Monthly Archives: December 2011

Is there a lost St. Helen’s Well…in Maldon?

No survey can be thorough and frustatingly one always finds new sites or details on them after publishing as the books are a series I intend to write an appendix to list the new Essex sites I have discovered or have been informed about. One such site, mentioned in the gazzatteer of named wells in the book has now revealed itself to be a possible holy well dedicated to St. Helen. I look at the evidence and hunt for the remains of this site.

So many St Helen’s Wells?

Harte (2008) notes that St. Helen is the most common dedication for wells with 40% of all sites named after saints being given the dedication 50 sites in his work. I hestitate to add another to that list which both he and I were unaware of when compiling my work on Essex sites.

Why St Helen?

St Helen developed at special folklore relationship with England, thanks to authors Henry of Huntingdon and Geoffrey of Monmouth. They claimed that she was the daughter of Cole of Camulodunum a British King and ally of Constantius. Support for this belief perhaps coming from the fact that Constantine was with his father in Eboracum (York) when he died and that her son picked up Christianity in the province. This scant lack of evidence did not appear to have affected mediaeval minds who even suggested that Colchester’s St Helen’s Chapel was even founded by the saint and she became patron saint of here and Abingdon.Folklorists and historians have debated the origins of this myth. Some have seen her derived from an equally dubious St Helen wife of Magnus Maximus or Elen a probably invented pagan goddess

A holy well or well by association?

The only written reference to St Helen in the town, is to St Helen’s Chapel which is mentioned in 1529 will of John Padgett leaving money towards the costs of the construction of said site. However, the date is so late it is unclear whether the chapel was ever built being so close to the Reformation. No remains bar the name of the well and the lane/crossroads. No the question is, is the well named after the chapel or the chapel named after the well. There could be support for both arguments. In support of the later, one might question why a chapel is being built so late, is it built to capitalise on the spring’s importance. The only problem with this being that it does appear to be unlikely that the spring would not have been recorded separately. It is certainly an ancient site, its situation on the site of the original saxon burg is suggestive of its importance to that settlement. Furthermore, early maps show a site called Maidenspond in the area approximating to where the spring is situated. Does this suggest a Christianisation of a pagan site, the only record of which is the name Maiden? Is it a coincidence or significant that Colchester’s St Helen’s Chapel is in Maidenburgh Lane? For the contra argument, there is Essex precedence, Colchester’s St. Helen’s Chapel was situated by a well called St. Helen and the naming of holy wells by association is frequently encountered across the country. It has been also suggested that St Helen chapels or churches were often renamed All Saints and indeed St. Helen’s Well is in All Saint’s parish. There is of course an All Saints Well in Colchester as well and Ipswich has a St Helen’s church so being midway between the two it may be genuine.

Later life as the Cromwell?

The spring itself does not appear, above notwithstanding, until 1587 when Thomas Cammock paid for Maldon’s very first convenient water supply piped in a 600 yards lead conduit from his well in Beeleigh Road (the ‘Crom’ or ‘St. Helen’s Well’) to a pump on St. Helen’s Lane (now Cromwell Hill). The name Crom probably derives from O.E. crumb for crooked and may explain the winching equipment or its difficult position to get to, which describes it well now as the actual spring head does not appear to be traceable.

In search of surviving relics

Fortunately, two relics survive, the ‘cromwell pump’ on Cromwell hill and the cistern which feeds it above it in a private garden on Beeleigh Road and as such is not easily accessed. The pump, cast-iron shaft with spour was constructed in 1805. It is situated on a rectangular stone platform with brick plinth and stone slab well cover. The whole structure stands within a granite kerbed enclosure with a retaining wall with steeply raking top and curved corner to north. To the south-west is the lower part of a square brick chamber with stepped opening to street which may have been used to provide water for animals. The supply came from the cistern house which originally would have used the water from ‘St Helen’s Well’. This cistern house has structure dating from 1587 and 1805. It is red header-bond brick with Roman cement-rendered dome. with a circular brick structure with narrow entrance door, enclosing water cistern which is full of water and drains into a small pond nearby. Over the door is a stone lintel with panel inscribed ‘REBUILT BY SUBSCRIPTION 1805’ in Roman lettering. The only pictures of the cistern show it overgrown with ivy and slightly derelict, but is pleasing to note that the present owner undertook a fine repair job replacing the original acorn finial and Roman cement and ensuring the water supply does not overflow the chamber by repairing the piping.


T/A 850/14 Grant D/B 3/14/111 1926 Plans of Cromwell Spring watermains, showing, inter alia , Cromwell Spring, and Cromwell Cistern, Well and Pump on Cromwell Hill

Gilbert, A., (1998) The Holy Kingdom: The Quest for the Real King Arthur, 1998. Socrates and Sozomenus Ecclesiastical Histories”. Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

Harbus, A., (2002) Helen of Britain in Medieval Legend, 2002.

Harte, J., (2008) English holy wells a source book

Jones, G., (1986) Holy Wells and the Cult of St. Helen. Journal of the society of Landscape studies.

Maldon-Historic Town Assessment Report…/Maldon/…/Maldon_1999_Historic_Towns_Assessment_Report.pdf copyright Pixyledpublications

A Yorkshire field trip: Conisborough’s two holy wells!

A visit to Conisbrough, noted for its Norman castle should include a visitor to its holy wells. That is holy wells, as the town can claim two sites! Although according to the Conisborough website there appears to be a denial of this.

That which is called the Holywell or rather Holywell spring is found at the edge of Holywell road and the A630 Sheffield Road. It is a spring which appears to arise further up the hill in an area now covered in scrub and inaccessible. However, a very copious spring erupts at the base of the hill and as such has been the subject of various complaints. Despite this it remains and fills a large semi-circular pool surrounded by low walling. The spring was noted for its healthy waters and was used for brewing beer by Nicholsons Bros Brewery and one assumes some of the stone work dates from this. Little else is recorded of the site

Nearer the castle, and although dry it is more substantial is another site variously called the Town well or Well of St Francis.  This is as Innocent (1914) describes it as:

“Covered by a curious little building very medieval-looking with ita  chamfered plinth and steeply slanted roof”

Who the St Francis is, is unclear but Alport ( 1898) records the local tradition which states that he was a local holy man and probably not a true saint and it is interesting that a number of churches are dedicated to a St. Francis in Yorkshire. Interestingly, though the date of creation of the well is recorded and quite late compared to other local saints perhaps. It is said that in 1320 -1321 the village was suffering from a particularly terrible drought and this St. Francis, said to be an old and wise man was sought for his advice. He suggested that the local people cut a willow tree from Willow Vale and then as the people sang psalms and hymns he lead them through the church and priory grounds to the site of the well. At the spot St Francis then struck is and not only did a spring arise and followed for the next 582 years (for its sadly dry now) but the tree took root.

Sadly this tree has either died or was dug up but the well continued under the name of the Town well up until the early 1900s when mains water arrived. It is possible that the legend suggests the holy man may have been, in fact, Clark (1986) believes the story recalls a Pagan priest and that the legend was a legacy of Conisbrough’s pre-Christian past; certainly the reference to a willow indicates a water diviner.

The other area in Conisbrough where St Francis the older man is said to have done a similar ritual and found water is at a place called The Holy Well Spring of St Francis. In 2003 this holy well was restored by historian Bernard Pearson with the aid of Community service and a special service was held at St Peter’s church attended by the High Sheriff of South Yorkshire who than processed to the site, erroneously as it happens in a re-enactment that was associated with the town well. Indeed a plaque at the site makes this error clear.


Allport, C.H., (1898) History of Conisborough

Clark, S., (1986) The Holy well of Conisborough Source Old Series 5.

Innocent, C.F (1914-18) Conisborough and its castle Trans of Hunter Archeaology Society.…/have_your_say_1_613512

on the re-dedication of the well.
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A Norfolk field trip: Holy wells of North Norfolk

In preparation for a volume on Holy and healing wells of Norfolk, a county with a high number of interesting and surviving sites, I was in North Norfolk doing research. Of course this area of Norfolk is dominated by the Walsingham wells, more of perhaps in a latter post, but I would like to focus on three less well known sites.

Many people visit the romantic gate house ruins of Burnham Norton’s Carmelite Friary, built in 1241, very few people would tbe able to tell you about the holy well. Described by the Procceedings of the Norfolk Archaeology as where the:

 the monks walked to the wishing wells nearby to drink the cool water, which is claimed to make wishes come true.

These appear to be the same as that marked as Our Lady’s Well on the 1880s OS. The The spring has nine or ten sections of stone work around it as it arises close to the edge in the bed of the gravel stream. It is probable, especially as some of the stone work appears worked and may have come from the friary or was constructed by the friary although it does not seam as substantial as one would expect. Nearer the road is a rectangular stone lined ‘tank’ which may be associated with the spring and indeed may be it, as the older OS maps it is difficult to identify the exact site.

I failed to find Lady Bone Well, at Coxford. A site said to be near the remains of the Augustinian abbey  and obviously its water source. One would assume a name after Our Lady, although Bone would be difficult to explain. Indeed, its name is said to be after a lady of the Priory who was drowned in the well by the priests of the priory; an odd lesson which I have been unable to date but is doubtlessly Reformation in origin. A visit by NAU in 1978 found the surrounding wall in reasonably good condition, approximately 30cm high and 1.8m in diameter, is broken in three places. Its water reaching ground level and its overflow joining River Wensum some 27m to the south. However, by 1990 it was thought to be in poor condition. and indeed my visit failed to find any evidence of a springhead at the site and it appears to have become very overgrown and lost in a marshy area.

The small village of Sedgeford does have a Lady Well, although only marked in blue italics on the current OS giving some doubt to its age. Little is known of the well, but I was told of processions that have gone to the well and one would expect that its water was used by filling the church font. Little appears to be recorded of this spring but its location not far from the parish church is significant. The spring flows from the bank forming a chalky stream and into a large pool. Significantly perhaps there is a large stone beside it.

More of Norfolk holy wells and springs later….

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Bexley’s Gothic Bath house

One of Kent’s oddest monuments can be found hidden in the garden of an ordinary semi-detached house in Bexley. For here, at the end of its garden, one glimpses this unique garden ornament: a gothic bath house. This may not be considered a subject of this site, especially as it is not spring fed, but fed by a river, it nevertheless has an interesting folklore akin to a holy well.

The bath house was a feature of the Vale Mascal estate, dominated by the rather modest Georgian house, built in 1740 by Thomas Tash, son of Sir John Tash, an alderman and ex-Lord Mayor of London.As he was marrying the cousin of two local wealthy men, Felix Calvert of Mayplace, Crayford and Sir Richard Calvert of Hall Place Bexley, a fine estate was needed to suit. Consequently the house boasted extension grounds of thirty acres, incorporating the river Cray. Today, sadly the grounds have been reduced, only five acres remaining.

This estate was laid out in a formal manner with walks, cascades and small islands. When this was undertaken is uncertain, but it is thought to have been between 1790 and 1775. The first written account of the grounds is by Hasted (1778) which refers to the estate’s beautiful cascade. Later in the 1790s, the Reverend Mr. Henry Hunter writes that this cascade was greatly admired.

The Andrews, Dury and Herbert map of 1769 illustrates an extra-ordinary complex of loops and channels of the River Cray within the Vale Mascal Estate. The map shows formal bath ways around a pond, later the spring of Springplace-which was built much later on the ground. It is possible that as the drawing of the bends cannot be reconciled with later maps, the scheme was taking place during the map’s surveying.

The grounds extended from Wollett Hall, North Cray, to within a quarter of a mile of the Bexley Mill. Along the stretch of water one encounters their weirs, a cascade and a water wheel to pump ater from the river Cray. Towards the north-east end of the estate there was a boat house, long pulled down, but shown on the 1860 OS map. Its landing steps were rediscovered in the 1960s during vegetation clearance. It is, however, the sturdy bath house which is now the estates most fascinating relic.

The building itself is of a Gothic style representing a small chapel, complete with a sham tower, buttressed walls and gothic windows, and indeed bears similarity to a number of countrywide holy wells. It was constructed of thirteen and a half inch brick wall, with an eighteen-inch west wall-thickened to support the extra weight of the tower. The external walls are also flint-faced to a depth of four-and-a-half inches, as the splayed corner buttresses, with flint patterning between the quoins. Inserted into each of the walls are typical period small blocked windows of rubbed brick, with two gothic cinque foiled glazed windows set high to protect the bather’s privacy. Another ‘blind’ window is to be found on the east side, but flint filled. There are neat brick label mouldings above all three windows.

The tower, which is flint-faced, is adorned with narrow brickwork slots and lozenge decoration to suggest that it is a belfry. Above the doorway and set into the lower portion of the west side of this tower are lozenge-shaped panels, in the corners opf which one can trace faint inscribed numerals. There were probably once gilded and doubtless record the date when the Reverend Mr, Egerton restored it in the last century.

One enters the bath from the west. This doorway once had a substantial heavy oak door, which was removed to Frank’s Hall, Farningham by the former owner of Springplace in 1935 (where it is still there is unclear). The floor of the bath house is nine inches below the door sill, and to the right-hand side is the rectangular cold plunge, entered by a series of steps. Unfortunately one cannot ascertain whether the plunge bath was tiled or brick-lined as it is obscured by silt and mud. The cold plunge is fed by the stream through an arch set low down in the south wall, and empties though the sluice, replaced around forty years ago. Above the sluice are two oak horizontal beams, spanning the building some five feet above the floor. There were erected to support two upright pieces from the original sluice gate, which was two feet further from the north wall than the present one. Interestingly, in the left hand corner there is a small fireplace to warm the bather. Its flue leads up into the mock tower.

Theories suggest that the estate may have been landscaped professionally by Capability Brown or a disciple. This has been suggested because of the nature of the river improvements suggests a great skill. Vale Mascal was noted for its creative use of water, utilising sub-streams, cascades and lakes to produce a number of islands. The bath appears to be situated on one of these islands. It is known that Brown was working locally. He landscaped North Cray Place in 1792 and Danson in the 1760s, where he built a small cottage in the shape of a chapel called Chapel House, so it is possible.

The site has attracted considerable folk tales, some more likely than others. Some antiquarians have suggested a Roman origin, fancifully describing it as a Roman Bath! Other local beliefs are that it was used by St. Paulinus to convert pagans and that it was a path used by pilgrims travelling the routes to and from Canterbury. All these pieces of lore hand upon some pre-eighteenth century origin for this site. Unfortunately there is no evidence for this.

A more probable piece of religious lore is that it was used by Charles Wesley during visits to the district. This is better supported by parish records, which refer to a Charles Welsey baptizing by immersion in March 1742.

After the suicide of Robert Burdett in 1806, the state began to fall into decay. As a result the land was broken up and portions sold individually. The estate house was taken up by the magistrate for the county, Sir James Charles Lawson. Its final and present fragmentation occurred in 1935, leaving the bath house with its island belonging to the semi-detached house of 112 North Cray Road, now owned by the Yun family.

Previous owners, the Reverend Mr Egerton and Robert Cooper, had fortunately carried out any restoration work needed for the house. Despite this, by the twentieth century vegetation had taken control, which although gave the site a rustic appeal, was causing damage to the fabric. This was precipitated in 1987, when on 16th October, the Great Storm struck down an ash tree. This broke through the roof and considerable damage result. This at first was thought to the end for the bath house, repairs being too costly! Fortunately, however money became available from Bexley Council’s Heritage Fund, Mr. Yun’s insurance and English Heritage. In the spring of 1990 restoration was carried out. So this enchanting relic still stands, rather incongruously in a private garden, for the delight of anyone who makes an appointment to see it in the summer months.

The above article with some amendments first appeared in Bygone Kent