IN olden times, pure and reliable water was the staff of life – not that over-rated everyday stuff, bread.

The rare places where safe and fresh water sprang miraculously from the ground were known for miles around and were treated with the greatest reverence from pagan times.

As the North-East became Christianised, so the springs became regarded as holy wells. Many of them were dedicated to saints whose miraculous intervention was believed to have caused this life-giving water to gush endlessly out of the ground.

In County Durham, there are believed to be at least 30 holy wells which once had religious significance.

The best preserved is probably the Holy Well in Wolsingham, which is dedicated to saints Godric and Aelric and which has a stone byre over its head.

Others now are lost, just names on a map that hint at a sacred spot: Holywell Burn at Willington, Holywell House at Staindrop or Halliwell Beck at Heighington.

The city of Durham has more than its fair share of holy wells – one of which even has its own ghost.

“Possibly the best preserved is the Flass Well, which can be accessed by the steps at the top of Mowbray Street and Flass Street,” says Peter Makepeace, who wants to draw attention to its current condition. “It was used by local people during the winters of 1947-48 and 1962-63, when it provided pure spring water, but it is now so overgrown and full of rubbish that you cannot see it.”

The Flass Well is beneath Redhills, the Durham Miners’ Association’s splendid hall, and as the association restores its site, the historic well will be on its to-do list.

Beneath the overgrowth there should be quite a lot of stonework holding the bank up and providing a seat beside the gushing spring.

Only it gushes no more. Many of the holy wells of County Durham are now dry. Mining affected water levels and, of course, development has redirected many streams.

But does Jeannie, the White Lady, still haunt the Flass Well area?

According to research by the late Peter Jefferies, in 1789, a maid, Jane Ramshaw, was “decoyed from her house at night and murdered”.

The crime caused a sensation. Several men were interviewed, but no culprit was traced, although it is said that some years later, a soldier at the gates of death on a continental battlefield confessed to the murder.

Unavenged, Jeannie may still haunt the damp, dark track beneath the miners’ hall.

But… the word “flass” is an old, northern term meaning “marshy”, and that would be an understandable condition for the land around – Flass Valley – if there is a constantly gushing spring. Marshy land, particularly in the days before streetlights, gives rise to mists through which all sorts of half-seen shapes and spirits can drift complaining about how they were murdered many moons ago…

THE other holy wells of Durham:

The Galilee Well: the Galilee Chapel at the west end of the cathedral was built between 1175 and 1189 over the top of this well. There is a stone wellhead on a footpath beneath the cathedral with a mysterious metal grille over a chasm, but inside now appears to be dry.

St Cuthbert’s Well: near the Galilee Well, the shape of the slope changes, from steep sandstone to less pronounced shale, and St Cuthbert’s Well gushes from between the two rock formations. Its wellhead was restored in the 1970s, including the legend “Fons Cuthbert” and a date of 1600.

St Mary’s Well: it once flowed into the Wear from its south bank beneath South Street, but it has been dry for centuries.

St Oswald’s Well: directly beneath St Oswald’s Church on New Elvet is a well dedicated to the saint which was once a great outpouring – when Samuel Grimm sketched it on his countrywide tour in 1773, it had three basins. Much of its stonework was destroyed by vandals towards the end of the 19th Century.

Fram Well: it doesn’t seem to have been a holy well, just a medieval drinking well. Its wellhead was moved slightly in Framwellgate in 1959 for the street clearances