Ancient wells and springs of Hastings
A visit to Hastings will reward those interested in ancient wells as the town preserves a number of perhaps lesser known sites, many of which still flow and produce large quantities of water. This is particularly true of the East Well, whose water can be sampled by a tap which produces its waters readily below a sign which reads ‘waste not want not!’ The water is enclosed in large conical conduit house sitting at the base of the East cliff railway at Rock a Nore. The East Well is situated next to the East Hill Lift and was built in the 1840’s with part of the money raised from a local fundraising campaign by Dr McCabe, more of him later.
Nearby but presently inaccessible is the spring found in the crypt of St Marys in the Castle, which confusingly is not in the castle grounds but below in the old town. This is a sizable white edifice. This is unusual in an Anglican church as it is a tank for baptism by immersion. It dates from 1928 and is fed by one of the five springs found emerging from the cliff-face when the church was built.
Hastings like neighbouring Brighton had pretensions to be a spa town and in Alexandra Park is the remnant of this attempt, which appears to have taken its name from the park and became a ‘holy well’ by virtue of its adoption, as it was called St Andrew’s Spa on the 1878 OS map. A building called Spa Grange may be evidence of a spa building utilising the spring. This spring is still extant and can be easily found and the flow is quite incredible pumping out iron rich orange water. The sign of which reads:
“chalybeate spring, originally in open farmland, Robert Marnock incorporated this feature into Alexandra Park in 1880. The underground spring supplies a steady flow of foul iron-rich water once drunk for its alleged health-giving properties.”
In 1881, Parsons (1881) in ‘Highlands of Hastings & St. Leonards as a Health Resort’, describes the spring as follows:
“It appears that the water is impregnated with iron, to an unusual extent, containing a larger amount than the waters of Tunbridge Wells, Scarborough, Whitby, Buxton or Bath. It also has the advantage of not causing constipation.”
A nearby well is called Dr. McCabe’s Well and percolates clearer water but very intermittently. The plaque reads:
“Peter McCabe, an Irish physician based in Wellington Square, was mayor of Hastings in 1838 and 1843. A committed campaigner for clean water- he constructed both this spring and the East Hill public well at the foot of the cliffs at Rock-a-nore.”
Despite an association with a local doctor does not appear to have been a medicinal spring, although it was was the most well known at the enclosure of the park perhaps because it was the most useful.
It seems likely that either of these spring was once the eponymous St Helen’s Well, which is arguably Hastings only holy well. This may be supported by a medieval settlement being located in the valley of the park perhaps. However, another site is claimed to be St. Helen’s and this is situated in the small area of park land behind the ruined church of the same name. Asking for the location of the site I was given a ‘it does exist…I think I know the site….but not telling you approach’ to helping. Despite this I did find what I would assume was the site, a mossy pool beside the lane.
The final site is perhaps the least well known but more rewarding and impressive. This is the Roman Bath, laying enclosed romantically in the wooded hillside below the Leisure centre on Bohemia road in what remains of the Summerfield estate. Despite what a leaflet distributed in Hastings in the early 20th century which offered 3d guided tours of what it claims was built in AD51 by King Caractus, it was certainly built by a Wastel Brisco who commishioned the building after obtaining the estate in 1831.
The building is made of sandstone and some cement with a retaining wall of about 12 feet in height. At either side were steps, although those of the left are better preserved. These led to a viewing platform over the bath. The bath itself is a rectangular 15 feet by 8 feet sandstone pool with four or three worn cement steps gaining access to its debris strewn but clear waters. The spring which feeds the pool arises in a grotto and once through a lion’s head, now stolen into the pool. A Romanesque archway with colonettes covers this springhead which once had a lion’s head keystone and this is the most impressive of the remaining features. Early depictions show a circular structure with an arched entrance which may have been a changing room if the bath was of course used, or alternatively covered another spring as there is possible evidence of this where this was located. There does not appear to be any evidence of stone work from this structure, which indicates a degree of more organised vandalism of the site perhaps. The run off channel which carried the water to the stream below is exposed although early photos show it stone lined.
Hasting’s Roman Bath is without doubt the most impressive of the town’s water supplies and deserves to be known better. It is pleasing to see that there is local interest in preserving it and hopefully the vandalism which has gone on will now cease.
Posted on May 21, 2012, in Gazatteer, Spa, Sussex, Well hunting and tagged East Sussex, Holy well blog, Holy wells healing springs Spas folklore local history antiquarian. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.