Category Archives: Cambridgeshire
The best recorded holy well in the Cambridgeshire is that of St. Audry’s Well (TL 540 801). It is noted in the 12th century that a spring arose at the place where the saint was first buried
St Audry or rather Ethelreda or Æthelthryth was an Anglo Saxon saint who was a 7th century East Anglian princess, one of four saintly daughters of Anna, queen of Northumbria and Abbess of Ely. Interestingly she was born at Exning in Suffolk where a well is also associated with her. She died and was buried at Ely and it is recorded by Bede that when her body was disinterred her body was uncorrupt as such her powers and clothes were said to have special powers. She was reburied in the Cathedral and her shrine remained until the reformation. She is best known for the term tawdry for rubbish, a term which derived from the poor quality clothing sold at fairs on her feast days.
In the 12th century it is reported that:
“If any sick people take a drink from this spring, or have been sprinkled with its water, it is reported that they subsequently recover their original vigour…. in account of her merits, are acquainted with remedies and assiduous in curing the sick”.
It is noted that the monks made the spring site into a pit like cistern so that they could collect some of their water. Several miracles are associated with the well. One tells how a blind woman washing her face and eyes became able to see, how a man travelled from Northamptonshire to be healed and found the door locked. He was apparently barred entrance and was told that there was no bucket at the well and nothing to collect it with. He did not take no as an answer and so barged his way in where he found the well overflowing into the courtyard and thus cupped some water into his hands. He evoked the saint’s name and as he did so begin to recover. Another story tells how a woman fell into the well after accidently being pushed in by a crowd at the well. She was apparently left in the water for two hours and was found still alive by the monks.
The established site of the well is at Barton Farm to the east of the Cathedral. The site is shown on a Moore’s map of the fens dated in 1684 shown as St. Aldreth’s Well. According to Hippisley-Coxe in his 1973 Haunted Britain this site still survived as a muddy pool in a clump of elms near Barton Farm. The spring fills a small tree lined pool on the edge of the grounds of Ely’s Cathedral School, which has absorbed Barton Farm, and the Golf course. There does not appear to be any evidence of fabric but at some point, some brickwork has been used to create a channel to allow the water to flow way showing that the spring is still active.
Conversely the metrical Life and Miracles of St Æthelthryth by Gregory of Ely, c.1120 states that ‘the holy precinct of the church includes a spring’, but does not identify this as a holy well; the original grave of St Audrey lay:
“somewhere in the vicinity of the former Bishop’s Palace, the area close to the Fountain Inn, and the present St Mary’s Church, where the water-table is high.”
This was where:
“…where the people of the neighbourhood do now resort to drink the waters of it, it being a sort of mineral water”.
This suggests two things, one that it was an arrangement like current St. Withburga’s well at East Dereham and that it was nearer the Cathedral. Indeed I was shown by Mr Hart of Ely School a possible alternative site, a small duck pond in the grounds of the Bishop’s Palace. This however although might be a more likely sight indeed it lay across from the school’s old chapel and in the shadow of the Bishop’s Palace.
Details in Holy Wells and healing springs of Cambridgeshire and the Isle of the Ely.
Cambridgeshire is not a county readily associated with holy wells, however my research for volume VIII in my series suggests that there are a number of little known sites. Frustratingly, there a number of attractive and curious streams in the county, especially in the chalk regions, but their names tell nothing – often being called simply – the spring head or numerically named such as Nine springs. One such Springhead has given us a bit more to go on, its alternative names – Robin Hood Dip or bizarrely Giant’s Grave are far more tantalising.
A peacefully evocative site sandwiched between two rather busy roads. A delightful place in spring when its surrounding cherry trees are rich in blossom. Very little is written down about the spring head except that in modern terms it was used as a water source for the village and as a laundry! However it is surrounding landscape and legends which perhaps provide a clue.
Who is the giant?
All that is known is that the giant was buried at the site and that he is thought to be Gogmagog, the name also applied to nearby hills. One of these hills, Wandlebury, is a hill fort to which a considerable amount of confused history, mystery and legend has been attached. What is interesting is that when folklorists collected stories of the giant (or giants as it really is Gog and Magog traditionally) it was noted that they were buried nearby but not where. This is along with a golden chariot at Fleam Dyke.
It is worth recording the legends of this hill fort. They were recorded as early as 1219 by One Gervase of Tilbury:
“Osbert, a bold and powerful baron, visited a noble family in the vicinity of Wandelbury, in the bishopric of Ely. Among other stories related in the social circle of his friends, who, according to custom, amused each other by repeating ancient tales and traditions, he was informed, that if any knight, unattended, entered an adjacent plain by moonlight, and challenged an adversary to appear, he would be immediately encountered by a spirit in the form of a knight. Osbert resolved to make the experiment, and set out, attended by a single squire, whom he ordered to remain without the limits of the plain, which was surrounded by an ancient entrenchment. On repeating the challenge, he was instantly assailed by an adversary, whom he quickly unhorsed, and seized the reins of his steed. During this operation, his ghostly opponent sprung up, and, darting his spear, like a javelin, at Osbert, wounded him in the thigh. Osbert returned in triumph with the horse, which he committed to the care of his servants. The horse was of a sable colour, as well as his whole accoutrements, and apparently of great beauty and vigour. He remained with his keeper till cockcrowing, when, with eyes flashing fire, he reared, spurned the ground, and vanished. On disarming himself, Osbert perceived that he was wounded, and that one of his steel boots was full of blood. Gervase adds, that as long as he lived, the scar of his wound opened afresh on the anniversary of the eve on which he encountered the spirit.”
Of course the Knight and the Giant may be unconnected entities. I shall return to the Knight in a moment, but the giant in more recent times has created more legends. In 1955 archaeologist TC Lethbridge intrigued by reports by various 17th and 18th century antiquarians. The first of these, John Layer (1586–1640) wrote that he thought on the hill was a hill figure on the hill was believed with the work of Cambridge undergraduates being cut with ‘within the trench of Wandlebury Camp’ as does William Cole (1714–82) noting the ‘the figure of a giant carved on the turf at Wandlebury’) and Dr Dale recording it ‘cut on the turf in middle camp’ in the 1720s. Bishop Joseph Hall:
“A Giant called All Paunch, who was of an incredible Height of Body, not like him whose Picture the Schollers of Cambridge goe to see at Hogmagog Hills, but rather like him that ought the two Aple Teeth which were digged out of a well in Cambridge, that were little less than a man’s head. When I was a boy, about 1724, I remember my father or mother as it happened I went with one or other of them to Cambridge……always used to stop and show me and my brother and sisters the figure of the giant carved on the Turf; concerning whom there were then many traditions, now worn away. What became of the two said teeth I never hear.”
Lethbridge using rather unusual archaeological methods apparently revealed this figure, or as it turned out figures and although his work was criticised, traces of his giants remain and his theories have relevance to Cherry Hinton’s spring head. Does the name of the camp remember Wandle, an ancient God or Woden, a deity often associated with water?
Or does as the Cherry Hinton Chronicle of 1854 records in 1854 the discovery of Iron Age burials unearthed locally on Lime Kiln Hill whose the skeletons were unusually tall gave rise to the legend!?
The Footprint stone
Across the road from the spring head at the Robin Hood and Little John Inn is a curious stone. Rather unceremoniously placed by the car park the large round stone looks like a glacial erratic and clearly left there or placed there at some time. But why? A closer inspection reveals it to be hollowed out and the hollow is like a footprint or more like a shoe, around a size 11 as it fits my shoe well!
Carved foot print stones are widespread, often associated with prehistoric burial chambers as far afield as the Calderstone at Liverpool to a burial chamber Petit-Mont Arzon in Brittany, France. The Romans too carved such footprint stones inscribing them with pro itu et reditu, translating as‘for the journey and return’, the tradition would be to place one’s feet before and then after the journey as a good luck. Footprint stone and wells are not infrequently met. There are two in Kent for example, St Mildred’s or St. Augustine’s stone near Sandwich (now lost) and the Devil’s footprint at Newington once associated with a barrow (now lost). So there might be some precedence?
Does the Knight story have relevance here? Does the stone record an ancient ritual of kinship, that knight with his challenge record? There are Celtic and Pictish traditions of kingship or installation stones. These would work in the equivalent way as placing crowns on a King, by placing their feet in the holes would mean they had taken over the tribe and such places survive on the Isle of Man and Scotland (for more information refer to Janet Bord’s Footprints in Stone (2004)
Of course the hollow could have a much simpler explanation. It could have been made as a socket for a cross. However, here we have another interesting possibility, such holed stones called bulluans are associated with holy wells, and although none exist in Cambridgeshire it is tantalising that this could have been one.
Robin Hood in Cambridgeshire?
The alternative name, Robin Hood Dip is one which creates the most curiosity. There is no record of the folk hero in Cambridge, as far as I am aware, and this is well beyond Sherwood Forest! Taking to one side the possibility that it’s a site which achieves its name from story-telling about the folk hero’s exploits, explaining its name appears at first difficult. However, folklorists will have another explanation. Robin Hood is a commonly met name for an elemental, a fairy folk or spirit and what is more interesting he is often associated with springs and water places. See this article for more of an overview. Why is this name associated with springs? I have made various suggestions. Firstly, the associated with a sprite may discourage use – i.e a warning off children and secondly it may record an earlier cult presence. Perhaps the Giant and Robin Hood are the same folk memory of a deity which was celebrated at this spring. The name Thirs interesting is also associated with springs and water holes and this is Saxon word meaning possibly ‘giant’!
The Roman connection may also give support to this idea. It is known that the river Rhee, arising at Ashwell was associated with Roman shrines and a deity called Seunna. Was Granta a Roman deity? Is there an unwritten story which connects Granta and Woden which would explain the grave?
Piecing it all together
So what do all these different facets bring to the site at Cherry Hinton? The legend of Wandlebury is rather lacking of any location for a grave and its fairly obvious perhaps that the name is derived from the large grave shape size of the springhead. But does this remember a folk memory of it being dug? Or does it remember the presence of large bodies in prehistoric graves? The interesting point is that the island is called the grave according to local tradition. Did this mark a barrow?
Nearby on the Fulbourne Road were found three Bronze Age ring-ditches and Neolithic flint artefacts and Early Bronze Age pottery were found in the locality suggesting a long period of history. As well the Iron Age material earlier. It is very likely they settled here for the water supply and it is very likely it was culted.
What of the stone? Is it coincidentally located near the springhead or does it remember practices at the well? Is it a Kingship stone, a receptacle for healing water or a simple cross base?
There appears to be a considerable amount of unknown history to this simple, but picturesque, spring head and whilst we must always be wary of neo-pagan exaggerations, it does seem plausible that this is a long lost sacred spring. Sacred to the Saxons, Sacred to the Romans and perhaps long before this!
Read more of Cambridgeshire water lore in
Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Cambridgeshire.
Two counties which has poorly researched are Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire, I have been researching for volumes on these counties a number of years, and although I have yet to chase down a number of sites, may well be ready to publish next year! (Finally!)
One such site is the Old Red Well. Many years ago I searched in the dark elm woods for this site. There is something quite eerie and mysterious about this site, nestling in these woods, especially when visited in the autumn. A fact noted by this website on faeries. I didn’t see any of these but I can quite imagine them disporting themselves.
Boy, mound or money-lender?
The origin of the name Knapwell is unclear, Cnapa may be the name of the first settler, or simply ‘boy’ ‘moneylender’ or even ‘mound’ referring to the earthworks to the end of the present village. The site is doubtless ancient and probably pre-Christian origin. Interestingly, one wonders whether the boy meaning is the correct one considering another Cambridgeshire site, the Barnwell on the outskirts of Cambridge has the same suggested origin. It may suggest that the local tribes here perhaps washed their infants in its water in a ritual fashion. There is some evidence of wells associated with ritual washing in other locales so it is possible. Knapwell is first mentioned in a will by A.D. 1000, and the settlement is noted in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Chenewelle, being held by Abbot of St Benedict of Ramsey. However, this was the estate not the well so nothing should be implied from Ramsey Abbey’s ownership.
The well was the sole source of freshwater for both Boxgrove and Knapwell parishes and footpaths still lead from both communities to the well. Knapwell was also known as Little Wellesworth indicating the importance of this and The Victoria County History notes for Knapwell:
‘..named from the chalybeate Red Well, supposedly medicinal, in Boxworth Wood just east of the village.’
Like many Chalybeate springs, healing traditions are attached to it but curiously no details are recorded.
The water was well thought of well into the 20th century, for the Parish guidebook, KNAPWELL VILLAGE And The Parish Church of All Saints (1978) notes:
“Within living memory a drinking cup used to hang on the small brick arch over the spot where the spring rises.”
The spring produces copious but sluggish red water and is protected by a red brick domed or arched well house similar to those of Holywell and Longstanton. When I visited the well is in fear of collapsing, and had deteriorated over a number of years, but recent pictures suggest it is in better condition. It is well worth investigating if you are in the area and below are some instructions from my forthcoming book:
“If you wish to find it park the car at the church and follow the footpath beside the church and after crossing the stream and style turn right and continue along the woods passing the information centre ( where a wooden box holds maps ) and then after a few feet one reaches a small clearing and a path leads to the right into the woods. Take this and this will lead to the well.”
Although January 1st, Imbolc and May 1st (or its first sunday) are associated with veneration of wells and springs and their increase in proficiency, Midsummer (Eve or Day) was a date often associated with visiting wells. Often the wells would be dedicated to St. John the Baptist, the saint whose feast day would be on that date. Some such as St. John’s Well, Broughton or St John’s Well, Shenstone whose waters were thought to be more curative on that day. This is clear at Craikel Spring, Bottesford, Lincolnshire Folklorist Peacock (1895) notes that:
“Less than fifty years ago a sickly child was dipped in the water between the mirk and the dawn on midsummer morning,’ and niver looked back’ards efter, ‘immersion at that mystic hour removing the nameless weakness which had crippled him in health. Within the last fifteen years a palsied man went to obtain a supply of the water, only to find, to his intense disappointment, that it was drained away through an underground channel which rendered it unattainable.”
Now a lost site, it is possible that the site now called St. John’s Well in the village is the same site considering its connection to midsummer.
Often these visits would become ritualised and hence as Hazlitt notes in the Irish Hudibras (1689) that in the North of Ireland:
“Have you beheld, when people pray, At St. John’s well on Patron-Day,
By charm of priest and miracle, To cure diseases at this well;
The valleys filled with blind and lame, And go as limping as they came.”
In the parish of Stenness, Orkney local people would bring children to pass around it sunwise after being bathed in the Bigwell. A similar pattern would be down at wells at Tillie Beltane, Aberdeenshire where the well was circled sunwise seven times. Tongue’s (1965) Somerset Folklore records of the Southwell, Congresbury women used to process around the well barking like dogs.
These customs appear to have been private and probably solitary activities, in a number of locations ranging from Northumberland to Nottingham, the visiting of the wells was associated with festivities. One of the most famed with such celebration was St Bede’s Well at Jarrow. Brand (1789) in his popular observances states:
“about a mile to the west of Jarrow there is a well, still called Bede’s Well, to which, as late as the year 1740, it was a prevailing custom to bring children troubled with any disease or infirmity; a crooked pin was put in, and the well laved dry between each dipping. My informant has seen twenty children brought together on a Sunday, to be dipped in this well; at which also, on Midsummer-eve, there was a great resort of neighbouring people, with bonfires, musick, &c.”
Piercy (1828) states that at St. John’s Well Clarborough, Nottinghamshire
“a feast, or fair, held annually on St. John’s day, to which the neighbouring villagers resorted to enjoy such rural sports or games as fancy might dictate.”
Similarly, the Lady Well, Longwitton Northumberland, or rather an eye well was where according to Hodgon (1820-58) where:
“People met here on Midsummer Sunday and the Sunday following, when they amused themselves with leaping, eating gingerbread brought for sale to the spot, and drinking the waters of the well.”
When such activities ceased is unclear, but in some cases it was clearly when the land use changed. This is seen at Hucknall’s Robin Hood’s well, when the woods kept for Midsummer dancing, was according to Marson (1965-6) in an article called Wells, Sources and water courses in Nottinghamshire countryside states it was turned to a pheasant reserve, the open space lawn was allowed to grass over and subsequently all dancing ceased. In Dugdale’s (1692) Monasticon Anglicanum notes that at Barnwell Cambridgeshire:
“..once a year on St John Baptist’s Eve, boys and lads met there, and amused themselves in the English fashion with wrestling matches and other games and applauded each other in singing songs and playing musical instruments. Hence by reason of the crowd that met and played there, a habit grew up that on the same day a crowd of buyers and sellers should meet in same place to do business.”
Whether the well itself was the focus for the festivities or the festivities were focused around the well because it provided water are unclear, there are surviving and revived midsummer customs which involve bonfires and general celebrations but no wells involved.
The only custom, revived in 1956, which resembles that of the midsummer well visiting is Ashmore’s Filly Loo. This is the only apparent celebration of springs at Midsummer is at Ashmore Dorset where a local dew pond, where by long tradition a feast was held on its banks, revived in 1956 and called Filly Loo, it is held on the Friday nearest midsummer and consists of dancing and the holding of hands around the pond at the festivities end.
Another piece of evidence perhaps for the support of a well orientated event as opposed an event with a well is the structure of the Shirehampton Holy Well, Gloucestershire which arises in:
“‘A large cave … Inside, there is crumbling masonry – the remains of an ancient shrine or hermitage – and a pool fed by a stream which seeps through the floor of the cave. The rays of the midsummer sun are said to strike the centre of this pool, and seers used to read the future in its depths.”
Tait (1884–5) suggests that the building was:
“duly oriented for midsummer day, so that it is clearly a mediaeval dedication to S. John Baptist.”
This unusual site may indicate the longer and deeper associations of springs and midsummer than is first supposed…or antiquarian fancy. You decide.
It is good to see the county town has still retained a site which Dr Daniel Layard (1759) described as spring to the north of Huntingdon as:
“The pure and limpid water called Horse-Common Water at Huntingdon, remarkable for its softness and little sediment.”
So it is still found, the Horse-Common water (TL 238 726) named after the area of land it is found in. Today this common is an odd relic surrounded on all sides by modern housing and a leisure centre. The spring produces a fine flow and is responsible for the marshy area here and its own survival; it would be an unsuitable area to build on. The spring arises from a substantial structure, with steps down to the water which flows out at some force and forms a channel through a paved area. An older structure can be observed within the more modern well house. There was a cast iron lion’s head where water flowed out of its mouth via a pipe and a chain with a cup beside it. All evidence of this has gone.
Local people state that they used it to wash their hair as it was better than tap water and picked water cress around the area. There appears to be no record of any medicinal use although it is clear that it was so regarded. Can we suggest considering its proximity to a Roman road, that it was known by Huntingdon’s Roman inhabitants? This site was also called Cowper’s Spring, associated with poet William Cowper who had a bath house built and presumably what remains are the relics of this.
Lying in the churchyard of the thatched chapel of St Michael, is a particularly fine example of a baptismal well, called Holy Well or St Michael’s Well (TL 403 658) However before the arrival of a Mr and Mrs Brown to the village the site was very neglected and little known. The well settles under a large tree in the corner of the tree which may be significant and is enclosed in a yellow brick half barrel well house, at the back of this is a cross shaped window. This has been erroneously reported to project the image on the head of the baptised individual. However, I was informed by Mrs Brown that there was no evidence to support this although it is an interesting theory. The well arises in a shallow circular well with a gravel substrate (the source of the water is not clear), and is approached by a series of steps between two low walls and black metal railings which encircle this approach to the well with a small gate. A black metal guard has been placed in front of the well, and this can be raised to give access.
There would seem to be local disagreement over the use of the well and indeed whether it was dedicated at all! Its proximity to the church suggests its use in baptisms, although no clear records could be found. Notwithstanding, Mr Brown did speak to an elderly lady whose mother was baptised in it about 100 years ago.
Well dressing was introduced in 1986 making two of Cambridgeshire’s Holy wells that have had this distinction. The dressing consists of a tryptic arrangement with a variety of images and motifs: The Golden Hind with bells and anchors; East Anglian Life: a windmill and church; The Harvest is ripe. A number of photographs of these ceremonies are displayed in the porch of the church. Sadly lack of interest within the village seems to have caused the abandonment of the ceremony, as it was only Mrs Brown and another elderly lady doing the rather time consuming work. Hopefully one day it will be restored.
PAPWORTH ST AGNES
Arising in a boggy hole is St Agnes’s Well or Nill Well (TL 268 625).The spring area is stained red indicating it schalybeate nature but it is difficult to discern exactly where the spring arises. It is found in a small copse just off a small road. Does the name Nill refers to fairies? Possibly not as there was a Gilbert de Knille recorded as a landowner in 1279, but did he get his name from the well? Which St Agnes is referred to is unclear especially as the much restored church is dedicated to St. John the Baptist and this likely that as Reaney (1943) notes that the village takes its name from Agnes de Papewurda. It is possible that this is the spring noted by Scherr (1986); recorded as Anneiswell, in the 13th century. Someone along the way has made the site related to a saint byb accident
The county is not well known for its holy wells, however a number of interesting sites can be found; one of these being the eponymous holywell of this settlement. This settlement on the banks of the Stour owes its name to the presence of a clear and never failing spring, called simply the Holy Well (TL 336 707) that arises at the junction of gravel and Ampthill clay. This well was may have been known in Roman times, indicated by the discovery of Roman coins and pottery in the churchyard and rectory grounds. These are now in the Norris museum. First mentioned in a will of 986 when an Athelstan Mannessune bequeathed to Ramsey Abbey ‘de terra… de Haliwella’. By the time of the Domesday 1086,, the settlement Haliewelle is noted with the names Haliwell, 1231, Halliwell, 1350 and even Hallowell, 1601, before settling as Holywell in the 1700s.
It maybe that the Christian history is associated with the 7th Century Bishop of Persia, St Ivo, whose relics were held at the nearby town of St Ives. Pilgrims would rest and drink here after or before taking the ferry across the Stour to and from the St Ives’ Shrine. Whether the dedication of the well was the same is unclear, as the well lies the Parish church of St John the Baptist, it is possibility that it too was dedicated to St John.
Despite its age, Tebbutt (1938–47) states that:
“I cleared outthe basin in 1936, and only found one penny dated 1905.”
The present structure was constructed in 1845 by Rev. S.B. Beckwith, the rector, which covered the mediaeval 13th century stone ring (Kelly (1910) notes 1847). This structure is an attractive yellow brick dome. A metal plaque is set into the arch recording its name. However, direct access to the well is impossible as a black metal frame covers the entrance; however the spring can be sampled, as it gushes forth by some force below the well. Until the 1940s this well was the only source of domestic water and was also still used for baptism.
The spring had a reputation for healing, Terbutt (1938-27) notes:
“About 1933 the late MrsYeatherde saw a woman sitting with her feet in the well to cure a foot complaint. In1935 I was told… that people often came to bathe for such complaints as sore eyes.In the previous year a boy with a sore on his forehead that would not heal, came and bathed it with water from this well, and it at once healed up.”
The site was restored in the 1980s, as three elms, whose roots were undermining the structure and making it thus unsafe, were damaging the fabric. Hence after the death of these trees due to Dutch elm disease, it was decided to restore and repair the well. Volunteers and the Parochial Council set to remove the trees and after measuring the structure and making a template of the arch, together with photographs: the repairs could be done, after diverting its flow of course.
It was found that the foundations and walls were in a very bad state and this required removing the structure down to the original 13th Century stone ring. Care was taken as to save as many of the old bricks, and these were incorporated into the new structure with matching old bricks supplied by a local builder. To eradicate future problems of tree damage, the area around the well was cleared right back and four ft high retaining walls were constructed from old facing bricks backed with engineer bricks and the surrounding well area covered in crazy paving. Further improvements to ensure safety, including new fencing and easier access to the spring outlet were made and the area was improved with the planting of 800 spring bulbs. Today thanks to the restoration the site is a pleasing place for contemplation.
An annual well dressing ceremony was also introduced and this is carried out on the Patronal day of 24th June, that of St John the Baptist since 1982. It involves a mud and dried flow technique, the Derbyshire technique, and the placing of a wreath around the arch. In 1982 the motif was peace with a dove and church and a yellow rose as the designs either side of the arch’s finial. Then, as since, the dressing receives the blessing of the Bishop of Ely or Huntingdon and the display remains for ten days. Today the well entrance is filled by a plaque also dressed and in 2012 the Royal Jubilee is the topic.
The following is copied and edited from an article on the defunct Living Spring website –
One of the country’s most interesting and yet little-known holy wells can be found incongruously situated behind a modern housing estate a few miles from Peterborough. The site consists of a natural spring which bubbles up through oolite limestone. Around this have been built three chambers of undressed stone, the whole of which is enclosed in an artificial mound on which trees and shrubs have encroached. It is one of my favourite holy wells, despite being much neglected.
Folklore and History
Much of the site’s folklore and history derives from a story entitled The Knight of the Red Cross, a story based in the twelfth century, in Richard I’s reign. There is some confusion about the place where this work is published. Thompson (1913, p.111) in his Peculiarities of water and wells states that it is contained within a work called Wild flowers gathered: original pieces in prose and rhyme, printed by J. S. Clarke, with no author or date; whereas Arrowsmith (n.d., p.20) states it comes from a similarly titled, A list of wild flowers found in the neighbourhood of Peterborough, by F. A. Paley. Arrowsmith further notes that the work is advertised on the back of the same author’s Notes on twenty Parish churches round Peterborough, published in 1859. Unfortunately, I have been unable to trace either of these to confirm which is the right source. How much the story is based on any ancient account is unclear. It may be ‘faction’ or fiction, a problem of course with many sites. The applicable parts are produced below as Thompson notes:
‘There is a beautiful spot, called Holywell, in the neighbourhood of Peterborough, well known, and much frequented by the inhabitants. the road lies through a pleasant park, where stands an ancient edifice belonging to the Fitzwilliam family, called Thorpe Hall… After passing the front of this mansion, turn to the left, by the stables and outer buildings will lead, through a white gate, to a small green field from whence this picturesque little spot is seen, with its ivy clad walls, and its dark cypress and yew trees, casting their gloomy shadows around. Passing some broken steps which form the entrance, a shady path conducts to a modern niche, supported by two pilasters, over a slab pavement to a stone basin about six feet in depth and thirty in circumference. This is constantly supplied with clear water, running from the mouth of a subterraneous passage which connects Holywell with the cathedral of Peterborough. An artificial mound of earth is thrown up above this cavity, which is covered with creepers, ground-ivy and a few wild flowers.
Contiguous to the basin are some small fish ponds, partially shaded by beautiful trees; and the green rushes which grow at their bank form undisturbed retreat in which the moor-hen builds her solitary nest. A little further on is a piece of an old pillar, which is gracefully overhung with a wreath of ivy… An old wall surrounding Holywell on two sides, in which traces of windows and doorways are still discernible, is the last feature we shall mention.’
These pools have been called ‘Monk’s Stew Ponds’ or ‘Paradise Ponds’, although Arrowsmith considers that the long distance from the Abbey makes it unlikely, as the Abbey was close to good fishing waters (Arrowsmith n.d., p.21). He continues, ‘The waters of this well were formerly in high repute, and were much frequented by those who came on pilgrimages’ (Arrowsmith n.d., p.19).
Its waters, according to Thompson (1913, p.115), are said to be slightly ferruginous, though he detected no sign of it, and nor did I. It was also thought to be efficacious for gout, rheumatism, skin diseases, and good for eyes.
It was believed that a Hermit, called St Cloud, lived at the site. Thompson (1913, p.112) continues, quoting J. S. Clarke, that he was ‘of great celebrity, whose pious councils and paternosters were generally in request amongst all pilgrims who visited the spot.’
Some authorities, such as Arrowsmith, have identified this hermit as St Botolph, who is said to have lived within a mile of his chapel during its construction on the Thorpe Avenue site. He is associated with other wells, such as that at Hadstock, Essex, so it is not impossible.
The well was enclosed in grounds belonging to St John family, an estate laid out in a style similar to the pleasure gardens of Vauxhall. Within these grounds was an 18th century summerhouse, which has now vanished. A distillery was established here by a Doctor Skirmshire, who lived at Longthorpe, for making ‘considerable quantities of lavender and peppermint, cultivated in adjacent fields..’ (Arrowsmith, n.d., unpaginated).
Sadly, there appear to be no ancient records which justify ascribing an ancient date to the Holy Well complex. Indeed, it would appear to be contemporary with the summerhouse. Perhaps it was built to provide a folly-hermitage to support the legend? It is said that the summerhouse was demolished in the mid-ninteenth century because of the disorderly proceedings undertaken in it by visitors from Peterborough! According to Thompson (1913, p.113), the dressed stone was used for the kitchen floor of the nearby Manor House.
Thompson gives a plan of the well along with an accurate description, which luckily does not differ from the sight which greets the visitor today (although there is now an ugly metal gate on the structure):
‘The subterranean chambers constitute a medley of design and structure; they are not caves, although now underground, but were apparently first built….
The walls and domed roofs consist of undressed stone. The passage from the pool runs in a direction of N 60 W, and is some six feet long. The entrance being two feet four inches wide by five feet high. The first chamber or antechamber is mostly to the left and nearly at right angles to the passage; it is approximately ten feet by eight feet. In this there is a window high up, evidently a more recent introduction, for the frame is of dressed stone, and the rough stone roof cuts across it, so that external appearance rather than internal use would appear to have been the dominating factor in its design. On the opposite wall of the window is a doorway, and at one time evidently a door, for one stone jamb of dressed stone is left. This doorway opens into the very irregular second or main chamber, roughly twenty feet long, by fifteen feet wide near the widest part. Immediately within the doorway is a well, with dressed stone curb, of three feet internal diameter, and exactly above, in the roof is another smaller circular opening lined with dressed stone as though arranged to draw water from the well from the mound above without going into the chamber, but this is not now open. The well is now choked with stones, but the water used to overflow from the well and run down the passage way to the pool outside, it now flows out oat a lower level leaving the passage way dry. Immediately on the right, after entering the large chamber is am opening leading to a third chamber, smaller, crudely oval, but an indescribable shape, approximately eight to nine feet one way by twelve feet another. One side of this is the opening, now blocked up, to a supposed underground passage to Peterboroug Cathedral, by which the monks of the Abbey of Burgh, it is said used to come to bathe in the pool….
To the left of this large chamber, on entering the latter, is a recess some fifteen feet wide and nine feet deep, with a floor consisting essentially of two steps, both apparently of ‘live’ rock, i.e. rock in situ; the upper step being the wider and more like a dais. There is a rather small opening high up on the outer wall of this recess, some five feet from the dais, and is about seventeen inches wide by twenty two feet high, but goes four feet or more in the thickness of the wall or mound without providing an external opening.’
(Thompson 1913, p.114)
The site’s greatest fame stems from the tunnel mentioned above by Thompson, which is said to run from the Holy Well to the Abbey at Peterborough (also described by Bord and Bord 1985, p.76). A blocked-up doorway in the third chamber is described as the entrance to this tunnel, although one can imagine that the nature of the whole edifice would lend to such a belief. Certainly records show that the Abbey was supplied by a conduit at the Infirmary end of the Chapel of St Lawrence. However, it is more likely that this took its waters from the St Leonard’s Well at Spital, whose water also filled the Boroughbury Pools and Swan’s Pool.
Yet records show that the Abbey was interested in the site. During Abbot Godfreys tenure, in 1130s the following document states:
‘Amos ejus viii inclusat porceum Burgi Sumptus iiij I lb: xv sol. Item feat fossutum salveunium inter Thorpe fen et le Dom Sumptus xx sol‘.
(Anon. 1904-1906, p.22)
This enclosure cost four pounds and fifteen shillings. Under Abbot Gyerge another document notes the extent of this land (Halywelle), of four acres, three rood and twenty pearches, which until the building of the estate remained the same (Anon. 1904-1906, p.22 ). Yet neither of these documents explicitly refers to the laying of a conduit.
The only possible justification for this belief came in November 6th 1964, when workmen, excavating to set up telephone kiosks beside the old Guildhall on Cathedral square, unearthed an underground passage. This continued for twenty five feet under church street, and ran parallel to land belonging to the Almoner’s Garden that was exchanged in the 1194-1200 agreement between the Abbot and the Vicar of Burgh and Longthorpe. Although the passage was only four feet six inches high, it was not impossible that it could have been a tunnel, especially considering the average height of mediaeval people. Unfortunately, the underground passage turned out to be some kind of eighteenth century fire precautions.
Comparing Thompson’s description and the photograph, one can note a few differences, the main one being that the site in general has become noticeably overgrown. The wall which appears to run along one side has become overgrown and derelict, the pool overgrown, and rubbish-strewn. Within the structure, the curbed well has gone and now one can see the water bubbling from the rock.
In 2010 I was asked to talk about the well from BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and detailed the history and folklore for their religious strand on sacred places.
Despite the construction of a housing estate, the old Holy Well remains to mystify and fascinate us. Ignore the rubbish and the ugly metal doorway, and you can imagine it being the site of great pilgrimage from olden days to the Victorians. Today, nearly forgotten and forlorn, it is an amazing surprise, especially if you seek the site without knowing what you expect to see!