Leechwell holy well, 350m south west of St Mary's Church


Heritage Category:
Scheduled Monument
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:


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The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

South Hams (District Authority)
National Grid Reference:
SX 80024 60175

Reasons for Designation

Holy wells are water sources with specifically Christian associations. The custom of venerating springs and wells as sacred sites is also known to have characterised pre-Christian religions in Britain and, although Christian wells have been identified from as early as the 6th century AD, it is clear that some holy wells originated as earlier sacred sites. The cult of holy wells continued throughout the medieval period. Its condemnation at the time of the Reformation (c.1540) ended new foundations but local reverence and folklore customs at existing holy wells often continued, in some cases to the present day. The holy wells sometimes functioned as sites for baptism but they were also revered for less tangible reasons, some of which may have had origins in pre- Christian customs, such as folklore beliefs in the healing powers of the water and its capacity to effect a desired outcome for future events. Associated rituals often evolved, usually requiring the donation of an object or coin to retain the 'sympathy' of the well for the person seeking its benefits. At their simplest, holy wells may be unelaborated natural springs with associated religious traditions. Structural additions may include lined well shafts or conduit heads on springs, often with a tank to gather the water at the surface. The roofing of walled enclosures to protect the water source and define the sacred area created well houses which may be simple, unadorned small structures closely encompassing the water source, or larger buildings, decorated in the prevailing architectural style and facilitating access with features such as steps to the water source and open areas with stone benching where visitors might shelter. At their most elaborate, chapels, and sometimes churches, may have been built over the well or adjacent well house. The number of holy wells is not known but estimates suggest at least 600 nationally. They provide important information on the nature of religious beliefs and practices and on the relationship between religion and the landscape during the medieval period.

The structure of Leechwell medieval holy well survives well and is unusual in having its chamber buried in the hillside to the rear. Its location close to a medieval leper hospital is likely to have influenced its reputation as having healing powers for skin diseases and lameness, and the name supports this, leeches being an important form of treatment for skin ailments in the medieval period. The well's known history is unusually complete, with official recognition going back to the 15th century. Buried remains relating to its construction and past use may include waterlogged material and deposits of votive offerings associated with the veneration of the well.


This monument includes a medieval holy well known as Leechwell, which lies on the south side of a narrow valley, just south of Totnes town centre. The town is visible from the well, which is located at the junction of two narrow lanes, now used as footpaths. The monument survives as a rectangular sunken reservoir, its south east corner cut by the southern branch of the lane. It measures 3.8m wide, 4.28m long and is 0.55m deep on its east side. Massive stone walls on its west and north sides retain a garden and measure from 4m to 6m high, while an enclosing wall on the south side is 0.47m wide and 2.2m high. The water flows from a narrow culvert leading back into the hillside to the west. This feeds a semi-circular corbelled chamber 2m wide and 1.45m deep, which is retained by a stone bench running along the west side of the reservoir. Three stone spouts convey water through the front of this bench into three granite troughs set in the floor of the reservoir, which is cobbled, with narrow gutters around its edges. Two stone-lined chutes in the south west corner convey storm water from the southern arm of the lane and from the garden above, into the reservoir. The water leaves the reservoir via a culvert 0.8m wide and 0.5m high at its south east corner. Leechwell is recorded from at least the mid-15th century, when wardens of the well were appointed annually by the borough. It was thought to heal eye ailments, lameness and skin disease, and was associated with the medieval leper hospital of St Mary Magdalene 120m to the south east. The well was used as a public water supply until the 1930s. The well is a Listed Building, Grade II. Modern path surfaces are excluded from the scheduling, although the ground beneath them is included.

MAP EXTRACT The site of the monument is shown on the attached map extract. It includes a 2 metre boundary around the archaeological features, considered to be essential for the monument's support and preservation.


The contents of this record have been generated from a legacy data system.

Legacy System number:
Legacy System:


MPP fieldwork by R Waterhouse, Waterhouse, R, (2000)


This monument is scheduled under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 as amended as it appears to the Secretary of State to be of national importance. This entry is a copy, the original is held by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

End of official listing

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