Monthly Archives: March 2021
Sometimes mysterious creatures at wells and springs have mysterious origins and perhaps one of the most mysterious is Nanny Rutt, who is associated with an artesian well in Math Wood near Bourne, Lincolnshire.
The story tells of a young girl who arranges to meet her lover in the wood and sets out early in the evening and meets an old woman wrapped in a shawl which obscures her face. She warns of the dangers of the wood at night as well as why she should not elope without knowledge of her parents. She ignores this advice and reaches the well where she has arranged to meet her lover. Waiting for a long time she realises her lover is not going to come and it has become very late. With tears in her eyes she becomes hopelessly lost and stumbles upon an overgrown stone house in a clearing and there in its doorway is the old woman who’s face is revealed it the moonlight to be hideous. As the girl runs, the old woman’s shadow paralyses her and her throat becomes so dry she is unable to scream and is never seen again.
How old is it?
An interesting legend, who apart from the name of the Old women is very modern and resembles an ‘urban legend’. What is unclear is why there is a well included. Does this suggest that at some point it had a greater role? Did Nanny Rutt haunt the well? Was she another Jenny Greenteeth? Did the girl actually drown in the well?
Its origin is equally mysterious, neither the authors Eliza Gutch and Mabel Peacock in their Examples of Printed Folk-Lore Concerning Lincolnshire, Volume 5 or Ethel Rudkin in her Lincolnshire folklore , both very thorough folklore collectors in the turn of the last century
According to the Wikipedia entry, the earliest reference is 1920s, but the name Rutt is possibly very old deriving O.F rut the same origin as Latin rugitus both meaning ‘sexual drive’ and perhaps suggest a greater date. The contributor notes:
“It may be possible to suggest an explanation for the story of the disappearance. Perhaps at some date a girl took her developing sexuality into Math wood, met someone who complemented it and was soon taken off to a home for un-married mothers never to return to Northorpe. An explanation was required for the other young people and at a time of reticence about sexuality, Nanny Rutt was invented. If this happened when the use of the French language in England was remembered, the story is medieval. Nanny Rutt could also be based on a real woman who once lived in the wood”
Rutt could also reference rutting or a goat both again very sexualised! Nanny is a common name for a fairy character but equally for someone who might offer baby sitting!
Although the woods still exist I could find any evidence of a well on the 1880 O/S or current map, and according to my correspondence with local historian Rex Needle, he believed the whole story is made up, but when, why and by who and more importantly why include a well, name it after the main character, but do not explain why. In all it is a very confused story. Even more confusing is that since including the well in my work on Holy wells and healing springs of Lincolnshire the well is included in a geocache! Does it exist then?
St Chad’s Well at Stowe on the edge of Lichfield is perhaps one of the few such named wells with a direct link to the saint. The site has a more direct link as Thomas Dugdale’s 1817 County of Warwickshire states in his translation of the death of Saints Wulfade and Rufinus based on 14th century text that Wulfade the son of the pagan king Wulfhere of the Mercians was hunting when he pursued a white hart, and the wounded stag took him to the hermitage of St Chad:
“which he had built within the thickets of the wood on the edge of a spring, so that he might throw himself into its waters to overpower the heaviness of sleep and reawaken himself with its cold”.
St Chad took advantage of the occasion to preach to the prince, telling him that:
“as the hart desireth the water brooks, so he should seek after the cool grace of baptism, and Wulfade, converted by this analogy, consented to be baptised from the well. Rufinus soon followed the same course. At first his father was angry and killed his sons, but afterwards he repented and gave nobly to the Church. “
According to Simon Gunton’s 1686 History of Peterburgh Cathedral there were windows in the cloisters of Peterborough Cathedral, accompanied by mottoes apparently of the fifteenth century which told how
‘the Hart brought Wulfade to a Well and ‘That was beside Seynt Chaddy’s Cell.”
John Floyer discussing St Chad in his 1702 Essay to prove cold bathing both safe and useful proposes that:
“the Well near Stow, which may bear his Name, was probably his Baptistery, it being deep enough for Immersion, and conveniently seated near that Church; and that has the Reputation of curing Sore Eyes, Scabs, &c. as most Holy Wells in England do”.
Robert Hope in his 1893 Legendary Lore of Holy Wells states that the water was thought to be dangerous to drink because it caused fits. Septimus Sunderland’s 1915 Old London’s Baths, Spas and wells also met a woman who looked after the well who said that it still had a reputation for bad eyes and rheumatism and was known as a Wishing Well. Thomas Harwood in his 1806 The History and Antiquities of the Church and City of Lichfield states that at the well it was adorned with:
“…boughs, and of reading the gospel for the day, at this and at other wells and pumps, is yet observed in this city on Ascension Day.”
However, by the time of Langford (1896) he noted that it was but sadly shorn of its ancient glory. According to Skyking Walters’ 1928 Ancient Wells and Springs of the Cotswolds, the site was still decorated with flowers on Ascension Day, a tradition which continues today in a modern form similar to that seen in Derbyshire. The site despite being in the grounds of an Anglican church was the site of Catholic pilgrimages from 1922 until the 1930s (although an Anglican one visited in 1926)
In his Itinerary of c. 1540 (published 1906–10), John Leland reports that:
“Stowchurche in the est end of the towne, whereas is St Cedd’s well, a thinge of pure water, where is sene a stone in the bottom of it, on the whiche some say that Cedde was wont nakyd to stond on in the water, and pray.”
The stone mentioned by Leland was still there or a version of it in the 1830s as it was shown to any visitors who visited the site and appears to have had its own significance in cures and rituals at the well.
The tour diary of John Loveday, 1732 (published 1890) states in reference to Stowe church that:
“near it, in a little garden is St Chad’s Well, its Water is good for sore Eyes; it is of different colours in a very little time, as They say.”
According to the V.C.H. (1908–84), the well was cleaned in 1820 by the churchwardens as it had become only six feet deep and the supply of water had become reduced by the draining of local water meadows. The well basin itself had become filled up with mud and in 1830 a local physician James Rawson built an octagonal stone structure over the well bemoaning in the Gentlemen’s magazine in 1864:
“Whatever the well might have been originally, it had, by the year 1833, degenerated into a most undignified puddle, more than six feet deep . . .
…..from two men of far-advanced age, in the year 1833, I learned that the supply of clear water around the well had become much lessened by the drainage of the lower meadows during the latter part of the eighteenth century, At all events, by the date
first named here, the well-basin had become filled up with mud and filth; and on top of this impurity a stone had been placed was described by the sight-showers as the identical stone on which St Chad used to kneel and pray!
For my own part, hoping by means of a public subscription to procure a new supply of water for the site of this ancient baptistry . . . I endeavoured to exclude the surface water of the old marsh land from the well, because of this surface water being loaded with orchre: and, as a feeder for the well, a supply of clear water was carefully obtained from the rock at a moderate distance, for close to the well a running sand became an impediment to the work. Over the well an octagonal building was erected with a saxon-headed doorway, and a stone roof surmounted by a plain Latin cross .”
It is interesting how a tradition soon built up around this new structure. Langford (1896) notes how wishes would be granted by placing one’s hand on a granite stone built into the well house, which was said to be that originally used by St. Chad.
By the early 1920s, the supply dried up and the well was lined with brick and a pump was fitted over the well and a special service was held in 1923 by the rector to officially open the pump. This created a revival. Catholic pilgrimages begun each year from 1922 to the 1930s and even an Anglican pilgrimage in 1926.
However by 1941 the well had become derelict, and after a commission set up by the Bishop of Lichfield it was restored in the 1950s, unfortunately replacing the 1840 octagonal structure with an open structure with a tiled roof (with R. Morrell in his 1992 Source article calls the Stowe bandstand). And so St Chad’s Well remains, not perhaps the most romantic of structures, but a link to those early Christian times.
“Walkers enjoy day in ‘Hidden’ forest. Hundreds of ramblers and conservationists converged on the secret Wychwood Forest on Sunday to walk through its leady glades. It was the one day of the year – Palm Sunday – when Lord Rotherwick the owner of the 2150 acre medieval woodlands, allows public access.”
To which I might add just! This is a curious custom where part of the tradition remains, but aspects of it appear to have disappeared. The custom apparently was established to provide access of the local parishes adjacent – Leafield Five Ash, Charlbury and Finstock particularly – for the collection of wood and the visiting of the springs and wells of the estate. It is the latter of which is of considerable interest.
If you go down the woods…..
My aunt and uncle did not live far from this area and I have always been fascinated with this woods and their privacy. Apparently, I was not the only one. Large numbers of visitors could be found wandering the woods; their cars lined the narrow streets around the forest. It was not just for local people. In an excellent article by Roy Townsend on the Finstock Local History Website records the memories of a Mr Pratley of nearby Finstock. He notes the widespread nature of the visitors:
“It was possible to meet people from Cornwall one minute, then a family from Durham a few yards later.”
But why? The name the ‘Secret Forest’ was part of the appeal no doubt. It was a forest which could only be visited on Palm Sunday each year. Any other time of the year it was strictly out of bounds. Everyone loves a mysterious place and getting access to it was part of the allure.
One of the major reasons for the access on Palm Sunday was for the local community to visit the springs and wells, which were thought to have a healing tradition on the day. A local historian, John Kibble, noted in 1928, recorded that prayers were said at the springs:
“Hast then a wound to heal; The wych doth grieve thee?Come then unto this welle, It will relieve thee:Nolie me tangeries, And other maladies”
This was one of the main reasons also why the estate and its curious access tradition fascinated me. Wells and springs were often visited on this date, but this one appeared to have the longest surviving tradition and from some accounts some people still did it. The main aspect of this tradition undertaken was to make Spanish Water, using liquorice, brown sugar or sweets often black peppermints. Mr. Pratley again notes:
“This tradition took place all through the 20th century, and probably before, although the liquorice may have originally come from the root of the plant, rather than being shop bought.”
Three wells can still be found in the estate – the Cyder, the Wort and the Spa or Iron Well. The Wort Well or another lost well called Uzzle were the most popular apparently around them would grow wild liquorice. The name wort derives from healing suggesting its health giving properties. Of the Iron Well, Roy Townsend notes:
“Spanish Liquor is made up with some pieces of hard liquorice with two to three black gobstopper type sweets and white peppermints which were crushed, made up on Saturday night and shaken well on Sunday Morning. You take your bottle with the mixture in down to the well behind the kennels called the Iron Well. If it’s still there behind the fencing. We were forbidden to drink much of it on the way home.”
A poster in the Finstock Local History website, called Fabulous Flowers notes:
“I remember walking to the Iron Well on Palm Sunday with my great Aunty Vi and Molly and mixing the water with our Spanish liquor. Before the footpath was opened through the Wychwood forrest (sic) as it is know this was the only day you could walk down to the lakes and I remember lots of people doing this.”
The date of this visitation is unclear but this aspect tradition appears close to extinction or is extinct. An account noted that:
“a man from Leafield, who used to take his bottle of mixture to the well up until a few years ago.”
On entering the estate I still noticed that the route outlined still made a bee-line to the Iron Well. The route had been diverted and I easily found my way in courtesy of a man who did the walk every Palm Sunday. I made my way at first to the Iron Well. I wasn’t convinced to drink the water..it certainly lived up to its name, having a reddy-orange scum on the edges – it didn’t look very appetizing. Entering the park I first made a slight detour to see the Cyder Well, which poured out a considerable flow of clear fresh water. However, I thought I would leave my Spanish water experience to the main well which was associated with the tradition – the Wort well. This was the less impressive of the springs but the easiest to determine the spring source.
The name wort is suggestion of a long tradition of healing – wort is said to be a healing source, more frequently the end of a herb such as woundwort! Its other name Uzzle is suggestive that it derives from the Anglo-Saxon greeting Wæs þu hæl, meaning “be in good health” and thus again suggests it was a general cure-all.
Thus I lowered my bottle and filled it. Popping in my liquorice and giving it a shake I took a slip…it was refreshing but I could detect no real flavour. However as I progressed back along the path regular sips revealed a more flavoursome experience. By the end it was rather delicious and I regretted not filling more bottles or having more liquorice.
One wonders how old the Palm Sunday access is as Briggs refers to an Easter Monday tradition:
“on Easter Monday the Leafield people maintained, and still believe that they have the right to go into the Wychwood Forest and make Spanish Water which is made from one of the sacred springs in Wychwood Forest. The bottle is then shaken till the liquorice is dissolved. This is believed to be not only a tonic but a sovereign remedy for all kinds of disorders. It is grievance to the Leaford people that Wychwood is now closed to them.”
However, talking to local people they stated that they had had 100s of years of access on the date. In the church at Charlbury, I fortunately met Mrs Fowler. She informed me that visiting wells for Spanish Liquor was still very common up until in the 1980s. She and her husband remembered that a Royston (Dobber) Scroggs, a Cotswold Warden, would stand by the well and tell people the history. This is no more. However, small groups do formally visit the springs such the Green Friends of the Hindu spiritual leader Mata Amritanandamayi who undertook a walk in 2014 and the Wychwood Forest church in 2017 who visited the Iron and Wort Wells.
Wandering around I watched a number of people on my journey around, of which only one came near to the springs…although they did fill a bottle and drink it. They did not have any liquorice though…Fortunately I did and it tasted rather nice.
Cannot see the wood for the trees.
Ironically the popularity of the custom appeared to lead to its decline. An account from 1984 tellingly records:
“And the Council for the Protection of Rural England took it as an opportunity to promote its campaign to have the forest opened all the year around. Walkers and ramblers were asked, and were willing to sign a petition supporting the campaign. They were signing at the rate of 100 an hour.”
And so that signing lead to the opening up of a permanent footpath, from Patch Riding, Finstock, to Waterman’s Lodge, near Charlbury, through the estate in 1990..the one I used to access the permissive path. It may be only one, but like any incision, it allowed greater access and so the mystic began to fade…but not quite yet. It was clear that Palm Sunday I went that a considerable number of local and not so local people were still keen to see the vistas and green swards generally unavailable. The estate covers a considerable area and the footpath only crosses a very small section.
Walk on the wild side
The Palm Sunday Walk is a curious survival but one still under threat. Many years ago the clergy tried to bribe children by offering free crucifixes to keep them in church. Even today a poster to the Finstock History page notes:
“The last time I tried to visit it on a Palm Sunday, the gate which would have given access to the iron well was locked. I suspect it is only ignorance that keeps us out: if the local history society asked, they’d probably let a group in next year.”
But local people are determined to keep the Palm Sunday Walk open. Mr Pratley writes:
“I walk this permanent footpath regularly but also try to do the Palm Sunday walk as often as possible, as that’s still the only day the Five Ash Bottom route is open to the public.”
He remarks he saw few people despite doing a complete circuit! Indeed, when I arrived I found the traditional route sadly blocked and plenty of walkers appearing and then turning around scratching heads and moaning. However, at least access remains whether people take the waters or not…plenty enough people were happy to ensure that the custom of walking the path remained.
However it would be nice to see more Spanish Water drinking. The is especially significant when if you visit many wells you can find the tradition of tying objects, called clooties to the trees, a tradition foreign to many places it is now found. It would be better to see the revival of more native traditions such as Spanish Water drinking – at this site I can safely vouch for its safety of drinking its water. So if you are in the area please keep the Spanish water alive!