Category Archives: Hertfordshire

A holy well water source? – God’s Well, the nymph and Hoddesdon conduit

hoddesden

 

 

“A nymph of stone, who from an urn doth pour into the pitches of both rich and poor, her limpid treasures from the Western Vale, whose unexhausted bounties seldom fail; and never grudging, ever generous she, with the first element for making tea. Thanks generous Rawdon for thy kind bequest, remotest ages shall the donor bless.”

A poem thought penned by Edmund Parlett, the poet-vicar of Broxbourne (1630-43)

Sitting outside of Hoddesdon’s Lowewood museum is a well-worn and beaten effigy. It stares forlornly into the street now bereft of function, but once it was a unique and curious conduit which provided the town with a supply of clean water. The scheme to provide fresh spring water to the town appears to be a lesser known and smaller scale attempt to emulate Sir Hugh’s great venture of Amwell and Chadwell. The source became later known as Spring Close or Conduit Close.

A sacred source?

The source for the town’s water for over 100 years was a spring at Goddes Well Acre, which one presumes derives from God’s Well (TL 084 075), although, local tradition dedicated the spring to the Greek Goddess Acre suggesting that this may have been a more Romanticised site than an ancient one. The Goddes Well was piped in 1622 to Rawdon House, the property of Sir Marmaduke Rawdon. An alternative source was said to be the Linch, which is first noted as such in 1569 as ‘pond called anciently called Le Linch.’ This still exists, but as it is the other side of the New River and so separated physically.

The conduit extended half a mile to the house via a lead pipe. Then in 1631, he decided that the excess water could be made available to the local people and set about debate, but it is believed that Edward Marshall, master sculptor of St. Pauls was responsible, being as he was master-mason of Rawdon House. The land relatingto the conduit house and conduit leading to Rawdon House was also conveyed to Hoddesdon Council, laying a further pipe from the house to the Market Place. Here was set up, the fine three quarters length statue of a woman carrying a pitcher. She is called The Good Samaritan, named after the Woman of Samaria who met Jesus at Jacob’s Well (Gospel of St. John IV verses 4-42).

The gift was a welcome one as so far the town had to depend upon shallow wells which were easily fouled. For 196 years the statue sat in the Market Place, attracting considerable notice by various authors.

Similarly, Matthew Priors (1715) in his Journey to Downhall states:

“Into an Inn did this equipage roll, at a Town they call Hodson the sign of the Bull, near a nymph with an urn, divides the Highway, and into a puddle throws Mother of tea.”

There is also a note of the structure in Henley’s Harnesse’s Addition:

“Conduits representing human figure were not uncommon: one of them, a female form and weather bitten, still exist at Hoddesdon in Herts.”

Loss of a nymph

Despite the gift the supply was later under dispute. In 1725, the son of Marmaduke Rawdon, allowed so much water to supply private dwellings and businesses (in particularly breweries) that its public supply was becoming too low. As a result the problem was solved by arbitration, and the award, found in favour of the inhabitants.

This notwithstanding in 1826, the flow of water was diminishing, and the position of the pond was found to be inconvenient, so it was filled in and the figure being replaced by an iron pump with a lamp on it. (It is further thought that due to the combined effects of weathering, misuse and drilling of holes for further pipes, the figure not only looked very disfigured but slightly obscene.) The figure was first removed to Turks butchers yard, here sadly it experienced considerable abuse: local boys used it as a target for stone throwing, an action which may have lead to her nose being broken off!

In 1893 a Mr. C. P. Christie campaigned for the restoration and re-erection of the monument at the north end of the Market Place, and a small pamphlet was produced to garner support. However, the scheme failed to materialise when it was suggested that it was too vandalised to make it suitable as a public sculpture. The figure then ended up at the Rye Farm, the works of the Urban District Council. Yet, here it saw even more abuse being covered by dirt and decapitated! It lay here for 40 years, until 1935, when it was restored by a Mr. Giddiness in view of being placed in front of the Council Offices. Sadly, again the scheme was shelved due to the war’s intervention, and consequently it was relegated to a pedestal at the rear of these offices.

Return of the Good Samaritan

Fortunately, by 1970 the scheme saw fruition and the statue was erected in the Lowewood Museum gardens, where it now pours water into a pond if it flows!.  Her source may be different and the function pointless but at least the last of the female conduits survives even if the water would not make a decent cuppa!

 

Emma's well

The ancient springs of London’s first commercial water supply – The great scheme

In the early 1600s London undertook an ambitious project to bring clean drinking water from the countryside into the heart of the metropolis. Central to this play were two ancient springs. Unlike their Victorian entrepreneurs who often emasculated their spring heads, those utilised in Sir Hugh Myddleton’s New River remain picturesque relics. He was given the responsibility in March 1609, with the provision that he completed it in four years. However, he encountered considerable problems with acquiring the land necessary, and many land owners believed that the scheme would result in their lands being flooded. Indeed, they even petitioned the government over the matter, but fortunately Parliament was dissolved and the matter was not discussed.
Finally, in 1611, the Corporation of London extended the contract for another four years, but Myddleton sensibly approached James I for help. He agreed to take over half the costs and take half the revenue. This not only helped financially but landowners were impressed by the Royal patronage, and furthermore the King’s connection discouraged a rival scheme to use the River Lea at Hackney.
On Michaelmas Day 1613, the scheme was completed, and a ceremony took place, not far from where Saddler’s Wells Theatre now stands, attended by The Lord Mayor, Myddleton’s brother, Thomas, and a great number of Alderman. With the accompaniment of rolling drums and ringing church bells, the sluice gates opened and water direct from Hertfordshire gushed into the Clerkenwell reservoir.
The total cost at the end was £500,000 in those days an enormous amount. A joint stock company entitled ‘The Governor and Company of New River Brought from Chadwell and Amwell to London.’ The company enjoyed a Royal Charter, and Myddelton was appointed governor. However, it was not until after his death, in 1631, that any profit was made. Yet, in 1640s it saw great periods of prosperity, and remained a separate company for 300 years until it was absorbed by the Metropolitan Water Board. Myddleton in 1622, he was duly made a Baronet, and apart from those at Amwell, monuments at Islington Gardens, The Holborn Viaduct, and the courtyard of the Royal Exchange were erected to his enterprise.

The springheads

Emma'stone (2)
The most picturesque of these is the ancient spring, called Emma’s Well (TL 372 125) which has given the parish its name still exists, having formed part of the system established to supply freshwater to London via the New River It is a well known beauty spot, but the actual well is often missed by visitors, who focus on the delightful turfed islands with their monuments. The well itself is located opposite to this site, and is defined as a small piped opening, through which the spring flows. Just above the well is a small stone monument, slightly obscured by foliage. Upon this source stone a poem is inscribed:

“O’vering with shrubs that fringe the chalky rock. A little fount purr’d forth its gurgling rill. In flinty channel trickling o’er the green, From EMMA nam’d perhaps some sainted maid, For holy life rever’d so such erewhile, Fond superstition many a pleasant grove, And limpid Spring was wont to consecrate, Of Emma’s story nought Tradition speaks, Conjecture who behind Oblivion’s veil. Along the doubtful past delights to fray, boasts now indeed that from her well he place Received as appellation. In Domesday book this village Amwell written Emmaswelle.”

The well’s water flows under the road, and fills the aforementioned artificial pool, created by damming, with its two interlinked manicured turfed isles. Upon the islet is a monument to this scheme’s deviser Sir Hugh Myddleton (1609). It states:

“From the spring at Chadwell 2 miles west and from this source at Amwell the aqueduct meanders for the space of XL miles conveying health, pleasure and convenience to the metropolis of Great Britain. An immortal task since man cannot more nearly initiate the Deity than by bestowing health. This monument was dedicated by Robert Mylne, architect, engineer in 1800. Sacred to the memory of Sir Hugh Myddleton Bart., whose successful assisted by the patronage of his King, conveyed this stream to London. This humble tribute to the genius, talents and clarity of mind.”

The second smaller islet has a yew tree with another monument (1818) with lines of verse penned by locally renowned poet Scott (whose grotto nearby at Ware is well worth a visit ). This he called ‘Amwell ‘ :

“Amwell. Perpetual be thy stream. Nor ever thy spring be less. Which thousands drink who never dream whence flows the streams they bless.”

The name Amwell appeared after the 14th Century before then the well retained its original dedication of Emma. The name is believed to be derived from the wife of King Cnut or Canute. Confusingly, folklorist Gerish (1899) appears to suggest that the churchyard well was that regarded as ‘Holy’, being used in baptisms and being efficacious in cures. He does not give an exact location and I have been unable to locate another well. Easier locate is that commonly called St Chad’s Well (TL 350 135) is located between below the road between Ware and Hertford. It would appear that, rather than being associated with the Mercian missionary and patron saint of springs, its name is derived from O.E ceals for ‘cold’ spring, for in the middle ages, the site was called ‘chaldwelle’ or ‘caldewelle’. The name St. Chad’s well only appears from 1727. However, its water was said to be good for eyes.
The spring arises in this large stone lined pool, and joins the flow from Amwell, into the New River towards London. Around the pool are the stone monuments. The largest one states (on one side):

This belongs to New River Company 178 feet. Chadwell Spring. The other side: This belongs to the New River Company 270 feet. Repaired 1728. The side panels reading, one side: 269 Feet. Opened 1608, and on the other: 43 Feet. Conveyed 40 Miles.

The other, smaller stone which appears to have a trig-point attached also states:

This belongs to the New River Company.

According to Hawkwood (1924) these monuments predate an older inscribed stone, which was found with the words ‘Chadwell’ on it in 1743. The presence whereabouts of this is not known.

a-stchadwellherts3a-chadwellherts2

a-chadwellherts

An oft repeated piece of folklore

An interesting piece of folklore is connected with both this site and Amwell. Recorded by William Vallens in the ‘Tale of Two Swannes’ (1589) and referred to by Cussans, the Hertfordshire historian, it relates how the two sites were connected by an underground tunnel. It states:

“A tale there is deliver’d unto us, from hand to hand, how that a haunted ducke, Diving within this chalk-well head or hole, Was forced underneath the hollow ground, To swimme along by wayes that be unknowne, And afterward at Amwell Spring (they say) Was thrown up featherless and bare.”

This is a common folklore motif, and is often connected to mysterious caves and legends of secret tunnels. However, it has also been connected to holy wells. For example there is said to be a tunnel between Guildford Castle and St Mary’s Well, Farnham, both in Surrey. This was supposedly traversed by a goose, who also like the above tail appeared a little worse for wear the other end!

What is pleasing to note that unlike their Victorian counterparts, the scheme did not emasculate the spring and enclose it within an inaccessible chamber, they celebrated and romanticised their water supplies rather than santise and have left a romantic site for future generations to enjoy.

An overview of Royal wells

Much has been written regarding holy wells culminating in Harte (2008) magnus opus but no survey has attempted to record all those wells and springs named after monarchs as far as I am aware. With Jubilee fever all around I thought it would be fitting to start an overview of this aspect of water lore in England. Starting with King well, a generic name, is by far the commonest with sites recorded at Chalk (Kent), Cuffley (Hertfordshire) (although associated with James I), Chigwell (Essex) (although probably cicca’s well)), Lower Slaughter (Gloucestershire), Kingsthorpe (Northamptonshire), Orton (Northumberland), Cheltenham (Gloucestershire), Ellerton (Staffordshire), Wartling (Sussex), and Bath (Somerset). Some of these such as Chigwell may be a etymological mistake being more likely derive from Cicca’s well and some such as Orton are thought to be associated with Iron age sites.

However, English wells and their associations with monarchs starts perhaps starts with King Arthur’s Well (Cadbury ) but taking this probably mythical king aside, and not considering those monarchs associated with the Celtic and Saxon Kingdoms (after all a high percentage of these early saints were the sons of Kings (such as those begat by King Brechan) or early kingly Christian converts for example St Oswald or St Ethelbert ) which are better known by their sanctity rather than their majesty, I start with sites associated with who is seen as being the first King of England; Alfred.

 King Alfred’s Well (Wantage) is of unclear vintage arising as it does in a brick lined chamber although his association with the town is well known. However as Benham (1911) notes in his The Letters of Peter Lombard:

“a clear and bright spring, but I fear that the evidence that King Alfred ever had anything to do with it is not forthcoming. The site of his birthplace is not very far from the well”

Although that did not stop a procession to the well in the year 2000! St Peter’s Pump at Stourhead (Wiltshire) too has become associated with Alfred and it is said he prayed for water her before a battle, there is again little evidence if any of this. In East Dean (Sussex) there is another well named after him. Interestingly the direct descendents of Alfred do not appear to have gained any association with wells, perhaps being a measure of either their impact on folk memory. The next king is the rather tragic figure of Harold. Harold’s Well laying in the Keep of Dover Castle (Kent) is an interesting site, it is a typical castle well and unlikely to be the site where Harold is said to have according to Macpherson (1931) (MacPherson, E. R., The Norman Waterworks in the Keep of Dover Castle. Arch Cant. 43 (1931)) been were the King swore he would  give with the castle to William of Normandy, later William I. (Wartling’s King well may record Harrold or William)

I can find no wells associated with the Norman Kings or Queens and the next monarch to appear is King John.  He is interestingly the monarch with most sites associated with him, being in Heaton Park (Newcastle), Odell (Bedfordshire), Kineton (Warwickshire) and Calverton (Nottinghamshire) (although the later is recorded as Keenwell). This may be the consequence of his infamy and association with Robin Hood sites taking on his name in the telling and re-telling of Robin Hood tales. However, in most cases it would appear to be sites associated with a castle although surely King John was not the only monarch to have used such sites.

The next monarch associated with a well is a prince, a man who despite being heir apparent, never reached the throne. The Black Prince, a very romantic figure and with an evocative name, his spring is perhaps the most well known of those associated with royalty: the Black Prince’s Well, Harbledown (Kent). Legend has it that he regularly drank from the well and asked for a draught of it as he lay sick and dying of syphilis. However, the water’s powers did not extend to this and he died never becoming king. The well has the three feathers, sign of the Prince of Wales, an emblem captured at Crecy although the origin and age of the well is unknown it is the only such spring with any insignia of a monarch.

The subsequent centuries saw a number of squirmishes and conflicts which also created some springs associated with royalty. Perhaps the most interesting well associated with a monarch is King Henry VI’s Well, Bolton in Craven (North Yorkshire). It is interesting because the King’s reputation was that of sanctity and as such any well would have pretentions to be a holy well. Indeed the local legend states that when a fugitive at Bolton Hall he asked for the owner to provide a bathing place. No spring was available and one was divined with hazel rods and where they indicated water the site was dug. The king prayed that the well may flow forever and the family may never become extinct. The site still exists and is used for a local mineral water firm!

The years of conflict between the Lancastrians and Yorkists ended at Bosworth field and here a we find King Richard’s Well, Sutton Cheney (Leicestershire). Traditionally Richard III drank from a spring that Lord Wentworth in 1813 encapsulated in large conical cairn shaped well house with an appropriate Latin inscription. Curiously both wells of course mark the losers of the battle and no wells record the victors of such conflicts. One wonders whether this records our interest in the underdog and lament for the lost. The strangest extrapolation of this is a well found in Eastwell (Kent). Here generations have pointed to a circular brick well in the estate grounds and a tomb in the derelict church and associated them with the lost son of Richard III. The Plantagenet’s Well may indeed have some basis in fact although the only evidence is the account of the legend during the building of Eastwell Manor in 1545, the landowner, Sir Thomas Moyle, was amazed to find one of his workman reading a book in Latin. Naturally curious, he decided to ask him about this ability. Thus the man informed him, that in 1485, at Bosworth Field, he was the illegitimate son of King Richard III, who had previously clandestinely acknowledged him as sole heir. The following day, fearing reprisals after Richard’s loss, the boy fled, avoiding being recognition by disguising himself as a bricklayer and thus was years later, employed in the manor’s construction. Sir Thomas, believed the man’s story, and being a Yorkist sympathiser, adopted him into his household. This story of Richard Plantagenet remained a family secret, until it was revealed in Gentleman’s Magazine, as a quotation from a letter written by Thomas Brett, of Spring Grove (near Eastwell) to a friend Dr. Warren. He had heard the story from the Earl of Winchelsea at Eastwell House about 1720. This story is further enforced by Parish records showing that on December 27th 1550 V Rychard Plantagenet was interred, the notation V being a notification for a royal personage. However, having never seen the record myself I am unsure of its validity.

The next monarch encountered in a well dedication is a surprising one perhaps. In Carshalton (Surrey), we find Anne Boleyn’s Well, which is an perplexing dedication considering her unpopularity and association with a monarch who would have seen holy wells another trapping of the papist money making machine he had excluded from his realm (although there is little evidence that Henry VIIIth had any real direct effect on holy wells as would the newly established Scottish Kirk). The legend of its formation related that when the King and Queen were out riding from Nonsuch Palace, her horse’s foot hit the ground and a spring arose. No reason for is given and it is probable that the spring was re-discovered and perhaps dedicated to St. Anne. Bedford’s Park is not far from Pygro’s Park which has an association with Henry VIII so one assumes the Queen Anne’s well is again Boleyn although I know nothing more and indeed missed it from my survey!

Unlike her mother, Elizabeth I was a popular monarch, much as the present monarch is, especially in the strongly protestant counties, hence Queen Elizabeth Wells at Rye and Winchelsea (Sussex). In the case of Rye, the spring was part of a water improvement system which provided water via a conduit system. It was so named after her visit to Rye in 1573, when she drunk the water and met the town dignitaries, or Jurats, there, before they processed into the town. Amusingly the well was also known as Dowdeswell, from O. E. dowde for a plain woman, a scold or shrew a fact which may have tickled some recusant families in the vicinity no doubt. so like many a holy well the name was changed for the monarch. Interestingly, Winchelsea’s site was and still is called St. Katherine’s Well so perhaps the monarch’s name was used to remove Catholic associations (especially considering Queen Katherine of Aragon), although St. Leonard’s well remained intact.  Bisham’s Queen Elizabeth’s Well (Buckhamshire) is even associated with miraculous cures which certainly predate the monarch and perhaps her visit and taking of the waters when visiting Lady Hoby her cousin may have been the opportunity to move away from the holy well name? Queen Elizabeth also gave her name to a well in Friern Barnet (Middlesex) and Blackheath (Surrey)

Perhaps in the day when the site of the monarch was an extremely rare occasion folk memory has preserved it. This may explain King James Well Mickley (Yorkshire) whose only reason for the dedication was that he stopped to drink at it!   This well does not appear to have then developed any note as a consequence. However, a spring at Cuffley (Hertfordshire) was visited by the King and developed into a minor spa called the King’s Well.

Interestingly, if England had not broken from Rome we may have seen those associated with Charles I develop in the same fashion, after all he does have churches and chapels named after him. Charles is often associated with wells, in some cases such as Carles Trough, (Leicestershire) where he is said to have watered horse here after Naseby. Ellerton’s (Staffordshire) King’s Well and Longhope (Gloucestershire) Royal Spring are both associated with the monarch.

However, stopping to drink is a common theme. A well in Appledore (Kent) is called Queen Anne’s Well because she is said to have stopped there and asked the landlord for a sip. It is possible that such associations may stem from a desire for a local land owner to support a developing spa trade, Queen Anne’s Bathhouse exists in Lullingstone (Kent), however there is no record of such an attempt at Appledore. Furthermore, it is unclear which Queen Anne is recorded at Appledore and it is possible considering the age of the brickwork in the cellar and around the well at this site that it was once St. Ann’s well. This is probably true of  Lincoln’s Queen Ann’s Well, Chalvey’s Queen Ann’s Well (Buckinghamshire),  Queen Anne’s Wishing Well (South Cadbury) and Blythborough’s (Suffolk) site now known as Lady Well! However of that of Chalvey, perhaps not as there is no pre-18th century record, although if it did not it soon attracted a reputation for healing and was called a spa. Interestly Queen Charlotte is also noted as being involved and as such according to the Mirror, of 1832,:

“a stone was placed there in 1785 by her illustrious consort, George III”.

An accompanying woodcut to the piece showing the stone with the royal monogram carved in the centre. In 1698 Anne of Denmark gave money to create a basin at Tunbridge wells and well was called the Queen’s well.

Of course in the next two centuries, the rise of the spas saw many mineral springs develop the patronage of the monarch such as George IV, yet despite this times had changed and the wells did not take the monarch’s name directly. By the reign of Victoria, her name was then applied to fountainheads and pumps, as old wells were filled in and channelled away amidst growing concerns for the need for clean and freely accessible water. A few sites such as the confusing named Coronation or Jubilee Well (so marked on the 1844 OS map so difficult to record which monarch and which jubilee or coronation is referred to) in Wessington (Derbyshire) buck the trend.

In summary it is interesting that despite a large number of memorable and in some case not so memorable monarchs, there is are a limited number of them associated with wells. Why? Is it due to these particular monarchs having pricked the public’s folk memory, or in some cases inherited some sort of pious notion akin to that associated with holy wells.

Wells associated with Royalty can be divided into the following categories:

a)      Those drunk before a battle or whilst on the run from a battle. This could include the Battle Well Evesham (Worcestershire), with its associations with Simon de Montford is out of the scope of this blog but shows this trend, the water becoming curative.

b)      Those associated with their castles,  palaces, hunting lodges. But why these particular monarchs is unclear?

c)      Those made by miraculous events such as that associated King Henry VIs well. It seems perhaps these sites had developed in anticipation of the eventual sanctifying of the individuals which of course never happened.

The Physic Well Barnet: a case for restoration

This mineral spring, called the Physic Well (TL 230 958) was of considerable fame in the county and beyond, and was the resort of many wealthy and famed Regency folk. Its discovery is noted in 1652, although 50 years earlier, Camden (1551-1623) in his Britannica wrote that:

“Upon the south border..was discovered a mineral spring..it is of great service to the Sex where there is general languor, difficult and rheumatic complaints the Barnet Whey is much recommended.”

This suggests it is possible that the well had been long known locally. Furthermore Fuller in his Worthies of England recalls that:

“already a catalogue of cure by this spring amounteth to a great number; insomuch that there is hope in the process the water rising here will repair bloodshed hard by and save as many lives as were lost in the fatal battle at Barnet.”

Chauncy (1700) describes its virtues suggests that its water would be good to:

“..dissolve acid tough Flegm in the stomach and guts, with sharp Choler, much better than other Purgers; and of great Efficacy in Cholicks, proceeding from both those Humours; in short, for most diseases that proceed from sharp and hot Humours (if they pass freely) they prove excellent safe Purgers.”

It was on the 11th July 1664 the famed diarist Samuel Pepys took its waters. He stated:

half a mile off; and there I drunk three glasses and went and walked, and came back and drunk two more. The woman would have had me drunk three more; but I could not, my belly being full -but this wrought me very well; and so we rode home… and my waters working at least seven or eight times upon the road, which pleased me well“.

However:

“arrived home was not very well, and so went to bed, and during the night got worse and worse so that melted almost to water.”

Yet, this did not deter him for on the 11th of August 1667 he returned, but this time he drank only three glasses. He put his earlier experience down to too much water!

Another famed visitor, Celia Fiennes (whose visits to spas are well known) also complained. This time it was about the conditions at the well. She described it then as an enclosed building of lattice work, in which visitors descended steps to take the waters (so deep that one could not see the bottom). She disliked the means at which the water was drawn, being dirty, full of leaves and having to wait for the water to settle.

In 1677, 20s was given; this was to be paid in perpetuity, by a Mr Owen, an Alderman of London, of the Fishmongers Company, for repairing of the well. By 1690s the dipper had gone and people were helping themselves, Daniel Defoe, in 1724 notes that it was ‘almost forgotten’.Indeed, the well was so popular that a clause had to be inserted in an Act of Parliament in George II‟s reign to secure access in perpetuity. The well was fashionable throughout the 18th Century and remained in good conditions until 1790.

Subscription in 1808 was raised for arching over the well, and erecting a pump to aid any invalid who wished to drink. This was finally demolished in 1840, and a farmhouse erected near the site. Even in 1867, however, funding came from a local boy’s school for its repairs. Finally, in 1907 the water was declared unfit for drinking and consequently the well fell into obscurity.

Indeed it was not until 1922, when during excavation for a housing site, that the well-chamber was found to be in perfect condition and described as typical example of 17th Century architecture. A report in 1922 reported :

“ This is a slightly ferruginous, highly saline and alum water, containing an excess of organic matter and a large number of ordinary bacteria. Doubtless this is due to the disturbance of local conditions when opening up the well, as the sample contained fragments of grass and straw, etc. There is no evidence of direct sewage contamination, Streptococci being absent and B. Coli Communis not being present in less than IOO cubic centimetres. It is, therefore, unsuitable for ordinary domestic use.”

Of the building by the Barnet U.D.C. that they should restore the Well to its former position as one of the attractions of Barnet, and the following year they opened the well and found:

 “ an underground chamber and a flight of stone steps leading thereto. The Well Chamber is perfect and undisturbed, preserved by the earth that had covered it up. It has brick-built walls, floor and barrel-shaped roof alike. The bricks are small, red, hand-pounded and burnt. The room would hold about 20 persons. Two sumps, stone-lined, are sunk a foot or so in the floor for convenience in dipping out the water, and into them the spring is led by channels and pipes penetrating the surrounding ground.”

As the structure was in such a good condition, plans were made to preserve it, and a Neo-Tudor black and white well-house was built with a red-tiled pyramidal roof over it. This cost £500 and was completed by 1937.

Copywright christine matthews

Unfortunately, by 1960 it was again in poor condition, and plans were made for its disposal. Fortunately, the hue and cry made by local conservationists saved it, and it was given a facelift. Today, it is surrounded by suburbia, being in the centre of a housing estate. Sadly, it is a little worse for vandalism, and one is unable to test the waters, as it is now padlocked. A peer through the door will show an octagonal well and its glimmering water source. The surrounding green is boggy underfoot, and one can only suggest that this is the spring arising around the area. This site is surely in need of greater protection and care and should be a candidate for Civic Trust openings. I don’t seeing it lasting long without some better protection.

Hertfordshire holy wells and healing springs – an overview

This account is taken from the introduction of  Holy Wells and healing springs of Hertfordshire

No book has comprehensively covered the topic in the county; which is surprising considering the fame of its most noted site St. Alban’s Well. The nature of this work, indeed all volumes, is thus to describe the sites under the respective parishes giving historical details and present conditions (with directions if the sites can be accessed).  I have adopted Francis Jones’s (1954) category system for wells. The main body of the text covers Class A (saint’s names, those named after God, Trinity, Easter etc), B (associated with chapels and churches), C ( those with healing traditions which in this case includes spas and mineral springs)  and some E (miscellaneous with folklore) sites The second part includes a list of named ancient wells with explanatory notes (mostly Class D i.e. those named after secular persons but possibly also holy wells and E). Hopefully once the volumes are completed and using similar documents for other counties this fuller picture will be achieved.

In regards dedications there are few in the county: the most common is Chadwell ( possibly not from St. Chad), Hertfordshire has  holywells (including holwells which may be derived by O.E hol for hollow), Lady Well, St Faith, St. Alban, St Claridge, St John and Emma (a possibly unregarded local saint)

Some sites for example, often ponds are associated with the traditions of hidden treasure or hauntings. Treasure legends are common in the county. The only one in Hertfordshire is Rose’s Hole. This is not directly connected with a pool or well, but its description is virtually identical to other waterlore across the country and is worth noting. It states that the hole lay on Berkhampsted Common, named after an old man called Rose, who dreamt that there was treasure there. He and a companion went to the spot, where he was told it could only be reached by not speaking. They dug and soon encountered the lid, to which he exclaimed ‘Damn it Jack, here it is!’, and as soon as they did it sank back into the ground.

Similarly, there are other examples of water related ghosts, the only well-known one in the county is at Little Gaddeston. Here the village pond and manor is haunted by a suicide called Jennings, who killed himself after being unable to marry his sweetheart, the daughter of Lord Bridgewater of nearby Ashridge Park. The incident dates back to the 17th century, but may cover older traditions. Others are included in the gazetteer.

These have been interpreted widely by some authorities as denoting some ‘religious’ activity. Traditions of treasure may derive from folk traditions of when the water body was regarded as sacred and that valuable offerings or votive gifts were placed in the water to appease the water deity. Similarly some have identified these water deities as the ancestors of water ‘ghost’ traditions, perhaps being the result of Christian missionaries, who personified them as ‘evil’.

Two interesting geological phenomena are known to have attracted folklore across the country: swallow holes and intermittent springs and streams. Of the former, there appears to be a number. Examples can be traced at North Mymms, associated with the Colne. These are where the streams appear to flow back underground, the reverse of springs. This would certainly have appeared wondrous to our forefathers, however, I have been unable to locate any folklore. The former, were called Woe waters in Hertfordshire (and other counties), are discussed in more detail in the parishes in which they arise.

Across the county many of the old holy wells were re-discovered as mineral springs and established as spas. Such secular conversions are hinted at Welwyn, Northaw (where St. Claridge’s Well may have been the original dedication for Griffin Well or The King’s Well at Cuffley) and possibly Barnet, but there is no firm evidence that it happened in Hertfordshire, despite there being a fair number of ‘spas’ for a small county. Dedications survived in greater numbers than the nearby county of Essex, where very few holy wells can be traced, but large numbers of mineral springs were exploited. Does this suggest that either the old ways persisted longer in the county, or else the wells were too valuable a commodity to disregard?…………

 To learn more about the healing and holy water history of the county read Holy Wells and healing springs of Hertfordshire

Top Ten Unusual Holy well locations

In my searches for holy wells, here are ten of the oddest places I have found them. If you know any odder ones let me know. I’ve hyperlinked to megalithic portal for most were a page exists. Note due to the locations some of these sites are on private land.

Under a church. Much is spoken of the Christianisation of pagan springs by siting churches over them but the evidence is not common, St Ethelbert’s Well in Marden Herefordshire is one such example, located in a room to the west end of the nave, existing as a circular hole in the carpet mounted by a wooden frame.

In a bridge, Bridge chapels are a rarity in England and so were bridge holy wells and as far as I can tell of those said to exist at Barking in Essex and possibly in Nottingham at Trent bridge, only Biddenham’s Holy Well still survives in an ancient bridge, probably dating from the 17th century its worn steps lead down to a chamber beneath the bridge, although access is hampered by a locked gate.

Under my kitchen. A visit in search of St John’s Well near Retford, Nottinghamshire reveals a subterranean rectangular stone lined chamber designed to be a plunge pool for body immersions beneath a trap door in a person’s kitchen. More can be learned here or in Holy wells and healing springs of Nottinghamshire.

In the shadow of the tower blocks. Urbanisation has a tendency to sweep away anything inconvenient and messy like an ancient well and have in conduited away in pipes or just filled in, luckily one of oldest of Derbyshire’s holy wells (or at least with one of the oldest provenances) survives in a juxtaposition between some older housing and some tower blocks. Vandalised over the years and currently protected by an unsightly metal cage it St. Alkmund’s Well, flows on at the point where his body is said to have rested on the way to his shrine (supposedly in the city museum)

On a golf course. Surprisingly, despite what you would think would be an inconvenience, a number of holy wells arise between the bunkers and fairways of the countries golf courses. In Kent we have St Augustine’s Well at Ebbsfleet, Oxfordshire’s Holy Well at Tadmarton, and Jesus’s well at Miniver, Cornwall. My favourite, although it may not be a holy well per se (deriving from O.E holh or hol) is Holwell on Newstead Golf Course, Nottinghamshire. A natural fern, moss and liverwort adorned cave whose sweet waters are still available via a cup attached to a metal chain.

In the grounds of a school. As long as they don’t fill them with paper aeroplanes and rubbers, wells can survive in school estates well. The best example is the Lady’s Well located within the Bedgebury School Estate, a large sandstone structure has been raised over the spring either to celebrate Our Lady, original landowner Vicountess Beresford or perhaps a past Bedgebury School Headmistress!

Amongst the rock pools on the beach. Although now dry, St Govan’s Well and its associated Chapel are undoubtedly the most atmospherically positioned of any of this list. A small stone well house covers the spring which has either dried or being filled up by too many pebbles.

In a cave. Perhaps the most atmospheric of holy wells is the Holy Well of Holy Well bay near Newquay Cornwall. A large sea cave reveals a magical multicoloured series of troughs made by a natural spring that has dripped its mineral load over the rocks and formed a perfect immersion set up. Its origins are linked to the resting of St. Cuthbert on his way to Durham. Crotches were left on the beach outside by healed pilgrims.

Under a holiday home and an old Courthouse – St Winifred’s Well Woolston is a delightfully picturesque black and white tudor courthouse now a holiday home sitting up top of the chambers of St Winifred’s Well. A site associated with the pilgrim route to her shrine in Shrewsbury and well at Holy Well in Flintshire.

Restored in a new housing estate. Developers of new estates are not always sympathetic to history perhaps and certainly not water history, but the designers of De Tany Court in St Alban’s took good advice and preserved the newly discovered St. Alban’s Well, lost for decades in the grounds of the nearby school’s playing fields, in their new housing estate and made it a garden feature.