wells were lost or forgotten after the Reformation in the 1600’s, when their use for religious purposes was banned.

  Perhaps the ‘dance around the well’ was a folk memory of Christian procession’s and prayers at the well – like the religious patterns that still take place at the holy wells in Ireland. Holy water from the well, with its saint’s blessing, might have been believed to protect a women from being taken by the Devil. In the Fairy Well song the Devil carries a women down into hell, but he is unable to keep her there because she has performed a ritual at the well. In the old Catholic church much religious activity was directed towards lessening the amount of time a person’s soul spent in purgatory or hell. In Brittany there are also stories of old priests who could bring back a persons soul from purgatory. These kind of beliefs also echo the folklore stories of rescuing people who had been taken into the faerie Otherworld.

 If the Fairy Well was originally a holy well, then a suitable dedication might have been Saint Bridget (or Bride as she was also known) who just happens to be the patron saint of butter makers and protector of women. Saint Bridget was one of the key figures of the early Celtic church, and dedications to her exist not only in Ireland, but also Scotland and England. Old legends about her also suggest that she took on some attributes of an earlier pre Christian Celtic goddess or supernatural female figure. An early medieval Gaelic hymn to Bridget – ‘Bé bithmaith’ , describes her as …..

Brigit, ever good woman, a sparkling golden flame.
May she lead us to the eternal realm, the shining bright sun.
Save us Brigit from hordes of demons.
May she win for us battles of every hardship / disease.

The Woman at the well
 One such otherworldly female may lie behind the Fairy Well name, as noted in a story written about the well by William Barker in the mid 1800’s. He relates how long ago, a supernatural woman sat by the well singing, when a passing knight became so enchanted by her voice that he fell in love with her. He meets her at the well on moonlit nights, but eventually the fairy women stays too long and hears the church clock strike midnight. With a cry of despair she vanishes and is never seen again, while the knight pines away and dies of a broken heart. How much of the story is Barker’s own creation is unclear, but as he lived in the area it is likely that he based it on a local story connected with the well.

 Was this otherworldly woman at the well a vague memory of a female saint once connected with it?
The life giving waters of this strong spring have long flowed from the hill side, with the added potency of being ‘south running’. Such a spring, with its tumbled walling, would be a classic holy well connected with the small chapel nearby. Dedicated perhaps to a saint renowned for protecting women – especially in childbirth (a common cause of women’s deaths in the past) and for those who sadly died ‘in child bed’ she could provide safe passage to the after life.

 With her love of song and dialect verse, Freda White might have approved of a dedication to saint Bridget, as she was also the patron saint of poetry.

The Lay of the Land


Blogs and websites

Get new posts alert by Email:

Folklore in the Landscape

Text and images copyright 2024