One of the frequently encountered mysterious creatures near springs and wells, as well as other bodies is called Jenny Greenteeth. In an article in the Transactions and proceedings of the American Philological Association in 1895, Charles P.G. Scott notes in the Devil and his imps remarks:
“Jenny Green-teeth, in the vernacular Jinny Green-teeth, is the pretty name of a female goblin who inhabits wells or ponds.”
The name Jinny Green-Teeth is recorded in the Folk-speech of South Cheshire (1887) and A Glossary of Words Used in the County of Chester (1886) stating that:
“Children are often deterred from approaching such places [as wells or ponds] by the threat that “Jinny Green-Teeth will have them.”
Edwin Waugh notes in 1857 Sketches of Lancashire life and localities
“ lurking in the streams and pools, like ‘Green-Teeth,’ and ‘Jenny Long Arms,’ waiting, with skinny claws and secret dart, for an opportunity to clutch the unwary wanderer upon the bank into the water.”
Often description is given of this goblin and it appears to be restricted to the west of the country, with references made in the Notes and queries around Manchester, Birmingham and as far east as Shropshire. Roy Vickery in a piece on his excellent Plant-Lore blog reports an account from Bebington Merseyside in the 1980s:
“Although Jenny Greenteeth was usually unseen, in about 1920 the bogey which inhabited two pools beside Moss Pitts Lane in Fazakerley, ‘had pale green skin, green teeth, very long green locks of hair, long green fingers with long nails, and she was very thin with pointed chin and very big eyes.”
Moreover it is possible that in Lincolnshire the same goblin is encountered as Jenny Hearn, Hurn or Yonde. This name is found associated with a bend of the Trent at Owston Ferry was haunted by Jenny Hearn or Hurn or Jenny Yonde. Unlike Jenny Greenteeth the creature is described. In Lincolnshire folklore Ethel Rudkin reports:
“The pygmy propels the dish rapidly across the stream by means of a minute pair of oars, the size of teaspoons. It is said, that having reached shore this being crosses the road and proceeds to browse in the field. ‘Or again it is said that a ‘thing’ is known to come crawling out of the water, having large eyes, and long hair, and tusks a walrus. It goes into the fields to feed. The river bank here curves in the shape of a horse-shoe, consequently a short-cut footpath has been used for years to counteract this bend.”
A possible ancient origin of this creature is suggested by another Lincolnshire location: Jenny Stanny Well a site has appeared to have passed through a number of name changes. Abraham de la Pryme discussed it in his 1680 discussion of Lincolnshire described the well as Julian’s Stony Well and now it is called Stanniwell. The name is suggestive of a Roman heritage.
Here interestingly, the name Jenny Stanny well has been supported by the suggestion that the site is haunted by a ghost presumably of that girl who carries her head under her arm. She is said to have drowned in the water. Is this a confusion of the Jenny Greenteeth tradition?
Interestingly in Preston the goblin is associated with a holy well. In the anonymous 1852 piece A Prestonian, ‘Preston More than Forty Years Ago’ in the Preston Chronicle:
“Near Friargate, and not far from the houses now called Mount Pleasant, was ‘Lady well’, about which the superstitious old women used to tell strange tales of one ‘Jenny Greenteeth’, who was said to be occasionally seen riding on a broomstick, cutting wonderful capers.”
The association of drowning with Jenny Greenteeth is significant as it would seem that the folklore probably developed as a way to warn children off playing in dangerous areas of water. This being done by associating the goblin with algae and duckweed. A note in an 1820s version of Notes and queries records Jenny Greenteeth being a name for duckweed in Birmingham. In A Glossary of the Words and Phrases of Furness (North Lancashire) (1869) she is called
“Jinny-green-Teeth — green conversa on pools.
“green scum on ponds, but supposed to imply the presence of a water-sprite or “boggart”, a terror to children as they pass the pond on which the appearance is seen.”
This is emphasised by an article by A.R. Vickery, Lemna minor and Jenny Greenteeth, in Folklore 94: 247-50, 1983. whose correspondent noted:
“ I was brought up in the Upton/Crenton area of the west side of Widnes in Lancashire (now Cheshire) …It was and still is…a farming area and many of the fields contained contained pits – some of them have quite steep sides Jinny was well known to me and my contemporaries and was simply the green weed Duckweed, which covered the surface of stagnant water.”
Finally, it is interesting the correspondent also notes
“Children who strayed too close to the edge…would be warned to watch out of Jinny Greenteeth, but it was the weed itself which was believed to hold children under water. There was never any suggestion there was a witch of any kind there!”
And such does a folk tradition become diminished! However, it was a clever way to use a common plant of stagnant water to signify dangerous waters – pity it wasn’t used in 1970s Public information films – Dark and dangerous water!
The Lady Magdalene’s Well
Back in the 1990s I was busily researching for my Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Kent and was searching for two notable wells which existed on private grounds. Back in those well searching days there were really only three ways to find out if a site existed beyond someone else’s account and the appropriate map. These were – writing, turn up on spec and linked to the later try to see the well by doing a bit of exploring. As both laid firmly on private ground (and one a school) it seemed prudent to enact the first option. So I wrote and fortunately both were forthcoming so I arranged a day to explore them.
Lady Magdalene’s Well (TQ 707 333) is in fact one of a number of chalybeate springs which surround Combwell Priory, probably named after Mary. Although Combwell itself is a ‘modern’ building, it is constructed around the old priory, pieces of which are recognisable in its fabric. Nearby under a mound the un-excavated remains of other sections of the priory. Little is clear concerning its history. The earliest reference to the well is on a 1622 Combwell Estate map and Combwell Priory was granted a fair on St Mary Magdalene’s Day in 1226-7 so it is doubtlessly an ancient source.
Only a few years before my visit, the site was a boggy area. When I visited it is tanked and enclosed in modern brickwork (although there would appear to be signs of an earlier, probably Victorian structure). The overflow from the spring emerges as a stream a few feet from this structure. There is little here to excite the antiquarian. Mrs. Fehler, of Combwell Priory, informed me that it was used as drinking water at the house, although she suspected its quality, having a blue tinge. The carved bust of a woman, said to be a cook who foiled a Roundhead attack is of interest at the Priory. Mrs. Fehler refers to this as ‘The Combwell.’ Could it have been associated with the well? Perhaps the story was later constructed around the object to explain it.
The Lady’s Well
The Lady’s Well (TQ 341 721) is noted in blue italics on the map, with the words chalybeate spring beneath. It was located within the private Bedgebury School Estate. Although the name suggests a dedication to Our Lady, it is according to local historian Mr. Bachelor, its origin appears to be secular, deriving from Viscountess Beresford who resided at Bedgebury. To add to the confusion the well is now dedicated to a past Bedgebury School Headmistress. A plaque at the well records this. Yet despite this it is a pleasing site, the spring arising in a distinctive square sandstone well house, found nestling in a Rhododendron dell below the main building.
This structure, Romanesque in style, is six foot high, with water emerging through a pipe in its centre to fill a semi-circular basin set at its base. The structure’s condition suggests that it is of no great age and would correspond with early Nineteenth Century. Whether the water was taken for its waters, being a noted for its iron rich water like Tunbridge wells, is unknown. Since visiting the site is no longer enclosed in the grounds of the school as it closed in 2006 and the building is currently derelict.
Interestingly there was another chalybeate spring in the wider grounds of the school I did not visit and two more in the woods nearby – I did fail to visit these but no history or tradition was apparently recorded concerning these.
Chigwell on the Essex outskirts of London is a site claimed to have derived its name from a spring called the King’s Well as Samuel Lewis in his 1848 Topography notes:
“within the bounds of the great forest of Waltham and in ancient records is styled Cingwella supposed to imply the King’s Well a purgative spring here from which its present name is derived.”
However did it? According to P. H. Reaney’s Place-Names of Essex the name means ‘Cicca’s well’, Cicca being an Anglo-Saxon personal name. Furthermore, the 18th-century historian Nathaniel Salmon The History and Antiquities of Essex stated that the “-well” element in the name derives from Anglo-Saxon weald meaning wood which would make sense considering its proximity to Hainault Forest. Hence my claim in the book Holy wells and healing springs of Essex that it was
“The King’s well was certainly an ancient site, possibly a pre-Christian origin”
May seem now a little over-enthusiastic!
Philip Morant in his 1763-8 History and Antiquities of Essex gives the earliest account of the well, being found:
“…..behind the wind-mill, among the trees whose water has a purging quality, and the late Dr Frewin used to speak of its flavour….Near the well is a hole wherein the water of the fame nature, perhaps proceeding from the other.”
Morant (1763-8) also suggests that the well was once frequented, but less so by his time. By the end of the 18th century it appears to have become entirely neglected. This situation never improved, as even in 1838, a Professor Booth noted it to be ‘now quite neglected’. This decline lead to its final destruction in the late 1870, when the site was drained, filled in and turfed over, by a Mr. Radley, acting on behalf of the then owner. By the time Christy (1910) visited the site, the well had long gone, but fortunately he too obtained some vital details concerning the well. The well was reached by a private road, although once a public right of way, near a mill pond. Unusually it would appear that the fame of the water differed in regards its appearance, for when yellow it was best only for cattle. He was informed by the older residents of the community that this well laid in a meadow of about thirty acres called ‘Parkfield’, belonging to a Mr. Philip Saville, and near his residence of ‘The Woodlands’. It was situated due south of Forest House, about 300 yards from the road, and not very far from Grange Hill Station. It lay on the steep slope of London clay, lying on the south side of the road.
A description of the site
Fortunately, a description of the site survives. A Mr. Green, who had lived many years in the Parish described the well as a hollow place, bricked around, with steps leading down to the water. Surplus water was relayed to a ditch via pipes. Yet despite its destruction 30 years before, it was still famed in the 1900s. A local man Mr College referred to it as the ‘purging well’. Furthermore a Dr. Reeve, formerly of Chigwell Row, described it as good as any medicine as a purgative.
The site today
In the book Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Essex I recorded that the site was located in Whitehall Close, but there is now nothing to mark it; the area being developed for housing.
Since Morant’s (1763-8) description the whole area has drastically changed. The windmill was burnt down in about the 1850s, and the trees that surrounding the well (part of the old Hanault Forest) were probably cut down even earlier.
However, in 1907 about 50 yards from the reputed site of the well, there was a stagnant cattle pond. Miller Christy and May Thresh’s 1910 A History of the Mineral Waters and Medicinal Springs of the County of Essex believes that this is probably the hollow described by Morant (1763-8). This too has gone.
However, there is some confusion and subsequent research places it more precisely in the rear of the house located at 67 Brocket Way being marked on the land registration map of Redbridge Council shows “Chig Well (site of)”
However, that might not be the whole story! In an excellent article on the Chigwell Row community blogsite called Chigwell derived from King’s Well or Cicca’s Well the jury is out! the author notes:
“I hope to work on a project to commemorate that early past and have it recognised locally. Hopefully a local project will revive an interest in our historical past like the Mammoth replica project has in Redbridge. I have followed the map I bought with local resident Neil Patel who has lived her for over 40 years. We believe that the location of Chig Well would have been in land adjacent to the wells Park School or at it’s rear. I have contacted the school to try and ascertain whether the name of the school is somehow linked to the history of the well listed on the map. A call to the school office was met with short-shrift and the woman who answered said she knew nothing about the origins and nor would other school staff. she said:“The decision to name the school was made by Essex Council.“They gave the school to options and early decision-makers went with Wells Park School.”When pressed on how Essex Council derived the two name options, I was reminded to contact Essex Council. I have contacted the Essex Record Office who is not able to advise me on the origins of the name of the school, but I will ask the officer there and the school again, in hope of clearing up this mystery. Later it would be able to gain access to the rear of the school or the private land next to it, to locate any remnant of the potential well site.”
It seems sad that such a renowned site, that had given the place its central focus and name, should have been destroyed with little regard for its importance. However one does wonder what they have found in the garden of number 67, or Whitehall Close or as the author above states the School!
Why dangerous? St Anne’s Well lies along probably the busiest road of any holy well and thus is difficult to reach safely, and despite being along a road it is easy to miss often being full of litter.
The name St Anne’s Well appears on the 1830 OS map and the parish church is also dedicated to St Anne. It is worth noting that the cult of St. Ann was a later one, arriving in the 14th century. Perhaps E. Mardon’s 1857, ‘Rambles around Bristol’, in the Bristol Magazine and West of England Monthly Review 1 who also has the earliest written record has another origin for its name. For they describe it as:
“the once celebrated medicinal spring, of whose waters Queen Anne used to drink, visiting the village for that purpose.”
Was a then dedicated to Queen Anne and later this was misinterpreted as St Anne? Or vica versa. The reverse seems more likely as it seems odd that the Queen would have visited and the association of her name may be evidence of some attempt to de- Christianise and secularise the spring post-Reformation. Mardon (1857) also records:
“It would appear from the plaque affixed to the spring, that the villagers, in 1790, in grateful remembrance of past honours, named the waters ‘‘Saint Anne’s Well‘’, and the bridge a little further on ‘‘Saint Anne’s Bridge‘”
When R.C. Skyring Walters in 1928 in his The Ancient Wells, Springs and Holy Wells of Gloucestershire: Their Legends, History and Topography he noted that on his visit this plaque had been stolen. However, when I visited in the site in the early 1990s, there was a green sign denoting it, but upon my visit it too was lost in the hedge. He described it as:
“a stone trough at ground level, 4ft 6in by 2ft, which is divided in a curious manner into two unequal parts… There is a high stone wall behind the trough. Until about two years ago there was an iron plate, bearing the inscription “St Anne’s Well”… Water from the well… was well-known throughout the parish of Pucklechurch for its excellent properties as an eye lotion.”
Being divided into an unusual manner Skyring Walters believed that the smallest part for a puppy the larger for a mature dog?! Presently it contains very murky water and is perhaps in need of some restoration and protection. The last time it was restored properly may have been recorded by Dorothy Vintner in her 1966, ‘Holy wells near Bristol’, Gloucestershire Countryside June 1966, when they were told that:
“local inhabitants welcome the fact that its stonework is being restored and its water-supply improved.”
Its supply arises at the Lower Lias and Rhaetic limestone lying on Keyper Marl. A. Braine in their 1891 The History of Kingswood Forest calls it a chalybeate spring and states that:
“Here a large number of poor persons who have weak eyes resort to try its healing effects.”
This reference to healing eyes and it is recorded that people travelled for miles to try the cure, being still being publicised into the 1930’s. Interestingly Phil Quinn Quinn in the excellent 1999 The Holy Wells of Bath and Bristol Region, says that:
“women would come to the well with pins to drop in, in the hope of bearing a child.”
However after reviewing Vintner’s 1966 article that author refers to this tradition in Brittany not Siston! (sadly). Unfortunately, this belief has now slipped into other accounts of the well including the excellent website btsarnia.org//the-holy-wells-of-gloucestershire which records:
“In its heyday it drew people from Bristol especially the poor and those with weak eyes or those who were infertile. Pins were dropped into the well by women, hoping to become pregnant at the next intercourse. The efficacy of the waters as an eye cure was locally publicised as late as the 1930s. Similar wells with this custom and intention existed at Wrington, East Harptree and Portishead.”
Quinn (1999) is correct of course in his observation that it is:
“now sadly holds little more than rainwater.”
Stating that it was affected by road widening another impact on this noted holy well and slowly vegetation, litter and neglect may one day claim it.
Enfield might not seem the most profitable for holy and healing well hunting but there were some interesting sites. Sadly searching for the first site was less than fruitful. According to Samuel Lewis’s 1831 Topographical directory) there is a spring called King’s Ring, although Hope (1893) calls it Tim Ringer’s Well, he also notes that whose waters never freeze nor dry up. Lewis (1831) notes its location:
“To the south-west of the town, and about a mile from Old Bury, is a smaller moat, on the estate of John Clayton, Esq; and to the south of Goulsdown lane is another, separating two square fields, in the first of which are the remains of out-buildings belonging to a mansion in which Judge Jeffreys is said to have resided, and near the entrance a deep well called King’s Ring, the water of which is deemed efficacious in diseases of the eye: a celt was dug up in 1793, at the depth of twelve feet from the surface.”
G. M. Hodson and E. Ford 1873’s A History of Enfield note that it was on the south side of Nag’s Head Lane, near Ponder’s End. It was a deep well, probably the brick conduit noted in Ogilby’s roads 1698. Mr Leonard Will, local historian notes that Godfrey Maps reproduction of the Ordnance Survey map of Ponders End, 1896, shows King’s Ring (WELL) (Site of) on the south side of Southbury Road, just to the east of Churchbury Station (now called Southbury station).
The site does not appear to have survived as the area is heavily urbanised, it would appear to correspond to Poppy drive and despite some green spaces there nothing could be found!
More mysterious is the pond located in Trent Country Park called Camlet Moat, a name which first appears in 1440 A.D. The name has been thought to suggest that this was the site of the legendary castle of King Arthur Camelot. The site is also noted for a ghost of Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Sussex and Hertfordshire and Constable of the Tower of London whose ghost was apparently first recorded in the 12th century. He is said to guard a pot of treasure he hid down a nearby well before he was arrested for treason. Local legend also records has a paved bottom beneath which the treasure would be found which is protected by a magic spell. Curiously he is also associated with guarding treasure in ‘castle’ well in earthworks at South Mimms (cf Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Hertfordshire)
A steep crater in the north-east corner of the moat has been identified as the well. During excavation in the 1920s by the then owner, a on 6th April 1924, the Zanesville Times-Signal, an Ohio, USA based newspaper, ran a full page story with the headline ‘The Ghost that Guards the Treasure in the Well’ discussing the issues of disturbing the ghost of Geoffrey de Mandeville. According to A. Mitellas 2015’s A Concise History of Trent Country Park Version 3:
“The February 21st 1903 issue of Country Life tells of a story about the ‘last owner of The Chase’, who, having been accused of treason, hid in a hollow tree. Later that night, he sneaked out to make his escape but then fell down the well at the north-east corner of Camlet Moat and ‘perished miserably’. The ghost of this last owner is said to haunt the moat.”
Also associated with the site is Dick Turpin who would hide by the moat. He does not haunt the site but according to local Pagan and New Age groups, a female ghost called the ‘The White Lady or Goddess’ does. The groups who have taken to adopting the site as a significant religious. They have adorned the trees with votive offerings and make bowers from local branches in which they place shrines. As Mitellas (2015) notes:
“Camlet Moat is considered to be a sacred place by a Pagan and mystic network that stretches out far beyond the local vicinity, and, indeed, the country. Local Pagans who regularly visit the site occasionally build bender huts from the surrounding branches and brushwood, complete with shrines. In particular, the well is considered to be sacred. Followers have adorned a partially felled hornbeam tree that leans over the well with prayer rags, symbols and trinkets.”
C. Street’s 2009 London’s Camelot and the Secrets of the Grail believes that the site was a place of healing and inspiration being a site of an ancient oracular shrine. He also notes that it is one of the corners of ‘The Barnet Triangle’ with the east Barnet’s St Mary the Virgin and Monken Hadley’s St Mary the Virgin churches forming a perfect equilateral triangle. A triangle which is claimed to be a powerful conduit of energy feeding ley lines locally.
The name Camlet is thought by many to have been corrupted from Camelot and hence theories have developed regarding a link to the legendary King Arthur, indeed it has been called ‘London’s Camelot’. A reference from May 1439 does record the demolishing the ‘manor of Camelot’ supporting the idea. Another possible origin is that the 14th century stonemason William Ramsey who constructed Edward III’s round table for Windsor, lived here and named it Camelot out of homage.
In my Holy Wells and healing springs of Middlesex I believed to have located Noddin’s Well as a small boggy hole near the old Middlesex University buildings. However even more mysterious is that others appear to identify it as the ruins of what appear to be a folly building perhaps a bath house. Equally mysterious is the name local Pagan groups have attempted to associate the well with the Celtic God Noden’s who is associated with spring in his mythology. However, equally it could derive from a local land owner. No-one appears to know and it remains an enigmatic site.
Extracted in part from Holy Wells and healing springs of Middlesex
“The worm shot down the middle stream
Like a flash of living light,
And the waters kindled round his path
In rainbow colours bright.
But when he saw the armed knight
He gathered all his pride,
And, coiled in many a radiant spire,
Rode buoyant o’er the tide.
When he darted at length his dragon Strength
An earthquake shook the rock
And the fire-flakes bright fell round the knight
As unmoved he met the shock.
Though his heart was stout it quailed, no doubt
His very life-blood ran cold
As round and round the wild worm wound
In many a grappling fold.”
So write a local Poet of perhaps the most famous British dragon legend. The story dates from the 14th century, where the heir to Lambton Hall instead of attending Mass would fish. One particularly Sunday he said to have secured a fine fish. Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of Holy Wells accounts:
“he exerted all his skill and strength to bring his prey to land. But what were his horror and dismay on finding that, instead of a fish, he had only caught a worm of most unsightly appearance! He hastily tore the thing from his hook, and flung it into a well close by, which is still known by the name of the Worm Well.”
A stranger is said to have remarked that he had never seen such a creature and said it was like an eft, only it had nine holes on each side of its mouth and that he had caught the Devil himself. However, the worm remained forgotten in its well until one day it emerged, having outgrown the well and moved to the river where it lay during the day around a rock and by night around a hill, causing it to become stepped as a result of its twining. The hill remains called Worm Hill.
Such a beast then terrorised the area, eating lambs, chasing cattle and suckling cows’ milk. When it reached Lambton Hall, where the household was terrified, the young son was no-where to be seen and so the steward rose to the occasion. He ordered that a trough should be filled with milk and every day the beast would drink the milk and cause no harm returning to their resting places. This happened every year for seven years until the son and heir returned. He was a wiser and more mature man and seeing his land’s desolate took to a local wise woman to ask what to do. She at first scolded him for his wasteful life and bring the beast to the parish, but realising that he was repentant, told him to wear a suit of thickly studded with spears. He stood on the rock in the river with his sword and he was warned that should he fail – nine generations of the manor would not die in their beds! A tireless fight ensued between the worm and the heir in which a number of blows did not stop the beast but finally as the beast wrapped around him he made a body blow severing the beast in two. These two sections were separated and floated down the river…never to be united.
Not far away, is Long Witton’s Thruston Wells which were guarded by dragon, a winged serpent who valiantly fought Guy, Earl of Warwick too, but each time he was wounded the creature would dip his tail into one of the wells and was healed. Soon Guy realised this and leapt before the well and speared it through the heart blocking the beast’s ability to reach the well.
There are many other such serpent and well stories. Why? From a biological background the description of the Lambton Worm is interesting…it sounds like a Lamprey, and perhaps as this was a Royal fish, so peasantry did not often see it. Mix this with discovery of fossils – often found exposed near water perhaps – and the imaginary of Pagan vs Christian and you have the Dragon.
This chalybeate spring called alternatively by Bazeley and Richardson (1921–3) as Holy Well, whilst Walters (1928) calls it Holy Red Well (SO 848 153) arises incongruously now on the edge of a dry sky slope in a field called Red Well field.
“The Red Well at Matson consists of a 3ft. square limestone trough at the road-side, fed from a chalybeate spring in the field a few yards above it. The interior of the trough is 2ft. square by 1ft. deep, and its overflow is fed through a gargoyle into a semi-circular basin on the east side. Nearby are the remains of stones, which, if placed round the well, would give it the form of a Maltese cross. The spring belonged to the Canons of Llanthony, and its history dates from 1066, when Ralph de Mattesdon gave the church of Mattesdon to St. Peter’s Abbey Gloucester.”
records that it was also known as Edith’s Spring according to H. Y Taylor in 1866 who immortalised it in the Saint Harold the martyr – the Red Well at Matson or Edith’s Spring two local legends. He tells an interesting and possibly unique legend to describe its origin. Edith was an 18 year Saxon old local noblewoman from Upton St Leonard. She married an Earl, giving him a son, but soon after he was killed fighting King Harold. Fear what repercussions may occur as a result from the invading Normans she climbed Matson Hill. Here she decided to kill herself and son and as she dug a grave. As she dug, so arose the red spring water. She saw this as a sign and as a result dedicated herself to a holy living, she and her son becoming anchorites. The well belonged to the Canons of Llanthony Priory, whose lands fell to the Selwyn family during the Reformation, whose coat of arms resembled a cross itself.
Embrey (1918–20) states that:
“the presence of iron salts is considered as conferring tonic properties.”
and its water being very ferruginous was said to be “good for the eyesight” or a cure for tired eyes. Another alternative name was the Rag Well and as such it was one of only two such sites in the county and certainly the most well-known. It is still overshadowed by a thorn tree, upon which tradition asserts clothes may have been left as a form of offering. However, the tradition has not continues or been revived.
Enclosed in square railings, a reason perhaps why the well is no longer treated as a rag well. The spring itself arises in a square limestone trough of two feet by two feet and one foot deep inside and three feet deep outside. Another small receptacle, or basin a semi-circular one of Oolite stone is found on the east side. It then flows into a roadside trough. Walters (1928) notes that some slabs were located around this spring, which could be arranged to form a Maltese cross
Ask anyone to name one thing about Wantage and they will tell you it was the birth place of King Alfred. When I visited the town in the 1990s I had read of a King Alfred’s Well and naturally was keen to find out more. John Murray’s 1923 A Handbook for Travellers in Berks, Bucks, and Oxfordshire:
“1/4 m. W. of the town, at the Mead, are King Alfred’s Bath and Well ; the latter a basin of clear water, in a pretty dingle, formed by a number of small petrifying springs.”
I was not the first one to visit it of course and it appears to be a popular site for school parties if this account is an example this account in the St Mary’s, Longworth, Parish Magazine, 1910:
“August 1910 On Saturday, June 25, the Sunday School children, to the number of nineteen, were taken by the Rev. T. H. Trott a little outing to Wantage. They were met at the end of their journey by Mr. A. A. Herring, who after kindly giving them some refreshments at the Temperance Hotel, took them round the town to see the principal objects of interest, such as the Parish Church, the Victoria Picture Gallery, King Alfred’s Well and King Alfred’s Bath.”
It had clearly become one of the places to see in the town and doubtless and opportunity to stress the history of King Alfred. The biggest recognition of the site’s history was for the 1000th celebration of his birth. The Freemason’s Quarterly Journal recording:
“THE ALFRED JUBILEE A grand jubilee in honour of the one thousandth anniversary of the birth of King Alfred who according to antiquarian calculation was born in 849 was celebrated at Wantage on the October 1849 The town was decorated for the occasion the shops and business except in the hotels which were crowded generally Many visitors thronged into the place and at one o clock a was formed to King Alfred’s Well about a quarter of a mile the town and supposed to be the site of the ancient stronghold of Saxon kings.”
The Gentleman’s Magazine records that year that a speech on the:
“history and traditions of King Alfred The Rev CL Richmond from America made an eloquent speech to the concourse outside After this a procession was made to King Alfred’s Well about a quarter of a mile from the town and supposed to be at the site of the Anglo Saxon palace.”
Some people still hold firmly to the idea that the palace stood on the ground now occupied by ” The Mead’ (the property of Lord Wantage).
In the 1901 Wantage past and present the author, Agnes Gibbons adds more to the rationale stating that:
“traces of Alfred’s palace are still believed to remain in the High Garden, where there is a close still bearing the name of ” Court Close,” and ” Pallett’s More ” which has been supposed to be a corruption of Palace More.”
However, they continue to claim that:
“Their chief reason for this belief is the fact that there is near the Mead a brick “bath” or ” well ” which has for some time been called King Alfred’s Bath.”
So it appears a cart before the horse situation perhaps!
King Alfred or just Alfred’s?
It would appear that those who had made their pilgrimage to the site were possibly at best mistaken or at most deluded about the history of the site. This is stressed by Gibbons again who claims
“It is, however, extremely doubtful if the bricks which compose the bath are one hundred years old, so that no value can be attached to this argument. “
Wantage Now and Then informs us of the true origin of the well:
“It is said that in reality the ” bath ” was dug out and bricked in, by one Alfred Hazel, a former owner of the Mead (possibly for sheep dipping) and was then called ” Alfred Hazel’s Bath.’”
One can see it this became ” Alfred’s Bath,” and then ” King Alfred’s Bath.” Although how this could be forgotten in less than 100 years seems odd! The author continues:
“The bricks have a suspicious resemblance to those which were made at Challow, early last century, of green sand, many of which are still to be found in the town.”
An odd piece of folklore commonly encountered elsewhere with supposed ghostly appearance on its anniversary, is that the pond nearby which appears to have been the bath with the spring nearby being the well, was a coach. The author continues:
“The pond which is close to the bath, is said to have beneath its muddy surface an old coach, said to be the one formerly used by Mr. Chas. Price (he was Lord Mayor of London in 1802, and his family lived in Wantage) on his journeys to and from the metropolis. It was highly gilded, and minus wheels, and was at one time used as a bathing machine, by men who bathed in the pond. supposed to be the King’s bath or cellar! Both references to Alfred are equally mythical supposed to be the King’s bath or cellar! Both references to Alfred are equally mythical.”
So what was claimed and is still claimed to be his well and bath was Victorian construct possibly and a sheep wash at that. But how could its construction be forgotten about!
When I visited the site it was overgrown and a muddy morass. I could not easily trace any spring but subsequently it has been improved and tidied up to make it easier to visit.
What is interesting that what was formed as dam to clean fleeces and cloth may have also had linked with baptisms, Alfred Hazel was a Baptist. In the late 19th century Lord Wantage VC bought the area and had it landscaped as a fern garden and it may have been around this time that the story of King Alfred became consolidated as perhaps he adopted it as a sort of folly although this would not explain the visit in 1849 unless they didn’t go to this well and there is another King Alfred Well lost in Wantage. Of course there are examples of Lady Wells being repaired by the Lady of the manor! This could be the same the springs are noted a petrifying and so it is possible that they were noted but whether it was Alfred or not is unclear. It is also confusing what was the well and what was the bath – was the bath Alfred Hazels but the springs had been called after King Alfred before that!
In 1921 a descendant, Arthur Thomas Lloyd, presented the area to the town of Wantage and such it has been ever since landscaped and improved more recently. Whatever its history the site with its improved flow is a delightfully refreshing place to visit.
If there was a claim for the Scottish holy well visited by the most famous people it must be the suitably named Scotlandwell. It would add that it is also one of the most picturesque holy wells in Britain and very easy to find – being signposted down a lane with parking off the village that shares its name.
A Roman site
It is said that in the late 1st century A.D the Romans named the well Fons Scotiae’ . Whilts it is known in 84 AD, Roman soldiers were marching between their camps at Lochore in Fife and Ardoch in Perthshire however, there does not appear to be any evidence especially archaeologically, but what is known that a hospital dedicated to St Mary was established in the area in 1250 by the Trinitarian Friars. It is locally said that they utilised the water. Their association may have attracted one of the most famous of Scotland’s kings – Robert the Bruce. It is alleged that he came here to be cured of leprosy. Janet and Colin Bord in their 1985 Sacred Waters note:
“Robert Bruce, King of Scotland (1306-29) suffered from leprosy, and at least three wells were reputedly used by him in his search for a cure. He is said to have been responsible for a well at Prestwick (Ayr) which flowed where he stuck his spear in the sand while resting from his struggles with the English. He stayed for several days, and his leprosy was reputedly cured. He is said to have built a leper hospital for those who could not afford treatment. He also visited the St Lazarus Well at Muswell Hill (London) being granted a free pass by the King of England to do so.”
It is thus said to have become a place of pilgrimage. Another monarch, Mary Queen of Scots also is said to have visited it. However, the Friar’s establishment remembered as Friar Place was demolished in 1587 probably not long after Mary’s patronage at the start of the great Reformation in Scotland.
However, the well itself must have been accessible as Bill Anderton in his 1991 Ancient Britain tells us that:
“ records show that Charles II travelled from his Dunfermline Palace to take the waters.”
Whatever these records are, are in themselves unclear and whilst the ancient royal seat of Dunfermline is indeed not many miles from the site, I have been unable to find further details.
The site may have slowly disappeared into obscuring if it was not for the fortitude of local landowners. When in the early 1820s the site, itself common land, could be described as:
“an almost unapproachable slough of mire and filth” and within it “a half ruinous building used sometimes as a washing house and sometimes as a slaughter house.”
This may have been some remains of the Friar’s buildings perhaps and it is impossible that some older stone in the current fabric of the well house could be from this date. The building of the ornamental well and its nearby wash house was done by a Thomas Bruce of Arnot who owned land in the aras between 1857 and 1860 after acquiring the land. He employed David Bryce an important Edinburgh architect to draw up plans for both in 1857 which consisted of a large stone lined bath like chamber covered accessing all around by covered by grill. Over which is an ornate wooden roof, akin to a alpine chalet style. All painted dark green. Water bumbles up through sandy soil in the water quite obviously and then emerges from a small gap into a small circular basin and then run off. Steps go down from both sides to reach the outflow. Using stone available from quarries nearby that the well was completed soon after at the cost of £154 in 1858. On either side of the water spout are the initials TBA for Thomas Bruce of Arnot and his wife Henrietta Dorin embossed. The nearby washhouse also bears TBA and 1860.
Thomas Bruce of Arnot stated in his memoirs:
“The improvement of the village and of its “Well” has cost me more money than some might perhaps say I aught to have expended upon them, but it has been a subject of great interest to me and I have been far more than repaid in one way at least by the gratification it has afforded to the villagers by a desire for whose moral improvement it was that I was mainly actuated in what I did and am still doing.”
Then in 1922 two years after the death of Sir Charles Bruce of Arnot the well and wash house, were handed over to the people of Scotlandwell as a gift and the site is currently looked after by the Parish council.
The bath house locally called ‘The Steamie’ was where laundry was washed, being connected to the well’s underground water source, ceased being used in 1960s but has recently been restored as a small tourist attraction and currently leaflets are given out concerning the well and the bath house
In Ruth and Frank Morris’s 1978 Scottish Healing Well they note:
“In October 1978 we met there a women, her husband and brother who had travelled from Edinburgh a round trip of some 80 miles which they frequently made, to fill to two large bottles with clear well water. One of the men, a cancer sufferer had been induced to take the water some time before and found it did him some good , clearing a stubborn body rash that he continued to use the water: “If it was good enough for Robert the Bruce, it’s good enough for me. ”
However, reaching for the metal cup I took myself a large gulp not noticing that the sign that he had read when Ruth and Frank Morris had visited in 1978: ‘Health giving water of Scotlandwell was for many years used to help cure the sick…” was replaced with UNFIT TO DRINK DO NOT DRINK!
Oh well this was a few summers ago and I am still okay. Whether you drink or not, Scotlandwell is one of the country’s most attractive and perhaps oldest healing springs.
On and off I have been surveying the holy wells of East and West Sussex which is an area which does not appear to have collected much academic interest. Thanks to myself and James Rattue Kent is now covered more than satisfactorily, ditto Rattue’s Surrey and now Dorset, Hampshire and Sussex in a way await further exploration. Thus it is possible that new and interesting holy wells maybe found in these counties, ones missed by Jeremy Harte’s 2008 magnus opus English Holy wells
Battle is such a place. It is a place I have visited many times and thought there should be a holy well there and indeed there was. However, the Wishing, Holy or Dr Graye’s Well is described by one source Her Grace the Duchess of Cleveland’s account of the History of Battle Abbey as:
“a square opening five or six feet wide, enclosed by a massive stone wall nearly seven feet high; a flight of steps led up to it on either side, and at each angle was what he called a vase, or receptacle for flowers and votive offerings. The spring was conveyed to the other side of the church wall.”
It was located:
“On the north side of the Cloister Garth stood the Holy Well, from which some writers have derived the name of Senlac, given to this place by Ordericus Vitalis. It is mentioned in Queen Elizabeth’s time, as a place held sacred by recusants’ :-whither many, especially women, resort, like a young pilgrimage, and call it Dr. Graye’s well.’
Did this have an older history? The author suggests that its water gave Battle its old name of Senlac – possibly – but there is no evidence as such- and the origin of that name has itself been debated. What is more likely perhaps is that the spring provided the domestic water supply of the Abbey and later converted post Reformation as suggested above as a holy well needed to meet Catholic recusant use.
Who was Dr Graye?
The author continues to explain that Dr Grey was a priest, the Dowager Viscountess Montague’s chaplain, a zealous Roman Catholic, who resided at the Abbey in Elizabethan times. He was imprisoned by Sir Francis Walsingham. He appears a likely person to concoct a holy well out of an available spring.
What happened to the well?
The author continues to record that:
“ It was afterwards known as the Wishing Well, and was unfortunately destroyed in the course of Sir Godfrey Webster’s alterations, in 1814….and now furnishes the drinking water of the household; it is remarkably sweet and pure, and we appreciated it for its own sake long before we were made aware that it was the charmed water of the old Holy Well.”
And so it disappeared into obscurity after perhaps a brief period of fame – a holy well of the Catholic faith in hiding and as such of great interest.
The real sacred well of Battle?
However, another claimant to have an association with the Battle of Senlac is still to be found. King Harold’s Well is enclosed in a circular well can be found in the front garden of Three Virgins Lane.
Local tradition records that the spring was drunk by King Harold before the Battle of Hastings. Whether it is originally a Saxon well is unknown it certainly does not look it. It is perhaps not the most attractive site but at least something remains to remind us of the days of King Harold.