There are certain, special places where the modern world feels very far away. As you pass through the wooden gate into St Margaret’s churchyard, Binsey, the relentless thrum of the ring road seems to recede into the distance, and time starts to slip …

For centuries pilgrims have made their slow journey to this sacred spot. Walking it today – past the riverside descendants of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ beloved aspens, whose ‘airy cages … quench in leaves the leaping sun’, along a narrow cart track, now metalled and neatly lined with young beech trees, with wide, flat fields stretching to either side – the approach still brings a feeling of rising expectation, a sense of something magical in store.

Doorway - Treacle Well

The door to the church, set in its low Norman porch, opens with a satisfying click. Inside, the space is cool, dark, anciently compact. The twelfth-century lancet windows are set deep. The ceiling is a riot of beams. Fragments of medieval stained glass in the chancel depict the martyrdom of Thomas Becket. Sometimes the scent of lilies lingers after a recent wedding.

Why is this church here, cut off from the tiny hamlet of Binsey, so far from Oxford city centre? Precisely because of its remoteness – for it dates from a time when the value of silence and inaccessibility was properly understood. And because of the holy water which forms in droplets from a sacred spring outside, beyond the yew tree and the scattering of gravestones at the west end of the church.

This is the so-called Treacle Well, at the bottom of which, according to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, dwelt three little sisters, sustained only by treacle. The story of the well goes back far beyond the Victorians, however – back over a thousand years into the mists of Saxon history – for legend has it that this spring was summoned forth by none other than Oxford’s patron saint, St Frideswide.

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Frideswide (or Frithuswith: her distinctive Saxon name means ‘peace’ and ‘strong’) has a unique and specific association with Oxford. Versions of her story are recorded in two medieval manuscripts. They tell of her noble upbringing, her beauty, her virtue, and her determination to become a nun. They also relate how she was ardently pursued by a Mercian king, Algar, who desired to make her his wife. She declined his advances, and managed to escape to the sanctuary of some knotty, thorn-entangled woods, several miles upstream from Oxford. ‘Here,’ in the words of Prior Robert of Cricklade, ‘she hoped to hide, here devote herself to sweet tranquillity and shun the crowds.’

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The rapacious Algar refused to be deterred, and eventually discovered Frideswide’s secret location. But, just as he was about to ride out in hot pursuit, a miracle occurred. Algar was struck blind!

Ever compassionate, Frideswide restored his sight – and later that of others who came to visit her – using the waters of a holy well which she had caused to bubble up from the earth. This is the Treacle Well, so called because triacle is an ancient word meaning a medicinal balm or salve.

Algar relented and eventually it was safe for Frideswide to return to Oxford. There she achieved her life-long goal of establishing a priory. Many miracles were attributed to her and visitors came from miles afar to pay their respects – kings and peasants alike. When she eventually died, on 19 October 727, her grave became a pilgrimage shrine. From this moment forth Oxford’s reputation as a tourist destination was guaranteed.

The choice of setting for Frideswide’s priory was significant: on prime land, high up and overlooking the river crossing – a very important spot symbolically and strategically. It was no accident that, nearly a thousand years later, first Cardinal Wolsey then King Henry VIII chose the same location on which to site their church, college and, in due course, cathedral.

Which raises an intriguing thought.

The powers of the Treacle Well were deemed efficacious not just for optical problems but for gynaecological conditions too. In the middle years of his reign, Henry VIII and his queen, Catherine of Aragon, are said to have sought its waters to help produce a royal son and heir. Had the cure worked as hoped, the English Reformation might never have happened – in which case Binsey might have become a very different kind of pilgrimage site.

Now there’s a paradox Lewis Carroll would surely have appreciated.

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The photographs for this story, including Edward Burne-Jones’ spectacular stained glass St Frideswide Window in the Latin Chapel, (above) were generously supplied by the Revd Ralph Williamson, and Jackie Holderness, Education Officer for Christ Church Cathedral and author of an award-winning children’s book about Oxford’s patron saint: The Princess Who Hid in a Tree.

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The Revd Malcolm Guite writes a weekly column for the Church Times entitled ‘Poet’s Corner’. Here he reflects on his pilgrimage to the Treacle Well.

I have been walking with three friends on a riverside pilgrimage between Dorchester and Oxford and 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 took us across the meadow and towards the Isis’ ‘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: to ‘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 backstory of the Treacle Well is even more wonderful.

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. MG

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Mark Davies, expert on all things Lewis Carroll, dives into the well …

Now, about that ‘Treacle Well’ attribution: was Lewis Carroll the unwitting originator, or was he just adapting existing local tradition? Or have a few unrelated ideas been gathered together to create a neat but unsubstantiated explanation? I confess that, having delved deep in search of the facts for my new edition of Alice in Waterland, I have come to no firm conclusion. It would seem that the specific term ‘treacle’ was first applied to St Margaret’s Well only in the 1960s – almost exactly a hundred years after Wonderland was published (1865). However, tales of Binsey’s supposed TREACLE MINES go much further back. The Oxford Times recorded their existence as common knowledge in 1904. (The writer seems likely to have consumed enough treacle to make his tongue stick to his cheek.) So by implication the ‘mines’ had been a Binsey tradition long before that (and a well would be as sensible a way of extracting treacle from a mine as any: that Dormouse knew what he was on about, clearly!) But for how long had this idea persisted? Prior to 1865? If anyone knows, please do say. Or perhaps this sweet local lore should simply now, as Carroll himself is quoted as having said, be left WELL alone!

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Painting by Valerie Petts, 2011 (with permission)
These fine portrait photographs were taken by Clare Kendall on behalf of the Bible Society.
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Inspired by a devotion to St Frideswide and a love of Psalm 23, Jackie Holderness, author of The Princess Who Hid in a Tree, has led the process of beautifying the area around the Treacle Well. She writes:

The Lord is my shepherd (Psalm 23) has been identified as the nation’s favourite psalm. Its words have offered solace and strength to people of faith across the centuries and they resonated with, and comforted, many of us during the pandemic lockdowns.

So, efforts are underway to create a community garden of peace, reflection and beauty at Binsey, where the words and values of the 23rd Psalm can be encountered and taken to heart.

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The graveyard around the medieval church is well-tended, and the holy well is clearly valued by visitors and pilgrims. Some leave flowers there, and many sit awhile on the garden bench, just to reflect and enjoy the peacefulness of the place. To understand the topography of the site, the nettles have been cleared and the ground demarcated, with fallen logs, into three distinct areas.

Some initial planting of perennials in the upper bed has been done to make it clear that a garden is taking shape and to encourage colour and wildlife (especially bees and butterflies). The plan is for the area to be turned into a garden with birdbath and stones plus another bench. Readers of Morris Oxford and visitors to Binsey might be interested and, we hope, uplifted by the transformation taking place. – JH

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It seems that the Treacle Well may not always have been so remote after all. Julian Fox has got everyone at Morris Oxford very excited!

Did you know that Binsey is pretty close to the site of the deserted village of Seacourt, last occupied circa 1400 so presumably abandoned following the Black Death? There’s a big vitrine dedicated to it in the Ashmoleon, and I have just located this link: https://oxoniensia.org/volumes/1961-2/biddle.pdf

If you look in page 3 of the file (or page 72 of the book itself) you’ll see that St Margaret’s Well might well have been closer to Seacourt than Binsey. Might Seacourt be another blog for the future? – JF

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Prompted by reading the Oxoniensia article, we wrote to the archaeologist who had led the original excavation, Professor Martin Biddle. He replied:

How good to hear from you! Seacourt is so far back in my past (I dug it in 1958 directly after coming out of the army) that, apart from writing it up, I’ve scarcely given it another thought.

However, there’s plenty of the Deserted Medieval Village still there to west and east of the line of the road, including, to the east, the site of the church which I would have loved to dig in 1958 but which was not then threatened and so could not be touched.

I wouldn’t mind having a trip out there sometime post-Covid, perhaps to lead an OUAS party one summer day. – MB

Jackie Holderness is Cathedral Education Officer at Christ Church. In pre-pandemic times she used to give spellbinding readings of her book The Princess Who Hid in a Tree to children’s groups. She writes:

The Covid scenario can be very disheartening; but, as I sat in Evensong at Christ Church last Thursday, I mused on the tale of St Frideswide and the generations before us who witnessed previous pandemics …

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The Black Death or Bubonic Plague killed over a third of the population of Europe in the years 1347-49. Then in 1485 came the Sweating Sickness:

The exterior is calm in this fever, the interior excited … The heat in the pestilent fever many times does not appear excessive to the doctor nor the heat of the sweat particularly high … But it is on account of the ill-natured, fetid, corrupt, putrid, and loathsome vapours close to the region of the heart and lungs whereby the panting of the breath magnifies and increases and restricts itself. (Thomas Forrestier, Tractatus Contra Pestilentia Thenasomonen et Dissenterium. 1490.)

In 1569 Oxford was visited by

A newe kind of sickness . . . through the whole region, which was so sore, so peynfull and sharp, that the like was never harde of to any mannes remembrance before that time. (Richard Grafton, A chronicle at large and mere history of the affayres of England. 1569.)

Then, of course, there was smallpox during the Civil War; the great plague of 1665; and cholera several times in the nineteenth century:

The dreaded cholera again showed itself in Oxford, and continued to carry off its victims through the month, though in small numbers compared with the former visitation. Happily, it disappeared as October commenced; but it was thought safer by the authorities to call up the Undergraduates a week later than usual. (G.V. Cox, Recollections of Oxford. 1868.)

Throughout all these tribulations, however, the Cathedral (and before it the Priory) remained a place of solace, and the spirit of Frideswide has endured, so we hope and believe that ‘this too must pass’…

May Frideswide’s prayers for the city she helped to found, and the God to whom she dedicated her life, protect us. Stay well!

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