GUEST BLOG POST James Rattue’s Uncovering the Wells of Ashburnham

It is my great pleasure to present an article from one of the most important contributors to the holy well research field. Author of the excellent The Living Stream – the first academic book on the subject, the indispensable guides to holy wells of Buckinghamshire, Kent and Surrey, as well as countless articles for Source and Living Spring, as well as his own webpage..he’s been in retirement holy well research wise and sticking to the day job of being a rector, so its a great privilege that he’s contributing this ground breaking piece of research about a holy well which is not recorded elsewhere to this blog..

In 1960 the Revd John Bickersteth, unlikely owner of the ancient seat of the Earls of Ashburnham in East Sussex after the death of his second cousin, created the Ashburnham Christian Trust. The estate, which Revd Bickersteth had only visited once before he inherited it in 1953, consisted of 8,500 acres of farmland and woods, a crumbling 82-room mansion filled with antiques, and a tax bill of £427,000. Most of the land and the treasures were quickly sold, but the house remained, inconvenient, expensive, and it seemed unlettable. However Revd Bickersteth was approached with the idea that Ashburnham Place might house a Christian training and conference centre. Most of the house was demolished, the grounds tidied up, the Trust established, and this is the role it fulfils today – along with a tea room open to ordinary members of the public, who can, provided they let Reception know, walk the grounds – and see the wells.

The approach to Ashburnham brings the visitor along a swooping drive through Burrage Wood and across the gorgeous stone bridge of the 1820s spanning Capability Brown’s lake formed off the River Ashbourne, to park around the back of the house near the old parish church. As far as wells are concerned, the chief attraction lies just south of the Broad Water. The Ladyspring Grotto is approached by one of two routes up a short gully leading uphill from the edge of the lake: either a high path along the eastern edge, or a lower path along the bottom of the gully. The upper path curves in around the top of the gully past a collection of massive boulders and stone steps. In both cases the Grotto is more or less hidden from view almost until the visitor reaches it. It consists of a well-chamber about five feet square by seven feet high, set into the bank, with a flagged stone floor and plastered walls, and a semi-circular arched roof; the walls are of very substantial stone blocks and the arch is constructed from thin clay tiles. The water pours from an outlet in the back wall into a stone trough raised above the floor.

Ashburnham

Nothing is known for certain about the Ladyspring’s history. Information available at Ashburnham ascribes it to Capability Brown’s landscaping of the gardens in the 1760s and ‘70s, but if so it would be an item unique in his entire oeuvre. The only other folly in the grounds is a tiny Temple (really just a glorified seat) looking from the southwest bank of the lake across at the house. My guess is that, even though it may date from that sort of time, the real responsibility will have lain not with Brown but with the incumbent Earl who may have had a taste for that kind of thing. The Grotto seems to be an attempt to recreate a Graeco-Roman nymphaeum or shrine, with shades of the great spring at Bath (and rather like the site at Santa Fiora near Rome uncovered in 2009 – http://aqueducthunter.com/fiora/), and suggests a landowner who had some interest in and experience of such sites. John, the second Earl Ashburnham, who commissioned the landscaping work from Capability Brown, was, Horace Walpole described, ‘a decent, reserved and servile courtier’, and seems a less likely candidate than his son, the academically-inclined third Earl, George, who was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and trustee of the British Museum. He was in charge of Ashburnham between 1812 and 1830 – a bit late for the sort of Romantic folly-making the Grotto represents, but George is still its most probable builder.

The origin of the name is mysterious too. The Ashburnham Place guidebook and various information boards around the grounds ascribe it to a painting on the plaster at the rear of the well-chamber, depicting, as variously stated, one or three ‘ladies’. The image is supposed to be visible when water is thrown on the plaster – though, even allowing imagination the greatest latitude, I couldn’t make out anything more than random stains of mould – or under infra-red photography. An estate map of 1638 (thekeep.info/places/eastsussex/parishesandsettlements/Ashburnham) shows a ‘Lady’ field name to the north of the house, so the title had some pre-existing local usage, and a ‘Lady Spring’ might have existed before the creation of the Grotto, even if the name did not refer to the Virgin Mary (the church is dedicated to St Peter).

The Ladyspring is the most impressive of Ashburnham’s wells, but there are others. A couple of hundred yards to the southwest is Ironspring, a somewhat overgrown, artificially-dammed pond emptying into the lake and fed by waters which seep in from the slope above. The name suggests mineral content, but nothing is very obvious from the appearance of the water and there are no tell-tale red stains on the mud or undergrowth. Again, the history of this site is unclear: it isn’t named on old or current Ordnance Survey maps.

Ashburnham2

The Palladian Fountain is harder to locate (I stumbled upon it by accident). It lies south of the carriage drive and seems to be more modern than the Ladyspring, dating to a later phase of the development of the gardens. The outlet is a metal pipe set into a recessed semi-circular arch about four feet high, dripping water into a trough edged with shaped, dark bricks. On the left-hand, eastward side of the fountain, a stone wall curves away, supplied with what appears to be a low bench although the ground is now a bit boggy for sitting and contemplating, as well as the surroundings being somewhat overgrown. The Fountain doesn’t in fact tap a spring, but the overflow from one of the rivulets feeding the lake. The pink stone Shell Fountain, lying in the grounds to the north (and now dry) dates to the 1850s when water was channelled from springs to feed the gardens around the Orangery, next to the house.

Ashburnham1

The Ladyspring alone would justify a far greater fame for Ashburnham in hydrolatric terms. The combination of well-house and slightly tweaked and augmented topography creating a Romantic neo-pagan experience but one which aims at authenticity is unique in the UK and it would be fascinating to know more than just the speculations I’ve given here.

About pixyledpublications

Currently researching calendar customs and folklore of Nottinghamshire

Posted on December 19, 2014, in Folly, Pagan gods, Sussex, Well hunting and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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