Monthly Archives: November 2011

Birley Spa, Sheffield – a remarkable survival

The outside of the spa building. The left from the car-park, the right showing the two storeys

Back in September I re-visited the delightfully surprising Birley Spa. This is a rare spa building survival which was once in Derbyshire, but now firmly in the suburban edges of Sheffield.  

An old origin?

Our first record is when it was established as seven baths by Earl Manners. However, it may have an ancient origin, the spring is located along Neolithic trade routes and indeed implements have been found in the vicinity. Some authorities have noted that there was a Roman bath here supported by the proximity to the Rykneid way. There is however no direct archaeological evidence to support this theory and it may have been spread around by the proprietors to support the quality of the water.  A work by T. L. Platts (1976) contains much of the information and it is from this work I have taken most of the notes. The earliest establishment of the spa is thought to be in the early 1700s being built by a Quaker named Sutcliffe. The spa then consisted of a square stone building with a cold bath within with a bolt fixed on the inner side to ensure privacy. This structure appeared to exist until 1793 when the bath was ruined and filled with stones.

A spa reborn

In 1843, the Earl Manvers who owned the Manor developed this spa for a larger and more upmarket clientele. A Leeds chemist West analysed the waters stating that they were beneficial for those suffering from constipation. An administrative committee was appointed and even a Bath Charity was started so that poor people could benefit and take the waters.

A spa in decline

Unfortunately the baths did not make profit and by 1895 only one plunge bath remained; the Hotel apparently ceased to function as such about 1878.  It is believed that Earl Manvers removed the marble from the warm bath for his own use. The site then went into a slow decline. In the 1920s and 30s a children’s pleasure ground was established but the grounds were closed in 1939, due to the prohibition of assemblies of crowds, introduced as a safety factor in case of air raids.  The buildings and grounds were allowed to decay and become very dilapidated. Since the building of the Hackenthorpe Housing Estate in the 1950s Sheffield Corporation have become owners of the property.








The museum room (old warming room) and the coal room

A re-born again!

Fortunately unlike other sites, the bath house still exists, probably as a consequence of the first floor being used as community centre. The cold bath was derelict and rubbish strewn, but a splendid restoration has been undertaken. The bath house can be found in a small wooded dell in the housing estate. Despite predations by vandals on the house, the interior reveals an impressive oval stone lined cold bath with steps into the water either side. To the other side are a small collection of artefacts and the history of the site. There is also the store room where coal was stored for the warm bath which no longer exists.

Birley Spa is now open for special events and the first Saturday in the summer months; however it is best to check that the site is open as it is open by volunteers. It can be viewed from the outside when closed and can be reached off the A1635 take Occupation Lane then Birley Spa Lane on the left and once passing a school on the left there is a lane going into the woods on the left by a side, down here is the Spa. There is some parking.

Revised from Holy wells and healing springs of Derbyshire.

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High Hurstwood’s The Wishing Well and Rock Hermitage

   Sussex is not well known for its holy or healing wells, although close research will reveal a number. There is one particular site, which because of its location is of great interest. Fortunately, thanks to the present owners, Mr and Mrs Carroll, it was my great pleasure recently to be allowed access to examine one of East Sussex’s strangest sites.

   The Hermitage site has attracted considerable attention over the years, and became a ‘tourist attraction’ in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In an extremely obscure work, produced for a Cecil De M. Caulfield Pratt by one Charles Dawson (n.d.), The history of the Hermitage at Buxted, Sussex, a full account is given of its history, as well as a number of Edwardian-style pictures of the estate.


A Hermitage….?


The caves are hewn from grey sandstone, lower Tunbridge Well Sands, indeed the type for which the pleasant spa town is most picturesquely famed. The extent of this sandstone is quite impressive, at 275 metres long, providing a long sharp vertical ridge to one side of the garden. The site has apparently a long history of habitation. Archaeological research by Jacobi and Tebutt (1981, pp.1-26) identified a Mesolithic site at the foot of the long outcrop, dating certainly from around five thousand years BC, and possibly even from the seventh millennium BC, making it one of the earliest sites in England. The site yielded a number of microliths, and it is theorised that it was used by male hunting parties (four thousand flints and two sandstone hearths were identified). At this time the area was presumably enclosed in the ancient Forest of Andred, which according to the Saxon Chronicle (Anon. 1993, p.114) covered much of Sussex.

   The caves, probably partly natural, certainly carved, have attracted considerable interest. They appear to have been a minor tourist attraction in the eighteenth century. Certainly they attracted artists and antiquarians. There are two drawings of the site in Gough’s Topographical Collections (Gough 1795, unpaginated). These were made on May 28th 1785, and are pencil and wash.

   One of these illustrations shows the ‘Rocks at Buxted, called ‘The Vineyard’. This was because a plantation of vines was established here. Apparently they thrived, as the site was naturally quite sheltered. However, according to Alexander (1996, p.2), it was established in 1824, by a Mr Lidbetter, who trailed the vines over Smuggler’s Rock.

   The second is captioned, ‘Outside of the rock habitation of the Vineyard Rocks near Buxted, in Sussex, it is decidely of great antiquity. Traces of its having been a vineyard still remain.’ Other drawings of the site exist in the Burrell Collection at the British Museum. The site probably continued to attract visitors into the twentieth century. Indeed, an interesting source of information on the site is a small handwritten note, which was bizarrely found by an upholsterer in an old chair during its repair, and thoughtfully sent to the owner. One presumes it was written by a visitor to the site in the early twentieth century, and it makes some interesting points, which are not noted in other works.

   However, an excellent description is given by Grenville Cook who wrote a considerable piece concerning this unusual hermitage:

‘It is uncertain when the partly artificial caves known locally as the hermitage were made or inhabited, but there can be little doubt but that they were the habitation of an anchorite or Hermit at some remote age. They now lie within the parish of High Hurstwood, but of course were then in the parish of Buxted. There are three principal rooms carved out of the rock, connected with each other by passages which were once secured by doors, having strong posts and cross bars, the mortices of which are still visible. The main rooms or caves were very large, one extending some twenty-four feet by eighteen feet, with a height of twelve feet. This was floored, the bearings of the joists being still plainly to be seen. A flight of steps gives access in one corner to a small cellar underneath: the fireplace, with a chimney cut through the solid rock… Another room measures twenty-seven feet by sixteen feet; and this has a pointed archway, over which is a niche for an image of a saint or crucifix.’

(Grenville Cook 1960, p.16)

   Of this the Reverend Edward Turner, former rector of Maresfield, writing in the Sussex Archaeological Collections states:

‘Within the memory of persons now living there is said to have been a cross about the centre of this cave, cut out in the rock opposite the entrance, by the side of which was a niche, designed doubtless for the reception of the image of some saint.’

(Turner 1859, p.13)

  The date of the caves is unclear. Grenville Cook (1960, p.16) suggests that the presence of the niche and pointed archway are signs that the Hermit who dwelt here may have lived later than the Norman times, since Norman arches were rounded, and the making of niches for images was not earlier so prevalent, especially in a Hermit’s ascetic dwelling. Furthermore, the presence of a fireplace is an interesting historical point, for such features were rarely rare in this period, and certainly missing from domestic architecture. This further indicates a late mediaeval date for the structure. Even so Grenville Cook notes that it ‘is considered to have been probably one of the first ever constructed at the side of an apartment’ (Grenville Cook 1960, p.16).

…or a ‘Pest House’?

   There are mixed views regarding the fate of the Hermit. According to the present owner, Mrs Carroll, local belief asserts (Mrs Carroll, pers. comm.) that he was removed from the site and buried in consecrated ground. However, according to Dawson (n.d., p.9), the remains of a person were found in a niche (given the date 1915 on the note). This was whilst building operations were being carried out to erect the modern house by a Mr E. W. Streeter, a former owner. The niche was cut into the sand at the top of the rock, and according to Pratt it was still visible (although I fear that it now has become rather more overgrown).

   Alternatively the skeleton may be the remains of a plague victim as a Mr C. L. Prince, former surgeon at nearby Uckfield, notes:

‘Soon after the commencement of the present century (nineteenth), my father entered into the practice with Mr Fuller, of Uckfield, whose family, for at least three generations, had been resident medical practitioners there. The history of these caves had been handed down from one generation to another, and thence to my father; with the information that they had been used as a Pest House, into which many poor wretches were thrust who had become the victims of any infectious disease; and herein they were compelled to remain until they either died (which was too frequently the case), or recovered.’

(Prince 1896, p.265)

   Indeed, it is suggested that this was the original function of the caves, and that perhaps the name ‘hermitage’ was a more romantic appellation. However, it would be unlikely that such a feat of work would have such a primary use, as a simple building often sufficed elsewhere.

   Naturally too smugglers have been connected to the site, although there association is to a piece of rock on the sandstone ridge some distance from the hermitage. This is called ‘Smuggler’s Rock’, where it has been suggested contraband was hidden. There is no evidence for this and the name may be a result of some tourist fabrication. The cave, according to Jacobi and Tebutt (1981, p.1) was probably last used for malting or as a hop oast.

   The house adjoining the cave is said to be ‘modern’, built in Edwardian times. It certainly has architectural features from this period, but I am of the view that rather than replacing one which completely burned down, it incorporated some of its remains. Certainly the roofs appear much older and Mrs Carroll informed me that it has old timbers. An Elizabethan date would appear suitable. However, little is known of any building on this site during this period. The caves were situated on land which was once part of Charity Farm at Buxted, which belonged to a Dr Saunders, (who founded the Grammar School there in 1718), but where his building was situated is unclear. Nevertheless this ‘modern’ house utilises the Hermitage, as a vestibule, well. One entrance to the house is reached through the caves, and the whole house is fitted snugly to the rock. A delightful octagonal room sits upon the caves’ roof and one presumes that its construction led to the skeleton’s discovery.

The Spring

   Of the well itself, very little is known. It lies at the end of the more formal part of the grounds, a far distance from the cave, and nearer the Mesolithic site. Very little appears to have been recorded about the well. Until I contacted her, the oddly-discovered note had been Mrs Carroll’s only indication that the site was of interest. It notes that the site was known as the ‘Wishing Well’, and that it was where the hermit baptised his converts. Its use as a baptismal site is not referred to by the only other source of information:

‘The well in the orchard in front (and north) of this cell. Half way down the orchard (also called the Vineyard) is the Wishing Well, ten feet in diameter…with steining of rough stone with a few blocks apparently worked, and a gap or opening on the east side, probably the former approach or “dipping place”’.

(Hope 1893, p.167)

  The site is now considerably overgrown and lies in a small copse. Small saplings have encroached upon the edge of the well. Mrs Carroll now hopes to remove these. Worked stones can still be seen around the edge of the well, and she informed me that probing it revealed a stone bottom. Sadly, the contents are very murky and black.

   The spring water formed a marshy stream which ran down into the paddock, forming four pools. The Carrolls filled in three of these to allow for better drainage, but the furthest one remains. Mrs Carroll expressed the opinion that it would be interesting to clean out the well, but said such an enterprise would be a fair way off!

   However, in these days of rapid change it is pleasing to note that this most bizarre landscape remains for future generations. It must be stressed that The Hermitage and wishing well lie on private land, and uninvited guests are not welcomed. However, Mrs Carroll is proud of the estate she has acquired and hopes to open the site for future Garden Open Days.



  Anon. (n.d.). Note in the private collection of the Carrolls.

  Anon. (1993). The Saxon chronicle, AD 1 to AD 1154. (trans. by Rev. J. Ingram). London: Studio Editions. [orig. pub. 1823]

  Alexander, R. (1996). A short history of Buxted. Tunbridge Wells: Opax.

  Dawson, C. (n.d.). The history of the Hermitage at Buxted, Sussex, kindly written and compiled for Cecil De M. Caulfield Pratt, Esq. Privately published?

  Gough, R. (1795). Topographical Collections. London: Payne.

  Grenville Cook, A. (1960). A short history of the Parish of Buxted. Privately published.

  Hope, C. (1893). The legendary lore of the holy wells of England. London: Elliot Stock.

  Jacobi, R. M., and Tebbutt, C. F. (1981). ‘A late Mesolithic rock-shelter site at High Hurstwood, Sussex’. Sussex Archaeological Collections, 119, pp.1-36.

  Prince, C. L. (1896). ‘Notes and Queries No.1’. Sussex Archaeological Collections, 40, p.265.

  Turner, E. (1859). ‘Uckfield Past and Present’. Sussex Archaeological Collections, 12, pp.1-22.

   Please note that the ‘hermitage’ and spring are on private property and are not open to the public.

   Thanks to Mrs Carroll, the owner of the site, who also had in her possession a note on the site.

This site originally appeared on the disfunct Living Springs Journal Copyright Pixyledpublications

Australian waterlore hunting!

Whilst in Australia I was able to visit two water related sites with associations with indigenous or Aboriginal folklore and legend. The most famous is the Babinda boulders and in particular the Devil’s Pool in North Queensland is known in Aboriginal legend as a cursed place and has features not dissimilar to that one would find in England. The curse according to local tribesmen is related to the story of a woman who ran away from an arranged marriage with a respected elder with a younger man. When she was captured and threw herself off and created the boulders, waterfall and pool. She waits for her lover and is said to cause people to drown, 17 people in all according to wikipedia.

On Wikipedia, a local, Annie Wonga, gave this account:

There was a tribe that lived here. In this tribe was an elder, and his name was called Waroonoo and Waroonoo was promised to a girl called Oolana. When they got married, they had a big dance. As they went dancing a wandering tribe passed through and they welcomed them. In this tribe was a handsome young warrior and his name was Dyga. Oolana fell in love with him, and he fell in love with Oolana. While they were dancing, they decided to run further up the creek and camp there overnight. And at the morning, the wandering tribe and our tribe saw that they were missing. So they went in search of them and they said to Oolana, “You’ve got to come with us.” And his tribe took him away. And when she saw that, she just came and she threw herself into the creek. She loved him that much. And there was a mighty upheaval, and rocks were strewn everywhere and where she lay is now called the Devil’s Pool. And every now and again she might call a wandering man to her, thinking that it’s Dyga.

She is said to haunt the place and 2009 a woman is said to have captured the image of her in the pool, local Aboriginals state that the 17 people who have died did so because they did not respect the place.  It is a remarkably peaceful and frightening place in one stroke.

The Innot hot springs are perhaps less well known outside of the country. However, they have to be the hottest springs I have ever experience, one can bearly stand a few minutes with ones foot immersed. A Dreamtime legend is told of its creation. The origin of the spring has an Aboriginal legend. This tells how a father and son would regularly go out collecting Sugar Bag (wild honey). Often the father would leave some of the honey for the spirits to ensure its continual provision. However, often the son would eat it and would be scolded by the father. On one occassion whilst eating the honey, a Yamanie (a snake) came behind him and swallowed him making a thumping sound which caught the attention of the father. He can running back and tried everything to make the creature look the other way. Finally he threw a gunamore or sweat potato in the river to catch its attention as it turned around the father cut the creature’s head off. The serpent lay in the water bleeding, steam began to rise and it became hotter and hotter because the Yamanie’s temper was so great making the hot spring ever more.

The water supposedly used to fill a large pool of overflowing water which was large enough to allow 50 people to bath in it. In the 1890s two hotels (pubs for non-Australians), a bath house and a weekly coach from Herberton were established. In 1891 the Australian Medical gazzette stated:

the springs have gained a reputation for their curative properties in chronic rheumatism, goat, liver and kidney disease.

Water was placed in barrels and hauled by mules across to the coast and was sold in Townsville by the Innot Spa Waters Ltd and as far away as back into Europe until the first world war. The water produced today fills temporary pools made by local people along the Creek, although a bath is to be found in the camp nearby. The temperature is 71.5 0C and issues at three litres a second.

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A Warwickshire field trip – the sad story of Margaret’s well

Whilst researching for a future volume on holy and healing wells in Warwickshire, I came across an interesting site called Margaret’s well. This site one would assume takes its name from a saint, but no, showing how easy it is for holy well researchers to be confused. However, this site has a far more interesting origin, it is cited by some as being the site where a local girl committed suicide. That in itself, although tragic, is not perhaps that interesting, but the suicide may have been the inspiration for the tragic character of Ophelia who drowned in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

A tragic suicide?

For those unfamiliar with Hamle: Ophelia loves and was courted by Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, but is helpless when he starts behaving strangely after his uncle marries his mother, having killed Hamlet’s father. After, Hamlet treats her poorly and abondons her she goes mad and drowns in a pool prompting the Laertes and Hamlet duel which results in both dying.

Who was Margaret?

Margaret Clopton, was the daughter of a leading Catholic family in the town and was a contemporary of Shakesphere. She was abandoned by her lover, drowned herself. News of her death would have reached Shakespeare as the family was so well known even if he was living in London especially as his wife, Anne Hathaway still resided in Statford. The dates certainly match, Hamlet is believed to have been written by the Bard in the 1590s, shortly after Margaret’s supposed death.

Searching on line for evidence, I found the following website:

In it a Dr. Bearman, who is the chief archivist  at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, said the evidence was open to interpretation, but a possible link with Ophelia could not be denied. He stated that although there was a Margaret Clopton there are no records of her marriage or death which would lead you to suspect she died in infancy or early youth. However, he does note that there is a tradition of a young woman drowing in the well and the death is first recorded in  Jordan’s History of Stratford written in1790. Whether this was Margaret and whether this was the source perhaps can never be proved! Indeed the vagueness of a ghost haunting the well may suggest a religious origin? Is the Margaret St Margaret?

Nearly lost for good?

The well built as a conduit for the hall was constructed in 1686 as the inscribed stone SJC 1686 records. The SJC refering to Sir John Clopton, but is obviously a pool or well before this but nothing is recorded. The site was for many inaccessible for years due to its being immersed in thick briars, bramble and boggy underneath and only the very top of the stonework being visible. It was decided in October 2002 to restore the well and a new path was laid to it, the work being completed in 2003. Archaeological field work once the land was drained revealed the brick vaulting, steps and flagstones.  Masonry foundations were were found south-west of Margaret’s Well, and may have been remains of arbours shown on the  1848 Tithe map and estate plans of 1849.Once the private estate of Clopton house, the site now in a public park.

Visiting in 2011, the site is marked out by a fence and has a small plaque, but unfortunately this and the well itself have been vandalized. The well which consists of a barrel shaped structure over a rectangular pool has lost some of the brick work from the top and the concrete rendering. The water arises clearly from within, but I could not see the carved stone described.