Category Archives: Kent
The Minster Wells: An Archaeological Evaluation of the Holy Wells of Minster Abbey, Isle of Sheppey, Kent – Brian Slade.
- The Abbess’s Well
The Abbess’s Well at Minster Abbey is so named because it supplied the water for St Sexburga’s palace. It is a timeless and sacred place, full of legend, symbolism and atmosphere. In 1991, I directed the award-winning excavations undertaken by the Sheppey Archaeological Society, of two wells associated with the former abbey. The Abbess’s Well produced proof positive of habitation on the site dating back to the very dawn of Britain’s history. The evidence includes pottery from the late Bronze Age (c. 1400-1000 B.C.) and Iron Age, to the Norman periods; with, in between, no less than ten varieties of Roman ware. Most remarkable of all, we uncovered more Anglo-Saxon imported Ipswich Ware (A.D. 650-850) than has been discovered in all the excavations at Kent’s cathedral city of Canterbury put together. Metal finds include seven Anglo-Saxon bronze dress pins, some with decorated heads, perhaps once worn by Sexburga’s nuns; and a delicate chain or chatelaine to which is attached a small pair of shears, equivalent in size to modern-day nail-scissors, which might have hung from some nun’s girdle. A cressett lamp-base (cressett, from the French, croix, a cross) from the 650 to 850 period was found, as were a silver sceatta coin, of a type issued for Egbert, archbishop of York, in currency between 732-4 and 766, and four Henry Ill silver coins (1216-1272).
Some of the most exciting finds were of glass. These include the broken remains of 7th-9th century natural green-blue Anglo-Saxon glass intentionally streaked with opaque red. Smooth free-blown glass and re-inflated high-relief ribbed glass blown in a mould is represented. Spanning the period from c. 500 A.D. to the 800s, some of the glass is from domestic jars and squat-jars. However, in the context of their being anciently broken around the holy well of St Sexburga’s convent, the most personal, poignant and mentally stimulating objects are the remains of glass beakers, pouch bottles, and dull natural green-blue ribbed palm cups. As the name implies, ‘palm cups’ do not have handles (nor, for the most part, do Anglo-Saxon beakers), their shape and size enabling them to be easily and comfortably cupped in the drinker’s palm. We may picture to ourselves Anglo-Saxon nuns, beakers and palm cups in their hands, sitting and standing around their abbess’s well on hot summer’s days, quietly sipping water freshly drawn from the well’s deliciously cool depths. Other nuns would be coming and going, filling glass pouch bottles either to keep about their person to drink from later as required, or to take to other nuns whose duties or state of health prevented them from coming to draw water for themselves. Inevitably, over the centuries every now and then one of the nuns would accidentally drop her beloved (and probably inherited) green-blue decoratively-ribbed glass palm cup, beaker or pouch bottle onto the ground around the well, where the delicate glass would break into many pieces which would gradually be trodden into the soft ground. And there they remained buried, hidden from sight for more than 1,000 years, until the Sheppey Archaeological Society came into being, dug them up, and had them examined, identified and dated by an expert at a museum.
The sheer density and richness of Anglo-Saxon finds unearthed in such a very small area around the Abbess’s Well reflect the wealth of royalty. The nunnery was founded more than 1,300 years ago by the widowed Anglo-Saxon queen Sexburga, to house her nuns of royal and high birth. An abrupt reduction in the pottery finds around the well from between c. 850 and 1,100 A.D. bears terrible witness to a period of diminished habitation, following documented Viking raids made on the Monasterium Sexburga, latter called Minster Abbey.
As an archaeologist and local historian well acquainted with Minster Abbey’s documented history, I had expected the Anglo-Saxon pottery evidence around the well to begin c. 660 A.D., when St Sexburga’s nunnery was founded. Instead, the team also unearthed Anglo-Saxon pottery from about 450 A.D., predating Monasterium Sexburga by some 200 years. This suggests that Sexburga introduced her nunnery into an existing and presumably pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon settlement. This provided the first evidence of such a scenario yet discovered. An English Heritage report based on their own inspection of the Abbess’s Well concluded that the stones forming the well- shaft are consistent with a 12th-century date. Yet, objects found down inside the Well date back to
3rd-century Roman occupation of the site. As there is no indigenous stone on the Isle of Sheppey, this suggests that c. 1130, when Archbishop William de Corbeuil shipped stone to Minster, he had the original wicker and timber-lined well-shaft replaced by the stone still to be seen in place there today.
The Abbess’s Well was found to contain a 400-year-old size-five woman’s shoe. Attached to the wooden sole was a raised iron ring designed to keep the shoe above the surface of unpaved streets, and thus raise the lady’s dress out of the mud. This type of footwear is called a pattern. Although iron rings from such shoes are often discovered, a complete shoe is a rarity. It is believed to have survived protected by the silt, preserved by being constantly waterlogged since it was deposited in the well.
With a powerful pump keeping the water at bay, at the very bottom of the 31 ‘-deep well two Roman coins were discovered; an Antoninianus of Victorianus (269-271 A.D.), and an Antoninianus of Gallienus (253-268 A.D.). This last bears an image of a stag on the reverse, possibly a symbol of the goddess Diana. (Diana is sometimes termed the goddess of sacred springs and wells, and it is interesting that Daly’s History of the Isle of Sheppey records a tradition that a temple at Minster was dedicated to Diana, which may have stood where
Minster Abbey was later built. In the second part of this article I will give details of the team’s investigation of what I have come to call ‘the Well of the Triple Goddess’ here at Minster, and of a three-headed female image discovered therein. It is interesting that the Romans called the goddess Diana Triformis -triformis meaning, having three forms – in other words, Diana was in some sense a ‘triple goddess’. ) From the archaeological evidence discovered around and within the Abbess’s Well, it seems possible that Sexburga inherited and blessed a pre-Christian well in the name of Christ, and adopted it as her own. (The Bible tells us that one of the marks of Divine favour towards the Chosen People was that ‘they should come into possession of wells which they had not digged’ – Deuteronomy VI, 11.)
Sexburga was the daughter of King Anna of East Anglia, and the sister of the more famous St Etheldreda. She was married to King Erconbert of Kent, and founded the royal convent of Minster. Upon Erconbert’s death in 664, she became abbess at Minster. Around 673 she moved to Ely, where she succeeded Etheldreda as abbess after the latter’s death in 679. Sexburga herself died c. 700, and was buried beside her sister at Ely. Her daughter St Ermengild, widow of King Wulfhere of Mercia, followed Sexburga first as abbess of Minster, and afterwards becoming the third royal abbess of Ely.(2)
According to Elizabeth Mills (the granddaughter of the Rev. William Branston, vicar of Minster, 1878-1901):
St. Sexburga, and her holy sisters, are traditionally said to have had a vast knowledge of healing waters, herbs and medicines, and that they used the waters from certain magical springs and wells for drinking and bathing the wounds of injured people, and sometimes even animals, thus effecting many outstanding cures among the sick and injured. (3)
In common with many other saints it is said that St Sexburga personally blessed all the wells she used. (4) Situated high on a hill overlooking the sea, the source of the water in Sexburga’s well is unknown, but it is thought to be fed by a spring deep beneath the Abbey grounds. Its supply has never been known to fail, even in the severest drought. In 1536 Henry VIll dissolved Minster Abbey, and over the following centuries the wells that once supplied the proud abbey with water were filled in. But such was its location (and possibly, too, the reverence and awe in which the people and Church held this particular water source) that it has remained a working well right up until the present day.
Even if one was totally to discount the recently discovered archaeological evidence that the Abbess’s Well existed during and before St Sexburga’s time, the 12th-century stone-lined well-shaft still implies that, at the time of writing, it has survived as a working well for over 850 years. Long after the Dissolution, the Abbess’s Well continued in the ownership of the church, the land being rented out for farming and market gardening. An ancient map shows the well amidst trees. The team discovered great numbers of plum stones in the Abbess’s Well, identified by Kew Gardens as ‘Prunus domestica, of the Rosaceae family’; indicating that the well once stood in a plum orchard. Sections of ancient brickwork (one with a piece of timber beam still mortared into it) were found in the well, together with broken peg-tiles, suggesting that at one time the well had a brick-built well-house over it. One might suggest that the plum-stones and other rubbish had fallen into the well after the well-house had collapsed or had been demolished, or perhaps even before the well-house was built. This is borne out by the fact that only worthless rubbish was found in the top few inches of the mud at the bottom of the well, after which (and apart from the pattern) the mud and silt was free of artefacts down to the level at which the medieval pins were discovered. Even deeper were the Roman coins, right at the very bottom of the well. Unlike so many of even the best-known holy wells in the British Isles, which for the most part are void of any contextual evidence of habitation and use in antiquity, the archaeological evidence unearthed within and around the Abbess’s Well is overwhelming. It is now arguably the best-authenticated monastic holy well on record in Great Britain, archaeologically speaking.
The first person to disturb the water of the Abbess’s Well was Ian White, of Sheerness. Indeed, because he was the only member of the archaeological team thin enough to squeeze his body through the bottleneck opening into the well, all the work down inside the well was carried out by Ian. Perhaps as a result,
in 1993 England’s news-media network – radio, television, newspapers, magazines – reported:
Sharon, wife of archaeologist Ian White, had suffered four miscarriages. Specialists told her they didn’t know what the problem was. Sharon began to lose faith and wondered if she would ever be able to have a baby. But almost exactly nine months after her husband finished working hours on end immersed up to his waist in water down a reputed healing well at Minster Abbey, Sharon gave birth to a beautiful healthy baby girl, Emily.
That was in 1991, and now the happy couple also have Hanna. (5) The land on which the Abbess’s Well is sited was sold to a builder in the 1930s, and the well was incorporated into the garden of a house called Abbot’s Gate, in Falcon Gardens.
Abbot’s Gate was purchased in 1994 by Leon and Brenda Stanford, who are perfect heritage-minded custodians, always ready and happy to show the well to people and to discuss its history (by appointment only). If any reader is genuinely interested in paying them a visit, please telephone them first, on xxxxx, mentioning my name and that of Source. A small timber shed has been built over the well, to provide protection and easy access to the well, which stands exactly as it has for centuries: clean, functional, and delivering crystal-clear fresh water, water given by the earth and blessed by history.
- Augustus A. Daly, The History of the Isle of Sheppey, Simkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent & Co. (London) 1904, p. 18.
- David Hugh Farmer, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press 1992, pp. 161, 433-4.
- Elizabeth Mills, ‘The Forgotten Saint’. St. Wendreda of Erning, Newmarket. No details given. (This is a leaflet given away with plates depicting St Wendreda, sold at Newmarket.)
- This is still-current local tradition in Minster,
- Sheppey Gazette, 6 Oct. 1993, p. 1; cf. also, e.g., Jane Simon, ‘Fertility goddess gave me babies! Woman’s Own, Christmas edition 1993, pp. 52-3. Please note: Ian White worked down both the Abbess’ Well and the well of the goddess’ – one following the other – so that the ‘miracle baby’ story could be attributed to both or either. Naturally, the media preferred the ‘fertility goddess’ story. Christians will associate the ‘miracle’ with the Abbess’ Well; pagans (especially pagan feminist groups) with the ‘triple goddess’. (Unlike more purely archives-based research articles, in the context of this archaeologically-based article the primary sources are my own publications. If you wish to know more about the two holy wells of Minster Abbey, and the team’s other excavations there, full details, illustrations, photographs, etc., are contained in the following booklets:
The Abbess’s Well,
The Well of the Triple Goddess;
The Well of the Triple Goddess: What the Experts Say;
The Minster Miracles;
Minster Abbey: An Account of the Excavations.
The first three booklets were reviewed in Source 3: they are f2 each inclusive of p. & p. , obtainable from Brian Slade. If you mention Source and my article when ordering, and enclose a separate letter suggesting that the ‘Well of the Triple Goddess’ should be re-opened as a tourist attraction, as recommended by Dr Richard Morrice of English Heritage, Swale Borough Council, and our Archaeological Society, all five booklets will cost only E6, including p. & p.. Please make cheques and postal orders out to Brian Slade. The booklets are sold on a non-profit-making basis, to defray costs of research and production. It is my fond hope that readers of Source will send me further relevant information to assist my research regarding the Minster Abbey wells; and I take this opportunity to extend an invitation to readers to visit me if ever they are in this area. I can be contacted on xxxxx, evenings only, between 7 and 8.)
Note Brian sadly passed away I believe in the early 00s and the folding of the new series of Source meant that the other wells were not featured.
The Minster ‘holy wells’ an appraisal -my personal reflections
When I researched holy wells for holy wells and healing springs of Kent, I visited Sheerness in search of more information and contacted Mr and Mrs Stanford to visit the Abbey Well and they were more than happy to arrange a time for me to visit. I was taken to their garden where there was to what appeared, a simple wooden pine ‘shed’, within which the well was found. The well had been fitted with security lid and lights has been placed over and down the well shaft, by Mr Stanford.
This shed was becoming a sort of mini-museum with artefacts from the well. He informed me that after consultation with NRA and Southern water, the water had been analysed and was shown to contain essential minerals: manganese, phosphorus, silicon, zinc, copper and calcium, and was one of the purest in the county.
I was informed of a catalogue of cures which had been documented, which included Mr Stanford himself. He informed me that when he took over the property he walked with a stick, and was to undergo surgery, but after taking the water for a couple of weeks, he now walks unaided and never needing the operation. He also said that it was good for eye complaints and one such individual is a Mary Smith, whose serious eye infection made her a virtual recluse. Yet, despite using eye
lotions for two years with no effect, the complaint was cured the day after.
He stated that hundreds have come drink the water, some with fertility issues or, wanting to cure serious illnesses such as including cancer and blindness. Often he said they filled 25-litre water to take away with them some even going to mainland Europe with it. Of course he does not charge for the water. However, orders come for water throughout the world it would appear, from Africa to the US to Australia to send water too.
A second well was also excavated by Mr. Slade and his team and lies outside the old Abbey
Gatehouse, sadly still not still not marked and under concrete, called the Gatehouse Well or Well of the Triple Headed Goddess. The well was a public well and a number of similar discoveries
to those of St. Sexburga’s well, have been found in relation to this well, however overshadowing these is the controversial ‘Venus de Minster’ also called a triple headed goddess.
Interestingly, Slade suggests that Minster Abbey replaced a temple dedicated to Apollo and Diana and the image may be of her or equally of course St. Sexburga and her sisters and functioned as ancient pilgrim souvenir or a votive object. The image was associated with a strange ‘miracle’ concerning one the excavators, Mr. Ian White, being the only team member able to squeeze into the well he had direct contact with its water, and it was claimed that his wife became surprisingly pregnant, after four miscarriages and being told that she was unable to have children. When When a Dr Ian Godsland, a medical research scientist at Imperial College, heard about the Whites’ baby, he decided to send £150 towards the excavation of the well. He told the Daily Express:
“I really believe that the goddess may have played a part. Don’t ask me how it happened or for any explanations. I just believe now that the world can work in a different way to the one we scientists think we understand.”
Ian White told the Daily Express:
“Of course I can’t say it was the goddess for certain. No one can. But we both like to believe it.”
I never saw the Triple Goddess figure, as I never in the end went to see Brian and I have no idea where it is now. He had told me that there were at least three other cases similar to Mrs White’s one.
As Mr. White went down both wells the ‘miracle’ could be attributed to either site, but the media liked to connect it to this well. A modern ritual developed involving the touching a copy of the goddess image for luck, and then going to the Abbess’s well to drink its water.
Are either really holy wells?
What makes a holy well? Certainly there is a lot here to process – association with abbey ruins, highly mineralised water, cures and effigies but in a way no mention of this site itself as a holy well either by tradition of pilgrimage to it or association directly with saint historically recorded. What in way we have is a modern holy well based on an ancient mediaeval well. A well with some pedigree but none the less an abbey well or in the case of the other site a domestic well with no recorded sanctifying of the site. Brian Slade’s books are very interesting reads and he writes a lot which suggests that Sheerness was a very interesting place but its nearly all conjecture without any real evidence. But does it really matter?
The Abbey Well and Well of the Triple Goddess appear to have fallen again into obscurity and one cannot be sure whether people still come for the water. The later, really the gatehouse well still from what I can gather remains sealed! The site is marked on google maps as a tourist attraction but so little is on the internet about it, that I am sure modern miracle seekers are very puzzled by this marker which just appears to be in a non-descript street!
England’s first holy well? St. Augustine’s Well, Ebbsfleet
Many claim to be the oldest holy well but by virtue of its association with the first Christian ministry of the Saxons, St. Augustine’s Well Ebbsfleet is perhaps according to tradition the obvious claimant for the oldest ‘English’ holy well.
However early records are rare and its first reference appears to be on the 1874 OS map and its earliest written account is George Dowker in 1897 article for Archaeologia Cantiana On the landing place of St, Augustine records:
“Formerly Ebbsfleet was supposed to be situated where the farm-house of that name stands, and is so placed in the Ordnance Maps of Thanet; of late the spot has been shifted to near ” The Sportsman,” and by a spring of water called St. Augustine’s “Well, chiefly on the representation of the late Mr. W. R. Bubb, who resided at Minster; he walked with me to the spot where the present memorial cross is erected, and explained his reasons for concluding that the landing must have been there, and not at or near the Ebbsfleet Farm, as usually represented. These reasons were chiefly the presence of a large oak tree that was said to have formerly grown there, and the proximity of the place to Cotting-ton-field, which he thought a corruption of Godman-field.”
Interestingly it almost suggested that it was Bubb who coined the well and it would appear to be a possible invention by revived Catholics. This is supported by Rev Boggis (1907) in A history of St. Augustine’s College Canterbury,, as a Catholic revival:
“The next station is made at St. Augustine’s Well — just to quaff a draft from the spring which he is fabled to have brought bubbling up through the briny sands.”
The account also adds a piece of folklore similar to the tradition that like Becket at Otford he perhaps prayed for water, which is related by Goscelin of Saint-Bertin who states the saint was able to provide water for his thirsty followers by striking the ground with his pastoral staff but this could equally be another site. Iggleseden (1901-1946) Saunters in Kent. He describes:
“..a stagnant pool, the remains of a well, which had the reputation of miraculous healing powers, while the water was also used for baptismal purposes.”
However, Howarth (1938) who notes:
“near which is a well (known locally as St. Augustine’s well). This will continue to delude people into the notion that there is a real foundation for the view.”
Yet, Certainly by Stanley (1956) in The London Season pilgrimage was formalised:
“Near to the fifth green is a little spring of clear water which is known as St. Augustine’s Well, which legend holds appeared miraculously to slake the Saint’s thirst. Every year this site is the scene of the pilgrimage headed by the Warden of St. Augustine’s College, Canterbury, who, in his role of Bishop Knight, kneels by the spring to drink the water.”
Why wonder what connection that has with what James Rattue (2003) in his Holy wells of Kent records:
“Apparently local nuns used to clear it out, but this has ceased to happen for almost twenty years.”
I was also informed by some members that this site was where a drunken vicar drowned, but have not substantiated this story.
St Augustine or St Mildred’s Well?
Howarth (1938) does not support the fact that Ebbsfleet was the location where on Whitsun A.D. 597, Augustine baptised heathen Saxons, amongst them, possibly King Ethelbert in the area. However, local lore recognised first a tree and now an ornate carved cross dating from the 1800s which depicts the story however there is a possible another association. James Rattue (pers com) suggests that the well may have originally been dedicated to St. Mildred, daughter of Queen Ermenburga, who was given land at Thanet, by the converted King Egelbert, as an apology for killing her brothers. Here, she founded a monastery, and became the Abbess of Thanet Minster; latter becoming their patron saint.
The view that the well was dedicated to her is based upon local tradition that a stone, located within proximity of the well, bore the footprint of the saint, made miraculously as she set foot on the land at Ebbsfleet, from France. One tradition associated with St. Mildred’s stone is that it could never be removed. Whenever it was it returned to the same position! This is a common folklore belief only spoiled here by the fact that St. Mildred’s stone has not been seen since the 1800s!
The site today
When James Rattue visited he described it as:.
“a pit, now usually dry, but which represents St Augustine’s Well.”
Now on the 17th fairway of St. Augustine’s Golf Course St. Augustine’s Well is a large circular steep sided pool, from which a sluggish stream arises, flowing to the sea. I found it full of water but not very pleasant more recent photos have shown cleaner water.
Noted springs and wells around Tunbridge Wells: Adam’s Well Speldhurst
There were a number of attempts to capitalise on the fame of Tunbridge wells perhaps the most curious was Adam’s Well. The earliest reference to the site is found in Thomas Burr’s (1766) History of Tunbridge Wells:
“on forest a little beyond the Rocks, a spring of water was discovered, which was palled in and called Adam’s well. For what particular reason this spring was taken such notice of, it is not now very easy to determine.”
Burr (1766) perhaps implies that the well was discovered within living memory, and its fame being established before that of Tunbridge. However, Alan Savidge in his 1995 Royal Tunbridge wells stated that it ‘enjoyed local repute’ long before the arrival of the Tunbridge spa.
Richard Onely’s 1771 General guide to Tunbridge wells stated that it was:
“very lately a medicinal water, called Adam’s Wells has been inclosed and made convenient for the remedy of scorbutic cases, and cutaneous eruptions; and which, from its well known and tried quantities, it is thought may answer in many cases, as well as sea water.”
Jasper Spange’s 1780 Tunbridge wells guide makes a small note of it.
“ADAM’S WELL which is a pure limped spring of a most soft pleasant drinking water issuing from a very high hill in a small farm in the parish of Speldhurst.”
Interestingly he adds:
“Those ingenious practitioners in physic the celebrated Doctors Pellet Shaw Lamont Blanchard & c always recommended it as fine drinking water and made use of it themselves for that purpose the last of whom has been overheard to declare to Mr Sprange Bookseller & c in his shop that there was no better drinking water in the neighbourhood”
Thus suggesting there was some attempt to promote the spring In John Russell Smith’s 1837 Bibliotheca Cantiana he states:
“SPELDHURST Adam’s Well at Speldhurst being as circumstantial a History of its Original and the cause of its present improvements the high esteem it has always been held in as a drinking Water and its salutary effects in the various Cases and Disorders herein described and attested as can at present be produced 12mo pp 29 London 1780”
John Evans in 1821 Recreation for the Young and the Old records:
“Adam’s Well distinguished for its transparency is in the vicinity.”
Alan MacKinnon (1934) in his History of Speldhurst, perhaps drawing upon an earlier source as well as describing it in greater detail, clearly indicates it origins as a holy well, in the use of the words holy water below:
“Adam’s Well is situated in this Manor, it was famous long before the Tunbridge Wells waters were discovered, and issue from high ground at Langton. In much repute in ancient times, it is impregnated with no mineral, saline, nitrous or earthy matter, whatever, it is quite free of sediment, and was called in old times a ‘holy water.’ In 1765, the owner of this well, on digging into the rock to enlarge the pool or bath came upon an ancient stone arch, whose date could but mere matter of conjecture. This arch can be seen at the present day.”
Combined with the traces of medieval stonework, the medieval origin is supported by its name: Adam, being taken from a local fourteenth century landowner, John Adam. Fortunately, Adam’s Well still exists, much as MacKinnon (1934) describes, now enclosed in the private grounds of Adam’s Well House: a bungalow, built in the nineteenth century, after a bout of vandalism, to house a caretaker for the well. The well itself arises in a shallow, square brick-lined chamber. Enclosing this is a large stone alcove, built to allow a sheltered access to the well during inclement weather. The back wall of this shelter is of a crude nature, indicating that it may indeed be of considerable age. A stone set in its arch notes: ‘ADAMS WELL 1868.’
This date presumably refers to when the well was repaired, and the house built. In front of this is a much larger and deeper rectangular stone chamber. I was informed by the then owner in the mid-1990s, Mrs Wolf, that dogs and horses were washed within this. Over this chamber is an iron grill with the letters ‘AW’ in its centre. Mrs Wolf also told me that the quality of the water was so good that it was bottled and stored on ships for long periods. Much of the popularity of the water came from the fact that it lay along the busy old road from Peacehaven to London.
Burr (1766) implies that its powers, to cure human ailments, were largely forgotten and:
“…at present it is only famous for the cure of mangy dogs, in which case it is esteemed an infallible remedy.”
Yet, John Britton (1836) in the Descriptive sketches of Tunbridge Wells and the Calverley estate; with brief notices of the picturesque scenery, seats, and antiquities in the vicinity describes it as being noted for:
“its transparency of its waters, and for its efficacy in some cutaneous disorders.”
Recent analysis showed that the water contains copper, which perhaps explains its lower popularity compared to Tunbridge, as copper salts were not as efficacious as iron salts. This is supported by Mrs. Wolf who noted that it had not cured her rheumatism!
Extracted from Holy wells and healing springs of Kent
Mysterious creatures of springs and wells – Frogs and wells
Frog and toads not unsurprisingly you might think are associated with springs. Two old English words O.E frosc meaning frog or O.E paddock for a ‘toad’ and their derivations can be found across the country.
In Essex there are a number of Freshwell derivations which suggest from Frosc. The earliest being a Freshwell mentioned in 1086 in Great Sampford, Freshwell in the 13th century and another in Saffron Walden first mentioned in 1605. In Panfield there was a Froshwell mentioned in 1586 and Upminster a Frogwell.
There seems a strange conglomeration of such sites in Essex and elsewhere it is more common to find toads. In Staffordshire, Padwalle first mentioned in 1481in Longnor and Padwell in Barborough, as Padwell (1830) and Edwalston and Wyaston a 1314 Padewalle. In Leicestershire there is a Paddock Well noted in 1638 in Church Langton, Leicestershire and Padwell in Fulstow (from the 1840 Tithe map) and Tadewell a 13th century mention in Ferriby. Kent’s Birling has a Puddle Well noted in 1837 and a Tadwell in Minster in Sheppey (noted in 1840). There are surely others but why?
The obvious answer is that frogs and toads live in springs. However, they do not or rather very rarely. I’ve never seen one in a spring or well – perhaps the rarity offers a reason but it may be deeper than that. Toads in particular have supernatural connotations and a clue may be found in the Frogwell at Acton Burnell in Shropshire which folklore suggests the well was a guardian. Did people visit these wells to utilise the frogs for magical practices or was the frog seen as some sort of harmful creature.
Another possible source is that these animal represent totem animals which specific prehistoric groups associated with – akin to the spirit animals of first nation groups such as in the USA and Canada. This might explain the frequency of them in areas such as Essex perhaps.
Mysterious creatures of springs and wells – Phantom Black dogs
A phantom black dog usually much larger than an actual dog, often said to be the size of a calf, with glowing red eyes is a folklore standard being recorded from across the country. Whether they be called Black Shuck, Barguest, Gytrash, Trasher, Padifoot or many other names often there is an association with water. As a brief introduction I have again attempted to included as many as I have uncovered.
It Lincolnshire often they are associated with bridges such as Brigg, Willingham (Till bridge) or banks of streams. At Kirton, there is a black dog was reported as living in a hole in the stream bank near this Belle Hole farm. Ponds were often associated with it such as the fish pond in Blyborough Lincolnshire. Rudkin in her 1937 Lincolnshire folk-lore notes a site called Bonny Well in Sturton upon Stow Lincolnshire which was an unfailing supply even in the great drought of 1860. One assumes that the site derived from O.Fr bonne for ‘good’. The site in the 1930s was a pond down Bonnywells Lane and was associated with a number of pieces of folklore; that it was haunted by a black dog and sow and litter of pigs which appeared on Hallowe’en. In the same county, Hibaldstow’s Bubbling Tom had a black dog protect it. Edward Bogg’s 1904 Lower Wharfeland, the Old City of York and the Ainsty, James tells how near St. Helen’s Well, Thorpe Arch:
“padfoots and barguests…..which on dark nights kept its vigil”
In Elizabeth Southwart’s 1923 book on Bronte Moors and Villages: From Thornton to Haworth, she talks about Bloody tongue at Jim Craven’s Well, Yorkshire:
“The Bloody-tongue was a great dog, with staring red eyes, a tail as big as the branch of a tree, and a lolling tongue that dripped blood. When he drank from the beck the water ran red right past the bridge, and away down—down—nearly to Bradford town. As soon as it was quite dark he would lope up the narrow flagged causeway to the cottage at the top of Bent Ing on the north side, give one deep bark, then the woman who lived there would come out and feed him. What he ate we never knew, but I can bear testimony to the delicious taste of the toffee she made.”
She relates one time:
“One Saturday a girl who lived at Headley came to a birthday party in the village, and was persuaded to stay to the end by her friends, who promised to see her ‘a-gaiterds’ if she would. As soon as the party was over the brave little group started out. But when they reached the end of the passage which leads to the fields, and gazed into the black well, at the bottom of which lurked the Bloody-tongue, one of them suggested that Mary should go alone, and they would wait there to see if anything happened to her.
“Mary was reluctant, but had no choice in the matter, for go home she must. They waited, according to promise, listening to her footsteps on the path, and occasionally shouting into the darkness:
““Are you all right, Mary?”
““Ay!” would come the response.
“And well was it for Mary that the Gytrash had business elsewhere that night, for her friends confess now that at the first sound of a scream they would have fled back to lights and home.”
The author continues:
“We wonder sometimes if the Bloody-tongue were not better than his reputation, for he lived there many years and there was never a single case known of man, woman or child who got a bite from his teeth, or a scratch from his claws. Now he is gone, nobody knows whither, though there have been rumours that he has been seen wandering disconsolately along Egypt Road, whimpering quietly to himself, creeping into the shadows when a human being approached, and, when a lantern was flashed on him, giving one sad, reproachful glance from his red eyes before he vanished from sight.”
In Redbrook, Gwent, Wales, at Swan Pool after the crying of a baby and then the appearance of a women holding a baby, a large black dog appears circles the pool and heads off a to kiln. In the Highlands a pool containing treasure is guarded by a hound with two heads and it is said to have haunted a man who drained the pool and discovered the treasure. He soon returned it! A moat near Diamor County Meath is said to contain a nine kegs of gold protected by a large black and white spotted dog. One could collect the gold if the dog was stabbed three times on the white spot. Another white dog is found, described as the size of a bullock, at Bath Slough Burgh in Suffolk.
Water appears also to be a place of confinement. At Dean Combe waterfalls in Devon the ghost of local weaver was banished by a local vicar and when he turned into a great black dog was taken to a pool by the waterfall. Here it was told that it could only concern people once it had emptied all the water using a cracked shell! At Beetham a local vicar banished a spirit called Cappel which manifested itself as a dog into the river Bela in the 1820s. Equally one wonders if the account associated with St Eustace’s Well, Wye Kent has more significance:
‘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.’
A Kent field trip – holy wells of Goudhurst
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.
Vomiting forth a pair of black toads in a quiet Kent back garden – St Eustace’s Well of Wye
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.
Was there a prehistoric water shrine in the Medway?
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!