A Northamptonshire field trip – the holy and ancient wells of Boughton
Boughton is a curious place, a place of desolation and decline…it’s ancient parish church lies ruined, now a distance from its settlement, its famed fair forgotten, its great Hall gone and its estate overgrown and little visited. It is a settlement which is associated with a number of noted ancient wells –two of which can be visited and one as yet mysteriously untraceable.
The easier to find is that at the ruined church of St John’s. Called St John’s Well it lies in its shadow creating a picturesque scene of forlornness. Despite a supposed medieval origin, the church is first recorded in the 13th century, its first mention is by Baker (1822–30) in his History of Northamptonshire:
“St John the Baptist, whose name is appended both to the church and the spring in the church yard.”
In William Whellan’s 1849 History of Northamptonshire states:
“St John’s spring which rises from the east bank of the church yard formerly furnished the element for the holy rite of baptism, but now supplies the water for culinary purposes at the fair’”
This fair was what the settlement was famed for. Being a three-day chartered event being established in 1351. It was focused around the feast of St John the Baptist suggesting it was based on the patronal festival of the now ruined church. Nothing is left of the fair, its last vestige, the Shepherd’s Race turf maze cut on a triangular piece of church overlooked by the church, survived to the first world war when practice trenches were cut across it, obliterating in once and for all, although some accounts suggest it survived until 1946.
Beeby Thompson (1913–14) in his Peculiarities of Water and wells describes it as:
“enclosed on all sides but one by stone local sandstone apparently like the main portion of the church the opening to the east being approximately one yard square. The covering slab had on it a cross fleury.”
This covering slab I have never been able to find, perhaps the earth has built up too much since, yet it was pleasing to see that on a recent visit the site had even improved since my first in the 1980s, when the nettles and bramble were virtually enclosed upon it and the church. This was certainly the experience of Mark Valentine who in his 1985 Holy Wells of Northamptonshire noted:
“When I last visited this site, the Spring trickled into a ditch which was chocked up with abandoned refuse. With a little imagination, this spot could be the scene of a wayside park, with appropriate displays to recall its past glories. As it is, it remains tumbledown and forlorn.”
Perhaps they heeded his word? Now the grass it kept short and the water flows quite freely the outflow protected by a curb of stones. While it is not exactly a country park, there are information boards and it is more cared for. Yet despite the tidy up there’s still a rather otherworldy feel when one peers inside the chamber and the place does have an unquiet feeling – perhaps because of the ghost of Captain Slash! (but that is another story)
Even more otherworldly is the Grotto Well or Petrifying Spring, a spring which arises within a simple Grade II listed Grotto in the estate of Boughton Hall. Although grotto is perhaps a rather too enticing name for what is basically a limestone rubble hemisphere beneath an earth mound and consisting of unadorned stone walls. The whole structure interestingly seems devoid of cement or mortar. It was constructed by William Wentworth, the second Earl of Stratford around 1770. The spring itself being the supply for his artificial lake which lay at the bottom of the valley.
However he could have improved upon an earlier structure for a local A local legend tells that when Charles I was imprisoned at nearby Holdenby House in 1647 he visited the spring. He is said to have bathed in it and used the grotto as a changing room. This suggests that there was a structure predating the 1770s one ascribed to it. Indeed this association may have started when the King was sent a skull said to have been petrified in the waters of the well. The Northamptonshire Mercury of 25th August 1810 records:
“At Boughton is a spring, conceived to turn wood into stone. The truth is that it doth encrust anything with stone. I’ve seen a skull bought thence to Sydney Sussex College in Cambridge, candied over with stone…The skull was sent for by King Charles the First to satisfy his curiosity and again returned to the college.”
Although it was indeed loaned to Charles I and according to a letter written by the college to the author Simon Scott to The Follies of Boughton Park it still survives. It is housed in a wooden box dated 1627. However before head cult theorists get too excited the origins of the skull are dubious. The skull of what appears to be a child’s, are Cretian not Northamptonshire! Was it a hoax to support a project to advertise the well or a simple mistake. Is it the correct skull? Is the association with Charles correct or is it a confusion with the bathing legend. All in all it is a confused story.
Charles Kimbell in 1946 in the Boughton Parish magazine wrote that:
“The spring cascaded into a gloomy pond whose waters were black through layers of decomposing leafage…about 50 years ago my father made a water pit under the archway and piped the stream out of the little wood and down the valley. And so the petrifying spring was incorporated into the village xx system without apparently any ill effects on consumers.”
Our third and final peculiar water source, to quote Beeby’s phrase, was the Marvel-Sick. The account by topographer John Morton (1712) Natural history of Northamptonshire recording:
“THIS spring is in Boughton Field, near Brampton Bridge, near the Kingsthorpe Road; it is of great note with the common people. It never runs but in mighty gluts of wet, and whenever it does so, it is thought ominous by the country people, who consider these breakings out of the spring to foretell dearth, the death of some great person, or very troublesome times.”
This is a common folk motif based on geology, a woe water, the name sick referring to an old English word for stream still current in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire place names. Where was this stream? It is impossible to say with any certainty however Brampton Bridge to the west can still be found and the road which crosses it does go to Kingsthorpe. No spring is marked on the map but there area does have a number of streams. Is this one? Of course in a way this a spring we don’t want to find, warn as it does of war…another word of warning should you go looking for Boughton’s surviving springs don’t go in high summer…as your journey to find the grotto well will involve a considerable fight against the undergrowth.
Posted on May 19, 2016, in Favourite site, Folklore, Folly, Gazatteer, Northamptonshire, Rivers, Well hunting and tagged antiquarian, archeology, earth mysteries, folklore, folly, Ghosts, healing wells, Holy well blog, Holy wells healing springs Spas folklore local history antiquarian, legends, Local history, mineral springs, Pagan. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.