Monthly Archives: January 2016
This year the monthly theme is wells of North Wales. This is a region rich in holy and healing springs – so much that it would take many years to discover or rather re-discover them all – as has done my fellow holy well researcher over at Wellhopper.com – please visit and follow his blog its excellent!
This month, I am covering a fairly well known site named after a well-known Welsh saint, indeed he is the patron saint of North Wales. It’s also an opportunity to highlight a remarkable site which readers will be interested in knowing can be holidayed at!
The well lies on the outskirts of the village of Tremeirchion and is dedicated to the famed Welsh saint – St Beuno – a name we have already heard mention in the legend of St Winifred at Holy Well and we shall meet again. Overlooking this much reported and unique well are St. Beuno’s Huts.
Who was St Beuno?
St. Beuno was a 7th century abbot, being based in Clynnog Fawr, and confessor who was born in Powys from a royal dynasty said to have descended from Vortigern one of the last Kings of Britain. He was a missionary across North Wales, having 11 churches named after him – one being in Somerset. A number of miracles, particularly concerning raising the dead, such as St. Winifred are attributed to him. It is said to have died in 640 on the seventh day of Easter.
Unlike other sites in this region there is no direct evidence of the saint having resided or even visiting at the spring. Moreover the village is on a pilgrim route to Holy Well and like similar pilgrim routes, such as the pilgrim’s way to Canterbury, springs dedicated to the saint who was the main pilgrim focus, in that case St. Thomas. Yet Winifred should be the dedication in that case however I theorize that Holywell celebrated both saints and indeed, albeit overgrown, there is a St. Beuno’s Well in that town. I am also of the belief that well changed fluxed over time, adopting new names as the saints popularity waxed and waned and the names changed like franchises. It is probable also that a local hermit adopted the name of the saint, much as Popes do today, a point I shall return to later.
The well, a substantial one, lies tantalising just off a small road in a private garden. Fortunately, although the internet is rife with rumours of new owners being restrictive and unapproachable, I found the owner, Mr. Chris Marsh completely the opposite – in fact I don’t think he could be any more welcoming if he tried! It is worth noting that the sign which was once associated with the sign in which a correspondent to Megalithic portal saw as a sign…was removed because it was broken and has yet to be fixed! The owners were more than happy, but I would advise ringing or emailing first. The contact details can be gained from below’s link to their holiday lets.
The well consists of a brick lined tank covering 18 feet by 10 feet with a sandy bottom, although this appears to cover a constructed one. The depth was around two feet. Its clear water bubbles up arising it appears from under the present St. Beuno Cottage. Interestingly, there appear to be steps on one side which led to nowhere and it is possible that the house footings have changed over the time and that perhaps the house itself was originally a room for changing to bath in the well. Was this an early spa, using the name of a saint to justify its existence as seen elsewhere? It is a theory I shall visit in a moment.
The well chamber is surrounded by a rough wall which has a doorway and a pump. Both of which probably date from an 1800 period of restoration. However the two most remarkable features are those involved with drainage. The most photographed is a supposed stone head embedded within the wall which apparently would flow into a chamber reached by stone steps. Much has also been written of this monument in support of the head cult and holy well theory. Some have seen it as a pagan god, others as St. Winifred. Yet I think we can largely discredit these theories straight away as it is clearly not just a head but a torso and head, the arms held in benediction. I believe any link with a head cult is further dismissed by closer inspection. The origin of the piece is clearly a gargoyle possibly moved here in that 19th century restoration to give the rather mundane structure some rustic antiquarian charm. It may have come from a nearby church restoration or from the ruins of a nearby monastery. It is no more evidence for a head cult than any other gargoyle, grotesque or boss seen in churches across Christendom! Furthermore it has failed to work for many years – and the owner was told that any photo that shows water running through it has been faked by throwing buckets of water through it from the other side! I was resisted the temptation.
The other feature is more strange and as far as I aware unique. The other side of the wall from the head is a large plug hole – the plug of which is attracted to a chain – which can be pulled out to empty the well! I was informed that although the bath took possibly 24 hours to fill – it could be emptied in just under an hour – a fact demonstrated to me.
What was it?
Theory one – a medieval bath
How old is the well structure? Much of it appears to be only a few hundred years old by the nature of the stone work and the concretion makes it difficult to judge. This recent date would explain the lack of any recorded history – the well was too insignificant to be recorded. It is also worth noting that the original house dates from a post-Reformation 1560 so was unlikely to be capitalising of its holy credentials. In 1897 it was suggested that the site was medieval but was this antiquarian fancy. I would hazard to suggest the presence of Jesuit College founded in the 1840 may have had a role in either naming or cementing the saint especially as no pre 1800 date for the site can be found. It is worth noting that both antiquarians Dr. Johnson and Thomas Pennant visited the Parish church but did not mention the well.
Below emptying the well
Theory two – a spa bath
There is more evidence for the development of the site, probably in the 18th century as either a private plunge pool or even a spa. These are quite common, and there is a nearby stately home, but it does not appear to been linked to the well site. There is certainly circumstantial evidence for its development as a spa and this would explain its later appearance, wells as far afield as in London, Nottinghamshire and Sussex appear to have adopted saintly dedications to justify their importance. Selling healing waters would be more successful if a pre-Reformation association could be advertised. Especially as it is evident that its waters had no apparent qualities! It is interesting to record that H Morton Stanley, noted African adventurer who lived in the 1820s stated it had:
“no virtues beyond purity and sweetness.”
The day I visited I was informed that a local nun regularly visits the well to pray and collect water for the poor, although the owner questioned the quality of the water. However, the lack of reportage from Pennant and Johnson suggests it was not used as a spa.
Theory three – a reservoir for drinking water
It appears more likely that the structure was made as a source of permanent water for the local farm. This cannot of course be disputed as most holy wells are used for this purpose at some time, however this does not negate against an ancient origin only an old origin for the current structure. Perhaps this explains the gargoyle outflow provided to give villagers access to the water for whatever reason.
Evidence for an ancient origin.
As the well chamber emptied I was shown the cave up above the well in the hill side. A large entrance which opened up into a series of larger chambers. Within this have been found some fascinating finds – remains of cave bears, hyenas and a lion. However more significantly the cave was 35,000 years ago the last refuge in Northern Europe of the Neanderthal Man.
This cave is a remarkable site and illustrates more than anything else the continuation of use which frustrating lies undocumented at many holy well sites. It would have been the combination of a suitable shelter and fresh water which brought these early people to settle here and whilst they may not have seen any religious significance to the water – we can only postulate they did.
What is even more intriguing is the likelihood that this was also a hermit’s cave. There is no archaeological evidence of this, yet it is difficult to deny that it is more than probable.
So what can we conclude? Is it a holy well? To many people today it is seen as a typical holy well – indeed like many typical ones I could add it has little historical evidence. But does that really matter? I feel that whatever its’ true origins it is likely to be an ancient site.
Indeed it seemed more than fitting that Chris Marsh had decided to establish these unique St. Beuno’s Huts, a far more all mod cons and modern take on the religious hermit – although you could take your partner and children too! So if you are a real holy well enthusiast who is looking for somewhere unique to stay I couldn’t recommend the uniqueness and hospitality of St. Beuno’s Huts, a chance to commune with this unique landscape.
It is a great pleasure to start 2016 with a return of the guest blog post and this year I am honoured by a piece by holy well author, Ian Thompson, who having published four works on the subject, is a great authority. Based in Lincolnshire, where he runs Bluestone Books (http://www.bluestonebooks.co.uk/index.php), he has published a number of local history works, hagiography and guides to Eastern Orthodoxy. However it is his works , the first co-written with his wife- Water of Life: Springs and Wells of Mainland Britain and Lesser Known Holy Wells and curious water sources and Springs and Wells of Lincolnshire, the important Hermits and Well Churches and Saints, Chapels and wells which makes him more than qualified,…and so in this article he discusses the history and mystery of North Lincolnshire’s Templar Bath.
There is no doubt in my own mind that the Templar’s Bath is a folly and an imposture, though the imposture was almost certainly the result of miscalculation. Edward Peacock, on whose property the Bath was situated, was a man well known and respected in academic circles and a noted collector of archaeological material. He probably misrepresented the Bath to a colleague or visitor for reasons of vanity or local patriotism, never dreaming that the matter would get into the public domain. He must have been horrified when it did so, for it threatened his very standing within the scholarly community. All that he could do was to retreat into silence and try to cover his tracks, and this he did with remarkable success. For more than a hundred years people scratched their heads and speculated about the Bath but no-one seems to have guessed the truth – no-one, that is, except for a very few persons ‘in the know’. However I must stop talking in riddles.
Edward Peacock FSA of Bottesford Manor (near Scunthorpe) was a distinguished Victorian antiquary. He rebuilt the Manor House, giving it a romantic ‘Tudor’ skyline, added a coach house and library complete with baronial turret, and improved the village in certain small ways. It is almost certainly to Peacock that we owe the Cornish-style well house which now covers St John’s Well, the ancient church spring. Also, and since Peacock is the culprit of my story, it is necessary to say some things in his defence. Though largely self-taught he was a leading member of various learned societies and a pioneer in the study of Lincolnshire dialect. A young man once presented himself at the British Museum Library without a reader’s ticket, and was given the freedom of the manuscript room without one when it was discovered that his parents were known to Peacock.1 Among other qualities Peacock had a rare talent for bringing a subject to life. His Glossary of local dialect words abounds in delightful illustrative anecdotes and the second (2-volume) edition of this work (1888-89) contains two chapters of the Old Testament rendered in the North Lincolnshire dialect of Peacock’s day. It is to Peacock that we owe the Diary of Abraham de la Pryme (Surtees Society 1869) which he rescued from obscurity and helped to edit. In short, he had a well-deserved and solid reputation.
To return to the Templar’s Bath. What we now see is a stone-arched spring in a grassy hollow on a new housing estate, the hollow itself being the result of recent landscaping. In winter the water forms a circular pool several feet wide, sometimes entirely submerging the arch, but in a hot summer the site can be virtually dry.
However most of the Templar’s Bath now lies beneath the soil. A much-faded photograph in the possession of the North Lincolnshire Museum, dating from about 1925, shows the Bath to be a roughly circular stone structure about five feet deep, consisting of several stone steps curving downwards to a narrow arched doorway. Beyond this doorway lay a domed chamber perhaps three feet in diameter. (Better to visualise the Bath, imagine a stone structure nearly twice as big as an old-fashioned bathroom cistern, with the front cut away to allow access to the interior. Or think of a medieval lock-up). No water is visible in the photograph but we may assume that the lower steps and the chamber itself frequently enclosed a pool several feet deep. Only the top of the arch protruded above ground level.
The subterranean nature of the Bath and its lack of any protective enclosure must always have rendered it liable to silting. Moreover the field in which it was situated was, until fairly recently, permanent pasture. Cattle grazed it and drank from the water, and the Bath rapidly filled with mud. In 1925 (presumably just before the photograph was taken) the then owner of the field, Mr John A. Jackson, dug out the infill and executed some repairs to the structure. Thereafter it was again neglected and quickly reverted to its former state. Then, in the 1980s, the field was sold for housing, and although the Bath and its surrounds were exempted from development and eventually grassed over, no attempt was made to clean it out again. In retrospect this was probably wise since it saved the Bath from the likelihood of damage by vandals. The road by which it is now approached is called Crispin Way.
The Templar’s Bath puzzled historians and archaeologists for much of the last century. Harold Dudley, in his History and Antiquities of the Scunthorpe and Frodingham District (1931) had this to say about it:
“In the Manor Field at Bottesford is an ancient spring, arched over with stone, known variously as the ‘Roman Bath’ and the ‘Templar’s Bath’, the latter name being given on the Ordnance Survey map. I remember seeing, twenty or more years ago, two or three stone steps leading into the water, but it is now filled up with mud. This curious little structure is described in Lyell’s List of Roman-British Architectural Remains as a hypocaust, or furnace for heating a villa, something after the style of modern central heating, and it is further referred to as such in the Archaeological Review. There is, however, no suggestion of a hypocaust in the little arch, and it has more probably been a dipping well [ie. an immersion well] connected with the Preceptory of the Knights Templars which formerly existed at Bottesford. Certain Roman remains have, nevertheless, been found around the village.”
In fact the photograph above shows at least five and possibly six or seven steps leading down to the interior of the Bath, so that what Dudley remembered seeing was merely the upper part of the structure. More significantly we now know that the Templars never had a preceptory at Bottesford. The land which they owned in the village was merely rented out to provide revenue for their preceptory at Willoughton, ten miles to the south.
The first public doubts about the antiquity of the Bath were voiced in 1983 when a local newspaper carried an article about it,2 incorporating the reminiscences of Mr Reg Coggan of Scotter (now deceased). He was the grandson by marriage of a local bricklayer, Alfred Lawson, and according to Coggan, Lawson claimed to have built the Bath from scratch, in or about the year 1880, to Peacock’s specifications. We know, from an entry in Peacock’s account book, that Lawson was employed to undertake work on the Bath, but the wording of the entry implies that Lawson merely renovated and capped the structure. So which version are we to believe?
Now all the evidence suggests that Lawson was telling the truth and that the Bath is a Victorian folly; that it was built by Peacock for his own use (see below) but that the matter leaked into the public domain and got seriously out of hand. There are many reasons to question the antiquity of the Templar’s Bath but consider just the following:
- The Bath was a mud-trap – ie. a totally impractical structure, and must have required constant maintenance to prevent it from silting up. No ancient well would have been constructed on this principle. (Semi-subterranean springs are invariably protected against infilling, usually by the provision of strong retaining walls.)
- For sheer impracticality the Templar’s Bath is probably unique. But the design itself, though certainly untypical, is not without precedent. At Little Cawthorpe near Louth there is a strikingly similar structure (though without steps), enclosing a spring within the garden of the former Vicarage. Here, however, the well house is built into the side of a bank and its chamber acts as a protective back wall. In front of the well house the ground falls away and so there is no danger of silting. This particular well house was built by the Vicar of the parish, the Revd Edmund Huff, c.1858, and it transpires that Huff and Peacock were not entirely unacquainted. We cannot say whether they were ever close friends, but they were leading members of a society dedicated to the reunion of the Church of England with the Church of Rome, and they both played a prominent part in a meeting held for that purpose in London in 1872.3 There are also entries in Peacock’s Journal recording visits to Louth at about this time. The coincidences are, to say the least, suggestive.
- There is also one piece of negative evidence and it seems to me very telling. Nowhere in Peacock’s private papers (apart from the isolated entry in his account book) and nowhere in his published writings did he ever refer to the Templar’s Bath. This is all the more surprising when we consider his consuming interest in local topographical features. Several local springs are mentioned in the first edition of his Glossary – in fact they are the subject of special entries4 – and he also published a paper on the dedication of wells to St Helena; yet with regard to this most curious structure, almost literally on his doorstep and the very stuff, one would suppose, of antiquarian interest, Peacock is strangely and persistently silent. Why?
Now of course there is no reason why a distinguished antiquary should not build a private folly if that is how the fancy takes him. What he must not do is mislead the public or connive at an imposture. And I say this because in 1887 – ie. soon after the Bath was either restored or created – it, and also St John’s Well, were shown for the first time on an Ordnance Survey map, both springs being accorded gothic lettering to denote sites of historical importance. There is something curious even here because neither the OS archives nor the archives of the National Register of Ancient Monuments contain any supporting documentation to say why these sites were so designated; and that, I am told, is highly unusual.
Who saw the Templar’s Bath and communicated with the OS? And if we accept that it is indeed a sham, why did not Peacock intervene to put the record straight? He must surely have been consulted. Was he too embarrassed to admit that he had perpetrated a folly and passed it off as a genuine antiquity, and did he subsequently visit the OS archives and remove the documentation? This or a similar scenario seems to me the most likely one, for again if we accept that the Bath is spurious it is hard to believe that Peacock would have risked his very considerable reputation by communicating with the OS on his own account. Indeed, his consistent silence on the matter of the Bath tells strongly in favour of some outside intervention.
Thus far the case against the antiquity of the Bath. No doubt it falls short of absolute proof but it is, I believe, a convincing case, and one that is now widely accepted. However what follows is pure speculation and I offer it simply as an intriguing possibility, though it would help to explain one or two odd little puzzles.
An argument which was often advanced in the years following the newspaper article went something like this: that the Templar’s Bath may indeed be a fake, but at least it encloses a spring, and the spring itself is an authentic part of the history of the village. And perhaps this is so. Yet there was one other curious feature about the Templar’s Bath, or at least about the Templar’s field (ie. Manor Field) before it was consigned to housing development. Over a period of more than twenty years I paid regular visits to the Bath and I was never able to find it without a good deal of searching. Sometimes I was almost ready to swear that it must have been moved! And this was odd because springs are usually quite easy to locate. All one has to do is to find the valley created by the spring-fed stream and trace it backwards to its source. Even semi-subterranean springs, like St Withburga’s Well at East Dereham in Norfolk, leave traces of their underground course in the form of a shallow depression on the surface of the land. In the case of the Templar’s Bath however, not only was there no surface stream, there was no valley either. The land around the Bath was featureless and flat. I have often found myself wondering: is the Templar’s Bath really a spring, or could it be a culvert?
In former times Bottesford was rich in springs and the valleys created by several of them can still be traced. In three cases we can even identify the former back wall of a spring. However at different times during the nineteenth / early twentieth century these springs were all culverted into Bottesford Beck; mostly by routes which would not take them anywhere near the Templar’s Bath. The exceptions were the springs in the vicinity of the Manor House itself, of which again there seem to have been several. These gave rise to a stream which flowed through the Manor House grounds and then turned away eastwards. If this stream was culverted along the line of its bed (as one would expect) the culvert would pass some way north of the Templar’s Bath. But there could have been (then or later) a distributary culvert to divert some of its water into the Templar’s field. The Templar’s spring is not a very active affair and might perhaps be the result of a distributary culvert. Or there could have been a separate culvert from just one of the Manor House springs.
I say this because somewhere in Bottesford there used to be a spring called the Craikle Well – a rag-well,5 once highly esteemed for its curative properties. It was reputed to have restored the sight of a woman who had gone stone blind and to have brought health to a chronically sick child. In the eighteenth century ‘folks used to come in their carriages to it.’6 Yet at some time between about 1860 and 1890 the Craikle Spring disappeared. Shortly after the latter date a palsied man visited Bottesford to obtain a supply of the water, ‘only to find, to his intense disappointment, that it was drained away through an underground channel which rendered it unattainable’.6 These are the words of Peacock’s daughter Mabel, the well-known Lincolnshire folklorist, and a further reference to the Craikle Spring is to be found in a dialect word-list compiled by Peacock’s son Max, viz: ‘Craikle. Spring and Well: now filled in and drained into Bottesford Beck’.7 In the light of this last statement it might be thought fanciful to suggest that the Craikle Spring could have something to do with the Templar’s Bath – except that if the Bath was a folly, then by the time these words came to be written everything connected with it would have become part of a closely-guarded family secret. And here is another odd thing. For as with the Templar’s Bath, Peacock never referred to the Craikle Spring in his writings although the name itself must have intrigued him and would have furnished obvious material for his dialect Glossary. Was he personally responsible for its culverting? He was, at that time, the largest landowner in the village, and although not much interested in farming and also, we may suppose, unlikely to have culverted a rag-well for anything other than compelling reasons, he did undertake some culverting in the vicinity of the Manor House in order to build his ambitious new library wing (completed c.1866 and involving the realignment of a part of Manor Road). Yet further. According to Lawson, Peacock did not simply create the Templar’s Bath; he was in the habit of immersing himself in it on a daily basis. This statement could be significant in the light of some evidence that Peacock was – or believed himself to be – prone to a recurring infirmity, for we know from his Journal that he often considered himself to be unwell and kept to his bed. If the Craikle Spring was one of the Manor House culvertings, did it occur to him that its water might prove beneficial in his own case – thus supplying the germ of the idea for the Templar’s Bath? There are several ‘ifs’ here and one is obliged to speculate with a good deal of caution. We do not even know that the Templar’s Bath is in fact fed by a culvert. But if it could be shown that it is, then the case for supposing the Bath to be the outfall of the Craikle Spring would at least merit serious attention. Sadly the Bottesford Enclosure maps are of no help to us in determining the whereabouts of the Craikle spring or in showing whether the Templar’s Bath (or Spring) was then in existence since the land within the village itself had been enclosed long before by private agreement.
- See P.B.G. Binnall, Edward Peacock of Bottesford Manor (typescript, available in some local libraries). The young man in question was George Walshaw.
- The Scunthorpe Star, 29 July 1983
- See Bishops at Large by Peter Anson, Faber 1964 pp.64-65 and Peter Binnall’s typescript lecture (mentioned above) which contains a reference to the London meeting and Peacock’s part in it. A notebook kept by Huff, containing information about his own well house, lay for many years in the parish chest but has recently gone missing. A photocopy survives in private hands.
- On the face of it, the decision to exclude these entries from the second edition of the Glossary is puzzling since they were of obvious local and topographical interest. Was Peacock by that time anxious to divert attention from topographical matters because of the Templar’s Bath? The first edition of the Glossary appeared in 1877 – ie. about three years before Lawson was employed on the Bath. The second edition appeared in 1888-89, just after the publication of the OS map. Again the dates are suggestive.
- A rag-well is a curative spring at which small pieces of cloth used to be left, usually on a nearby bush. They were originally torn from the clothing of those seeking benefit from the spring.
- E. Gutch and M. Peacock, Examples of Printed Folklore Concerning Lincolnshire, FLS 1908, pp.8-9. Mabel called it the Craikell Well.
- Eileen Elder (ed), The Peacock Lincolnshire Word Books, Scunthorpe Museum Societ
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In 2015 I finally got around to publishing my Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Kent which includes over 200 sites (an overview blog post will appear soon). This is an expanded extract from the book covering a little known but fascinating lost site!
small settlement, pronounced ‘Hallywell’ or ‘Hollywell’ by locals, is named after a Holy Well possibly called ‘Sir John Schorne’s’ Well (TQ 851 669). Rattue (2001) in his Holy Wells of Kent erroneously states that the pond is the well but that is not what I was told. Apparently the site was rediscovered in 1949 by a Mr. Stevens of Holywell Farm, when his plough hit a large flat stone. This stone lay one foot below the surface of the ploughed field, and measured roughly five feet by five feet, with an average thickness of nine inches. This stone was raised, and it was found to cover a roughly circular opening filled in with flint nodules.
Probing the hole, he found that the well was five feet six inches deep with a water level about four feet six inches down. No trace of masonry or brickwork was observed, although the infill was not removed. The well is believed locally to be Druid in origin, possibly receiving attention during Roman occupation, (as there an important pottery factory here) and considering the name of the settlement, Halstow, important in Jutish times, as Halstow means Holy Place, in Jutish.
An association with Sir Schorne?
In mediaeval times, the well was probably frequented by pilgrims travelling along Watling Street. Yet, the well was possibly associated with the popular ‘saint’, Sir John Schorne. He was born in Shorne, but became famous as the Rector of the small Buckinghamshire village of North Marston ( 1290-1314 ). His fame was centred around a number of miracles, most famous of which, was his conjuring of the devil into a boot. He is also commonly associated with healing wells, and his shrine and well at North Marston, became a major 14th Century pilgrimage.
It would appear that the well’s field was dedicated in 1574 to the ‘saint’. Called ‘Master John Shorne’s Field’. There is also record of the giving of one penny to Master John Shorne of Halstowe, in a Sixteenth Century will of ‘Rest Redfyns’ of Queensborough. This was apparently done to fulfil overdue pilgrimage duties. The name is preserved at Shockfield, a derivation from Shornfield or Shernfield. Thus it would suggest that the holy well would have had a shrine chapel beside it to serve the pilgrims. There is of course another Sir John’s Well in Buckinghamshire.
A Neolithic monument?
It appears then that the well may have been filled in during Reformation times, and the stone dragged over the site to prevent the locals reopening it. It is possible that the stone may have been originally around the well, possibly comprising of a prehistoric stone circle or ancient marker, as at Tottington. This appears to be the remains of a sandstone rock covering the Downs / Wealden chalk much of which was worn away, and accordingly, these stones were still held in some mystical regard in ancient times. Indeed, a Neolithic road passes through the Parish from Gillingham to Newington, and to the east, leaves it a mile to the North. Thus, it would appear that the settlement was of considerable past influence and importance. I spoke to the owner of Holywell Farm, who regretted the loss of the site, as he would have appreciated it now. He said that the stone was removed from the site to the other side of the public footpath to Lower Halstow making locating the exact location of the well now difficult. The stone is now lost in undergrowth beside the path. Roughly, the site of the well is indicated by the start of this scrubby copse opposite the ploughed field, and within this field. Hopefully, considering its long history, one can hope that the well will be explored and restored for future generation.
More details in