Category Archives: Folly
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
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?
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.
Hidden deep in the woods on St. Anne’s Hill is the mysterious St Ann’s or Nun’s well…mysterious for many reasons, least of all its difficulty in finding (although read at the end of a sure-fire way to find it)
St Ann’s well or Catholic folly?
Although the first account of the well is by John Aubrey in his 1718 Surrey he describes it as:
“Westwards of this Town, on a steep Hill, stood St Anne’s Chapel, where, in the Time of the Abbots, was Mass said every Morning… Near the Top of the Hill is a fine clear Spring, dress’d with squar’d Stone.”
Manning and Bray in their 1809 History and Antiquities of Surrey similarly do not name it only stating it was:
“a spring, lined on the sides with hewn stone”
It is only in S.C. Hall’s 1853 Chertsey and neighbourhood that the name appears. It is also curious that the the current structure does not resemble that shown in Hall’s work either more in keeping with Aubrey’s description. It is probable that as the site was gaining a more religious name that it was getting a new structure. This is probably to do with the then owners of the hill, Lord and Lady Holland, who had converted to Roman Catholicism which would explain the improvements in 1850s and its associated with the saint and closer affinity to the chapel. This lending it to the idea of being a sort of romanticised folly.
The chapel itself is first mentioned in 1402 as the capella Sancte Anne is recorded although a chapel was licensed in 1334, but in 1440 St Anne’s hill was still the “hill of St Anne… otherwise called Eldebury Hill.” when a fair was granted which continues today although not unbroken as the Blackcherrry Fair in the town. The chapel is associated with an Abbey which was founded by St Erkenwald in 666 and such the cradle of Christianity in Surrey but it is a big jump to assume the well dates from then. This chapel remains on the hill, the guide in the car park refers to a mound near the house but the nearby mysterious Reservoir cottage incorporated most. However, it is improbable that a considerable amount of water would have been left untapped. The area was a hill fort whose exact history is unclear due to the predations over the centuries, but a Bronze Age date has been suggested.
A Topographical History of Surrey by Edward Brayley and Edward Mantell (1850) state
“and up to within recent years the country folk round about have been used to fetch away water from it, in the belief that it has virtues as an eye lotion. It has a strong taste of iron; would that be good for the eyes?”
Manning and Bray in their 1809 History and Antiquities of Surrey were stating that the waters were:
“not now used for any medicinal purpose. It rarely freezes when other springs do”.
Yet Hall (1853) under the name Nun’s Well states that:
“even now, the peasants believe that its waters are a cure for diseases of the eyes.”
Looking at its dirty murky waters today one would suggest it might cause as many eye problems as it cures!
Ghostly goings on!
Long in his 2002 Haunted Pubs of Surrey records the legends associated with the hill. It is possible that the nun’s well name may derive from a legend of a murder of a nun at St Ann’s convent who was buried in a sandpit. The veracity of this story and even the location of a convent is unclear. The well, it is said being the resort of the nun:
“whose deep begging signs can be heard on certain nights…on such a day, this place reeks of remorse, suffering or sorrow.”
On a spring evening with no one around one could quite imagine such ghostly cries.
A prehistoric landscape
In A Topographical History of Surrey by Brayley and Mantell (1850) it notes:
“Another curiosity is the so-called Devil’s Stone, or Treasure Stone. Aubrey calls this “a conglobation of gravel and sand,” and says that the inhabitants know it as “the Devil’s Stone, and believe it cannot be mov’d, and that treasure is hid underneath.” There have been many searchers after the treasure. One of them once dug down ten feet or more, hoping to come to the base of the huge mass, but his task grew unkinder as he got deeper, and he gave it up. He might well do so, for what is pretty certain is that he was trying to dig up St. Anne’s Hill. All over the face of the hill there are masses of this hard pebbly sandstone cropping up, though they are not so noticeable as the so-called Devil’s Stone because they are flat and occasionally crumbling, and have not had their sides laid bare by energetic treasure-seekers.”
Such stones are often found in conjunction with stones and the treasure may suggest the giving of votive offerings. The combination of a healing spring, an ancient stone and as the name of the hill might suggest a sacred tree is something of considerable interest to those interesting in sacred landscapes and suggests a possible old cult hereabouts. The existence of a ghostly nun may also be significant, there are near identical legends at Canwell and Newington Kent and, the later associated with another Devil’s stone. Do they remember old pagan deities, water spirits who lived by the spring? But this is the only evidence, the old writers are silent on anything more! My musing are just that musings!
The well today is indeed a substantial is ruined structure. It resembles an ice well in structure, its plan being a key shape with a rectangular basin and a dome over the source, although this is difficult to locate. Much of the dome has been weathered and ruined by the ages and being built into the earthen back this has preserved it. The brick work is a curious mix of redbrick, iron slag, cobbles and some older possible reused squared medieval stone work.
Another healing spring?
In their A Topographical History of Surrey by Brayley and Mantell (1850) again:
“Another Spring, once highly reputed for its medicinal virtues, rises on the north-east side of the hill, in the wood or coppice called Monk’s Grove, which gives name to the seat inhabited by the Right Hon. Lady Montfort. This spring, according to Aubrey, had been long covered up and lost; but was again found and re-opened two or three years before he wrote. The water is now received into a bason about twelve feet square, lined with tiles. “
James Rattue in his indispensable 2008 Holy wells of Surrey found this site stating that it resembled in part the Nun’s well and was clearly part of the landscapers attempt to improve the area. It was a dry circle of brickwork and filled with leaves. He describes it as being on the flat part of the hill. However with his instructions, OS reference and old maps showing a spring I failed to find it – although I did find another spring overgrown in the rhododendrons.
However, despite this author and others claims I did find the Nun’s well easy and here the fail-safe way to find it. Don’t go through the car park and continue along the road, passing the second car parking area in the dingle and then as the lane drops just past a house on the right there is a signposted public footpath. Take this and continue until passing a crossroads of another public footpath just past a hedge in the field on the left. As you past this and before the path you are on drops into a series of wooden steps there is a path to the right where the Nun’s well can be seen – simple! Good luck!
Lying in a public park in a small town in Cheshire is a curiously named holy well. My first attempt to find the site in the 1990s was unsuccessful but it is reassuring that a return in 2014 not only found the park it lies in being much improved but now there were signposts to the well.
The Synagogue Well is perhaps uniquely named in the country a point I shall refer to later. Charles Hope in his 1893 “notes:
“The Synagogue Well, evidently one of great antiquity, and, before an attempt was made to improve it, of most picturesque appearance, is in the grounds of Park Place, Frodsham, late belonging to Joseph Stubs, Esq.”
Hope’s claim that it was of great antiquity however does not appear to easy to substantiate. However it certainly attracted antiquarian interest, William Beaumont in his 1888 An Account of the Ancient Town of Frodsham in Cheshire records in comparison to a similar site in the county:
“Such a fount there is at Frodsham, called ‘The Synagogue Well,’ which sends forth waters as copious and as limpid as that once frequented by Numa. It seems as if such a fount was necessary near an ancient castle; for as this fount rises close to the site of Frodsham Castle, so at the foot of Beeston Castle there is a similar spring. They both spring from the living rock, and both have a large square stone basin to receive the surplus water as it flows away.”
A poet’s romantic origin
In an unusual feature for a holy well, the site was immortalized in a poem which records:
“THE SYNAGOGUE WELL
The Roman, in his toilsome march, Disdainful viewed this humble spot, And thought not of Egeria’s fount And Numa’s grot.
No altar crowned the margin green, No dedication marked the stone; The warrior quaffed the living stream And hasten’d on.
Then was upreared the Norman keep, Where from the vale the uplands swell But, unobserved, in crystal jets The waters fell.
In conquering Edward’s reign of pride, Gay streamed his flag from Frodsham’s tower, But saw no step approach the wild And sylvan bower ;
Till once, when Mersey’s silvery tides Were reddening with the beams of morn, There stood beside the fountain clear A man forlorn;
And, as his weary limbs he lav’d In its cool waters, you might trace That he was of the wand’ring tribe Of Israel’s race.
With pious care, to guard the spring, A masonry compact he made, And all around its glistening verge Fresh flowers he laid.
“God of my fathers!” he exclaimed, Beheld of old in Horeb’s mount, Who gav’st my sires Bethesda’s pool And Siloa’s fount,
Whose welcome streams, as erst of yore, To Judah’s pilgrims never fail, Tho’ exil’d far from Jordan’s banks And Kedron’s Vale
Grant that when yonder frowning walls, With tower and keep are crush’d and gone; The stones the Hebrew raised may last, And from his Well the strengthening spring May still flow on! “
A Jewish Mikveh, consonantal drift or folly bath?
Despite the poet’s assertion that “he was of the wand’ring tribe, Of Israel’s race.” and that: “The stones the Hebrew raised may last” relics of Britain’s Jewish heritage are scant and any site associated with them historically is of course of great interest and importance. But is Frodsham Castle’s an example? Such baths have been uncovered which were originally ritual baths called Mikveh or Mikvah was this site one? It might be convenient to associate the site with a Jewish community attached to Frodsham Castle. However, there no evidence of a community ever being located there or in the more likely medieval Chester.
So where does the name come from? Beaumont (1888) records that:
“Some have suggested that Saint Agnes was its’ patron, and that thence it won its name.”
This belief is recorded on the current sign beside the well but the name itself is problematic. The majority of St. Agnes dedications appear to associated with late or spurious holy wells such as St. Agnes at Cothelstone where legends of love-lorn visits are linked – all Victorian romantic stuff. The clue to the origin of the well is again recorded by Beumont who states:
“The basin of that at Horsley is called a bath, and, as might be expected, the Synagogue well was also called, for once there was a curate at Frodsham who was an inveterate bather, and he resorted thither every morning and bathed in the well even when it was frozen over, and he had to break the ice before he could have his invigorating bath. But he was of a swimming family, and his father, Sir Lancelot Shadwell, Master of the Rolls, might often be seen leading his seven sons in a swim down the Thames.”
This suggests that the site was probably a plunge pool or cold bath folly. Indeed the steps down in one corner suggest this and the sandstone fabric does not look old enough to be anything of antiquity. Perhaps one of the bathers was Jewish at some point and a local joke developed? Unlikely.
Another option may be that the chamber was the water supply for the castle or great houses. Similar basins exist associated with castles such as Wollaton Hall’s, coincidentally called the Admiral’s Bath due a local resident bathing in it, despite it being a water supply at the time!
Perhaps now the site is no longer being used a receptacle for garden waste, more research may be done to reveal the details.
The other noticeable spring, (see here for the other) in the picturesque suburb of Carshalton is St. Margaret’s Well. It appears to be an obvious holy well with that name, however it may not that clear cut. The area was redeveloped by the noted John Ruskin, social reformer, philanthropist, art critic and environmentalist, as a memorial to his mother. A rectangular stone reading:
“In obedience to the giver of Life,
of the brooks and fruits that fed it,
and the peace that ends/may this well be kept sacred,
for the service of men’s flocks and flowers,
and be by kindness called/Margaret’s well.”
This pool was beautifie and endowed by John Ruskin Esq M.A.,L.L.D.,/1876.”
Ruskin kept detailed notes on the work to repair the site. He wrote of his first intentions he mused:
“Half-a-dozen men, with one day’s work could cleanse these pools and trim the flowers about the banks…”
By 1872 Ruskin he was repairing the site using George Brightling, a local historian to help him and it is his letters of correspondence which tell us something of the work done on it. As the area was a manorial waste, Ruskin had to get approval from the manor court and in 1872 they agreed that Ruskin:
“be at liberty to make improvements to the rear of the Police Station by forming a Dipping Well with a pathway thereto and outlet from the pond, and in so doing to give the same facilities for the use of the water as now exist and to clear out the pond at his own expense and to continue to do so and to plant shrubs and flowers by the paths.”
This is clearly suggests that there was not a well already on the site, but whether there was a spring which already bore the name is not clear. By April 12th that year Ruskin had asked Mr Scott to draw up plans and to protect the opening from all possibility of pollution and to face the wall above the pond with stone. A further letter from from a Gilbert Scott to Brightling dated 15 April 1872 describe:
“It consists mainly of a facing of the central part of the wall – say equal to those central arches – with marble – I would say a foot thick, with projecting counter- points from the piers of – say – 2 to 2½ ft projection, & 3 ft wide. I think that the side arches of his work will not be so wide as the present side arches, though the central arch will coincide with the present one in width. The main thing probably is the foundation for all this, which must be based on whatever substratum there is capable of supporting the work..”
However, the marble fountain was never constructed. By 1877 it was basically constructed and every photos show a rustic wooden bridge over the outflow and similarly rustic fencing. Today, the pool is very rarely full of water, but the decorative remain and most can be seen peering through the railings. Beside the railings on the footpath remains the dipping well supplied by a pump…sadly dry.
Holy Well or not?
Whitaker in his Water supplies of Surrey calls it Lady or St. Margaret’s Pond. The spring is certainly the main one of the settlement that referred to in the place name of Auueltone in 675. Sadly, the church which can aid in identifying holy wells is called All Saints. On reflection I think it is likely considering Ruskin’s concern for nature that he found a well named the same his mother rather than invent it. One hopes that a modern day Ruskin could tidy it up once again!
Interested in Surrey holy wells? Check out James Rattue’s Holy wells of Surrey.- an indispensable guide
It is nice to easily find a holy well for once, for Rhuddlan’s St Mary’s Well lying as it does in the grounds of Bodrhyddan Hall, is easily seen by the side of the drive to the hall (the gardens of which are open Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and well worth exploring)
Pure folly or holy?
What greets us today is a typical folly building but does the well have any provenance before the current construction. The earliest reference is as Ffynnon Fair and is made by Lhuyd in 1699 however it does not appear on an estate map until 1730, although an engraving on the fabric of the well states emphatically 1612! Significantly neither of these dates are associated with any traditions and there appears to be no pre-Reformation reference.
The only hints of its importance are traditions of clandestine marriages at the well, although it is possible that this is a mixed up tradition with a more famous Ffynnon Fair at St Asaph. The other hint is found in the hall, where a possibly unique stone fish inserted in the flooring of the hall shows the boundary of the parishes and as you may have gathered regularly reading this blog many holy wells mark parish boundaries. Neither pieces are particularly emphatic!
The well itself is a delightful edifice consisting of an octagonal stone four metre well house and adjacent stone lined ‘bathing pool’. The well has arched entrance with cherub kerbstone. Inside the rather cramp well are seats around the inside and although access to the water is prevented by a metal grill. On the top of the well house is a carved pelican and a stylised fish (more similar to classical images of dolphin) pours its water into the cold bath which is surrounded by a stone ballastrade.
Keeping up with the Joneses?
One of the biggest issues with site is who built it. On the well house it is proclaimed that Inigo Jones was responsible. Jones was a noted architect and garden designer, so the building has the appearance of something he could have built, the date was when he was at the height of his fame so it is surprising nothing more official is recorded. Was this a local of the same name or the family adding the date and person at a later date to impress visitors? Certainly the building looks late 18th or early 19th century, probably being built when the house was restored then. Whatever, the well is part of a larger landscape including other wells, tree lined walkaways and now a summerhouse above a landscaped pool.
Its absence in 1730 but present on the 1756 one suggests not. Furthermore, Norman Tucker 1961’s Bodrhyddan and the families of Conwy, Shipley-Conwy and Rowley-Conwy states that the lettering is on the wrong period! Another possibility is that the architect may have been involved with designing the gardens and when the well was constructed later as the central piece the date of the garden design was recorded…but of course this does not explain who the well’s designer was!
Wishing well or healing well?
Today a sign, rather tacky to my mind (and I removed it to take photos) claims it is a wishing well. Visitors have certainly have paid attention to the sign as the well is full of coins. It is worth noting that although there is no curative history to the waters, anecdotally its powers could be significant. All the owners who have drunk from the well have lived to a considerable age, indeed the present owner is in his 100s I believe. Perhaps it might be worth bottling it!
Whatever its origin the well is a delightful one and certainly a change from muddy footpaths, negotiating brambles and nettles and getting completely pixy led…and there a nice garden and fascinating hall to see too.
For more information on North Wales Holy Wells follow wellhopper.wordpress.com
At this site alone one can see how vital the holy well was for the community and how much wealth it could generate. Indeed, the name a quite difficult to pronounce Llanrhaeadr-yng-Nghinmeirch is related to the well or rather the waterfall it produces beside the church (Llan).
Before visiting the well, I recommend a visit to the church. A grand and imposing edifice with a splendid roof and its chief treasure – its Jesse Window – why? This is because it was said to have been paid for from offerings from the well. Fortunately, it was removed and was buried at the time of the Commonwealth and thus was preserved.
From behind the church an archway leads over a stream and through a woodland towards this mighty of all Welsh holy wells. The route has been considerably improved with fine brick arches, giving an idea of the grandeur of this site. Once there it does not disappoint being a large bath structure. A considerably flow of water arises here clear and clean from two springs one possibly called Fynnon Fair. Indeed, the 16th century Leland antiquarian noted it was:
“a mighty spring that maketh a brook running scant a mile”
The water fills a large bath stone lined bath, said to have a marble bottom and under an archway tumbling to form the stream. The water appears to be petrifying forming interesting smooth incrustations to the north-west of the bath and entering the pool.
The well had a long history of use. It had become established along the Medieval pilgrim route to Holywell and was said to have cured a number of ills. Unlike other sites its fame and attendance continued well beyond the Reformation. Francis Jones (1955) in his Holy Wells of Wales that in the 16th century an unnamed bard defends the saint and his well stating he reveres Dyfnog’s effigy, accepts his miracles, praises his miracle-working well and gives grace to all nations and cures all ills – dumbmess, deafness, y frech wenwynig. later Edward Lhuyd 1698 Parochialia records its survival of use:
“a bath, much frequented, the water heals scabs, itches etc, some say that it would cure the pox.”
A hermit’s penance!
St. Dyfnog was a hermit who is said to have lived by the spring in the 6th century. It is also claimed that the spring gained its healing properties from a regular penance the saint would do in the water. He is said to have worn a hair shirt being belted by an iron chain. Very little is known beyond this.
Two wells for the price of one
The considerable flow which in times of heavy rainfall is often a threat to the fabric of the well, in particular the remains of the arches through which the water tumbles and falls. One of the reasons for this is that as Lhuyd in 1698 records there are actually two wells. Unsurprisingly, the one above the main spring is called Ffynnon Fair (St. Mary’s Well) which flows forming some curious calcified hummocks suggesting it has petrifying properties.
Holy well or folly?
The most impressive feature of the well is the very large rectangular bath (xxx ) A structure which is far more representative of a cold plunge bath than a holy well. Together with accounts of its marble lining and surrounding statues this was clearly developed foremost as a folly it would seem presumable for Llanrhaeadr Hall.
Alternatively these were improvements to help visitors as Browne Willis in the early 18th century records:
“the famous well of St Dyfnog, much resorted to, and on that account provided with all convenience of rooms etc, for bathing, built around it.”
All sadly gone, although the remains of the walls of these may be traced nearby. However, despite the forlorn appearance of this well it is one of the few sites where this is active restoration, although the blog has not been updated since 2013, a visit in 2015 suggestions the plan to restore is still very much on the books, with plans for a £300,000 religious tourist attraction, environmental and education facility – the well now has a separate visitors book in the church! So please donate if you can to this most impressive and evocative of Welsh wells.
Boughton is a curious place, a place of desolation and decline…it’s ancient parish church lies ruined, now a distance from its settlement, its famed fair forgotten, its great Hall gone and its estate overgrown and little visited. It is a settlement which is associated with a number of noted ancient wells –two of which can be visited and one as yet mysteriously untraceable.
The easier to find is that at the ruined church of St John’s. Called St John’s Well it lies in its shadow creating a picturesque scene of forlornness. Despite a supposed medieval origin, the church is first recorded in the 13th century, its first mention is by Baker (1822–30) in his History of Northamptonshire:
“St John the Baptist, whose name is appended both to the church and the spring in the church yard.”
In William Whellan’s 1849 History of Northamptonshire states:
“St John’s spring which rises from the east bank of the church yard formerly furnished the element for the holy rite of baptism, but now supplies the water for culinary purposes at the fair’”
This fair was what the settlement was famed for. Being a three-day chartered event being established in 1351. It was focused around the feast of St John the Baptist suggesting it was based on the patronal festival of the now ruined church. Nothing is left of the fair, its last vestige, the Shepherd’s Race turf maze cut on a triangular piece of church overlooked by the church, survived to the first world war when practice trenches were cut across it, obliterating in once and for all, although some accounts suggest it survived until 1946.
Beeby Thompson (1913–14) in his Peculiarities of Water and wells describes it as:
“enclosed on all sides but one by stone local sandstone apparently like the main portion of the church the opening to the east being approximately one yard square. The covering slab had on it a cross fleury.”
This covering slab I have never been able to find, perhaps the earth has built up too much since, yet it was pleasing to see that on a recent visit the site had even improved since my first in the 1980s, when the nettles and bramble were virtually enclosed upon it and the church. This was certainly the experience of Mark Valentine who in his 1985 Holy Wells of Northamptonshire noted:
“When I last visited this site, the Spring trickled into a ditch which was chocked up with abandoned refuse. With a little imagination, this spot could be the scene of a wayside park, with appropriate displays to recall its past glories. As it is, it remains tumbledown and forlorn.”
Perhaps they heeded his word? Now the grass it kept short and the water flows quite freely the outflow protected by a curb of stones. While it is not exactly a country park, there are information boards and it is more cared for. Yet despite the tidy up there’s still a rather otherworldy feel when one peers inside the chamber and the place does have an unquiet feeling – perhaps because of the ghost of Captain Slash! (but that is another story)
Even more otherworldly is the Grotto Well or Petrifying Spring, a spring which arises within a simple Grade II listed Grotto in the estate of Boughton Hall. Although grotto is perhaps a rather too enticing name for what is basically a limestone rubble hemisphere beneath an earth mound and consisting of unadorned stone walls. The whole structure interestingly seems devoid of cement or mortar. It was constructed by William Wentworth, the second Earl of Stratford around 1770. The spring itself being the supply for his artificial lake which lay at the bottom of the valley.
However he could have improved upon an earlier structure for a local A local legend tells that when Charles I was imprisoned at nearby Holdenby House in 1647 he visited the spring. He is said to have bathed in it and used the grotto as a changing room. This suggests that there was a structure predating the 1770s one ascribed to it. Indeed this association may have started when the King was sent a skull said to have been petrified in the waters of the well. The Northamptonshire Mercury of 25th August 1810 records:
“At Boughton is a spring, conceived to turn wood into stone. The truth is that it doth encrust anything with stone. I’ve seen a skull bought thence to Sydney Sussex College in Cambridge, candied over with stone…The skull was sent for by King Charles the First to satisfy his curiosity and again returned to the college.”
Although it was indeed loaned to Charles I and according to a letter written by the college to the author Simon Scott to The Follies of Boughton Park it still survives. It is housed in a wooden box dated 1627. However before head cult theorists get too excited the origins of the skull are dubious. The skull of what appears to be a child’s, are Cretian not Northamptonshire! Was it a hoax to support a project to advertise the well or a simple mistake. Is it the correct skull? Is the association with Charles correct or is it a confusion with the bathing legend. All in all it is a confused story.
Charles Kimbell in 1946 in the Boughton Parish magazine wrote that:
“The spring cascaded into a gloomy pond whose waters were black through layers of decomposing leafage…about 50 years ago my father made a water pit under the archway and piped the stream out of the little wood and down the valley. And so the petrifying spring was incorporated into the village xx system without apparently any ill effects on consumers.”
Our third and final peculiar water source, to quote Beeby’s phrase, was the Marvel-Sick. The account by topographer John Morton (1712) Natural history of Northamptonshire recording:
“THIS spring is in Boughton Field, near Brampton Bridge, near the Kingsthorpe Road; it is of great note with the common people. It never runs but in mighty gluts of wet, and whenever it does so, it is thought ominous by the country people, who consider these breakings out of the spring to foretell dearth, the death of some great person, or very troublesome times.”
This is a common folk motif based on geology, a woe water, the name sick referring to an old English word for stream still current in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire place names. Where was this stream? It is impossible to say with any certainty however Brampton Bridge to the west can still be found and the road which crosses it does go to Kingsthorpe. No spring is marked on the map but there area does have a number of streams. Is this one? Of course in a way this a spring we don’t want to find, warn as it does of war…another word of warning should you go looking for Boughton’s surviving springs don’t go in high summer…as your journey to find the grotto well will involve a considerable fight against the undergrowth.
Folly estates are often a good place to find substantial holy wells and sacred sites and to north-west of Stourhead Gardens splendid Stourhead Estate, a National Trust property, is a splendid example – St. Peter’s Pump. However, yet like many such sites, the origins and names are confusing to explain. The well head, unlike some sites, is very easy to find being a high medieval cross sitting slightly incongruously upon a rubble grotto where the spring, now dry, arose. A strange hotchpotch
The well, is one of supposedly six, giving the site the official name of Six Wells. The earliest reference, is before the folly was John Leland in the 16th century noted:
“ther of 6 fountaines or springes, whereof 3 be on the northe side of the parke harde withyn the pale.”
He also noted that Lord Stourton, a family name of great antiquity has six fountains on his coat of arms. Such sources of great rivers often attract folklore, although none appear surprisingly to be holy wells. The name Six Wells first appears in 1822.
King Alfred’s holy well?
The origin of the springs is said to owe itself to King Alfred the Great, the great Anglo-Saxon King. In her 1932 book, Moonraking a little book of Wiltshire stories, Edith Oliver tells us
“It is said, when tired from fighting with the Danes, King Alfred and his soldiers prayed for water, and up came six wells or springs. If the legend is true, if this is not a holy well, surely a heaven-sent one.”
Indeed, I have argued how royal wells were often seen as sacred and considering Alfred’s standing it seems likely these were. However, his name appears never to have been associated with the well. The king is remembered in a substantial folly tower not far from the springs, but his absence here is quite surprising?
Why St. Peter?
Where the name St. Peter’s Pump comes from is at first unclear. There is a record according to Gover, Mawer and Stenton’s 1939 Place Names of Wiltshire of a Peterswells in 1279 somewhere in Wiltshire, was it here? The name St. Peter is in itself rarely associated with British Holy Wells. To add to the confusion, the site is also called St. Agnes Pump, the reason being that it derives from the origin of the medieval cross which tops the grotto structure. The present structure was built by Henry Hoare in 1786.
The moving cross
The cross was originally a pump, which has six square posts with moulded cappings to six ogee- arched openings each with cherubs over each, then there are six niches with semi-circular heads above each containing a seated figure with hexagonal moulded pillar and narrower shaft to top. Interestingly a date 1768 is incised on east side of pillar. An odd date for a medieval cross said to be 14th century, so why?
The reason why the date of 1768 is incised on the pump is because it was moved. The pump head originally sat over St. Edith’s Well, in the City of Bristol. It once stood at the junction of Peter Street and Dolphin Street in Bristol for 300 years and provided water for the city. Then in a strange form of forward thinking beneficial vandalism, it was dismantled under an 1766 Act of Parliament, which looked to improve transport in Bristol and placed upon a purposely made grotto. The well itself was also moved. It may seem strange that I view this as beneficial, but the exact spot of the cross was hit by a bomb in the Second World War, which caused the nearby church to be ruined and would have destroyed the cross. The well according to Phil Quinn’s 1999 Holy wells of Bristol and Bath Region:
“Today both the old and new wells lie under the flagstones of Castle Park, the site of the old St. Edith’s Well being marked by a slab laid upside down and of a lighter colour than its neighbours.”
Quinn states that the Bristol well was called St Peter when it was repaired in the 15th century after the church nearby…the Peterswell in Wiltshire would appear to be a red herring! The name originating when in 1546 pumping mechanisms were established subsequently being recorded as Saynt Peter’s plumpe. So mystery solved.
Another reason for the 17th century date is to explain the difference between the original cross in Bristol and its appearance now. What is above the niches is 18th century as the top of the cross is lost. Was it broken in transit? Vandalised in the 18th century? Or too Catholic?
So all in all a curious hotchpotch of history, much like the structure itself.
“This township is situated on the left bank of the river Elwy, and near that river is a beautiful and romantic dingle, in which is a fine spring, called Y Ffynnon Fair, discharging about 100 gallons of water per minute, and strongly impregnated with lime. It is enclosed in a richly-sculptured polygonal basin, which was formerly covered by a canopy supported by ornamental pillars, and was then much resorted to as a cold bath. Adjoining the well are the ruins of a cruciform chapel, in the decorated and later English styles, parts being overgrown with ivy. Prior to the Reformation, this was a chapel of ease to St. Asaph, and was served by one of the vicars to that church. ……”
Samuel Lewis A Topographical Dictionary of Wales 1849
Ffynnon Fair must rank as one of the most romantically atmospheric sites in the whole country. It has been a site which has graced many books on the subject – even one on English well traditions. It has been immortalized in poetry and its ruins do not disappoint. I have had this one site on my to do list for some time
On my way to the well, I came across an elderly gentlemen. He came towards me and I said have you been to the well. He relied, he could not find a way in…it could not be that difficult I thought and realising he looked rather crestfallen at not succeeding at his mission I turned him and around and thought I would help him. He was not best dressed for well hunting appearing to have sandals and socks which soon became sodden as we had to cross the small brook formed from the springhead. I asked him whether there was a reason for his visit. He said he was an artist and was planning to paint a number of holy wells using the water from the well – I took his name but to my regret I failed to remember it. At the well we soon found the old rusty gate, untied the loop and let ourselves in, closing it behind for fear of letting some livestock here.
The site has a delightful restfulness and one could clearly see even as a ruin how this chapel could be a pilgrim site. The gentlemen asked me to fill his beaker and I obliged. He then produced a pen wrote the name of the well and date and duly vanished!
What we can see is a bit of an enigma. The well chapel is a star shaped structure around eight feet whose water flows in channel under the chapel. The well chapel is said to have been built in the 13th century which additions and rebuilding in the 1500s. What remains aside from the well is a chancel, a north and south transect under which the water flows, with some Perpendicular tracery in the windows and doorways. Paul Davis in his ‘Sacred Springs’ believed like St Winifred’s Well, the well chamber had elaborate vaulting over it, probably contained within a projecting wing creating a cruciform plan. He also believes the well could have been a hostel for pilgrims – all interesting theories but unsupported.
This was another site for clandestine practices. It is said up until 1640 marriages were performed here – probably Catholic ones. It seems likely that the place was a place of pilgrimage like St Winifred’s past the Reformation but if so how did it become so ruinous?
The water was quite cold on that particular August day, typical of waters associated with the cures its water claim to give for rheumatism and arthritis. There was also claimed to be a ‘sweet scented moss much esteemed by pilgrims’, that presumably once found at St. Winifred’s Well on which this well was on the pilgrim route to. Audrey Doughty in her book ‘Spas And Springs Of Wales’ suggests it was used for fertility and eye complaint, but I am unclear what her sources are. There appeared at some point possibly to develop the waters as a minor spa in the Victorian period as a small bath was excavated beside. However, by this time it was already becoming the picturesque ruin attracting poets and artists such Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89) Jesuit priest and poet and Felicia Hemans 1793-1835 who wrote Our Lady’s Well:
“FOUNT of the woods! thou art hid no more From heaven’s clear eye, as in time of yore. For the roof hath sunk from thy mossy walls, And the sun’s free glance on thy slumber falls; And the dim tree shadows across thee pass, As the boughs are swayed o’er thy silvery glass; And the reddening leaves to thy breast are blown, When the autumn wind hath a stormy tone; And thy bubbles rise to the flashing rain,— Bright fount! thou art nature’s own again!
Fount of the vale! thou art sought no more By the pilgrim’s foot, as in time of yore, When he came from afar, his beads to tell, And to chant his hymn at Our Lady’s Well. There is heard no Ave through thy bowers, Thou art gleaming lone midst thy water flowers! But the herd may drink from thy gushing wave, And there may the reaper his forehead lave, And the woodman seeks thee not in vain,— Bright fount! thou art nature’s own again!
Fount of the virgin’s ruined shrine! A voice that speaks of the past is thine! It mingles the tone of a thoughtful sigh With the notes that ring through the laughing sky; Midst the mirthful song of the summer bird, And the sound of the breeze, it will yet be heard!— Why is it that thus we may gaze on thee, To the brilliant sunshine sparkling free? ’T is that all on earth is of Time’s domain,— He hath made thee nature’s own again!
Fount of the chapel with ages gray! Thou art springing freshly amidst decay; Thy rites are closed and thy cross lies low, And the changeful hours breathe o’er thee now. Yet if at thine altar one holy thought In man’s deep spirit of old hath wrought; If peace to the mourner hath here been given, Or prayer from a chastened heart to Heaven,— Be the spot still hallowed while Time shall reign, Who hath made thee nature’s own again!”
Chapel or folly?
Her work included a sketch which suggests that this ruin is not all what it seems. In particular her drawing shows the west wall of chapel only been a few feet high and no bell tower. More shocking is the lack of a star shaped basin. This has been used for well researchers to suggest a date and construction in line with that of Holywell’s St. Winifred’s Well. Was the site rebuilt in the Victorian period by the landowners as a quaint folly and a pretend St Winifred? Considering its time exposed to the elements it is remarkable well preserved! Indeed research has indicated despite the attempt to reconstruct via drawings a chapel akin to that of St Winifred excavations show that the well was never actually enclosed in the chapel. It was not thus a well chapel but a chapel beside the well! Water would thus run through the chapel in a manner similar to St Clether’s Well, Cornwall.
But pretend or pilgrimage site…one verges towards the later of course, this is a delightful site which must be on anyone’s list of North Wale’s sacred springs.