In the shadow of the train: St Helen’s Spring, Santon Downham, Norfolk

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Only a few feet from the hurtling sound of the train is a large spring head. This is St. Helen’s Spring or Tevantwell.  (TL 841 874) still exists although as Manning (1993) in there work on Taking the Waters in Norfolk notes the original site may have been displaced by the construction of the railway nearby.  Thomas Martin (1779) in his History of Thetford notes that:

“St Helens was a parish church in the time of the Confessor…It stood on a hill two miles out of the town on the Santon road. At the foot of the hill is a spring commonly called Holywell or Tevant-well, corruptly for St Helen’s-well.”

W. G. Clarke (1925) in Breckland wilds states that:

“It is said that a man who was working in the harvest field suffered from extreme heat and expressed his intention of going to St. Helen’s Well to get some water to drink. His companions endeavoured to dissuade him from drinking icy-cold water in his heated condition, but he was obstinate, went to the spring and drank till he died. His spirit thereupon haunted the pit in which the spring was situated.”

Leigh Hunt (1870) in his The capital of the ancient kingdom of East Anglia reports finding foundations of this building, and these may still be those still exist and are described by Manning (1993). According to Manning (1993):

“six or seven springs emerge in the floor of the quarry… the building of the railway cut through the original St Helen’s Well and the present springs represent a post-railway emergence”.    

She states that there are signs of a structure consisting of a grey brick bridge spanning the conduit arch and two further arches have been infilled at either side of the conduit, but this do not appear to be visible now and perhaps have become overgrown.

The spring does arise from stonework although it is difficult to judge whether these are natural or have had the touch of human hand.

A lost church

The first mention the church is the Domesday Book which notes:

 “one church of St Helen with one ploughland”. 

The next mention is that there was a fair there mentioned in a roll of fair belonging to the Borough of Thetford, this was also recorded in 1347 as a market or fair at Santon. However, by the time of the 1368 Archdeacon’s visitation it was absent from this very comprehensive survey. This suggests that the church was gone by then. Various excavations have revealed the remains of an apsidal church and that it incorporated Roman works into it, mainly tiles in its east end and north wall foundations. But was there a village? It appears not and so you may ask why was it here? The answer is quite clear it was here to capitalise on the spring, but what is surprising is that no adoption is apparent by the church perhaps this indicates that the church had indeed gone by the time of the real adoption of such springs by the church with appropriate masonary…it is difficult to tell.

An ancient site

Examples of Palaeolithic flint tools have been found in the gravels at St Helen’s Pit. As at other sites in the Little Ouse valley such as Broomhill (another Trail site), these are likely to have been incorporated into the gravels after being washed off a land surface where they had been discarded, or having been drawn into them by the churning effects of frost action.

Paleolithic Finds

An oval handaxe in fresh-looking condition, collected by Rev. H. Tyrell Green of Santon Downham. [Photo courtesy Wisbech Museum 1937.17.8.]

Pagan site

What is clear is that this remote site has become a pagan site again, Pagan Federation of Norfolk website records:

​”This is a strangely beautiful spot, which forms a point of connection between the earth and the leaves and the water of the land itself, the scars of quarrying, echoes of ancient Pagan veneration, faint traces of Anglo-Saxon Christianity, the brutal power of Victorian industrialisation and a new, Pagan appreciation of sacredness. “


“Although I have never met anyone else down there, it is obvious from the energy and from some of the items one occasionally finds, that various groups and individuals do a lot of magical work there. Wands can sometimes be respectfully cut from one of the Hazels and the water itself is, of course, very powerful and useful in a variety of magical contexts. St. Helen, or Helen of the Roads (also known as Elen of the Ways) is considered by John and Caitlín Matthews to be one of our oldest native deities. Since she is associated with travel, water from her well can be used for magic relating to physical journeys, but also to help with pathworkings and with quests to seek ancient knowledge and wisdom.”

What is interesting is that a hazel tree nearby has become a rag well. Interestingly the Pagan federation add:

“This practice, of tying rags and other offerings to trees at sacred spots, has found its way to us from our more westerly colleagues and is not one which I personally feel particularly comfortable with, mainly because so many people use items made of synthetic materials, which do not rot away like wool or linen, and end up just looking like a lot of litter desecrating the place. It is very rare in Norfolk, though and even at St. Helen’s there are only ever a few of them.)”

Indeed other than St Micheal’s Well in Longstanton outside of Cambridge and Woolpit’s Our Lady have ever had only one! It is possible as there are a number of St. Helen’s Well which are rag wells up north that someone in the know decided to start it off here. Whatever, someone had clearly thought the rag tree was an intrusion for upon a recent visit no rags were apparent being replaced by a bouquet of bright red tulips. It is indeed an unworldly site…climb down to it the trees give an eerie feel to it and even the sound of the train hurtling by cannot break the connection one can get to this peaceful place.

About pixyledpublications

Currently researching calendar customs and folklore of Nottinghamshire

Posted on December 19, 2017, in Favourite site, Folklore, Norfolk, Pagan gods and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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