Category Archives: Huntingdonshire

Hail Weston’s lost mineral springs, Huntingdonshire

In Huntingdonshire, twin springs, simple called the Hail Weston Springs were the most celebrated in the county and were highly esteemed and much visited but now lost and largely forgotten. Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary lore of holy wells notes basing his work of C. G. Cameron, H.M. Geological Survey:

“HAIL WESTON : HOLY WELLS. At Hail Weston, on the borders of the counties of Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire, about two miles north-west of St. Neots, there are some mineral springs, formerly looked on as holy wells. They are situated on the alluvium of a small stream, but may have their origin in the underlying Oxford clay. Michael Drayton describes them as “the Holy Wells of Hail Weston.”

Indeed it does appear to have  Michael Drayton who suggested these were holy wells in his Polyobion published in 1613 as follows speaking of the Ouse, as they were discovered less than 20 years before that publication in 1597:

The muse, Ouze from Fontaine brings, Along by Buckingham and sings, The earth that turneth wood to stone, And t’holy Wells of Hailweston……Scarce is she entered yet upon this second sheere,Of which she soveraigne is, but that two fountains cleere, At Hailweston neere hand, th’ one salt, the other sweet, At her first entrance thus her greatnesse gently greet, One we were two fair Nymphs who fortunately proved. The pleasures of the woods, and faithfully beloved. Of two such sylvan gods, by hap they found vs here, For then their sylvan kind most highly honoured were, When the whole country’s face was forresty, and we Liv’d loosely in the wilds which now thus peopled be. And quoth the saltish spring, as one day Muse and I Set to recount our loves, from his tender eye, The branish teares dropt downe on mine unrepeared breast, That brackish I became. He finding me deprived Of former freshness quite, the cause from hmm deprived, On bestowed this gift, my sweetness to requite, That I should ever cure the dimnesse of the sight!‘and’ quoth the fresher spring, ‘the wood-god me that woo’d, As one day by brm surprised with love he stood, One me bestowed the gift, that ever after I, Should cure the painful itch, and loathsome leprosie!”                          

His naming them as holy wells appears to be unquestioned. Fuller in his 1665 Worthies notes that:

“Now in the aforementioned village there be two fountainlets, that are not far asunder, (1) one sweet, conceived good to help the dimnesse of the eyes; (2) the other in a great measure salt, esteemed sovereign against the scab and leprosie. What Saith St James? Doth a fountain send forth at the same place, sweet water and bitter?’ meaning in an ordinary way, without miracle. Now although these different waters flow from different fountains, yet seeing they are so near together it may be justly advanced to ber the reputation of a wonder.”               

It was still esteemed in 1770 when it was described as:

There is a mineral spring at a village called Hail Weston, near St Neots, which is esteemed extremely useful in curing many disorders incident to the eyes and likewise for eruptions of the skin.”

Another account notes:

 “place of baths or medicinal welles is at a hamlet called Newston, a little from Sant Neots…which is ten or twelve miles from Cambridge, where two springs are known to be, of which the one is verrie sweet and fresh, the other brackish and salt; this is good for scabs and leaperie the other for dimness of sight sweet and cured painful itch and leprosy was salty and cured dimnesse of sight. … Verrie many also doo make their reparie unto them for sundrie diseases, some returning whole, and some nothing at all amended, because their cure is without the reach and working of those waters. Never went people so fast from church, …as they go to these wels.”                   

The site of these spring was north-west of Hail Bridge, the site is marked as mineral springs on the first edition OS map. The 1952 OS marks as Sodium and soda and saline (covered) and a separate spring. Kelly (1898) includes a lengthy piece on the springs:

“Springs.-Near the village, and on the right bank of, but at some distance from the brook, are three mineral springs or wells of considerable value, and once in high repute: they rise within a limited area situated on high ground sloping gently to the brook, and through strata of the secondary period, but though near each other, differ materially in their constituent elements, two being distinctly mineral, and therefore medicinal in character, while the third supplies fresh water of remarkable purity. It appears probable that the existence of these wells was known at a very early period, land in the immediate vicinity of the springs having furnished large numbers of Roman remains, some of considerable antiquarian interest; and it is an ascertained fact that the springs in question were extensively used for medicinal purposes, as long ago as 1597, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Raphael Hollinshed, the well-known chronicler of that period, whose histories were published in 1577, refers at some length to the wells of Hail Weston, and to the great repute of the waters yielded by them, as remedies for diseases of the skin, dimness of sight and other affections. A short poem by Michael Drayton, “The Holy Wells of Harlweston’’ describes these springs; and their characters and reputed medicinal properties are also mentioned by Fuller the historian, and by Camden and others. Later on the wells fell into disuse, in consequence of the land surrounding them having been much trespassed upon, and therefore inclosed by the owners; but in 1815, samples of the water yielded by the two mineral springs were submitted to analysis by Dr. C. R. Aikin, whose report (dated June 24th, 1815) was produced when the Hall Weston springs were sold April 2nd, 1844. In December, 1885, the springs were visited, and samples taken from each, by Arthur H. Hassall esq. M.D. and E. Godwin Clayton esq. F.I.C., F.C.S. and these samples were afterwards submitted to full chemical analysis, with the following results:-the water taken from the fresh water spring was found to be of excellent quality, and therefore well adapted for ordinary consumption; the water from the first of the two mineral springs contained as its chief constituents chloride of sodium and sulphate of soda & belongs to the class of saline aperient mineral waters, but without their unpalatable qualities; it is free from every kind of organic contamination, and constitutes an agreeable table water. The water of the second mineral spring has a local reputation for its beneficial effect in cases of skin disease, and has long been known by the name of “Scorbutic” or “Sore” water. These springs are used by the Hail Weston Springs Company, for the manufacture of soda and potash water and other aerated beverages. The results of the analyses of 1885 are given below, the figures representing in each case parts by weight in 100,000 parts of water:

Constituents Fresh Water Mineral Spring No 1 Mineral Spring No 2
Chloride of Sodium 3.29 212.57 137.92
Sulphate of Soda 2.17 108.72 82.45
Carbonate of Lime 17.05 12.95 14.29
Nitrate of Lime 5.61 1.07  
Carbonate of Magnesia 0.42 5.64 0.86
Sulphate of Magnesia 3.90 9.15 7.96
Carbonate of Iron 1.54 0.61 0.41
Silica 0.66 0.76 1.20
TOTAL 34.64 351.47 245.09
Free Ammonia Absent Absent 0.001
Albuminoid Ammonia Absent Absent 0.004
Oxygen absorbed 0.005 0.114 0.050

Google map view of the location of the lost mineral springs

Chris Dunn in his 2001 Cambridgeshire journal article Taking the waters also found out that it cost 5 shillings per month to use the waters at this time or sixpence for a quart to take away. Dunn (2001) records that their fame had become largely forgotten by the middle of the 19th Century and attendance had dwindled. This resulted in a company called Hail Weston Springs buying the springs. The company tanked the springs and had the bottled water aerated, and sold. This bottling plant has itself gone, being at Hail Bridge adjacent to the A1. Although they continued to be marked on maps until the early 20th century the site had long gone.     The site was unfortunately incorporated into the water supply by then, although they continued to be marked on maps until the early 20th century.

Happy Birthday Blog..Let’s look at the legends concerning the birth of holy wells

As it’s the first year anniversary, it is time to reflect upon the how holy springs are  born. There appear to be four ways in which holy men and women has caused springs to be created. Perhaps the most easily explained in view of modern science is that miracle associated with St. Thomas a Beckett at Otford or St Augustine in Kent and Dorset, where they struck their staffs into the ground or a rock and caused a spring to arise. A story which of course arises in relation to the work of Moses,  who supplied water for the Israelites in Exodus. Indeed, it appears to have been done as a claim of holiness as seen by Sir John Shorne in North Marston (Buckinghamshire). Some modern day antiquarians may relate their actions to that of dowsers, but a little bit of local knowledge of hydrology would help!

Sometimes like that of Holy Well bay (Cornwall), St. Ive’s Well (Huntingdonshire) or St. Winchombe (Gloucestershire), a spring arose when the body was disinterred and rested. This again makes some logical sense for one would expect that digging a body in some geological areas could possibly hit ground water, the junction between two rock types being likely. When arising from the resting of a body is slightly more problematic, but one would expect in a journey fraught with thieves, wolves, bears and all sorts of hazards the body may have been temporarily interred to prevent loss, especially as journeys being done on foot.

Often there is a gruesome origin to springs. St Alban’s Well in St Albans came about after the saint was decapitated by the pagan Romans and at his martyrdom, his head rolled down and where it rested a spring formed. This is one version of the legend, a story repeated in the more famous perhaps St. Winifred’s well.  This is a more problematic origin and perhaps again links the idea of temporary disinterment.

Certainly, the construction of a hollow may explain how St Morwena’s well arose in Morwenstowe (Cornwall). It is said that the saint journeyed to find a stone for the font and fell asleep here and a well arose. This resulted in the well being used as the location of the church.

A Huntingdonshire field trip

Huntingdonshire is not a county associated with holy wells and healing springs but during my research a number of interesting sites are still to be found in the county

HUNTINGDON

It is good to see the county town has still retained a site which Dr Daniel Layard (1759) described as spring to the north of Huntingdon as:

“The pure and limpid water called Horse-Common Water at Huntingdon, remarkable for its softness and little sediment.”

So it is still found, the Horse-Common water (TL 238 726) named after the area of land it is found in. Today this common is an odd relic surrounded on all sides by modern housing and a leisure centre. The spring produces a fine flow and is responsible for the marshy area here and its own survival; it would be an unsuitable area to build on. The spring arises from a substantial structure, with steps down to the water which flows out at some force and forms a channel through a paved area. An older structure can be observed within the more modern well house. There was a cast iron lion’s head where water flowed out of its mouth via a pipe and a chain with a cup beside it. All evidence of this has gone.

Local people state that they used it to wash their hair as it was better than tap water and picked water cress around the area. There appears to be no record of any medicinal use although it is clear that it was so regarded. Can we suggest considering its proximity to a Roman road, that it was known by Huntingdon’s Roman inhabitants? This site was also called Cowper’s Spring, associated with poet William Cowper who had a bath house built and presumably what remains are the relics of this.

LONGSTANTON

Lying in the churchyard of the thatched chapel of St Michael, is a particularly fine example of a baptismal well, called Holy Well or St Michael’s Well (TL 403 658) However before the arrival of a Mr and Mrs Brown to the village the site was very neglected and little known.  The well settles under a large tree in the corner of the tree which may be significant and is enclosed in a yellow brick half barrel well house, at the back of this is a cross shaped window. This has been erroneously reported to project the image on the head of the baptised individual. However, I was informed by Mrs Brown that there was no evidence to support this although it is an interesting theory. The well arises in a shallow circular well with a gravel substrate (the source of the water is not clear), and is approached by a series of steps between two low walls and black metal railings which encircle this approach to the well with a small gate. A black metal guard has been placed in front of the well, and this can be raised to give access.

There would seem to be local disagreement over the use of the well and indeed whether it was dedicated at all! Its proximity to the church suggests its use in baptisms, although no clear records could be found. Notwithstanding, Mr Brown did speak to an elderly lady whose mother was baptised in it about 100 years ago.

Well dressing was introduced in 1986 making two of Cambridgeshire’s Holy wells that have had this distinction. The dressing consists of a tryptic arrangement with a variety of images and motifs: The Golden Hind with bells and anchors; East Anglian Life: a windmill and church; The Harvest is ripe. A number of photographs of these ceremonies are displayed in the porch of the church. Sadly lack of interest within the village seems to have caused the abandonment of the ceremony, as it was only Mrs Brown and another elderly lady doing the rather time consuming work. Hopefully one day it will be restored.

PAPWORTH ST AGNES

Arising in a boggy hole is St Agnes’s Well or Nill Well (TL 268 625).The spring area is stained red indicating it schalybeate nature but it is difficult to discern exactly where the spring arises. It is found in a small copse just off a small road. Does the name Nill refers to fairies? Possibly not as there was a Gilbert de Knille recorded as a landowner in 1279, but did he get his name from the well? Which St Agnes is referred to is unclear especially as the much restored church is dedicated to St. John the Baptist and this likely that as Reaney (1943) notes that the village takes its name from Agnes de Papewurda. It is possible that this is the spring noted by Scherr (1986); recorded as Anneiswell, in the 13th century. Someone along the way has made the site related to a saint byb accident                    

A Huntingdon Holy well: The Holy well of Holywell-cum-Needingworth

The county is not well known for its holy wells, however a number of interesting sites can be found; one of these being the eponymous holywell of this settlement. This settlement on the banks of the Stour owes its name to the presence of a clear and never failing spring, called simply the Holy Well (TL 336 707) that arises at the junction of gravel and Ampthill clay. This well was may have been known in Roman times, indicated by the discovery of Roman coins and pottery in the churchyard and rectory grounds. These are now in the Norris museum. First mentioned in a will of 986 when an Athelstan Mannessune bequeathed to Ramsey Abbey ‘de terra… de Haliwella’. By the time of the Domesday 1086,, the settlement Haliewelle is noted with the names Haliwell, 1231, Halliwell, 1350 and even Hallowell, 1601, before settling as Holywell in the 1700s.                                                                                          

It maybe that the Christian history is associated with the 7th Century Bishop of Persia, St Ivo, whose relics were held at the nearby town of St Ives. Pilgrims would rest and drink here after or before taking the ferry across the Stour to and from the St Ives’ Shrine. Whether the dedication of the well was the same is unclear, as the well lies the Parish church of St John the Baptist, it is possibility that it too was dedicated to St John.

Despite its age, Tebbutt (1938–47) states that:

“I cleared outthe basin in 1936, and only found one penny dated 1905.”

The present structure was constructed in 1845 by Rev. S.B. Beckwith, the rector, which covered the mediaeval 13th century stone ring (Kelly (1910) notes 1847). This structure is an attractive yellow brick dome. A metal plaque is set into the arch recording its name. However, direct access to the well is impossible as a black metal frame covers the entrance; however the spring can be sampled, as it gushes forth by some force below the well. Until the 1940s this well was the only source of domestic water and was also still used for baptism.

The spring had a reputation for healing, Terbutt (1938-27) notes:

“About 1933 the late MrsYeatherde saw a woman sitting with her feet in the well to cure a foot complaint. In1935 I was told… that people often came to bathe for such complaints as sore eyes.In the previous year a boy with a sore on his forehead that would not heal, came and bathed it with water from this well, and it at once healed up.”

The site was restored in the 1980s, as three elms, whose roots were undermining the structure and making it thus unsafe, were damaging the fabric. Hence after the death of these trees due to Dutch elm disease, it was decided to restore and repair the well. Volunteers and the Parochial Council set to remove the trees and after measuring the structure and making a template of the arch, together with photographs: the repairs could be done, after diverting its flow of course.

It was found that the foundations and walls were in a very bad state and this required removing the structure down to the original 13th Century stone ring. Care was taken as to save as many of the old bricks, and these were incorporated into the new structure with matching old bricks supplied by a local builder. To eradicate future problems of tree damage, the area around the well was cleared right back and four ft high retaining walls were constructed from old facing bricks backed with engineer bricks and the surrounding well area covered in crazy paving. Further improvements to ensure safety, including new fencing and easier access to the spring outlet were made and the area was improved with the planting of 800 spring bulbs. Today thanks to the restoration the site is a pleasing place for contemplation.

An annual well dressing ceremony was also introduced and this is carried out on the Patronal day of 24th June, that of St John the Baptist since 1982. It involves a mud and dried flow technique, the Derbyshire technique, and the placing of a wreath around the arch. In 1982 the motif was peace with a dove and church and a yellow rose as the designs either side of the arch’s finial. Then, as since, the dressing receives the blessing of the Bishop of Ely or Huntingdon and the display remains for ten days. Today the well entrance is filled by a plaque also dressed and in 2012 the Royal Jubilee is the topic.