Yorkshire Holy Wells



Roseberry Well (Odinsberg spring?) - Great Ayton
(SE 5795 1265)
(Roseberry Topping is a conspicuous conical shaped hill rising to over 1000ft. In the 12th century the hill was known as Othenesburg or Odinsberg and it is suggested that early Scandinavian settlers in the region dedicated the peak to their chief god, Odin).

Roseberry Well is marked on the current OS map (1: 25000 scale) on the hill side near the summit of Roseberry Topping, but on recent visits, no water source was visible at that location, so it appears the spring may have ceased to flow.
This is likely to have been the same well described by Elizabeth Gutch who noted a spring near the summit of Roseberry Topping, its waters being used as a cure for sore eyes.
An Odinsberg spring is mentioned in a legend attached to Roseberry Topping (1) and it seems likely that Roseberry Well was the 'modern' name of this spring.

The legend tells how, for many years, king Oswald/Osmund and his queen had longed for an heir to the kingdom, but to no avail. Eventually after much prayer and consulting the best wisefolk in the country, the queen at last gave birth to a son they called Oswy. The king was overjoyed, but his seers soon warned him that they had looked into the boys future and foretold that Oswy would drown on his 2nd birthday. The king and queen made plans to prevent this fate, and so when the birthday neared, the queen took her child to the highest hill in the region, so as to be far away from any rivers, lakes and streams. They sheltered in a hermits cave on the summit of Odinsberg and when Oswy's birthday arrived all appeared to be well, but the fates would not be cheated, and so it happened that in the heat of the day, as her child played, the queen fell asleep and the boy wandered off around the hill top. When the queen awoke she was distraught to find her son missing, she frantically searched for the boy but it was too late, the prophecy had been fulfilled and she found the body of her child drowned in the waters of the Odinsberg spring.
The queen died from her grief soon after and so the king buried his queen and son together at a place that was then known as Oswy-by his-mother-lay, and today as Osmotherley.

This sad tale may seem a rather simplistic explanation of the place name - Osmotherley, but the story and its location may also point to ancient traditions and practices around the hill.

  • Othenesburg suggests the hill was dedicated to Odin - chief of the Scandanavian gods.

  • The 'hermits' cave suggests the presence of a holy man or priest on the hill.

  • A hole in a rock by the cave was known as Wilfrid's Needle, the same name is attached to a stone in the ancient crypt of Ripon cathedral, At both sites folklore practices, involved people crawling through a narrow opening in the stone, sometimes to cure an illness or as a proof of chastity, etc.

  • Oswald/Osmund/Oswy, all incorporate the Anglo-Saxon Rune 'OS' which has the meaning 'god', specifically Odin. Oswald = Odin's high ground or forest. Osmund = mouth of Odin. (voice of Odin?). 

  • Airyholme farm is located on the southern slopes of Roseberry Topping. The same name occurs near Whitby and Slingsby where at Doomsdays it was Ergunholme, which apparently derives from horgum, the Old Norse for sacrificial stone(2). Airyholme may indicate that there was also an 'altar' stone where offering were left at the foot of Odinsberg.

  • The once famous St Oswald's Well at the foot of Roseberry Topping  may also have some connection with this tradition.

    It is possible to speculate that the legend is a toned down version of a tradition regarding  the sacrifice of a kings firstborn son to Odin, or of a ceremony which involved immersion in the waters of Odin's spring.
    In Norse mythology Odin sacrificed one of his own eyes in payment for a drink from Mimir's well of wisdom so that he might gain the gift of being able to see into the future. Odin's eye remained in the well. Many years later people were washing their own eyes in Odinsberg spring so that they might 'see' better!

    (1) Folk Tales from the North York moors. Peter N. Walker
    (2) Slingsby & Slingsby castle. A . Brooke. (1904).

Access - Several footpaths lead up to the top of Roseberry Topping.
Condition - Spring is dry at present but worth a visit to top of Odin' Hill.