Category Archives: Norfolk
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.”
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!
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:
- Here all advance to, and encircle the Spring.
- 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.
- Here a quantity of Loaf Sugar is thrown into the bason [sic], which the Water flows into.
- 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.
- From the charger a copious Bowl is filled, and delivered to the High Priest, as before.
- Here a Bottle of Brandy is poured into the bason.
- 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.
- A Lemon is squeezed into the Bason.
- Here the Bowl is again replenished, and given to the High Priest.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Located 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.
“…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”.
Here is a confusing one! Reports state that 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. However sadly it is not for the said well is now further east where the road is and buried. The oblelisk is spring fed but not the same spring sadly.
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.
Records 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.
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.
In preparation for a volume on Holy and healing wells of Norfolk, a county with a high number of interesting and surviving sites, I was in North Norfolk doing research. Of course this area of Norfolk is dominated by the Walsingham wells, more of perhaps in a latter post, but I would like to focus on three less well known sites.
Many people visit the romantic gate house ruins of Burnham Norton’s Carmelite Friary, built in 1241, very few people would tbe able to tell you about the holy well. Described by the Procceedings of the Norfolk Archaeology as where the:
the monks walked to the wishing wells nearby to drink the cool water, which is claimed to make wishes come true.
These appear to be the same as that marked as Our Lady’s Well on the 1880s OS. The The spring has nine or ten sections of stone work around it as it arises close to the edge in the bed of the gravel stream. It is probable, especially as some of the stone work appears worked and may have come from the friary or was constructed by the friary although it does not seam as substantial as one would expect. Nearer the road is a rectangular stone lined ‘tank’ which may be associated with the spring and indeed may be it, as the older OS maps it is difficult to identify the exact site.
I failed to find Lady Bone Well, at Coxford. A site said to be near the remains of the Augustinian abbey and obviously its water source. One would assume a name after Our Lady, although Bone would be difficult to explain. Indeed, its name is said to be after a lady of the Priory who was drowned in the well by the priests of the priory; an odd lesson which I have been unable to date but is doubtlessly Reformation in origin. A visit by NAU in 1978 found the surrounding wall in reasonably good condition, approximately 30cm high and 1.8m in diameter, is broken in three places. Its water reaching ground level and its overflow joining River Wensum some 27m to the south. However, by 1990 it was thought to be in poor condition. and indeed my visit failed to find any evidence of a springhead at the site and it appears to have become very overgrown and lost in a marshy area.
The small village of Sedgeford does have a Lady Well, although only marked in blue italics on the current OS giving some doubt to its age. Little is known of the well, but I was told of processions that have gone to the well and one would expect that its water was used by filling the church font. Little appears to be recorded of this spring but its location not far from the parish church is significant. The spring flows from the bank forming a chalky stream and into a large pool. Significantly perhaps there is a large stone beside it.
More of Norfolk holy wells and springs later….