Category Archives: Kent
The Lady Magdalene’s Well
Back in the 1990s I was busily researching for my Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Kent and was searching for two notable wells which existed on private grounds. Back in those well searching days there were really only three ways to find out if a site existed beyond someone else’s account and the appropriate map. These were – writing, turn up on spec and linked to the later try to see the well by doing a bit of exploring. As both laid firmly on private ground (and one a school) it seemed prudent to enact the first option. So I wrote and fortunately both were forthcoming so I arranged a day to explore them.
Lady Magdalene’s Well (TQ 707 333) is in fact one of a number of chalybeate springs which surround Combwell Priory, probably named after Mary. Although Combwell itself is a ‘modern’ building, it is constructed around the old priory, pieces of which are recognisable in its fabric. Nearby under a mound the un-excavated remains of other sections of the priory. Little is clear concerning its history. The earliest reference to the well is on a 1622 Combwell Estate map and Combwell Priory was granted a fair on St Mary Magdalene’s Day in 1226-7 so it is doubtlessly an ancient source.
Only a few years before my visit, the site was a boggy area. When I visited it is tanked and enclosed in modern brickwork (although there would appear to be signs of an earlier, probably Victorian structure). The overflow from the spring emerges as a stream a few feet from this structure. There is little here to excite the antiquarian. Mrs. Fehler, of Combwell Priory, informed me that it was used as drinking water at the house, although she suspected its quality, having a blue tinge. The carved bust of a woman, said to be a cook who foiled a Roundhead attack is of interest at the Priory. Mrs. Fehler refers to this as ‘The Combwell.’ Could it have been associated with the well? Perhaps the story was later constructed around the object to explain it.
The Lady’s Well
The Lady’s Well (TQ 341 721) is noted in blue italics on the map, with the words chalybeate spring beneath. It was located within the private Bedgebury School Estate. Although the name suggests a dedication to Our Lady, it is according to local historian Mr. Bachelor, its origin appears to be secular, deriving from Viscountess Beresford who resided at Bedgebury. To add to the confusion the well is now dedicated to a past Bedgebury School Headmistress. A plaque at the well records this. Yet despite this it is a pleasing site, the spring arising in a distinctive square sandstone well house, found nestling in a Rhododendron dell below the main building.
This structure, Romanesque in style, is six foot high, with water emerging through a pipe in its centre to fill a semi-circular basin set at its base. The structure’s condition suggests that it is of no great age and would correspond with early Nineteenth Century. Whether the water was taken for its waters, being a noted for its iron rich water like Tunbridge wells, is unknown. Since visiting the site is no longer enclosed in the grounds of the school as it closed in 2006 and the building is currently derelict.
Interestingly there was another chalybeate spring in the wider grounds of the school I did not visit and two more in the woods nearby – I did fail to visit these but no history or tradition was apparently recorded concerning these.
In a quiet corner of Kent is one of the county’s most renowned wells. A well known local legend is associated with St. Eustace’s Well (TR 062 458) Hasted (1797 -1801) based his knowledge on the work of Roger of Wendover describes the well as follows:
“In it (Wye) is a hamlet, called Withersden, formerly accounted a manor, in which there is a well, which was once famous being called St. Eustace’s Well, taking its name from Eustachus, Abbot of Flei,…..a man of learning and sanctity…to come and preached at Wye, and blessed a fountain there, so that afterwards its waters were endowed by such miraculous power, that by all diseases were cured.”
Hasted (1797-1811) relates the properties of the well in detail:
“..from the taste of it alone, the blind recovered sight, the lame their power of walking, the dumb their speech, the deaf their hearing, and whatever sick person drank of it in faith enjoyed renewed health.”
The legend set in 1189, during Godfrey de Luce’s tenure at the vicarage. Pope Innocent III sent St. Eustace, a Norman Cistercian Abbot, who held his first meeting at Wye after a terrible sea journey. Thirsty, he searched for water, and finding this spring, blessed it, afterwards it attracted pilgrims, and a guardian priest was established. A specific legend tells of a woman, possessed of the devil, and ‘swollen up as it were by dropsy’ came to a priest, whom upon seeing her urged her to go the spring. This she did and no sooner had the women drunk the holy water, she recovered but vomited forth a pair of black toads, growing into black dogs, then black asses! The woman surprised vented her anger against these manifestations and the priest intervened, sprinkling the holy water on ‘they flew up into the air and vanished, leaving no traces of their foulness.’
When I first became interested in holy wells – some would say obsessed – my interest being piqued by a copy of Janet and Colin Bord’s 1984 Sacred Waters picked up in a Truro bookshop back in the 1990s and in it was St Eustace’s Well. It was described as follows:
“The well is close to Withersdane cottage 3/4 mile southeast of Wye and reached along a lane by Withersdane hall. the well now has an air of neglect but in medieval times it was famous because it was visited by St Eustace when visiting the country. People visited for eye cures.”
As the well was place with the Saint Edith and The Black Prince’s Wells, both exceptional sites, I expected something on an ilk. With the book in hand and armed with a map I looked for the site, and looked and looked. I was expecting to find something beside the road at the corner where the map albeit a less than accurate landranger placed it. To no avail I could not find it. So finally I decided to ask a person in a nearby cottage thinking that perhaps the site was lost in the undergrowth or else unfortunately filled in. Especially as Robert Goodsall in his 1968 A second Kentish patchwork first visiting the site in 1966, found the site overgrown with saplings and weeds, but recently the site has been tidied up. There was report of steps and rails from the roadside down to the spring head with a stone nearby near the pond for leaving water vessels.
Upon asking I thus discovered that the person I was asking had it in the corner of their garden. The owner, a Mr. John Hilton and he gladly showed me the well. It consists of a shallow rectangular shaped pond, with its source enclosed within a square brick structure with a concrete top, to the north of the actual well basin. I was informed by the then owner Mr. Hilton that even in the 1976 drought, there was no apparent difference in depth, the only considerable change being the influx of agricultural fertiliser causing overgrowth in algae over the years.
Within recent years it has been reported that St. Eustace’s Well had become very yet overgrown again. Perhaps due to a change of ownership it has again been cleared of bushes and this time it was noted that the water table had fallen due to water abstraction for mains supply nearby and thus turned the well more into a murky pool. However, I noticed that in a recent photo from Will Parson of the Pilgrimage Trust that it looks much more inviting with the steps down to it having been tidied up and the water looking clear and clean. It is clear from the planting that this back garden holy well is much appreciated.
Despite the thundering sounds of motorways nearby, the industry of Aylesford and the urban sprawl of Maidstone and Rochester not far away the triangle of area trapped between this modernisation clinging to the edges of the ancient pilgrim’s way still has a feel of something ancient and mysterious. Many people visit the area to see its megalithic remains – Kit’s Coty, lower Kit’s Coty and the White horse stone, but in this area are a number of springs which tantalisingly may suggest a similar ancient ritual use.
Many years ago I picked up a delightfully named volume A Tramp in Kentish Pilgrim Land by Coles Finch. A 1925 book whose research and details are of much interest. One of the sites he discusses is the Pilgrim’s Spring, (TQ 731 614) in the old community of Tottington, which he describes a pool surrounded by sarsens believed to be of ancient origin:
“Spread around this beautiful spring head in plenteous disorder is a large number of huge stones, some thrown into the bed of the stream, others supporting its margins. Some half buried and peep through the ground. With Cromlech and altar thrown down and heaped around the spring, it is left to our imagination to picture this site of ancient water worship in the dim and distant past. The stone circle appears to have completely encircled the principal spring; hence there are reasonable grounds for concluding that too was devoted to water worship.”
Earlier in 1872 a James Fergusson visited the area and noted:
…nearer the village [Aylesford] exists or existed, a line of great stones, extending from a place called Spring Farm, in a north-easterly direction, for a distance of three quarters of a mile, to another spot known as Hale Farm passing through Tollington [sic], where the greater number of the stones are now found. In front of the line near the centre at Tollington lie two obelisks, known to the country people as the coffin stones – probably from their shape. They are 12 feet long by 4 to 6 broad, and about 2 to 3 feet thick. They appear to be partially hewn, or at least shaped, so as to resemble one another.
Of course, the description is perhaps tainted by the ‘Druid’ obsession of Victorian antiquarians, so perhaps the stones are natural, although close to recognised ancient monuments, they are still to be found in area some up righted by the farmer The springs still exist too, but the number of sarsens associated with them appears to have been reduced, and one would suggest that a number have been dragged from their position and placed on the Coffin Stone.
Another similar site is a Spring (TQ 745 599) which is also situated by the Pilgrims way, and was probably associated with the nearby lost chapel of St. Michael, Alfred John Dunkin in his 1846 History of the County of Kent describes it as a Druidical pool:
“East of the Medway at Cossington, at the base of the hill on which Kits Coty House stands, water of the spring is intensely cold in summer and very warm in the winter.” He records that stones and similar objects placed in the water become coated in a red tinge, which undoubtedly created deep superstition regarding their powers.”
He also notes that around the spring head:
“still lie many of the massive boulders of their temple in a well preserved semicircular form.”
Dr. Thorpe’s work of 1788 cited in Hasted (1797-1811) History of Kent describes Cossington’s spring as:
“At the bottom issue several springs, which are so cold and sharp that the water is said to cramp and kill ducks, and the flints that lie in it are tinged red as blood, and to try the experiment stones have been marked and put in, which, in less than a year’s time, were of the same colour.”
Finch (1925) believes that these properties were exaggerated, and were certainly not considered when the water company took charge of the water; he describes the stream as now only flowing at a meagre flow and only feeding some pools by the ruins of Cossington Manor. Sadly, the site was been taken over by the waterworks and consequently at the spring head there is nothing of interest. Near Cossington farm, there are the ruins of the ancient manor and beneath this a rag stone pool, built to grow watercress. Yet, these are the only artefacts of interest, as the spring head itself is of no longer interest.
Below Boxley’s All Saint’s Church, Finch (1925) recorded a Pilgrim’s Pool (TQ 775 589) where the pilgrims would have presumably refreshed themselves or bathed. This pool has become over grown and rubbish strewn, compared to Finch’s (1925) time. The railings that lined the pool as shown in Finch’s photo are now bent, buckled and rusty. Overall, the pool is largely forgotten, and not even mentioned by the church guide. Hasted (1797-1811) notes two Petrifying Springs in the vicinity, and these are presumably the ones which arise inaccessibly in a small copse near the ruins of Boxley Abbey and the old vicarage garden (TQ 766 591, and TQ 774 589).
All of these sites potentially suggest the location of the Haly Well of Haley Garden. This has caused a fair amount of confusion from Kent historians being some discussion has occurred regarding its exact location, although Hale Farm may have taken its name from it. Harris (1719) in his work on Kent Topography notes that a well, that had many virtues, in particular cleansing sin:
“Under Boreham (Burham, Burgham) formerly there was a fountain in this Parish (South Philipot) at a place called Haly or Holy Garden, which was accounted mighty sacred by common people, and had very uncommon virtues ascribed to it, and in the 17th year of King Richard II, The Friars Carmelites of Aylesford obtained a grant by letters Pateill to bring the water from to their monastery.”
The nearby Friars at Aylesford are also said to have built an aqueduct from the site. Finch (1925) believes that the well lay eleven hundred yards due west of the Kewland Wheel Well house. Although, he also states that other authorities believed that this wheel well itself was the site. This belief was discredited, however, when its well shaft was explored: no chambers or tunnels were found to lead off of from it. Sadly, there is no evidence of Great Kewland house, although some house debris down a nearby wooded quarry can be located, although being tightly fenced in, one is unable to find any remains of a well or local knowledge.
Another possible site is a Roman or Ancient Draw Well, (TQ 741 809) According to Finch (1925), there is a legend connecting the well with another that of Kewland by a secret tunnel. Finch (1925) notes that there is:
“…an elm tree and some stones of various sizes, beneath which is a well only some two feet in diameter, but tested to be 113 feet deep. This doubtlessly was sunk for a water supply for the Roman occupants hereabouts.”
Finch (1925) expected that this well was a local myth but was fortunate to find a sixty year old man, who as a boy, used to drop flints down it. He notes that:
“The elm tree is bowed over with age and its sinuous roots have all but closed the entrance to the well, leaving but a tiny aperture through which one could see the rough coping stones. With a little dexterity, one could drop a stone, time its fall, and hear the thus as it fell upon the accumulated debris on the bottom no casual visitor could find the well, even though accurately marked upon a plan, without a guide.”
Certainly, it is unmarked on the present maps, and attempting to uncover its location I was hindered by considerable ivy cover and rubbish. I did locate a large amount of brick and stone debris at one site and possibly remains of a dead elm, but conclusively. Its location and indeed the location and meaning of the springs remains a mystery. Much of my field and archival research was done in the 1990s and detailed in Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Kent but even with the power of the internet these sites have not revealed themselves.
In search of the healing and ancient wells and springs of Folkestone part two – Foord’s chalybeate spring
In this second post on the town’s noted water supplies we turn to its chalybeate spring. Like many of the towns, Folkestone made a bid to develop into a spa town. In the town a Chalybeate Spring is noted by Seymour in his 1776 Survey of Kent:
“At a place called Foord, a quarter of a mile distant west from Folkestone, is a fine salubrious spring of water, which has all the virtue and efficacy of the chalybeate being impregnated with iron in a degree equal to the Tunbridge Water. It has been proved with success by Dr Gill, operates by urine and perspiration, and is of infinite service in cold chronic distemper, weakness, and bad digestions.”
He describes it as:
“CHALYBEATE SPRING which although uninviting in appearance from its ferruginous aspect is much resorted to in cases of stomach affection and nervous debility after a long illness The component parts of this water are Carbonic Muriatic and Sulphuric Acids Soda Lime Magnesia and Iron which occur in the following order Carbonate of Soda, Carbonate of lime, Muriate of Soda Carbonate of Soda Carbonate of Lime, Muriate of Soda, Muriate of Lime, Sulphate of Soda, Carbonate of Iron The water is principally alkaline from Carbonate of Soda the quantity of Muriate is small The charge for drinking it is very moderate.”
In L. Fussel’s 1818 Journey round the Coast of Kent:
“such an accidental circumstance that which first brought Tunbridge wells into repute is only wanting to give celebrity to the chalybeate water at Foord, and make the fortunes of Mr Holmes, a very civil, attentive and intelligent master of the Red Cow near the spot.”
As noted thus in 1815, the said Red Cow landlord, William Holmes, obtained a license to bottle and sell its waters. Seymour (1776) suggests that the site could be made a valuable spa, suggesting suitable accommodation at a Mr. James Bateman’s White Hart Inn.. Yet, whether he was basing his views on any tradition. It was said that the best time to drink the water would be in the morning, taking a further two or three glasses through the day. It was often mixed with milk or even brandy to make it more palatable!
Amongst the diseases Foord’s water could cure were:
“diarrhoea, gout, rheumatism, flatulence, gout, rheumatism, scurvy, blood fluxes, dysentery, bleeding of piles, lowness of spirits, weakness of the nerves, want of appetite, indigestion, habitual colic, vomiting, jaundice, dropsy, nephritic disorders, asthma and scorbutick cases”.
By 1850 a mock castle had been built as a pump room by Mr J G Breach of Pavilion Hotel, but the lack of baths, and entertainers and the rise of sea bathing lead to its demise! Sadly he did not make his fortune, moved on, but the Silver Spring Mineral Water Company, did move to Foord Road in the 1890’s., remembered by a plaque over what was Crown European Upholstery, now closed itself. Indeed, when Dr Augustus Granville was researching for his 1841 The Spas of England and Principle Sea Bathing places he missed it
The spring has long gone, a row called Chalybeate row being built on the site, until 2012 a pub named after the Mock Castle survived to remember Folkestone’s attempt to become a spa town’ but this too has gone!
In this post I thought I’d examine some little known holy and healing springs from East Kent extracted from the book Holy wells and healing springs of Kent
This parish is associated with the Holy Maid of Kent, Elizabeth Barton, whose proneness to fantastic illusions, attracted great numbers of followers, angered by Henry VIII’s split from Rome. Frightened of any connection with Rome, or power she may hold over the peasant folk, she and her collaborators, local monks, were hung at the Tyburn in London. Neame (1971) notes that there was another reputed ‘holy well’ at Goldwell manor apparently associated with the Holy Maid, called the Golden Well (TR 066 371). This was never known to fail, and was still frequented in the 1930s. It lay in the north-east corner of the house and was reached via steps in the cellar, being surrounded by a low brick coping. Sadly it has now blocked up and lost.
The remains of the Chapel of Our Lady (TR 090 353) judging from early engravings, has degraded considerably over the centuries, and sadly all that now remains are three walls with traces of Romanesque archways. A large water cress covered pool, lies beside this. This was the pool used by the pilgrims visiting the Chapel. However, below this is a spoon shaped stone lined chamber, which appears to be a well and may have been a holy well. Although much of it is filled in, and dry, one can envision, a series of steps flowing down to the stone-lined circular pool. It would appear to be unrecorded by other authorities. Perhaps an excavation can be employed to discover its origin.
Charles Igglesden (1900-46) in his Saunters through Kent notes a ‘Pilgrim’s Well’ (TR 082 354):
“Here is a bridle path from Smeeth Station to Lympne Road, called Pilgrim’s Way, from the fact that there is a well at the Lympne end.”
This dubious site, however, appears to have been lost.
Here is an ancient well, called Queen Anne’s Well (TQ 958 291), because its waters it is said were drunk by a thirsty Queen Anne, asking for refreshment at the house. Consequently, the house was named ‘The Queen’s Arms’ to commemorate the event. Considering the Queen’s liking for spas, the water may have been a mineral water. Perhaps, although one naturally associates the well with the Stuart monarch, she may have been the wife of James II, Anne Hyde or even further back James I, Anne of Denmark. The well lies in the cellar of a private house of The Queen’s Arms, the one nearest the church. I was informed by the owner that its water flows from the wall behind and then flows via a series of drains to and from the well. Niches facing the well indicate a great antiquity, and emphasise that the house may be built on an old chapel or even priory, as it appears medieval in period, which was the view of the owner. Considering the antiquity of the surroundings, its name may derive from St. Anne. Little is known of its history, it may have been a main ancient water source.
To the east of St. Augustine’s Priory at the edge of a field is a site called the Holy Well (TR 044 356). However, I have been unable to discover any reasons for the dedication; it may not be a particular old dedication although it is likely to be the water supply of the priory. It is a simple spring without any sign of structure.
Igglesden (1901-1946) records a tradition of a curative spring, called The Golden Well (TQ 969 425) which he considers a feeder of the Medway, arising beneath the private cellar of a house. He notes that the house:
“Takes its name from a golden well that lies under the cellar and there used to be a legend the effect that the water possessed curative powers over the certain diseases.”
It arises at the base of the rag stone cellar wall, into a circular stone lined well shaft. This although appearing to be only a foot or so deep, was once deeper, but filled when the present house was erected over the cellar. Recent analysis shows it was not potable, yet it is remarkable clear. Interestingly, the owner, Mr. Peter Green, told me of a tradition of a tunnel which lead from the cellar to the edge of Romney Marsh, or rather the sea. He thought he came across the tunnel whilst building a wall.
However, the origin of the well is not clear cut. Wallenberg (1934) in his Place names of Kent, conversely, believes that the Manor’s name derives from the Goldwell family. The explanations are not exclusive. The family may have obtained the name from being guardians of the well. Goldwell may derive from golden votive offerings given to the spring, or the discovery of a hidden hoard from the Reformation, a common myth embroiled around such sites.
The seaside Kent town of Folkestone has three notable water sites The first is perhaps the commonest picture postcard available and there are several versions as can be seen here. This is surprising as the site is not particularly well known or celebrated. Indeed its’ provenance may be perhaps a little dubious. This is the Holy Well or St. Thomas’s Well (TR 221 382) is. Its first description by S. J. Mackie in their 1856 Handbook of Folkestone gives the greatest detail and describes the scene around the well:
“Whence we look down its sheep trodden sides into the deep dell, where, sheltered by the rank rushes lie the dark un-ruffled waters of Holy Well. Do these raise tracings on the grass cover the remains of some lonely hermitage. The Country people tell you something about the pilgrims to Becket’s Shrine, it is called also St. Thomas’s Well, resting here on their way to Canterbury.”
Watt (1917) in discussion of the town notes in Canterbury Pilgrims and their ways:
“..also on the hills above it we have St. Thomas’s Well, but such are scattered all over the district.”
Samuel J Mackie records in 1856 A description and historical account of Folkestone
“Sheltered by the rank rushes lie the dark waters of Holy Well Do those raised tracings in the grass cover the remains of some hermitage The country people tell you about the pilgrims to Becket’s shrine it is called St Thomas’s Well resting here on their way to Canterbury I confess it seems to me slightly out of road but there it is and all I can tell about it is there is nothing now to be told.”
In the 1865 an illustrated hand-book to Folkestone and its picturesque neighbourhood by H Stock
“A short distance from this to the immediately at the bottom of Sugar Loaf Hill a remarkable spring of beautiful water known as Well or St Thomas’s Well Why so called saith not By some it is thought that it was resting place of the pious souls who worshipped shrine at Canterbury but how those worthies here cannot be conjectured It is now used as sheepwash”.
This latter point would explain the odd concrete structure, now lost, seen in some postcards.
In the 1925 Wonderful Britain by John Alexander Hammerton he noted:
“Folkestone’s Holy Well, sometimes called St. Thomas’s well…the old highway to Canterbury runs close by and tradition says that pilgrims to the shrine of St Thomas a Becket used to drink here and that Henry II himself did so when he went to do penance at the Cathedral whose Archbishop he had murdered and martyred.”
When visiting in the 1990s the information board states that the name holy well is a modern name for these springs, and 80 years ago one was called St. Thomas’s Well but the account above disagrees. There appears to be some confusion over the site. Consequently it is difficult to pinpoint the exact site. I was informed by a local in his late 60s that, when he was a boy, the second now dry spring was called Holy Well. The spring arose in a deep gully, now covered with bramble and heavily eroded at the source. However, continuing the path around to the base of the hill, one comes across a large pool, fed by all the springs. This is the site called the Holy Well on an early 1900s postcard. So perhaps there were two sites after all?
When William Parsons of the excellent British Pilgrimage Trust visited the site was largely overgrown and derelict as can be seen here in 2016, he repairing it with some stones found around which may have been part of the original structure.
Next time we shall be exploring Folkestone’s attempt to develop a spa.
The following post originally appeared in Bygone Kent 23 12-16
Canterbury appears to have been well supplied with springs, a factor which may have lead to its adoption as a settlement from prehistoric times. This, together with Canterbury’s considerable importance as a pilgrim goal through the middle ages, has also not surprisingly resulted in a number of noted culted and religious watering holes. Indeed St. Thomas’s Shrine was associated with a healing spring. At the height of the Canterbury pilgrims, St. Thomas’s Well would have been the most famous well in the county, if not the country. Every pilgrim would take its water, believed to be of a highly curative nature, and it became an important part of the pilgrimage. Despite this, it is surprisingly now little known and the well itself has been lost. Although authorities place it in the choir of the cathedral, a site to the left hand of the original shrine site in the crypt is identified. This being a circular stone set into the crypt floor.
Even before his martyrdom, Thomas had already attracted a considerable following, and this well, which he drank from daily, had already gained special notice. After his death, it became even more famed. Indeed, one of his first miracles is by some accounts associated with this water. It involved a man, who upon dipping his shirt in the saint’s blood and rinsed it into its water, he gave this to his wife who was cured of her paralysis.
Obviously the monks were quick to see an important source of revenue. At first pilgrims were supplied with a phial of water into which drops of the saint’s blood were added, but a later story stated that the monks swept the spilt blood into the well, and the water brimmed with miraculous healing water! A story probably supported by the presence of red iron or chalybeate waters as found at Tunbridge. This later story was doubtlessly concocted when the original source of blood ran out! A worn step in the south aisle of the Trinity Chapel is said to be where they knelt to receive the water. Gerveise records ( cited in Erasmus ( 1876 ) Pilgrimage to St. Mary of Walsingham and St. Thomas of Canterbury):
‘..it is not beside my purpose to relate the way in which the Blood of the new Martyr, mixed with water, is given to drink, and then carried away, to the pious who desire.’
Many miracles became associated with the water. One tells of a priest called William of London, who was struck dumb at the feast of the Protomartyr, St. Justian and in a dream was told that he should visit the shrine and be cured. This he did and indeed was. Such news helped to attract greater numbers. As Gerveise continues:
‘As soon as this was divulged to the people, many came to ask for the same: when the Holy Blood was bestowed upon the sick mixed with pure water, in order that it may last longer.’
Another recorded miracle is that of a certain London Shoemaker Gilbert, suffering with fistula, was cured by its water and after returning the sixty-six miles home to London, he stripped to the waist and challenged his neighbours to a race! It appears to have even been able to restore life to the dead, although how the dead drank is not explained! Despite the great cures the saint could also be vindictive to the unworthy, irreligious or insincere. Such people would often find their lead phials, of St. Thomas’s Water, mysteriously empty, even before leaving the Cathedral precincts. ( In truth they often leaked! )
Naturally, such miracles were treated as suspiciously during the dark days of the Reformation, and in 1538 Lord Cromwell, doubting their authority, had pilgrimages stopped. The Kings Commission destroyed Beckett’s Shrine, and the well was consequently lost.
In the town there is another site associated with Beckett’s murder, called the Red Pump. This is said to be painted red as a memorial to the saint’s death. When this legend begun, and why it should be so connected is not clear. Yet, its connection with a Roman milestone suggests some antiquity for the site.
Records note a number of named springs which carry religious names, although few exist in any form or their history fully documented. One of these sites is a St. Edburga’s Well, noted by Urry as Eadburgawelle, and mentioned in a grant to St. Augustine’s Abbey in the Ninth century. Its site is now lost, and even its exact location unclear. Other sites mentioned are a St. Peter’s Well which is noted on a map drawn by Somner ( 1703 ) although he does not refer to the name in his text. There was also a Sunwin’s Well, which according to Urry was named after Sunwin the Smith and lay in the alley from the Cathedral to the Buttermarket. Other medieval wells were Hottewelle and Queningate Well. The former is interesting and suggests it may have been a thermal spring. This is particularly significant as I am unaware of any such sites in the county, and so the site may record such a rarity. ( Was it used by the Romans? ). Records show that a Gilbert the Priest lived close by to this site. The later. Queningate Well was, known also known as Fons de Cueningate, and may again have been known to Romans as it is associated with a Roman gateway.
A Roman origin is given for a fascinating lost site called St. Radegund’s Bath which is believed to have originated as a bath, and latterly to be associated with the cult of St. Radegund. Why it should be associated with this Sixth Century royal saint is unclear, although it is known that her cult was present in the area, as there is a monastic site near Dover bearing her dedication. It is first noted by Gosling ( 1777 ), when it was adapted to cold bath and thus it is worth recording the description in full:
‘St. Radegund’s Bath, a fine spring built over and fitted for cold bathing….in altering a very ancient dwelling house near the bath some hollows or pipes were discovered, carried along in the thickness of an old stone wall, which seemed a contrivance for heating the room in former times, and making a sudatly or sweating room of it.’
Records do show that the City Corporation bought this bath in 1793, and it was consequently leased to Messrs. Simmons and Royle for 28 years. This bath house was extensively repaired in 1794, and its basin was enlarged and divided in two. The baths were originally covered by arched roofs and lit from above by windows set into two turrets. Separate dressing and waiting rooms were also installed to facilitate the customs. Yet by 1825, sadly both the building and the bath became dilapidated, and hence only occasionally used. Sadly the popularity of the nearby Dolphin Inn which was situated above the bath-house, undoubtedly precipitated its destruction. By the 1930s the site was only remembered by the ruins of the Bath house cottages and as Gardiner ( 1940 ) Notes on an ancient house in Church Lane, Canterbury notes that the:
‘Healing waters in the adjacent well or bath of St. Radegund recently ( most deplorably ) filled in, in making a car park.’
Hence regrettably nothing remains of the site to record what appears to have been an historically fascinating site.
To the east of the city centre, are two sites which perhaps considering the proximity to the ancient church of St. Martin’s, are the oldest utilised in the area. St. Martin’s Spring is believed to be that which flowed out into a drain in North Holmes Road ( formerly Church Lane ) but ceased to flow in 1979, possibly the result of trenching near the site of the well. The flow from this, or rather its aquifer source, and that St. Augustine’s Spring were probably incorporated into St. Augustine’s Conduit House as noted by Hasted ( 1797 – 1801 ):
“..among the ruins of St. Augustine’s Monastery, other on St. Martin’s Hill for the dispensing of which are several public conduits in the principal streets of the city..”
This conduit is now enclosed in St. Martin’s Heights Housing Estate. Little archaeologically speaking was known of the site before its slabbed roof collapsed in the 1980s. Previously, it has been only marked by a slight earth mound with a concrete slab. Consequently, this collapse revealed much that was unknown of this structure and this prompted English Heritage to undertake a better study. The concrete slab was opened up to reveal a series of steps leading down into the structure, a ‘dark watery chamber which in recent times children had filled with a variety of domestic rubbish.’ The conduit was shown to be a six sided structure, the chamber within is divided into two sections with three Romanesque arches through which green sluggish water flows. Experts suggest that there was a floor above chamber and the structure was covered by a tiled conical roof. It is likely that this conduit is twelfth century. Around the conduit there is evidence of a large man made pond, which may have predated the conduit in function, but this is unsubstantiated. The structure has now been sensitively restored and can be visited. The water supply of the St. Martins is well covered in an article by Jenkins ( 1980 ) in Trouble Waters ( The Parish of St. Martin and St. Paul, Canterbury Friends of St. Martin ) which mentions the conduits constructed for supplying the city.
The springs feeding the conduit house are part of a complex of aquifers issuing from the step natural hillside across the eastern side of the city in the St. Martin and Old Park area, such as that at Horsefold. Such springs, as Hasted ( 1797-1801 ) mentions, also fed a conduit in Christ Church priory, and all across the city. The exact supply of the Christ Church Priory was probably that of the large reed pond in the grounds of Old Park, but no ecclesiastical, religious, or specific name is recorded. From this source, the Norman Christ Church community had a very sophisticated water system drawing their water from which was the foundation for further improvements. The most remarkable survival of this system is the conduit or water tower, a product of Prior Wilbert‘s scheme. This is equally remarkable as the plans still exist! They show that from the source the water travelled through two and a half inch diameter pipes ( such that would maintain a suitable pressure ) to feed the water tower and lavers ( fountains for the monks ). The full plans and discussion of the water system can be read in an article by Willis ( 1889 ) The Conventional Buildings of the Monastery of Christ church in Canterbury. The springs may indeed have originally been exploited by the Romans to supply baths such as that of St. Radegund.
Clearly Canterbury’s ancient water heritage is a fascinating one showing how its abundant supply has been utilised over the medieval centuries. For anyone interested in ancient water supplies it is an interesting city.
In the last post, we discussed the well dedicated to St, Ethelbert, in this post I shall introduce the other curious piece of local waterlore, the tale of the bell and the mermaid. Ella Mary Leather in her 1912 Folklore of Herefordshire. She relates in a story communicated by a Mr Galliers, of King Pyon and completed from other oral versions:
“In former times Marden church stood close to the river, and by some mischance one of the bells was allowed to fall into it, it was immediately sized by a mermaid who carried it to the bottom and held it there so fast that any number of horses could move it.”
She continues to state how the bell could be recovered:
“The people of the parish were told how to recover it, by wise men, according to some; others say the bell itself gave directions from the bottom of the river. A team of twelve white Free Martins heifers was to be obtained and attached to the bell with yokes of the sacred yew tree and bands of wittern or in some versions, the drivers’ goads were to be of witty or wittern mountain ash.”
Here interestingly is related a common folklore motif. The recovery by a set number of oxen, often unblemished of pattern in some way, the number twelve being a significant folklore number of course. Also interesting is the mention of yew and wittern – or mountain ash. Mountain Ash was an important plant often used in May time as adornment on houses and was held against witchcraft. Indeed, Aubrey noted
“They used when I was a boy to make pinnes for the yoakes of their oxen of them believing it had virtue to preserve them from being fore spoke. As they call it and they used the plant one by their dwelling house believing it to preserve them from witches and Evil Eyes.”
The next stage again is often told at other locations when treasure needs to be uncovered:
“The bell was to be drawn out in perfect silence it was successfully raised to the edge of the river with the mermaid inside fast asleep. In the excitement a driver, forgetting that silence was all important called out
“In spite of the Devils in hell, now well land Marden’s great bell”
This woke the mermaid, who darted back into the river, taking the bell with her ringing.”
The Mermaid replying:
“If it has not been for your wittern bands or witty goads and your yew tree lin, I’d have you twelve free martins in.”
This of course appears to indicate the power of the sacred foliage used which prevented the full effort of the mermaid.
“So Marden folks have never had their bell back from the bottom of the river to this day, and sometimes it may still be heard ringing, echoing the bells of the church. It does in a deep clear pool.”
A common story
Now this is as I have said a common folk motif. A similar story is recorded at the Callow Pit, Southwold in Norfolk about not speaking. Here an iron chest filled with gold said to lay at the bottom of the pit. Many years ago, two adventurous men determined to retrieve it. Having placed a platform of ladders across the pit they were success to insert a staff into the ring in the lid of the chest, and bore it up from the water. They then placed the staff on their shoulders and prepared to bar their trophy off. As they did so one of them exclaimed: ‘We’ve got it safe, and the devil himself can’t get it from us.’ Instantly a cloud of sulphurous steam arose and a black hand from the pool and latched onto the chest. A terrible struggle ensued and after much exhaustion, their treasure sank back down into the murky depths. All the men retained was the ring.
A closer version is told at Newington Kent, associated with the Libbet Well, the legend blames the church wardens, who decided to sell thechurch’s great bell to pay for the repair of the others. So as not to be seen they did it at night, but the Devil appeared and threw it in the well. At first they had great success at raising the bell to the surface, but the rope broke, they tried again and failed. A local witch arrived, and told them that the only way it could be raised was by drawing it up by four pure white oxen. This was done, and it was almost raised to the surface until, a local urchin, who was passing, shouted out at the top of his voice, ‘Look at the black spot behind that bull’s ear’. The rope instantly broke, and the bell was lost forever!
Rediscovery of the bell!
Now these other legends are just that legends and usually such a story ends, but this one has a postscript. Leather (1912) further records:
“In 1848 in cleaning out a pond in Marden, an ancient bronze bell was discovered . It lay at a depth of eighteen feet, beneath the accumulated mud and rubbish of centuries. The bel, which is now in the Hereford museum is rectangular in shape the plates are riveted together on each side. The clapper is lost , but there remains the loop inside from which it was suspended.”
Now of course what is unknown here is what came first, the bell’s discovery or the legend. The bell’s rediscovery would be vindication for such a legend but as Leather is the first to record it, it could be that the legend was constructed around the bell. However, I feel less sceptical about it considering how complex the legend is.
Let us first consider the bell. Leather herself introduces the idea that these were bells that the sexton or clerk took to the houses of the deceased on the day of the funeral. However, they originated as portable bells often associated with saints, indeed one in Glascwm a bell called Bangu was said to have belonged to St David,. Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In his work Wirt Sykes 1880 British Goblins it is noted that:
“Clergy were more afraid of swearing falsely by them than the gospels, because of some hidden and miraculous power with which they were gifted, and by the vengeance of the Saint to who, they were particular pleasing; their despisers and transgressors were severely punished…. Have in all probability hidden long ago by reformers on account of the superstitious beliefs attached to them.”
Now it seems likely that the bell was perhaps used to warn off the mermaid (whatever that might be) as a way of Christianizing the site and removing any pagan imaginary. Does the story recall the battle between the pre-Christian world and the Christian world? The message being in this remote region that paganism still has its grip despite the church!
What was the mermaid?
It might seem unusual to hear about a freshwater Mermaid, certainly one so far from the sea. However, she is not alone. There are mermaids in the Peak District, Lancashire and elsewhere – indeed there are more freshwater ones than sea water in England. Why? It is probable that these are folk memories of water deities which are converted to otherworldly creatures. In the case of Marden’s slightly sympathetically, in other mermaid stories she steals people and drowns them.
Was the mermaid the deity which was originally associated with St Ethelbert’s Well? It is possible although there is a long gap between a likely Celtic deity and Saxon Christian conversion, although it is possible that a Saxon deity like Nerthus could be the origin. That is of course if St Ethelbert is the original saintly dedication. His legend is so generic as stated in the earlier post, he could have easily replaced or been mistaken for a local pre-Saxon saint. Certainly Leather suggests the bell has an association with the saint:
“The Marden bell was perhaps associated with St Ethelbert ; the pond in which it was found is near the church which stands on the spot on which the body was first buried before its removal to Hereford. “
Such a bell is not a Saxon type but it is not without reason that the style continued into the Saxon period, especially in boarder country. Alternatively, the bell may be an indication of the existence of the pre-Saxon saint I muted. Certainly the discovery of the bell in a pond may indicate the true location of the village’s holy well and not the dry pit that survives in the church. Whatever the truth it is an interesting and little known story and one would welcome observations by readers.
One of the first holy wells that I discovered in my first forays into the subject was the variously named site which hides itself beneath the old leper hospital at Harbledown. Having my appetite whetted by journeys in the west country I was eager to find similarly romantic sites in the east and the well did not disappoint.
Like many sites in those days I had read of it bit not seen a picture, so I was very pleased to see the spring emerging at the foot of the hill enclosed in a six foot high semicircular domed well head made from Kentish rag stone and surrounded by brightly coloured flowers.
The well was noted as being able to cure leprous ailments, and presumably this is why the leper hospital was built in 1084 by Archbishop Lanfranc to exploit its properties, although this is not recorded. Why the Black Prince? It is the only well associated with the would-be monarch and joins a select group of well connected with royalty which have ‘religious’ and healing connotations.
The reason by for it is said that amongst its many early pilgrims looking for a cure for this complaint was Edward the Black Prince, who patronised the well twice: the first on his last journey to Canterbury, when he was cured, and then finally, on his death bed in 1376. Unfortunately in this latter case the waters were obviously of no use, being unable to rid him of his syphilis, of which he died. The well subsequently named after the knight.
It would appear previously and not unsurprisingly it had been named after nearby Canterbury’s holi blissful martyr Thomas Becket. For Canterbury pilgrims, it was their first view of the great Cathedral and so it have become a significant watering hole before they made the last steps to that great Shrine of St. Thomas. According to Francis Watt (1917) in Canterbury Pilgrims and their ways this was the seventh St. Thomas’s Watering at Harbledown – one of a whole list stretching the Pilgrim’s way. It still bears the alternative name of St. Thomas’s Well, a dedication unlike other sites would seem to be related to be a direct relationship, for it is recorded that he drunk from the well, accidentally leaving a shoe. Understandably, after the martyrdom, this became an important relic, and was held by the Hospital. It is also from this well that Henry II being responsibly for Becket’s murder walked barefoot into Canterbury where he was flogged by all the bishops as part of his penance. He also Henry II established an annual 40 marks grant to the leper hospital which apparently is still paid by the City Treasury today apparently.
For those unable to drink straight from the well, water was often administered to those living far from it. Evidence for this being the discovery of a leather pouch found near the well. Indeed, even the early part of this century the water was still used, especially by those from afar, for H. Snowdon Ward (1904) Tales of Canterbury Pilgrimages remarks that:
“the water is still in some repute for its curative powers. The sub-prior of the hospital told us that he still occasionally receives small remittances from various parts of the continent…”
Julian Mary Cartwright (1911) The Pilgrims’ Way from Winchester to Canterbury illustrates that its local reputation was still current before the Great War. He records that it was:
‘still believed by Country folks to be of great benefit to the eyes.’
Most interesting a carved stone, in its central apse, depicts the Black Prince’s coat of arms, three feathers taken from the King of Bohemia at Crecy. This stone appears to have been possibly derived from another structure rather than being carved especially for the well head, as do the fluted stones shown in earlier photos (cf Goodsall (1968) in his Kentish Patchwork), which are now apparently missing. An 1836 woodcut shows a circular basin above the lower step and a venerable old tree growing from its roof.
Either side of the well head are two courses of rag stone walling. The well is reached by a series of stone steps between two courses of stone walling. The water emerges, as a small trickle, through a five inch diameter red clay pipe, flowing to fill a circular basin. Often it is dry. Yet it is c
ertainly the well is one of the most interesting and enchanting of Kent wells.
(taken from the Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Kent)
Directions: The Black Prince’s Well is found to the right of a path that curves around past the Leper Hospital / almshouses, and through the forecourt of a house.
In 2015 I finally got around to publishing my Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Kent which includes over 200 sites (an overview blog post will appear soon). This is an expanded extract from the book covering a little known but fascinating lost site!
small settlement, pronounced ‘Hallywell’ or ‘Hollywell’ by locals, is named after a Holy Well possibly called ‘Sir John Schorne’s’ Well (TQ 851 669). Rattue (2001) in his Holy Wells of Kent erroneously states that the pond is the well but that is not what I was told. Apparently the site was rediscovered in 1949 by a Mr. Stevens of Holywell Farm, when his plough hit a large flat stone. This stone lay one foot below the surface of the ploughed field, and measured roughly five feet by five feet, with an average thickness of nine inches. This stone was raised, and it was found to cover a roughly circular opening filled in with flint nodules.
Probing the hole, he found that the well was five feet six inches deep with a water level about four feet six inches down. No trace of masonry or brickwork was observed, although the infill was not removed. The well is believed locally to be Druid in origin, possibly receiving attention during Roman occupation, (as there an important pottery factory here) and considering the name of the settlement, Halstow, important in Jutish times, as Halstow means Holy Place, in Jutish.
An association with Sir Schorne?
In mediaeval times, the well was probably frequented by pilgrims travelling along Watling Street. Yet, the well was possibly associated with the popular ‘saint’, Sir John Schorne. He was born in Shorne, but became famous as the Rector of the small Buckinghamshire village of North Marston ( 1290-1314 ). His fame was centred around a number of miracles, most famous of which, was his conjuring of the devil into a boot. He is also commonly associated with healing wells, and his shrine and well at North Marston, became a major 14th Century pilgrimage.
It would appear that the well’s field was dedicated in 1574 to the ‘saint’. Called ‘Master John Shorne’s Field’. There is also record of the giving of one penny to Master John Shorne of Halstowe, in a Sixteenth Century will of ‘Rest Redfyns’ of Queensborough. This was apparently done to fulfil overdue pilgrimage duties. The name is preserved at Shockfield, a derivation from Shornfield or Shernfield. Thus it would suggest that the holy well would have had a shrine chapel beside it to serve the pilgrims. There is of course another Sir John’s Well in Buckinghamshire.
A Neolithic monument?
It appears then that the well may have been filled in during Reformation times, and the stone dragged over the site to prevent the locals reopening it. It is possible that the stone may have been originally around the well, possibly comprising of a prehistoric stone circle or ancient marker, as at Tottington. This appears to be the remains of a sandstone rock covering the Downs / Wealden chalk much of which was worn away, and accordingly, these stones were still held in some mystical regard in ancient times. Indeed, a Neolithic road passes through the Parish from Gillingham to Newington, and to the east, leaves it a mile to the North. Thus, it would appear that the settlement was of considerable past influence and importance. I spoke to the owner of Holywell Farm, who regretted the loss of the site, as he would have appreciated it now. He said that the stone was removed from the site to the other side of the public footpath to Lower Halstow making locating the exact location of the well now difficult. The stone is now lost in undergrowth beside the path. Roughly, the site of the well is indicated by the start of this scrubby copse opposite the ploughed field, and within this field. Hopefully, considering its long history, one can hope that the well will be explored and restored for future generation.
More details in