Category Archives: Kent
Water holds an innate fascination with us as a species; it is both source of essential life giving power but a still untameable force which can be unpredictable and dangerous. So it is not surprising that as well as considered to healing and holy, springs and wells have a darker side. A side I am going to explore, in a fitting post for Hallowe’en. In this overview I intend to discuss these sites, many of which only have their name to suggest this dark origin. Of these Puck or Pook Wells are the commonest, deriving from O.E pwca meaning goblin. Puck is as Shakespeare immortalises, a type of fairy. Of these there are site recorded on the Isle of Wight (Whitwell), Wiltshire (West Knowle), Essex (Waltham Holy Cross), Derbyshire (Repton), Somerset (Rode), Northamptonshire (Aynho) and Kent (Rolvenden and St. Paul’s Cray), The latter does underline the otherworldy nature of springs which despite being in an area of urbanisation. It fills a boggy hollow just off the footpath and even on a busy summer’s day you feel remote. Joining the Puckwells is the more general Pisky or Pixy well (the spirit which has led the written many times astray), a term found generally in the South-west such as the site in Cornwall (Alternun) and Somerset (Allerford). One can certainly feel the presence of these folk on a visit to the former especially with is ancient mossy basin and small wellhouse. The second most common otherworldly character is Knucker, Nicker, Nikor or Nicher. This is a pagan Norse monster, which some have associated with St. Nicholas, who is said to have fought a sea monster. The most famous site is the Knucker Pit in Lyminster (West Sussex). This is associated with a notable legend which records that the dragon terrorised the countryside and took away the daughter of the King of Sussex. The king offered the hand this daughter to anyone who would kill it and a wandering knight did poison the beast and claimed her hand. The term appears to apply to sites from Kent (Westbere), Edgefield (Norfolk) and Lincoln. One wonders, whether these had similar legends. Thor is perhaps commemorated in a number of wells and springs, especially it seems in the counties were the Danish influence was greatest, the most famed of these being Thorswell at Thorskeld, near Burnstall (North Yorkshire), interestingly this is one of the areas St Wilifrid is said to have converted. Less well known are other sites can be postulated in Lincolnshire with Thirspitts (Waltham, Lincs), Threshole (Saxilby Lincs), Thuswell (Stallinborough, Lincs) and Uffington’s Thirpolwell (Lincs). The latter most certainly, a likely candidate, but of the others there may not even be evidence they are springs let alone their otherworldly origin. The O.N term Thyrs for giant may be an origin. There are a number of springs and water bodies associated with what could be considered pagan gods, but I will elaborate on these in a future post. Many spectral water figures in the country are called Jenny. Whelan (2001) notes a Jenny Brewster’s Well, Jenny Friske’s well, Jenny Bradley’s Well. The name is frequently encountered in Lincolnshire, were a Hibbaldstow’s Stanny Well, where a woman carrying her head under her arm, called Jenny Stannywell, who once upon a time drowned herself in the water. At a bend of the Trent at Owston Ferry was haunted by Jenny Hearn or Hurn or Jenny Yonde. This little creature was like a small man or woman, though it had a face of a seal with long hair. It travelled on the water in a large pie dish. It would cross the water in a boat shaped like a pie dish, using spoons to row. One wonders whether there is a story behind Jenny’s Well near Biggin (Derbyshire). Sometimes these weird creatures were doglike like that said to frequent Bonny Well in Lincolnshire. Many of these creatures such as the one eyed women from Atwick’s Holy well span the real and the otherworldly.
When discussing the spirit world, by far the commonest otherworldy being associated with wells. Ghosts are also associated with springs. Sometimes they are saintly, such as St Osyth (Essex), but often if not a saint, they are female such as a pool in Chislehurst caves, Lady’s Well, Whittingham (Northumberland), Lady well, Ashdon (Essex), White Lady’s Spring, (Derbyshire) Peg of Nells Well , Waddow (Lancashire) Marian’s Well Uttoxeter (Staffordshire), Julian’s Well, Wellow (Somerset), Agnes’s Well Whitestaunton (Somerset), a Chalybeate spring in Cranbrook (Kent) and so the list goes on and is a suitable discussion point for a longer future post. All that can be said is that the female spirits outweigh the male ones and this must be significant. To end with, that staple of Hallowe’en, the witch, is sometimes associated with springs, especially in Wales. This associated perhaps reflects their ‘pagan origins’ or else there procurement post-Reformation, afterall it was thought that they stole sacred water from fonts, so it is freely flowing elsewhere why make the effort! The most famous of these being Somerset’s Witches Well (Pardlestone) this was said to have been avoided by locals until it a local wise man three salt over the well and removed their presence. So there was a rather brief and perhaps incomplete exploration of the unlikely combination between holy wells and the darker aspects. In a future post I will explore the associations with ghosts and in another on supposed evidence of pre-Christian gods and goddesses at wells.
Much has been written regarding holy wells culminating in Harte (2008) magnus opus but no survey has attempted to record all those wells and springs named after monarchs as far as I am aware. With Jubilee fever all around I thought it would be fitting to start an overview of this aspect of water lore in England. Starting with King well, a generic name, is by far the commonest with sites recorded at Chalk (Kent), Cuffley (Hertfordshire) (although associated with James I), Chigwell (Essex) (although probably cicca’s well)), Lower Slaughter (Gloucestershire), Kingsthorpe (Northamptonshire), Orton (Northumberland), Cheltenham (Gloucestershire), Ellerton (Staffordshire), Wartling (Sussex), and Bath (Somerset). Some of these such as Chigwell may be a etymological mistake being more likely derive from Cicca’s well and some such as Orton are thought to be associated with Iron age sites.
However, English wells and their associations with monarchs starts perhaps starts with King Arthur’s Well (Cadbury ) but taking this probably mythical king aside, and not considering those monarchs associated with the Celtic and Saxon Kingdoms (after all a high percentage of these early saints were the sons of Kings (such as those begat by King Brechan) or early kingly Christian converts for example St Oswald or St Ethelbert ) which are better known by their sanctity rather than their majesty, I start with sites associated with who is seen as being the first King of England; Alfred.
King Alfred’s Well (Wantage) is of unclear vintage arising as it does in a brick lined chamber although his association with the town is well known. However as Benham (1911) notes in his The Letters of Peter Lombard:
“a clear and bright spring, but I fear that the evidence that King Alfred ever had anything to do with it is not forthcoming. The site of his birthplace is not very far from the well”
Although that did not stop a procession to the well in the year 2000! St Peter’s Pump at Stourhead (Wiltshire) too has become associated with Alfred and it is said he prayed for water her before a battle, there is again little evidence if any of this. In East Dean (Sussex) there is another well named after him. Interestingly the direct descendents of Alfred do not appear to have gained any association with wells, perhaps being a measure of either their impact on folk memory. The next king is the rather tragic figure of Harold. Harold’s Well laying in the Keep of Dover Castle (Kent) is an interesting site, it is a typical castle well and unlikely to be the site where Harold is said to have according to Macpherson (1931) (MacPherson, E. R., The Norman Waterworks in the Keep of Dover Castle. Arch Cant. 43 (1931)) been were the King swore he would give with the castle to William of Normandy, later William I. (Wartling’s King well may record Harrold or William)
I can find no wells associated with the Norman Kings or Queens and the next monarch to appear is King John. He is interestingly the monarch with most sites associated with him, being in Heaton Park (Newcastle), Odell (Bedfordshire), Kineton (Warwickshire) and Calverton (Nottinghamshire) (although the later is recorded as Keenwell). This may be the consequence of his infamy and association with Robin Hood sites taking on his name in the telling and re-telling of Robin Hood tales. However, in most cases it would appear to be sites associated with a castle although surely King John was not the only monarch to have used such sites.
The next monarch associated with a well is a prince, a man who despite being heir apparent, never reached the throne. The Black Prince, a very romantic figure and with an evocative name, his spring is perhaps the most well known of those associated with royalty: the Black Prince’s Well, Harbledown (Kent). Legend has it that he regularly drank from the well and asked for a draught of it as he lay sick and dying of syphilis. However, the water’s powers did not extend to this and he died never becoming king. The well has the three feathers, sign of the Prince of Wales, an emblem captured at Crecy although the origin and age of the well is unknown it is the only such spring with any insignia of a monarch.
The subsequent centuries saw a number of squirmishes and conflicts which also created some springs associated with royalty. Perhaps the most interesting well associated with a monarch is King Henry VI’s Well, Bolton in Craven (North Yorkshire). It is interesting because the King’s reputation was that of sanctity and as such any well would have pretentions to be a holy well. Indeed the local legend states that when a fugitive at Bolton Hall he asked for the owner to provide a bathing place. No spring was available and one was divined with hazel rods and where they indicated water the site was dug. The king prayed that the well may flow forever and the family may never become extinct. The site still exists and is used for a local mineral water firm!
The years of conflict between the Lancastrians and Yorkists ended at Bosworth field and here a we find King Richard’s Well, Sutton Cheney (Leicestershire). Traditionally Richard III drank from a spring that Lord Wentworth in 1813 encapsulated in large conical cairn shaped well house with an appropriate Latin inscription. Curiously both wells of course mark the losers of the battle and no wells record the victors of such conflicts. One wonders whether this records our interest in the underdog and lament for the lost. The strangest extrapolation of this is a well found in Eastwell (Kent). Here generations have pointed to a circular brick well in the estate grounds and a tomb in the derelict church and associated them with the lost son of Richard III. The Plantagenet’s Well may indeed have some basis in fact although the only evidence is the account of the legend during the building of Eastwell Manor in 1545, the landowner, Sir Thomas Moyle, was amazed to find one of his workman reading a book in Latin. Naturally curious, he decided to ask him about this ability. Thus the man informed him, that in 1485, at Bosworth Field, he was the illegitimate son of King Richard III, who had previously clandestinely acknowledged him as sole heir. The following day, fearing reprisals after Richard’s loss, the boy fled, avoiding being recognition by disguising himself as a bricklayer and thus was years later, employed in the manor’s construction. Sir Thomas, believed the man’s story, and being a Yorkist sympathiser, adopted him into his household. This story of Richard Plantagenet remained a family secret, until it was revealed in Gentleman’s Magazine, as a quotation from a letter written by Thomas Brett, of Spring Grove (near Eastwell) to a friend Dr. Warren. He had heard the story from the Earl of Winchelsea at Eastwell House about 1720. This story is further enforced by Parish records showing that on December 27th 1550 V Rychard Plantagenet was interred, the notation V being a notification for a royal personage. However, having never seen the record myself I am unsure of its validity.
The next monarch encountered in a well dedication is a surprising one perhaps. In Carshalton (Surrey), we find Anne Boleyn’s Well, which is an perplexing dedication considering her unpopularity and association with a monarch who would have seen holy wells another trapping of the papist money making machine he had excluded from his realm (although there is little evidence that Henry VIIIth had any real direct effect on holy wells as would the newly established Scottish Kirk). The legend of its formation related that when the King and Queen were out riding from Nonsuch Palace, her horse’s foot hit the ground and a spring arose. No reason for is given and it is probable that the spring was re-discovered and perhaps dedicated to St. Anne. Bedford’s Park is not far from Pygro’s Park which has an association with Henry VIII so one assumes the Queen Anne’s well is again Boleyn although I know nothing more and indeed missed it from my survey!
Unlike her mother, Elizabeth I was a popular monarch, much as the present monarch is, especially in the strongly protestant counties, hence Queen Elizabeth Wells at Rye and Winchelsea (Sussex). In the case of Rye, the spring was part of a water improvement system which provided water via a conduit system. It was so named after her visit to Rye in 1573, when she drunk the water and met the town dignitaries, or Jurats, there, before they processed into the town. Amusingly the well was also known as Dowdeswell, from O. E. dowde for a plain woman, a scold or shrew a fact which may have tickled some recusant families in the vicinity no doubt. so like many a holy well the name was changed for the monarch. Interestingly, Winchelsea’s site was and still is called St. Katherine’s Well so perhaps the monarch’s name was used to remove Catholic associations (especially considering Queen Katherine of Aragon), although St. Leonard’s well remained intact. Bisham’s Queen Elizabeth’s Well (Buckhamshire) is even associated with miraculous cures which certainly predate the monarch and perhaps her visit and taking of the waters when visiting Lady Hoby her cousin may have been the opportunity to move away from the holy well name? Queen Elizabeth also gave her name to a well in Friern Barnet (Middlesex) and Blackheath (Surrey)
Perhaps in the day when the site of the monarch was an extremely rare occasion folk memory has preserved it. This may explain King James Well Mickley (Yorkshire) whose only reason for the dedication was that he stopped to drink at it! This well does not appear to have then developed any note as a consequence. However, a spring at Cuffley (Hertfordshire) was visited by the King and developed into a minor spa called the King’s Well.
Interestingly, if England had not broken from Rome we may have seen those associated with Charles I develop in the same fashion, after all he does have churches and chapels named after him. Charles is often associated with wells, in some cases such as Carles Trough, (Leicestershire) where he is said to have watered horse here after Naseby. Ellerton’s (Staffordshire) King’s Well and Longhope (Gloucestershire) Royal Spring are both associated with the monarch.
However, stopping to drink is a common theme. A well in Appledore (Kent) is called Queen Anne’s Well because she is said to have stopped there and asked the landlord for a sip. It is possible that such associations may stem from a desire for a local land owner to support a developing spa trade, Queen Anne’s Bathhouse exists in Lullingstone (Kent), however there is no record of such an attempt at Appledore. Furthermore, it is unclear which Queen Anne is recorded at Appledore and it is possible considering the age of the brickwork in the cellar and around the well at this site that it was once St. Ann’s well. This is probably true of Lincoln’s Queen Ann’s Well, Chalvey’s Queen Ann’s Well (Buckinghamshire), Queen Anne’s Wishing Well (South Cadbury) and Blythborough’s (Suffolk) site now known as Lady Well! However of that of Chalvey, perhaps not as there is no pre-18th century record, although if it did not it soon attracted a reputation for healing and was called a spa. Interestly Queen Charlotte is also noted as being involved and as such according to the Mirror, of 1832,:
“a stone was placed there in 1785 by her illustrious consort, George III”.
An accompanying woodcut to the piece showing the stone with the royal monogram carved in the centre. In 1698 Anne of Denmark gave money to create a basin at Tunbridge wells and well was called the Queen’s well.
Of course in the next two centuries, the rise of the spas saw many mineral springs develop the patronage of the monarch such as George IV, yet despite this times had changed and the wells did not take the monarch’s name directly. By the reign of Victoria, her name was then applied to fountainheads and pumps, as old wells were filled in and channelled away amidst growing concerns for the need for clean and freely accessible water. A few sites such as the confusing named Coronation or Jubilee Well (so marked on the 1844 OS map so difficult to record which monarch and which jubilee or coronation is referred to) in Wessington (Derbyshire) buck the trend.
In summary it is interesting that despite a large number of memorable and in some case not so memorable monarchs, there is are a limited number of them associated with wells. Why? Is it due to these particular monarchs having pricked the public’s folk memory, or in some cases inherited some sort of pious notion akin to that associated with holy wells.
Wells associated with Royalty can be divided into the following categories:
a) Those drunk before a battle or whilst on the run from a battle. This could include the Battle Well Evesham (Worcestershire), with its associations with Simon de Montford is out of the scope of this blog but shows this trend, the water becoming curative.
b) Those associated with their castles, palaces, hunting lodges. But why these particular monarchs is unclear?
c) Those made by miraculous events such as that associated King Henry VIs well. It seems perhaps these sites had developed in anticipation of the eventual sanctifying of the individuals which of course never happened.
A probable holy well, if only in name or association is to be found in the London suburb of Chislehurst. This is a site missing from James Rattue’s survey of Kent holy wells. This is the Bishop’s Well, which is said to be one of the springs consecrated by the Bishop’s of Rochester during their tenure at Bromley. It was enclosed in the private grounds of Old Crown Cottage, along Crown Lane, but was once accessible via small path from the road.
Evidence of worship
Interestingly there is anecdotal evidence of worship at the well, For I was informed by the owner in the late 1990s, a Mr. Bill Orman, that when the previous owners had taken over the property in the 1940s, the well was surrounded by a number of small crosses, which sadly they disposed of. Could these have been evidence of pilgrimage to the well or left by those healed by its waters?
Will the real well reveal itself?
The well shaft is of considerable depth, and older brickwork is visible towards its bottom. The top is enclosed in a square brick chamber, and water still fills the chamber below. When I peered down, as can be made out in the photo, was the remains of a badger! There is some dispute regarding the exact site, and I was shown another well, capped and fitted with an old pump, lying in the grounds of Bishop’s Well House. However, despite the name, it is generally believed that the Old Crown Cottage’s well is the said site, and that this other well being above the other draws water from that. The owners hope to make the well into a feature for the garden although I have not contacted them since then to discover if this was done!
In the 1990s I researched for work on holy wells and healing springs of Kent, publishing a number of articles in Bygone Kent on the subject. Little did I know that fellow researcher, James Rattue was simultaneously working on the same county. This year I may publish this unpublished work mainly because unlike James’s excellent work it is a full field guide and covers sites which he did not uncover…below is an extract of one of the county’s most famous springs together with another site James did not know still existed, Colet’s Well.
The picturesque village of Otford has a number of noted water sources, the most obvious being of course the circular duck pond sitting delightfully in the roundabout in the village centre; renowned to be the only listed duckpond in the country! However, tucked away behind the main street, on private land of Castle Farm and largely forgotten now is perhaps the best known holy wells amongst Kent antiquarians is that of Becket’s or St. Thomas’s Well (TQ 5315 592). This is no doubt due to the colourful legend associated with it. This tells that whilst living here in the old manor, the ruins of which called the Bishop’s Palace still stand, St. Thomas bemoaned the lack of good water. As a remedy he struck his staff into the ground and clear water gushed forth. This is a familiar folklore motif, and we shall see it again referred to at other Kent sites. Perhaps it recalls the saint ordering well digging to provide fresh water and marked the position with his staff! The legends earliest reference is made by Lambard (1571):
“..stake his staffe into the drie ground ( in a place thereof now called Sainte Thomas Well ) and immediately the same water appeared, which running plentifully, serveth the offices of the new house to the present day.”
The site has been well recorded in recent centuries, for example an account of 1876, describes the site as: ‘endorsed within a wall, forming a chamber 15 ft across and 10 ft deep’ Both the chamber’s appearance and shape suggests that is would be ideal for immersions, of which Harper and Kershaw (1923) notes that bath and steps are defied annually by the hop pickers. It is interesting to note that Thorne (1876) with no apparent reference, gives another connection with the saint, suggesting that: ‘to have used by the saint as a bath.’ No subsequent or previous work draws notice to this, so it is likely to be antiquarian fancy. Another more plausible possibility is that it was used by the leper hospital found on this site around 1228. They would have clearly made use of the pure water for medicinal purposes and perhaps indeed used it as a bath. The exact nature of its curative powers are unknown, but although belief in them was waning by 1800s, rumours of its use continued to the last world war. The Gentlemen’s Magazine June 1820, gives the only recorded account of a cure and states that:
“an old man, who, crippled by rheumatism, was completely renovated by this bath to health and action of circumstance witnessed by the late Lord Stanhope and several of the neighbouring gentry.”
Kirkham (1948) notes it was suffering from neglect being ‘now said to be choked up and half full of tins.’ This decline would appear to have started a long time ago, as a folly tower, now demolished, was built on Otford Mount a nearby earthwork, from the well’s stone work. Consequently, this degraded condition prompted excavation in the 1950s by the Otford and District Historical Society; the following details of their findings are now briefly described. The report noted that the well consisted of two chambers, with water emerging from two arched outlets into the first of these. This chamber is surrounded on three sides by walls, thirty-five feet by thirteen feet (east end), the walls are eight feet high, and at the same level of the ground. Six steps at the south east end give access to the well chamber. The sluice wall is five feet high, eight feet wide, and is substantially buttressed on the western front. Water runs through this sluice wall, between steep banks westward, through a lower chamber, twenty-seven feet (north sides), and thirty-five feet (west side). The water then flowed through watercress, and finally through an underground, probably Tudor conduit. This conduit then passes through the site of the Palace. This stream, once fed a moat, but now discharges into the Bubblestone Brook, a Darenth tributary.
Locally common thought was that the well is the remains of a Roman bath house, a belief echoed by its present owner. A view endorsed by both Ward (1932) and Harper and Kershaw (1923) who note that it ‘is really a Roman Bath.’ This view is further supported by the two surrounding Roman villas, and hence one aim of the excavation was to evaluate this long held claim. Yet, although they showed that the well had gone through considerable renovation and rebuilding over the centuries, no remains could be positively be dated to this period. This renovation, of course, resulted in a rarity of deposits, and hence with a lack of artefacts, the subsequent interpretation was thus difficult.
The excavation was further handicapped by the waterlogged conditions. Both may have influenced the results. Consequently, there are still doubts, and the concept of a Roman origin has not been satisfactorily disproved. The earliest written record is from Otford Ministers accounts of 1440-1, indicating that by then a stone structure existed here, but how old that was again is not clear. It states:
“To a carpenter for two days to make 2 gutters to bring water from the pool of the garden to the moat and for working on and laying another gutter beyond the water course and coming from the fountain of St. Thomas to old garden, 12d; and to a carpenter for one day covering a gutter with timber and cresting it, 6d. And for two masons for 2 days for placing and laying and making a new stone wall of the fountain of St. Thomas, broken for the pipe of the water conduit, 3s, taking between them daily 12d. To five labourers 10 days digging the soil between the said fountain and moat to lay in the leaden pipe of said conduit16s 8d taking each daily 4d.”
The present floor may be ascribed to that period; although it would seem to cover an earlier lower flint floor (again possibly Roman). Between 1520-1520, Archbishop Warkham, pulled down the then existing Manor house, and built the Palace, covering four acres. This consequently required a better water supply, and hence the well was improved: the original lower chamber is said to originate from this period. The full purpose of the lower chamber is not clear, but it is believed that it may have housed cisterns giving a greater flow of water. When Henry VIII acquired the Palace from Archbishop Crammer in 1537, he spent money on improvements to the estate, and probably the well. The sluice gate, strengthened by Warham, was now supported by buttresses. These may have supported a conduit house. This was recorded in 1573:
“The condiyte house or well conteyning in length XXXVI foote and in breadth XIX fote to be taken downe and newe sett upp will coste XXX pounds. The pypes conveyinge the water from hence to the offyces and small sesterns to be amended will coste Xiii.”
By the 1600s, the Palace was in disrepair, and the well was only used for private consumption by Castle farm. Despite this, restoration still continued, and the north, east and south wall saw upper improvements by the 1700s. In the lower chamber a stone west wall was erected on Warham’s brick foundations. By this time, the south wall was beginning to collapse, and was rebuilt in the 1800s.
By 1954 repairs were again needed, as the north wall was collapsing. Goodsall (1968) reported that even after its excavation in the late 1950s, the site then enclosed in railings, was forlorn and overgrown with weeds. Forty years on, the present condition is similar to that illustrated in the contemporary photo, taken during the excavation: the intervening decades have seen the inevitable degradation, through time, of its infrastructure. Fortunately, the hideous railings have been removed, obviously to erect the trout farm infrastructure, whose water is supplied by the well. The walls appear now comparably greatly overgrown, which has probably preserved them, and the sluice wall / north, south and west walls appear the most ruinous, with the walling falling away towards the sluice wall. The walling was best preserved at the east end. The clear spring appears to flow rapidly from its source, and has the appearance of being deeper. As stated, it now has now a commercial function, providing good quality water for the raising of trout flowing through a series of fish ponds replacing the cress beds. The owner, Mrs. Burrows believed that the well was originally roofed. The results of the excavation did not indicate this although it may be a mix-up with the possibility of a conduit house over the well. She also stated the water stayed the same temperature through the winter and summer, a constant 500C, certainly beneficial to bathers.
There is another named well in Otford, called Colet’s Well (TQ 530 589) named according to Mrs. Burrows after the famous Christian philosopher. Clarke and Stoyol (1975) state that ‘Colet’s Well’ House is built upon a monastery site, but they make no reference to the well, although it appears to lie within monastery gardens, suggesting a holy origin! Is this further supported by the tradition of a subterranean tunnel linking the House with Otford Mount? Such legends are often connected with holy wells and are used by some authorities as evidence of ley lines or processional paths. The present owner of the property could not inform me of its origins, but noted that much of the fabric of the walls surrounding the house gardens had pieces of the abbey. The well itself is a circular deep well, with a square brick top, which supplied water via pump. I was informed that water is said to flow at times through the cellar of the house. Interesting the part of the house overlooking the well is said to be haunted!
Directions: To find Becket’s Well go along the A225 to the centre of Otford, park in the car park (in front of the row of terraced shops) near the Bishop’s Palace. Take a small private road to Castle farm, now as said, a fish farm. Enquire here, if you are able to visit the well, which lies on private land within a complex of fish pools to the east of the farm house. Colet’s Well lies in the garden of Colet Well House, and hence access is difficult, serious enquiries can be made via letter.
Clarke, D., and Stoyol, A., ( 1975 ) Otford in Kent, A History
Goodsall, R. H., ( 1967) Second Kentish Patchwork
Harper, C. G., and Kershaw, J. C., (1923) The Downs and the sea ( Palmer 1923 )
Lambard, W., ( 1570, Republished 1970 ) Perambulation of Kent,
Kirkham, N., ( 1948 ) The Pilgrim’s Way
Paleman, F. R. J., ( 1956 )St. Thomas a Becket’s Well, Otford, Archaeologia Cantiana Vol LXX pp. 172-178
Thorne, J., ( 1876 ) Handbook of the Environs of London,
One of Kent’s oddest monuments can be found hidden in the garden of an ordinary semi-detached house in Bexley. For here, at the end of its garden, one glimpses this unique garden ornament: a gothic bath house. This may not be considered a subject of this site, especially as it is not spring fed, but fed by a river, it nevertheless has an interesting folklore akin to a holy well.
The bath house was a feature of the Vale Mascal estate, dominated by the rather modest Georgian house, built in 1740 by Thomas Tash, son of Sir John Tash, an alderman and ex-Lord Mayor of London.As he was marrying the cousin of two local wealthy men, Felix Calvert of Mayplace, Crayford and Sir Richard Calvert of Hall Place Bexley, a fine estate was needed to suit. Consequently the house boasted extension grounds of thirty acres, incorporating the river Cray. Today, sadly the grounds have been reduced, only five acres remaining.
This estate was laid out in a formal manner with walks, cascades and small islands. When this was undertaken is uncertain, but it is thought to have been between 1790 and 1775. The first written account of the grounds is by Hasted (1778) which refers to the estate’s beautiful cascade. Later in the 1790s, the Reverend Mr. Henry Hunter writes that this cascade was greatly admired.
The Andrews, Dury and Herbert map of 1769 illustrates an extra-ordinary complex of loops and channels of the River Cray within the Vale Mascal Estate. The map shows formal bath ways around a pond, later the spring of Springplace-which was built much later on the ground. It is possible that as the drawing of the bends cannot be reconciled with later maps, the scheme was taking place during the map’s surveying.
The grounds extended from Wollett Hall, North Cray, to within a quarter of a mile of the Bexley Mill. Along the stretch of water one encounters their weirs, a cascade and a water wheel to pump ater from the river Cray. Towards the north-east end of the estate there was a boat house, long pulled down, but shown on the 1860 OS map. Its landing steps were rediscovered in the 1960s during vegetation clearance. It is, however, the sturdy bath house which is now the estates most fascinating relic.
The building itself is of a Gothic style representing a small chapel, complete with a sham tower, buttressed walls and gothic windows, and indeed bears similarity to a number of countrywide holy wells. It was constructed of thirteen and a half inch brick wall, with an eighteen-inch west wall-thickened to support the extra weight of the tower. The external walls are also flint-faced to a depth of four-and-a-half inches, as the splayed corner buttresses, with flint patterning between the quoins. Inserted into each of the walls are typical period small blocked windows of rubbed brick, with two gothic cinque foiled glazed windows set high to protect the bather’s privacy. Another ‘blind’ window is to be found on the east side, but flint filled. There are neat brick label mouldings above all three windows.
The tower, which is flint-faced, is adorned with narrow brickwork slots and lozenge decoration to suggest that it is a belfry. Above the doorway and set into the lower portion of the west side of this tower are lozenge-shaped panels, in the corners opf which one can trace faint inscribed numerals. There were probably once gilded and doubtless record the date when the Reverend Mr, Egerton restored it in the last century.
One enters the bath from the west. This doorway once had a substantial heavy oak door, which was removed to Frank’s Hall, Farningham by the former owner of Springplace in 1935 (where it is still there is unclear). The floor of the bath house is nine inches below the door sill, and to the right-hand side is the rectangular cold plunge, entered by a series of steps. Unfortunately one cannot ascertain whether the plunge bath was tiled or brick-lined as it is obscured by silt and mud. The cold plunge is fed by the stream through an arch set low down in the south wall, and empties though the sluice, replaced around forty years ago. Above the sluice are two oak horizontal beams, spanning the building some five feet above the floor. There were erected to support two upright pieces from the original sluice gate, which was two feet further from the north wall than the present one. Interestingly, in the left hand corner there is a small fireplace to warm the bather. Its flue leads up into the mock tower.
Theories suggest that the estate may have been landscaped professionally by Capability Brown or a disciple. This has been suggested because of the nature of the river improvements suggests a great skill. Vale Mascal was noted for its creative use of water, utilising sub-streams, cascades and lakes to produce a number of islands. The bath appears to be situated on one of these islands. It is known that Brown was working locally. He landscaped North Cray Place in 1792 and Danson in the 1760s, where he built a small cottage in the shape of a chapel called Chapel House, so it is possible.
The site has attracted considerable folk tales, some more likely than others. Some antiquarians have suggested a Roman origin, fancifully describing it as a Roman Bath! Other local beliefs are that it was used by St. Paulinus to convert pagans and that it was a path used by pilgrims travelling the routes to and from Canterbury. All these pieces of lore hand upon some pre-eighteenth century origin for this site. Unfortunately there is no evidence for this.
A more probable piece of religious lore is that it was used by Charles Wesley during visits to the district. This is better supported by parish records, which refer to a Charles Welsey baptizing by immersion in March 1742.
After the suicide of Robert Burdett in 1806, the state began to fall into decay. As a result the land was broken up and portions sold individually. The estate house was taken up by the magistrate for the county, Sir James Charles Lawson. Its final and present fragmentation occurred in 1935, leaving the bath house with its island belonging to the semi-detached house of 112 North Cray Road, now owned by the Yun family.
Previous owners, the Reverend Mr Egerton and Robert Cooper, had fortunately carried out any restoration work needed for the house. Despite this, by the twentieth century vegetation had taken control, which although gave the site a rustic appeal, was causing damage to the fabric. This was precipitated in 1987, when on 16th October, the Great Storm struck down an ash tree. This broke through the roof and considerable damage result. This at first was thought to the end for the bath house, repairs being too costly! Fortunately, however money became available from Bexley Council’s Heritage Fund, Mr. Yun’s insurance and English Heritage. In the spring of 1990 restoration was carried out. So this enchanting relic still stands, rather incongruously in a private garden, for the delight of anyone who makes an appointment to see it in the summer months.
The above article with some amendments first appeared in Bygone Kent
In my searches for holy wells, here are ten of the oddest places I have found them. If you know any odder ones let me know. I’ve hyperlinked to megalithic portal for most were a page exists. Note due to the locations some of these sites are on private land.
Under a church. Much is spoken of the Christianisation of pagan springs by siting churches over them but the evidence is not common, St Ethelbert’s Well in Marden Herefordshire is one such example, located in a room to the west end of the nave, existing as a circular hole in the carpet mounted by a wooden frame.
In a bridge, Bridge chapels are a rarity in England and so were bridge holy wells and as far as I can tell of those said to exist at Barking in Essex and possibly in Nottingham at Trent bridge, only Biddenham’s Holy Well still survives in an ancient bridge, probably dating from the 17th century its worn steps lead down to a chamber beneath the bridge, although access is hampered by a locked gate.
Under my kitchen. A visit in search of St John’s Well near Retford, Nottinghamshire reveals a subterranean rectangular stone lined chamber designed to be a plunge pool for body immersions beneath a trap door in a person’s kitchen. More can be learned here or in Holy wells and healing springs of Nottinghamshire.
In the shadow of the tower blocks. Urbanisation has a tendency to sweep away anything inconvenient and messy like an ancient well and have in conduited away in pipes or just filled in, luckily one of oldest of Derbyshire’s holy wells (or at least with one of the oldest provenances) survives in a juxtaposition between some older housing and some tower blocks. Vandalised over the years and currently protected by an unsightly metal cage it St. Alkmund’s Well, flows on at the point where his body is said to have rested on the way to his shrine (supposedly in the city museum)
On a golf course. Surprisingly, despite what you would think would be an inconvenience, a number of holy wells arise between the bunkers and fairways of the countries golf courses. In Kent we have St Augustine’s Well at Ebbsfleet, Oxfordshire’s Holy Well at Tadmarton, and Jesus’s well at Miniver, Cornwall. My favourite, although it may not be a holy well per se (deriving from O.E holh or hol) is Holwell on Newstead Golf Course, Nottinghamshire. A natural fern, moss and liverwort adorned cave whose sweet waters are still available via a cup attached to a metal chain.
In the grounds of a school. As long as they don’t fill them with paper aeroplanes and rubbers, wells can survive in school estates well. The best example is the Lady’s Well located within the Bedgebury School Estate, a large sandstone structure has been raised over the spring either to celebrate Our Lady, original landowner Vicountess Beresford or perhaps a past Bedgebury School Headmistress!
Amongst the rock pools on the beach. Although now dry, St Govan’s Well and its associated Chapel are undoubtedly the most atmospherically positioned of any of this list. A small stone well house covers the spring which has either dried or being filled up by too many pebbles.
In a cave. Perhaps the most atmospheric of holy wells is the Holy Well of Holy Well bay near Newquay Cornwall. A large sea cave reveals a magical multicoloured series of troughs made by a natural spring that has dripped its mineral load over the rocks and formed a perfect immersion set up. Its origins are linked to the resting of St. Cuthbert on his way to Durham. Crotches were left on the beach outside by healed pilgrims.
Under a holiday home and an old Courthouse – St Winifred’s Well Woolston is a delightfully picturesque black and white tudor courthouse now a holiday home sitting up top of the chambers of St Winifred’s Well. A site associated with the pilgrim route to her shrine in Shrewsbury and well at Holy Well in Flintshire.
Restored in a new housing estate. Developers of new estates are not always sympathetic to history perhaps and certainly not water history, but the designers of De Tany Court in St Alban’s took good advice and preserved the newly discovered St. Alban’s Well, lost for decades in the grounds of the nearby school’s playing fields, in their new housing estate and made it a garden feature.