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.
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:
“ΑΡΙΣΤοΝ ΜΕΝ ΥΔΩΡ”
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:
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