The Holy wells of Otford Kent
In the 1990s I researched for work on holy wells and healing springs of Kent, publishing a number of articles in Bygone Kent on the subject. Little did I know that fellow researcher, James Rattue was simultaneously working on the same county. This year I may publish this unpublished work mainly because unlike James’s excellent work it is a full field guide and covers sites which he did not uncover…below is an extract of one of the county’s most famous springs together with another site James did not know still existed, Colet’s Well.
The picturesque village of Otford has a number of noted water sources, the most obvious being of course the circular duck pond sitting delightfully in the roundabout in the village centre; renowned to be the only listed duckpond in the country! However, tucked away behind the main street, on private land of Castle Farm and largely forgotten now is perhaps the best known holy wells amongst Kent antiquarians is that of Becket’s or St. Thomas’s Well (TQ 5315 592). This is no doubt due to the colourful legend associated with it. This tells that whilst living here in the old manor, the ruins of which called the Bishop’s Palace still stand, St. Thomas bemoaned the lack of good water. As a remedy he struck his staff into the ground and clear water gushed forth. This is a familiar folklore motif, and we shall see it again referred to at other Kent sites. Perhaps it recalls the saint ordering well digging to provide fresh water and marked the position with his staff! The legends earliest reference is made by Lambard (1571):
“..stake his staffe into the drie ground ( in a place thereof now called Sainte Thomas Well ) and immediately the same water appeared, which running plentifully, serveth the offices of the new house to the present day.”
The site has been well recorded in recent centuries, for example an account of 1876, describes the site as: ‘endorsed within a wall, forming a chamber 15 ft across and 10 ft deep’ Both the chamber’s appearance and shape suggests that is would be ideal for immersions, of which Harper and Kershaw (1923) notes that bath and steps are defied annually by the hop pickers. It is interesting to note that Thorne (1876) with no apparent reference, gives another connection with the saint, suggesting that: ‘to have used by the saint as a bath.’ No subsequent or previous work draws notice to this, so it is likely to be antiquarian fancy. Another more plausible possibility is that it was used by the leper hospital found on this site around 1228. They would have clearly made use of the pure water for medicinal purposes and perhaps indeed used it as a bath. The exact nature of its curative powers are unknown, but although belief in them was waning by 1800s, rumours of its use continued to the last world war. The Gentlemen’s Magazine June 1820, gives the only recorded account of a cure and states that:
“an old man, who, crippled by rheumatism, was completely renovated by this bath to health and action of circumstance witnessed by the late Lord Stanhope and several of the neighbouring gentry.”
Kirkham (1948) notes it was suffering from neglect being ‘now said to be choked up and half full of tins.’ This decline would appear to have started a long time ago, as a folly tower, now demolished, was built on Otford Mount a nearby earthwork, from the well’s stone work. Consequently, this degraded condition prompted excavation in the 1950s by the Otford and District Historical Society; the following details of their findings are now briefly described. The report noted that the well consisted of two chambers, with water emerging from two arched outlets into the first of these. This chamber is surrounded on three sides by walls, thirty-five feet by thirteen feet (east end), the walls are eight feet high, and at the same level of the ground. Six steps at the south east end give access to the well chamber. The sluice wall is five feet high, eight feet wide, and is substantially buttressed on the western front. Water runs through this sluice wall, between steep banks westward, through a lower chamber, twenty-seven feet (north sides), and thirty-five feet (west side). The water then flowed through watercress, and finally through an underground, probably Tudor conduit. This conduit then passes through the site of the Palace. This stream, once fed a moat, but now discharges into the Bubblestone Brook, a Darenth tributary.
Locally common thought was that the well is the remains of a Roman bath house, a belief echoed by its present owner. A view endorsed by both Ward (1932) and Harper and Kershaw (1923) who note that it ‘is really a Roman Bath.’ This view is further supported by the two surrounding Roman villas, and hence one aim of the excavation was to evaluate this long held claim. Yet, although they showed that the well had gone through considerable renovation and rebuilding over the centuries, no remains could be positively be dated to this period. This renovation, of course, resulted in a rarity of deposits, and hence with a lack of artefacts, the subsequent interpretation was thus difficult.
The excavation was further handicapped by the waterlogged conditions. Both may have influenced the results. Consequently, there are still doubts, and the concept of a Roman origin has not been satisfactorily disproved. The earliest written record is from Otford Ministers accounts of 1440-1, indicating that by then a stone structure existed here, but how old that was again is not clear. It states:
“To a carpenter for two days to make 2 gutters to bring water from the pool of the garden to the moat and for working on and laying another gutter beyond the water course and coming from the fountain of St. Thomas to old garden, 12d; and to a carpenter for one day covering a gutter with timber and cresting it, 6d. And for two masons for 2 days for placing and laying and making a new stone wall of the fountain of St. Thomas, broken for the pipe of the water conduit, 3s, taking between them daily 12d. To five labourers 10 days digging the soil between the said fountain and moat to lay in the leaden pipe of said conduit16s 8d taking each daily 4d.”
The present floor may be ascribed to that period; although it would seem to cover an earlier lower flint floor (again possibly Roman). Between 1520-1520, Archbishop Warkham, pulled down the then existing Manor house, and built the Palace, covering four acres. This consequently required a better water supply, and hence the well was improved: the original lower chamber is said to originate from this period. The full purpose of the lower chamber is not clear, but it is believed that it may have housed cisterns giving a greater flow of water. When Henry VIII acquired the Palace from Archbishop Crammer in 1537, he spent money on improvements to the estate, and probably the well. The sluice gate, strengthened by Warham, was now supported by buttresses. These may have supported a conduit house. This was recorded in 1573:
“The condiyte house or well conteyning in length XXXVI foote and in breadth XIX fote to be taken downe and newe sett upp will coste XXX pounds. The pypes conveyinge the water from hence to the offyces and small sesterns to be amended will coste Xiii.”
By the 1600s, the Palace was in disrepair, and the well was only used for private consumption by Castle farm. Despite this, restoration still continued, and the north, east and south wall saw upper improvements by the 1700s. In the lower chamber a stone west wall was erected on Warham’s brick foundations. By this time, the south wall was beginning to collapse, and was rebuilt in the 1800s.
By 1954 repairs were again needed, as the north wall was collapsing. Goodsall (1968) reported that even after its excavation in the late 1950s, the site then enclosed in railings, was forlorn and overgrown with weeds. Forty years on, the present condition is similar to that illustrated in the contemporary photo, taken during the excavation: the intervening decades have seen the inevitable degradation, through time, of its infrastructure. Fortunately, the hideous railings have been removed, obviously to erect the trout farm infrastructure, whose water is supplied by the well. The walls appear now comparably greatly overgrown, which has probably preserved them, and the sluice wall / north, south and west walls appear the most ruinous, with the walling falling away towards the sluice wall. The walling was best preserved at the east end. The clear spring appears to flow rapidly from its source, and has the appearance of being deeper. As stated, it now has now a commercial function, providing good quality water for the raising of trout flowing through a series of fish ponds replacing the cress beds. The owner, Mrs. Burrows believed that the well was originally roofed. The results of the excavation did not indicate this although it may be a mix-up with the possibility of a conduit house over the well. She also stated the water stayed the same temperature through the winter and summer, a constant 500C, certainly beneficial to bathers.
There is another named well in Otford, called Colet’s Well (TQ 530 589) named according to Mrs. Burrows after the famous Christian philosopher. Clarke and Stoyol (1975) state that ‘Colet’s Well’ House is built upon a monastery site, but they make no reference to the well, although it appears to lie within monastery gardens, suggesting a holy origin! Is this further supported by the tradition of a subterranean tunnel linking the House with Otford Mount? Such legends are often connected with holy wells and are used by some authorities as evidence of ley lines or processional paths. The present owner of the property could not inform me of its origins, but noted that much of the fabric of the walls surrounding the house gardens had pieces of the abbey. The well itself is a circular deep well, with a square brick top, which supplied water via pump. I was informed that water is said to flow at times through the cellar of the house. Interesting the part of the house overlooking the well is said to be haunted!
Directions: To find Becket’s Well go along the A225 to the centre of Otford, park in the car park (in front of the row of terraced shops) near the Bishop’s Palace. Take a small private road to Castle farm, now as said, a fish farm. Enquire here, if you are able to visit the well, which lies on private land within a complex of fish pools to the east of the farm house. Colet’s Well lies in the garden of Colet Well House, and hence access is difficult, serious enquiries can be made via letter.
Clarke, D., and Stoyol, A., ( 1975 ) Otford in Kent, A History
Goodsall, R. H., ( 1967) Second Kentish Patchwork
Harper, C. G., and Kershaw, J. C., (1923) The Downs and the sea ( Palmer 1923 )
Lambard, W., ( 1570, Republished 1970 ) Perambulation of Kent,
Kirkham, N., ( 1948 ) The Pilgrim’s Way
Paleman, F. R. J., ( 1956 )St. Thomas a Becket’s Well, Otford, Archaeologia Cantiana Vol LXX pp. 172-178
Thorne, J., ( 1876 ) Handbook of the Environs of London,