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The old baths of London – The Roman Bath of the Strand

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Situated beneath 5 Strand Lane is one of the city’s most enigmatic and perhaps little known relic, the so-called Roman Baths. Laying four feet six inches (1.4m) below the modern street level, the bath measures about 15 foot (4.72m) by 6 feet (1.91m), with a depth of just over four feet (1.37 m) deep. Its lining is built from bricks measuring 9 inches (22.9 cm) by 3 inches (7.6 cm) and is 1.75 inches (4.4 cm) thick.

John Pinkerton (1784) is the first author to describe the site, called it a:

“fine antique bath’ in the cellar of a house in Norfolk Street in the Strand formerly belonging to the Earl of Arundel whose house and vast gardens were adjacent”        

The next notice was when MP William Weddell, a well-known antiquarian died of a sudden chill when bathing there in April 1792. Even Dickens (1849) used the bath as a location in David Copperfield having the titular character having cold plunge within and describes it as ‘at the bottom of one of the streets out of the Strand.’ A sign on the baths in the eighteenth century, put up by its then owner read:

“the celebrated Cold Plunging Bath (built by the Earl of Essex in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, 1588) is open all the year round. It is known to be the most pure and healthy bath in London ensuring every comfort and convenience to those availing themselves of this luxury. This bath, which is strongly recommended by the Medical Profession, is essentially supplied from the Spring, and discharges at the rate of ten tons per diem. Consequently, every bather has the advantage of a continual change of water. The old Roman spring water bath, nearly two thousand years old, can be viewed.”                            

Roman or more recent?

Despite this claim the actual origins of the origins of the bath are unclear. Although Roman London lay 1 mile (1.6 km) to the east and all the remains appear to suggest a Tudor origin at the earliest. They may have indeed been built for Arundel House, which was built by the Earl of Essex as a water cistern. When this house was lost in the 16th century, the area was built over by a row of houses and it was only rediscovered after a fire in 1774. A man called James Smith appeared to be responsible in converting the derelict cistern into a cold bath when he moved into No 33 Surrey Street in the mid 1770s. He soon started to advertise it as:

“the cold bath at No. 33, Surry-street, in the Strand … for the Reception of Ladies and Gentlemen, supplied with Water from a Spring, which continually runs through it.”

Two years later he constructed a second bath which was lined with marble. This the Essex Bath survives robbed of its cladding in the basement on the Norfolk Hotel but currently due to the building being empty is inaccessible.

A survey of the brickwork by Dr. Kevin Hayward of Pre-Construct Archaeology in May 2011 revealed that brickwork and tiles to date from 1450 to 1700. Further chemical analysis by Dr Stuart Black of University of Reading suggested a date between 1550 and 1650. Although, the date would support the cistern origin for Arundel House, Trapp (2010) believes that it may have been associated with the grotto fountain, said to represent Mount Parnassus or Helicon, in the privy garden of adjoining Somerset House. The area where it stood was being redeveloped in the 18th century. Trapp (2010) notes that Treasury Warrant book for April 1710 records a petition from Thomas Vernon, the then owner of this land nearby which records:

“for the grant of a little old shed in Strand Lane…being 14 feet square, formerly a water house to a grotto in Somerset House but now in ruinous condition and like to fall into the petitioner’s land.”   

This is clearly the Roman Bath for its dimensions are identical and Vernon’s property Surrey Street property would have abutted the site. Interestingly a record of 1724 which records ‘Old Waterhouse’ (a decayed building of no use)’ suggests it was still standing and when it was demolished and became the bath today is unclear.

The source of water

It may seem so surprising in an area where so many wells have been capped, filled in and culverted into sewers, the water supply has been relatively constant bar when in the 1940s it was blocked with rubbish or during 1970s building work. However it has been unclear how where it comes from.in the mid 1800 it was bubbling from a hole in the floor but this was apparently patched over, then meaning by the early 1920s it entered by the north-east corner but since then it has been supplied via a settling tank at its east end.

It is probable that one of a number of lost holy wells fill it either St Clement’s Well or the Holy Well which gave Holywell street its name. Certainly the properties of the water being high in phosphate could suggest it was a medicinal spring

A remarkable survival

Despite not being as the 1838 advertising would say an ‘Old Roman Bath’ the bath’s survival is no more remarkable. In 1893, one of its users a New Oxford Street draper called Henry Glave bought the complex – he sold off the Essex bath and its building and focused on the older one refurbishing it by using the Essex Bath’s stone flooring, marble lining and wall tiles and creating changing-stalls and decorative sculpture. The family, the site being inherited by his daughters, ran the site until 1922 when it was offered for sale for £500. It was subsequently purchased by the Rector of St Clement Danes, the Reverend William Pennington Bickford. His ambition was for the bath to be restored to its Roman glory and be a major historical monument. He was supported by historian Edward Foord who wrote about its provenance. The plans never materialized and then when he died in 1941 it was bequeathed to St Clement Danes patron, Lord Exeter. Then through various complications it ended with it being taken over by the National Trust but controlled by Westminster Council who would organise the day to day maintenance. After some decorations it was opened once more to the public in June 1951.

On a recent Open London Day I was able to have a closer look again. The site is remarkable as being still full of water in a city with demands on water and a plus are the remarkable Dutch tiles. Of course no one is able to take a bath in it but it remains a curious relic of London’s cold bath system – the only one remaining of many in the city

The ancient Wells of Alderley Edge – part one – The Holy Well

There is certainly an otherworldly feel to the woods of Alderley Edge. Unsurprisingly, it is a landscape which boasts three mysterious springs: the Holy Well, Wizard’s Well and the Wishing Well.Roeder and F. S. Graves in 1905s Recent archaeological discoveries at Alderley Edge by C Roeder and F S Graves, in the Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society states:

“Well and the Holy Well. These, and especially the latter, were in ancient times connected with well-worship, and propitiatory offerings were made by people to the presiding deities, and also were frequently resorted to in Christian times, but doubtless the cult was observed here in much earlier days.”

They detail the cures and nature of the votive offers:

“Their healing powers were considered to be unfailing; the barren, the blind, the lame, and bodily-afflicted constantly made their way thither; maidens whispered their vows and prayers over them, their lovers and their future lives being their theme. Crooked silver coins were dropped into the well, but these have been cleared out long ago. At the present time the devotees are satisfied, in their economical habit, to offer mere pins and hairpins; the custom is not dead yet, for some of the immersed pins are still quite uncorroded and bright. Some of the sex deposit the pins in their straight and original form, others bend them only at right angle, and as many again seem to consider the charm alone to act effectively when carefully and conscientiously doubled up. Maidens of a more superficial cast just give the slightest twist to the object. To judge from the state of corrosion, and the old-fashioned thick, globular heads, some of these pins must have been in the well for at least sixty years. We have brought three cases to show the various forms into which the visitors have tortured the pins, and classified them into groups. There are occasionally to be seen also a few white pebbles in the two wells.”

The Holy Well

The Holy Well is first mentioned in an 1763 Court Rolls of Bollin Fee in a perambulation however its first written account is in Memoires of the Family of Finney, of Fulshaw, (near Wilmslow) Cheshire, by Samuel Finney of Fulshaw, Esquire’, in 1787. Which noted:

“Lower down the Hill, just below the Beacon, is a Spring of very clear Sweet Water, that issues pretty plentifully out of the Rock, called the Holy Well, which, no doubt, in times of Superstition, had its Virtues, which are now unknown, though many young people, in the Summer time, resort to it in parties, and regale themselves with this water, which is still supposed to have a prolific quality in it.”

Robert Bakewell’s 1843 Alderley Edge and Its Neighbourhood, who states:

“this well trickles in a constant stream from a cleft in a large rock about 60 yards below the Beacon… the waters of this well are said to be a cure for barrenness.”

Mystical author Alan Garner in his 1998 The Voice That Thunders: Essays and Lectures work tells us much of the site:

“Our water supply derived from the Holy Well, which granted wishes to tourists at weekends, and an income for the child of our family who, on a Monday morning, cleaned out the small change. Yet for no money would that child have climbed the yew that stood beside the well. “If I ever so much as see you touch that”, my grandfather had said, “I’ll have the hide off you”. And there was a memory that could hardly be restored to words: of how the well was not for wishing, but for the curing of barren women; and the offerings were of bent pins, not of pence.”

Interesting Garner notes:

“And Grandad spoke of rags tied to trees there. That had been a long time ago, he said.”

As such it is the only such recorded rag well in Cheshire/Staffordshire/Derbyshire area and perhaps was imported from Wales however the nearest traditional site would be over 100 miles away and as such it is an odd anomaly or evidence of a wider lost practice!

Holy Well on Alderley Edge
cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Raymond Knapman – geograph.org.uk/p/3882665

The Holy Well today

The Holy well is situated beneath a piece of rock filling an old stone trough set into the ground with a break at one end allowing its waters to flow out.

In the next post we shall explore the legend of the Wizard’s Well and the mysterious Wishing well.

Rediscovered/Restored: A lost Nottinghamshire Lady Well rediscovered?

Of St. Mary’s Well, Mansfield, English Heritage’s Pastscape entry reads:

“There is much modern development in this area and there is now no surface evidence of a former well: local enquiry also negative.”

Such is the entry detailing the investigation in 1974. With Pastscape being such as useful resource it would be easy to leave it there, but in holy well research it’s not always a good idea to leave others to do the research….

Of this well called the Virgin Mary’s Well or the Old Bath (SK 548 616) little history is recorded. Indeed, the earliest record is Harrold (1801) work on Mansfield, who appears to separate the two sites as he notes that:

“Near the bath is a huge rock from which issues a constant stream of water much coveted by amateurs of the lipid element…Though I am not of the tribe of water drinkers I had the curiosity to taste thereof and pronounce it to be neither saline nor tepid.”

According to Groves (1894) the well had valuable medicinal properties and notes that if exploited it could increase the importance of the town. However, there is no evidence that this attempt to develop the site into a spa happened, although it was much frequented. He notes that a man called White, who was 80 in 1891 used to bathe in the well when he was a boy, although the water was so cold that he would not bath in it long!

The spring was used to fill a public bath in 1823 being enclosed in the grounds of Bath or Goldie’s Mill which sadly was partly demolished in 2008 after years of dereliction.  However, the well appears to disappear from view soon after Groves and no mention is made of it. Could it be destroyed?

Doing a bit more research, I uncovered a survey made by the Sherwood Archaeology Society (1998), which recorded a well which they referred to it as the Bath Mill Spring and suggest tradition thought it was a Roman Bath! It would appear that the well still survived (or at least did in 1998). They recorded it as follows:

“The spring’s chamber is around 2.5 metres square with a vaulted roof. The interior is of undressed local stone and completely rendered. At the rear of the chamber is a tank made of finely dressed limestone 75cm by 107cm and about 75cm deep. The tank was fed by water channels from the rear and the side of the structure and has an outlet conduit which presumably empties into the river which is approximately four metres below the tank. Due to the general drop in the level of the water table, the actual source of the water is now lost. Access to the water source is via four steps. The floor and a side platform show considerable evidence of heavy usage. The top three steps have been reconstructed at some time and it would appear that the chamber’s threshold has been raised. Also at a more recent date a low but substantial brick wall has been built immediately in front of the cistern. The purpose of this is not clear.”

Such a detailed report meant that the site should still exist and so I contacted the president of the society who gave me more information and I set out a warm Sunday morning to find it. Arriving at the location I met a man from Severn Trent who was doing a check on the sewerage works which was fortunate as he knew the site. Fortunately it was not in the works but the other side. He showed me from the other bank and I looked over into a morass of shoulder high nettles and brambles! Walking around to the other side my first obstacle was clear the walk way to the mill was very permanently locked! This was frustrating as I now knew the site was there and was eager to find out more. There was a second option, I noticed a garden abutted the waste area enclosing the well and I gingerly enquired of the lady there. She very kindly said it was okay and seemed pleased to hear someone was visiting the site for the right reasons, adding it was often the haunt of youths.

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I jumped the fence into the boggy hole surrounding the site and made my way to where I thought it was. Soon I found the ground getting more sodden and soon I found the well. It was exactly as described above and quite substantial considering it was so little known. A 20 metre stone flagged pathway leads from the mill and such the cistern was probably built at the same time as the mill, and that the owner’s used it as a source of fresh water and was possibly moved when the approach road was moved. The description above fits what greets us today. Fortunately, it survives, but perhaps not for long as the site is now threatened with destruction as the derelict mill and lands around it are soon to be developed. Hopefully, this, the only surviving sacred spring in the towns of Nottinghamshire can be preserved for future generations.

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A Warwickshire field trip: Holy and healing wells of the county’s South-west

Warwickshire does not perhaps have the greatest reputation for holy and healing springs and appears to be hide in the shadows of nearby Gloucestershire. However, my research into the county has revealed there’s more to the county’s healing waters than Leamington Spa. Here are a few lesser known sites towards the Banbury side of the county; any further information on them is gratefully received. Hopefully the book is out this year!

KNIGHTCOTE

Many of the county’s healing springs are compared to Leamington, the Stockwell is no exception, being saline in nature it was bound to be compared such, as Leamington was. However, that is as far as the comparison goes for little other than it made a decent cup of tea is recorded of it. It currently arises in a three feet by three foot roughly square chamber with stone surrounds. Old railings enclose the spring head and steps go down from the road.                

It is worth contemplating on the thoughts of Bob Trubshaw on the origin of Stockwells Old English stoc meaning ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’ being the apparent same derivation as stow. That would give the site an explanation perhaps for the belief in its healing waters but it could equally derived from the place cattle stock were watered or even less interesting Old English stocc for ‘spring by stumps’, a description which could describe it today.

RATLEY

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Not far away is St. Anne’s Well which arises a small stone chamber beside the footpath from the hamlet of Arlescote. The well consists in a shallow square basin and flows downhill forming a muddy area beneath. A stone set into the back of the fabric reads:

“ST. ANNE’S WELL / Reparavit M. L / A. D. / MCMXI

However, beyond that nothing is recorded. It is likely to be ancient as it found below an iron-age earthwork and clearly the footpath past it is of some age and past significance, yet the early forms of the OS only record spring.

Considering that the hamlet above the well is called Knowle End it is possible that the legend recorded considering fairies moving the stone is related to this site and not the Knowle End in Birmingham as reported by folklorists. Again little is recorded but it must have been thought well enough in the 1930s considering how far the spring is from any houses. A site to visit in the winter or spring however, because it gets very overgrown!

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UPTON

The next holy well is a considerable find and it is surprising that no photo exists of it or more recorded, considering it survives in a popular National Trust garden and is quite strikingly unique. Found in the Bog Garden in the grounds of Upton Hall is an 18th century stone Monk’s Well. The Bog Garden consists of a number of ponds originally Stew ponds fed by this spring improved in the 17th century. Trace the flow back and be ready for a surprise. For the spring erupts from the base of a rock face in a cave/grotto and flows over mossy stones to fill the ponds. The spring head is enclosed in an early C18 red brick vaulted chamber (listed grade II)  set into the rock face laying c 100m west of the House. All in all pretty unique and surprisingly unheralded. Indeed the Bog Garden was closed off when I visited but the gardeners were happy to allow me over to see it. I cannot say whether access is achievable without asking however. The well is so named because Upton was held in the twelfth century by the canons of St Sepulchre’s at Warwick but it may have a grange property as no one has worked out where any house would have been located. The site does not have any recorded properties and it is only holy by its name association

BURTON DASSETT

The last well is a bit of an enigma, in the deserted Burton Dassett village in Northend, is found a substantial well head which has claims to be a ‘Holy Well’  although the provenance is unclear. Burgess (1876) in his Warwickshire History simply notes that it was used for baptism and immersion. Whilst Bord and Bord (1985) Sacred Waters appear to be earliest to refer to it as such stating:

“the holy well with its stone cover will be seen on the left-hand side of the lane as you approach the church”.                                           

The present stone well house is of a considerable size being constructed of local red sandstone around 1840 in a Grecian style. The central doorway is party below ground level and has steps down into a square chamber. Over the stone lintel but the worn instruction is an inscription with carved flowers. It possibly states 1534 but it was not clear. It is evident that the well was part of an estate improvement but when and by whom? And did it exist before? If it does say 1534 that is an early date for a landed estate improvement. It certainly is still visited by well wishers as coins are found in its waters. Sadly, despite a substantial water supply it did not stop the demise of the village and now only the substantial church remains, which incidentally is worthy of a visit.

With many more sites yet to explore…Warwickshire is proving to be another interesting County.

Rediscovered/Restored: St Peter’s Wells, Peterchurch, Herefordshire

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“The stone head from the mouth of which the main spring flows, pictured in Mrs Leather’s the Folklore of Herefordshire has miraculously survived the tanking of this well for a water supply, although he is now buried almost up to his nose in concrete.”

Jonathan Sant 1994’s Healing wells of Herefordshire

Such was the description that when I was touring the area visiting holy and healing wells in Herefordshire I gave St Peter’s Wells a miss thinking I’d be disappointed. However, the well was a notable one John Littlebury in his 1876, Directory and Gazetteer of Herefordshire notes that:

“The water of these wells was formerly extensively used for the cure of rheumatism and sore eyes.”

Indeed these appear to other springs, and this explains the name, St Peter’s Wells, Ella Leather in her Folklore of Herefordshire notes of these:

“There were formerly three springs here. Two near together, above the large well, were good for eye troubles; into these pins were thrown. They are now closed up.”

Ella Leather continues:

“The water of the larger well flowed through a sculptured head of St Peter into a shallow bathing place made for the use of sufferers from rheumatism. Mr J. Powell, of Peterchurch, told me in 1905, that he could remember this chilly remedy being actually used: it was in his boyhood. The ash tree which formerly stood near the well had been cut down, and still lay above it.”

It is evident from Leather’s photo that the head no longer had a flow of water through it and it appears that the bath was no longer beneath it. I would suggest that the head had not flowed for some time because it is clean and lacking in any moss which would come with constant water. L. Richards in his 1935 Wells and Springs of Herefordshire notes that:

A considerable quantity of water issues from sandstone in the neighbourhood of St. Peter’s Wells above Wellbrook Farm and gives rise to Well Brook—joined by a tributary from a good spring in Bradley’s Wood—which flows under the road at Crossway and so into the River Dore. The spring water is hard, especially that from the ‘ Limestone ‘ which is well displayed in a quarry below Urishay Castle and on analysis by C. C. Duncan, F.I.C., F.C.S., proved to be 96.37 per cent, carbonate of lime.”

This hard water may explain its use for rheumatics perhaps.

Ancient pagan well?

With such a prominent head it is not surprisingly that there has been conjecture over a pagan origin, citing the Celtics fascination with heads, especially in connection with wells It is interesting that an ash tree is mentioned Ash trees were thought be sacred in pagan times and where associated with the legend of Odin’s eye and the well, but of course it is a common tree and it could be a coincidence. Sant (1994) notes:

“An iron cross has been found in the wood above the well, and this may have come from the well where it would have lent a less pagan air to the place.”

Where there was a link is not clear considering it was found in the woods and not at the well

A bath and baptism

Sant (1994) notes that the baths were provided with a:

“ shed for the rheumatic bather’s use.”

And according to George Marshall in 1933–5, ‘Fourth field meeting, 1933’, Tr. of the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club 1933–5: xxvi–ix states that:

up to quite recent times, baptisms were performed here, the bath being approached by eight stone steps. Mr Watkins explained that the steps and bath into which they lead was choked to the top with earth and the head was covered with water until recently, when excavations were made and the well renovated.”

Adopted for a water supply

The bath was restored in 1932 according to Richardson 1935 but this was short lived for it was soon adopted as a local water supply for the town

“Village Supply.—This belongs to the ‘ Peterchurch Water Supply Company ‘—a company constituted by an Indenture dated 2nd February, 1921,and consisting of the users of the scheme. There are two separate undertakings: a spring from sandstone collected at outburst into a brick tank above Wellbrook (by the side of the road to Stockley Hill where it is joined by the lane from St Peter’s Wells supplies the lower part of the village….”

The current reservoir was installed here in the 1960s, and its insensitive positioning rendered the ancient stone head redundant as noted by Sant 1994 and shown below.

St Peter’s Well head taken by Jonathan Sant c1994 copyright Sant

The restoration

However in 2015, as part of an infrastructure upgrade, a way was found to direct excess water through the stone head and water once again flowed through its mouth. In periods of very low groundwater levels the flow from the stone head may be reduced to a trickle due to demands from the water supply network.

When I did finally visit the site in 2017 I was delighted indeed to see this head restored to its usage and the well chamber visible, albeit difficult to approach as a result of the fence which understandable is around the site to protect the water supply. It now boasts to be the most notable holy well in the county once again.

Boundary spring or Holy Well? Brettenham’s St. Chad’s Well

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Back in the mid 90s when I started seeking out holy wells, I came across reference to a site just outside of Thetford. I’d planed to visit the site and found it to be one of the most curious in the county. It is marked on the first series of the OS map in Gothic writing but was it that old?

Ordnance Survey New Popular edition map -- click to enlarge

 

A substantial site is located in Shadwell Park called St. Chad’s Well (TL 933 830). However, despite the name I can find no history or traditions about it, the first author to refer to the well is Bryant (1901) who states it is marked on an ancient map but as I note below I have been unable to substantiate this.    Was it an ancient well?

Icewell, holy well or folly?

The well is enclosed is a circular dome of flint and mortar with a passage entrance facing west. The structure is supported by a stone pillar. The structure is not dissimilar to an ice-well which indeed it has been claimed it was but no-one would build an ice-well with a spring in it. A medieval fabric claim was made, but  is of probable 19th Century date and is an estate folly; a grottification of a simple spring, utilising old stone work.  This spring arises from the hillside and enters into a basin kerbed in stone through a hole in the flint wall of the structure. Above this is an arched recess. The water is channelled into a narrow gutter to exit through the north wall. The concrete floor of the chamber is below ground level reached by five stairs in the passageway. There are two lighting niches in the walls at the east and the southwest. Six stone blocks are arranged to form seats. Below the arch of the spring of the arch of the domed roof are six brackets which possibly served as candle stands.

St Chad or Boundary spring?

Unlikely although St Cedd his brother evangelised East Anglia, Chad wells are very common in the region. This is because they arise from the Old English Chaud meaning cold and thus cold spring! In this case it is apparent that the name may well be a back-derivation as its location on East Hall and Gonville Manors boundary suggests name derives from O.E scead for ‘boundary’ this is emphasised by the name of the estate Shadwell – sceadwell! Indeed the estate Shadwell Court is only first mentioned in White (1845) as the house was built in the 1830s with associated statues. Historic England records:

“Robert Buxton acquired the manor of Rushworth in Shadwell during the C16, initially holding a lease from the fourth Duke of Norfolk. In c 1715 John Buxton, amateur architect of Channonz Hall in Tibenham, began to rebuild what he called Shadwell Lodge and to lay out the grounds. The main features however of the design which survives today (1999), including the layout of the plantations and the creation of the lake, are the work of his son, also John, between the 1740s and 1760s and these are recorded on William Faden’s map of the county dated 1797. “

This suggests the well was a folly capitalising on the spring name using the carved stonework which may have originally been part of Thetford Priory, giving it a rustic religious feel. However this does not mean that the well was not of significance. Boundaries often incorporated springs as sites of note, or as disputed sites and having them on boundaries allowed equal access. As many Parish boundaries date from Angl0-Saxon periods it is possible that the well had a significant position in the settlement. There is evidence of an ancient settlement here with flint flakes and blades from the Neolithic and Bronze Age were found around the well and Roman funeral urns and Saxon tumuli in the park. Furthermore the well is also located close to Peddar’s Way, suggesting pilgrim use perhaps. So was it a Holy well as noted 1870-72, John Marius Wilson’s Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales:

“SHADWELL……It takes its name from a spring called St. Chad’s well, formerly much frequented by pilgrims.”

This begs the question is this just antiquarian fancy or are we missing some records of its history? Was it frequented by those on the way to Walsingham…if so its forgotten by them now.

In the shadow of the train: St Helen’s Spring, Santon Downham, Norfolk

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Only a few feet from the hurtling sound of the train is a large spring head. This is St. Helen’s Spring or Tevantwell.  (TL 841 874) still exists although as Manning (1993) in there work on Taking the Waters in Norfolk notes the original site may have been displaced by the construction of the railway nearby.  Thomas Martin (1779) in his History of Thetford notes that:

“St Helens was a parish church in the time of the Confessor…It stood on a hill two miles out of the town on the Santon road. At the foot of the hill is a spring commonly called Holywell or Tevant-well, corruptly for St Helen’s-well.”

W. G. Clarke (1925) in Breckland wilds states that:

“It is said that a man who was working in the harvest field suffered from extreme heat and expressed his intention of going to St. Helen’s Well to get some water to drink. His companions endeavoured to dissuade him from drinking icy-cold water in his heated condition, but he was obstinate, went to the spring and drank till he died. His spirit thereupon haunted the pit in which the spring was situated.”

Leigh Hunt (1870) in his The capital of the ancient kingdom of East Anglia reports finding foundations of this building, and these may still be those still exist and are described by Manning (1993). According to Manning (1993):

“six or seven springs emerge in the floor of the quarry… the building of the railway cut through the original St Helen’s Well and the present springs represent a post-railway emergence”.    

She states that there are signs of a structure consisting of a grey brick bridge spanning the conduit arch and two further arches have been infilled at either side of the conduit, but this do not appear to be visible now and perhaps have become overgrown.

The spring does arise from stonework although it is difficult to judge whether these are natural or have had the touch of human hand.

A lost church

The first mention the church is the Domesday Book which notes:

 “one church of St Helen with one ploughland”. 

The next mention is that there was a fair there mentioned in a roll of fair belonging to the Borough of Thetford, this was also recorded in 1347 as a market or fair at Santon. However, by the time of the 1368 Archdeacon’s visitation it was absent from this very comprehensive survey. This suggests that the church was gone by then. Various excavations have revealed the remains of an apsidal church and that it incorporated Roman works into it, mainly tiles in its east end and north wall foundations. But was there a village? It appears not and so you may ask why was it here? The answer is quite clear it was here to capitalise on the spring, but what is surprising is that no adoption is apparent by the church perhaps this indicates that the church had indeed gone by the time of the real adoption of such springs by the church with appropriate masonary…it is difficult to tell.

An ancient site

Examples of Palaeolithic flint tools have been found in the gravels at St Helen’s Pit. As at other sites in the Little Ouse valley such as Broomhill (another Trail site), these are likely to have been incorporated into the gravels after being washed off a land surface where they had been discarded, or having been drawn into them by the churning effects of frost action.

Paleolithic Finds

An oval handaxe in fresh-looking condition, collected by Rev. H. Tyrell Green of Santon Downham. [Photo courtesy Wisbech Museum 1937.17.8.]

Pagan site

What is clear is that this remote site has become a pagan site again, Pagan Federation of Norfolk website records:

​”This is a strangely beautiful spot, which forms a point of connection between the earth and the leaves and the water of the land itself, the scars of quarrying, echoes of ancient Pagan veneration, faint traces of Anglo-Saxon Christianity, the brutal power of Victorian industrialisation and a new, Pagan appreciation of sacredness. “

Adding:

“Although I have never met anyone else down there, it is obvious from the energy and from some of the items one occasionally finds, that various groups and individuals do a lot of magical work there. Wands can sometimes be respectfully cut from one of the Hazels and the water itself is, of course, very powerful and useful in a variety of magical contexts. St. Helen, or Helen of the Roads (also known as Elen of the Ways) is considered by John and Caitlín Matthews to be one of our oldest native deities. Since she is associated with travel, water from her well can be used for magic relating to physical journeys, but also to help with pathworkings and with quests to seek ancient knowledge and wisdom.”

What is interesting is that a hazel tree nearby has become a rag well. Interestingly the Pagan federation add:

“This practice, of tying rags and other offerings to trees at sacred spots, has found its way to us from our more westerly colleagues and is not one which I personally feel particularly comfortable with, mainly because so many people use items made of synthetic materials, which do not rot away like wool or linen, and end up just looking like a lot of litter desecrating the place. It is very rare in Norfolk, though and even at St. Helen’s there are only ever a few of them.)”

Indeed other than St Micheal’s Well in Longstanton outside of Cambridge and Woolpit’s Our Lady have ever had only one! It is possible as there are a number of St. Helen’s Well which are rag wells up north that someone in the know decided to start it off here. Whatever, someone had clearly thought the rag tree was an intrusion for upon a recent visit no rags were apparent being replaced by a bouquet of bright red tulips. It is indeed an unworldly site…climb down to it the trees give an eerie feel to it and even the sound of the train hurtling by cannot break the connection one can get to this peaceful place.

Rutland’s enigmatic Ashwell spring

All ye who hither come to drink/Rest not your thoughts below/Look at that sacred sign and think/Whence living waters flow”.

Ashwell’s Wishing’ Well is one of those frustrating sites. It is clearly a structure of some importance, being one of the best built up in the midlands, but how significant is it?

The sacred Ash

Peter Binnall (1935) in his Folklore of Wells notes that ash tree are very often associated with holy wells. The Ash was considered a sacred tree in Scaninavian countries and Britain. It was identified as Yggdrasil, the legendary tree associated with the god Odin. It is significant to note that at its roots was a spring where the Norns: Fate, Being and Necessity lived who used the spring to water the tree each day and used clay from it to keep the tree white to preserve its life. and whitened it with clay from the well, preserving its life.

However that does not mean that a well named after an ash is a culted spring. However, as Val Shepherd notes in her 1994 Historic wells around Bradford notes Holy Well Ash as well as Syke Well, Priestly which still has ash trees over it, as have Peggy Well, Riddlesden and White Well Harden. Hertfordshire has a significant seven springs in the town of Ashwells which is associated with a Roman shrine and the ash above St Betram’s Well, Ilam Staffordshire was protected by a ‘curse’ which suggested that any person who harmed it would themselves be harmed. Indeed my research has suggested there is an Ashwell in every county but I have not been bold enough to suggest there would be any significance in these names

Is this the well of the village?

Over the time the name of the village has changed from Exwell in the xi century; then Assewell, Ayswell, Aiswell (xiii century; and then Aswelle, Ashewell, Assewell xiv century  and possibly the spring in which the village is named after, although some authorities note is derived from O.E wiella for stream although that does not preclude the spring being the source of course.

Furthermore,  finding any associated tradition or history is impossible.  The name wishing well is a modern term it appears unsupported by evidence. Some local belief that it may have been a holy well, and a cross was once erected over the structure.

The well today

When I first visited the well in the 1990s it looked a little forlorn, the cross said to be affixed to the apex of the building had gone and apparently fallen into private hands (I subsequently discovered its current whereabouts and it is safe!)

The spring arises in a substantial stone well house. This is made of squared rubble with a dressed stone coping. It is like a small grotto-like covered niche with an opening to the front with convex curved walls each side. Above the arched doorway an inscription reads.  The spring fills a small pool at base of niche within in the rockface showing this is a spring not a well.

In conclusion it would suggest that the spring’s development was an attempt by a Victorian clergymen to both gentrify the site and as thus built a proper well house with its legend. Was there a High Church tradition in the village in the 1800s not that I have so far discovered?

Ancient and holy wells of Porthcawl, Glamorganshire part one

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The modern seaside town of Porthcawl is classic British seaside and in the summer the eateries swam with visitors, surfers ride the waves and children clamber over rocks in search of crabs…a few miles from this buzz of seaside fun are three watery relics which have survived the spread of the town. How many of those seaside visitors come and examine them is unclear but if they did they would be privy to a magic otherworld..quite literally in fact!

The first of our wells really does appear to contact to another world being Ffynnon Fawr. A flight of stone steps descend into a world deep beneath us into a pool where light just about penetrates. Inside a large chamber brimming with clear water. Ffynnon Fawr lives up to its name – it is indeed a large well!

It is not the easiest to find. My sources pinpointed it on a modern roundabout on the outskirts, but on the wrong side so I spent a fair time looking in the wrong place and resigned myself to not finding it. However, I was determined and returning found it below the level of the ground at the roundabout.

 

The well is a rectangular grey stone building with a camber headed doorway with an iron gate. On the side it reads:

“Y Fynnon Fawr”

“Mae Dwr Yn Fendith Angenreidol Rhoddes Duw Inni Ar Lawr; Cofiwyn ‘Awdur Pob Daioni’ Wrth Yfed Dwr O ‘r Fynnon Fawr’

“Water Is A Necessary Blessing Which God Has Given Us On Earth; Let Us Remember ‘The Author Of All Goodness’ As We Drink From Fynnon Fawr”.

The well provided water for the older village of Newton Nottage now absorbed into the Porthcawl sprawl however no legends or traditions are recorded.

Not far away is St. David’s Well sitting just beside the edge of a lane but still feeling from a distant age. This is a true holy well and its present fabric albeit early 20th century doubtlessly includes medieval work as noted by Charles Davies in his 1938 The History of the Ancient Church situate at Newton, Porthcawl in the Parish of Newton Nottage.:

A few years ago there was but a muddy heap of stones by the way-side; lately a partial restoration has been attempted, but without even indicating the name that gives it importance and interest.”.

Charles Davies further states:

“We are justified in surmising that the Well at Nottage owed its origin to the Memory of St. David, for the axiom of archaeology states that, when found in proximity, the shrine and its adjacent spring both commemorate the identical saint. A chain of evidence is available showing that such was the case. The remains of an ancient roadway bearing the significant name of “Heol-y-Capel” (Chapel Road), can be traced through the Croft leadmg from The Holy Well to the site of the Vanished Chapel and the adjoining “Cwrt Offeiriad”. Now this Chapel was situated on the west bank of the little valley, watered by Ffynnon Dewi (David’s Well), which is known today as “The Rhyll”, but in the 12th century was named “Dewiscumbe”. These facts prove an intimate relationship between the little hamlet and the National Saint of Wales in Pre-Norman days the nourishing of a Davidian Cultus – and all that is implied by Saint David having been its Patron Saint.

It is regrettable that the memory of the Shrine and Valley has completely faded ; not without shame do we remember our neglect of the Holy well itself, which has been the means of our resurrecting the past. …. Many are still spared who can remember It as it was some forty years ago. The limped water, of a constant depth, flows to the rough stone font, unaffected by winter flood or summer drought, incapable of gain or decline The rivulet still makes tremulous music as it meanders down the little valley of Dewiscumbe. Here, in mediaeval days, many a pilgrim quest found its consummation, and even today the idyllic surroundings appear to summon up the long-vanished atmosphere of the Welsh Saint.”

The site consists of a small stone enclosure with a style, said to be the church’s old altar, to prevent animals access it. The well itself is an ancient looking structure whose roof is made of large stone slabs and steps again go deep into the ground to a roofed chamber.

It is said that the ghost of a girl peering into its waters in the evening having been seen on a number times. She may have drowned in its deep waters. Today this is not possible as access again to the waters is no longer possible.

‘A poor wench’s well’ Mag’s Well, Coldharbour wood, Dorking, Surrey

Mag's Well, Coldharbour© Copyright Dan Gregory and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Mag’s Well, Coldharbour© Copyright Dan Gregory and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Deep in the woods is one of Surrey’s forgotten springs, a site possibly a holy well, probably a pagan spring, so nearly a spa. In Fields, Paths and Green Lanes being county walks, chiefly in Surrey and Sussex , Louise Jennings in 1878 notes:

“Mr. Urban’s correspondent is among the very few writers who have made any mention of ” Mag’s Well,” a spot which the compilers of all the local guide-books have passed by without a word. It is the charmed spring of the district, and lies not far from the village of Coldharbour.”

However, Mag’s Well was noted at length by William Thorne’s The Garden of Surrey:

“MAG’S WELL This is a mineral spring rising on a farm called Meriden about three miles from Dorking and forming the source of the stream called Pipbrook which runs past Dorking town Instances of extraordinary cures in cutaneous and scrofulous diseases are related of it and it is said to have derived the name of Mag’s Well from a poor woman of the name of Margery who first experienced its healing effects in the cure of a scorbutic disorder.”

John Aubreys’ 1719 Natural History and Antiquities of Surrey is the first to note it and gives its origin as

“The reason it was called Mag well was because a poor wench, whose name was Meg, that was troubled with the itch, and lived thereabout, first cured herself with washing

Cures for all – even the animals

John Timbs in A picturesque promenade round Dorking, in which he quotes the Gazette of Health thus speaks of the water

“The water of Mag’s Well on accurate analysis proves to be slightly impregnated with the sulphate of magnesia and iron It is entirely free from calcareous matter and approaches very nearly to the Malvern water It may prove beneficial as an alternative and in obviating costiveness but to produce an aperient effect it must be combined with the sulphate of magnesia or the sulphate of soda.”

The account continues noting its possible use for animals as well:

“ equally efficacious there being as 1 understand not only a convenient place of bathing for bipeds but a species of bath for quadrupeds which are frequently brought from a distance to be cured of various distempers by immersion in Mag’s Well which in summer it is said is colder and in winter warmer than the water of other springs”

Timbs again continues:

“Taken internally the water was long believed to be at once strongly cathartic and emetic That opinion has probably been less prevalent since the publication of Manning’s Surrey in which these alleged properties are strongly controverted although in that work it is said to be detergent.”

Timbs decides to examine at first hand the site:

“ however that many of the country people continue to put great faith in the virtue of Mag’s Wells 1 resolved personally to examine what is esteemed one of the curiosities of Surrey The farm on which the well is situated belongs to the College Guildford and is in the tenantry of George Dewdney esq banker remote from any public road and embosomed in woods A pedestrian excursion to the vale in which the spring rises appeared the only mode by which I could obtain my object the obscurity in which the well is hidden rendering it inaccessible to a carriage and almost to a horse for nearly the last mile of approach.”

It was perhaps its remoteness that preventing any commercial venture, that notwithstanding he notes that:

The bath or well is comprehended within a building the sides and ends of which are joined into right angles but there is no roof Immediately opposite the entrance of the building is the door way to the bath into which there is a descent of five steps the bath is in length about seven feet and in width and in depth between four and five feet The water enters at an aperture on the right and the surplus when the bath is full discharges itself over a lip on the left the whole can be readily run off through a vent at the bottom and at the left hand corner by drawing a plug The whole structure has apparently been for sometime much neglected The entrance and the exit of the water being imperfect the bath was nearly empty the depth not being more than three or four inches.”

Of the water he gives the lengthy discourse:

“Although the day was extremely cold there did not appear any extraordinary sensation of coldness on immersing the hand in the well and the mercury of a thermometer the bulb of which was immersed for ten minutes did not descend much below fifty A taste differing from ordinary spring water was not positively to be discriminated certainly not the slightest perception of saline particles could be distinguished The only taste I could fancy I detected was that of iron but in so slight a degree as to preclude all positive assertion of the fact In order however to ascertain if the powers imputed to the water of the spring are or are not fallacious a scientific examination of its properties would undoubtedly be satisfactory factory to the public I have therefore directed a quantity of water to be taken from the well and sent to you sufficient I conceive for analysis in the hope that you may not deem it unworthy of your notice Dorking December 1817 JM The water of Mag’s Well on accurate analysis proves to be slightly impregnated with the sulphate of magnesia And iron It is entirely free from calcareous matter and approaches very nearly to the Malvern water It may prove beneficial as an alternative and in obviating costiveness but to produce an aperient effect it must be combined with the sulphate magnesia or the sulphate of soda”

Mag’s well still survives although it is difficult to gauge which is the source as the neglect has continued since Timb’s day. There is a well structure covered by a decaying wooden lid and nearby a larger pool, perhaps the aforementioned bath.

An ancient well?

Some historians have attempted to produce evidence for a pre-Christian origin of the site, some suggesting the name Mag may refer to a pre-Christian deity. More convincing was its location in an area called Cold Harbour. For many years this was the accepted view given by Basil Barham of the East Herts Archæological Society, Author of “Changing Place Names,” in the Times:

The origin of the name Cold Harbour has been discussed several times. It is a Saxon place name, and means exactly what it says, viz., a “cold,” as distinct from an inhabited refuge. The Cold Harbours are all in the vicinity of one or other of the great Neolithic or Roman roads, and were originally the remains of partially destroyed Roman or Romano-British dwellings, or settlements. Travellers used them as being more or less secure places in which to spend a night. As the places became known, traders gathered there to distribute goods and do business, and eventually the places once more became villages, but retained the old generic name.”
However, despite the convenience of this view point it is now generally discredited. Of course as the majority of England’s road are based on Roman ones it is statistically likely they would be found with them! Indeed half of the populated places in England are 3.5 km or less from a Roman road This and research that showed the name Coldharbour was popular in the 17th century seems to suggest otherwise!”

Notwithstanding there is sometime otherworldly about this well and whatever its origin it survives, slightly forgotten, in its woodland setting.