St John’s Well in the gardens of the Old Vicarage, Morwenstow, is now cared for by the National Trust. Although the gardens are private there is public access to the well itself from the lane leading down to the house.
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“The well of St John in the Wilderness stands and flows softly in the eastern boundary of Morwenstow Glebe. In the old Latin Endowment, still preserved in Bishop Brentingham’s Register in the Archives of Exeter, A.D. 1296, the Church land is said to extend eastward, ad quendam fontem Johannis. Water wherewithal to fill the font for baptism is always drawn from this well by the Sacristan in pitchers set apart for this purpose.”
THE WELL OF ST JOHN
They dreamed not in old Hebron, when the sound
Went through the city, that the promised son
Was born to Zachary, and his name was John;
They little thought, that here in this far ground,
Beside the Severn sea, that Hebrew child
Would be a cherished memory of the wild;
Here, where the pulses of the ocean bound
Whole centuries away, while one meek cell,
Built by the fathers o’er a lonely well,
Still breathes the Baptist’s sweet remembrances round.
A spring of silent waters with his name,
That from the angel’s voice in music came,
Here in the wilderness so faithful found,
It freshens to this day the Levite’s grassy mound.
(The festival of St John the Baptizer, 1843)
From Echoes from Old Cornwall by R. S. Hawker; reprinted in Cornish Ballads.
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In The Life and Letters of R. S. Hawker (p. 168), C. E Byles, presumably quoting Hawker himself, records that ‘The well and the ground whereon it stands having been unlawfully claimed by Sir J. Y Buller in the year 1843, the Right of the Church was sustained by the present Vicar, and after a lawsuit which lasted two whole days at the Assizes held at Bodmin, wherein all that wealth and rank and power could accomplish were brought to bear against the Church, a triumphant verdict in the Vicar’s favour was returned with costs. It is said that Sir John paid £1370 for costs on both sides.’
Nine years later, offering an account of himself in a letter to a new correspondent, Hawker retells the incident in a piece of characteristically vivid prose:
Remember I do not pretend to holier Life than other Men. Far, very Far from that. God be merciful to me a grievous sinner. But for Seventeen Years I have fought the Battle of the Church in this Corner with a single human Succour. The Clergy around me – the wretched Heretics, the spawn of that miscreant John Wesley – the Rich and potent Landlords – all these have assailed me, and I have scourged and beaten them all continually. Reliance has been on the young men in white garments, whom I can well nigh see, and they have conquered for me ‘an host of Men’. Once Sir J. Buller tried to take from me my Holy Well and a piece of ground. I had but 27£ on Earth, for I am poor, but with one only Collect said nightly at the Altar I encountered the wealthy Baronet, Lord of the neighbouring soil, and I did thrash him well. The Jury gave me an immediate verdict, and Sir Ahab paid into Court 1370£, his own costs and mine.
Life and Letters (p. 228).
Early morning sunshine in the orchard below St John’s Well.
Text and photos © Angela Williams 2011