Scarborough is well known for its impressive seafront which typifies the Victorian sea bathing craze and one of the notable buildings in this vista is the Spa. The delightful building, now a concert venue, has rather obscured the real spa location which surprisingly survives not far away from it.
The spring was discovered, as often happens, by accident by a Mrs Farrer, whose husband was one time, Bailiff of Scarborough, in 1626 discovered some springs at the south of Scarborough beneath the cliffs. Tasting it she noticed that it tasted bitter and that the rocks were stained a reddish brown and recognising such waters as being healing she told friends after finding the water had made her feel better.
It soon received attention of those interested in such springs and in the book Scarbrough Spaw, or, A description of the nature and vertues of the spaw at Scarbrough in Yorkshire. Also a treatise of the nature and use of water in general, and the several sorts thereof, as sea, rain, snow, pond, lake, spring, and river water, with the original causes and qualities. Where more largely the controversie among learned writers about the original of springs, is discussed. To which is added, a short discourse concerning mineral waters, especially that of the spaw by Robert Wittie in around 1660. His analysis showed that the water was rich in Magnesium sulphate. He stated that
“some above an hundred miles to drink of it, preferring it before all other medicinal waters they had formerly frequented. Nay, I have met with some that had been at the Germane Spaws, … who prefer this for its speedy passage both by seige and urine before them.”
Being a local man who said he had twenty years knowledge personally and from others of the spring and perhaps in cahoots with local hotels he suggested:
“I think it much better if a disease be rebellious, that the Patient after a continuance at the Spaw a month or five weeks, do leave off the waters a while, and return to his ordinary Diet and state of living, and then after such respite given to nature, apply himself to the waters again.”
Thus, he suggested the development of the Summer season: mid-May to mid-September. Soon people came and by 1700 the first Spa House was built on or near the spring. It was only a wood hut where the dipper would stay and sell and display waters. However, water was also bottled and sold further away. The town appointed a governor of the spa and it believed that Dickie Dickinson was appointed the first one. His role was to oversee money collection and keeping law and order. Unfortunately in 1737 a landslip destroyed it and lost the springs. But in 1739 a new source was established and a new saloon with sea views and steps up to the wells were established. Thus the spa’s popularity continued. Disaster struck again in 1836 and the spa was rebuilt in a more extravagant style with famed Victorian architect Joseph Paxton designing concert hall. By the later ends of the 1800s, less people visited the spa and the main draw was sea bathing, the Spa pavilion survived as it does today ad a major venue as it does today…and the spring fell into obscurity.
The spring today is found beside the steps down to the beach. In fact there appear to be two spring heads one in the middle and another on the beach level. The one in the middle of steps arises in a brick arch and arises from the mouth of a rather fine small carved head with a pipe inserted in its mouth. There is just a perceivable flow, and the brickwork is stained around it. There are two plaques, the first one guides the curious down, reads:
The second one reads:
The spring head further down I assume is the overflow outflow and/or used for animals. A plaque on this simply reads: ‘not fit for drinking.’ Sadly, like many spa waters this is the modern way and it always seems a shame that this is the end for such spas which brought hundreds flocking to see their waters…!
If you are in Barcelona or anywhere in the Costa Brava or Dorado and are looking for a curious place off the beaten track which has that real Catalonian feel and have an interest in healing springs Caldes de Malavela is a must. It is a town which has been attracting seekers of healing waters since the Roman times and is still a major spa town with waters rich in in sodium chloride and sodium bicarbonate and are thermal arising at around 60°C,
In the middle of the 1st century B.C., the Roman settled in the area and constructed the baths. Being located close to the Via Augusta and many would have stopped here for the hot water and thus a Roman town developed. It was in 1897-1902 that archaeologists revealed the remains of the baths. The complex was a simple one, being composed of a central pool surrounded by rooms given over to curative treatments. It was believed to be a simple building, lacking any detail and had a ten metre rectangular swimming pool with changing rooms and massage rooms.. The water itself was delivered to the baths via an aqueduct from Ànimes hill although there is no sign of water in the site now one can see how it flowed. through.
“Sacred water spring The central room in the east wing is one of the most important spaces in the thermae due to the presence, in Roman times, of the thermal water spring that was the raison d’étre of the site. The water emerged from the lower part of the east wall, at the north end, from where it was channelled diagonally into a small square regulator controlling the flow into the pipe that supplied the natatio. The curative and therapeutic properties of the water made this room a sacellum (small sacred space). On the north wall, we can still see the remains of a small altar flanked by two affixed pilasters, which must have housed one or several images of healing divinities. These most likely included Apollo, whose cult has been documented in Caldes from inscriptions found in the locality. A bench on the south wall provided seating for visiting devotees. Furthermore, this was the only room in the whole thermae enclosure where the walls were stuccoed and decorated with polychrome paintings. Later on, but still in the Roman era, several alterations were made to this room; these mainly consisted of walling up the three accesses from the ambulacrum, and adding a small piscina or water deposit in its interior. The altar was no longer used. The spring and the regulator, however, continued to operate as before. In the medieval period, all these structures were “buried” under two new small pools. The water supply now emerged from a different point located one metre higher on the same wall; the pools were drained through a hole in the south wall leading to the adjacent room, which gradually became covered in calcareous concretion.
By the end of the 4th Century the site being developed as a castle and then converted into a hospital for the poor.
A lost pagan cult?
What’s in a name? Caldes translates in Catalan as hot mineral spring. This enables non-Catalan speakers to identify spas in the area. The general agreed name of the Roman site was thus Aquae Calidae although some have called it Aquis Voconis. Its modern name Caldes de Malavella is interesting. This second part of the name – “de Malavella” – comes from a local legend, of a local “bad old woman” who lived in the now-ruined castle just outside town. Thus “Malavella” in Catalan comes from two words: mala (bad) and vella (old woman). Thus “The Thermal Springs of the Old evil one”! The story dates back to 1057 which may suggest it has an ancient pagan origin? Was it an attempt for the Christians to demonise the focus of a local cult. Quite often of course, springs are associated with female deities, and it is interesting to consider the Scottish tradition which one assumes descends from the Celtic tradition where there is of course the Old Hag or Cailleachan. This might at first be irrelevant but is worth considering that this region was settled by the Celts too in 1000 – 300 BC in two migratory waves: 900 BC and 700 – 600 BC. It seems likely that this does such record a Celtic or even Roman tradition. Mind you if the intention was to demonise the deity has not really worked as the Evil Old one is everywhere and whilst I was there I was privileged to see a parade of Giants, where she featured prominently.
Taking the waters today
All around the town can be found three natural hot mineral-medicinal fountains: La Mina or Raig d’en Mel, Sant Narcís and Bullidors. In some cases such as La Mina these waters were utilised for safareigs or municipal cloth washing areas and indeed I was informed at the museum that people still use them although generally it was around the 1960s that they generally fell out of favour. However, the Font Raig d’en Mel arises at the base of a large wall of rubble and feeds quite modern looking washing areas.
Around the town there are other springheads/wells- Font de Bullidors of the kettles and Font des Saint Narcis. Both well preserved in a modern setting, although the former is dry. Both lie close to the baths so presumably their source. The later well appears to be a holy well named after the patron saint of Girona. On the subject of holy wells, there is also an unnamed and unheralded well under the church, which surely is something significant but not mentioned in the town maps or guides. There is also the modernist font of Font de la Vac and associated music room and conduit.
The use of the water for medicinal purposes it appears that this did not start to happen until 19th. Three spring sites were tapped: El Puig de Sant Grau (utilising four springs), El Puig de les Ànimes (three springs), and El Puig de les Moleres (two springs). Spas were developing elsewhere and what with its close proximity and easy reaching from Barcelona, it was perfectly situated for the wealthy to visit and those expensive villas and chalets were constructed. The springs themselves were enclosed within splendid spa buildings which provided then and now various hydrothermal therapies and treatments.
In the 1800s, the water was bottled commercially with three brands coming from the town: San Narciso (since 1870), Vichy Catalan (1891) and Agua Malavella, formed by a merger of two companies after the Spanish Civil War and later acquired by Vichy Catalan in 1985. Of the spa the first of these modern spa was built in 1840 and is called Balneari Prats. Here one enters an archway boldly exclaiming the name and there is a large pool and to the side a small white19th century building which is the spring house. Here the spring flows from a wall mounted spring head and can be sampled
Then in 1898, Vichy Catalan was established. This is a far more august and spectacular building done in a classic Spanish art nuovo style, much of the building is private treatment rooms but there is also a chapel. The spring arises in a wall mounted spring head surrounded by an ankh shaped surround. The water appears more iron rich from this spring.
The town is a delightful one full of interest and their spa heritage is well looked after and describe I cannot recommend it enough.
Being a noted aged town Stamford claims its fair share of ancient wells. A number of wells appear to share dedications with a nearby church and so it is unclear whether the names were obtained as a consequence of their proximity, all have been lost.. A map of the town by John Speed, 1611 features ‘S.Peter’s Well and S. Maryes Well. Butcher’ 1647 Survey and Antiquitie of the Towne of Stamford however is the main source who notes three wells: St.George’s Well, St. Clement’s Well and All Hallowes Well. There is a St. John’s Well associated with St. John’s Church.
More is noted of St. Thomas’s Well, of which Francis Peck in his 1727 History of Stanford repeats a story, originally told to him by his father, about Samuel Wallace, a crippled shoemaker of Stamford. Wallace was instructed on how to cure his sickness by a strange old man who mysteriously came and went on Whitsunday 1659, and who refused an offer of food, saying:
‘that he almost never drank anything but water, and that the water he drank was sometimes the water of St. Thomas’s well. That well, said my father, was the well you know in such a place. I heard him describe the place, but being then very young, can only remember it was somewhere without Stanford on the east, not far from the Uffington road. I have since enquired of several persons, but they can none of them tell of any such well’.
A church in Stamford was dedicated to St Thomas. There are springs found at TF 054 072, TF 054 072 and TF 058 071 along the footpath and disused Welland canal so one of these could be the likely contender.
Stamford’s Spa or Iron Well (TF 018 060) is a delightful and little known survival, so named because of its chalybeate waters. It was according to Thompson (1914) an open spring until 1864 when the Mayor of Stamford covered it with its present structure which is grade II listed. This is a circular stone onion shaped cupola about four feet high and sixteen feet round, which has on it the inscription ‘John Paradise Esquire Mayor 1864.’
Beeby Thompson’s 1914 Peculiarities of springs and wells of Northamptonshire notes that the spring was beneficial for skin diseases and eye problems and people used to fetch water to use in their houses, but today appears little regarded. Mrs Gutch and Mabel Peacock, Examples of printed folklore concerning Lincolnshire, Folklore Society, County Folklore Vol V, 1908 state:
“Tradition recounts that a religious house inhabited by pious women once stood near this holy well, and that its waters then had the power of restoring sight to the blind. It is still a wishing well. You wish, and drop a pin into it.”
It is curious that they call it a holy well so it maybe they are describing one of the former sites especially as it is called the Spa on old maps. Interestingly, Bath house can be found not far from the Iron Well with its name painted on the front wall. Built in 1923 it is Gothic building of two storeys with two pinnacles and central carved pinnacles and gothic glazed windows in chamfered reveals. Although now a private residence it apparently still retains its baths apparently, but I was unable to ascertain this. Incidentally there is another Bath house in Burleigh Park although this is strictly speaking in Northamptonshire and beyond this volume. Burleigh Park also boasted a chalybeate spring or Spa. Thomas Short’s 1734 Short The Natural Experimental, and Medicinal History of the Mineral Waters of Derbyshire, Lincolnshire, and Yorkshire, only makes passing note of it stating that it was a ‘product of iron stone’ and Thompson (1914) found no one in the locale who could verify a location and maybe it is linked to the above.
Various references in the 14th century note a Sevenwells which is perhaps significant. It was granted to the nuns of St. Michael but details are not forthcoming where it was.
Last month we discussed Jafre’s holy well but there at least two other healing springs in the locality. The most peculiar is The Pou de Goiges or Goges or Well of Joys or Well of the witches. The well takes one of its names from the folklore that supernatural feminine beings live in the spring, hiding during the day and appearing at night dancing and screaming – which certainly seems eerie!
Indeed the well is rather eerie. It is enclosed in a concrete small house which was built in 1985 as a place for people to have a picnic and there is a picnic table outside. However, I do not feel this still happens as the site has a derelict and rather abused feel, parts are boarded up and debris and foliage is encroaching. Inside rather graffiti filled and it certainly does not appear to me a place for family picnics.
The spring itself, which was donated to the town as a public resource by the landowner. The spring arises in a stone and concrete lined deep pool, where people used to immerse themselves in and may still do so but by the look of the algae and debris its left to those elemental creatures I feel now. Not sure what joy could be received at the site today though!
Not far away is a better looked after site, the hot water well or ‘oil well’; a fairly recent establishment being opened by an Italian company called SISPA whilst they looked for oil in the 60s. When the company reached a depth of 1000 meters they hit hot, sulphurous water. This was at first covered but the pressure repeatedly shattered this cover. So the spout remained permanently open and soon word got around that the water was sulphurous and people came to use it identifying the water as being good for bone diseases such as osteoarthritis or decalcification.
Thus, the base of the drilling tower was thus turned into a small pool of five or six square meters. A decree of the Generalitat recognized the site as having mineral-medicinal potential signifying its role with some bone, rheumatic and arthritic pathologies.
On my visit I first noticed the smell of sulphur which lead me first to the spout and then to the orangey pool. It did not look very enticing and although no one was around it was clear that people did use it. Steps were inserted to one side and a small spent tea light was on the side.
Despite the availability of free mineral water it is clear that commercial enterprises have attempted to utilise it. A company once tried to use to cultivate of algae for medicinal purposes. They failed. However, the same company in 2005, that owns the land still plans to commercially exploit the place and build a spa with complementary facilities. Whether there will be any free access is unlikely and so this rather odd site may be lost to a generic spa!
There were a number of attempts to capitalise on the fame of Tunbridge wells perhaps the most curious was Adam’s Well. The earliest reference to the site is found in Thomas Burr’s (1766) History of Tunbridge Wells:
“on forest a little beyond the Rocks, a spring of water was discovered, which was palled in and called Adam’s well. For what particular reason this spring was taken such notice of, it is not now very easy to determine.”
Burr (1766) perhaps implies that the well was discovered within living memory, and its fame being established before that of Tunbridge. However, Alan Savidge in his 1995 Royal Tunbridge wells stated that it ‘enjoyed local repute’ long before the arrival of the Tunbridge spa.
Richard Onely’s 1771 General guide to Tunbridge wells stated that it was:
“very lately a medicinal water, called Adam’s Wells has been inclosed and made convenient for the remedy of scorbutic cases, and cutaneous eruptions; and which, from its well known and tried quantities, it is thought may answer in many cases, as well as sea water.”
Jasper Spange’s 1780 Tunbridge wells guide makes a small note of it.
“ADAM’S WELL which is a pure limped spring of a most soft pleasant drinking water issuing from a very high hill in a small farm in the parish of Speldhurst.”
Interestingly he adds:
“Those ingenious practitioners in physic the celebrated Doctors Pellet Shaw Lamont Blanchard & c always recommended it as fine drinking water and made use of it themselves for that purpose the last of whom has been overheard to declare to Mr Sprange Bookseller & c in his shop that there was no better drinking water in the neighbourhood”
Thus suggesting there was some attempt to promote the spring In John Russell Smith’s 1837 Bibliotheca Cantiana he states:
“SPELDHURST Adam’s Well at Speldhurst being as circumstantial a History of its Original and the cause of its present improvements the high esteem it has always been held in as a drinking Water and its salutary effects in the various Cases and Disorders herein described and attested as can at present be produced 12mo pp 29 London 1780”
John Evans in 1821 Recreation for the Young and the Old records:
“Adam’s Well distinguished for its transparency is in the vicinity.”
Alan MacKinnon (1934) in his History of Speldhurst, perhaps drawing upon an earlier source as well as describing it in greater detail, clearly indicates it origins as a holy well, in the use of the words holy water below:
“Adam’s Well is situated in this Manor, it was famous long before the Tunbridge Wells waters were discovered, and issue from high ground at Langton. In much repute in ancient times, it is impregnated with no mineral, saline, nitrous or earthy matter, whatever, it is quite free of sediment, and was called in old times a ‘holy water.’ In 1765, the owner of this well, on digging into the rock to enlarge the pool or bath came upon an ancient stone arch, whose date could but mere matter of conjecture. This arch can be seen at the present day.”
Combined with the traces of medieval stonework, the medieval origin is supported by its name: Adam, being taken from a local fourteenth century landowner, John Adam. Fortunately, Adam’s Well still exists, much as MacKinnon (1934) describes, now enclosed in the private grounds of Adam’s Well House: a bungalow, built in the nineteenth century, after a bout of vandalism, to house a caretaker for the well. The well itself arises in a shallow, square brick-lined chamber. Enclosing this is a large stone alcove, built to allow a sheltered access to the well during inclement weather. The back wall of this shelter is of a crude nature, indicating that it may indeed be of considerable age. A stone set in its arch notes: ‘ADAMS WELL 1868.’
This date presumably refers to when the well was repaired, and the house built. In front of this is a much larger and deeper rectangular stone chamber. I was informed by the then owner in the mid-1990s, Mrs Wolf, that dogs and horses were washed within this. Over this chamber is an iron grill with the letters ‘AW’ in its centre. Mrs Wolf also told me that the quality of the water was so good that it was bottled and stored on ships for long periods. Much of the popularity of the water came from the fact that it lay along the busy old road from Peacehaven to London.
Burr (1766) implies that its powers, to cure human ailments, were largely forgotten and:
“…at present it is only famous for the cure of mangy dogs, in which case it is esteemed an infallible remedy.”
Yet, John Britton (1836) in the Descriptive sketches of Tunbridge Wells and the Calverley estate; with brief notices of the picturesque scenery, seats, and antiquities in the vicinity describes it as being noted for:
“its transparency of its waters, and for its efficacy in some cutaneous disorders.”
Recent analysis showed that the water contains copper, which perhaps explains its lower popularity compared to Tunbridge, as copper salts were not as efficacious as iron salts. This is supported by Mrs. Wolf who noted that it had not cured her rheumatism!
Extracted from Holy wells and healing springs of Kent
Huntingdonshire attempted a number of spas none really established itself beyond the region and have been largely forgotten, although Hail Weston came the closest. Somersham is a small market town which boasted such a locally well know mineral water which was enabled the town to be developed into a small spa. Local tradition suggests that the water was known and exploited by the Romans and that the medieval Bishops utilised it and brewed beer but I fear there is little to no evidence of this tradition and is purely wishful thinking.
The land were the springs lay was once covered by the Royal Forests of Henry II, III or Edward I, the first official note of these springs appears to have been at the end of the 17th Century. It was rediscovered under the patronage of Dr More, Bishop of Ely (which probably explains the confusion of its medieval use). By 1720, the Duke of Manchester, Lord Hinchingbrook, Dr Wake, Bishop of Lincoln, with all the principal residents in the county, joined in a subscription for erecting a house near the spring, which was fitted up with a bowling green, and other accommodations.
Healing or harming waters?
Even though giddiness, feeling sick and turning stools black were attributed to drinking the water, Cambridge Physicians continued to prescribe it to their patients. It soon attracted many people from the nearby villages and orders from across East Anglia, such as Norfolk and Lincolnshire. The water was bottled and drank not only medicinally but as a good table water mixed with wine. However, the popularity of the spa was short and after people began suffering from stone or gravel(or kidney stones as we would call them) after drinking the water and some died. As such a rumour spread around that it caused such diseases supported by some experts in the field! This spelt the end of the spa and the house fell into ruin and its materials removed.
However, there was a revival in 1750 by a Dr Daniel Peter Layard, who was physician to the Princess Dowager of Wales. Another subscription was raised, supported by a respectable list of subscribers which include various physicians and even the King and Queen. Concerned by its side effects, between 1751 to 1767 tests were conducted tried to discover why it occasionally had a detrimental effect. By 1758, a management committee of thirteen subscribers was established who set up rules. set of rules documented. The spa opened between 5.00am to 7.00am for the poor, and until 12.00 noon for everyone else. A notice posted up at the time says:
“The springs are open from seven in the morning till 10 at night, the following being the charges: Admission for using and drinking the waters per month……5 0, Non-scribers……..0 6, Talking any quantity away from the wells per quart…….0 6”
Dr Layard erected a bath house and proper accommodation near the spring and rules were set out for the use of the spa. In 1767 Dr Layard wrote an account of the waters:
However, Dr. Layard left soon after and by 1820 the site was little regarded and probably closed by 1840. For many years, only foundations remained, but this were ploughed up when a local farmer planted fruit trees.
The site rediscovered
According to Burn-Murdock, curator of the Norris Museum, St. Ives, their exact location is unknown. However, there is a site marked Spring (Chalybeate) on the appropriate O/S on Bathe Hill on the road to Somersham which would likely be the location of the spa and as it stated spring I was hopeful of some remains.
Upon visiting nothing can be seen at the site, presently the garden of a house on the hill. Upon visiting the house the owner was accommodating enough to point to a flower bed where he believed was the approximate location for the spring, although he had not seen any evidence. He was told this being the location from a previous owner. However it did not match that which is indicated on the OS map which was in a small orchard. We visited this and equally saw nothing but it was possible some scrub hid it. Perhaps another exploration is needed?
During my research for Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Warwickshire one of the surprising discoveries is St Botolph’s Well at Farnborough. Surprising because in P.M Patchell and E.M. Patchell’s 1987 ‘The wells of old Warwickshire’ in the first series of Source 1 note that:
“The well is chalybeate and reputed to cure eye ailments, but is now only a cattle drinking place on private land. It is just a little way down the lane leading south from the church, at a little bridge.”
I had read this perhaps as being no more than the site being is an uninspiring boggy hole but this was not the case!
The earliest reference however to the site is William Dugdale in his 1730 The Antiquities of Warwickshire. He notes that:
“Near the house of Mr Holbeach there rises a Chalybeat Spring, called… St Botolph’s Well.”
As the parish church is dedicated to St Botolph and the settlement was in existence at the time of the Domesday book and it is probable that the well dates from this period being associated as it is with a Saxon saint. There is certainly a traditional relationship with the holy well as the relic of a path which leads down to the well from the church can be traced in the grass the other side of the road from the estate. This leads to a wooden door close to the well – although interestingly the handle is on the estate side suggesting permission in more recent times was needed. As noted by Stephen Wass in their 2012 thesis A Way With Water: Water Resources and the Life of an Eighteenth-century Park. http://www.polyolbion.org.uk/Farnborough/Dissertation/A%20Way%20With%20Water.html#2
“Of further significance was the exclusion of the community from access to St. Botolph’s Well (Fig. 33). The arrangement of church, holy well and connecting thoroughfare was probably an ancient one which reflected the communal use of this spring for practical and spiritual purposes. What is striking today about the spatial relationship is that the seventeenth-century park wall cuts across the bottom of the former route and effectively restricts access to the well as it is now on private property. A door in the wall, which by analogy to other local properties, appears to be eighteenth century (Wood-Jones, R. B. 1963. Traditional Domestic Architecture of the Banbury Region), was provided to allow some access. This door could only be opened from the park side. Even allowing for the fact that the Reformation brought about a divorce between the established church and the idolatrous practice of visiting a holy well one must assume that on some level of superstition the well still occupied an important part in the community’s consciousness. What was communal has become private.”
Healing waters and development as a spa
Francis Smith in their 1825 Warwickshire delineated
“A chalybeate spring rises at Farnborough, known by the name of St. Botolph’s Well, which was formerly resorted to by the credulous and superstitious, for its wonder-working miracles!”.
According to C.S. Wharton (cited in A.W. Bates’S 1993, ‘Healing waters: holy wells and spas in Warwickshire’ in Warwickshire History):
“its’ reddish water is said to be coloured by rust from the nails of the Cross”.
Which is an interesting and as far as I am aware a unique tradition. Does it suggest an association with a nearby relic?
Bates (1993) says that it had only a very limited reputation as a spa, and had fallen out of use by 1890, certainly there is no evidence of people visiting it and perhaps this was associated with the development of the estate by Sanderson Miller, the folly architect. However, its current structure although not a boggy hole is perhaps a little lacking the panache of a structure one would associate in a folly estate.
The current state of the well
The well is now enclosed in land owned by the National Trust. St Botolph’s well consists of an archway of red sandstone built into the wall surrounding the park which is a surprising arrangement and one would have imagined if it was developed a spa a more impressive arrangement would be found. The water arises in a two foot deep rectangular chamber in a recess in the park’s wall. An arch of dressed stone covered the well but this has all but gone and either lays beneath it or else robbed. This notwithstanding the site was certainly more impressive than what Patchell and Patchell suggested and there were no cattle in sight! However, perhaps due to its ruined status it might not be far off becoming a boggy hole if its not repaired soon.
Back in the 1990s when I was researching the Holy Wells and healing springs of Nottinghamshire I first found the site of Orston Spa, a rare ‘intact’ site. My book describes it as follows: “the wall had recently been re-pointed, although the steps look vandalised as some of its stones had fallen off. The spa […]
“Walkers enjoy day in ‘Hidden’ forest. Hundreds of ramblers and conservationists converged on the secret Wychwood Forest on Sunday to walk through its leady glades. It was the one day of the year – Palm Sunday – when Lord Rotherwick the owner of the 2150 acre medieval woodlands, allows public access.”
To which I might add just! This is a curious custom where part of the tradition remains, but aspects of it appear to have disappeared. The custom apparently was established to provide access of the local parishes adjacent – Leafield Five Ash, Charlbury and Finstock particularly – for the collection of wood and the visiting of the springs and wells of the estate. It is the latter of which is of considerable interest.
If you go down the woods…..
My aunt and uncle did not live far from this area and I have always been fascinated with this woods and their privacy. Apparently, I was not the only one. Large numbers of visitors could be found wandering the woods; their cars lined the narrow streets around the forest. It was not just for local people. In an excellent article by Roy Townsend on the Finstock Local History Website records the memories of a Mr Pratley of nearby Finstock. He notes the widespread nature of the visitors:
“It was possible to meet people from Cornwall one minute, then a family from Durham a few yards later.”
But why? The name the ‘Secret Forest’ was part of the appeal no doubt. It was a forest which could only be visited on Palm Sunday each year. Any other time of the year it was strictly out of bounds. Everyone loves a mysterious place and getting access to it was part of the allure.
One of the major reasons for the access on Palm Sunday was for the local community to visit the springs and wells, which were thought to have a healing tradition on the day. A local historian, John Kibble, noted in 1928, recorded that prayers were said at the springs:
“Hast then a wound to heal; The wych doth grieve thee?Come then unto this welle, It will relieve thee:Nolie me tangeries, And other maladies”
This was one of the main reasons also why the estate and its curious access tradition fascinated me. Wells and springs were often visited on this date, but this one appeared to have the longest surviving tradition and from some accounts some people still did it. The main aspect of this tradition undertaken was to make Spanish Water, using liquorice, brown sugar or sweets often black peppermints. Mr. Pratley again notes:
“This tradition took place all through the 20th century, and probably before, although the liquorice may have originally come from the root of the plant, rather than being shop bought.”
Three wells can still be found in the estate – the Cyder, the Wort and the Spa or Iron Well. The Wort Well or another lost well called Uzzle were the most popular apparently around them would grow wild liquorice. The name wort derives from healing suggesting its health giving properties. Of the Iron Well, Roy Townsend notes:
“Spanish Liquor is made up with some pieces of hard liquorice with two to three black gobstopper type sweets and white peppermints which were crushed, made up on Saturday night and shaken well on Sunday Morning. You take your bottle with the mixture in down to the well behind the kennels called the Iron Well. If it’s still there behind the fencing. We were forbidden to drink much of it on the way home.”
A poster in the Finstock Local History website, called Fabulous Flowers notes:
“I remember walking to the Iron Well on Palm Sunday with my great Aunty Vi and Molly and mixing the water with our Spanish liquor. Before the footpath was opened through the Wychwood forrest (sic) as it is know this was the only day you could walk down to the lakes and I remember lots of people doing this.”
The date of this visitation is unclear but this aspect tradition appears close to extinction or is extinct. An account noted that:
“a man from Leafield, who used to take his bottle of mixture to the well up until a few years ago.”
On entering the estate I still noticed that the route outlined still made a bee-line to the Iron Well. The route had been diverted and I easily found my way in courtesy of a man who did the walk every Palm Sunday. I made my way at first to the Iron Well. I wasn’t convinced to drink the water..it certainly lived up to its name, having a reddy-orange scum on the edges – it didn’t look very appetizing. Entering the park I first made a slight detour to see the Cyder Well, which poured out a considerable flow of clear fresh water. However, I thought I would leave my Spanish water experience to the main well which was associated with the tradition – the Wort well. This was the less impressive of the springs but the easiest to determine the spring source.
The name wort is suggestion of a long tradition of healing – wort is said to be a healing source, more frequently the end of a herb such as woundwort! Its other name Uzzle is suggestive that it derives from the Anglo-Saxon greeting Wæs þu hæl, meaning “be in good health” and thus again suggests it was a general cure-all.
Thus I lowered my bottle and filled it. Popping in my liquorice and giving it a shake I took a slip…it was refreshing but I could detect no real flavour. However as I progressed back along the path regular sips revealed a more flavoursome experience. By the end it was rather delicious and I regretted not filling more bottles or having more liquorice.
One wonders how old the Palm Sunday access is as Briggs refers to an Easter Monday tradition:
“on Easter Monday the Leafield people maintained, and still believe that they have the right to go into the Wychwood Forest and make Spanish Water which is made from one of the sacred springs in Wychwood Forest. The bottle is then shaken till the liquorice is dissolved. This is believed to be not only a tonic but a sovereign remedy for all kinds of disorders. It is grievance to the Leaford people that Wychwood is now closed to them.”
However, talking to local people they stated that they had had 100s of years of access on the date. In the church at Charlbury, I fortunately met Mrs Fowler. She informed me that visiting wells for Spanish Liquor was still very common up until in the 1980s. She and her husband remembered that a Royston (Dobber) Scroggs, a Cotswold Warden, would stand by the well and tell people the history. This is no more. However, small groups do formally visit the springs such the Green Friends of the Hindu spiritual leader Mata Amritanandamayi who undertook a walk in 2014 and the Wychwood Forest church in 2017 who visited the Iron and Wort Wells.
Wandering around I watched a number of people on my journey around, of which only one came near to the springs…although they did fill a bottle and drink it. They did not have any liquorice though…Fortunately I did and it tasted rather nice.
Cannot see the wood for the trees.
Ironically the popularity of the custom appeared to lead to its decline. An account from 1984 tellingly records:
“And the Council for the Protection of Rural England took it as an opportunity to promote its campaign to have the forest opened all the year around. Walkers and ramblers were asked, and were willing to sign a petition supporting the campaign. They were signing at the rate of 100 an hour.”
And so that signing lead to the opening up of a permanent footpath, from Patch Riding, Finstock, to Waterman’s Lodge, near Charlbury, through the estate in 1990..the one I used to access the permissive path. It may be only one, but like any incision, it allowed greater access and so the mystic began to fade…but not quite yet. It was clear that Palm Sunday I went that a considerable number of local and not so local people were still keen to see the vistas and green swards generally unavailable. The estate covers a considerable area and the footpath only crosses a very small section.
Walk on the wild side
The Palm Sunday Walk is a curious survival but one still under threat. Many years ago the clergy tried to bribe children by offering free crucifixes to keep them in church. Even today a poster to the Finstock History page notes:
“The last time I tried to visit it on a Palm Sunday, the gate which would have given access to the iron well was locked. I suspect it is only ignorance that keeps us out: if the local history society asked, they’d probably let a group in next year.”
But local people are determined to keep the Palm Sunday Walk open. Mr Pratley writes:
“I walk this permanent footpath regularly but also try to do the Palm Sunday walk as often as possible, as that’s still the only day the Five Ash Bottom route is open to the public.”
He remarks he saw few people despite doing a complete circuit! Indeed, when I arrived I found the traditional route sadly blocked and plenty of walkers appearing and then turning around scratching heads and moaning. However, at least access remains whether people take the waters or not…plenty enough people were happy to ensure that the custom of walking the path remained.
However it would be nice to see more Spanish Water drinking. The is especially significant when if you visit many wells you can find the tradition of tying objects, called clooties to the trees, a tradition foreign to many places it is now found. It would be better to see the revival of more native traditions such as Spanish Water drinking – at this site I can safely vouch for its safety of drinking its water. So if you are in the area please keep the Spanish water alive!
Chigwell on the Essex outskirts of London is a site claimed to have derived its name from a spring called the King’s Well as Samuel Lewis in his 1848 Topography notes:
“within the bounds of the great forest of Waltham and in ancient records is styled Cingwella supposed to imply the King’s Well a purgative spring here from which its present name is derived.”
However did it? According to P. H. Reaney’s Place-Names of Essex the name means ‘Cicca’s well’, Cicca being an Anglo-Saxon personal name. Furthermore, the 18th-century historian Nathaniel Salmon The History and Antiquities of Essex stated that the “-well” element in the name derives from Anglo-Saxon weald meaning wood which would make sense considering its proximity to Hainault Forest. Hence my claim in the book Holy wells and healing springs of Essex that it was
“The King’s well was certainly an ancient site, possibly a pre-Christian origin”
May seem now a little over-enthusiastic!
Philip Morant in his 1763-8 History and Antiquities of Essex gives the earliest account of the well, being found:
“…..behind the wind-mill, among the trees whose water has a purging quality, and the late DrFrewin used to speak of its flavour….Near the well is a hole wherein the water of the famenature, perhaps proceeding from the other.”
Morant (1763-8) also suggests that the well was once frequented, but less so by his time. By the end of the 18th century it appears to have become entirely neglected. This situation never improved, as even in 1838, a Professor Booth noted it to be ‘now quite neglected’. This decline lead to its final destruction in the late 1870, when the site was drained, filled in and turfed over, by a Mr. Radley, acting on behalf of the then owner. By the time Christy (1910) visited the site, the well had long gone, but fortunately he too obtained some vital details concerning the well. The well was reached by a private road, although once a public right of way, near a mill pond. Unusually it would appear that the fame of the water differed in regards its appearance, for when yellow it was best only for cattle. He was informed by the older residents of the community that this well laid in a meadow of about thirty acres called ‘Parkfield’, belonging to a Mr. Philip Saville, and near his residence of ‘The Woodlands’. It was situated due south of Forest House, about 300 yards from the road, and not very far from Grange Hill Station. It lay on the steep slope of London clay, lying on the south side of the road.
A description of the site
Fortunately, a description of the site survives. A Mr. Green, who had lived many years in the Parish described the well as a hollow place, bricked around, with steps leading down to the water. Surplus water was relayed to a ditch via pipes. Yet despite its destruction 30 years before, it was still famed in the 1900s. A local man Mr College referred to it as the ‘purging well’. Furthermore a Dr. Reeve, formerly of Chigwell Row, described it as good as any medicine as a purgative.
The site today
In the book Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Essex I recorded that the site was located in Whitehall Close, but there is now nothing to mark it; the area being developed for housing.
Since Morant’s (1763-8) description the whole area has drastically changed. The windmill was burnt down in about the 1850s, and the trees that surrounding the well (part of the old Hanault Forest) were probably cut down even earlier.
However, in 1907 about 50 yards from the reputed site of the well, there was a stagnant cattle pond. Miller Christy and May Thresh’s 1910 A History of the Mineral Waters and Medicinal Springs of the County of Essex believes that this is probably the hollow described by Morant (1763-8). This too has gone.
However, there is some confusion and subsequent research places it more precisely in the rear of the house located at 67 Brocket Way being marked on the land registration map of Redbridge Council shows “Chig Well (site of)”
“I hope to work on a project to commemorate that early past and have it recognised locally. Hopefully a local project will revive an interest in our historical past like the Mammoth replica project has in Redbridge. I have followed the map I bought with local resident Neil Patel who has lived her for over 40 years. We believe that the location of Chig Well would have been in land adjacent to the wells Park School or at it’s rear. I have contacted the school to try and ascertain whether the name of the school is somehow linked to the history of the well listed on the map. A call to the school office was met with short-shrift and the woman who answered said she knew nothing about the origins and nor would other school staff. she said:
“The decision to name the school was made by Essex Council.
“They gave the school to options and early decision-makers went with Wells Park School.”
When pressed on how Essex Council derived the two name options, I was reminded to contact Essex Council. I have contacted the Essex Record Office who is not able to advise me on the origins of the name of the school, but I will ask the officer there and the school again, in hope of clearing up this mystery. Later it would be able to gain access to the rear of the school or the private land next to it, to locate any remnant of the potential well site.”
It seems sad that such a renowned site, that had given the place its central focus and name, should have been destroyed with little regard for its importance. However one does wonder what they have found in the garden of number 67, or Whitehall Close or as the author above states the School!