Monthly Archives: February 2018
Rediscovered/Restored: St. Alban’s Well, Hertfordshire – Britain’s first Christian holy well?
Perhaps Hertfordshire’s most famed well, dedicated to the first British Christian Martyr, and thus called St. Alban’s Well or Holy Well (TL 149 068) and as such one could argue it is the earliest Christian holy well in Britain.
Who was St. Alban?
Gildas and Bede accredit his martyrdom to the ruler Diocletian (c305), later authorities attribute Septimus severnus (c209) or Decieus (c254) to the act. His conversion to Christianity occurred when he sheltered a wanted priest (later St. Amphibalus). The priest taught Alban and baptised him as a Christian. The two exchanged clothes and, allowing the priest to escape, Alban was captured instead. He was tried and sent to be executed. The journey to his execution, now locally commemorated each weekend close to St Alban’s Feast Day, is when the spring arose!
The legend of the spring
It is said that upon climbing the hill to his martyrdom became tired and thirsty. Falling to his knees he prayed to God to quench this thirst and miraculously a spring of fresh water appeared. This is however only one origin for the spring. The other story states that after being taken to the old city of Verulam, he refused to offer pagan sacrifice, and was executed. His severed head rolled down the hill and where it rested a spring burst forth. This is a common holy well motif. After the adoption of the Christian church in the third century the spring gained great notoriety (although it is of course plausible that the spring was a pre-Christian site, gaining greater pilgrimage with Christian doctrine). St. Alban was also adopted, and finally installed in a Shrine in the Abbey. This was restored after the Reformation and is a beautiful example of a Pre-Reformation Shrine.
A spring of Arthurian romance?
This spring was strangely absorbed into Arthurian romance. It has been associated with mythical Romano-Celt ruler Uther Pendragon, father of the also possibly mythical King Arthur. The spring is said to have healed his wounds, and the incident is recorded during the reign of Richard II, by Chronicler Brompton:
“….Uter Pendragon, a British Prince, had fought the Saxons in a great battle at this place, and received a dangerous wound: and lay a long time confined to his bed: and that he was cured at length by resorting to a well or spring not far distant from the city; at that time salubrious; and for that reason, and for the cures thereby performed, esteemed holy; and blessed in a peculiar manner with the flavour of Heaven ..”
The well through the ages
The Benedictine nuns of the nearby nunnery were according to Matthew Paris, said to have dipped their bread in the well, and hence earned it the name of Sopwell. Until the reformation the well rivalled Walsingham in its popularity among the sick and troubled. Even in the 19th century the ‘Holy-well’ was “still held in some estimation, for its purity and salubrious qualities.” It then lay on the lawns of the Duke of Marlborough’s Holywell House, which was latter demolished.
Until the 1980s, the site was marked by a stone on the playing fields of the local Grammar school. However, in the 1980s, the site was at risk from developers, as the school wished to sell off its fields. This precipitated local interest, and a campaign organised by a Mr. Tony Haines, and set out to rediscover the well and ensure that it was preserved. This they finally did, although the site was not officially recognised by the local council, despite it corresponding to ancient maps, local knowledge as well as remains of medieval brickwork. Fortunately, the developer was sympathetic and in a rare example of preservation, restored it. It now stands in a small walled garden. The well was repaired by brickwork, and fitted with a protective grille over it. Interestingly, a combination of wet weather coupled with the water authorities ceasing pumping from the Ver’s source, has meant that the water table has returned and water can be seen in the well.
This restored site can be found by going up Holywell Hill Road, then taking the righthand road, Belmont Hill ( if approaching from Junction one M10 ). Take next right, into new housing estate, then left and the well is found in a small garden on the left.
The well survives, well as long as the housing estate does! It has become the centre of a local religious groups devutions as well!
The mysterious lost well of St Pandonia, Eltisley Huntingdonshire
In the quiet village of Eltisley in the old county of Huntingdonshire, now Cambridgeshire was a uniquely dedicated holy well associated with a saintly shrine. This was St Pandonia’s Well of which Charles Hope in his 1893 notes stood outside the chancel until being filled in the 16th Century by the Reverend Palmer for ‘superstitious purposes’. It is noted:
“The vicar… Robert Palmer, who was charged before the Consistory court in 1576 with many misdemeanours. Amongst them… that he had broken the stonework round a well in the churchyard to the great danger of children playing in the churchyard. To the latter he replied “that it was a well used for superstitious purposes, therefore he broke it down”
Despite the obvious desecration the Parish church still shares this unusual dedication combined with St. John the Baptist. It is evident from the fact the vicar was charged that the villagers still considered their well important.
Who was St Pandonia?
Pandonia was a local saint but not Huntingdonshire born and bred. It is recorded in the 13th century to c.1250 to St Pandonia or Pandionia; original name appears to have been O.E Pendwynn. St. Pandonia was a nun at Ely, the daughter of a Scottish Prince who died in 904. When her body was translated into the church in 1344 miracles occurred. Leland, c. 1540 (1906–10) notes:
“at “Eltesle was sumtyme a nunnery wher Pandonia the Scottish virgine was buried, and there is a well of her name yn the south side of the quire’, and, ‘it appearithe by the legende of S. Pandonia that she was a kynge of Scotts dowghter, and after flienge them that would have deflowrid hir, she cam to a kynns woman of hirs, priorese of a nunrey at Eltesley in Cambridgeshire, 4 myles from Saint Neotes, and aftar dyenge was byried in Eltesley by a well cawled S. Pandonia Welle. She was translatyd into Eltesley Churche anno 1344 as it aperithe by the lessons of hir translation made by one Ser Richarde, parishe priste there”.
Kelly’s directory (1929) notes:
“There was formerly a convent of Benedictine nuns here, subsequently removed in the reign of William I. to Hinchinbrooke, in Huntingdonshire. St. Pandionia was the daughter of a Scottish king, who, in her flight from some persons who attempted her chastity, is said to have taken refuge in the nunnery of Eltisley, the prioress of which was her kinswoman; she eventually adopted the religious life, and on account of her piety was canonized; she died, it is said, in the convent, and was buried by a well called St. Pandionia’s Well, whence her body was removed into Eltisley church in the year 1344.”
In the 1808 Cambridgeshire volume it is recorded the priory was where the rectory was and destroyed at the Conquest. However, another view places it some distance out of the village at Papley Grove, where a modern farm house is to be found.
Any sign of the well?
There is an interesting aspect to the tradition. Why was she buried near the well and not in the church of the Priory she was nunnery? Was if the story above is true still considered an outsider? Was she diseased and those needed to be buried elsewhere? Why bury her near a well? Surely this would both contaminate the grave and the water. How close was it to the church. Hope appears to state it outside the chancel which sounds pretty close to the church and his accounts states that a bricked around well was in the churchyard. If so perhaps some remains of it still exist awaiting to be discovered. But why was she buried near a well? Had she become a hermit there? Is there more to the story – was she buried and a spring arise like nearby St Ive’s Well in the town? The account appear to suggest that it might have arose after her body was transferred to the high altar. A local story states that her spirit appeared to local children revealing the location of the spring; perhaps this was at a time when there was a drought.
Sacred garden pool?
Interestingly, it is said that the water of the well fills pool in an adjoining property. It is a far distance from the chancel end but not impossible. They are hidden by trees on the picture shown on Google maps. They are not accessible to the public however…hopefully one day they excavate the churchyard and find remains of the well and restore it so far as the village history website (http://www.eltisleyhistorysociety.org.uk/) suggests it and the priory have yet to be discovered.
Ancient and holy wells of Porthcawl, Glamorganshire part two
In our final post on the noted wells of the area, we cover perhaps the most famous well around the town that of St. John or Sandford’s Well. Despite its fame it is the most unattractive of the town’s surviving sites. Charles Davies describes it as thus:
“The well, oval in shape, of 6½ft. and 4½ft. diameters and 13½ft. in depth below the surface, with a covered flight of 20 steps, is about 85 yards south of the Church, and about 500 yards from the shore : its position is marked on a map of Dutch origin of 1646.”
Charles Davies in his 1938 The History of the Ancient church situate at Newton Porthcawl states:
“The Holy Well in close proximity to the Parish Church at Newton, and possessing a like Patron, has also a lay name “Sandford Well” – which sheds considerable light on the time of the Church’s original foundation. Now it is Impossible to seriously doubt, when certain external evidences are considered, that Sir Thomas de Sandford had as much to do with the original foundation of the Church as with that of the Well. Dre-Newydd, Nova Villa, New Town, by whichever name be it called, was a dowry on his marriage, a “dot” of a new village, and it is not likely that he confined his legacy to it to the mere well, when we remember its intimate connexion with the Church.”
Who was de Sandford?
It is believed that De Sanford, was a crusading Knight of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, who in the 12th century founded the church being granted land by William Earl of Gloucester between 1147 and 1183.
Rituals at the well
The legend of the well is inscribed on a large plaque by its side as seen below:
A number of traditions are associated with the well. It is reported that May Day or rather one would presume Beltaine bonfires were lit close to the well, although one would have thought Midsummer – or the feast of St John would have been a more obvious time. Those visiting the well would use the water to wish away sins and if water removed from the well was spilt bad luck would ensue
Ebbing and flowing
The well is mainly noted for being an ebbing and flowing well. Author R.D.Blackmore wrote of the well:
“It comes and goes, in a manner, against the coming and going of the sea, which is only half a mile from it: and twice a day it is many feet deep, and again not as many inches. And the water is so crystal clear, that down in the dark it is like a dream. – The children are all a little afraid of it… partly because of its maker’s name… and partly on account of its curious ways and the sand coming out of its “nostrils” when first it begins to flow”.
It is possible that this deep well is connected via fissures in the rock with the sea where the tide would force water up into the well. It is probable that the two were linked and that if there was a time difference, that it is contrary to the tides this could be explained by the time taken for the water to flow through the cracks to the well.
The well today
For such a famed well and especially when compared with the other wells in the area, St John’s Well looks a little forlorn and long overdue a repair. The well consists as described by pastscape as:
“a gated rubble stone entrance doorway to, and side walls of, a long descending flight of stone steps with stone slab roof and limewashed interior. At street level to side right set in a walled recess is a semi circular stone basin with iron pump in wall to rear and stone drainage channel right.”
The pump is dry and it is impossible to access the waters and indeed one cannot see it as the grill is too narrow and the depth too deep. The door is rusty and unsightly as is the attempt to extend the walling to include an electric substation. St John’s Well is long overdue an improvement.
The final site appeared to base its reputation on the above site this being St. John’s Spa. Davies (1938) again records:
“The water discharged on the beach deserves notice. Recent investigation has confirmed the tradition that the waters of this particular issue have extraordinary healing powers over external and internal ulcers, old wounds, rheumatisms, neuritis and various other ailments. Cold and clear as crystal, the scores of analyses that have been made in hospitals and by specialists, throw not the slightest light on the cause of the water’s efficacy. Its temperature is about 51 degrees Fahrenheit at all times of the year, a sensation of intense cold is felt by the hand which, after a deep immersion lasting for about ten minutes, regains its warmth, and, for a considerable length of time after withdrawal, shows a decided redness. Investigation may prove the presence of isotonic properties which may account for the beneficent effect on the many visitants with divers ailments, who drink the water or immerse the affected parts.”
He continued to note that:
“St. John’s Spa is renowned ; countless invalids have benefitted by their visits to “Doctor Dwr” (Doctor Water), who is always at home when the tide is out, and overs free treatment in a surgery which is thoroughly cleansed twice a day. In all probability, the therapeutic value of this water would be unknown in these days, were it not for the chance discovery of Dr. Hartland who has proved, beyond doubts, its curative properties.”
Whatever happened to the latest instalment is unclear but St John’s Well survives albeit massively in need of some TLC!