Last week I sat twiddling my thumbs. I had planned several summer projects but all had been thwarted. Finally, my wife suggested that if I had nothing better to do, why not look for the well in the front garden.
We learned of a possible well just after we bought the cottage nine years ago. Older neighbours told us how, when they were young, they had seen water being drawn from a pump close to what is now our front door.
Then there was more evidence. When replacing some drainage our mason discovered the pinched-off end of a lead pipe just protruding from a garden wall, and next to it in the undergrowth nearby he found the rusty remains of a hand pump.
So the search was on. After taking advice, digging for three days trying to track the course of the lead pipe, and making one false start, a large concrete slab with a central trapdoor was found two feet below ground. It seemed reasonable to assume that the slab was sitting over the well’s entrance. Now all that was left was to lift the trapdoor, and that we arranged to do with friends next day. Even if the well were there, an anticlimax was still possible. What if the walls had collapsed or the shaft had been filled with rubble?
Slowly I lifted the tightly-fitting door and all was revealed. It was awesome, as perfect as could be hoped for. The shaft was round, maybe four feet wide, and made from locally-mined stone cut to form the circles. And about a metre below us was beautifully clear water that seemed to go on forever. The view was simply magical. If this sight didn’t fill one with wonderment, nothing would. Furthermore, with no algae, no mould, no vegetation and no signs of collapse, it would have looked just like this on the day the covering slab was put in place. Indeed, it was so carefully sealed off that those involved must have wanted it to be re-opened one day and seen in all its glory. We had just obliged them and were very grateful.
There is inevitably delight when finding some personal object that has been lost. Different altogether, is the exhilaration felt when finding something unknown, and which holds nothing but expectations. But in this particular instance there was more. In those few seconds we had become the owners of a fairytale. Wells are truly magical, housing sprites and the truth – at least according to the French – and which can, for a few coins, make wishes come true. In addition to a supply of water and a link with history, we now have a private source of fantasies.
Word of the discovery soon got around and the trap has now been raised at least a dozen times to satisfy curiosity. Consensus, and a little speculation, has it that the well was built in the 17th or 18th century. Because of its position (we live in old part of the village opposite the site of an ancient chapel) and because of the excellence of its masonry and its unique shape (the shafts of all the other wells hereabouts are square) the well was probably communal. And because of its proximity to the chapel, it may well have had healing properties.
But back to reality. One of the neighbours who remembered the well from when he was a boy, and who in his excitement had visited us a good six times during the recent exploration, now came to the site with a bucket on a rope. Pierre was keen to see what the water looked like and even how it felt. He drew up a pailful of water which was as clear as could be and, according to his checking, was ‘fresh’ and free of any odour – water from dormant wells often stinks! Then, when he left, without a word he took the bucket-load with him to water his beans. Already it was part of the community – ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose!’
But there was another reality check, or was it an urban myth? Next day we read how the state would be most interested in our discovery. Apparently, if we planned to use the water, the well would need to be registered and we would have to pay rates. Ugh!
In the meantime, however, we have already used it to water the garden, and mysteriously the water level does not seem to have dropped. Who’s to argue that it doesn’t have certain magical qualities after all?