Monthly Archives: October 2011

Essex holy wells and healing springs – an Overview

  The following is taken from Holy wells and healing springs of Essex (This blog includes reference sites not included in the original text and will be described in a further volume of the works as an appendix)

In regards to healing springs, Essex has been better served, in regards the study of mineral waters and particularly notable surveys are Allen (1699/1710), and more recently Christy and Thresh (1910). Both have touched upon holy wells but this was certainly not in an exhaustive manner. Cowell (2000) updates much of this work but again only touches upon holy wells. This work attempts to catalogue and update these previous works, with the aim of providing the definitive accurate guide to both mineral spas, holy wells and water bodies with associated folklore in the county.

In approximate terms there are probably many thousands of holy wells across the country. Although there appear to be areas or counties with high concentrations, this is probably because the others have as yet been adequately studied. Only three works have attempted to give a countrywide survey of sites (Hope (1893), Bords (1985), Rattue (1995) and Bord (2008)). (and subsequently Harte (2008)) Perhaps an accurate survey of all sites would result in an average distribution across the country; topographical features allowing, which would show that all counties have a similar distribution.

Despite some attention for specific sites and counties, the holy well has been largely ignored by the historical and archaeological establishment, leaving the field open to antiquarians and enthusiasts. Consequently, much mythology has developed around them, and very few have been professionally excavated, particularly in East Anglia. Hence, a general lack in archaeological interest in such sites, claims for ancient origins is difficult to make.

I have adopted Francis Jones’s (1954) category system for wells. The main body of the text covers Class A (saint’s names, those named after God, Trinity, Easter etc), B (associated with chapels and churches), C ( those with healing traditions which in this case includes spas and mineral springs)  and some E (miscellaneous with folklore) sites The second part includes a list of named ancient wells with explanatory notes (mostly Class D i.e. those named after secular persons but possibly also holy wells and E). Hopefully once the volumes are completed and using similar documents for other counties this fuller picture will be achieved.

There does not appear to be any holy wells which can claim this pre-Christian heritage via written record, although there are wells called Roman spring (Earl’s Colne), Chesterwell (castle well) (Great Horkesley) and Dengewell (Danishwell) (Great Oakley) and possibly Herwell (Army well) (Little Bardfield) and totwell (from O.E toot for meeting place or look out) (Birchanger), which suggest great age but there is no evidence of these being healing or holy. There is a Puck well (Waltham Holy Cross) recorded suggesting a site associated with O.E pwca for goblin. Records of ghosts, often used by folklorists to indicate either pagan or Christian traditions are scant in the county, with St. Oysth’s well (St Oysths) and Charlotte’s Well (Birchanger) being the only examples.

Certainly, compared to other counties per square mile, Essex is low on numbers of holy wells. Why is this? It seems likely that there may be many more sites but poorly recorded. Others may be recorded in names which do not suggest holy or healing immediately. There are for example many sites called hog well in the county, whose name may derive from halig Old English (O.E) for healing. However, other sites said to be holy wells, such as the number of Chadwells (9) in the county, reveal themselves to be more likely to be derived from Caldwell irrespective of local folklore. Most common are Lady well (9), followed by Holy wells (4), Cedd (2) (brother of Chad),and two named after God, although this could be derived from a personal name. All the other sites have one dedication(in some case one off dedications suggesting local cults (or loss of knowledge)): St. Edmund, St Thomas, St Anne, St Germain, and local saints St. Oysth and St. Botolph.

Taking only holy wells (and I have been generous to include some sites likely to be) Essex has a density of 0.3 wells per square mile. Taking into consideration all noted, healing and holy wells, this density becomes 0.6 of a well per square mile. This suggests that holy wells and healing springs are in low numbers across the county.

The reason for the low numbers of holy wells may be explained by the larger amount of mineral springs noted in the county. Across the country many of the old holy wells were re-discovered as mineral springs and established as spas. As noted Essex is fortunate for its mineral spring history is well recorded. However, in no examples given by either Allen or Trinder is it noted that the site had previously been a holy well. Certainly, it is hinted at with such sites as Brentwood, Havering Well, Woodford and Felstead, (all with some pre-Reformation past) but nothing is explicitly stated. This may indicate the strength of anti-Catholic feeling in the authors or the Essex people. Was the impact of Protestantism and non-conformism that great? This would explain the paucity of holy wells for such a large county, particularly to the eastern side. By comparison there are a large number of mineral springs. Perhaps we can consider these all as past holy wells?……….

To learn more about the healing and holy water history of the county read Holy Wells and healing springs of Essex

Hertfordshire holy wells and healing springs – an overview

This account is taken from the introduction of  Holy Wells and healing springs of Hertfordshire

No book has comprehensively covered the topic in the county; which is surprising considering the fame of its most noted site St. Alban’s Well. The nature of this work, indeed all volumes, is thus to describe the sites under the respective parishes giving historical details and present conditions (with directions if the sites can be accessed).  I have adopted Francis Jones’s (1954) category system for wells. The main body of the text covers Class A (saint’s names, those named after God, Trinity, Easter etc), B (associated with chapels and churches), C ( those with healing traditions which in this case includes spas and mineral springs)  and some E (miscellaneous with folklore) sites The second part includes a list of named ancient wells with explanatory notes (mostly Class D i.e. those named after secular persons but possibly also holy wells and E). Hopefully once the volumes are completed and using similar documents for other counties this fuller picture will be achieved.

In regards dedications there are few in the county: the most common is Chadwell ( possibly not from St. Chad), Hertfordshire has  holywells (including holwells which may be derived by O.E hol for hollow), Lady Well, St Faith, St. Alban, St Claridge, St John and Emma (a possibly unregarded local saint)

Some sites for example, often ponds are associated with the traditions of hidden treasure or hauntings. Treasure legends are common in the county. The only one in Hertfordshire is Rose’s Hole. This is not directly connected with a pool or well, but its description is virtually identical to other waterlore across the country and is worth noting. It states that the hole lay on Berkhampsted Common, named after an old man called Rose, who dreamt that there was treasure there. He and a companion went to the spot, where he was told it could only be reached by not speaking. They dug and soon encountered the lid, to which he exclaimed ‘Damn it Jack, here it is!’, and as soon as they did it sank back into the ground.

Similarly, there are other examples of water related ghosts, the only well-known one in the county is at Little Gaddeston. Here the village pond and manor is haunted by a suicide called Jennings, who killed himself after being unable to marry his sweetheart, the daughter of Lord Bridgewater of nearby Ashridge Park. The incident dates back to the 17th century, but may cover older traditions. Others are included in the gazetteer.

These have been interpreted widely by some authorities as denoting some ‘religious’ activity. Traditions of treasure may derive from folk traditions of when the water body was regarded as sacred and that valuable offerings or votive gifts were placed in the water to appease the water deity. Similarly some have identified these water deities as the ancestors of water ‘ghost’ traditions, perhaps being the result of Christian missionaries, who personified them as ‘evil’.

Two interesting geological phenomena are known to have attracted folklore across the country: swallow holes and intermittent springs and streams. Of the former, there appears to be a number. Examples can be traced at North Mymms, associated with the Colne. These are where the streams appear to flow back underground, the reverse of springs. This would certainly have appeared wondrous to our forefathers, however, I have been unable to locate any folklore. The former, were called Woe waters in Hertfordshire (and other counties), are discussed in more detail in the parishes in which they arise.

Across the county many of the old holy wells were re-discovered as mineral springs and established as spas. Such secular conversions are hinted at Welwyn, Northaw (where St. Claridge’s Well may have been the original dedication for Griffin Well or The King’s Well at Cuffley) and possibly Barnet, but there is no firm evidence that it happened in Hertfordshire, despite there being a fair number of ‘spas’ for a small county. Dedications survived in greater numbers than the nearby county of Essex, where very few holy wells can be traced, but large numbers of mineral springs were exploited. Does this suggest that either the old ways persisted longer in the county, or else the wells were too valuable a commodity to disregard?…………

 To learn more about the healing and holy water history of the county read Holy Wells and healing springs of Hertfordshire

Nottinghamshire holy wells and healing springs an overview

This is information is edited  from the book Holy wells and healing springs of Nottinghamshire

Morrell’s (1988) work on Nottinghamshire holy wells was one of the first non-Celtic volumes on the subject (ie not Cornwall, Wales or Scotland) in the later half of the 20th century. At first I was reluctant to research the area thinking the work had already been done, but no I discovered double the number of sites. Nottinghamshire can claim record of 94 related sites (including some dubious sites and possible repetition) over 834 square miles. This would give a density of 8.8 square miles per well. This would compare with Leicestershire 9.9 wells per square mile (Rattue (1990) perhaps controversially removing those probably not healing or holy from this survey on this basis the concentration increases to 6.5 square miles per well in Nottinghamshire compared to 6.1 in Rattue’s survey (Full details on Derbyshire, Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire being not available when this survey was completed.)

I have included within this survey wells associated with the term holy, saint’s names or religious institutions. (Often springs associated with churches can be added to this list, but one must be cautious as such arrangements can be coincidental. Wardie (2003) notes 12 such sites on his map, but none are explained. )To this are added those with healing traditions e.g. noted mineral, chalybeate and spa waters and those with folklore associations; petrifying, ebbing and flowing or possible pagan deity names.

In general there is little folklore associated with water in the county. Thurgarton had a boggart which lived in the dumble (the source of whose booming voice was found to be a bittern), The Clifton family (at Clifton) had their harbinger fish, appearing at times of death (which was a sturgeon), Girton’s bottomless Horsepool and the Aegir, the most famed feature of the Trent, a tidal wave named after a Norse god. Interestingly, Nottingham appears to have few wells explicitly associated with rituals or folk customs unlike neighbouring Derbyshire or even Lincolnshire. There are only four rag wells, all in Nottingham and although well dressing has taken place in the county, this is a modern invention.

The nature of this work, indeed all volumes, is thus to describe the sites under the respective parishes giving historical details and present conditions (with directions if the sites can be accessed).  I have adopted Francis Jones’s (1954) category system for wells. The main body of the text covers Class A (saint’s names, those named after God, Trinity, Easter etc), B (associated with chapels and churches), C (those with healing traditions which in this case includes spas and mineral springs) and some E (miscellaneous with folklore) sites The second part includes a list of named ancient wells with explanatory notes (mostly Class D i.e. those named after secular persons but possibly also holy wells and E).

In regards to those of category D, archaeologically speaking, many wells may have had an ancient pre-historic origin. Some in the county may have been Romano-British shrines, such as Kingshaugh and Newton. Similarly, it has been argued that sites named Hart’s Well and a number of wells with prefixes possibly deriving from Here O.E for ‘army’ are probably associated with tribal totems particularly of Danish use (although Morrell (1988) does note that Harwell is near the Roman road to Segontium),  as is a site called Norsput. Sadly, it should be stressed that the general lack in archaeological interest in such sites, such claims cannot be ascertained.

The range of dedications is much more limited than surrounding counties, particularly Yorkshire, most being called simply Holy wells (10 confirmed sites, 20 possible sites), and those with names are restricted to presumably foreign or biblical saints: St. Mary (or rather Lady Wells) (9 with an extra 3 possible), (not including Orange’s (1840) Lady’s Bath as a possible origin of Lady Bay and a possible Lady Well at Egmanton, said by the Reverend Levy to have been associated with the vision of Our Lady to a local women at the edge of Ladywood. However, correspondence to long time residents in the parish has not revealed knowledge of the site nor has the Nottinghamshire record office. Interestingly, the suggested site does have oil wells which may suggest that the vision was due to a Willo the wisp!), St. Ann’s Well (2), St. Helen (1/2), St. Catherine’s (2) and St. John (2). With a possible St. Lawrence dedication, Jacob Well, Lord’s Well and others hidden in place name changes, to add to the list. There does not appear to be any local dedications or native saints. Class A wells thus totalling a confirmed 38 (unconfirmed total of 48). Of Class B there are four associated with crosses, but none with churches. There are thirteen Spas or mineral springs and 18 with varied names but healing traditions (Class C), 9 (Class D) and 5 (Class E) although there are a number in the inventory.

Harte (2008) argues that many holy well sites; in particular St. Catherine’s Well are spurious modern sites, due to the lack of earlier evidence. However, one must be careful here as absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; much of what we know of medieval England could be considered fragmentary due to the purges of documents during the Reformation and Commonwealth. Where it may be necessary to err on the safe side it is just as probable (if unlikely) that a site remains unknown to antiquarians or past historians until recent times retained in generations of local knowledge. (Indeed as many communities lose this tradition it is more important to record sites).

The reasons for this are unclear, but it maybe the affect of the Reformation and like in other counties can we assume many of these old holy wells were re-discovered as mineral springs and established as spas? Harte (2008) argues against this convincingly, but there are at least two sites which may have existed previously as holy wells; Clarborough and Westthorpe, Southwell. Although one could argue that these may have had a back developed origin as details are scant.

Another possible example is Retford’s Spa, although its pre-Spa history may be confusion with St. John’s Well at Clarborough.  Nottinghamshire does not appear to have developed a major spa like neighbouring Derbyshire, or even Lincolnshire. Spa names are applied to eight sites. Interesting, it would appear that using spa was a local word meaning medicinal waters however parochial in nature.  Indeed, the term was apparently still being used in the early 20th century in Langold. (One must be careful as there is a Spa Lane in Sutton in Ashfield but this is close to Leamington Street so is unlikely to preserve a site name.)  There are others which are mineral waters having apparently never being formally named but appear to have been exploited…….

To learn more about the healing and holy water history of the county read Holy wells and healing springs of Nottinghamshire

Derbyshire holy wells and healing springs – an overview

The following is taken from the introduction to Holy Wells and healing springs of Derbyshire.

The first book to cover sites in the county was Naylor (1983) in his ‘Ancient wells and springs of Derbyshire’, however this did not contain many holy wells (13 true holy wells) and appears more concerned with industrial uses of water. Hope (1893) covers a number of sites and the author himself was a Derbyshire man and after his death, his notes made for a second edition, were passed onto the Reverend Binnall. Thanks to him, these additional notes as well as those already published were collated for an article for the Trans. Derby Antiq. and Nat Hist. Society. Harte (2008) provides the most complete survey giving 39 sites, but as this research notes is still not complete. Hence this work, hopes to draw together all references, and fresh research to provide the definitive work.

The nature of this work, indeed all volumes, is thus to describe the sites under the respective parishes giving historical details and present conditions (with directions if the sites can be accessed).  I have adopted Francis Jones’s (1954) category system for wells. The main body of the text covers Class A (saint’s names, those named after God, Trinity, Easter etc), B (associated with chapels and churches), C (those with healing traditions which in this case includes spas and mineral springs) and some E (miscellaneous with folklore) sites The second part includes a list of named ancient wells with explanatory notes (mostly Class D i.e. those named after secular persons but possibly also holy wells and E).

There are 190 or so sites in the gazetteer which follow these criteria. This would give a density of  Compared to Nottinghamshire 1 well every 8.8 squares miles, and Leicestershire 9.9 (6.1 removing controversially those probably not holy wells, healing springs or associated with tradition (Rattue 1993) In consideration of holy wells, the range of dedications is wider than Nottinghamshire, having a spread similar to Yorkshire. The order is Holy wells (15 confirmed sites although some may be holwells as well as 9 possible sites including possibly halig drivations.), and those with names are restricted to presumably foreign or biblical saints: St. Mary (or rather Lady Wells) (8), St. Anne’s Well (5), St. Helen (3), St. Thomas’s (3), St. Peter (3), St. John (2), Jacob (2) and one of St. Michael, St. Alkmund, St. Cuthbert, St. Martin, St. Osyth and two dedicated to the Trinity (a rare dedication although in both cases it probably derives from the location) and three to the Gospel. To add to this is the possibility of other sites hidden in place name changes to add to the list, such as a Moses Well. Compared to Nottinghamshire there does appear to be local dedications or native saints such as Alkmund (there is a St Bertram’s well just over the border in Ilam, Staffordshire).

The age of well dedications is always problematic. Derbyshire has a small number of sites whose name is suggestive of pre-Roman but this is only based on possible pagan names (class D). Roman sites are suggested at Buxton, Bradwell, doubtlessly erroneously at Stoney Middleton (there are Roman wells in Derby but these do not have any traditions and like others found in the county purely domestic). Unlike Nottinghamshire, there appear to be less sites associated with Danes (only one possible at Daniel Hay) as noted by Herewell in that county, this is to be expected as I hypothesis in that work they are indicative of tribal borders and as such these do not exist in Derbyshire, although some are suggested in the appendix. The majority of secular dedications appear Anglo-Saxon and Mediaeval in origin with a few interestingly named sites such as Harvestwell which may suggest some folk importance at this time of year. There are also a small number of wells given numerical names such as seven (3) or five (3). There appear to be none in neighbouring Nottinghamshire and although this maybe due to geological reasons (Hemswell in Lincolnshire shares much of the same geology as parts of Nottinghamshire where there are no numerical springs but boasts a seven springs suggesting that perhaps this is not a factor.) This has been seen as significant by Briggs (2007) as suggesting a cult importance.  Interestingly, there are a number of Gospel Wells in the county, which is interesting as none are recorded in Nottinghamshire suggesting a continuation of rogation or beating of the bounds traditions.

Derbyshire appears to be particularly rich in folklore compared to neighbouring Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. One custom which was fairly widespread in the county, variously called ‘bottle day’, ‘sugar cupping’ or not named at all was generally carried out at Easter. This tradition of adding sugar, liquorice, sweets or oatmeal to spring water is, although not unique to the county (it was done a far afield as Oxfordshire), was in the county more common. At least nine sites retain memory of the tradition (Castleton, Belper, Tideswell, Chapel-en-Frith, Ashford in the Water, Doveholes, Stoney Middleton, Little Hucklow) and there appears possibly a connection to Lady Wells. Another custom associated with wells across the country is the dropping of pins, done at Little Hucklow, Castleton (in pindale!) and Bradwell. Of course the most famous tradition associated with Derbyshire wells is well dressing which can trace its history at least to the 14th century. It is a tradition now extended beyond the White peak were it was mainly endemic (as well as neighbouring parts of Staffordshire). However, very few sites dressed could be considered holy wells or commemorate those with healing or folklore traditions. (According to Naylor and Porter (2002) who list well dressing sites and (2009) which list well dressing sites of those in the county. From these sources only 18% (although the work does not list all wells and so the figure is probably inflated) and 6% respectively record known holy or healing wells. Those with current well dressing traditions which are certainly within the remit of this work are to be found at Buxton (St. Ann’s Well), Chapel-en-le Frith (Nanny well), Youlgreave (Holy Well), Wyaston (Bishop Well), possibly Wessington (Moses’s well) and Bradwell (whose dressing mark the location of some of the lost pin wells). Other locations have a long tradition and may have had associations with holy wells. These may include Belper, Baslow and Roston.

The county has a number of other traditions associated with water. Possible pagan figures are remember with three sites possibly deriving from Thor (variations of Thurs pytt), two sites derived from goblins (grime and puck),  three derived from Hob, sites derive from elementals such as possibly Jenny Well, Hell hole, and another two derived from prophetesses, Sparken well, Tungleswalle and Olrin well. More obscure is Tommy-Raw-Head Well named after Rawhead-and-Bloody-Bones, a water-demon commonly used in Yorkshire to frighten children haunting deep ponds.

Many of the rivers in the county have interesting traditions. The Trent was thought to desire an annual sacrifice and an elemental which was said to frequent it around Swarkstone. (where the substantial bridge was built by two sisters who lost their lovers in its waters).Indeed ghosts associated with bridges may be seen as significant there is Ashbourne’s hanging bridge, Derby’s St. Mary’s Bridge (in the form of a nun), Bamford Bridge, Cromford bridge, (where an evil spirit called Crocker existed in the form of an Ash tree by the Derwent. It would attack travellers as they crossed the nearby bridge, until someone stuck St John’s Wort into the tree!).Of spring sites only White Lady Spring has an associated ghost although one waslaid to rest in Lumby Pool in 1760. It is said that an exorcist from Bradwell was invited to help when the ghost of a young girl was terrifying the village. He raised the ghost and told it to turn into a fish and go to live in Lumb Brook which fed the pool.  Each Christmas Eve the fish changes into a bird and fly to Lumbly Pool. To add to this collection of water lore of course is the Mermaid’s pool.  At Edale the River Noe is haunted by the sounds of a screaming followed by splashing noises and a more traditional ghost haunts Turnditch’s Carsington Water, being a phantom black dog. Why are there so many well traditions in the county? Perhaps this is an indication of the remoteness and wildness of much of the county where ancient traditions continued for longer, perhaps even in some remote areas the full effect of Christianity never reached them!

Derbyshire is famous for Buxton Spa and Matlock Bath, but not surprisingly there were several attempts to establish similar large scale (Bakewell) to medium sized (Derby, Stoney Middleton, Quarndon, Kedleston) to small affairs (the largest amount with 25 sites). Therefore there are 32 C sites in the county, although this does not include sloughs which were used to utilise their thermal waters. The trend seen in Nottinghamshire of naming all mineral waters, spas, irrespective of how slight they are is continued into the county. Derbyshire’s spa and mineral waters has received greater recognition and the high number of sites is clearly this time geographically based due to the nature of the minerals in this area. Lists exist (Farey (1818)) of notable water supplies but very few appear to have been frequented or acknowledged beyond such these texts, most I have referred to as sulphur or mineral water according to his descriptions. Again as argued elsewhere, some of these mineral waters may have originated as holy wells, the strongest evidence being that of St. Anne’s Buxton of course.

Derbyshire’s last exploitation of its waters was the Hydro. Although in a sense out of the scope of this book, they are worth a mention. There were three major Hydros in Matlock:  Smedley’s, the largest, near Matlock Bridge Station; Davis’ at Matlock Bank; and Roger’s at Matlock Green. A number of smaller hydros were established, Rockside Hall, Bank House and Laburnum Hydros. All of which ceased around the mid to late 1930s, Smedley’s finally becoming the Town Hall in the 1950s. Just outside of Matlock, Darley also had its hydro which after seeing life as a girl’s school is now flats. Matlock Bath had Ashover had two successful ventures: Ashover House Hydro and Ambervale or Prospect House Hydropathic Institution Boarding House. The former was established in 1869 and continued until 1963 when it was divided into private apartments. The later was established in 1877 and continued until the early 20th century. Baslow had a Hydro established in the late 1800s being based in a hotel surrounded by spacious grounds. It was a profitable enterprise until the First World War and was closed in 1936 was demolished. Only the two stone gateposts and Hydro Lane remember the enterprise.

To learn more about the healing and holy water history of the county read   Holy wells and healing springs of Derbyshire.

Sand, sea, Sangria and….sacred springs: In search of Ibiza’s spring heritage

Ibiza is perhaps not the first place people think about when they think about ancient monuments but an antiquarian’s visit will be repaid by Phoenician sites, such as the necropolis, underground churches and cave shrines. To this one can add the Island’s unique water heritage: pous and fonts.

The island is rich in such sites, the pous appear to be artesian in construction, with water extracted via buckets from deep shafts, whereas the fonts are mainly covered spring heads and as such the water can be easily accessed.  Architecturally both are similar being surmounted by dome like structures, although the term chapel is more often used for the fonts.

There would appear to many hundred sites, although I never seen an official document that describes them all, the best sources being tourist maps (yes they do note them although sometimes not very accurately) and some websites mainly of course in Catalan or Spanish. I am going to restrict myself to six of the most notable, interesting or easiest to find, a give an overview

Unlike England, the wells appear to remain a focal point to village activities, these are Pagesa and are dancers held usually around patronal days at the wells in a traditional Catalan fashion but with Castonellas rather than casternets and the men doing all the work. I was privileged to see one of these dances at the picturesque Font des Verger, a beautiful well chapel with clear water. It was certainly easier to find it on the festival day as lights guided us down, one the earlier day we couldn’t find it! Beyond the dances little else is clear regarding legends or folklore, Pou de Gatzara from Santa Gertrudis de Fruitera is said to frighten horses and perhaps is haunted.  Pou de Lleo, which has given its name to a delightful bay was said to have healing waters, but I could not find it. Aging the sites is difficult as well, Font de Peralta, a delightful pinky-red well house set beside a rather busy road is said to be dating from the 1600s. The water arises beneath the road surface and is reached by steps Sant Rafal’s Pou de Forada is a covered well with a large front opening. The two stone basins beneath it set there for animals are said to be old olive mills of Punic-Roman time Similarly the long basin at Rou Roig is said to be a Roman Sarcophagus but it is doubted by some. Certainly the most picturesque well is found close to one of the island’s most picturesque towns, the Font de Balafia arises at the base of a cave and has been enclosed in a large chapel well house with steps down to its water. A magical and special place and if you visit only one well in Ibiza visit this one!

A Lincolnshire field trip – Anne’s well, Canwick Holy Well and St. Margaret’s well

As I am in the process of researching for the fourth volume of In search of English holy wells and healing spring which will cover Lincolnshire, I decided to combine a visit to the local studies centre in Lincoln with some field work. There are six sites around the city, of which I had time to explore three.

The first of these is a bit of an enigma. Called Ann’s Well, one would assume that the well’s true dedication was St. Ann’s well, but although this is likely it is not confirmed. It lies in the grounds of Branston Hall, now a hotel. I arrived at the hotel and found the desk staff unaware of the site at first. Then she asked one of her other collegues and they appeared to know of the site and gave me directions along to the second lake, cross the cascade and near the remains of an ice house. I easily found what I thought was the cascade. It was not easy to find. Once I had roughly ascertained its location, confirming by asking a man tending his horses nearby who knew it, I attempted to access it! Being enveloped in briars, nettles and thistles this was not very easy. Ducking under the overgrown thorn tree I was greeted by a brick and stone-lined six feet square chamber with the rusty remains of a sluice gate attachment. The site resembles a cold bath and similar structures exist, but the lack of steps into the water may suggest otherwise. Close to it is a small stone slab which reads:

“Clear may thy waters ever flow, Nor Gusts of Ruffling Tempest Know, Pure and Unsullied as the fair, who emblematic name you bear”.

The site is rather forlorn and largely forgotten.  The spring head and chamber are often bone dry in the summer, although flow is perceivable in the winter months. In a work for Lincolnshire Past and Present, Parkes (2000) suggest that it was a member of the Vere Berte family, of whom one was Lady Anne. It is possible that the spring was improved in her memory by a devoted Lord Vere Berte in the 1750s when a nearby Ice-house was constructed. However, why was it constructed in this fashion and so far away from the house? The presence of an old venerable hawthorn would excite new age antiquarians as evidence of a much more ancient origin for the well.

Perhaps the smellest of all the sites, just upstream (fortunately) from Lincoln’s sewarage plant is Holy Well recorded as Hallow-well  in around c.1630. The site appears to have been holy by its association with the Gilbertine canons of St Catherine’s Priory. It is recorded that in 1306 they begun a conduit to Lincoln from a well in Canwick which Mills and Mills (1996) believe to be the holy well.The site is probably recorded in 1771 and 1778 as a Spaw. Mills & Mills (1996) undertook some detective work using the names conduit rundle and the springs to locate the well successfully. The apparent site is a two foot square Victorian brick chamber from which the water issues from a pipe. I had less success, fifteen years on, and did not successfully find the brick lined chamber but did find a pipe through which a considerable flow could be seen and there were bits of old brick around. How I found it I am not sure, the OS was not much help and I used by intuition and headed for an area with an increase in ivy covering and that was it.

The last site, St. Margaret’s Well or Roaring Meg is similarly forlorn, but at least could be traced without being covered by stings and scratches. To the north of Lincoln off the Nettleham road. The site could be considered a very significant spring being associated with the courses of a Roman aquaduct. The spring’s other name related to the loud sound. It still arises largely unheralded in a marsh off the Nettleham road, but in the local supermarket is a large piece of Roman aquaduct and a plaque but fails to mention the spring! Perhaps its in the way!

More can be read in the book:

In search of English holy wells and healing springs Volume V: Lincolnshire holy wells and healing springs

available now

Top Ten Unusual Holy well locations

In my searches for holy wells, here are ten of the oddest places I have found them. If you know any odder ones let me know. I’ve hyperlinked to megalithic portal for most were a page exists. Note due to the locations some of these sites are on private land.

Under a church. Much is spoken of the Christianisation of pagan springs by siting churches over them but the evidence is not common, St Ethelbert’s Well in Marden Herefordshire is one such example, located in a room to the west end of the nave, existing as a circular hole in the carpet mounted by a wooden frame.

In a bridge, Bridge chapels are a rarity in England and so were bridge holy wells and as far as I can tell of those said to exist at Barking in Essex and possibly in Nottingham at Trent bridge, only Biddenham’s Holy Well still survives in an ancient bridge, probably dating from the 17th century its worn steps lead down to a chamber beneath the bridge, although access is hampered by a locked gate.

Under my kitchen. A visit in search of St John’s Well near Retford, Nottinghamshire reveals a subterranean rectangular stone lined chamber designed to be a plunge pool for body immersions beneath a trap door in a person’s kitchen. More can be learned here or in Holy wells and healing springs of Nottinghamshire.

In the shadow of the tower blocks. Urbanisation has a tendency to sweep away anything inconvenient and messy like an ancient well and have in conduited away in pipes or just filled in, luckily one of oldest of Derbyshire’s holy wells (or at least with one of the oldest provenances) survives in a juxtaposition between some older housing and some tower blocks. Vandalised over the years and currently protected by an unsightly metal cage it St. Alkmund’s Well, flows on at the point where his body is said to have rested on the way to his shrine (supposedly in the city museum)

On a golf course. Surprisingly, despite what you would think would be an inconvenience, a number of holy wells arise between the bunkers and fairways of the countries golf courses. In Kent we have St Augustine’s Well at Ebbsfleet, Oxfordshire’s Holy Well at Tadmarton, and Jesus’s well at Miniver, Cornwall. My favourite, although it may not be a holy well per se (deriving from O.E holh or hol) is Holwell on Newstead Golf Course, Nottinghamshire. A natural fern, moss and liverwort adorned cave whose sweet waters are still available via a cup attached to a metal chain.

In the grounds of a school. As long as they don’t fill them with paper aeroplanes and rubbers, wells can survive in school estates well. The best example is the Lady’s Well located within the Bedgebury School Estate, a large sandstone structure has been raised over the spring either to celebrate Our Lady, original landowner Vicountess Beresford or perhaps a past Bedgebury School Headmistress!

Amongst the rock pools on the beach. Although now dry, St Govan’s Well and its associated Chapel are undoubtedly the most atmospherically positioned of any of this list. A small stone well house covers the spring which has either dried or being filled up by too many pebbles.

In a cave. Perhaps the most atmospheric of holy wells is the Holy Well of Holy Well bay near Newquay Cornwall. A large sea cave reveals a magical multicoloured series of troughs made by a natural spring that has dripped its mineral load over the rocks and formed a perfect immersion set up. Its origins are linked to the resting of St. Cuthbert on his way to Durham. Crotches were left on the beach outside by healed pilgrims.

Under a holiday home and an old Courthouse – St Winifred’s Well Woolston is a delightfully picturesque black and white tudor courthouse now a holiday home sitting up top of the chambers of St Winifred’s Well. A site associated with the pilgrim route to her shrine in Shrewsbury and well at Holy Well in Flintshire.

Restored in a new housing estate. Developers of new estates are not always sympathetic to history perhaps and certainly not water history, but the designers of De Tany Court in St Alban’s took good advice and preserved the newly discovered St. Alban’s Well, lost for decades in the grounds of the nearby school’s playing fields, in their new housing estate and made it a garden feature.

The Holy Well, or St Cloud’s Well, at Longthorpe Peterborough

 The following is copied and edited from an article on the defunct Living Spring website –   

One of the country’s most interesting and yet little-known holy wells can be found incongruously situated behind a modern housing estate a few miles from Peterborough. The site consists of a natural spring which bubbles up through oolite limestone. Around this have been built three chambers of undressed stone, the whole of which is enclosed in an artificial mound on which trees and shrubs have encroached. It is one of my favourite holy wells, despite being much neglected.

Folklore and History

   Much of the site’s folklore and history derives from a story entitled The Knight of the Red Cross, a story based in the twelfth century, in Richard I’s reign. There is some confusion about the place where this work is published. Thompson (1913, p.111) in his Peculiarities of water and wells states that it is contained within a work called Wild flowers gathered: original pieces in prose and rhyme, printed by J. S. Clarke, with no author or date; whereas Arrowsmith (n.d., p.20) states it comes from a similarly titled, A list of wild flowers found in the neighbourhood of Peterborough, by F. A. Paley. Arrowsmith further notes that the work is advertised on the back of the same author’s Notes on twenty Parish churches round Peterborough, published in 1859. Please click here for larger pictureUnfortunately, I have been unable to trace either of these to confirm which is the right source. How much the story is based on any ancient account is unclear. It may be ‘faction’ or fiction, a problem of course with many sites. The applicable parts are produced below as Thompson notes:

   ‘There is a beautiful spot, called Holywell, in the neighbourhood of Peterborough, well known, and much frequented by the inhabitants. the road lies through a pleasant park, where stands an ancient edifice belonging to the Fitzwilliam family, called Thorpe Hall… After passing the front of this mansion, turn to the left, by the stables and outer buildings will lead, through a white gate, to a small green field from whence this picturesque little spot is seen, with its ivy clad walls, and its dark cypress and yew trees, casting their gloomy shadows around. Passing some broken steps which form the entrance, a shady path conducts to a modern niche, supported by two pilasters, over a slab pavement to a stone basin about six feet in depth and thirty in circumference. This is constantly supplied with clear water, running from the mouth of a subterraneous passage which connects Holywell with the cathedral of Peterborough. An artificial mound of earth is thrown up above this cavity, which is covered with creepers, ground-ivy and a few wild flowers.

   Contiguous to the basin are some small fish ponds, partially shaded by beautiful trees; and the green rushes which grow at their bank form undisturbed retreat in which the moor-hen builds her solitary nest. A little further on is a piece of an old pillar, which is gracefully overhung with a wreath of ivy… An old wall surrounding Holywell on two sides, in which traces of windows and doorways are still discernible, is the last feature we shall mention.’

(Thompson 1913, p112)

   These pools have been called ‘Monk’s Stew Ponds’ or ‘Paradise Ponds’, although Arrowsmith considers that the long distance from the Abbey makes it unlikely, as the Abbey was close to good fishing waters (Arrowsmith n.d., p.21). He continues, ‘The waters of this well were formerly in high repute, and were much frequented by those who came on pilgrimages’ (Arrowsmith n.d., p.19).

   Its waters, according to Thompson (1913, p.115), are said to be slightly ferruginous, though he detected no sign of it, and nor did I. It was also thought to be efficacious for gout, rheumatism, skin diseases, and good for eyes.

   It was believed that a Hermit, called St Cloud, lived at the site. Thompson (1913, p.112) continues, quoting J. S. Clarke, that he was ‘of great celebrity, whose pious councils and paternosters were generally in request amongst all pilgrims who visited the spot.’

   Some authorities, such as Arrowsmith, have identified this hermit as St Botolph, who is said to have lived within a mile of his chapel during its construction on the Thorpe Avenue site. He is associated with other wells, such as that at Hadstock, Essex, so it is not impossible.

   The well was enclosed in grounds belonging to St John family, an estate laid out in a style similar to the pleasure gardens of Vauxhall. Within these grounds was an 18th century summerhouse, which has now vanished. A distillery was established here by a Doctor Skirmshire, who lived at Longthorpe, for making ‘considerable quantities of lavender and peppermint, cultivated in adjacent fields..’ (Arrowsmith, n.d., unpaginated).

   Sadly, there appear to be no ancient records which justify ascribing an ancient date to the Holy Well complex. Indeed, it would appear to be contemporary with the summerhouse. Perhaps it was built to provide a folly-hermitage to support the legend? It is said that the summerhouse was demolished in the mid-ninteenth century because of the disorderly proceedings undertaken in it by visitors from Peterborough! According to Thompson (1913, p.113), the dressed stone was used for the kitchen floor of the nearby Manor House.

   Thompson gives a plan of the well along with an accurate description, which luckily does not differ from the sight which greets the visitor today (although there is now an ugly metal gate on the structure):

   ‘The subterranean chambers constitute a medley of design and structure; they are not caves, although now underground, but were apparently first built….

   The walls and domed roofs consist of undressed stone. The passage from the pool runs in a direction of N 60 W, and is some six feet long. The entrance being two feet four inches wide by five feet high. The first chamber or antechamber is mostly to the left and nearly at right angles to the passage; it is approximately ten feet by eight feet. In this there is a window high up, evidently a more recent introduction, for the frame is of dressed stone, and the rough stone roof cuts across it, so that external appearance rather than internal use would appear to have been the dominating factor in its design. On the opposite wall of the window is a doorway, and at one time evidently a door, for one stone jamb of dressed stone is left. This doorway opens into the very irregular second or main chamber, roughly twenty feet long, by fifteen feet wide near the widest part. Immediately within the doorway is a well, with dressed stone curb, of three feet internal diameter, and exactly above, in the roof is another smaller circular opening lined with dressed stone as though arranged to draw water from the well from the mound above without going into the chamber, but this is not now open. The well is now choked with stones, but the water used to overflow from the well and run down the passage way to the pool outside, it now flows out oat a lower level leaving the passage way dry. Immediately on the right, after entering the large chamber is am opening leading to a third chamber, smaller, crudely oval, but an indescribable shape, approximately eight to nine feet one way by twelve feet another. One side of this is the opening, now blocked up, to a supposed underground passage to Peterboroug Cathedral, by which the monks of the Abbey of Burgh, it is said used to come to bathe in the pool….

   To the left of this large chamber, on entering the latter, is a recess some fifteen feet wide and nine feet deep, with a floor consisting essentially of two steps, both apparently of ‘live’ rock, i.e. rock in situ; the upper step being the wider and more like a dais. There is a rather small opening high up on the outer wall of this recess, some five feet from the dais, and is about seventeen inches wide by twenty two feet high, but goes four feet or more in the thickness of the wall or mound without providing an external opening.’

(Thompson 1913, p.114)

   The site’s greatest fame stems from the tunnel mentioned above by Thompson, which is said to run from the Holy Well to the Abbey at Peterborough (also described by Bord and Bord 1985, p.76). A blocked-up doorway in the third chamber is described as the entrance to this tunnel, although one can imagine that the nature of the whole edifice would lend to such a belief. Certainly records show that the Abbey was supplied by a conduit at the Infirmary end of the Chapel of St Lawrence. However, it is more likely that this took its waters from the St Leonard’s Well at Spital, whose water also filled the Boroughbury Pools and Swan’s Pool.

   Yet records show that the Abbey was interested in the site. During Abbot Godfreys tenure, in 1130s the following document states:

Amos ejus viii inclusat porceum Burgi Sumptus iiij I lb: xv sol. Item feat fossutum salveunium inter Thorpe fen et le Dom Sumptus xx sol‘.

(Anon. 1904-1906, p.22)

   This enclosure cost four pounds and fifteen shillings. Under Abbot Gyerge another document notes the extent of this land (Halywelle), of four acres, three rood and twenty pearches, which until the building of the estate remained the same (Anon. 1904-1906, p.22 ). Yet neither of these documents explicitly refers to the laying of a conduit.

   The only possible justification for this belief came in November 6th 1964, when workmen, excavating to set up telephone kiosks beside the old Guildhall on Cathedral square, unearthed an underground passage. This continued for twenty five feet under church street, and ran parallel to land belonging to the Almoner’s Garden that was exchanged in the 1194-1200 agreement between the Abbot and the Vicar of Burgh and Longthorpe. Although the passage was only four feet six inches high, it was not impossible that it could have been a tunnel, especially considering the average height of mediaeval people. Unfortunately, the underground passage turned out to be some kind of eighteenth century fire precautions.

    Comparing Thompson’s description and the photograph, one can note a few differences, the main one being that the site in general has become noticeably overgrown. The wall which appears to run along one side has become overgrown and derelict, the pool overgrown, and rubbish-strewn. Within the structure, the curbed well has gone and now one can see the water bubbling from the rock.

In 2010 I was asked to talk about the well from BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and detailed the history and folklore for their religious strand on sacred places.

  Despite the construction of a housing estate, the old Holy Well remains to mystify and fascinate us. Ignore the rubbish and the ugly metal doorway, and you can imagine it being the site of great pilgrimage from olden days to the Victorians. Today, nearly forgotten and forlorn, it is an amazing surprise, especially if you seek the site without knowing what you expect to see!


   Anon. (1904-06). Holywell. Fenland Notes and Queries, 6, pp.22-4.

   Arrowsmith, A. L. (n.d.). Longthorpe and its environs: microcosm of a village. Privately published.

   Bord, J. and C., (1985). Sacred waters. London: Granada.

   Thompson, B. (1913) .The peculiarities of water and wells. Journal of Northants Natural History Society and Field Club, 18(135).