Ancient wells of Chester’s Grovesnor Park
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.