Category Archives: Berkshire
Ask anyone to name one thing about Wantage and they will tell you it was the birth place of King Alfred. When I visited the town in the 1990s I had read of a King Alfred’s Well and naturally was keen to find out more. John Murray’s 1923 A Handbook for Travellers in Berks, Bucks, and Oxfordshire:
“1/4 m. W. of the town, at the Mead, are King Alfred’s Bath and Well ; the latter a basin of clear water, in a pretty dingle, formed by a number of small petrifying springs.”
I was not the first one to visit it of course and it appears to be a popular site for school parties if this account is an example this account in the St Mary’s, Longworth, Parish Magazine, 1910:
“August 1910 On Saturday, June 25, the Sunday School children, to the number of nineteen, were taken by the Rev. T. H. Trott a little outing to Wantage. They were met at the end of their journey by Mr. A. A. Herring, who after kindly giving them some refreshments at the Temperance Hotel, took them round the town to see the principal objects of interest, such as the Parish Church, the Victoria Picture Gallery, King Alfred’s Well and King Alfred’s Bath.”
It had clearly become one of the places to see in the town and doubtless and opportunity to stress the history of King Alfred. The biggest recognition of the site’s history was for the 1000th celebration of his birth. The Freemason’s Quarterly Journal recording:
“THE ALFRED JUBILEE A grand jubilee in honour of the one thousandth anniversary of the birth of King Alfred who according to antiquarian calculation was born in 849 was celebrated at Wantage on the October 1849 The town was decorated for the occasion the shops and business except in the hotels which were crowded generally Many visitors thronged into the place and at one o clock a was formed to King Alfred’s Well about a quarter of a mile the town and supposed to be the site of the ancient stronghold of Saxon kings.”
The Gentleman’s Magazine records that year that a speech on the:
“history and traditions of King Alfred The Rev CL Richmond from America made an eloquent speech to the concourse outside After this a procession was made to King Alfred’s Well about a quarter of a mile from the town and supposed to be at the site of the Anglo Saxon palace.”
Some people still hold firmly to the idea that the palace stood on the ground now occupied by ” The Mead’ (the property of Lord Wantage).
In the 1901 Wantage past and present the author, Agnes Gibbons adds more to the rationale stating that:
“traces of Alfred’s palace are still believed to remain in the High Garden, where there is a close still bearing the name of ” Court Close,” and ” Pallett’s More ” which has been supposed to be a corruption of Palace More.”
However, they continue to claim that:
“Their chief reason for this belief is the fact that there is near the Mead a brick “bath” or ” well ” which has for some time been called King Alfred’s Bath.”
So it appears a cart before the horse situation perhaps!
King Alfred or just Alfred’s?
It would appear that those who had made their pilgrimage to the site were possibly at best mistaken or at most deluded about the history of the site. This is stressed by Gibbons again who claims
“It is, however, extremely doubtful if the bricks which compose the bath are one hundred years old, so that no value can be attached to this argument. “
Wantage Now and Then informs us of the true origin of the well:
“It is said that in reality the ” bath ” was dug out and bricked in, by one Alfred Hazel, a former owner of the Mead (possibly for sheep dipping) and was then called ” Alfred Hazel’s Bath.’”
One can see it this became ” Alfred’s Bath,” and then ” King Alfred’s Bath.” Although how this could be forgotten in less than 100 years seems odd! The author continues:
“The bricks have a suspicious resemblance to those which were made at Challow, early last century, of green sand, many of which are still to be found in the town.”
An odd piece of folklore commonly encountered elsewhere with supposed ghostly appearance on its anniversary, is that the pond nearby which appears to have been the bath with the spring nearby being the well, was a coach. The author continues:
“The pond which is close to the bath, is said to have beneath its muddy surface an old coach, said to be the one formerly used by Mr. Chas. Price (he was Lord Mayor of London in 1802, and his family lived in Wantage) on his journeys to and from the metropolis. It was highly gilded, and minus wheels, and was at one time used as a bathing machine, by men who bathed in the pond. supposed to be the King’s bath or cellar! Both references to Alfred are equally mythical supposed to be the King’s bath or cellar! Both references to Alfred are equally mythical.”
So what was claimed and is still claimed to be his well and bath was Victorian construct possibly and a sheep wash at that. But how could its construction be forgotten about!
When I visited the site it was overgrown and a muddy morass. I could not easily trace any spring but subsequently it has been improved and tidied up to make it easier to visit.
What is interesting that what was formed as dam to clean fleeces and cloth may have also had linked with baptisms, Alfred Hazel was a Baptist. In the late 19th century Lord Wantage VC bought the area and had it landscaped as a fern garden and it may have been around this time that the story of King Alfred became consolidated as perhaps he adopted it as a sort of folly although this would not explain the visit in 1849 unless they didn’t go to this well and there is another King Alfred Well lost in Wantage. Of course there are examples of Lady Wells being repaired by the Lady of the manor! This could be the same the springs are noted a petrifying and so it is possible that they were noted but whether it was Alfred or not is unclear. It is also confusing what was the well and what was the bath – was the bath Alfred Hazels but the springs had been called after King Alfred before that!
In 1921 a descendant, Arthur Thomas Lloyd, presented the area to the town of Wantage and such it has been ever since landscaped and improved more recently. Whatever its history the site with its improved flow is a delightfully refreshing place to visit.
“This well is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, after whom the church is also dedicated. However, the spring around which the well was built is much earlier than the church, and it may have been a sacred spring renowned for healing powers in pre-Christian times. The present well was constructed in the mediaeval period, and restored in 1902 in celebration of the coronation of Edward VII.”
Back in March I detailed a little known holy well in a county little known for its holy wells, Speen’s Lady Well, a delightful stone built well repaired for coronation of Edward VII back in 1903. Since then I have been fortunate enough to find out more information via Church Warden Mrs Jane Burrell, and obtained some photos about the annual service which is enacted there each here. I thought I would record here the full details of the ceremony for historical reasons.
Every year the service is done near or at the church’s Patronal Festival, this being the 15th August, which is the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. I have been informed that the Lady Well has been blessed annually for decades but how many no one readily appears to know when the custom was founded. As the well itself was refurbished in 1902 to commemorate the coronation of Edward VII, it would be nice to think the celebration dates from then.
It certainly is well reported of late locally. The Newbury Weekly News on the 17th August 2010 stated
“Parishioners of Speen turned out in force on Sunday to continue the traditional blessing of the Lady Well at St. Mary’s church. Around 70 members of the congregation attended. Leading the procession was Rev Canon David Winter, followed by cross-bearer Alan Booth and incense-burner Derek Shailes. Church wardens Jane Burrell and Brian Nobles were also among the procession, which followed the patronal festival service at the church. Around 50 of those who attended also joined for a lunch to mark the blessing of the Lady Well, which is thought to date back before 452 A.D.”
The ceremony begins with a procession out of the church, across the fields with the congregation following a cross-bearer and down the lane to the well. Here the well has been previously dressed with posies and bunches of flowers as shown above. During the service the water sprinkled amongst the congregation. Apparently before the last five years, the liturgy was dependent upon whoever was taking the service now it goes as follows:
“ INTRODUCTION In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. All Amen Our help is in the name of the Lord, All Who has made heaven and earth. The Lord be with you. All And also with you.
PSALM 65 1 Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion: to you that answer prayer shall vows be paid.
To you shall all flesh come to confess their sins; when our misdeeds prevail against us, you will purge them away.
Happy are they whom you choose, And draw to your courts to dwell there. We shall be satisfied with the blessings of your house, even of your holy temple.
With wonders you will answer us in your righteousness, O God of our salvation, O hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas.
In your strength you set fast the mountains and are girded about with might.
You still the raging of the seas, the roaring of their waves and the clamour of the peoples.
Those who dwell at the ends of the earth tremble at your marvels; the gates of the morning and evening sing your praise.
You visit the earth and water it; you make it very plenteous.
The river of God is full of water; you prepare grain for your people, for so you provide for the earth.
You drench the furrows and smooth out the ridges; you soften the ground with showers and bless its increase.
You crown the year with your goodness, and your paths overflow with plenty.
May the pastures of the wilderness flow with goodness and the hills be girded with praise.
May the meadows be clothed with flocks of sheep and the valleys stand so thick with corn that they shall laugh and sing.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit; as it was in the beginning is now and shall be for ever. Amen.”
The blessing going as follows:
“BLESSING OF THE WATER
As St Francis prayed with great gratitude for Sister Water, so we too come in prayer to God today, full of thanks for the life-sustaining generosity of his wonderful gift of water. In her mysterious beauty, water causes the desert to bloom. Each tiny drop among countless thousands of other drops does its work to water seeds and plants, to provide harvests to feed us and all creatures, to quench our burning thirst. Like the body of the earth, our bodies too are over three-quarters’ water. We are a water people. We are a water planet. O compassionate Creator God, whose spirit breathed over the waters at the dawn of creation, we seek forgiveness for our mindless use of water, we beg for wisdom to understand better how to conserve and cherish water, we ask healing for the ways that we abuse and contaminate water. And what we ask for the creation around us, we ask too for our inner lives. We welcome the gentle rain of your grace into our souls. Come free us from hatred, greed, fear and our lack of love for your gifts to us. Refresh us and renew us with your living streams of water that we may flow green and moist with life, hope and love for all that you have made. We make this prayer through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
We bless this well in the name of God, the Father who created us, the Son who redeemed us, and the Spirit who overflows with life within is. Amen”
Then the following hymn is sung:
“HYMN All creatures of our God and King, Lift up your voice and with us sing: Hallelujah, hallelujah! Thou burning sun with golden beam, Thou silver moon with softer gleam: O praise Him, O praise Him, Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!
Thou rushing wind that art so strong, Ye clouds that sail in heaven along, O praise Him, hallelujah! Thou rising morn, in praise rejoice, Ye lights of heaven, find a voice: O praise Him, O praise Him, Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!
Thou flowing water, pure and clear, Make music for thy Lord to hear, Hallelujah, hallelujah! Thou fire so masterful and bright, That givest man both warmth and light: O praise Him, O praise Him, Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!
Let all things their Creator bless, And worship Him in humbleness, O praise Him, hallelujah! Praise, praise the Father, praise the Son, And praise the Spirit, Three-in-One: O praise Him, O praise Him, Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah!”
All in all a great evocative holy well and it is great to see that it is still celebrated by its community. Hopefully more details of the custom’s establishment will come forward.
“A small stream known as Chalvey Brook intersects them, whose water, considered beneficial to the eyes, has its source in Queen Anne’s well, situated in a pretty grove of trees near the village of Chalvey, whence Queen Anne and afterwards Queen Charlotte had the water carried up to Windsor Castle in buckets.”
Handbook for travellers
Now swallowed up by Slough, Chalvey once boasted a curious well said have had royal patronage as noted above. Indeed, Queen Anne is said to have had it dug although whether that meant there was no structure before this is unclear. The Mirror of 1832 recorded that:
“a stone was placed there in 1785 by her illustrious consort, George III”.
The accompanying drawing shows a stone with water emerging from a spout with a royal monograph centrally carved.
As noted the water was thought beneficial for eyes but it may have had other potential, Maxwell in his 1973 History of Slough noted:
“It appears that an attempt was made to capitalise on the patronage and as such as Wyld’s 1839 Great Western Railway Guide notes a Dr. Heberden liked the water’s properties to that of the better-known Malvern and indeed the name Chalvey Spa was still current in 1925, as noted in a letter to the Slough Observer when a Richard Bentley recorded small quantities of lithia in the water.”
However, this venture does not appear to have been successful and the spring fell into obscurity
Local historian Michael Bayley according to Alan Cleaver and Lesley Park on his excellent Strange Britain website (who did much work to locate the exact site) makes an interesting observation linked to the strange mound not far from the well. This mound, called the Montem, rather incongruously remains beside the Leisure Centre. The mound was associated with Eton school who would have an annual ceremony at it. Bayley observes:
“The spring is near an artificial mound, Montem, and was by a river crossing; in this case, of an old branch of the Thames dammed off in the 13th century. Up and down the middle and lower Thames these three things in association – a hill or hillock, a holy well and a ford – are usually connected with the name Anne, either Saint or Queen.”
He then believes that the site was originally dedicated to a pagan goddess, Sanct Anner, the Holy one of the Heifer. However, this is a difficult assumption to make considering firstly that Queen Anne did have a historical association with the well, there is no record before this and that the transfer between a pagan Anna and St. Anne is unlikely as the cult of St Anne did not establish itself until the mid-Medieval period long after any pagan memory I would suggest.
More significant is the fact that Cleaver and Park note:
“Curiously one resident recalls a stone bearing this inscription: “The two monkeys, Romeo and Juliet”. Could this have any connection with the local Stab Monk tradition?”
The Stab Monkey tradition was a Whitsun custom unique to this town and may more likely have an ancient origin of course it may have been used as a village insignia!
Lost, found and lost?
Robert Tighe and James Davis (1858) Annals of Windsor state:
“The well, and the original stone trough and spout may yet be traced among a pretty grove of trees and copse wood, but the path which led to it from the village of Chalvey has been stopped up”.
Indeed, Historian Michael Bayley reported in 1970 that this headstone
“went to make a horse trough and the rest was broken up to form a lily pond in the 1920s to discourage the villagers from using the well and the right of way past it.”
Cleaver and Park again note:
“Today’s villagers recall how rubble has been tipped on the well with the building of the school nearby.”
However, the exact site is disputed, Maxwell (1973) wisely states:
“The question of the exact site of Queen Anne’s well gives an admirable example of the danger of relying too unquestioningly on local ‘tradition’ and old people’s ‘recollections’. Quite frequently these turn out to be perfectly correct, or to have a basis of fact which can lead to further discoveries, but there are also times when they are misleading, to say the least. Wherever possible, they should be checked from other sources.”
Maxwell (1973) notes that:
“Some natives of Chalvey in this century have said the well was in the garden of Brookside, which was later dug out to make a lily pond. This lily-pond is now hidden under the pile of rubble removed when the swimming pool was constructed at the back of Sinkins House, Tuns Lane. The site is east of Tuns Lane and north of Church Street, Chalvey.”
In A History Of The Parish Of Upton Cum Chalvey, Richard V.H. Burne in 1913 was keen to investigate and he states:
“I was informed by two local inhabitants that ‘Queen Annie’s Spring’ used to be on the north side of Cippenham Lane…. it is even marked in this position on a Tithe Map of Farnham Parish made circa 1846.”
Maxwell (1973) again notes of this site:
“The watercress beds, now neighboured by the High Voltage Switching Station with its pylons, are overgrown with weeds and partly choked with rubbish. It is to be hoped that the site will be cleared, and recognised as the historic spot it is.”
Sadly despite recording the site for posterity no attempt has been made to officially recognise it. When Cleaver and Park investigated they found some stone work remaining with a small arch. The authors provide a very useful map which I used to locate the spring one summer morning.
However, my investigations have failed to reveal anything substantial. I looked a spring of water but it was much overgrown and no stonework could be found. Hopefully this blog post will raise its profile again and this important heritage site of Slough can be restored and remembered.
Laying on private farm land is one of the most curious holy wells in the country. A well associated with a curious 14th century legend. The earliest account is as a place name Holywellfette in 1534. Compton (1979) in his work on Bisham Abbey records:
“A spring of water that rose from beneath a chalky hill in a field that for some time took on the name of Holy-well. The site, now being disfigured by the making of a road, is on the left at the foot of Bisham hill, coming from Maidenhead”
Rutherfurd’s 1935 A rationalised miracle in medieval England states:
The well had been associated with the curing of a man who bathed his eyes in the well. Nothing unusual there but the cult that developed obviously concerned the religious authorities. In short it records how in 1385 Bishop Erghum was attempting to prevent ‘pilgrims’ from Marlow and Wycombe visiting a well at Bisham. It is stated:
“to the Bishop of Lincoln urging him to take steps against those commiyting idolatory at the new well near Bustleham.”
What is more unusual is that it was associated with a tame bird who sat on a nest over the well and would not fly away, could be handed and placed offerings in its nest. According to the Bishop they were:
“blinded by the phantasy of diabolical deceit”
The report records in Latin as follows:
“Et pro eo quod, ut dicitur, in eodemn fonte, iuxta quem in quodam arbore insuper nidificans quedam duis minibus hominum in nido suo tacta illorum, ut asseritur, non recessit, ymmo quia domestica et satis domita in nido reposita pacifice requievit, lippus quidam vir fantasticus, suos nuper lauans oculos defluentes estu feruido autumpnali* adustos et potu superfiuo plus solito humectantes, oculorum suorum lippitudines frigore aquatico naturaliter operante refrigescere senciebat, hoc nunc reputat pro miraculo multorum erronie credentium ceca lenitas scandalizans; unde modernis temporibus ad fontem eundem tanquam ad locum sanctissimum multi confluunt, et ibidem offerunt et adoran’t. Quorum quidam in nidum dicte auis, vile gizofilacium suis et pullorunm suorum stercoribus maculat-um, es iactant, et nephanda manu prophanas oblaciones turpissima deuotionte reponunt, in sancte matris ecclesie scandalum, fidei catholice preudicium, perniciosum exemplum plurimorum, ac ipsorum sic ut premittitur ydolatrantium grave periculum animarum.”
A rough translation meaning:
“And because, as stated in place, the spring, according to which, moreover, a bird makes its nest in a tree which men touched, as it is asserted, is not gone, but it is enough for domestic and tamed in the nest is laid to rest in peace,
His eyes just wash away the heat of battling autumn dour and drink more than usual superfluous humectants, his eyes rheumy cold the water naturally functioning cold feel, that counts for a miracle now believed by many erroneous blind leniency offending;
Hence, in these modern times to the same source, as many flock to the holy place, and there they must not show adoration. Some said the bird in the nest, which you provide nefarious profane offerings with ugly devotion. This is a scandal of our holy mother church scandal and disastrously prejudice the Catholic faith and is an example of many of them and so that the aforementioned idolatry a grave danger to souls.”
This profane and heathen devotion appears to be more about the bird’s nest and its bird who’s tameness was put down to the holiness of the place. A peculiar cult had thus developed. However, it was possible that the Bishop was wrong in viewing the bird as part of the cult. The leaving of money deposits in the nest was probably because it was a convenient and safe place rather than being ‘for the bird’.
The Bishop had informed them that the coldness of the water was responsible for the cure and the rural dean was ordered to fill in the well and tear up the tree. Excommunication was threatened against anyone who visited the site. This was apparently done, but it is clear at some point the well was uncovered. Presumably the bird flew away.
The cult of Elizabeth I
I have made the connection before between holy wells and Elizabeth I. It is evident that as the populace still needed holy wells, and the move to protestant ideology prevented this. However some wells appeared to have been rededicated to Elizabeth at the height of her cult and thereafter, perhaps allowing legitimate visits. The cult was short lived perhaps as scientific understanding allowed the development of spas. The earliest reference to the site is the John Nichol’s 1788 Progresses and public processions of Queen Elizabeth:
“In this Parish in the fields called the Moors is a well which still bears the name of Queen Elizabeth’s Well, and seems to be the only remembrance left of her frequent visits to the spot.”
In this case local legend states that when she stayed with the Hoby family of Bisham Abbey during her three day stay used the water to bath due to its traditions of healing. This traditions continued until recent as Compton (1979) notes:
“Local belief in the healing properties of the spring, however, lingered on in the minds of those who, traditionally and by birth, were part of the district. Less than a lifetime ago there were people still living who claimed that application of the water (which broadens into a stream running at the base of Quarry Woods) had relieved some complaint of their eyes or bettered their vision. In 1905 the water, after being analysed, was said to owe any curative effect to suspended gases.”
Visiting holy wells often allows one to travel back to a past time, a pilgrimage to St. Mary’s or Our Lady’s Well Speen is an example, a rare holy well in a rather modern and largely urbanised county of Berkshire. It is a county not famed for holy wells, but just off the busy main A4 road to Newbury, down a grassy track and to the right, is this relic from a bygone age, although what age it actually is, is unclear. The earliest mention is in the 1783 Collections towards a parochial history of Berkshire:
“about a pistol shot above the church is a well called Lady’s Well, where there is a distinct and clear an echo as ever I heard. It repeats but once, but as such a distance of time, and so oud, that you can hear a word of four or five syllables as distinctly from the echo as you can from the person who speaks it.”
This echo is commonly noted by subsequent authors, however Edward Williams Gray’s 1839 The History and Antiquities of Newbury and its Environs is the first to describe the well’s properties He describes it as:
“A well about two hundred yards above the Church,…is called ‘Our Lady’s Well’… At the present day, the water is deemed to possess some peculiar healing qualities.”
These peculiar healing qualities are not that peculiar is Bayley’s 1994 account The Lady Well of Speen is current as he nots it was used to cure eyes ( as well as other undescribed ills). William Money (1882) in his History of Speen describes these other properties as including measles and rickets. Bayley relates that a travelling doctor, who visited the Newbury Maundy Thursday Horse and cattle Fair, called Doctor Parzianus Fisher used to promote its waters for their healing qualities. In more recent times Bayley informs us local children would throw a coin in it to hopefully get a wish. Although it is unclear if anyone visits it for healing, although I have noticed some neo-pagan interest, the well is still part of its community. There is a regular service at the well. In 2011 the Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard visited the well on the 10th August and attended the thanksgiving service
How old is the well? Well the present structure despite a local of antiquity, looking as it does one of those Cornish medieval structures, is fairly recent. Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of holy wells notes:
“the appearance of the well has of late years been spoilt by the addition of a wooden curb and cover.”
Perhaps someone read this for not long after, as the plaque above the well notes, it was restored, proclaiming:
“Ye Ancient Ladye Well – restored 1902.”
This well consists of a stone built square structure and may have re-used some materials. It has a stone cap with a semi-circular decorative panel with sun rays. Sadly early records of the well appear non-existent although it does appear on the 1880 Ordnance Survey Map it does not appear on earlier maps. The biggest clue is the church of course, it is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and is only 200 metres from the well. Geographically of course this is a significant place, off the old A4 Bath Road, an ancient Roman roadway, Ermin Street. Did the Romans know of the well? Gray (1839) does indeed note ‘some remains or impressions of its once sacred character.’ Did the Saxon’s settle here because of the well? What of the echo? It’s an unusual and unique association does it relate to the strange things seen here? For Bayley’s notes that a 20th century resident had seen a ghostly figure standing beside the well. Ghosts are often used as evidence for ancient origins and may remember an ancient pagan deity. Whatever the truth, the site retains that other worldly feel. Furthermore, despite some vandalism it remains as it did in the Edwardian period – when it was a common subject for postcards – a delightful escape for the modern age.
If one walks up a small lane into the woods above Henley on Thames, just north of the village of Wargrave is one of the country’s largest, most attractive but little known wells. A holy well, although the evidence is lacking to confirm, but a source who’s Victorian community was so much dependent upon that the local vicar decided that it must be Christianised once and for all.
That the site has ancient origin is probably indicated by the name, Crazies hill, some authorities believe it which from the O.E cray meaning clean water and its waters were said to be health giving probably because of the local water was boggy.
Its old name is said to be Rebra, although it is known as Rebekah now, named after the Old Testament prophetess, indeed the Rebra name sounds more like a contraction of this than an original name as there is no evidence of its name before the current improvements. These improvements were down by the local Reverend Greville Phillimore who in 1870 decided it was necessary to improve and sanitise the supply. It was subsequently called Phillimore’s spring.
Phillimore constructed a considerable building for the well. The spring flows into a round shaped basin which is enclosed in the arch of a 10 foot high brick edifice, plastered over to an exposed brink face upon which is the well’s most eye catching and unique facet, a painting which illustrates Rebecca and a servant, standing at the well of Nahor. Either side of the scene as the following inscriptions:
“Rebeka and the Servants of Abraham at the well of Nahor. And the servants ran to meet her and said let I pray thee drink a little water of thy pitcher”.
The well house has a conical tiled roof with gabled frontage with an iron gate which prevents the idle falling in perhaps. At the back is a caved stone inscription with a stone in a segmental stone panel. The structure deserves to be better known being that its artwork was designed by famed garden designer Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) and thus makes it unique in the country.
“let I pray thee drink a little water of thy pitcher”
So said Abraham when he met Rebecca at Nahor and she was is remembered as providing water for Mesopotamian camels. Therefore as someone who provided water for thirsty villagers of this small Berkshire community.
It is difficult to imagine that Caversham, a suburb typical of many, was once a place of great Catholic pilgrimage but apparently it was. Whether there was a genuine holy well as part of the pilgrimage it is not clear. Let us examine it.
A common theme in holy research is the association of a well with a chapel. Whilst in many occasions, such as St. Clether’s Well, Cornwall, there is a genuine connection others it is not so clear. St Ann’s Well in Caversham is such an example. Let’s deal with the chapel first. On 17th September 1538 a Dr. John London wrote:
“I have pulled down the Image of Our Lady at Caversham, whereunto was great pilgrimage . .. I have also pulled down the place she stood in with all other ceremonies, as lights, shrouds, crutches and images of wax hanging about the chapel and have defaced the same thoroughly as eschewing of any further resort thither .. .”
Yet no field nor road name preserve the location or tradition and mentions in grants and gifts are scant especially in the 1500s. Therefore there is no evidence of its origin. However, it certainly existed by 1106 for it is mentioned in the cartulary or Nutley Abbey:
“In the year in whjch king Henry imprisoned his brother Robert Cunhose, Agnes, countess of Ripon) sister of the said Robert, secretly took the iron of the lance of Our Lord Jesus Christ to the chapel or the Blessed Mary or Caversham, together with many other relics….”
What of course is interesting here is the name of Blessed Mary an acceptable early dedication. . It is known that Walter Giffard, Earl or Buckingham gave the Park at Long Crendon, the parish church at Caversham, and the chapel or St. Mary in the same place, each with their possessions. What is clear here is that the chapel and church were two different entities. This grant to Nutley was confirmed by both Henry II in 1179 and John in 1200 and indeed was their property until the dissolution in 1536.
The Shrine contained a wooden statue of the Madonna and Child. Pilgrims came from far and wide to pray at the Shrine and to donate gifts and relics. These included donations from Henry 111 and from many noble families. In 1437 Isabel, Countess of Warwick, gave gold, weighing 20 pounds, to be made into a jewel-encrusted crown for the statue. Despite considerable note of some of the relics there in, there is no mention of the well. Now the only reference to the well appears to be a 1727 letter by the Revd Loveday:
“from thence [the chapel of St Anne] the Religious went at certain times to a well now in the hedge between the field called The Mount and the lane called Priest-lane, which is supposed to have its name from their going through it to this well, which was called formerly St Ann’s Well… There was in the memory of man a large ancient oak just by this well, which was also had in great veneration”.
Margrett (1906) identifies this as a well of dressed chalk and flint, apparently of c.1500, uncovered at the south side of Priest Hill. Janet and Colin Bords (1985) Sacred Water claims:
“There is a tradition that people buried their valuables beside the well to hide them from the Roundheads and others, and early this century some gold coins are said to have been discovered near the well”.
A clear link with the chapel although a clear confusion with Thomas Cromwell and Oliver I feel! This was rediscovered by the owners of the land, the Talbots in 1906 and they preserved it. But is it anything to do with a holy well? Certainly the claim made on the excellent Caversham 100 years on leaflet http://www.caversham100yearson.org.uk/pdf/heritage_leaflet_download.pdf is unsupported and contradictory (if the chapel was to Our Lady):
“Dating back to medieval times, the mineral spring waters, with their reputation for healing, drew many pilgrims. The well was then lost until workmen uncovered it in 1906. In 1908, a memorial drinking fountain and a cover were built and officially dedicated. This holy well and the medieval ‘little Chapel on the Bridge’ were both dedicated to St Anne, patron saint of women in childbirth.”
Sadly no archaeological work has even been done on the well. The well itself is a deep chalk lined pit. The hole is covered by a delightful example of road furniture, called the Memorial Drinking fountain. It is set upon two platforms of redbrick and is itself red brick oval shaped with a white marble basin and tap and covered by a bulbous metal frame. One the front a plaque dating from its construction in 1908 reads:
“The Holy Well of St Anne, the healing waters of which brought many pilgrims to Caversham in the Middle Ages”.
The rediscovery of the well at the turn of the 20th century and there is possibly a clue. In 1897 there was revived Catholic interest in the shrine. This was a problem considering the lack of evidence of any fabric and even its exact location. Therefore a well nearby the supposed location would be a good fit. Sadly it would not provide the modern pilgrim with healing waters…it’s dry.