It was the last day of November, a clear but cool day, a patchwork of light and shadow. The autumn browns and yellows of the few leaves left on trees glittered in the bright sunshine; long shadows dominated where the sun could not reach. We took the short cut to the Town centre down a steep passage known locally as Leper’s Lane. The narrow path with its high stone walls is said to have been a route taken by lepers from the long-demolished leper hospital on Maudlin Road.
In wet weather this enclosed path can be alarmingly slippery but today it is dry and we safely navigate to a more open area which is the confluence of three of these walled paths. Here there is also a sunken wet space where water sources spill their contents through three makeshift spouts each in to its own granite trough. This is the Leechwell and the three troughs are called Toad, Long Crippler (a local term for slow worms) and Snake.
Legend has it that the Leechwell water was used in the past for healing, especially for skin complaints and eye diseases.
Totnes has, for many years, been a place where people of different persuasions gathered and the Leechwell now has a special feeling for the New Age population. They decorate it with flowers, ribbons, feathers and sometimes mirrors. The decorations change but we never see who does it; others take the water for drinking. The three outflows respond to the prevailing weather and I have seen them running freely after heavy rain and almost dry in a good summer.
As we reached the Leechwell, I noticed flickering movement in one corner of the watery area. It was something very small and from its behaviour it had to be a bird. I guessed it was a Wren, but that idea was proven wrong when I noticed the bright yellow flash on its head. The bird moved about constantly, fluttering its wings rapidly, rising and falling and occasionally hovering. Sometimes it took a quick drink, sometimes it pecked at an insect. Finally, it took a bath, resting in the water fanning its wings. It seemed entirely unconcerned by us or our quiet commentary.
I have seen these birds before, but not this close or for so long. They usually emit a repeated short squeak like a rusty hinge although this one was silent perhaps because it was alone. We were just a few feet away and could see many of the distinguishing features: white wing bars, the bright yellow flash, the absence of a white strip above the eye; this was a Goldcrest, the UK’s smallest bird. I couldn’t help marvelling at the beauty of this small creature.
Seeing the Goldcrest that morning was completely unexpected and it lifted my mood. We could have stayed longer but we decided to leave the bird to its feeding and cleaning. I am only sorry I did not have my camera.