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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

23 September 2022

On a riverside pilgrimage, Malcolm Guite encounters a holy well

I HAVE been walking with three friends on a riverside pilgrimage between Dorchester and Oxford. One of our pilgrim paths, from Oxford itself, took us across the lovely expanse of Port Meadow, out to Binsey — once an island, as its name suggests, with its ancient church dedicated to St Margaret of Antioch, but associated as much with another saint, who made the original dedication and built the church: St Frideswide, Oxford’s patron saint. Our walk across the meadow and towards the Isis’s lovely bank took us past the poplars and young beech trees that have, thankfully, been replanted to replace the ones whose loss Hopkins so memorably lamented:


My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled. . .


But on our walk, we could still enjoy the way green trees


. . . dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-
   winding bank.


Once we’d crossed the river, we came to a fingerpost with signs pointing in opposite directions, proclaiming their rhyming destinations: “The Church” or “The Perch”.

My fellow pilgrims and I had lunch in the Perch, and, suitably sustained and refreshed, returned to the sign and headed for the real object of our pilgrimage: the church and, more particularly, the holy well beside it, which goes by the happy name of “The Treacle Well”.

This is indeed the famous Treacle Well from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, where, according to the learned and somnolent Dormouse, three sisters lived entirely on treacle. But the real back story of the Treacle Well is even more wonderful.

The name derives from “triacle”, an Anglo-Saxon word for a healing balm or salve; and, the story goes, Frideswide, the Saxon princess who became the patron saint of Oxford, fled to the little isle of Binsey, on a boat rowed by angels, to escape the unwelcome advances of a Mercian king.

She hid in the woods there, and, as he attempted to pursue her further, he was struck blind for his sacrilege; for Frideswide was vowed to celibacy. But the Lord told her to touch the ground with her staff, and, where it touched, a miraculous spring flowed forth, and she had compassion on her oppressor, and, with the “triacle” salve, she healed his blindness. She seems also to have healed his moral blindness; for she was able to return to Oxford and found a priory, but not before she had founded the church by the well and dedicated it in honour of St Margaret of Antioch, who had likewise fled an unwanted male pursuer.

It’s an ancient tale, and yet it has, all too sadly, a modern ring to it. Perhaps Margaret and Frideswide — and, indeed, Etheldreda of Ely — might form an early sisterhood for the #MeToo movement; perhaps there was something in the Dormouse’s assertion that the Treacle Well was a place where sisters dwelt together.

All these thoughts were revolving in my mind as I approached the well itself. I descended the steps and peered through a low arch to glimpse the water, deeper down in the well, and, when I saw it, I entirely understood Alice and the Dormouse; for, I must say, it did look exactly like treacle.

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