Category Archives: Norfolk

Boundary spring or Holy Well? Brettenham’s St. Chad’s Well

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Back in the mid 90s when I started seeking out holy wells, I came across reference to a site just outside of Thetford. I’d planed to visit the site and found it to be one of the most curious in the county. It is marked on the first series of the OS map in Gothic writing but was it that old?

Ordnance Survey New Popular edition map -- click to enlarge


A substantial site is located in Shadwell Park called St. Chad’s Well (TL 933 830). However, despite the name I can find no history or traditions about it, the first author to refer to the well is Bryant (1901) who states it is marked on an ancient map but as I note below I have been unable to substantiate this.    Was it an ancient well?

Icewell, holy well or folly?

The well is enclosed is a circular dome of flint and mortar with a passage entrance facing west. The structure is supported by a stone pillar. The structure is not dissimilar to an ice-well which indeed it has been claimed it was but no-one would build an ice-well with a spring in it. A medieval fabric claim was made, but  is of probable 19th Century date and is an estate folly; a grottification of a simple spring, utilising old stone work.  This spring arises from the hillside and enters into a basin kerbed in stone through a hole in the flint wall of the structure. Above this is an arched recess. The water is channelled into a narrow gutter to exit through the north wall. The concrete floor of the chamber is below ground level reached by five stairs in the passageway. There are two lighting niches in the walls at the east and the southwest. Six stone blocks are arranged to form seats. Below the arch of the spring of the arch of the domed roof are six brackets which possibly served as candle stands.

St Chad or Boundary spring?

Unlikely although St Cedd his brother evangelised East Anglia, Chad wells are very common in the region. This is because they arise from the Old English Chaud meaning cold and thus cold spring! In this case it is apparent that the name may well be a back-derivation as its location on East Hall and Gonville Manors boundary suggests name derives from O.E scead for ‘boundary’ this is emphasised by the name of the estate Shadwell – sceadwell! Indeed the estate Shadwell Court is only first mentioned in White (1845) as the house was built in the 1830s with associated statues. Historic England records:

“Robert Buxton acquired the manor of Rushworth in Shadwell during the C16, initially holding a lease from the fourth Duke of Norfolk. In c 1715 John Buxton, amateur architect of Channonz Hall in Tibenham, began to rebuild what he called Shadwell Lodge and to lay out the grounds. The main features however of the design which survives today (1999), including the layout of the plantations and the creation of the lake, are the work of his son, also John, between the 1740s and 1760s and these are recorded on William Faden’s map of the county dated 1797. “

This suggests the well was a folly capitalising on the spring name using the carved stonework which may have originally been part of Thetford Priory, giving it a rustic religious feel. However this does not mean that the well was not of significance. Boundaries often incorporated springs as sites of note, or as disputed sites and having them on boundaries allowed equal access. As many Parish boundaries date from Angl0-Saxon periods it is possible that the well had a significant position in the settlement. There is evidence of an ancient settlement here with flint flakes and blades from the Neolithic and Bronze Age were found around the well and Roman funeral urns and Saxon tumuli in the park. Furthermore the well is also located close to Peddar’s Way, suggesting pilgrim use perhaps. So was it a Holy well as noted 1870-72, John Marius Wilson’s Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales:

“SHADWELL……It takes its name from a spring called St. Chad’s well, formerly much frequented by pilgrims.”

This begs the question is this just antiquarian fancy or are we missing some records of its history? Was it frequented by those on the way to Walsingham…if so its forgotten by them now.

In the shadow of the train: St Helen’s Spring, Santon Downham, Norfolk

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Only a few feet from the hurtling sound of the train is a large spring head. This is St. Helen’s Spring or Tevantwell.  (TL 841 874) still exists although as Manning (1993) in there work on Taking the Waters in Norfolk notes the original site may have been displaced by the construction of the railway nearby.  Thomas Martin (1779) in his History of Thetford notes that:

“St Helens was a parish church in the time of the Confessor…It stood on a hill two miles out of the town on the Santon road. At the foot of the hill is a spring commonly called Holywell or Tevant-well, corruptly for St Helen’s-well.”

W. G. Clarke (1925) in Breckland wilds states that:

“It is said that a man who was working in the harvest field suffered from extreme heat and expressed his intention of going to St. Helen’s Well to get some water to drink. His companions endeavoured to dissuade him from drinking icy-cold water in his heated condition, but he was obstinate, went to the spring and drank till he died. His spirit thereupon haunted the pit in which the spring was situated.”

Leigh Hunt (1870) in his The capital of the ancient kingdom of East Anglia reports finding foundations of this building, and these may still be those still exist and are described by Manning (1993). According to Manning (1993):

“six or seven springs emerge in the floor of the quarry… the building of the railway cut through the original St Helen’s Well and the present springs represent a post-railway emergence”.    

She states that there are signs of a structure consisting of a grey brick bridge spanning the conduit arch and two further arches have been infilled at either side of the conduit, but this do not appear to be visible now and perhaps have become overgrown.

The spring does arise from stonework although it is difficult to judge whether these are natural or have had the touch of human hand.

A lost church

The first mention the church is the Domesday Book which notes:

 “one church of St Helen with one ploughland”. 

The next mention is that there was a fair there mentioned in a roll of fair belonging to the Borough of Thetford, this was also recorded in 1347 as a market or fair at Santon. However, by the time of the 1368 Archdeacon’s visitation it was absent from this very comprehensive survey. This suggests that the church was gone by then. Various excavations have revealed the remains of an apsidal church and that it incorporated Roman works into it, mainly tiles in its east end and north wall foundations. But was there a village? It appears not and so you may ask why was it here? The answer is quite clear it was here to capitalise on the spring, but what is surprising is that no adoption is apparent by the church perhaps this indicates that the church had indeed gone by the time of the real adoption of such springs by the church with appropriate masonary…it is difficult to tell.

An ancient site

Examples of Palaeolithic flint tools have been found in the gravels at St Helen’s Pit. As at other sites in the Little Ouse valley such as Broomhill (another Trail site), these are likely to have been incorporated into the gravels after being washed off a land surface where they had been discarded, or having been drawn into them by the churning effects of frost action.

Paleolithic Finds

An oval handaxe in fresh-looking condition, collected by Rev. H. Tyrell Green of Santon Downham. [Photo courtesy Wisbech Museum 1937.17.8.]

Pagan site

What is clear is that this remote site has become a pagan site again, Pagan Federation of Norfolk website records:

​”This is a strangely beautiful spot, which forms a point of connection between the earth and the leaves and the water of the land itself, the scars of quarrying, echoes of ancient Pagan veneration, faint traces of Anglo-Saxon Christianity, the brutal power of Victorian industrialisation and a new, Pagan appreciation of sacredness. “


“Although I have never met anyone else down there, it is obvious from the energy and from some of the items one occasionally finds, that various groups and individuals do a lot of magical work there. Wands can sometimes be respectfully cut from one of the Hazels and the water itself is, of course, very powerful and useful in a variety of magical contexts. St. Helen, or Helen of the Roads (also known as Elen of the Ways) is considered by John and Caitlín Matthews to be one of our oldest native deities. Since she is associated with travel, water from her well can be used for magic relating to physical journeys, but also to help with pathworkings and with quests to seek ancient knowledge and wisdom.”

What is interesting is that a hazel tree nearby has become a rag well. Interestingly the Pagan federation add:

“This practice, of tying rags and other offerings to trees at sacred spots, has found its way to us from our more westerly colleagues and is not one which I personally feel particularly comfortable with, mainly because so many people use items made of synthetic materials, which do not rot away like wool or linen, and end up just looking like a lot of litter desecrating the place. It is very rare in Norfolk, though and even at St. Helen’s there are only ever a few of them.)”

Indeed other than St Micheal’s Well in Longstanton outside of Cambridge and Woolpit’s Our Lady have ever had only one! It is possible as there are a number of St. Helen’s Well which are rag wells up north that someone in the know decided to start it off here. Whatever, someone had clearly thought the rag tree was an intrusion for upon a recent visit no rags were apparent being replaced by a bouquet of bright red tulips. It is indeed an unworldly site…climb down to it the trees give an eerie feel to it and even the sound of the train hurtling by cannot break the connection one can get to this peaceful place.

A severed head, a mermaid and a bell – the curious waterlore of Marden, Herefordshire Part Two

Mermaids are popular medieval images this one from Mermaid from Clonfert Cathedral Co. Galway, Ireland Wiki commons


In the last post, we discussed the well dedicated to St, Ethelbert, in this post I shall introduce the other curious piece of local waterlore, the tale of the bell and the mermaid. Ella Mary Leather in her 1912 Folklore of Herefordshire. She relates in a story communicated by a Mr Galliers, of King Pyon and completed from other oral versions:

“In former times Marden church stood close to the river, and by some mischance one of the bells was allowed to fall into it, it was immediately sized by a mermaid who carried it to the bottom and held it there so fast that any number of horses could move it.”

She continues to state how the bell could be recovered:

“The people of the parish were told how to recover it, by wise men, according to some; others say the bell itself gave directions from the bottom of the river. A team of twelve white Free Martins heifers was to be obtained and attached to the bell with yokes of the sacred yew tree and bands of wittern or in some versions, the drivers’ goads were to be of witty or wittern mountain ash.”

Here interestingly is related a common folklore motif. The recovery by a set number of oxen, often unblemished of pattern in some way, the number twelve being a significant folklore number of course.  Also interesting is the mention of yew and wittern – or mountain ash. Mountain Ash was an important plant often used in May time as adornment on houses and was held against witchcraft. Indeed, Aubrey noted

“They used when I was a boy to make pinnes for the yoakes of their oxen of them believing it had virtue to preserve them from being fore spoke. As they call it and they used the plant one by their dwelling house believing it to preserve them from witches and Evil Eyes.”

The next stage again is often told at other locations when treasure needs to be uncovered:

“The bell was to be drawn out in perfect silence  it was successfully raised to the edge of the river with the mermaid inside fast asleep. In the excitement a driver, forgetting that silence was all important called out

“In spite of the Devils in hell, now well land Marden’s great bell”

This woke the mermaid, who darted back into the river, taking the bell with her ringing.”

The Mermaid replying:

“If it has not been for your wittern bands or witty goads and your yew tree lin, I’d have you twelve free martins in.”

This of course appears to indicate the power of the sacred foliage used which prevented the full effort of the mermaid.

“So Marden folks have never had their bell back from the bottom of the river to this day, and sometimes it may still be heard ringing, echoing the bells of the church. It does in a deep clear pool.”

A common story

Now this is as I have said a common folk motif. A similar story is recorded at the Callow Pit, Southwold in Norfolk about not speaking. Here an iron chest filled with gold said to lay at the bottom of the pit.   Many years ago, two adventurous men determined to retrieve it. Having placed a platform of ladders across the pit they were success to insert a staff into the ring in the lid of the chest, and bore it up from the water. They then placed the staff on their shoulders and prepared to bar their trophy off. As they did so one of them exclaimed: ‘We’ve got it safe, and the devil himself can’t get it from us.’ Instantly a cloud of sulphurous steam arose and a black hand from the pool and latched onto the chest. A terrible struggle ensued and after much exhaustion, their treasure sank back down into the murky depths. All the men retained was the ring.

A closer version is told at Newington Kent, associated with the Libbet Well, the legend blames the church wardens, who decided to sell thechurch’s great bell to pay for the repair of the others.  So as not to be seen they did it at night, but the Devil appeared and threw it in the well. At first  they  had great success at raising the bell to  the surface, but the rope broke, they tried again and failed. A local witch arrived, and told them that the only way it could be raised was by drawing it up by four pure white oxen. This was done, and it was almost raised to the surface until, a local urchin, who was passing, shouted out at the top of his voice, ‘Look at the black spot behind that bull’s ear’. The rope instantly broke, and the bell was lost forever!

Rediscovery of the bell!

Now these other legends are just that legends and usually such a story ends, but this one has a postscript. Leather (1912) further records:

“In 1848 in cleaning out a pond in Marden, an ancient bronze bell was discovered . It lay at a depth of eighteen feet, beneath the accumulated mud  and rubbish of centuries. The bel, which is now in the Hereford museum is rectangular in shape the plates are riveted together on each side. The clapper is lost , but there remains the loop inside from which it was suspended.”

Now of course what is unknown here is what came first, the bell’s discovery or the legend. The bell’s rediscovery would be vindication for such a legend but as Leather is the first to record it, it could be that the legend was constructed around the bell. However, I feel less sceptical about it considering how complex the legend is.

The bell

Let us first consider the bell. Leather herself introduces the idea that these were bells that the sexton or clerk took to the houses of the deceased on the day of the funeral. However, they originated as  portable bells often associated with saints, indeed one in Glascwm a bell called Bangu was said to have belonged to St David,.  Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In his work Wirt Sykes 1880 British Goblins it is noted that:

“Clergy were more afraid of swearing falsely by them than the gospels, because of some hidden and miraculous power with which they were gifted, and by the vengeance of the Saint to who, they were particular pleasing; their despisers and transgressors were severely punished…. Have in all probability hidden long ago by reformers on account of the superstitious beliefs attached to them.”

Now it seems likely that the bell was perhaps used to warn off the mermaid (whatever that might be) as a way of Christianizing the site and removing any pagan imaginary. Does the story recall the battle between the pre-Christian world and the Christian world? The message being in this remote region that paganism still has its grip despite the church!

What was the mermaid?

It might seem unusual to hear about a freshwater Mermaid, certainly one so far from the sea. However, she is not alone. There are mermaids in the Peak District, Lancashire and elsewhere – indeed there are more freshwater ones than sea water in England. Why? It is probable that these are folk memories of water deities which are converted to otherworldly creatures. In the case of Marden’s slightly sympathetically, in other mermaid stories she steals people and drowns them.

Was the mermaid the deity which was originally associated with St Ethelbert’s Well? It is possible although there is a long gap between a likely Celtic deity and Saxon Christian conversion, although it is possible that a Saxon deity like Nerthus could be the origin. That is of course if St Ethelbert is the original saintly dedication. His legend is so generic as stated in the earlier post, he could have easily replaced or been mistaken for a local pre-Saxon saint. Certainly Leather suggests the bell has an association with the saint:

“The Marden bell was perhaps associated with St Ethelbert ; the pond in which it was found is near the church which stands on the spot on which the body was first buried before its removal to Hereford. “

Such a bell is not a Saxon type but it is not without reason that the style continued into the Saxon period, especially in boarder country. Alternatively, the bell may be an indication of the existence of the pre-Saxon saint I muted. Certainly the discovery of the bell in a pond may indicate the true location of the village’s holy well and not the dry pit that survives in the church. Whatever the truth it is an interesting and little known story and one would welcome observations by readers.

In search of St Walstan and his holy wells Part three – Bawburgh

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2016 is a 1000 years since the death of St. Walstan. Now he may not be a very familiar saint and one that you may not think is readily associated with holy wells, however he is. Furthermore, he is unusually associated with three holy wells, in an area not always readily associated with such sites- East Anglia – which in itself is a rare occurrence. Not only that, however, unlike other multiple applications these wells are said to have a direct connection with the saint’s life and death.

Who is St. Walstan?

St Walstan was according to most accounts an Anglo-Saxon prince, the son of Blida and Benedict. Most accounts place his birth at Bawburgh (more of this place later) and his life appeared restricted to the west of Norwich. Despite being a royal he forsook the crown and all its privileges to become a simple farm labourer, giving whatever wealth he had to help the poor. After his death a localised cult developed, which grew and grew and in a way outlived the Reformation, as a saint for farmers and animals.

Three holy wells

In 2016 I decided to seek each of these wells and follow as close as possible the journey that St. Walstan is said to have made which resulted in these springs – Taverham, Costesssey and Bawburgh. Already I have tried to locate the first at Taverham’s and found the restored site at Costessey, now the easiest to find – that at the location of the saint’s shrine church, Bawburgh.

This is the third well of the saint in the English Life but the second in his Latin Life. In St Walstan Confessor, de sancto Walstanus confessore notes:

“The bulls went down from that place with the precious body towards the vill of Bawburgh. When they had come almost to the place where the body now lies buried they made another stop in a certain place, where the love of St. Walstan the divine piety made another spring of wonderful power against fevers and many other infirmities, which is still there today.”

The English Life adds:

“ye other ox staled; a well sprang anon next beyond ye parsonage”.

What is interesting is the use of the word, stalled which may be O.E for ‘come to a halt’ or with one l, staled meaning ‘urinated’! The later perhaps recording a more significant role for the white oxen.

The saint’s body was transferred through a special opening made in the north wall of the church and this arch can still be seen, now blocked up. His shrine was then established in the north transept of the Parish church of St Mary the Virgin, since then known as St Mary and St Walstan, as a separate chapel. The saint was canonised by the diocesan Bishop, who visited the site, with a large procession of priests, and hearing of his holiness:

“The bishop gave an ear and hearkened sore, And allowed him a Saint evermore.”

From this point on the well and especially the saint’s shrine was the goal of pilgrims, first from neighbouring villages, and then from Norwich (along Earlham Green Lane), and then after the news of its powers spread across England from farther afield. In particular farmers would bring their sick animals to the well to have them cured. In fact the well and shrine were so popular that a college of priests were established to control and administer the large numbers of pilgrims.

However, although it was apparently the shrine which was the goal, of the eleven medieval miracles associated with the saint, only two are associated with the holy well. One being that of Swanton’s son and the other of Sir Gregory Lovell. In the former, a man called Swanton had a lame son. Together they prayed to God and St Walston and bathed in the water from the Holy Well. The son recovered and ‘now goeth right up and his health hath’.

Nearby lost settlement of Algarsthorpe appears to have been given as a pitanciary to the Monks of Norwich as a result of the other miracle from the holy well. A Sir. Gregory Lovell who was cured of:

“Great sickness and great bone ache by water from St. Walstan’s Well”

According to the English Life of the saint:

“It happened by means of Walstan and God’s grace, To muse in mind upon a night, A mean make to holy Walstan in that case, For water to his well he sent as tyte, Therewith him washed and also dyte, And remedy readily should have anon, by the grace of God and holy Walston.”

Unfortunately as with most shrines the Reformation had a destructive effect, and the shrine was dismantled, its relics scattered over the fields and lost forever. Sadly his shrine lay in the north side of the church and was destroyed in the purges of Henry VIII and his relics burned. The removal of the chapel meant that the north side had no supporting side and hence a buttress had to be placed there!

Yet despite this wanton destruction, it appears St Walstan’s Well continued to be visited, and even through the Commonwealth period, superstitious farmers would visit the well collecting its healing waters for their sick animals. As Twinch (2015) astutely notes:

“The Bawburgh well is an integral part of the later medieval story but it assumed greater importance post-Reformation, after the tomb and chapel was demolished. The emphasis seems then to revert almost to the pre-1016 era of folk lore and water worship”

This has continued until recent years and even in recent times local farmers believe in its livestock curing properties. In 1928 the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological society during an excursion to Bawburgh were told by the Revd Gabriel Young of the story of a local farmer and churchwarden, who had recently died, called Mr. James Sparrow of Church Farm who had a sick mare. The mare was so inflicted with sores that he had to have her put down, at which point a farm boy asked if he could treat her with the well’s water. This is apparently he did and after 10 days of the treatment was cured. The farmer apparently put its powers down to chemical or vegetable substances, rather than miracles, although no chemical analysis has been able to identify these.

This revival in the importance of St Walstan’s Well can be traced back to the 1790s when an anonymous letter on the subject of wells and baths in the September of Gentlemen’s Magazine:

“My business has very lately obliged me to make a tour through this country, at all the market towns and even at every village I stopt at, I was informed of its wonderful efficacy in curing all disorders. The resort to this spring has been very great all this summer. I was assured by a person who was on the spot, that there were frequently 2000 people there at a time, particularly on Sunday mornings; and that the spring was frequently emptied, not so much by the quantity drank on the spot, as what was put into bottles, casks, and barrels, to be transported to the remotest parts of the county.”

As Twinch (1995) notes 2000 people is a lot to assemble around the well, and hence there is doubt in this description. However Husbenbeth (1859) wrote recording around the end of the 18th Century partly collaborating this:

“An old man died not long ago at Babur, who was known to the writer, and in his younger days kept an inn there, which was frequently by crowds of visitors to St Walstan’s Well.”

The Norwich Gazette noted that these crowds often resulted in trouble, and in 1763 it reported that: ‘much confusion ensued …..and many heads were broken in the scuffle.’

Its water was so pure that it was sold in the streets of Norwich. However religious pilgrims only begun to return en masse to the well in the 19th Century. This appeared to be the result of a number of miracles associated with the distribution of its water. The earliest recorded of these involved a Francis Bunn. In 1810 he had joining the militia, but was within five years discharged suffering from ‘incurable ulcers.’ Hearing St Walstan’s well in 1818 after moving to live at Costessey, he walked the three miles to the well to apply the water to his leg. Remarkably his wounds were healed and Husenbeth recorded that they continued to heal up to Bunn’s death in November 1856. The next miracle involved Sister St John Chrysostom, of the Hammersmith Convent. She fell ill in 1838, and was so close to death that the Mother Abbess suggested that she should seek a cure through the moss of St Walstan’s Well. However she disagreed and preferred to put her faith in the healing power of her medallion of the Virgin Mother. Incredibly it is said that as she held this medal to her stomach it was heard to say: ‘drink some water poured from the moss from St Walstan’s Well.’ Taking this as good advice she did so at once, and upon swallowing this moss exclaimed that she was cured!

In 1868, A Revd Benjamin Armstrong noted that one of his five Roman Catholic parishioners had taken some of the moss and:

“applying it to a bad sore overnight, she found it completely healed in the morning, leaving a scar, as from an old wound.”

An account in the Eastern Daily Press of 1913 dubbed it A Norfolk Lourdes and recorded the cure of a London Catholic who had been suffering from eye troubles for some time. It is reported that he saw a number of specialists and was told than the man was likely to loss his sight altogether. The apparently the man remembered the moss he had taken from the well the year before, applied it to his eye using the well’s water. The following day his eye sight was restored. The doctor pronounced him cured. He is said to be determined to join 300 other Catholics from congregations in Norwich, Costessey and Wymondham to give thanks.

In search of St Walstan and his holy wells Part two – Costessey

2016 is a 1000 years since the death of St. Walstan. Now he may not be a very familiar saint and one that you may not think is readily associated with holy wells, however he is. Furthermore, he is unusually associated with three holy wells, in an area not always readily associated with such sites- East Anglia – which in itself is a rare occurrence. Not only that, however, unlike other multiple applications these wells are said to have a direct connection with the saint’s life and death.

St Walstan's Well Costessey (6)

Who is St. Walstan?

St Walstan was according to most accounts an Anglo-Saxon prince, the son of Blida and Benedict. Most accounts place his birth at Bawburgh (more of this place later) and his life appeared restricted to the west of Norwich. Despite being a royal he forsook the crown and all its privileges to become a simple farm labourer, giving whatever wealth he had to help the poor. After his death a localised cult developed, which grew and grew and in a way outlived the Reformation, as a saint for farmers and animals.

Three holy wells

In 2016 I decided to seek each of these wells and follow as close as possible the journey that St. Walstan is said to have made which resulted in these springs – Taverham, Costesssey and Bawburgh. Already I have tried to locate the first at Taverham’s and now I turn to Costessey.

The legend

Before Walstan died he had given instructions to the farmer and his wife, to place his body in a cart, which would be drawn by his own white oxen. With a procession of mourners, a procession started towards Bawburgh, and after crossing the river Wensum at Costessey (where it is said that wheel marks are said to be seen on the riverbed), they stopped and rested his body, and here another healing spring arose, St Walstan’s Well (TG 153 114) in Costessey Park. In St Walstan Confessor de sancto Walstanus confessore Fr Husenbeth in 1859 records:

“Another miracle also happened. When in the aforementioned wood, the bulls stood for a while with the body of St. Walstan on top of a steep hill, a spring of water as a sign of grace for love of St. Walstan appeared against the nature of the place (for until that time no water had been found there) and through divine mercy is still there today.”

Interestingly, the History of St. Walston (sic) an ancient manuscript held at Lambeth Palace and translated by Fr Husenbeth in 1859, fails to mention this second spring. However, it was marked as Walsam’s Well on the 1832 OS map, it is recorded that the well had dried up by the end of the 18th century, after 1750. It was described in 1878 as being:

“beside the Tud is a field called St. Walstan’s Well where as a boy I saw the stones where a spring once came out of the hillside – but the well had dried up”

Jeremy Harte in his 2008 English Holy Wells reported that in the mid-1990s that this site has been destroyed. However, pleasingly this is far from the case. Carol Twinch in her 2015 St Walstan the third search informs us that:

“in 1992, the Bawburgh News editor Betty Matins, visited the site with local historian Ernest Gage, but in spite of a long walk along the river Tud, negotiating barbed wire fences, and a trek along a field edge, they were unable to locate the site.”

However, the author does note that the year after a second attempt in the company of a Robert Akins revealed something. However this was soon under threat from an extension of the Costessey Park Golf course, this is presumably where Harte gets his information from. However, this golf course extension would be the saviour of the site not its nemesis.

St Walstan's Well Costessey (13)

Speaking with Mr. Larry Rowe Costessey Golf Course manager, I was informed that when he purchased the land to extend the golf course, he was informed of the well and its history but doubted its existence. Indeed, there appeared to be some debate on its location, however, in October 2013 as Twinch (2015) notes the precise location was revised by Norfolk County Council based on Ordnance Survey second edition. Mr Rowe and his groundsmen went to the location and tried to find it. They at first were unsuccessful but looking down from a small piece of rising ground they noticed a dip with a silver birch tree in the centre. It was removed and a quantity of loose flints were revealed. It is unclear whether with Mr. Rowe was aware of the earlier discoveries. The well is described as around 12 feet in diameter, with about eight foot sloping walls lined with flints and flints deposited at the bottom.

Twinch (2015) tells us that:

“on 17th January 2015 Costessey had its first sprinkling of snow and on a very cold morning local resident Paul Cooper, Larry Rowe from Costessey Park Limited and Norfolk Archaeologist Garry Grace walked to the spot where almost 1000 years before Walstan’s funeral cortege stopped on its journey from Taverham to Bawburgh.”

According to Rose of Norfolk Archaeological Unit defined it as a deep circular pit with a diameter of 12 feet and a depth of six feet with lumps of flint walling at the bottom. It was identified as being medieval in date and suggested that it once had a passage entering it from one side, which could not now be traced. Despite the concern from local residents it would be destroyed by the golf course, Mr Rowe agreed to preserve it.

St Walstan's Well Costessey (4)

In May 2015 a flint from the well was presented to Father David Ward of Our Lady and St. Walstan Roman Catholic church in the village and this was set into the gable end of the old dinning wall of the 1837 presbytery, predesignated a garden room. Then in April 2017, after a wooden painted sign was erected at the well, made from a door frame of the Catholic Church, it was rededicated and blessed by the said church. The sign states: ‘St Walstan’s Well Holy Well’.

Whilst perhaps not the most visually impacting of the county’s well, but its rediscovery and preservation is great testament to the joint efforts of local people. The well is now protected and preserved. Although dry the flint rows are interesting and fairly unique, interestingly only the well of the Anglican shrine at Walsingham has a similar design emphasising perhaps its Saxon origin. It is good to see this important site preserved and remembered.

Please note St Walstan’s Well is in the far corner of Costessey Park Golf Course and as such inaccessible without permission. I found the owner receptive to my enquiries however and would be best visited in the winter months or during the evening, post six o’clock, when there is less play.

From the forthcoming Holy Wells and healing springs of Norfolk

For more information on St. Walstan refer to Carol Twinch’s excellent trilogy of works 1995 In Search of St. Walstan, 2011 Saint with the silver shoes and 2015 St Walstan the Third Search

In search of St Walstan and his holy wells – Part one – Taverham


St Walstan on Taverham village sign

St Walstan on Taverham village sign

2016 is a 1000 years since the death of St. Walstan. Now he may not be a very familiar saint and one that you may not think is readily associated with holy wells, however he is. Furthermore, he is unusually associated with three holy wells, in an area not always readily associated with such sites- East Anglia – which in itself is a rare occurrence. Not only that, however, unlike other multiple applications these wells are said to have a direct connection with the saint’s life and death.

Who is St. Walstan?

St Walstan was according to most accounts an Anglo-Saxon prince, the son of Blida and Benedict. Most accounts place his birth at Bawburgh (more of this place later) and his life appeared restricted to the west of Norwich. Despite being a royal he forsook the crown and all its privileges to become a simple farm labourer, giving whatever wealth he had to help the poor. After his death a localised cult developed, which grew and grew and in a way outlived the Reformation, as a saint for farmers and animals.

Three holy wells

In 2016 I decided to seek each of these wells and follow as close as possible the journey that St. Walstan is said to have made which resulted in these springs – Taverham, Costesssey and Bawburgh. Sadly, Taverham’s St. Walstan’s Well is lost…but that does not stop me looking for it!

The search for Taverham’s well

This first spring arose at the place of his death. The saint was said to have had a vision of angels and died soon after, a local priest wishing to wash his body searched in vain for water. Interestingly, his Latin Life fails to mention it but the History of St Walstan records according to Father Husenbeth (1859) its author:

“There lacked liquor to God they did pray, a well in that place sprang verment.”

As stated the exact location of this well has been a matter of conjecture. Let me look at each suggestion

Suggestion one: ‘Walstanhans’ plantation

This is said to be copse below the church and thus close to the crossing, now presumably the bridge. Credence is also given to the fact that in 1859 it was sated that a well still existed there. This location was perhaps synonymous with that named in 17th century terriers as Walstan Wong. They place it at TG 1630 1410, north the church along Nightingale drive. The area is urbanised so no evidence can be found there.

Suggestion two: Walsingham Plantation

However, it is interesting to note that on the current OS there is a Walsingham Plantation, are these the same and has consonantal drift over the centuries? There is no well or spring now marked here and presumably any one would have been lost when the area was afforested. Support to this being a location is perhaps that there is another Walstan wood noted in the nearby parish of Ringland. Are they connected?

Suggestion three: Spring Wood


Sounds convincing and especially now this wood is not far from the village sign which shows the saint with his scythe. The wood that exists is probably much smaller than the original one and the name suggestions that derives from the spring of St. Walstan’s Well. However, I surveyed the site and I believe I can quickly dismiss it as a site as a possibility. All the trees appear to be the same age and there is no ancient forest indicator species. Why is this important? This would suggest that the ‘spring’ is from the 18th century term for an afforested area not a water source.

Suggestion four: Breck Farm

I stated my search near the farm said to be built upon the farm where St. Walstan died, that is Breck Farm. Norgate (1969) in his A history of Taverham refers to in an old lease book as:

..laying between Langwongs Furlong on the part of the south and the land of Mary Branthwayt north, and abutting a way leading from Taverham to Crostwick.”

          This would make it approximate to Breck Farm, which is believed to be near the site of Walstan’s Nagla farm, where he died, although no exact location has been determined. Whilst there a survey of the area does reveal a small water source forming a relatively deep brook channel, a field distance from the farm and beside a footpath at TG 168 150. The water could equally be a field drain, however the oval depression is too overgrown to reveal anything.


Possible well site?


Breck farm supposed site of Nagla Farm site of his death

Interestingly, Carol Twinch in her 2015 St. Walstan the third search informs us that carvings of figures in clerical dress knealing before a female figure, presumably the Virgin Mary have been found in the nearby Attlebridge/Morton on the Hill area. In 1813 the head of a processional cross was found ‘on the Walsingham Way, by Attebridge. A hermitage and possibly chapel are said to have existed at Attelbridge.

To my mind this seemed the most plausible site, but perhaps one day an old map will appear which will settle the matter. From this spring, St. Walstan’s body would be ceremonially carried by two white oxen to his final resting place. After considering the sites and resting a moment at Taverham’s typical round tower church of St, Edmund, I crossed the Wensum river like St Walstan did and one my way to the second spring.

From the forthcoming Holy Wells and healing springs of Norfolk

For more information on St. Walstan refer to Carol Twinch’s excellent triology of works 1995 In Search of St. Walstan, 2011 Saint with the silver shoes and 2015 St Walstan the Third Search

A pilgrimage to Walsingham’s holy well

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Well which well is it?

This is without doubt the most famous site of all holy wells and indeed Christianity in the county, now the main well is perhaps a modern one (we’ll explore its provenance below).) but in the ruins of its famed Abbey are  ‘Wishing Wells’ clearly holy wells, the more likely location of the 1061, vision of Mary by Richeldis de Faverches,, who built a replica of the Holy House where a spring arose. The site became a major pilgrimage centre and its waters were said to be good for curing headaches and stomach complaints. If these are the original site, after Reformation, they denigrated to mere wishing wells.

Walsingham Holy Wells (1)

Howeverr, most attention quite rightly is directed to the well enclosed in the modern Anglican shrine. A site which now could be classed as one of the most active holy wells in the country, Our Lady’s Well. This is the central focus of modern veneration at Walsingham. Its history is difficult however. It was during the digging for a new shrine in the 1930s.The shrine needed a well and this was convenient Consequent excavations revealed did suggest that this well was Saxon and thus as near the site of the original Holy House thought to be the original shrine. However this is difficult to prove. Now enclosed in a modern shrine, above this well an effigy of Our Lady with infant Jesus, is placed in as a centre piece of this modern arched alcove. Local belief suggests that an underground conduit connects these wells to the Anglican well of Our Lady, their source.

Little Walsingham was once the greatest shrine in Europe, with commoners and kings all following the many pilgrim paths to the shrine of ‘Our Lady of Walsingham’. It had a sacred image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a phial of her milk, and many other spurious relics, not to mention the two miraculous wells in the priory garden.

The origins

In 1061 the Lady Richeldis de Faveraches, wife of a Norman lord of the manor, is said to have had a vision at Walsingham in which the Virgin Mary appeared to her, took her in spirit to the ‘Sancta Casa’ – the home of Christ in Nazareth – and commanded her to build in Norfolk an exact replica. Aided by angels, the shrine was built of wood and later encased in stone, the site being ordained by the welling up of two clear streams at the behest of Mary. Rumours began to spread that Mary herself had fled there before the threat of invasion, and then that the chapel was the Sancta Casa itself, transported there by angels.

A priory was built there in the early 12th century, which the scholar and theologian Desiderius Erasmus visited in 1511, writing in his ‘Colloquy on Pilgrimage’:

“Before the chapel is a shed, under which are two wells full to the brink; the water is wonderfully cold, and efficacious in curing pains in the head & stomach. They affirm that the spring suddenly burst from the earth at the command of the most holy Virgin”.

Walsingham Holy Wells (7)Walsingham Holy Wells (6)








The wishing wells

These are circular wells and a square stone bath can be found near an isolated remnant of Norman archway in the priory ruins, in the grounds of a house called Walsingham Abbey. The wells are most noted nowadays for being wishing wells. If you remain totally silent within about 10 feet of the water, you should kneel first at one well, then at the other, and make a wish as you drink – but tell no-one what you wish for. Committing one error in the ritual is said to be fatal.

Another version mentions a stone between the wells on which one must kneel with their right knee bare, then put one hand in each well up to the wrist, and drink as much of the water as you can hold in your palms. Provided your wishes are never spoken aloud, they will be fulfilled within the year. On my visit I was keen to try it out…but found the wells covered by metal grills.

Walsingham Holy Wells (21)

More on Norfolk’s holy wells in the forthcoming Holy Wells and healing springs of Norfolk coming in 2017.

The veneration of water in 12 objects…..number 12 the ampulla

For the final examination of water veneration finishing with one of the most distinctive objects. Of course the most important aspect of visiting a holy well is to take the water. However, sometimes it is not possible to drink the water in situ often it had to be given to some in more need for example far away. However, no run of the mill vessel would do, no one would need an ampulla, a small bottle or vial, often made of pewter or terracotta often sealed over to be broken open when received. It was often worn around the neck and did itself act as a sacred souvenir much like the allied pilgrim badge, deposits at river crossings in particular showing that they themselves acted as a votive offering.

The earliest ampulla, is one of the earliest pieces of evidence for British Christianity, from Abu Mena, dating from the 6th–7th century which was found at Meols in the Wirral. One of the most notable accounts is at Canterbury Cathedral’s St. Thomas Becket shrine where a spring was used as a holy well. It is accounted that all pilgrims who visited the shrine went away with some water. Indeed the 14th Polistoire states even Henry II after his penance:

“drank from the water of St. Thomas’ well… and took away with him an ampoule full of this water, in the manner of a pilgrim.”

Harte (2008) Holy Wells believes that the water derived its miraculous reputation after it had come into use to fill the votive ampulla. Whatever, it is reported that sometimes even ampullae emptied before the leaving the Cathedral precincts as the saint’s judgement on the individual. The use was widespread as indicated by this account in the Exeter Express and Echo:

“THIS tiny lead container, called an ampulla, is modest in appearance, but is nonetheless important evidence for medieval pilgrimage in Devon. Found using a metal-detector in 2009 near Whimple by Simon Wildman, it once contained water from a holy well. The water from holy wells was ascribed sacred qualities through their association with particular saints or certain miracles. Prior to Henry VIII’s Reformation, Devon was littered with holy wells, few of which survive today. One such holy well was that of St Sidwell in Exeter, which was purported to have sprung up instantaneously on the spot where her decapitated head hit the ground. This well was once a popular pilgrimage site, and pilgrims could purchase ampullae full of holy water.”

Typical ampulla among Pilgrim badges in Lynn Museum


Of course, we are unaware what holy well it came from of course, it may have not been from Devon of course. The most active holy well in the county, St. Winifred’s Well at Holywell, unsurprisingly has a long history of producing ampullae. A mention is even made in her 1130 first Life where the priest fills a lagena with the water, which was ‘transmitted everywhere to the sick, and drunk’ certainly by 1620 ‘little bottles’ we being used.

In revival of the pilgrimage under Fr Beauclerk S.J., in the 1890s, a 250mm bottle was specially tall which held an image of St Winifred, with the words ‘St Winefrides Well Holywell’, and Fr Beauclerk’s. An advert in the The Holywell Record of May 1896 stated that ‘a bottle of water can be sent post free to any part of the United Kingdom’ a promise I believe that is still upheld although the bottle and postage is now paid. A longer account of the development of these bottles post 1890s is given in this article.

Similarly, at Walsingham small bottles are provided with the image of the vision to Richeldis in 1096 with the Virgin hovering above with the spring below the Lady Richeldis showing how to build the Holy House. These were an improvement of the simple medieval ones with a cross and a W.

And the trend for ampulla is still present and can be seen at ‘new’ holy wells – Lourdes and Fatima – suggesting that the basic function of the holy well has not ceased!

The lost splendour of Reffley Spring


Close up of Chalybeate spring head basin

Behind some swings hidden in a wood just outside of Kings Lynn can be found the remains of the Reffley Spring (TF 655 222) now sadly a fairly insignificant site,  but one with perhaps a unique history in catalogue of healing wells. This was because it was associated with an unusual secret society called the Sons of Reffley. These were secret Royalist sympathisers, especially the local family the Folkes, established in 1650, a dangerous activity as they were established in Cromwell’s commonwealth.  The reasons for its establishment was a direct challenge to the Cromwellian edict forbidding gatherings of 30 people or more – hence like a modern day rebellion against the Criminal Justice Bill’s banning of raves – they kept their membership at 30.

Privotal to this community was this spring, it took its name from it. The spring was a chalybeate one, one which of course could have been exploited for medicinal purposes. Whether it had any significant before hand is unclear, but it appears to have developed a quasi-religious significance in the group. Water from this spring was used to make a punch of which each member of the “Reffley Brethren” had to partake at the yearly meetings

Despite the collapse of the Commonwealth – the Reffley Brethren- as they became known continued. Although perhaps their role moved from political to social, perhaps representing a fraternal group, akin to a gentlemen’s club or Frat society of the US. Such that On 24 June 1756, to celebrate the building of a substantial basin for their spring and erection of an obelisk in its centre, the theme  “Bacchus and Venus, the gods of this place”

The event was presented as part of Thomas Arne’s Reffley Spring cantata, a musical piece, akin to an opera but more like a pageant, where the tenor soloist acted as a High Priest, who standing in the centre wearing a crown of Ivy, Myrtle and Roses mimed the parts of Venus and Bacchus. This was recorded as follows with the Priest stating:

  1. Here all advance to, and encircle the Spring.
  2. From a charger, brim full of excellent Punch (a Liquor for which this Chalybeate Water is Celebrated) a Goblet is filled, and handed to the High Priest.
  3. Here a quantity of Loaf Sugar is thrown into the bason [sic], which the Water flows into.
  4. Whilst the Symphony is playing, the High Priest gives the most Beautiful Toast in the Universe, Venus, which goes round, and the Air is sung.
  5. From the charger a copious Bowl is filled, and delivered to the High Priest, as before.
  6. Here a Bottle of Brandy is poured into the bason.
  7. Again, while the Symphony is playing, the High Priest gives the Toast most pleasing to those “Who, impotent of thought, puff away Care”. Bacchus goes round.
  8. A Lemon is squeezed into the Bason.
  9. Here the Bowl is again replenished, and given to the High Priest.
  10. Venus and Bacchus, the Deities of Reffley United, constitute the Toast that goes round, previous to the Song.

Thomas Arne’s cantata, Reffley Spring. In 2014 the Lynn Festival even performed Arne’s Reffley Spring.

Dates appear confused for some reports state that in 1711 the temple was built others in either 1750 or 1789. The later is the date suggested by Manning in her 1995 Taking the Waters in Norfolk. Clearly this was to provide a more private and dry location for their meetings, which generally ate a beef joint, saddle of mutton and lobster salad. The meal ended with the smoking of a secret tobacco blend in their clay pipes. Evidence of these frivolities can be seen in an oil canvas from c1800 which shows an octagonal brick built temple with a conical roof. This may be linked to the 1818 great festival established there to celebrate the baronet as MP for Lynn (when three commemorative punch bowls were also produced.) There difference in the appearance of the temple in the painting and that shown in photos.

(c) King's Lynn Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Painting of Reffley from 1800s (c) King’s Lynn Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation


This is explained by an enlargement being done in 1832, with the addition of a kitchen on the back. The structure now being more trapezoid in appearance. A postcard from the early 20th century shows the site enclosed in low picket fencing and in an open setting. Two substantial sphinxes, the family was keen Egyptologists, guarded the temple and a small outhouse, looking like a coal shed can be seen.

ReffleyTemple (1)

Perhaps the last photo of the temple from a Forum. I do not hold copyright for this image


From an early postcard. Note the open aspect


Photo from the 1970s. Taken from a Lynn Forum. I do not hold the copyright


Manning suggests that after the Restoration the Brethren may have disappeared only to be revived as a drinking club, a popular 19th century activity. This would fit in with accounts such as a letter from 1774 recorded also by Manning states:

“Reffley has long been a place of resort for Lynn People (even the fair sex) for its being agreeable – not so much for its salubrious water but for a walk and purer air, despite the distance and lack of accommodation (not even a seat)”

Furthermore, Manning draws reference to Whit Sunday skipping at Reffley perhaps suggesting a religious significance which may predate the Brethren and the colonisation of the area after the Brethren disappeared. However, this letter suggests that the writer, a Mr. Richardson was attempting to improve the place as a spa without the landowner, Sir Martin Browne Folkes’s permision. He understandably wanted to retain the site for the groups clandestine meetings! Evidence for these meetings was in 2013 found via an archaeological excavation such as those clay pipes beloved of their meeting, as well as porcelain and interesting an American coin, perhaps indicating the distance and influence some members had. More significantly perhaps prehistoric flint flakes and Roman Samian ware, and evidence of Anglo-Saxon settlement were found in the Reffley area suggesting perhaps a long history for the spring’s usage.


The mossy remains of the Temple


The Chalybeate Springhead and remains of the Obelisk


Sadly, what frolics and fantasies enacted by the Brethren around the spring are a far gone. Despite the survival of the group to the present day, much reduced but equally secretive, the site is now ruined.   This is despite an apparent thousand pounds being paid on repairs in the 1970s. Apparently, the last celebration at the location was on 22nd June 1978, where a ‘wench’ was employed to serve water from the spring and a feast took place. This marked the 200th anniversary of the donation of a stone table.

They would find it difficult to celebrate there today – the temple was vandalised in the late 70s and 80s – now is a pile of moss covered bricks. The springhead fortunately is still quite substantial stone made structure being c2.9 metres diameter by 0.4 metres deep. It has lost its altar stone with the inscription Presented by a Friend 1778 and is unable now to hold water and the Obelisk despite its warning, a curse, stating ‘Whosoever shall remove this or bid its removal, let him die the last of his race’ a curse which did not distract the vandals, it was removed in the 1990s with the sphinxes to a secret location. The woods have now closed over it.

What is left can still be easily found in Spring Wood which is now in the middle of a housing estate in the Lynn suburb of South Wootton, formerly Reffley. There’s ample parking opposite and it is easily found following the tracks…perhaps one day something could be restored, but for the moment only the ghosts of parties past cavort around this once thriving spring head. It lays forlorn and forgotten…a shadow of its more vibrant past.

A Norfolk field trip

In a previous post, I promised a return to Norfolk…I unfortunately haven’t physically been there but there are still some sites of which I can describe from my original survey.


grimstonLocated in a private garden is one of the least known holy wells is those found opposite the church called St. Botolph’s Springs (TF 721 219). It is absent from Harte’s work and I have been unable to find its origin. According to local tradition it apparently named after a local saint who baptised converts in them. Little appears to be recorded of him, but clearly the church was founded to Christianise the springs considering its proximity. These appear to be two in number and now flow to fill a large pool in the garden of the house opposite the church called The Springs. There is a small section of stone walling just above the first spring and the spring itself bubbles from underneath this through the chalk. The second spring arises similarly from under a ledge nearer to the church. Whether there are any old fragments of this site is unclear, especially as there appear to be no authorities to confirm that the truth behind the local saint.



Arises in a small copse of bushes on the edge of a field is St Mary’s Well (TM 021 781) whose waters were thought to be good for eyes. It was recently been tidied up with a new fence erected around it although it is a simple spring. There as a number of small stones lying around suggesting a possible structure. 


wereBetter reported St Margaret’s Well (TF 680 017) is noted by Chambers (1830) as:

“…to the west of the church is St. Margaret’s Well, at which, in the times of popery, the people diverted themselves on that saint’s day with cakes and ale, music and dancing; alms and offerings were brought, and vows made: all this was called Well worship”.                                                                             The site still arises beside a circular pond fills a small foot wide basin beneath a small obelisk.           Water flows sluggishly from this structure but clearly contributes to the pond beside it. No casual visitor would      identify the well as it does not have any sign.


East Dereham boasts one of Norfolk’s best and most interesting holy wells. This is St. Withburga’s Well (TF 988 134) which arises behind the church through a flint and stone archway in front of the well basin is a stone coffin lid.  The site is protected by railings and since the 1990s there has been a well dressing although not in a Derbyshire style. In 1757 there was an attempt to convert the spring into a minor spa, although never referred to as such. A bath house was constructed over the well and this was restored in 1786 and 1792-3 the latter being undertaken by local man Sir John Fenn and his committee established to repair and maintain the structure. This resulted in a brick built classical building being erected over the well. However, this was finally removed in the 1850s by the Rev Benjamin Armstrong who opposed the structure.

The well is associated with Saxon St. Withburga, daughter of King Annas who died in c 743. The spring is said to have arisen after the monks of Ely Cathedral stole the saint’s relics.

Chambers appears to suggest that there is another St. Withburga’s Well (TF 986 133) some distance from the churchyard but gives no further details. This would appear to have been that at Old Becclesgate where it lay in the garden, however in the cellar which shows evidence of the building being probable monastery site was a supposed well said to be a holy well. Neither site appear to exist.


norwichRecords show that St Lawrence’s Well (TG 228 089) in the time of Edward I was a common well and probably served Fullers Hole, where cloth was cleansed and thickened.  In 1547 the Court granted the parishioners the lane from the High Street to the well, together with the said well, on the condition that they erect the door at the south end of the lane and keep it open in the day, and shut up securely at night. However, in 1576, Robert Gibson was given a grant of the said lane, or entry, and the well, and had thus to provide at his own charge access to the well. It states:

‘He shall bring the water from the said well in a cock of lead, into the public street, for the ease of the common people, and shall maintain the same.’

In latter times this site was known as St Lawrence’s Pump, and following inscriptions had been applied:

“This Water here cavght,  In Sorte as yowe se. From a Spring is brovghte, Threskore Foot and thre. Gybson hath it sowghte, From Saynt Lawrens Wel.”

The site appears in drawings by Cotman (1818) and Willis (1885). Suffling (1887) notes that:

“A few years since, Mr Harry Bullard, a brewer, and well-known patron of his city, transformed it into a public drinking fountain.”

After a number of years of looking rather sorry for itself this is without doubt the most splendid of the wells in this survey, resplendent in its guilt and painted brick work.

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