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
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
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
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.
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.