Monthly Archives: March 2018
Rediscovered/Restored: Exeter’s St Sidwell’s Well
“So the Divine Pity, which hath distributed gifts of diverse kinds, not delaying to make clear the purity of virginal innocence and the merits of the virgin martyr, made to spring forth, where her blood fell drop by drop, a most sparkling spring. Where it flowed the butchers, alarmed when they could not hide what they had perpetrated by covering the fount with grass, tried to cover up the body.”
So speaks John de Grandison’s 1330 Legend of St Sidwell. Like many similar stories the titular saint was asked to do something by her stepmother only to find those butchers, some mowers lying in wait with scythes. A rather unpleasant death! Like similar deaths her martyrdom was revealed by a column of light. She is then said to have risen from her grave taking her head with her and walked to where a church was built in her honour where a shrine did exist by 1373 according to Roscarrock. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with similar legends associated with wells at St Walstan’s Norfolk and St Elthelbert’s Herefordshire.
The first official mention of the well comes from a grant by the then Dean of Exeter to St. Nicholas Priory in 1226 which records
“a third share in the waters of St Sidwell’s Well”.
Now whether this referred to a share in regards to water supply or money is not clear but similar endowments indicate it was the former. Certainly by 1267 repairs were needed as John de Douglys left money for:
“the repair and maintenance of St Sidwell’s Well, one acre, called Bromeacre, and half an acre called Stokisland, which latter was about forty-five feet from the well towards the north”.
Then at some point between 1150 and 1180 Exeter developed a conduit system. It drew water from a site called Headwell which appears to have been in the same location as St Sidwell that they may have been one and the same. The water being used to provide the Cathedral. However, the Cartulary of St John’s Hospital in 1498 records that:
“in Saynte Sydwylle is Paroche, ther as she was byhedded, ys a well, and the close that lyeth nexte aboff directely is called and named Hedwyllmede. The Prior of St John’s and his Brothers haff moste grounde yn that Hylde or close, and they be bound to repayre the wylle”.
Lega-Weekes (1924–5) recorded that the site was:
“the well that once existed near the foot of Devonshire Place… Mr William French, dairyman (aged about 65)… remembered, as a boy, not only seeing the old well shaft, but dipping water out of it, though it was then choked and muddy. It was very deep, and when fullest the water reached to within six or seven feet of the ground level”.
Roque’s 1774 map of Exeter indicates a Sidwell’s Well near St Sidwell’s Church of Lega-Weekes (1924–5a) in their piece ‘St Sidwell: I’ in Devon & Cornwall Notes & Queries states that it
“ stood in Well Street, near the corner of York Road, in what is now a garden between nos. 2 and 5… opposite the Schoolhouse. From old inhabitant I learn that it was commonly known as St Sidwell’s well, and was sometimes also called “the Beehive Well”, from the form of the little circular hut of red Heavitree stone about 8 ft high by about 12 ft (?circumference) which sheltered the shaft that went down to a depth of 75 ft. There was a “sort of window” in the front, at which people filled their jugs”.
When the site disappeared is unclear but by the Lega-Weekes time it had clearly gone and largely forgotten!
Then in the development of 3 Well Street a remarkable discovery was made. The company working on the flat development stated on their website:
“The remains of the ancient holy well of St Sidwell have now been uncovered and our client is considering utilising the ground floor of the development as a tea room to allow public access for viewing of the well, fully supported by Exeter City Council. The holy well is said to mark where the ‘virtuous maiden’ St Sidwell, an Anglo-Saxon saint who gave her name to this part of the city, was cut down by haymakers’ scythes. Legend says a spring burst forth where she fell, and it then became a place of pilgrimage throughout the medieval period. Since at least 1226 the well supplied the cathedral clergy with fresh water, and was linked to the Cathedral by a piped water supply that later became part of the medieval underground passages that can be visited today. In 1347 however it was disconnected, and replaced by another well (Headwell) further along Well Street near St James Park. It probably still continued to be used as a local supply and place of pilgrimage.”
“This is an especially exciting find, as discovering the actual remains of a holy well is not common and we highly recommend a visit to the café when open. The high quality of the workmanship suggests that the medieval cathedral masons were involved in building it, and it also reflects the importance of the site as a place of pilgrimage. St Sidwell’s Well is clearly shown on this site on historic maps, and as a result the city council made it a condition of the redevelopment that any remains of it should be recorded and preserved within the new building.”
So St Sidwell’s Well returns!
The lost wells of Bristol – Mother Pugsley’s Well, Cotham
The once much visited well seems to have consisted of two stone basins or cisterns. Water from one was supposed to have great medicinal properties, especially for ailments of the eyes. The other seems to have made a very good pot of tea.
Frederick C. Jones in his The Glory that was Bristol in 1946 suggests that the well may have had another dedication:
“Much speculation must always surround the venerable fountain called Mother (or Dame) Pugsley’s Well which rose amid the daisied turf at Kingsdown. That the well existed long prior to the seventeenth-century is certain, and its feminine appellation has suggested to some students an earlier dedication, possibly Saint Mary, since an ancient title appears to have been “the Virgin’s Well.”
Jones continues by suggesting a ritual approach to those visiting the well:
“the well furnished for many centuries a copious supply of water, it being the custom for substantial citizens to perambulate on summer evenings around the meadows enclosing the two stone-basins, one holding healing water and the other crystal liquid for domestic purposes. Miss Marian Pease informed the writer that she has heard her mother say that when she was a very little child, about 1832/3, living at Union Street, it was a favourite place for the nurses to take “the children there.”
Who was Dame Pusgley?
Pugsley was said to be Royalist officer and he owned or died in the well the field was in but the name may hide a local wise women who lived near the well. F. Nicholls and John Taylor in Volume III of their 1882 Bristol, Past and Present gives greater detail:
“Mrs. Pugsley died August 4th, 1700, aged eighty. Her funeral was according to here directions, and was ‘punctually performed to the admiration and in the view of ten thousand spectators.’ Her body was borne uncoffined on a litter, with a sheet for shroud, preceded by a fiddler playing a sprightly air, and two damsels strewing sweet herbs and flowers, while the bells of St. Nicholas church rung a merry peal. Thus it was carried to a grave in a field adjoining Nine-tree hill. Dame Pugsley was supposed to be the widow of a young soldier killed at the siege of Bristol, 1645, and buried with military honours on Nine-tree hill. His widow wore mourning all her life, and desired to be borne to her grave with demonstrations of joy at their happy reunion. Mother Pugsley’s well is within recent memory. It consisted of two stone basins, one of which contained ‘an infallible remedy for the eyes,’ whilst the other was especially renowned for making tea. She built a hut over the spot where her husband fell and was buried, which gave her name to the field and well. At her death she bequeathed money for a sixpenny loaf and a ninepenny loaf at Easter, and a twopenny loaf on Twelfth-day, to each of the sixteen women inhabiting St. Nicholas’ almshouse. The vulgar supposed her to have been a witch, and they trampled upon her grave. A skull, thought to have been her husband’s, was dug up; it had a bullet hole just above the temple.”
The disappearing well
Mr. F. J. Burt (of Brislington) writing in the Western Press in 1920 remembered that the well situated in a builder’s yard at the top of Nugent Hill, Cotham when he was a child, he recalled drinking the water which had the reputation of being of medicinal value, especially for the eyes.
In January 1845 a local meeting met over the proposal to build Fremantle Square on the site which meant that free access would not be allowed. The meeting was unsuccessful in finding money to support the survival of the rights. Then in 1864, the following statement was made:
“29 July 1864 As regards ‘Mother Pugsley’s well’ it appears that the quantity of water is not large and that in order to render this available for the public use it would be necessary to purchase the property on which the well stands, the cost of the premises and of laying pipes for leading the water would be more than the benefit to accrue therefrom would warrant”
Thus the well was lost. A compromise was the placing of a pump on the site which was recorded as still being extant in 1940.
Its exact location being the boundary wall of 10, Nugent Hill from 2, Clare Road, Cotham. Quinn (199) in his Holy Wells of Bristol and Bath states some evidence of the well head remains but I was unable to discover it. One day it may be recovered.
A Warwickshire field trip: Holy and healing wells of the county’s South-west
Warwickshire does not perhaps have the greatest reputation for holy and healing springs and appears to be hide in the shadows of nearby Gloucestershire. However, my research into the county has revealed there’s more to the county’s healing waters than Leamington Spa. Here are a few lesser known sites towards the Banbury side of the county; any further information on them is gratefully received. Hopefully the book is out this year!
Many of the county’s healing springs are compared to Leamington, the Stockwell is no exception, being saline in nature it was bound to be compared such, as Leamington was. However, that is as far as the comparison goes for little other than it made a decent cup of tea is recorded of it. It currently arises in a three feet by three foot roughly square chamber with stone surrounds. Old railings enclose the spring head and steps go down from the road.
It is worth contemplating on the thoughts of Bob Trubshaw on the origin of Stockwells Old English stoc meaning ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’ being the apparent same derivation as stow. That would give the site an explanation perhaps for the belief in its healing waters but it could equally derived from the place cattle stock were watered or even less interesting Old English stocc for ‘spring by stumps’, a description which could describe it today.
Not far away is St. Anne’s Well which arises a small stone chamber beside the footpath from the hamlet of Arlescote. The well consists in a shallow square basin and flows downhill forming a muddy area beneath. A stone set into the back of the fabric reads:
“ST. ANNE’S WELL / Reparavit M. L / A. D. / MCMXI”
However, beyond that nothing is recorded. It is likely to be ancient as it found below an iron-age earthwork and clearly the footpath past it is of some age and past significance, yet the early forms of the OS only record spring.
Considering that the hamlet above the well is called Knowle End it is possible that the legend recorded considering fairies moving the stone is related to this site and not the Knowle End in Birmingham as reported by folklorists. Again little is recorded but it must have been thought well enough in the 1930s considering how far the spring is from any houses. A site to visit in the winter or spring however, because it gets very overgrown!
The next holy well is a considerable find and it is surprising that no photo exists of it or more recorded, considering it survives in a popular National Trust garden and is quite strikingly unique. Found in the Bog Garden in the grounds of Upton Hall is an 18th century stone Monk’s Well. The Bog Garden consists of a number of ponds originally Stew ponds fed by this spring improved in the 17th century. Trace the flow back and be ready for a surprise. For the spring erupts from the base of a rock face in a cave/grotto and flows over mossy stones to fill the ponds. The spring head is enclosed in an early C18 red brick vaulted chamber (listed grade II) set into the rock face laying c 100m west of the House. All in all pretty unique and surprisingly unheralded. Indeed the Bog Garden was closed off when I visited but the gardeners were happy to allow me over to see it. I cannot say whether access is achievable without asking however. The well is so named because Upton was held in the twelfth century by the canons of St Sepulchre’s at Warwick but it may have a grange property as no one has worked out where any house would have been located. The site does not have any recorded properties and it is only holy by its name association
The last well is a bit of an enigma, in the deserted Burton Dassett village in Northend, is found a substantial well head which has claims to be a ‘Holy Well’ although the provenance is unclear. Burgess (1876) in his Warwickshire History simply notes that it was used for baptism and immersion. Whilst Bord and Bord (1985) Sacred Waters appear to be earliest to refer to it as such stating:
“the holy well with its stone cover will be seen on the left-hand side of the lane as you approach the church”.
The present stone well house is of a considerable size being constructed of local red sandstone around 1840 in a Grecian style. The central doorway is party below ground level and has steps down into a square chamber. Over the stone lintel but the worn instruction is an inscription with carved flowers. It possibly states 1534 but it was not clear. It is evident that the well was part of an estate improvement but when and by whom? And did it exist before? If it does say 1534 that is an early date for a landed estate improvement. It certainly is still visited by well wishers as coins are found in its waters. Sadly, despite a substantial water supply it did not stop the demise of the village and now only the substantial church remains, which incidentally is worthy of a visit.
With many more sites yet to explore…Warwickshire is proving to be another interesting County.