Monthly Archives: February 2016
One of the most evocative and photographed holy wells, nestling beneath a large rocky cliff, it is a classic pre-mediaeval hermitage. Even in the 21st century has the feeling of remoteness being done a long lane. It is certainly worth noting that I would have change available as there is a charge of £2.50 to park! (I failed to have enough change and parked on the widest part of the lane…okay but I was warned of combine harvesters)
The well here is part of a larger group of monuments – a church, priory ruins and a remarkably large conical roofed dovecot. The priory is said to have dated from the 6th century founded by the saint who was its first abbot. He was the son of King Owain of Rhos and it is said that although this was a humble cell it was developed into a monastery to befit his pedigree. This continued until Viking raids destroyed it and it was re-founded as an Augustinian priory the ruins of which date from this period. Even so there are some remarkable pieces of artefact in the church – two splendid 9th or 10th century Celtic crosses and Romanesque carvings including a fine dragon tympanium on the outside door and a Sheela-na-gig carving.
The well consists of a square stone lined chamber over which a crude brick built well house has been constructed over. Inside are stone seats which may predate the present structure. It is possible that the current structure was built when the well was to be developed as a minor spa but no evidence is forthcoming. It is also worth noting that in the 19th century it was called Ffynnon Fair and was marked on local maps as a wishing well. Furthermore the well’s water does not appear to have attracted any specific qualities being said to be a healing well. However, Angharad Llwyd in their 1833 A history of the island of Mona refers to it as St Seriol’s Well. It is more probable that the earlier name was that of the saint, the later probably being applied by the Augustinian community. Just outside of the well, built into the rock face, are the low remains of a supposed round hut. This has been suggested to be the remains of the saint’s hut. Others have suggested it was a changing room for the well? Certainly its position beneath the rock is significant. Ian Thompson in his Early Hermit sites and well chapels relates how the rock face:
“was an appropriate badge of the hermit life and may have even served as a signpost to Christian travelers seeking food and shelter.”
Why? God is described as a rock in a number of occasions. For example, Psalm 18 2, 31 states:
“The Lord is my rock and my fortress…who is a rock save our God?”
Francis Jones in his Holy Wells of Wales notes that the water was of some repute but states not how, but that it was visited in the dead of night. In the end of the 19th century the Rev Elias Owen tells of a man who asked for the well’s water on his deathbed and upon drinking was restored to life, living for another 40 years. I have taken note of this…best keep a bottle just in case I say.
Now despite its appearance in many books and articles, there is still a peacefulness of the site and one could easily sit on a sunny day in the shadow of this rock beside the well and forget the worries of the day!
Now, take St Kenelm’s life which I’ve been reading;
He was Kenulph’s son, the nobel king
Of Mercia. Now St Kenelm dreamt a thing
Shortly before they murdered him one day.
He saw his murder in a dream, I say . . .
Chaucer The Nun’s Priest’s Tale
Ever since my visit to St. Kenelm’s Well at Winchombe some twenty years ago I have wanted to see his other well. For some unknown reason it has taken me until recently to complete the pilgrimage to the site of his martyrdom. However, unlike his other well at Winchombe the search is less clear cut here!
His legend spawned a town Kenulstowe, which boasted a pub named the Red Cow named after the cow who stood over his temporary grave in his legend – more of which latter. It was a major source of pilgrimage causing major settlements like Halosowen Abbey.
The first site we can identify is the 14th century church. Dedicated to the saint it lays in Clent Hills and despite its more recent date is supposedly built upon an older foundation. Sadly it was locked on the day I visited.
Here in this remote corner of Worcestershire, still remote and isolated despite the beckoning conurbations of Dudley and Wolverhampton on the horizons, the story of the saint begins. It is said that in around 819, Kenelm became the King of Mercian at the death of his father Kenulph. A powerful title but a dangerous one for a boy of seven with many jealous and plotting eyes looking on.
To protect the new King he was placed under the care of his sister Quendryh and foster-father Askebert. However, like many familiar stories of children with inheritances given over to step parents, black days were ahead. At first they tried poisoning but this failed. Then they agreed on a plot which would work. Take the boy hunting and then kill in such a way which would suggest an accident. However, the night before the fateful event, Kenelm had a prophetic dream. In the dream he climbed a tree decorated with lanterns and flowers and from here he was able to see all his kingdom in four parts. All but three bowed down before him but the last refused and instead tried to cut down the tree and in doing so he fell. Upon falling he was transformed into a white bird and flew away. He work and wondered the meaning of the dream and was told by an old Winchombe wise-women who wept with sorrow. Resigned to his fate, he rode with Askbert as arranged and as he knelt to pray was decapitated by the traitor. His body was then hidden beneath a thorn tree or else placed a twig in the ground which sprouted into an ash tree. But Askbert would not escape justice because as the boy died a dove rose from his body and it carried a scroll to Rome dropping it at the Pope’s feet. Reading it, it states:
“Low in a mead of kine under a thorn, of head bereaft, lieth poor Kenelm king-born”.
Realising what the message meant, the Pope sent men to England to recover the body. These missionaries met upon an old cattle herding woman and they noticed that one of her herd would always be separate from the flock and stand by a sole thorn tree, never drinking nor eating. This they saw as a sign and so they begun to dig. Soon they discovered the boy’s body and by doing so a spring arose:
“as the holy and gracious sod was lifted up, right from his dusty grave a holy spring burst forth, which to this day flows into the stream and gives healing to the many who drink from it”.
Shorter Life of St Kenelm tells how:
“where the martyr fell stained by his rich red blood, there a holy well flowed out, a source even now of both water and health to the faithful.”
A confused legend?
Obviously the legend has suffered from considerable embroilment over the mediaeval years. What is known is that a Kenulph did reign and he did have a son called Kenelm who was born in 786. This Kenelm is mentioned in a number of documents, charters, deeds and letters, until 811. Then he died. It fits the legend except the age – Kenelm was a 25 year old not 7! He did have a sister, Quendryh but she was a nun at Kenulph death! Smith and Taylor (1995) suggest the significance of number 7 as a mystical number, his name deriving from the words rune and tree, and the sacrificial importance of kingly death suggest a story resonant in pagan origins.
Evidence of the well
It was evident that his cult spread quickly as churches in France were already remembering him by the 10th century. However, the first historical mention of the well is in the endowments of Halesowen Abbey’s foundation in 1215 when a chapel was erected by the well. By the 14th century this was enlarged presumably as the church we can see today. An estate on the Clent Hills around this spring formed part of the foundation endowments of Halesowen Abbey in 1215. There was a chapel by the well, which was rebuilt on a larger scale in the fourteenth century. It stood at the head of a valley with the ground sloping downwards to the east, so the east end of the building was reconstructed in two storeys with a crypt or under croft below the chancel to enclose the spring. There was an arch (now blocked) in the south wall of the chancel, opening on a stairway which led down to the well. This would appear to be based on the original chapel mentioned in the 1473 Patent Roll where a grant was made for repair and installation of a chaplain.
Treadway Nash (1781–2) in his Collections for the History of Worcestershire notes:
“at the east end of St Kenelm’s chapel-yard is a fine and plentiful spring, and till of late years there was a well (now indeed filled up) handsomely coped with stone and much resorted to, both before and since the Reformation, by the superstitious vulgar, for the cure of sore eyes and other maladies”.
Yet by the end of the century it was described as
“now dry, and nearly hid with weeds and brush.”
However, in 1848 the local Lyttleton family restored the building but:
“the water, which up time had flowed from the east end of the church, was in some way diverted, and the well is now some yards from the building.”
This appears to have been the beginning of the confusion by 1890, Amphlett was stating:
“there is no spring under the present St Kenelm’s church; there is one, however, but a very small one, under a hedge some fifty yards away. But a little further off, perhaps some five hundred yards, in the garden of the Spring Farm, is a magnificent spring of water; and this is, perhaps, the original spring round which the tradition has formed”.
It was as if the well beneath the church did not exist and the original well lie elsewhere. Soon Richardson (1927) in his Survey of Worcestershire water supply stated that it was:
“a small dip-well under a stone that carries the footpath from the Church down the valley.”
This was probably the same noted by The Bords (1985) in their Sacred Waters they appear to have reinforced this location and Bord (2008) produces a photo of the said well in her Holy Wells of Britain. Nevertheless, in his The Crown and the Well for On the Edge Journal Mike Smith and David Taylor (1995) identifies as a pool among the earthworks of the deserted village north of the church. They add that:
“a small stone-covered hollow with its brightly rag-covered tree nestles to the east of the church and probably dates from Victorian times. The monstrous brick wall well-head situated close by was built in 1985 by Lord Cobham of nearby Hagley Hall”.
The site today
Behind the church can be easily found the valley where the spring arises and flows. Although where is the actual well? If it is said to arise beneath the church it is certainly not here – but does that mean geographically below? The most obvious finding is a large stone or concrete well head with a semi-circular dip well. Is this the well? Some say yes, but it does not appear to be that shown in the Bords and was only built in 1985 as above states, was it the confusion over where exactly it is that prompted its construction? However, it is the proliferation of cloutties around a nearby tree give us a clue. Here prayers, gloves, teddy bears, bunting, even socks litter the trees and bushes nearby. Just below appears to be a small arch of stone, natural or man-made? It is difficult to tell, but this would appear to be match that shown by Bord as the genuine well – sadly dry. However, does this really matter as it appears that the true well has moved around as the spring line has changed? Yet among the thickets and gnarled old trees, the sound of birds and mud under foot, one can cast oneself back to the scene of this strange story – which whatever the truth has captivated through the centuries, whatever its origins..
Where did his body go next? https://insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.wordpress.com/2012/03/19/st-kenelms-well-at-winchcombe/
“A nymph of stone, who from an urn doth pour into the pitches of both rich and poor, her limpid treasures from the Western Vale, whose unexhausted bounties seldom fail; and never grudging, ever generous she, with the first element for making tea. Thanks generous Rawdon for thy kind bequest, remotest ages shall the donor bless.”
A poem thought penned by Edmund Parlett, the poet-vicar of Broxbourne (1630-43)
Sitting outside of Hoddesdon’s Lowewood museum is a well-worn and beaten effigy. It stares forlornly into the street now bereft of function, but once it was a unique and curious conduit which provided the town with a supply of clean water. The scheme to provide fresh spring water to the town appears to be a lesser known and smaller scale attempt to emulate Sir Hugh’s great venture of Amwell and Chadwell. The source became later known as Spring Close or Conduit Close.
A sacred source?
The source for the town’s water for over 100 years was a spring at Goddes Well Acre, which one presumes derives from God’s Well (TL 084 075), although, local tradition dedicated the spring to the Greek Goddess Acre suggesting that this may have been a more Romanticised site than an ancient one. The Goddes Well was piped in 1622 to Rawdon House, the property of Sir Marmaduke Rawdon. An alternative source was said to be the Linch, which is first noted as such in 1569 as ‘pond called anciently called Le Linch.’ This still exists, but as it is the other side of the New River and so separated physically.
The conduit extended half a mile to the house via a lead pipe. Then in 1631, he decided that the excess water could be made available to the local people and set about debate, but it is believed that Edward Marshall, master sculptor of St. Pauls was responsible, being as he was master-mason of Rawdon House. The land relatingto the conduit house and conduit leading to Rawdon House was also conveyed to Hoddesdon Council, laying a further pipe from the house to the Market Place. Here was set up, the fine three quarters length statue of a woman carrying a pitcher. She is called The Good Samaritan, named after the Woman of Samaria who met Jesus at Jacob’s Well (Gospel of St. John IV verses 4-42).
The gift was a welcome one as so far the town had to depend upon shallow wells which were easily fouled. For 196 years the statue sat in the Market Place, attracting considerable notice by various authors.
Similarly, Matthew Priors (1715) in his Journey to Downhall states:
“Into an Inn did this equipage roll, at a Town they call Hodson the sign of the Bull, near a nymph with an urn, divides the Highway, and into a puddle throws Mother of tea.”
There is also a note of the structure in Henley’s Harnesse’s Addition:
“Conduits representing human figure were not uncommon: one of them, a female form and weather bitten, still exist at Hoddesdon in Herts.”
Loss of a nymph
Despite the gift the supply was later under dispute. In 1725, the son of Marmaduke Rawdon, allowed so much water to supply private dwellings and businesses (in particularly breweries) that its public supply was becoming too low. As a result the problem was solved by arbitration, and the award, found in favour of the inhabitants.
This notwithstanding in 1826, the flow of water was diminishing, and the position of the pond was found to be inconvenient, so it was filled in and the figure being replaced by an iron pump with a lamp on it. (It is further thought that due to the combined effects of weathering, misuse and drilling of holes for further pipes, the figure not only looked very disfigured but slightly obscene.) The figure was first removed to Turks butchers yard, here sadly it experienced considerable abuse: local boys used it as a target for stone throwing, an action which may have lead to her nose being broken off!
In 1893 a Mr. C. P. Christie campaigned for the restoration and re-erection of the monument at the north end of the Market Place, and a small pamphlet was produced to garner support. However, the scheme failed to materialise when it was suggested that it was too vandalised to make it suitable as a public sculpture. The figure then ended up at the Rye Farm, the works of the Urban District Council. Yet, here it saw even more abuse being covered by dirt and decapitated! It lay here for 40 years, until 1935, when it was restored by a Mr. Giddiness in view of being placed in front of the Council Offices. Sadly, again the scheme was shelved due to the war’s intervention, and consequently it was relegated to a pedestal at the rear of these offices.
Return of the Good Samaritan
Fortunately, by 1970 the scheme saw fruition and the statue was erected in the Lowewood Museum gardens, where it now pours water into a pond if it flows!. Her source may be different and the function pointless but at least the last of the female conduits survives even if the water would not make a decent cuppa!