Now summer is upon us (sort of!), tourists will be visiting Cerne Abbas to view the famous giant, the ‘Rude Man of Dorset’. However, many experts now believe the figure was created no earlier than the 17th century, which might explain the relative paucity of folklore on the topic. Much richer in lore and legend is St Augustine’s Well (also known as the Silver Well) in the abbey ruins, which besides being a wishing well, is said to have healing properties.
The water is said to be particularly effective for sore eyes and infertility – the latter possibly transferred from the giant! It is also said that on Easter Day at dawn, one may glimpse the faces of those who are to die within a year, reflected in the water. Girls would also visit the well and pray to St Catherine for a husband. A chapel dedicated to the saint formerly stood on the hill above the well, and a ‘Catherine wheel’ is carved into the left-hand upright stone at the water’s edge.
It was also the practice to dip a new-born baby in the water as the rising sun’s rays first touched the water; this could be either an early form of Christian baptism, or a remnant of pagan practice, as many holy wells were places of worship in pre-Christian times. St Augustine, sent to convert the pagan British to Christianity in the 6th century, is said to have created the well by striking his staff on the ground to reward the local shepherds who, apparently, preferred water to beer (an unlikely story!).
The legend, was probably created by the monks at the abbey to increase its appeal to pilgrims in the 11th century. The well, along with the abbey, was formerly dedicated to St Edwold, who gave some silver coins to a shepherd for bread and water. The saint was shown the well, and recognising it as a holy place, he built his hermitage here in the 9th century.
In another legend concerning St Augustine at Cerne Abbas, the obdurately pagan villagers attached fish tails to the proselytising priest’s clothes and drove him out of the village, throwing dung and offal in his face. Augustine cursed them, so that future generations of villagers would be born with tails, until the village embraced Christianity. Jerry Bird