One thing we love about living in the South West is the amount of magic and mystery abounds. It’s a strange place that’s for sure. From Stonehenge to the Bristol hum, odd occurrences are afoot every way you turn. But one of the most least spoken about is Starwell, otherwise known as Holy Well, near Biddestone in Wiltshire.
This unassuming freshwater spring that flows into a small stream, stuck in the middle of a field occupied by cows and an electrified pylon, is home to a unique discovery. Sift through the dirt of Starwell spring and you’ll likely drag out tiny fossils – notable for their five-pointed star shape.
Where do the star-shaped stones come from?
Local folklore claims that these ‘stars’ are the fossilized elderflowers from an Elder Tree – often associated with witchcraft. While another local legend claims these stars appeared when a passing Saint (some say Thomas of Canterbury) drank from the well on his pilgrimage to Glastonbury and blessed the water. Some even say that on full moons that fairies and water nymphs sing and dance around the water’s edge.
One of the earliest references, however, comes from seventeenth-century Wiltshire antiquarian John Aubrey’s book The Natural History of Wiltshire (written between 1656 and 1691). He noted that ‘east of Bitteston, in the estate of Mr. Montjoy, is a spring,-they call it a holy well,-where five-pointed stones doe bubble up (Astreites) which doe move in vinegar.’
We can confirm this to be true. But there’s no magic involved. Instead the stars move around and eventually dissolve because they are made of calcite – you can try this yourself too, if you can bare to do so.
What really are the stars of Starwell?
The truth doesn’t have to be any less magical: The reality is that these stars are fossilised segments of sea lilies (otherwise known as crinoids) millions of years old, washed out of the bedrock over the millennia by the gentle flow of the spring. These plant-like sea-creatures are actually related to starfish.
Where do I find Starwell?
About a forty minute drive from Bristol. You’ll find Starwell between Biddestone and Chippenham, a field north of Stowell Farm. Asking at the farm gets you not only permission but also directions. We recommend packing some wellies for the trip.