Monthly Archives: February 2012

A Huntingdon Holy well: The Holy well of Holywell-cum-Needingworth

The county is not well known for its holy wells, however a number of interesting sites can be found; one of these being the eponymous holywell of this settlement. This settlement on the banks of the Stour owes its name to the presence of a clear and never failing spring, called simply the Holy Well (TL 336 707) that arises at the junction of gravel and Ampthill clay. This well was may have been known in Roman times, indicated by the discovery of Roman coins and pottery in the churchyard and rectory grounds. These are now in the Norris museum. First mentioned in a will of 986 when an Athelstan Mannessune bequeathed to Ramsey Abbey ‘de terra… de Haliwella’. By the time of the Domesday 1086,, the settlement Haliewelle is noted with the names Haliwell, 1231, Halliwell, 1350 and even Hallowell, 1601, before settling as Holywell in the 1700s.                                                                                          

It maybe that the Christian history is associated with the 7th Century Bishop of Persia, St Ivo, whose relics were held at the nearby town of St Ives. Pilgrims would rest and drink here after or before taking the ferry across the Stour to and from the St Ives’ Shrine. Whether the dedication of the well was the same is unclear, as the well lies the Parish church of St John the Baptist, it is possibility that it too was dedicated to St John.

Despite its age, Tebbutt (1938–47) states that:

“I cleared outthe basin in 1936, and only found one penny dated 1905.”

The present structure was constructed in 1845 by Rev. S.B. Beckwith, the rector, which covered the mediaeval 13th century stone ring (Kelly (1910) notes 1847). This structure is an attractive yellow brick dome. A metal plaque is set into the arch recording its name. However, direct access to the well is impossible as a black metal frame covers the entrance; however the spring can be sampled, as it gushes forth by some force below the well. Until the 1940s this well was the only source of domestic water and was also still used for baptism.

The spring had a reputation for healing, Terbutt (1938-27) notes:

“About 1933 the late MrsYeatherde saw a woman sitting with her feet in the well to cure a foot complaint. In1935 I was told… that people often came to bathe for such complaints as sore eyes.In the previous year a boy with a sore on his forehead that would not heal, came and bathed it with water from this well, and it at once healed up.”

The site was restored in the 1980s, as three elms, whose roots were undermining the structure and making it thus unsafe, were damaging the fabric. Hence after the death of these trees due to Dutch elm disease, it was decided to restore and repair the well. Volunteers and the Parochial Council set to remove the trees and after measuring the structure and making a template of the arch, together with photographs: the repairs could be done, after diverting its flow of course.

It was found that the foundations and walls were in a very bad state and this required removing the structure down to the original 13th Century stone ring. Care was taken as to save as many of the old bricks, and these were incorporated into the new structure with matching old bricks supplied by a local builder. To eradicate future problems of tree damage, the area around the well was cleared right back and four ft high retaining walls were constructed from old facing bricks backed with engineer bricks and the surrounding well area covered in crazy paving. Further improvements to ensure safety, including new fencing and easier access to the spring outlet were made and the area was improved with the planting of 800 spring bulbs. Today thanks to the restoration the site is a pleasing place for contemplation.

An annual well dressing ceremony was also introduced and this is carried out on the Patronal day of 24th June, that of St John the Baptist since 1982. It involves a mud and dried flow technique, the Derbyshire technique, and the placing of a wreath around the arch. In 1982 the motif was peace with a dove and church and a yellow rose as the designs either side of the arch’s finial. Then, as since, the dressing receives the blessing of the Bishop of Ely or Huntingdon and the display remains for ten days. Today the well entrance is filled by a plaque also dressed and in 2012 the Royal Jubilee is the topic.

A Sutton Coldfield Field Trip

A visit to the enormous Sutton Park will reward any curious well researcher. The magnificent park, once a royal hunting park, and then after Henry VIII gave it to Bishop Vesey, it is now a park, which is now municipally owned and admission is free. It contains half a dozen man-made pools and three named wells The most obvious of the ‘holy’ wells is that marked at the south-west end of Bracebridge Pool called St Mary’s Well. Burgess and Hill (1893) notes that it was:

“… very popular with visitors to the Park, is that of St Mary, commonly called the Druids”.

Ribton-Turner (1893)’s Shakespeare’s land being a description of central and southern Warwickshire.notes that

“Sutton Coldfield and Park have several wells other than that of Rowton, which are deserving of notice ; of these Another well, very popular with the visitors to the Park, is that of St. Mary, commonly called the Druids’. This is at the south-west end of Bracebridge Pool (the Queen pool of the Park). How it tame to be called the Druids’ Well is not known, it is scarcely necessary to say that it can have no Druidical connection ; it is very probable, however, that it was dedicated to Saint Mary long before the dam of Bracebridge Pool was made by Ralph Bracebridge in the reign of Henry V.”

This is association with the Druids may owe something to Hutton’s History of Birmingham (1783), who suggested that there was a Druid site near Sutton Coldfield on a Druid sanctuary near Sutton Coldfield and it was said to be the seat of the Archdruid, Sadly the well has seen better days. I was informed when looking for the site by a man surveying the area that it no longer existed and that he himself had never found it. He informed me that the distinctive well house was taken away due to damage caused by vandals and stored somewhere by the local council. However, dogged searching in the underground where the site was marked on the appropriate OS did reveal something. Ducking under some Rhodendrons, I found what would certainly be the well, its spring found filling a rectangular stone lined pool which was still full of clear water emptying into a channel just beyond. Despite what I was told, the well house shown in Bord (2008) appears to be lying beside looking rather forlorn and the other side a more modern structure takes the water. Hopefully one day it can be fully restored.

Lady’s or Druids’s well. The forlorn remains of the well house which supposedly where removed to a safe place!

Rowton Well  is a medicinal pool about ten feet in diameter, with a neat low circular curb of large stones, now enclosed by a new post and rails fence. Ribston-Turner (1893) notes that:

“Rowton Well lies near the Roman Ikenild Street, and has therefore a claim to very early fame. Rohedon was the name of a family in the neighbourhood, temp. Edward I., and there was also a Rohedon Hill and a Rohedon Green at Erdington. This name, probably the origin of Rowton, may be of early derivation, and there is a tumulus near the well which favours that view, yet a dedication to the Holy Rood in Saxon days may possibly be the original source of the name.”

The  Keeper’s Well is the copious source of supply to the pool of that name.  This pool is nearly surrounded by woods of great natural beauty, and is supposed to have derived its name some four centuries ago from John Holt, who was park keeper or ranger under the Earl of Warwick in the reign of Edward IV., and probably constructed the dam. A final interesting well, not perhaps in the park but was called Robin Hood’s Well in the parish, but I have been unable to discover more information. It may have been another name from one of the other wells.

Charles Darwin and the White Wells Ilkley

Today, 12th February is the birthday in 1809 of Charles Darwin, an unusual point to make reference to perhaps on a site noting mainly holy wells, but he does have a link to the topic. For in 1859 he visited the White Wells in Ilkley. Set high above the picturesque small town, the small white cafe and plunge bath was first built in 1690, but considering the proximity of ancient remains around may have an earlier origin. The spring, the main source of the Town Brook, was further enlarged and improved in 1780 by a William Middleton consisting a plunge bath now surrounded by railings with steps going down. The bath was a rather brave move for any pilgrim, the long and rough walk across moorland, I visited in the summer and it was freezing, the plunge within the ice cold waters. Some visitors would have drunk from a fountain to the rear or taken a shower or douche in another bath room, now converted to the cafe.
 The water Darwin took had no mineral within it and it seems ironic perhaps that its curative properties were derived from either its immense cold or faith, something Darwin perhaps was beginning to lose for his traditional Christian upbringing.

Darwin visited the White Wells in the autumn of 1859, an important date for him for it was the year he published his most famous work, Origin of Species and indeed it is suggested that he travelled to this then rather remote town to escape the unwanted publicity which was published later that year in November. However, he is also said to have been very ill during all of 1859, whilst he was finishing up the final draft of ‘Origin of Species’ and had originally planned to visit in July but delays in finishing the book meant it was not until 2 October, once John Murray Publishers were sent that he went. First he stayed at Ilkley Wells House, a homeopathic establishment run by Dr. Edmund’s until the 17 October they took lodgings in North House, Wells Terrace House, indeed he was still staying here when the book was published. From here, he wrote to his friend William:

“On Monday they all come from Barlaston to the above address & I leave the Establishment. The House is at the foot of a rocky, turfy rather steep half-mountain. It would be nice with fine weather; but now looks dismal. There are nice excursions & fine walks for those that can walk. The Water Cure has done me much good; but I fell down on Sunday morning & sprained my ankle, and have not been able to walk since & this has greatly interfered with the treatment…”

 Clearly little has changed today as the walk is equally a rocky one especially on the way down! The they he referred to were his family and at the time he was. The so-called ‘Water Cure’ was thought to draw blood away from the internal organs and provide relief but as well as his sprained ankle, he also got boils on his legs and found the experience rather depressing it appears. Interestingly, two days before the publication of that book Emma, his wife and children left and he himself moved back to Wells House leaving finally in the 7th December to Kent.

There’s a well in the bottom of the garden: St John’s Well of Wembdon

Wembdon is a small strip village slowly being absorbed by the larger Taunton. Passing through the main street one would be surprised to discover in the garden of a bungalow, called Belle Vue, is an ancient and substantially built holy well. This is St. John’s Well. Unlike a number of Somerset wells which claim a long heritage and details being scant, St. John’s well does have a mediaeval age at least, being first mentioned in Bishop Thomas Bekyngton’s Register of 1464. In commissioning a report on the Wembdon churchyard, it records:

 “a certain spring commonly called “St John’s Spring” is issuing, to which for the last few days, but not previously, there has been a great concourse of people thirsting to drink the water thereof and in fact drinking it and making their offerings there in honour of the Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist, and that now there is a concourse there every day, and many persons who have suffered for many years and are quite distrustful of the cures of the physicians are daily relieved of their sufferings and restored to health when they drink the water of the spring and make their offerings there.”

When Horne (1913) author of indispensible Somerset Holy Wells records that it was found in allotment gardens, and perhaps was in danger of being lost among new development, noting that it was:

“ now nothing to look at…like an ordinary draw well, being a deep hole in the ground, covered at the top with a flat stone with a circular hole in it.”

St John’s Well clearly no hole in the ground as Horne describes

Although he added:

“The water is still taken from this well in some quantity, persons coming for it from a great distance”

However Horne’s account is confusing. If he was visiting in the early 20th century, he may well have visited the wrong well for a plaque on the North gable of the present structure of the well house reads:


This suggests that the present structure was put in place, 63 years before the publication date of Horne’s work. This restored well house is picturesquely sited at the bottom of the garden, below the level of the main part of it. It is made of red sandstone rubble, open to the south end. It is covered by a tiled roof with fish-tail bands with a large cruciform stone finial to North gable. The structure is open one side revealing an excavated quarry-tiled floor level reached by a rubble step. It the centre of this floor is a central circular well, a structure which fits with that described by Horne (1913) rubble lining, false bottom formed by a stone slab pierced with small holes to allow the water to flow thorough it, a 20th century metal cover is set over the well lifted when I visited it. Inside is also a semi-circular rubble bench with a quarry-tiled capping. The structure is well looked after being partly used to house garden equipment. The location of the well was difficult to trace at first as my map was a bit out of date and still showed it in open fields. Enquiring at the local pub I was directed to the appropriate house but when I visited the owners were unfortunately out but someone was working on the house, who informed me that they always showed visitors. This was back in the late 1990s of course the owners may have changed by then