Monthly Archives: March 2014

The veneration of water in 12 objects…number three the Mikveh

The Mikveh excavated. Andy ChoppingMuseum of London Archaeology copyright

The Mikveh excavated.
Andy ChoppingMuseum of London Archaeology copyright

One of the fundamental important aspects of humanity is the understanding of both the importance of water and its purity. In the Hebrew faith, the significance of water in having a ritual cleansing function has been distilled into the mikveh, Mikvah, Mikve or Mikva which literally translated means ‘collection of water’.  Unlike many of the sites recorded on this blog, mikveh still have a central and pivotal role in all forms of the faith.

The Mikveh thus has a wide range of purifying functions. Firstly, to enter the Temple, the person needed to be purified, but the convert would also need such purification. Secondly, the body of a woman would become ‘purified’ by immersion after child birth and menstruation, Niddah, so that marital relations could be resumed. However, deeper research of the Torah suggest an even greater amount of uses:

•        after Keri — normal emissions of semen, whether from sexual activity, or from nocturnal emission;

•        after Zav/Zavah — abnormal discharges of bodily fluids;

•        after Tzaraath — certain skin condition(s).

•        by anyone who came into contact with someone suffering from Zav/Zavah,

•        by Jewish priests when they are being consecrated

•        by the Jewish high priest on Yom Kippur, after sending away the goat to Azazel, and by the man who leads away the goat

•        by the Jewish priest who performed the Red Heifer ritual

•        after contact with a corpse or grave, in addition to having the ashes of the Red Heifer ritual sprinkled upon them

•        after eating meat not dispatched kosher

Consequently, with such a wide range of demands, Mikveh would be placed in domestic and public locations. Importantly, the water used for a Mikveh, natural spring water was preferred if clean and not affected by mineralisation, like chalybeate springs. Alternatively, water derived from rain, snow or ice is considered pure enough.

However, I am focusing on the discovery of one particular Mikveh which dates from the mid-13th century. A medieval Jewish community existed in England from 1066, when William the Conqueror invited the community to establish themselves in a ghetto until its expulsion in 1290 by Edward I. A report in the Guardian from October 25th 2001 reported that what is thought to be the oldest physical evidence of Jews in Europe and the only found in London was discovered. This was during a routine excavation of the gold bullion vault of the State Bank of India in development of office works. It was in the area called the Old Jewry in London, on the corner of Gresham Street and Milk Street. So far no concrete evidence of Jewish life had ever been found in the area, supposedly because no difference could be seen in domestic buildings between Jews and gentiles. Howver, Dayan Ehrentreu, head of the Court of the Chief Rabbi, indentified it as a genuine mikveh.


It has been elucidated was that it was built for a local Medieval Jewish family called the Crespin family, however where it was a private site or part of a synagogue is not clear. The site made of well cut greensand stones consists of a semi circular basin around four feet across and four feet deep with a flight of stone steps leading down into it. The next oldest Mikveh site was found in the 1950s in Cologne, Germany and dates from 1170.  Of course there may be many more Mikveh waiting to be discovered, another Mikveh may have been unearthed in the 1980s. It was described as “‘A rather strange tank-like structure was found about 100 yards from where this mikvah was found. It was identified at the time as possibly a strongroom, photographed, and cleared away,” It is said that years later, an archaeologist working in Israel looked at the photographs identified it as a Mikveh

The survival of this mikveh illustrates that water is important to all communities of the country and that water is important in ritual to all faiths.   The Bevis Marks Synagogue paid to have the site removed and were to rebuild it in their grounds, but in the end it was set up in London’s prestigious Jewish Museum where it can be examined….a rare medieval relic.

Is it Roman? Is it Egyptian? Is it Greek? The confused Hart’s Well

Travelling down a quiet English country lanes one can often come across a surprise; however just outside of Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire one can encounter a little piece of Egypt…and Roman as well apparently.

From Wikipedia

Hope (1893) again provides the origin of its name:

“There is a local tradition that when Julius Caesar invaded Britain, he found a hart drinking at a well or spring; hence the name.”

An unlikely origin, but one which pops up so often in the subject it is as if Caesar toured the country for expressly this reason, naming this and naming that well! More likely is that the well was a place where deer drank. The official stance is that it derives from O.E heorot, and wella meaning ‘spring frequented by harts or stags’. Local historian, Lipscomb suggested that it derived from a herd. However, another theory is that it is a totem well, one which is named after the tribal group who dominated the area and utilised the spring. Unfortunately, we may never know.

Despite this noted Roman association it is to the Egyptians that the owners of nearby Hartwell House turned to. The perhaps rather insignificant spring was in 1840 romanticised as a folly, albeit a functional one. The man responsible was a Joseph Bonomi the Younger an English sculptor, artist, Egyptologist, museum curator and a man who lived to 102. He created an alcove seat around the spring, akin to a small Egyptian style temple. Across the top is an inscription in Greek!! It reads:


Which translates as:

 “Water is Best.”

The reason for this being that the instigator of the construction was the eccentric Dr Lee, a noted teetotalism campaigner who states:

“Stay traveller! Round the horse’s neck the bridle fling

And taste the water of the Hartwell Spring

Then say which offers thee the better cheer –

The Hartwell water or the Aylesbury Beer!”

Rattue (2003) examining the water said that he preferred the beer to its sluggish water, but its water was thought to be curative. Hope (1893) recalls it was “supposed to cure weak eyes and several other complaints”

More Egyptian is what I was told was a genuine obelisk set as the lintel with two cartouches. However, this does not look likely especially as Smyth (1851) gives the following:

hartwell hierograph

According to Rattue (2003) interestingly by the 1890s the Greek inscription was thought by local people to relate to a saint. Even more confusing…just showing how a simple spring can be both Egyptian-Roman and a Holy Well in one misconceived moment perhaps!

More details in James Rattue’s excellent guide to Holy Wells of Buckinghamshire

Ancient wells of Chester’s Grovesnor Park

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Many take in the pleasant vista of Chester’s fine Victorian’s park its flower beds and play areas, but few are probably aware of two noted ancient springs found within. The most famed is found just on the edge of the park, indeed it is located just outside the park. This is Billy Hobby’s Well, a local wishing well. A local anonymous rhyme records:

“I lov’d the tales that idle maids do tell,                                                

Of wonders wrought at Billy Hobby’s Well,                                                    

Where love-sick girls with leg immured would stand,                                       

The right leg ’twas – the other on dry land,                                                      

With face so simple -stocking in the hand-Wishing for husbands half a winter’s day.                                                                                                

With ninety times the zeal they used to pray”

This old rhyme despite some pedigree suggested I have been able to date only to 1823. It appears to record a ritual undertaken at the well, a similar ‘one part of the body in, one out’ was done at Walsingham by lovelorn maidens, but it does look to be Victorian in origin there (or at least post Reformation). The only problem with the practice being undertaken then is that the present structure dates from that period.

However the name is much older. A Billy Obbies Field is marked in 1745, with a spring marked at 1791. This would appear to suggest that the spring gained its name from the field and not vice versa, possibly a local personage. Yet, the name is significant and it may hide a much earlier origin. The name Hobby derives from Hobb a name for a devil or demon and where the name Hobglobin derives from. It may be possible that the area was a marshy waste and to warn people away a legend of a demon was introduced. More interesting is the idea that as the name Hobb is synonymous with Puck, and Puck possibly having a Roman origin, that the site could be a much earlier Pagan site. This might explain the fertility ritual if it has a greater age. It may be significant that when the park was developed, a long line of Roman earthenware water pipes were found, did they draw water from the spring?

Whatever the origin, when the garden was developed in the 1860s by the 2nd Earl of Westminster, Richard Grosvenor, a rather grand and impressive red and buff sandstone ashlar well house was erected. This was designed by John Douglas a local Chester architect, who was not forthcoming in making this well grand with canted corners, pointed arches flanked by agranite columns with wrought iron bars. At each corner is a small carved circle containing carved sheafs and portcullises and the voussoirs contain carved roses. A tiled spired roof sits upon the structure with an apex surmounted by a copper fish weathervane. All in all rather ostentatious for a well, especially as access to the well chamber has not been made very easy by the enclosure perhaps.  Whether the improvements were done to develop some sort of spa well is unclear, but it is known that the when Canniff Haight (1904) visited for his United empire loyalist in Great Britain the spring was still flowing and noted, for he records:

Billy Hobby’s Well,” a spring of excellent water, where we have a drink.”

If Billy Hobby’s Well is relatively easy to explain away, the Park’s other well is less so. This is Jacob’s Well, now dry and of dubious origin this is associated with the ruins of a priory, which I feel are also rather suspicious.  The well is a fountain for people and a bowl for dogs I assume, over which the inscription reads:

 “Whosoever drinketh of this water shall never thirst again John IV 13.”

The well is a little stone arch close by St Mary’s Priory ruins, both features make for a picturesque feature and despite the association with a religious edifice; there appear to be no old origins. No water is present in the well either not does there appear likely to have been a very active spring looking at the geology. It is mentioned by Hole (1937) in her book on Traditions and customs of Cheshire but beyond that I can find no further details.