Category Archives: Nottinghamshire

Under the kitchen floor…St John’s well

One of the most unusually sited on Nottinghamshire’s holy wells record in Holy Wells and healing springs of Nottinghamshire is St. John’s Well at Welham. I have touched upon this site in my first post on unusual holy well locations and thought it was worth examining in detail.
The well itself is undoubtedly an ancient one. The Domesday Book refers to Wellun, this changed to Wellum by 1166 and by the 16th century had become Wellom but in Chapman and Andres map of Notts in1775 was shown as Welham. None of these sources call it St John’s Well and it is not so named until 1710, either as a re-dedication, once the Reformation zealouts had died down, or perhaps coined by John Hutchinson to give the bath so back story to explain its healing waters. It is shown on Chapman’s map of Nottinghamshire (1774) as ‘Well House’. Piercy (1828) gives the greatest information and states that the hamlet of Welham was named after St. John’s Well whose waters contained magnesium and gypsum and was:

 “good for rheumatics and scorbutic diseases. Its waters formed into a large bath, and remained entire during the early part of the 18th century, it was famous for many cures, but latterly it has lost much of its celebrity.John Hutchinson, Esq. erected a cottage adjoining, and enclosed the bath, to preserve it from injury. Here was, until lately, a feast, or fair, held annually on St. John‟s day, to which the neighbouring villagers resorted to enjoy such rural sports or games as fancy might dictate. Cold baths like this were formerly regarded with superstitious reverence, being supposed to possess a sovereign remedy for agues such as rheumatism.”

What is interesting about this account is the reference of games and a fair suggesting that if the well itself did not have such a dedication, the saint was celebrated in the locale. This may indicate that indeed the well was so dedicated or that Hutchinson chose this name because of the local fair. Without further information we shall never know.


By 1832 White’s Directory notes that it had lost much of its former celebrity. A Robert Walker was a bath keeper at the Well house and may well have been the last one as it appears the well soon fell into terminal decline and I can find nothing is noted of it until 1938. At this time it is noted that its water was still used to provide several cottages in the village. An article written in 1957 states the bathhouse disappeared stating the coming of the railway encouraged people to move away to find more effective spas around the 1830s. It goes on to note that the actual spring location was lost. This I thought was to be the situation, but local investigations not only showed the house to be still existence but the bath still remained! Records show that the estate, was bought by an Arthur Robert Garland of Welham Hall from the deceased estate of John Henry Hutchinson of Clarborough Hall acres117.3.16 along with Well House Cottage and garden for the sum of £3200 on in 1910. He then sold the cottage and garden to Fred Anderson on 1910 for £130. This was subsequently bought by the late Mr Eric Durham on 1955, later to be purchased by the current owner, Mr Whelan, in 1975.The site is still called Well House. Which although it had been added onto in the last century, its core fabric remains as John Hutchinson built it. The large house being the well keeper’s abode with the side building, now a modern kitchen was the bath house.
Arriving at the house, I was at first shown the site by Mr. Whelan the spring which filled the bath which was diverted to the side of the house, the spring itself arising close to the footpath behind the house. A man-hole cover in the drive way revealed that the spring flows at a fast rate, several gallons per minute. He notes that it had a very high mineral content, soaking through the gypsum in Clarborough hills. He stressed it is drinkable, in small quantities, due to its high magnesium and sulphate (like Andrews Liver Salts). It is quite chalky to taste flat but is very pleasant to drink if aerated. However he did not recommend long term drinking was probably not good for one’s health.


In he kitchen, a small trap door can be removed and beneath the remains of the bath is revealed. This appears to as Mee (1938) describes; a stone basin twelve feet square with a flight of steps entering the water. I scrambled down into this bath and found it presently to have two stone steps which enter the bath, although bricks built upon these suggest that there may have been more.


Remarkably the bath still remains enclosing an area fifteen feet by twelve feet, and despite the water being diverted, was full to over a two foot of water. The present kitchen is supported by four brick pillars but this does not appear to have damaged the fabric of the bath which is in fine condition, being made of good quality neat squared stonework. A pipe is found four feet high or so in the wall and a line around it made by the presence of water indicates that the water was of a considerable depth supporting the fact that it was large enough to be a hazard, explaining how Thomas Heald, Vicar of Babworth drowned in it on the 18th June 1759. Mr. Whelan informs me that although the house is not a listed building previous owners had sensibly preserved the bath. Around 30 years ago he was often showing local school children, but it appears now to forgotten. So there it remains a curious relic preserved in its most unusual place.

It must be noted that due to its location, under a private kitchen, that the site is not readily viewable so please don’t turn up unannounced. More details in the book see http://www.amazon.co.uk/Holy-Wells-Healing-Springs-Nottinghamshire/dp/0956044220 or contact this blogger

Nottinghamshire holy wells and healing springs an overview

This is information is edited  from the book Holy wells and healing springs of Nottinghamshire

Morrell’s (1988) work on Nottinghamshire holy wells was one of the first non-Celtic volumes on the subject (ie not Cornwall, Wales or Scotland) in the later half of the 20th century. At first I was reluctant to research the area thinking the work had already been done, but no I discovered double the number of sites. Nottinghamshire can claim record of 94 related sites (including some dubious sites and possible repetition) over 834 square miles. This would give a density of 8.8 square miles per well. This would compare with Leicestershire 9.9 wells per square mile (Rattue (1990) perhaps controversially removing those probably not healing or holy from this survey on this basis the concentration increases to 6.5 square miles per well in Nottinghamshire compared to 6.1 in Rattue’s survey (Full details on Derbyshire, Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire being not available when this survey was completed.)

I have included within this survey wells associated with the term holy, saint’s names or religious institutions. (Often springs associated with churches can be added to this list, but one must be cautious as such arrangements can be coincidental. Wardie (2003) notes 12 such sites on his map, but none are explained. )To this are added those with healing traditions e.g. noted mineral, chalybeate and spa waters and those with folklore associations; petrifying, ebbing and flowing or possible pagan deity names.

In general there is little folklore associated with water in the county. Thurgarton had a boggart which lived in the dumble (the source of whose booming voice was found to be a bittern), The Clifton family (at Clifton) had their harbinger fish, appearing at times of death (which was a sturgeon), Girton’s bottomless Horsepool and the Aegir, the most famed feature of the Trent, a tidal wave named after a Norse god. Interestingly, Nottingham appears to have few wells explicitly associated with rituals or folk customs unlike neighbouring Derbyshire or even Lincolnshire. There are only four rag wells, all in Nottingham and although well dressing has taken place in the county, this is a modern invention.

The nature of this work, indeed all volumes, is thus to describe the sites under the respective parishes giving historical details and present conditions (with directions if the sites can be accessed).  I have adopted Francis Jones’s (1954) category system for wells. The main body of the text covers Class A (saint’s names, those named after God, Trinity, Easter etc), B (associated with chapels and churches), C (those with healing traditions which in this case includes spas and mineral springs) and some E (miscellaneous with folklore) sites The second part includes a list of named ancient wells with explanatory notes (mostly Class D i.e. those named after secular persons but possibly also holy wells and E).

In regards to those of category D, archaeologically speaking, many wells may have had an ancient pre-historic origin. Some in the county may have been Romano-British shrines, such as Kingshaugh and Newton. Similarly, it has been argued that sites named Hart’s Well and a number of wells with prefixes possibly deriving from Here O.E for ‘army’ are probably associated with tribal totems particularly of Danish use (although Morrell (1988) does note that Harwell is near the Roman road to Segontium),  as is a site called Norsput. Sadly, it should be stressed that the general lack in archaeological interest in such sites, such claims cannot be ascertained.

The range of dedications is much more limited than surrounding counties, particularly Yorkshire, most being called simply Holy wells (10 confirmed sites, 20 possible sites), and those with names are restricted to presumably foreign or biblical saints: St. Mary (or rather Lady Wells) (9 with an extra 3 possible), (not including Orange’s (1840) Lady’s Bath as a possible origin of Lady Bay and a possible Lady Well at Egmanton, said by the Reverend Levy to have been associated with the vision of Our Lady to a local women at the edge of Ladywood. However, correspondence to long time residents in the parish has not revealed knowledge of the site nor has the Nottinghamshire record office. Interestingly, the suggested site does have oil wells which may suggest that the vision was due to a Willo the wisp!), St. Ann’s Well (2), St. Helen (1/2), St. Catherine’s (2) and St. John (2). With a possible St. Lawrence dedication, Jacob Well, Lord’s Well and others hidden in place name changes, to add to the list. There does not appear to be any local dedications or native saints. Class A wells thus totalling a confirmed 38 (unconfirmed total of 48). Of Class B there are four associated with crosses, but none with churches. There are thirteen Spas or mineral springs and 18 with varied names but healing traditions (Class C), 9 (Class D) and 5 (Class E) although there are a number in the inventory.

Harte (2008) argues that many holy well sites; in particular St. Catherine’s Well are spurious modern sites, due to the lack of earlier evidence. However, one must be careful here as absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; much of what we know of medieval England could be considered fragmentary due to the purges of documents during the Reformation and Commonwealth. Where it may be necessary to err on the safe side it is just as probable (if unlikely) that a site remains unknown to antiquarians or past historians until recent times retained in generations of local knowledge. (Indeed as many communities lose this tradition it is more important to record sites).

The reasons for this are unclear, but it maybe the affect of the Reformation and like in other counties can we assume many of these old holy wells were re-discovered as mineral springs and established as spas? Harte (2008) argues against this convincingly, but there are at least two sites which may have existed previously as holy wells; Clarborough and Westthorpe, Southwell. Although one could argue that these may have had a back developed origin as details are scant.

Another possible example is Retford’s Spa, although its pre-Spa history may be confusion with St. John’s Well at Clarborough.  Nottinghamshire does not appear to have developed a major spa like neighbouring Derbyshire, or even Lincolnshire. Spa names are applied to eight sites. Interesting, it would appear that using spa was a local word meaning medicinal waters however parochial in nature.  Indeed, the term was apparently still being used in the early 20th century in Langold. (One must be careful as there is a Spa Lane in Sutton in Ashfield but this is close to Leamington Street so is unlikely to preserve a site name.)  There are others which are mineral waters having apparently never being formally named but appear to have been exploited…….

To learn more about the healing and holy water history of the county read Holy wells and healing springs of Nottinghamshire

Top Ten Unusual Holy well locations

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.