Category Archives: Rivers
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.
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.
“O for a beaker full of the warm South Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene, With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, And purple-stained mouth; That I might drink, and leave the world unseen, And with thee fade away into the forest dim”
John Keats Ode to a Nightingale
Sacred springs were an integral part of Greek Mythology. Perhaps the most famous were the springs said to have arisen on Mount Helicon. Here overlooking the Valley of the Muses was a spring formed by the hoof of the Horse Pegasus (a theme which has transferred to Ann Boleyn’s Well in Carshalton). It is said that he hit the rock with such force that the spring arose as a result. This was called Hippocrene or Horse’s fountain. Being associated with the muses, (those providing poetical inspiration) drinking its water was supposed to induce that poetic inspiration. The poet Hesiod in his work, Theogeny refers to the spring in the late 7th century BC:
|“From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing,
Who hold the great and holy mount of Helicon,
And dance on soft feet about the deep-blue spring
And the altar of the almighty son of Cronos, and,
When they have washed their tender bodies in Permessus
Or in the Horse’s Spring or Olmeius,
Make their fair, lovely dances upon highest Helicon
And move with vigorous feet.”
Callimachus in his 3rd century BC Aitia follows in Hesiod’s footsteps and in the work, Tiresias finds the spring and Athena bathing with it and is blinded as a result. However, as a compensation he gains the ability to prophesize.
The Hippocrene spring is identified as a spring which still flows on the mountainside arising in a stone hollow. Also on the mountain was the spring where Narcissisus looked upon his own beauty but its location appears to have been lost.
Perhaps the second most famed spring is that found at the sacred landscape of Delphi. It too was thought to provide poetic inspiration. The Roman saw this as the location where Apollo killed the Python who guarded over the spring. This was the Castalian Spring. Pausanias stated that its name was derived from a local lady called Castalia, a daughter of the river Achelous
Interesting the site may have been a sanctuary associated to a local hero who vanquished the Persions, called Autonous according to Greek writer Herodotus which may have been a precursor to its association with Apollo .
However its greatest importance was to provide preparation for those visiting the famed Delphic Oracle. Here the priests would cleanse themselves before invoking the oracle, sprinkling it over the temple, and pilgrims according to Euripides Ion would prepare according to their background. For many just a wash of their hair would be enough, but murderers would have to completely cleansed! Pausanias Guide to Greece stated that the water had a delicious taste!
The spring was said to have arisen from two rocks called the Pheriads becoming a stream called Papaddia and joining the river Pleistos below Delphi. In the grounds of the ruined Delphi the Greek and Roman fountains fed by the springs survive. Water is delivered by s small aqueduct to the Greek fountain emptying through lion-headed spouts into a marble-line basin, nine by three metres, surrounded by benches. It dates from the 6th Century BCE. Interestingly, the Roman fountain from the 1st BC is found higher up from the original spring. It has niches carved into the rocks for the giving of votive offerings and it is interesting that it was later converted into a church of St. John the Baptist. Water reached the fountain by an aqueduct and seven bronze spouts on the fountain.
Interestingly, it is claimed in the English translation of Pausanias’s Guide to Greece by Peter Levi that the water was still bottled and secretly supplied for its magical healing properties!
Hot springs can be found across Greece, historically one of the most famed was the Thermopylae, hot sulphur springs. These were thought to be the Hot Gates and as such the entrance to Hades. The site was first associated with the cult of Demeter but later Greek myths associate him with Heracles. Here it is said to have jumped in of wash of the poison from the Hydra which had attached to his cloak. This is why the spring became hot and sulphurous. The springs still arise but no structure exists around them.
In Southwestern Greece is the Kaiafas Thermal Spring which have unlike the above been developed into a spa town. Arising in a natural cave at the foot of Mount Laphithas, historically, here the Angrides, cave dwelling nymphs were found and people would pray at the waters hoping to be relieved of leprosy, which the nymphs could cure. The waters which have a temperature around 340C are rich in sulphur compounds and are thought to be good for musculosketal diseases. In 1907 a spa facility was established outside the mouth of the cave which still provides healing support today.
Greece is a country whose ancient wells continue to provide spiritual and physical healing into the modern age.
Down a lane away from the village in quiet solitude is St Ethelbert’s church at Marden. It is a church associated with a saintly legend and a location of particular interest for anyone concerned in water lore; for two pieces of local legend are recorded both with familiar motifs. Perhaps the most familiar one is associated with the strange find in a carpeted room to the left of the entrance. Here sadly dry is St. Ethelbert’s Well. The earliest record is John Duncombe 1804 Collections for a History of Herefordshire
“At the west end of the nave, defended by circular stonework, is a well about ten inches in diameter, about four feet below the pavement of the church, aspring supposed to arise from the spot in which the body of Ethelbert was first interred…. This spring is said to have been held in great veneration from the circumstance of the water retaining its purity, when overflowed by the stream of the Lugg, however muddy or impure.”
Charles Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of Holy Wells also records:
“MARDEN: ST. ETHELBERT’S WELL. THERE is a well in the church of Marden, Herefordshire. It is near the west end of the nave, defended by circular stone-work, about ten inches in diameter, and enclosing a spring, supposed to arise from the spot in which the body of King Ethelbert was first interred, and is called St. Ethelbert’s Well (Notes and Queries, 3 S., viii. 235).”
Jonathan Sant in his 1994 The Healing Wells of Herefordshire notes:
“Formerly to be seen at the west end of the nave, St. Ethelbert’s Well has recently been swallowed up by an extended vestry where it can now be seen incongruously surrounded by carpeted floor. The octagonal stone well-top is apparently late Victorian but the square top within the shaft below is doubtless older. Needless to say, the table which has been built over it is very modern and prevents small children from falling down the well”
The well is much as Sant describes although there have been recent talks of an improvement to make a more appropriate structure although that could possibly ruin this strange well. He records water in it as well, it was dry when I examined it in April of this year.
What is particularly strange is that once the wooden lid is removed this is a deep shaft well. Very few holy wells are such deep shafts, the majority being shallow springheads. Perhaps this suggests that this could as Sant suggests provide pure water even when the river was in flood. Its depth may also suggest a great age indicating how the ground level has risen as the years have built up more sediment. The church guide suggests it had a healing tradition but I am unable to find their source, similarly they claim the well and church were a place of pilgrim, likely but again no written evidence. Current pilgrims have thrown coins in the well as can be seen.
The legend of St Ethelbert’ or Æthelberht’s Well
Overlooking the village of Marden are the scant remains of Sutton Walls now a tree covered hillfort. Here local tradition record was the royal vill or sort of temporary villa of the great Offa of Mercia the scene of the saint’s murder.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle he was captured whilst visiting his bride to be Ælfthyth. Richard of Cirencester records that Offa’s queen Cynethryth convinced Offa that Æthelberht should be killed, although there is no evidence why. Although it was likely political as Æthelberht was King of the Angles and Mercia had domination over East Anglia and would be keen to stop any possible claimant under control.
One legend tells that he sat upon a chair with no seat a trap door of sorts, the whole being covered by a cloth and that he fell down the hole, a deep pit, his head being removed to ensure that he was dead. Another tells how he was smothered in his bed clothes. All accounts record his beheading, but some say that this was done in Offa’s presence. The body being hastily buried with the head beside the river below.
Discovery of the body and formation of the well
The legend is told in a panel upon the 2008 shrine to the saint in Hereford Cathedral but it is absent in the first version of the story which is restricted to the shaft of light subsequent tellings have mentioned the spring.
Issues with the legend
Considering the well head’s location and the church’s remote location it is more than likely that the church was placed here because of the well. However, does this make the well date from St. Ethelbert? Although, one would not miss to pour water upon the county’s famed legend, there are concerns that it might.
Hagiographers will notice that the religious features his martyrdom closely resemble that associated with the legend of St. Kenelm. This is best summarised by Edith Rickert’s 1905 article The Old English Offa Saga. II in Modern Philology Vol. 2, No. 3:
“At this point, however, mention must be made of another legend, that of St. Kenelm, which shows a curious relationship to the story of Ethelbert. The resemblances are these: a) Each saint, by the ambition and malice of a wicked kinswoman, was treacherously lured to his death and beheaded.’ b) The murderess in each case perished miserably by super natural intervention.2 c) Each saint had divine foreknowledge of his death in a dream or vision in which a beautiful tree was cut down and he himself was turned into a bird and flew up a column of light to heaven.”
Overall it suggests perhaps that the St. Ethelbert legend was a transfer from St. Kenelm (or vica versa) but if it was a concoction why? The other legend that of the Mermaid may give us a suggestion why….but we can discuss this in a future post.
Cambridgeshire is not a county readily associated with holy wells, however my research for volume VIII in my series suggests that there are a number of little known sites. Frustratingly, there a number of attractive and curious streams in the county, especially in the chalk regions, but their names tell nothing – often being called simply – the spring head or numerically named such as Nine springs. One such Springhead has given us a bit more to go on, its alternative names – Robin Hood Dip or bizarrely Giant’s Grave are far more tantalising.
A peacefully evocative site sandwiched between two rather busy roads. A delightful place in spring when its surrounding cherry trees are rich in blossom. Very little is written down about the spring head except that in modern terms it was used as a water source for the village and as a laundry! However it is surrounding landscape and legends which perhaps provide a clue.
Who is the giant?
All that is known is that the giant was buried at the site and that he is thought to be Gogmagog, the name also applied to nearby hills. One of these hills, Wandlebury, is a hill fort to which a considerable amount of confused history, mystery and legend has been attached. What is interesting is that when folklorists collected stories of the giant (or giants as it really is Gog and Magog traditionally) it was noted that they were buried nearby but not where. This is along with a golden chariot at Fleam Dyke.
It is worth recording the legends of this hill fort. They were recorded as early as 1219 by One Gervase of Tilbury:
“Osbert, a bold and powerful baron, visited a noble family in the vicinity of Wandelbury, in the bishopric of Ely. Among other stories related in the social circle of his friends, who, according to custom, amused each other by repeating ancient tales and traditions, he was informed, that if any knight, unattended, entered an adjacent plain by moonlight, and challenged an adversary to appear, he would be immediately encountered by a spirit in the form of a knight. Osbert resolved to make the experiment, and set out, attended by a single squire, whom he ordered to remain without the limits of the plain, which was surrounded by an ancient entrenchment. On repeating the challenge, he was instantly assailed by an adversary, whom he quickly unhorsed, and seized the reins of his steed. During this operation, his ghostly opponent sprung up, and, darting his spear, like a javelin, at Osbert, wounded him in the thigh. Osbert returned in triumph with the horse, which he committed to the care of his servants. The horse was of a sable colour, as well as his whole accoutrements, and apparently of great beauty and vigour. He remained with his keeper till cockcrowing, when, with eyes flashing fire, he reared, spurned the ground, and vanished. On disarming himself, Osbert perceived that he was wounded, and that one of his steel boots was full of blood. Gervase adds, that as long as he lived, the scar of his wound opened afresh on the anniversary of the eve on which he encountered the spirit.”
Of course the Knight and the Giant may be unconnected entities. I shall return to the Knight in a moment, but the giant in more recent times has created more legends. In 1955 archaeologist TC Lethbridge intrigued by reports by various 17th and 18th century antiquarians. The first of these, John Layer (1586–1640) wrote that he thought on the hill was a hill figure on the hill was believed with the work of Cambridge undergraduates being cut with ‘within the trench of Wandlebury Camp’ as does William Cole (1714–82) noting the ‘the figure of a giant carved on the turf at Wandlebury’) and Dr Dale recording it ‘cut on the turf in middle camp’ in the 1720s. Bishop Joseph Hall:
“A Giant called All Paunch, who was of an incredible Height of Body, not like him whose Picture the Schollers of Cambridge goe to see at Hogmagog Hills, but rather like him that ought the two Aple Teeth which were digged out of a well in Cambridge, that were little less than a man’s head. When I was a boy, about 1724, I remember my father or mother as it happened I went with one or other of them to Cambridge……always used to stop and show me and my brother and sisters the figure of the giant carved on the Turf; concerning whom there were then many traditions, now worn away. What became of the two said teeth I never hear.”
Lethbridge using rather unusual archaeological methods apparently revealed this figure, or as it turned out figures and although his work was criticised, traces of his giants remain and his theories have relevance to Cherry Hinton’s spring head. Does the name of the camp remember Wandle, an ancient God or Woden, a deity often associated with water?
Or does as the Cherry Hinton Chronicle of 1854 records in 1854 the discovery of Iron Age burials unearthed locally on Lime Kiln Hill whose the skeletons were unusually tall gave rise to the legend!?
The Footprint stone
Across the road from the spring head at the Robin Hood and Little John Inn is a curious stone. Rather unceremoniously placed by the car park the large round stone looks like a glacial erratic and clearly left there or placed there at some time. But why? A closer inspection reveals it to be hollowed out and the hollow is like a footprint or more like a shoe, around a size 11 as it fits my shoe well!
Carved foot print stones are widespread, often associated with prehistoric burial chambers as far afield as the Calderstone at Liverpool to a burial chamber Petit-Mont Arzon in Brittany, France. The Romans too carved such footprint stones inscribing them with pro itu et reditu, translating as‘for the journey and return’, the tradition would be to place one’s feet before and then after the journey as a good luck. Footprint stone and wells are not infrequently met. There are two in Kent for example, St Mildred’s or St. Augustine’s stone near Sandwich (now lost) and the Devil’s footprint at Newington once associated with a barrow (now lost). So there might be some precedence?
Does the Knight story have relevance here? Does the stone record an ancient ritual of kinship, that knight with his challenge record? There are Celtic and Pictish traditions of kingship or installation stones. These would work in the equivalent way as placing crowns on a King, by placing their feet in the holes would mean they had taken over the tribe and such places survive on the Isle of Man and Scotland (for more information refer to Janet Bord’s Footprints in Stone (2004)
Of course the hollow could have a much simpler explanation. It could have been made as a socket for a cross. However, here we have another interesting possibility, such holed stones called bulluans are associated with holy wells, and although none exist in Cambridgeshire it is tantalising that this could have been one.
Robin Hood in Cambridgeshire?
The alternative name, Robin Hood Dip is one which creates the most curiosity. There is no record of the folk hero in Cambridge, as far as I am aware, and this is well beyond Sherwood Forest! Taking to one side the possibility that it’s a site which achieves its name from story-telling about the folk hero’s exploits, explaining its name appears at first difficult. However, folklorists will have another explanation. Robin Hood is a commonly met name for an elemental, a fairy folk or spirit and what is more interesting he is often associated with springs and water places. See this article for more of an overview. Why is this name associated with springs? I have made various suggestions. Firstly, the associated with a sprite may discourage use – i.e a warning off children and secondly it may record an earlier cult presence. Perhaps the Giant and Robin Hood are the same folk memory of a deity which was celebrated at this spring. The name Thirs interesting is also associated with springs and water holes and this is Saxon word meaning possibly ‘giant’!
The Roman connection may also give support to this idea. It is known that the river Rhee, arising at Ashwell was associated with Roman shrines and a deity called Seunna. Was Granta a Roman deity? Is there an unwritten story which connects Granta and Woden which would explain the grave?
Piecing it all together
So what do all these different facets bring to the site at Cherry Hinton? The legend of Wandlebury is rather lacking of any location for a grave and its fairly obvious perhaps that the name is derived from the large grave shape size of the springhead. But does this remember a folk memory of it being dug? Or does it remember the presence of large bodies in prehistoric graves? The interesting point is that the island is called the grave according to local tradition. Did this mark a barrow?
Nearby on the Fulbourne Road were found three Bronze Age ring-ditches and Neolithic flint artefacts and Early Bronze Age pottery were found in the locality suggesting a long period of history. As well the Iron Age material earlier. It is very likely they settled here for the water supply and it is very likely it was culted.
What of the stone? Is it coincidentally located near the springhead or does it remember practices at the well? Is it a Kingship stone, a receptacle for healing water or a simple cross base?
There appears to be a considerable amount of unknown history to this simple, but picturesque, spring head and whilst we must always be wary of neo-pagan exaggerations, it does seem plausible that this is a long lost sacred spring. Sacred to the Saxons, Sacred to the Romans and perhaps long before this!
Read more of Cambridgeshire water lore in
Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Cambridgeshire.
Boughton is a curious place, a place of desolation and decline…it’s ancient parish church lies ruined, now a distance from its settlement, its famed fair forgotten, its great Hall gone and its estate overgrown and little visited. It is a settlement which is associated with a number of noted ancient wells –two of which can be visited and one as yet mysteriously untraceable.
The easier to find is that at the ruined church of St John’s. Called St John’s Well it lies in its shadow creating a picturesque scene of forlornness. Despite a supposed medieval origin, the church is first recorded in the 13th century, its first mention is by Baker (1822–30) in his History of Northamptonshire:
“St John the Baptist, whose name is appended both to the church and the spring in the church yard.”
In William Whellan’s 1849 History of Northamptonshire states:
“St John’s spring which rises from the east bank of the church yard formerly furnished the element for the holy rite of baptism, but now supplies the water for culinary purposes at the fair’”
This fair was what the settlement was famed for. Being a three-day chartered event being established in 1351. It was focused around the feast of St John the Baptist suggesting it was based on the patronal festival of the now ruined church. Nothing is left of the fair, its last vestige, the Shepherd’s Race turf maze cut on a triangular piece of church overlooked by the church, survived to the first world war when practice trenches were cut across it, obliterating in once and for all, although some accounts suggest it survived until 1946.
Beeby Thompson (1913–14) in his Peculiarities of Water and wells describes it as:
“enclosed on all sides but one by stone local sandstone apparently like the main portion of the church the opening to the east being approximately one yard square. The covering slab had on it a cross fleury.”
This covering slab I have never been able to find, perhaps the earth has built up too much since, yet it was pleasing to see that on a recent visit the site had even improved since my first in the 1980s, when the nettles and bramble were virtually enclosed upon it and the church. This was certainly the experience of Mark Valentine who in his 1985 Holy Wells of Northamptonshire noted:
“When I last visited this site, the Spring trickled into a ditch which was chocked up with abandoned refuse. With a little imagination, this spot could be the scene of a wayside park, with appropriate displays to recall its past glories. As it is, it remains tumbledown and forlorn.”
Perhaps they heeded his word? Now the grass it kept short and the water flows quite freely the outflow protected by a curb of stones. While it is not exactly a country park, there are information boards and it is more cared for. Yet despite the tidy up there’s still a rather otherworldy feel when one peers inside the chamber and the place does have an unquiet feeling – perhaps because of the ghost of Captain Slash! (but that is another story)
Even more otherworldly is the Grotto Well or Petrifying Spring, a spring which arises within a simple Grade II listed Grotto in the estate of Boughton Hall. Although grotto is perhaps a rather too enticing name for what is basically a limestone rubble hemisphere beneath an earth mound and consisting of unadorned stone walls. The whole structure interestingly seems devoid of cement or mortar. It was constructed by William Wentworth, the second Earl of Stratford around 1770. The spring itself being the supply for his artificial lake which lay at the bottom of the valley.
However he could have improved upon an earlier structure for a local A local legend tells that when Charles I was imprisoned at nearby Holdenby House in 1647 he visited the spring. He is said to have bathed in it and used the grotto as a changing room. This suggests that there was a structure predating the 1770s one ascribed to it. Indeed this association may have started when the King was sent a skull said to have been petrified in the waters of the well. The Northamptonshire Mercury of 25th August 1810 records:
“At Boughton is a spring, conceived to turn wood into stone. The truth is that it doth encrust anything with stone. I’ve seen a skull bought thence to Sydney Sussex College in Cambridge, candied over with stone…The skull was sent for by King Charles the First to satisfy his curiosity and again returned to the college.”
Although it was indeed loaned to Charles I and according to a letter written by the college to the author Simon Scott to The Follies of Boughton Park it still survives. It is housed in a wooden box dated 1627. However before head cult theorists get too excited the origins of the skull are dubious. The skull of what appears to be a child’s, are Cretian not Northamptonshire! Was it a hoax to support a project to advertise the well or a simple mistake. Is it the correct skull? Is the association with Charles correct or is it a confusion with the bathing legend. All in all it is a confused story.
Charles Kimbell in 1946 in the Boughton Parish magazine wrote that:
“The spring cascaded into a gloomy pond whose waters were black through layers of decomposing leafage…about 50 years ago my father made a water pit under the archway and piped the stream out of the little wood and down the valley. And so the petrifying spring was incorporated into the village xx system without apparently any ill effects on consumers.”
Our third and final peculiar water source, to quote Beeby’s phrase, was the Marvel-Sick. The account by topographer John Morton (1712) Natural history of Northamptonshire recording:
“THIS spring is in Boughton Field, near Brampton Bridge, near the Kingsthorpe Road; it is of great note with the common people. It never runs but in mighty gluts of wet, and whenever it does so, it is thought ominous by the country people, who consider these breakings out of the spring to foretell dearth, the death of some great person, or very troublesome times.”
This is a common folk motif based on geology, a woe water, the name sick referring to an old English word for stream still current in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire place names. Where was this stream? It is impossible to say with any certainty however Brampton Bridge to the west can still be found and the road which crosses it does go to Kingsthorpe. No spring is marked on the map but there area does have a number of streams. Is this one? Of course in a way this a spring we don’t want to find, warn as it does of war…another word of warning should you go looking for Boughton’s surviving springs don’t go in high summer…as your journey to find the grotto well will involve a considerable fight against the undergrowth.
Folly estates are often a good place to find substantial holy wells and sacred sites and to north-west of Stourhead Gardens splendid Stourhead Estate, a National Trust property, is a splendid example – St. Peter’s Pump. However, yet like many such sites, the origins and names are confusing to explain. The well head, unlike some sites, is very easy to find being a high medieval cross sitting slightly incongruously upon a rubble grotto where the spring, now dry, arose. A strange hotchpotch
The well, is one of supposedly six, giving the site the official name of Six Wells. The earliest reference, is before the folly was John Leland in the 16th century noted:
“ther of 6 fountaines or springes, whereof 3 be on the northe side of the parke harde withyn the pale.”
He also noted that Lord Stourton, a family name of great antiquity has six fountains on his coat of arms. Such sources of great rivers often attract folklore, although none appear surprisingly to be holy wells. The name Six Wells first appears in 1822.
King Alfred’s holy well?
The origin of the springs is said to owe itself to King Alfred the Great, the great Anglo-Saxon King. In her 1932 book, Moonraking a little book of Wiltshire stories, Edith Oliver tells us
“It is said, when tired from fighting with the Danes, King Alfred and his soldiers prayed for water, and up came six wells or springs. If the legend is true, if this is not a holy well, surely a heaven-sent one.”
Indeed, I have argued how royal wells were often seen as sacred and considering Alfred’s standing it seems likely these were. However, his name appears never to have been associated with the well. The king is remembered in a substantial folly tower not far from the springs, but his absence here is quite surprising?
Why St. Peter?
Where the name St. Peter’s Pump comes from is at first unclear. There is a record according to Gover, Mawer and Stenton’s 1939 Place Names of Wiltshire of a Peterswells in 1279 somewhere in Wiltshire, was it here? The name St. Peter is in itself rarely associated with British Holy Wells. To add to the confusion, the site is also called St. Agnes Pump, the reason being that it derives from the origin of the medieval cross which tops the grotto structure. The present structure was built by Henry Hoare in 1786.
The moving cross
The cross was originally a pump, which has six square posts with moulded cappings to six ogee- arched openings each with cherubs over each, then there are six niches with semi-circular heads above each containing a seated figure with hexagonal moulded pillar and narrower shaft to top. Interestingly a date 1768 is incised on east side of pillar. An odd date for a medieval cross said to be 14th century, so why?
The reason why the date of 1768 is incised on the pump is because it was moved. The pump head originally sat over St. Edith’s Well, in the City of Bristol. It once stood at the junction of Peter Street and Dolphin Street in Bristol for 300 years and provided water for the city. Then in a strange form of forward thinking beneficial vandalism, it was dismantled under an 1766 Act of Parliament, which looked to improve transport in Bristol and placed upon a purposely made grotto. The well itself was also moved. It may seem strange that I view this as beneficial, but the exact spot of the cross was hit by a bomb in the Second World War, which caused the nearby church to be ruined and would have destroyed the cross. The well according to Phil Quinn’s 1999 Holy wells of Bristol and Bath Region:
“Today both the old and new wells lie under the flagstones of Castle Park, the site of the old St. Edith’s Well being marked by a slab laid upside down and of a lighter colour than its neighbours.”
Quinn states that the Bristol well was called St Peter when it was repaired in the 15th century after the church nearby…the Peterswell in Wiltshire would appear to be a red herring! The name originating when in 1546 pumping mechanisms were established subsequently being recorded as Saynt Peter’s plumpe. So mystery solved.
Another reason for the 17th century date is to explain the difference between the original cross in Bristol and its appearance now. What is above the niches is 18th century as the top of the cross is lost. Was it broken in transit? Vandalised in the 18th century? Or too Catholic?
So all in all a curious hotchpotch of history, much like the structure itself.
March is a time when the Trent Aegir is at its strongest with the High Spring tides with heights ranging from 8 feet to 13 feet. However in 2013, July and August have the highest predicted Aegir and much of its impact has been reduced by dredging. Brown’s (1874) Notes about Notts describes it as:
“Near the mouth of the Trent at spring-tides the influx of sea water causes that of the river to mount up into a tidal wave six or eight feet high which rolls on its onward course between the confined banks in a remarkable manner. Boatman call it the Eagre, and woe betide the craft that upon such occasion has not a man standing by to pay out a sufficient of cable.”
Firth’s (1915) Highways and Byways of Nottinghamshire notes:
“At Littleborough if you have good fortune, you may see the Aegir. This is the bore, or wall of water, which rushes up the Trent during the spring tides, followed by a series of waves known as the ‘Whelps’. It is caused by the tide moving up the Humber to the mouth of the Trent where they are met by the big volume of water coming down. A wall rises and flows rapidly up the river, sweeping round the bends with great speed and with a curious rippling sound. Sometimes the wall of water is six feet high, and it brings disaster to any boats which it catches unprepared. George Elliott speaks of the Aegir and the floods in the Mill on the Floss, for the Floss is the Trent.”
Swinnerton’s (1910) Nottinghamshire History notes:
“The influence of the spring tide is felt as far as Sutton, but for some miles above Stockwith it is shown as remarkable bore.”
Sadly although West and East Stockwith is still a good place to see it, weirs to the north of Newark and dredging beyond means that locations such as Littleborough are no longer good view points.
Origin of the name
Marsden’s Lincolnshire stated that it derived from a Norse god of the sea, Kaye in Lincolnshire and South Humberside, suggests that it took its name from ‘Oegir the Terrible’ a Danish god and significantly refers to St. Oggs in the Gainsborough area. It could itself also mean Og suggests it is the same as the sea-giant Hlér, who lives on the isle of href. Aegir is said to be the brother of Logi (fire), Kari (wind) and his wife a sea goddess”Rán”Their children were nine billow maidens who were Unnr (or Uðr, wave), Bára (or Dröfn, wave), Blóðughadda (bloody sea), Bylgja (large wave), Dúfa (the pitching wave), Hefring (the surging wave), Himinglæva (reflecting) Hrönn (the grasping wave) and Kólga (cold wave) doubtless waves which may have gone up the Trent.
A sacrifice to appease the god
The suggestion of an origin from a pre-Christian god, is indicated by the fact that sacrifices were given to the Aegir. This is recorded by Sutton in her Lincolnshire Calendar. Animal sacrifice was according to Sutton (1996) to be celebrated in the Gainsborough area within living memory:
“It was said that the river Trent was a greedy river and would take seven lives a year, so in March when many of the lambs were born a farmer would sacrifice to the river a cade or weak lamb. He believed that by his action a human life would be saved.”
Latter perhaps the giving of a coin was good enough:
“It was the custom to throw a coin into the Aegir to appease the anger of the flow. A number of people believed that the more money the less angry it became.”
From Gainsborough in the 1920s:
“When I was a boy it was the custom to throw a piece of silver into the Trent during the Aegir at the high spring tide and the autumn tide (the equinox). The piece of silver was a toll fee to prevent you from drowning in the Trent. I’ve done it a few time myself as a bot; the silver was a silver three-penny bit, or a tanner (6d). I was once out on the river in a cob-boat diring an Aegir and was lifted very high on the tidal wave. It was very scary at the time but being a kid I didn’t realise just how lucky I was to get away with it. The Aegir always dumped plenty of mud along the river bank and when the mud dried out it was like Fuller’s Earth, a kind of fine powder. It was custom for local mothers to gather this mud for babies’ nappy rash: it was very effective for a sore bottom.”
The Aegir and King Cnut
Another legend is that whilst Gainsborough castle, now covered by Gainsborough Old Hall, King Cnut annoyed by the flattery heaped upon by his courtiers asked to be carried down to the sea in his throne. It is thought that the Aegir was what he was trying to repel. He was of course unsuccessful, noting:
“Let all the world know that the power of monarchs is vain…no one deserves the name of King but He whose Will the Heavens, Earth and Sea obey.”
Other Trent traditions
It was at some point believed to be lucky to cross the river by boat and it conferred healing in some cases, this as may explain why the ferryman across the Trent received a very warm welcome at Clifton, where every Christmas he received a free meal and hospitality on the Parish. The family at North Clifton were famously said to be haunted by a great fish which appeared in the river as a harbinger of doom for one of its members. Notes on it suggest it was a considerable sized surgeon.
Similarly 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.
The Trent is still a mysterious and foreboding river, much of its route quiet and remote…that is until the sound of the tidal wave appears.