Water is the life blood of the planet and its presence will determine whether civilisations survive or perish. It is therefore not surprising that the streams and wells that provide fresh water have long been honoured as sacred, as a source of life itself. On small islands like Sark (Channel Islands) where there is no mains water, residents are dependent on wells and boreholes to fulfil their needs. One lovely spring day, I set off to explore the streams of the island and find the wellsprings that feed them.
It seemed fitting to start at Sark’s most famous well at the Seigneurie pond. Known as the Monk’s Well and located between La Moinerie and L’Ecluse, both potential sites for the original monastery, I was delighted to find that the pond had been recently cleared and looked beautiful in the morning sun. The Monks Well was full of water, and the wellspring just behind it bubbling freely through a crack in the rocks, a visible expression of the underground water coming to the surface. The wellspring feeds the pond, and in turn a stream that flows through the valley by L’Ecluse. The water was flowing fresh and fast, and I followed it down through the valley as it splashed and gurgled its way across the stones, winding down through the bluebells and wild garlic then emptying into the sea at Port du Moulin. Further down the path I found the location of the dipping well, so named because passers-by would dip a cup in the waters to refresh themselves on their journey.
Though the current Seigneur lives at the Seigneurie, the early Seigneurs lived at the Manoir in the centre of the island. This is also where evidence has been found for both Neolithic occupation (around 4200 BC) and a Bronze Age settlement (1400 BC), both of which indicates that water must have been readily available here. Though today the area round the Mill is the highest part of the island, it could have been much lower in the past. According to local geologist, Ray Smith, the water table could have been so near the surface in this location that freshwater was readily available, maybe even forming a pond or lake of some sort. Indeed, he speculates that all the streams of the island could have originated from this point. It is certainly the case that a large stream flows down below the Manoir and through the Dixcart Valley, where the wells at Stocks Hotel and Petite Dixcart make use of this supply. Today the wellspring at the top of the valley sits in the field below the Manoir, where a stone well marks the spot.
It is remarkable that there is any water at all on the Isle of Sark. Porous rocks are like sponges, but igneous rocks cannot hold water in the same way, and Sark is comprised solely of igneous rocks. Luckily, though the rocks are hard – hence their preservation at the interface of the Atlantic Ocean and the English Channel – they are also extremely ancient and bear the scars of millions of years of compression, burial, and uplift in the form of folds, faults and cracks. Rainwater finds its way through the cracks, flowing and seeping ever further down, a consequence of both gravity and density. It takes around twenty years for rainwater to seep down to the level to which boreholes are dug, and around one hundred for it to reach its lowest point and assemble in an ‘aquifer.’ On Sark, all the rainwater collects in a giant bowl beneath the island, floating precariously on salty sea water which is denser and therefore sits lower. The balance is maintained only by equilibrium, which can easily be disturbed; the fresh water could simply drain away into the surrounding ocean, emptying the aquifer as easily as pulling a plug in a bath.
As water is distributed all over the island at depth, it is possible to dig a well anywhere and find water. Consequently, as most people live around the centre of the island, there are many wells and boreholes located on private land here, which are not readily accessible. I did find, however, an old well near the Valette tenement, probably the source for the stream that runs down harbour hill, and a well under the Aval du Creux hotel. There is a famous well at Petite Beauregard, pictured here in 1880 and today, where all the surrounding land has been cleared. The well still has water in it. There is also an old well at the Sablonnerie, just outside the tea gardens, and one at La Donellerie. I am sure that there are many other old and well-tended wells around the island just waiting to be explored.
In the North East of the island, another stream flows past the Fort and drains down into the bay at les Fontaines. The Wellspring is located in the bog garden at La Fougeraie, where a lovely well stands today. For many years eels were a feature of Sark’s freshwater and they could be spotted swimming in the streams or occasionally trapped in the sand beds that form part of the water filtering system. At La Fougeraie, two eels were frequent visitors to the well, and in 2011 Roseanne Guille painted a stunning picture of one of them, beautifully capturing the distinctive blue of the creature that Rosanne described as the ‘colour of a cloud heavy with rain.’
In Celtic tradition, Wells were thought of as gateways to the Otherworld and the magical fish that lived in them would sometimes appear as harbingers of this world, brining messages to those living in the world above. These two eels seemed to me to be such magical messengers. But legend tells us that the Wells must be tended, honoured as a source of life, for if not the land will be blighted, turned to Wasteland. The eels were a sign that the waters were healthy and clean, but sadly, when the well was disused in favour of a bore hole, the waters became polluted and the eels died. Now they are very seldom seen in the waters of Sark, neither do they inhabit the wells.
There is a strong sense of hope, nevertheless. The Well at the La Fougeraie is now full of water, crystal clear and the same beautiful blue as the eel in the painting. And the Monk’s Well at the Seigneurie is tended and cared for again. Maybe Sark has been blighted by the Wasteland, but as it Wells continue to be nurtured and honoured as its life blood, so the abundance and riches will keep returning.