Category Archives: Hertfordshire

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.