Monthly Archives: October 2020

Gipton Spa Well and Bath House

Often the Heritage Open Day in September gives the curious an opportunity to see some hidden gems and Gledhow’s Bath House in Leeds is a great example. The bath house probably the oldest standing in the UK is a delightful find on the edge of the woodland cliff.

The building is grade 2 listed and consists of a small building with a fireplace designed to sweat patients after immersion in the sunken bath outside. It is made of coursed square gritstone with a slate gabled roof. There are high ways enclosing the plunge pool which is around 1.75 m deep and three metres square with a small edge around three sides of it. The entrance has quoined jambs with a circular window in the gable and moulded gable coping. There is a large Latin plaque which reads “constructed by Edward Waddington of Gledhow in 1671”.

How old is the bath house?

The earliest reference to the spa is when it was constructed in 1671 by Edward Waddington of Gledhow Hall subsequently it alternative name is Waddington Bath. A Latin inscription reading:

“H.O.C Fecit
Edvardus Waddington
De Gledhow
Annovae Domini 1671”

However, it first receives academic interest when in 1708 when the noted Leeds Antiquarian Ralph Thoresby took his younger song, Richard to the site. He had been suffering with either rhickets or rheumatism and as part of his treatment it was recommended that he visit the bath regularly to take a cold immersion. In his diary for the 5th of July the author wrote:

“Walked with my dear by Chapel-town and Gledhow to Gypton-Well (whence my Lord Irwin who comes thither in his coach daily, was but just gone) to enquire for conveniences for my dear child Richard’s bathing”.

It must have been a successful because he found in his 1715 Ducatus Leodiensis easily to promote the site stating:

 “The Gipton well was accommodated with convenient lodgings to sweat the patient after bathing and is frequented by Persons of Honour, being reputed little or nothing inferior to St Monagh’s’

The later comment referring to a spa spring near Ripon which was popular at the time. Not much is known of the intervening century of the bath house as it does not appear to be much mentioned but it would still appear to have been utilised by 1817 as Edward Baines’ Leeds Guide of 1817 described the village as

” a small, pleasant village, 2 miles from Leeds. Within the wood is a cold spring with a small bathing house attached.”

However by 1834 the fame of the spring was waning as Edward Parson’s notes in his
History of Leeds: ”

“The Waters of Gipton have lost their celebrity and are no longer frequented.”

However he is positive by stating:

“There is no reason why they should not be restored to fame. If some chemist was to report an analysis of their component parts, if some physician were to publish a book in their praise, if some speculator were to build a decorative bath, a large hotel or perhaps a crescent of houses with a sounding name, it is certain that quite as much benefit would be reaped from Gipton Well as from many of the Springs which are highly extolled for their salutiferous qualities and around which complaining valetudinaians and idle loungers so numerously congregate.”

It had not been forgotten of course because Kelly’s directory of 1881 notes that they “are still resorted to by people who live in the neighbourhood.”

Fortunately, when in 1888 the eldest daughter of the first Lord Airedale, Honourable Hilda Kitson, , bought the farm which the bath house stood on she didn’t remove it but was concerned for its survival and as such she offered £200 to the Leeds Corporation from which the interest would repair it. However it was not until 1926 did they take her up on the offer and the Corporation took it over.

Sadly despite this the bath house went through considerable amount of neglect over the intervening times. The roof had been seriously damaged, trees grew through it and it was frequented by drug users and prostitutes. The site was fenced off as a result in 2004. Finally in 2005 the Friends of Gledhow Valley Woods cleaned up the site and repaired it ready to open it to the public. And a delight it is too, when I visited I found the small place very atmospheric with candles flickering in the small fireplace.

The water was deep clear and inviting although I did not in. Nearby the group had made bottles of the spring water beside the pool although I would be interested if anyone drunk it.

In search of rag wells: Correspondent views on the subject of rag wells and votive offerings

In 2016 I was invited to do a symposium on ritual litter. Before this I had been running a survey on Surveymonkey on the use of wells as sites of votive offerings focusing on rag wells. Below are some of the comments made by the correspondents which I believe would be useful to share here. They have been made anonymous in most cases separated from the sites they describe. Please note the survey is still live and the author welcomes more entries and also note do not use this research without express permission of the author.

What is left at wells and what did people think of it?

Asked what they thought about the subject of rag wells and giving of votive objects. They were asked about what should be left at such sites:

“I am very pleased to see the right sort of offerings ie red rags or ribbons, natural objects, degradable objects, bits of clothing, prayers written on paper etc that will degrade, as they keep the site and tradition alive, but plastic/junk etc crystals etc are not welcome. I know this is not a popular point of view. Perhaps we should all agree to leave 1-2 items only in our lifetime.”

Another correspondent reported:

“The type of offering is important. Natural (crystals, small metal objects) or genuinely degradable materials should be used. walk softly! And don’t leave stuff in the water”

Referring to a specific site another recorded:

“the offerings at Goodmanham are very controversial as they have tended recently to be non-degradable items. My own feeling is that this isn’t too much of a problem provided they are regularly tidied, and while not visually very tasteful they show that people are using the site.”

Of such offerings another stated:

“Because it is non biodegradeable it piles up and blows around causing damage and danger to wildlife.”

Of another site a correspondent noted:

“The wiccans of my acquaintance have now left the area, there is also a high church anglican who collects water there, I have never asked him if he leaves a votive token. THE water of the well, incidentally, is taken for all purposes still. Also the water is in current use in a mediaeval ink preparation AND is used to write mss.”

It was good to see a number of correspondent noting that the offerings

‘should be biodegradeable’ Others noted that they ‘Do dislike plastic items, should be compostable’, ‘I don’t mind biodegradable stuff i.e. flowers but not non biodegradable stuff i.e synthetic fabric’; ‘I don’t mind flowers, sticks, straw or genuine pieces of clothing. Object to plastic nylon and tissues!’ Concern for the fabric and nature of the site was also raised ‘Increasingly the offerings are plastic and unnatural, carving in the stone of the well defaces it, someone tried to scrub it out then causing further damage.’ Or ‘Some people feel too many offerings on one tree. Others feel they must be left as its offerings from people.’

Finally interestingly, another notes: ‘it is not something we should have an expectation on’

Why did they leave rags (or other offerings)?

A number of correspondents identified the reason they gave they left votives as: “An offering to the saint/goddess as recognition of their healing and knowledge” or to give thanks in some fashion ‘To honour and feed the land and spirit of place, to give thanks’; ‘To say thanks, to leave beauty’  ‘for thanks to Gaia’ or more specifically ‘Thanking the goddess for her waters’. Some saw it as simply as an ‘Offering to deity’ or ‘As a wish/blessing’. Correspondents identified that they were ‘Following ancient, spiritual beliefs.’

Respect was evident that some did it as a ‘mark of respect, replacing energy’ or to ‘respect for the Spirit Of The Place’

Energy figured in some views with one stating they ‘believe in the transferrence of positive energy’

Connection was stressed by a number of correspondents. It being done as a ‘symbol of my connection to the place’ or to ‘Giving a little of myself to the spirit of the place.’

Tradition was mentioned by a few correspondents one more specifically saying ‘Traditional to leave an offering when you visit a well’ or ‘to show respect to tradition, the ‘spirit’ of that place and as an offering.’

Some correspondents were more specific in their reasons. One stated that they:

‘Left one for the improved health of my husband’ or for ‘For people and animals who have passed on. Or are/have been ill’ or ‘To show my respect, and thanks for the safe arrival of my granddaughter’ or ‘It was a symbol of my Intention to help friends through illness.’

One final long comment mentioned:

“To give thanks for being alive, for being able to visit, for arriving safely, for the health and safety of those I love, for my continuing health, as an offering to the Gods, in gratitude for my life. Once, a few days after my wedding, I passed a red ribbon through my wedding ring three times and tied it to the tree(ribbon not ring) at Madron to bless my marriage. Once, in a time of real need, I left an offering at Fairy Well St Ives because I really needed a wish to come true. which it did.”

What would be interesting is how these compare to more ‘traditional’ uses of the wells and the custom. We shall be exploring this in the final post of this series

The Beggar’s Well – a holy well or not?

Sitting rather incongruously beside a main road is the Beggar’s Well. A site which is often without explanation included in works on holy wells however there is no folklore or history recorded of the site.  Described Patchell and Patchell (1987) Old Wells of Warwickshire  describe it as like a dog kennel. Indeed this structure is very confusing. When Lichfield road was widened the well was rebuilt sometime 13 metres to the west of its original location between 1962 and 1983 it appears and surprisingly no one remembers exactly when or by whom. Even more confusing is that a surviving photograph held in Warwickshire Record Office showing woman standing by Beggar’s Well which is dated between 1900-1909 it appears completely different in shape, size and appearance. When I visited it was evident to me that the brickwork did not match that seen in the photo. Thus it asks the question why were new bricks used, what happened to the original brickwork or is this the original brickwork which could be found behind encasing possibly seen in the photo. It is possible that the brickwork is that seen below the conical shape but one might ask why not completely rebuild and what happened to the conical top. It is all very odd. Furthermore the site is now completely dry no one thought it appears to direct the spring (assuming it was still flowing when moved). All in all it looks like an amateur job but someone must know for sure.

Is it a holy well?

Some sources emphatically include it in surveys of obvious holy and healing wells. But there is no evidence of this. Nor is there evidence of any age either. It’s earliest reference is on the first series OS map it appears. Yet could it be a holy well? Is there more to its history? Let us examine the evidence.

Is it really St Peter’s Well? St Peter’s Well ‘appears in many old documents’. The parish church is dedicated to Sts. Peter & Paul, but the wells exact location is unclear unless it refers to the Beggar’s Well? The evidence against this, but not exclusively problematic, is that many wells which share the same name as their parish church are located near the parish church – the Beggar’s well is not. Furthermore one could suggest that St Peter as a dedication suggests that as a holy well it may have derived its name from the church and thus emphasising its proximity.

Is there any other evidence? Well no but perhaps it is worth exploring the name Beggar’s Well. No authority appears to give reason for its origin. The obvious answer is that this was a site frequented by beggars which provided free water. There are other Beggars wells in the country, perhaps the most similar and indeed it even looks like Coleshill’s Beggar’s Well, is that of Threapwood, Staffordshire. Here its is said that workers at the now disused sandstone quarry discovered this source of water in the 1840s. Landowner Earl of Shrewsbury allowed locals to use it. Although that does not really explain the name!

There is another possible if rather hypothetical origin to the name. Is it derived from St. Bega? It seems unlikely St Bega as a saint is restricted to the north west of England it appears and I know of no evidence of her cult in this area of the country. However what is more interesting is that she was a Celtic saint and there is evidence of Celtic remains here.

Is the Romano-British settlement a clue?

In 1978, local enthusiasts discovered Roman pottery and more significantly it is I discovered this unattributed record:

“workmen removing the original stone lining in preparation for sinking a new well to one side of the dual carriageway found a crock pot buried behind one of the sandstone blocks, breaking it open they found it was full of Roman and Romano-Celtic coins – not one of which had been minted after 63ad.”

This report is of the Beggar’s well and indicates the ancient use of the well and the deposit of coins an offering. The date link suggesting perhaps to prevent the impact of Bouddican raids. This finally suggests that if the well in the article in question is the Beggar’s well we can state fairly emphatically that it was a sacred spring.

Was the well linked to a Roman settlement with a Roman temple found on Grimstock Hill. This was occupied from the 1st to 3rd century and the discovery of silver plaque showing a figure holding a shield suggests it was dedicated to Mars or Mercury. Unfortunately, such a deity is not a strong indication of a local water cult. What was worked out was that the square shrine was built on top of earlier ovens where food may have been offered to the gods.

An important Celtic religious site would be likely in Coleshill as it was the meeting point of three Celtic tribes: the Cornovii, the Dobunni and the Coritani. Of course the observant amongst you will see the name of the hill is significant – Grimstock – is this our final clue albeit a Germanic one? It is highly suggestive that Grim derives from Grimr, a version of Odin the Norse chief god and stock derived from Old English ‘stoc has been suggested as meaning ‘place’ quite often for a holy place. Was this a name given by Germanic settlers seeing the temple remains one wonder or did they celebrate their god here and utilise the spring? Interesting here might be another clue to the age of the well and its name. Böðgæðir is another name for the god, as is Báleygr, and whilst there is no evidence of either being used locally or indeed how they are pronounced, consenental drift over the years may have made it sound like beggar and the ill informed made it so.

Is the Hawkswell evidence?

Also in the parish is a Hawkeswell. Now I have mooted a theory that such named wells are vestiges of ancient motif wells which were named after the motif animal of different tribal groups that met there perhaps.

Healing waters?

There is a record of a Cold Bath in the parish which was said to cure leprosy. Where this was I have been unable to ascertain but it may have been possibly associated with the spring. Its association with leprosy is significant often leprous beggars were an issue for many medieval towns and villages was this a way to prevent lepers reading the centre. It was after all on the edge of the settlement.

So in summary I would say there is not much evidence for Beggar’s well to be a holy well in the Christian sense but there is some circumstantial evidence that it is sacred spring in the Roman British time and possibly into Anglo-Saxon times. It does feel that the Beggar’s well holds more secrets and perhaps one day these will be revealed. So for now Beggar’s well is not a holy well.