Well, Well, Well: Finding Water in Bygone Days

Our well, lovingly restored by the SF

Sorry, I couldn’t help the pun. Water has been on our minds rather a lot this year, what with the contamination of our local water supply a couple of months ago. That now seems to be resolved, fortunately. However, our well ran dry yesterday and it will be some time before it replenishes itself. Just as well (sorry, that wasn’t intentional) that the watering season is drawing to a close.

Wells and citernes

We don’t use mains water for watering our plants. Ours is connected to a water softener and the plants don’t like the slight salinity. We are fortunate, though, to have two wells (puits) and a citerne (water cistern). The latter is an enormous underground chamber (see the pix below, before restoration).

When we bought our barn, several years after the house, it came with a very run-down well and an equally run-down citerne. Neither of them had a roof and the stonework was crumbling and falling inwards. The SF exercised his engineering skills and now they are both safe and usable. We have installed submersible pumps in them.

Citerne after restoration

The well behind the barn probably dates from the mid-late 19th century, although we can’t be sure. It is 12 metres deep, which represents a lot of digging without the benefits of modern equipment and was probably quite a dangerous job.

People around here say that before the well was sunk, the occupants of our hamlet (there was one then) had to walk 1.5 km to the nearest stream and back uphill. We are on a dry plateau without any water courses, except for those underground. You only have to read Marcel Pagnol’s Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources or see the films to realise what a precious, and scarce, resource water was. This also explains why the éviers (stone sinks) in our house are so shallow. And no doubt people didn’t bother too much about luxuries like bathing.

House - living room évier
One of two éviers in our living room


The SF and I debated this morning how people would have detected water at that time. Professional water diviners (sourciers) have been around for centuries. Traditionally, they used a hazel stick in the shape of a Y (une baguette) or a watch and chain. Le sourcier walked over an area until the rod or watch moved or indicated that water was beneath the spot. The depth of the source was determined by placing pebbles in the palm of the hand until the rod stopped moving. Each pebble represented one metre. This method was also used to detect precious metals and gems. At different times, both the Pope and Martin Luther condemned the practice.

There is no scientific evidence that divination (or dowsing) works. Various controlled experiments suggest that it’s no more effective than random chance. The SF fully concurs with this. However, without some form of assistance, scientific or otherwise, the folk in our hamlet would have been extremely lucky to find at the first try the tiny source that feeds our well. And they wouldn’t have had the equipment, or the time, to keep digging holes until they did come across it.

So the art of water divining remains a mystery. People debate whether it’s a mystic gift, a process with a scientific basis or just charlatanry. Some claim that you must have the gift to be able to do it. Others assert that divination can be taught. In my researches, I’ve even found a sourcier in the Tarn who gives courses in water divining. And you can still call on the services of a professional sourcier if you want to find water on your property.

Irises in front of well May 2015
Our other well, nearer the house. This may be a citerne rather than a proper water source.

You might also like:

French Cultural Heritage on Our Doorstep
All About Stone
French Country Life a Century Ago

Copyright © 2017 Life on La Lune, all rights reserved


  1. Italians, Tuscans at least, still prefer to use water diviners. Our neighbour tried an engineer first for his well, who said it would be impossible to find a well where Mauro had wanted it, which was somewhere near his house. Three water diviners came along and two chose the exactly same spot and near the veg garden … hey presto! The water was found after some nail-biting days of hiring a machine to do the well bore. He now has abundant water for his very professional veggie garden.

    Liked by 1 person

    • No one has been able to get to the bottom of if/how/why it works. I can’t see how the occupants of our house would have found the water for our well otherwise – a needle in a proverbial haystack.


  2. Great post!! Dowsing is fascinating – have you ever tried it yourself? The ancients had a lot of knowledge which has been lost, and a stronger connection to nature than we have now – their survival depended on it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t tried it. When I found a sourcier who runs courses not a million miles away, I was interested to try it in the interests of research. Then I saw the price…Have you every tried it?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have – I went on a course locally (not expensive) and it was very interesting. We worked on leylines and our “sticks” were made from metal coathangers – one in each hand. Quite amazing what happened!! 🙂 I always have the “sticks” in the back of the car now.

        Liked by 1 person

    • We are spoilt these days, when you only have to turn the tap. I was astonished when I learned that the former inhabitants of our house had around a 3 km round trip to get water.


  3. Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources are amongst my favourite books and certainly my favourite films. Water is precious. We need never forget that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love those books and the films as well. We are inclined to waste water because it is so easy to get it from the tap, although I was reminded of its scarcity this summer when our supply was contaminated!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have friends in Portugal …. the stark reminders of how precious water can be when it suddenly isn’t there when crisis hits is quite heartbreaking. It seems they have lost everything in the fires ….

        Liked by 1 person

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