Category Archives: Sussex
On and off I have been surveying the holy wells of East and West Sussex which is an area which does not appear to have collected much academic interest. Thanks to myself and James Rattue Kent is now covered more than satisfactorily, ditto Rattue’s Surrey and now Dorset, Hampshire and Sussex in a way await further exploration. Thus it is possible that new and interesting holy wells maybe found in these counties, ones missed by Jeremy Harte’s 2008 magnus opus English Holy wells
Battle is such a place. It is a place I have visited many times and thought there should be a holy well there and indeed there was. However, the Wishing, Holy or Dr Graye’s Well is described by one source Her Grace the Duchess of Cleveland’s account of the History of Battle Abbey as:
“a square opening five or six feet wide, enclosed by a massive stone wall nearly seven feet high; a flight of steps led up to it on either side, and at each angle was what he called a vase, or receptacle for flowers and votive offerings. The spring was conveyed to the other side of the church wall.”
It was located:
“On the north side of the Cloister Garth stood the Holy Well, from which some writers have derived the name of Senlac, given to this place by Ordericus Vitalis. It is mentioned in Queen Elizabeth’s time, as a place held sacred by recusants’ :-whither many, especially women, resort, like a young pilgrimage, and call it Dr. Graye’s well.’
Did this have an older history? The author suggests that its water gave Battle its old name of Senlac – possibly – but there is no evidence as such- and the origin of that name has itself been debated. What is more likely perhaps is that the spring provided the domestic water supply of the Abbey and later converted post Reformation as suggested above as a holy well needed to meet Catholic recusant use.
Who was Dr Graye?
The author continues to explain that Dr Grey was a priest, the Dowager Viscountess Montague’s chaplain, a zealous Roman Catholic, who resided at the Abbey in Elizabethan times. He was imprisoned by Sir Francis Walsingham. He appears a likely person to concoct a holy well out of an available spring.
What happened to the well?
The author continues to record that:
“ It was afterwards known as the Wishing Well, and was unfortunately destroyed in the course of Sir Godfrey Webster’s alterations, in 1814….and now furnishes the drinking water of the household; it is remarkably sweet and pure, and we appreciated it for its own sake long before we were made aware that it was the charmed water of the old Holy Well.”
And so it disappeared into obscurity after perhaps a brief period of fame – a holy well of the Catholic faith in hiding and as such of great interest.
The real sacred well of Battle?
However, another claimant to have an association with the Battle of Senlac is still to be found. King Harold’s Well is enclosed in a circular well can be found in the front garden of Three Virgins Lane.
Local tradition records that the spring was drunk by King Harold before the Battle of Hastings. Whether it is originally a Saxon well is unknown it certainly does not look it. It is perhaps not the most attractive site but at least something remains to remind us of the days of King Harold.
This month theoretically we can start exploring holy wells again (within guidelines of course)…so hopefully for the last time I present England as an armchair journey.
The ancient small Sussex town of Winchelsea possibly has more named well and springs than a town twice as large. Sadly most of the wells have been lost, some no more than boggy holes but at least one is still preserved and celebrated.
A map see here shows the extent of the springs available in the medieval period. Extant details are unclear but they were important as boundaries as the following recalls:
“bounds of the Liberty of Winchelsea as they were taken and enrolled the 7th day of May in the fourth year of the reign of Edward the Third AD 1330 were as under First go from the Cross without Newgate north along by the Town Ditch and so through the midst of Lewes Marsh to a ditch of the Manor of Icklesham leading to St Leonard’s Fleet till you come right against a well in Pook Lane called Vale Well and so east up by a little lane lying between Crooked Acre and Bell Morrice to the King’s High street and then north east through the lands of Thomas Alard to the street end and so to the ring of Stone Mill and so downe to Pipewell Cawsey’s end and so by the street at the right hand leading to the north and to Grind pepper Well 3 and then as the old Ferryway leadeth to the Channell and so over the Channell to a fleet called White Fleet and as the water leadith by the Hopad Marsh into Kettle Fleet and so taking in the whole roads of the Puddle and the Cambre along upon the Sea Coast where the Hermitage did stand until a man can see Beachy Head neare Bourne and from thence through the sea to a wall called Court Wall and so west to the Cross without Newgate aforesaid.”
An account of the wells are described in William Durrant Cooper’s 1850 History of Winchelsea:
“Water, so scarce at Rye, was amply supplied to this town from six open wells:——viz., PIPE WELL, situate near the Ferry, close by the entrance of the town by the former Rye road: ST. KATHERINE’s WELL, situate half way up the hill leading from Rye, and below Cook’s Green, the water of which is slightly chalybeate: the STRAND WELL, on the hanging of the hill (above the former tan yard) destroyed a few years since by the falling in of the cliff: the FRIAR’S WELL, now enclosed, situated in a ﬁeld recently called the Peartree or Wellﬁeld, to the east of the Gray Friars ; the NEW WELL on the outside of New Gate; and the VALE WELL, now called ST. LEONARD’S WELL, at the north-west of the town, under the old castle,—of whose waters the popular belief yet remains, that when once drunken the drinker never leaves Winchelsea, that is, that wherever he roams his heart is still there; each drinker realising Goldsmith’s lines,
In all my wand’rings round this world of care,
I still had hopes, my strong vexations past,
Here to return—and die at home at last.”
Of these wells the aforementioned Strand Well was lost when the cliff collapsed in 1840s. The Pipe well which gives its name to one of the medieval gates in the town appears also to have vanished but it may remain lost in undergrowth on the steep cliff face.
The most interesting is the Vale Well which was surrounded by land by Poklande, from O.E pwca for ‘goblin’ and by the time of the above survey Pook Lane. Often springs were associated with such elementals and as such may be remembrances of pre-Christian deities. Found at the north end of town, under the old castle, in the meadows underneath the north-western hillside just beyond the mound of the windmill is St Leonard’s Well just about hanging on. According to Walcott (1857):
‘of St Leonard’s Well at Winchelsea the good folks say that he who drinks will never rest till he returns to slake his thirst in its waters’.
Ford in Return to Yesterday in 1931
“In the face of the cliff that Winchelsea turns to Rye there is a spring forming a dip – St. Leonard’s Well or the Wishing Well. The saying is that once you have drunk of those dark waters you will never rest til you drink again. I have seen – indeed I have introduced them to it – Henry James, Stephen Crane and W. H. Hudson drink there from the hollows of their hands. So did Conrad. They are all dead now.”
There was a church of Iham just outside Winchelsea, dedicated to St Leonard; it fell into decay after 1484 and it is possible that the spring takes its name from the church rather than the saint directly. It was described in 1950s as:
‘fenced with barbed wire and noisome water almost covered by watercress and overhanging brambled’
It is now an indistinct boggy hole a few stones lie around and depending on the weather some flowing water.
Similarly, the Friar’s Well was once enclosed, being in a field called Peartree or Wellfield, to east of Greyfriars. It is a spring head of clear water arising from a small hole, surrounded by remains of metal sheeting and deposits of beach stones, suggesting a possible structure.
The oldest recorded well was Grindpepper Well or the Black Friar’s Well. This maybe the same as St. Katherine’s Well as marked on the map Currently, it is called Queen Elizabeth’s Well and it is the best known and best preserved, being found on Spring steps.. It is located on the hillside, a dry well enclosed in red brick arch with grating at front. Peering inside one can see about of foot of water. Its alternative name is presumably pre-Reformation dedication but why is it named after this saint? The church is St Thomas the Martyr. Perhaps it was originally to St Katherine.
Interestingly, the name survived into the 1760s as it is noted on a map of Winchelsea by Charles Stephens. Records show that it was taken by the Corporation and it allowed its waters to be piped to a Mr. Joseph David in 1877. However, where did the Royal dedication come from? have mentioned in my account of Queen Elizabeth’s Well in Rye that such springs were developed as part of a cult. But it only appears for the first time in 1900 when the St Leonard’s and Hastings Natural History society visited the town and visited the well, then it appears immortalised on a postcard and hence named ever since. The best of the town’s ancient waters and perhaps now the most mysterious!
For many years, the only evidence of Eastbourne’s claim in sacred spring history was the area named Holywell, favourite of the retiree. However, since 20 the town has some real tangible evidence for a holy well, although whether the spring is the original holy well is open to debate.
The first record of a settlements called Holywelle dates from 1316 and by the 15th century the name Haliwell, Hallywell is recorded. Yet the first reference to a spring is by James Royer (1787) East-Bourne, being a descriptive account of that village who reports that:
“one of the springs is called Holy-well, supposed to be so named from the many advantages received from drinking those waters”.
In in the anonymous 1861 book Eastbourne as a Resort for Invalides [sic] it notes:
“At Holywell there is a chalybeate spring, the curative properties of which have given the name of the Holy Well. However, a subsequent analysis of the water demonstrated that it had no particular ‘curative properties”.
A location has been suggested by historians by associating it with the Chapel of St Gregory once near the South Cliff Tower in Bolsover Road, however it is thought that this was too far from the current area so called. Thomas Horsfield (1835) History of Sussex noted:
“the chalybeate springs at Holywell, a short distance west of the Sea House, are highly worth the attention of the visitor. The quality of the water is said intimately to resemble the far-famed springs at Clifton”.
George Chambers A Handbook of Sussex (1862) records that:
“they have however been analysed, at the instance of the present vicar, and found to consist of simple but very fine surface water.”
The well was apparently rediscovered in 2009 as a spring arising at the foot of the chalk cliff. A wooden sign has now been affixed as well as a cup and chain. Akyildiz (2011) notes in Landscape and Arts Network Articles – The rediscovery of a Fresh Water Spring beside the sea: a local holy well?
“The low stone wall built by Dan and fellow helpers, Pat and Shaun, is both a built physical structure designed to protect the site and a creative act of care. All these three have a passion for the well and provide their labour for free; they say “We feel we are doing a job of worth at the spring and that we are helping people access an alternate source local freshwater…the Holywell spring is such a peaceful place to be, and we have made many new friends here.” The low wall of large stones gathered from around the site protects the spring – and its vital source: the spring water.”
He also notes that a local Catholic church has blessed this site twice and on each occasion has attracted a gathering of nearly 50-70 people and in 2014 there was an evening concert at the well with a New Age flavour, so it is good to see this local spring being embraced by its local community, whether is the titular spring is unclear however.
A holy well?
Brighton has two noted sites, although the second strictly speaking should not be on the website and the first is rather confused. The most famed being that of St. Anne’s Well. Its waters were noted as Clifford Musgrave in his 1970 Life in Brighton, From the Earliest Times to the Present notes:
“The waters of the well had some reputation for promoting fruitfulness, local shepherds having observed the remarkable fecundity of the sheep that drank from it, but Dr .Relhan was somewhat sceptical about it having a similar effect with human beings.”
The site is recorded in having a long history, but there does not appear to be any substantial history. As Musgrave (1970) again notes:
“A chalybeate spring known as St Anne’s Well, at the Wick, half a mile west of St. Nicholas’s Church, and now in Hove. Dr Russell is said to have made this primitive little spa more impressive and convenient by having the spring ‘enclosed within a bason.’”
However, this may be a back derived story to support its latter existence as Spa, certainly it was operating in the 1700s but it was until the 1760s that improvements were made and by 1800 a pump room was built over it and a pump house was constructed at the top of the hill in the park. The pump room was improved by a Reverend Thomas Scutt adding a colonnade.
At first the spa was popular a ‘Mrs. Fitzherbert’ visiting in 1830 wrote that:
“….the waters have wonderfully improved my health and strength.”
Indeed a favourable 1882 review in the Brighton Gazette wrote it was:
“one of the finest springs in Europe”.
Sadly, despite these good reviews, the attraction of the sea and the spas distance from it was one of the factors which lead to its decline and closure. The pump house went through several uses and was finally demolished in 1935 as the spring had slowed down. A mock well head considered but finally a circular brick well was constructed upon a circular plinth. The spring or rather some water flows from it, it does not appear to be a chalybeate in nature.
A fake spa!
The other site was the German Spa. This was however, an artificial mineral water spa to capitalise on the fact that St. Ann’s was too far away but there was still a demand. Subsequently, a Frederick Struve, a research chemist from Saxony, invented a machine that reproduced the characteristics of natural mineral water using chemicals. Bizarrely at the Spa, it was claimed that the waters of Karlsbad, Kesselbrunnen in Bad Ems, Marienbad, Bad Pyrmont amongst other continental spas could be obtained. In 1825 Struve opened the pump room of his ‘German Spa’. A building was constructed, which the Brighton Gazette’s Fashionable Chronicle described as:
“The building consists of a large handsome room fifty or sixty feet in length, and of proportionate breadth and height. A fine flight of steps lead to the noble saloon, on which are placed Ionic columns, supporting a portico in the purest Grecian taste. On the side of the Saloon opposite the entrance runs a counter, behind which are ranged cocks that supply different kinds of waters.”
The enterprise was successful, and it had 333 subscribers in the first season, which ran from May to November, and after ten years even King William IV became a patron and such it was renamed Royal German Spa. However, by 1850 the pump room was closed by mineral water was still being made on site from water extracted from a 150 foot well. The company in 1963 moved to a larger building and the spa building became derelict and was largely demolished in the mid-1970s but the neo-classical colonnade of the spa building survives.
With the sun shining, many of us will head to the seaside to soak up the rays, do some rock-pooling and eat some ice-cream, however hundreds of years ago, when the sea was predominantly an industrial location and the therapeutic nature of sea bathing unknown, pilgrims would visit the sea-side to sample its sacred springs as they would elsewhere.
A classic example is recorded by Wallis (1769) in his Natural History of Northumberland, he tells us that:
“Among the sea-rocks, on the north side of the church at Newbiggen, is a sacred fresh-water spring, called St Mary’s well, over which the tide flows.”
Such an arrangement would mean that often springs would have greater powers because the high tide would mean they were available for less time. A similar spring being St. Agnes’s Well Humphrey Head (Cumbria) where at the foot of the limestone cliffs is the spring arising in a rectangular chamber. A similar well has already been discussed at St. Govan’s chapel, but sadly dry. In Wales, a location which cannot be bettered for grandeur can be found at St. Mary’s Well on the Lleyn Peninsula. Regularly covered by the tide with its salty water, the spring remains fresh at low tide. The natural spring was said to be the location pilgrims to Bardsey Island would stop. To get a cure it is said that a mouthful of water from the well would be needed as you would climb the cliff above to walk around the chapel above three times.
The most famous seaside spring is the most evocative, Holy Well in a sea cave Holywell Bay near Newquay (Cornwall). Many doubtlessly pass this sea cave on the way to the sea without a second thought. Many hundreds of years ago it is said that the bay was littered with crutches as evidence of those who had been cured there. Despite no sign of any obvious Christianisation, a legend is told of its creation. It is said that the cave was one of the places that the cortège carrying the body of St. Cuthbert rested here on their way to Iona. However, that sounds like a convenient story to cover and explain attendance at this most pagan of wells. The water trickles across multicoloured natural basins of limestone, in the dim light of a torch, the pinks and blues, provide a remarkable view of a peaceful refuge.
Not surprisingly, being a fluid environment, such spring can be lost to the erosive power of the sea. Such may have happened to that at Eastbourne (Sussex), first recorded in the 15th century. Described by Horsfield (1835), no exact location is given. It reports:
“the chalybeate springs at Holywell, a short distance west of the Sea House, are highly worth the attention of the visitor. The quality of the water is said intimately to resemble the far-famed springs at Clifton.”
Then in 2010 they were re-discovered, repaired and rededicated and cures are now reported…goes to show that some seafronts can provide all aspects, so if you are off with bucket and spade consider there may be a sacred spring somewhere to give a quench to the spirit and thirst perhaps.
It is my great pleasure to present an article from one of the most important contributors to the holy well research field. Author of the excellent The Living Stream – the first academic book on the subject, the indispensable guides to holy wells of Buckinghamshire, Kent and Surrey, as well as countless articles for Source and Living Spring, as well as his own webpage..he’s been in retirement holy well research wise and sticking to the day job of being a rector, so its a great privilege that he’s contributing this ground breaking piece of research about a holy well which is not recorded elsewhere to this blog..
In 1960 the Revd John Bickersteth, unlikely owner of the ancient seat of the Earls of Ashburnham in East Sussex after the death of his second cousin, created the Ashburnham Christian Trust. The estate, which Revd Bickersteth had only visited once before he inherited it in 1953, consisted of 8,500 acres of farmland and woods, a crumbling 82-room mansion filled with antiques, and a tax bill of £427,000. Most of the land and the treasures were quickly sold, but the house remained, inconvenient, expensive, and it seemed unlettable. However Revd Bickersteth was approached with the idea that Ashburnham Place might house a Christian training and conference centre. Most of the house was demolished, the grounds tidied up, the Trust established, and this is the role it fulfils today – along with a tea room open to ordinary members of the public, who can, provided they let Reception know, walk the grounds – and see the wells.
The approach to Ashburnham brings the visitor along a swooping drive through Burrage Wood and across the gorgeous stone bridge of the 1820s spanning Capability Brown’s lake formed off the River Ashbourne, to park around the back of the house near the old parish church. As far as wells are concerned, the chief attraction lies just south of the Broad Water. The Ladyspring Grotto is approached by one of two routes up a short gully leading uphill from the edge of the lake: either a high path along the eastern edge, or a lower path along the bottom of the gully. The upper path curves in around the top of the gully past a collection of massive boulders and stone steps. In both cases the Grotto is more or less hidden from view almost until the visitor reaches it. It consists of a well-chamber about five feet square by seven feet high, set into the bank, with a flagged stone floor and plastered walls, and a semi-circular arched roof; the walls are of very substantial stone blocks and the arch is constructed from thin clay tiles. The water pours from an outlet in the back wall into a stone trough raised above the floor.
Nothing is known for certain about the Ladyspring’s history. Information available at Ashburnham ascribes it to Capability Brown’s landscaping of the gardens in the 1760s and ‘70s, but if so it would be an item unique in his entire oeuvre. The only other folly in the grounds is a tiny Temple (really just a glorified seat) looking from the southwest bank of the lake across at the house. My guess is that, even though it may date from that sort of time, the real responsibility will have lain not with Brown but with the incumbent Earl who may have had a taste for that kind of thing. The Grotto seems to be an attempt to recreate a Graeco-Roman nymphaeum or shrine, with shades of the great spring at Bath (and rather like the site at Santa Fiora near Rome uncovered in 2009 – http://aqueducthunter.com/fiora/), and suggests a landowner who had some interest in and experience of such sites. John, the second Earl Ashburnham, who commissioned the landscaping work from Capability Brown, was, Horace Walpole described, ‘a decent, reserved and servile courtier’, and seems a less likely candidate than his son, the academically-inclined third Earl, George, who was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and trustee of the British Museum. He was in charge of Ashburnham between 1812 and 1830 – a bit late for the sort of Romantic folly-making the Grotto represents, but George is still its most probable builder.
The origin of the name is mysterious too. The Ashburnham Place guidebook and various information boards around the grounds ascribe it to a painting on the plaster at the rear of the well-chamber, depicting, as variously stated, one or three ‘ladies’. The image is supposed to be visible when water is thrown on the plaster – though, even allowing imagination the greatest latitude, I couldn’t make out anything more than random stains of mould – or under infra-red photography. An estate map of 1638 (thekeep.info/places/eastsussex/parishesandsettlements/Ashburnham) shows a ‘Lady’ field name to the north of the house, so the title had some pre-existing local usage, and a ‘Lady Spring’ might have existed before the creation of the Grotto, even if the name did not refer to the Virgin Mary (the church is dedicated to St Peter).
The Ladyspring is the most impressive of Ashburnham’s wells, but there are others. A couple of hundred yards to the southwest is Ironspring, a somewhat overgrown, artificially-dammed pond emptying into the lake and fed by waters which seep in from the slope above. The name suggests mineral content, but nothing is very obvious from the appearance of the water and there are no tell-tale red stains on the mud or undergrowth. Again, the history of this site is unclear: it isn’t named on old or current Ordnance Survey maps.
The Palladian Fountain is harder to locate (I stumbled upon it by accident). It lies south of the carriage drive and seems to be more modern than the Ladyspring, dating to a later phase of the development of the gardens. The outlet is a metal pipe set into a recessed semi-circular arch about four feet high, dripping water into a trough edged with shaped, dark bricks. On the left-hand, eastward side of the fountain, a stone wall curves away, supplied with what appears to be a low bench although the ground is now a bit boggy for sitting and contemplating, as well as the surroundings being somewhat overgrown. The Fountain doesn’t in fact tap a spring, but the overflow from one of the rivulets feeding the lake. The pink stone Shell Fountain, lying in the grounds to the north (and now dry) dates to the 1850s when water was channelled from springs to feed the gardens around the Orangery, next to the house.
The Ladyspring alone would justify a far greater fame for Ashburnham in hydrolatric terms. The combination of well-house and slightly tweaked and augmented topography creating a Romantic neo-pagan experience but one which aims at authenticity is unique in the UK and it would be fascinating to know more than just the speculations I’ve given here.
My occasional visits to Sussex have allowed me to visit the ancient water supplies which have been poorly covered. I hope in the next year or so to publish my volume on both counties, until then I thought I’d inform you of my exploits in both East and West Sussex as a taster for the book. If any reader knows any site (other than St. Anne’s Well Brighton) please message me I’d like to know.
There were two noted springs in the Parish; one the Holy Well has now been incorporated into the domestic water supply. Happily a large springhead pool called the Lud Well till survives not far from the church. This was believed to have cured the plague as related on a notice nearby:
“Legend has it that in the time of the Great Plague c1666, pilgrims from London paused at this spring (sometimes referred to as God’s Pond) to wash the plague from their body.”
What is interesting here is the name. Lud dedications can often be confusing. Some authorities without equivocation suggest they are dedicated to the Celtic God Lud, however often with springheads it is said to derived from loud, I have always included them in my research as the former and I think the second name is vindication…what God are they refereeing to? It seems unlikely that either people in the 1600s or modern people would instantly make or care about the link. So this seems likely to a Pagan survival. Perhaps the presence of the holy well is further evidence. Was this established by the Christians to avert interest…ironic that that site was chosen for the mains? The Ludwell had become very overgrown in recent years but today is a testament to what local people can do to tidy up and repair our water heritage. The springhead also flows to fill a trough closer to the road perhaps set up for animals.
Lord’s Well, Crowborough
This site is an little known well but potential significant. It still exists in the Lordswell Lane. Enquiring in the lane I was directed to a site on the right hand side below Lord’s Well House. I was told by the owner of the well house that the whole street had springs along it but directed me
Interesting in his garden was a circular well, could this be a lost holy well? I only suggest this as the house abutting this property and sharing the same drive was called Holy Well. I was informed by the elderly owner of this house that it was covered by a square of concrete to prevent children falling in. The well house appears to be brick made and those which can be seen are very mossy. The spring still flows through a pipe into a channel below beside the road.
No properties are recorded but it is said to be named so to this being the location that fighting Saxons and Danes (I was told by Celts whilst surveying there) meet to settle Slaughterham Ghyll being given as a evidence, found along Lordswell Lane. I am unable to verify this nor know its connection with the spring
St. Dunstan’s Well, Mayfield
Lying in the grounds of a school, and subsequently is difficult to access but I found the staff there very helpful when I contacted them. The well is one of the most substantial holy wells in the county and one of the only one associated with either a local saint or with a detailed tradition. Black (1884) Guide to Sussex describes it as of considerable depth (reputedly 300 feet) and supplied with the purest water. He states that it was resorted to by pilgrims. It is noted by local historian Hoare (1849) in his historical and architectural notices of Mayfield Palace, as:
“Adjoining the kitchen apartments at the lower end of the hall, is a well, of considerable depth, and supplied with the purest water. It is called St Dunstan’s… It is guarded by four walls, having one entrance.”
St Dunstan, although Archbishop of Canterbury, he also worked as blacksmith and it is said one day a beautiful girl arrived to distract him, but he noticed cloven hooves beneath ‘her’ skirt and using is tongues grabbed old Nick’s nose. The devil was said to have flown off in agony and cooled himself in a spring, which may be that at Mayfield. It is remembered by the local rhyme:
“Saynt Dunstan (as the story goes),
Caught old Sathanas by ye nose.
He tugged soe hard and made hym roar,
That he was heard three miles and more.
The legend is well known, although the legend appears to have transferred to the Chalybeate Spring at Tunbridge.
The Well House, Withyham
Here is a notable Chalybeate spring covered by a delightful 19th century wooden well house with four sturdy wooden posts and pyramidical tiled roof topped with a pineapple like finial. The centre of the well house is pleasantly tiled with large red tiles surrounding the spring which fills a circular basin. Its water appears to flow beneath the well house into a natural hole in the ground and then a further dipping hole, more detailed than the first resembling that seen at Tunbridge Wells, perhaps established as a 24 hour source as the main source was completely fenced off in the well house. The water is very heavily coated in orange scum, in fact it’s one of the strongest iron waters I have seen. The site can be encountered on the drive to Buckhurst House and was clearly an estate improvement. However, beyond this I have been unable to find more information regarding its history or traditions and would welcome further information.
Much has been written regarding holy wells culminating in Harte (2008) magnus opus but no survey has attempted to record all those wells and springs named after monarchs as far as I am aware. With Jubilee fever all around I thought it would be fitting to start an overview of this aspect of water lore in England. Starting with King well, a generic name, is by far the commonest with sites recorded at Chalk (Kent), Cuffley (Hertfordshire) (although associated with James I), Chigwell (Essex) (although probably cicca’s well)), Lower Slaughter (Gloucestershire), Kingsthorpe (Northamptonshire), Orton (Northumberland), Cheltenham (Gloucestershire), Ellerton (Staffordshire), Wartling (Sussex), and Bath (Somerset). Some of these such as Chigwell may be a etymological mistake being more likely derive from Cicca’s well and some such as Orton are thought to be associated with Iron age sites.
However, English wells and their associations with monarchs starts perhaps starts with King Arthur’s Well (Cadbury ) but taking this probably mythical king aside, and not considering those monarchs associated with the Celtic and Saxon Kingdoms (after all a high percentage of these early saints were the sons of Kings (such as those begat by King Brechan) or early kingly Christian converts for example St Oswald or St Ethelbert ) which are better known by their sanctity rather than their majesty, I start with sites associated with who is seen as being the first King of England; Alfred.
King Alfred’s Well (Wantage) is of unclear vintage arising as it does in a brick lined chamber although his association with the town is well known. However as Benham (1911) notes in his The Letters of Peter Lombard:
“a clear and bright spring, but I fear that the evidence that King Alfred ever had anything to do with it is not forthcoming. The site of his birthplace is not very far from the well”
Although that did not stop a procession to the well in the year 2000! St Peter’s Pump at Stourhead (Wiltshire) too has become associated with Alfred and it is said he prayed for water her before a battle, there is again little evidence if any of this. In East Dean (Sussex) there is another well named after him. Interestingly the direct descendents of Alfred do not appear to have gained any association with wells, perhaps being a measure of either their impact on folk memory. The next king is the rather tragic figure of Harold. Harold’s Well laying in the Keep of Dover Castle (Kent) is an interesting site, it is a typical castle well and unlikely to be the site where Harold is said to have according to Macpherson (1931) (MacPherson, E. R., The Norman Waterworks in the Keep of Dover Castle. Arch Cant. 43 (1931)) been were the King swore he would give with the castle to William of Normandy, later William I. (Wartling’s King well may record Harrold or William)
I can find no wells associated with the Norman Kings or Queens and the next monarch to appear is King John. He is interestingly the monarch with most sites associated with him, being in Heaton Park (Newcastle), Odell (Bedfordshire), Kineton (Warwickshire) and Calverton (Nottinghamshire) (although the later is recorded as Keenwell). This may be the consequence of his infamy and association with Robin Hood sites taking on his name in the telling and re-telling of Robin Hood tales. However, in most cases it would appear to be sites associated with a castle although surely King John was not the only monarch to have used such sites.
The next monarch associated with a well is a prince, a man who despite being heir apparent, never reached the throne. The Black Prince, a very romantic figure and with an evocative name, his spring is perhaps the most well known of those associated with royalty: the Black Prince’s Well, Harbledown (Kent). Legend has it that he regularly drank from the well and asked for a draught of it as he lay sick and dying of syphilis. However, the water’s powers did not extend to this and he died never becoming king. The well has the three feathers, sign of the Prince of Wales, an emblem captured at Crecy although the origin and age of the well is unknown it is the only such spring with any insignia of a monarch.
The subsequent centuries saw a number of squirmishes and conflicts which also created some springs associated with royalty. Perhaps the most interesting well associated with a monarch is King Henry VI’s Well, Bolton in Craven (North Yorkshire). It is interesting because the King’s reputation was that of sanctity and as such any well would have pretentions to be a holy well. Indeed the local legend states that when a fugitive at Bolton Hall he asked for the owner to provide a bathing place. No spring was available and one was divined with hazel rods and where they indicated water the site was dug. The king prayed that the well may flow forever and the family may never become extinct. The site still exists and is used for a local mineral water firm!
The years of conflict between the Lancastrians and Yorkists ended at Bosworth field and here a we find King Richard’s Well, Sutton Cheney (Leicestershire). Traditionally Richard III drank from a spring that Lord Wentworth in 1813 encapsulated in large conical cairn shaped well house with an appropriate Latin inscription. Curiously both wells of course mark the losers of the battle and no wells record the victors of such conflicts. One wonders whether this records our interest in the underdog and lament for the lost. The strangest extrapolation of this is a well found in Eastwell (Kent). Here generations have pointed to a circular brick well in the estate grounds and a tomb in the derelict church and associated them with the lost son of Richard III. The Plantagenet’s Well may indeed have some basis in fact although the only evidence is the account of the legend during the building of Eastwell Manor in 1545, the landowner, Sir Thomas Moyle, was amazed to find one of his workman reading a book in Latin. Naturally curious, he decided to ask him about this ability. Thus the man informed him, that in 1485, at Bosworth Field, he was the illegitimate son of King Richard III, who had previously clandestinely acknowledged him as sole heir. The following day, fearing reprisals after Richard’s loss, the boy fled, avoiding being recognition by disguising himself as a bricklayer and thus was years later, employed in the manor’s construction. Sir Thomas, believed the man’s story, and being a Yorkist sympathiser, adopted him into his household. This story of Richard Plantagenet remained a family secret, until it was revealed in Gentleman’s Magazine, as a quotation from a letter written by Thomas Brett, of Spring Grove (near Eastwell) to a friend Dr. Warren. He had heard the story from the Earl of Winchelsea at Eastwell House about 1720. This story is further enforced by Parish records showing that on December 27th 1550 V Rychard Plantagenet was interred, the notation V being a notification for a royal personage. However, having never seen the record myself I am unsure of its validity.
The next monarch encountered in a well dedication is a surprising one perhaps. In Carshalton (Surrey), we find Anne Boleyn’s Well, which is an perplexing dedication considering her unpopularity and association with a monarch who would have seen holy wells another trapping of the papist money making machine he had excluded from his realm (although there is little evidence that Henry VIIIth had any real direct effect on holy wells as would the newly established Scottish Kirk). The legend of its formation related that when the King and Queen were out riding from Nonsuch Palace, her horse’s foot hit the ground and a spring arose. No reason for is given and it is probable that the spring was re-discovered and perhaps dedicated to St. Anne. Bedford’s Park is not far from Pygro’s Park which has an association with Henry VIII so one assumes the Queen Anne’s well is again Boleyn although I know nothing more and indeed missed it from my survey!
Unlike her mother, Elizabeth I was a popular monarch, much as the present monarch is, especially in the strongly protestant counties, hence Queen Elizabeth Wells at Rye and Winchelsea (Sussex). In the case of Rye, the spring was part of a water improvement system which provided water via a conduit system. It was so named after her visit to Rye in 1573, when she drunk the water and met the town dignitaries, or Jurats, there, before they processed into the town. Amusingly the well was also known as Dowdeswell, from O. E. dowde for a plain woman, a scold or shrew a fact which may have tickled some recusant families in the vicinity no doubt. so like many a holy well the name was changed for the monarch. Interestingly, Winchelsea’s site was and still is called St. Katherine’s Well so perhaps the monarch’s name was used to remove Catholic associations (especially considering Queen Katherine of Aragon), although St. Leonard’s well remained intact. Bisham’s Queen Elizabeth’s Well (Buckhamshire) is even associated with miraculous cures which certainly predate the monarch and perhaps her visit and taking of the waters when visiting Lady Hoby her cousin may have been the opportunity to move away from the holy well name? Queen Elizabeth also gave her name to a well in Friern Barnet (Middlesex) and Blackheath (Surrey)
Perhaps in the day when the site of the monarch was an extremely rare occasion folk memory has preserved it. This may explain King James Well Mickley (Yorkshire) whose only reason for the dedication was that he stopped to drink at it! This well does not appear to have then developed any note as a consequence. However, a spring at Cuffley (Hertfordshire) was visited by the King and developed into a minor spa called the King’s Well.
Interestingly, if England had not broken from Rome we may have seen those associated with Charles I develop in the same fashion, after all he does have churches and chapels named after him. Charles is often associated with wells, in some cases such as Carles Trough, (Leicestershire) where he is said to have watered horse here after Naseby. Ellerton’s (Staffordshire) King’s Well and Longhope (Gloucestershire) Royal Spring are both associated with the monarch.
However, stopping to drink is a common theme. A well in Appledore (Kent) is called Queen Anne’s Well because she is said to have stopped there and asked the landlord for a sip. It is possible that such associations may stem from a desire for a local land owner to support a developing spa trade, Queen Anne’s Bathhouse exists in Lullingstone (Kent), however there is no record of such an attempt at Appledore. Furthermore, it is unclear which Queen Anne is recorded at Appledore and it is possible considering the age of the brickwork in the cellar and around the well at this site that it was once St. Ann’s well. This is probably true of Lincoln’s Queen Ann’s Well, Chalvey’s Queen Ann’s Well (Buckinghamshire), Queen Anne’s Wishing Well (South Cadbury) and Blythborough’s (Suffolk) site now known as Lady Well! However of that of Chalvey, perhaps not as there is no pre-18th century record, although if it did not it soon attracted a reputation for healing and was called a spa. Interestly Queen Charlotte is also noted as being involved and as such according to the Mirror, of 1832,:
“a stone was placed there in 1785 by her illustrious consort, George III”.
An accompanying woodcut to the piece showing the stone with the royal monogram carved in the centre. In 1698 Anne of Denmark gave money to create a basin at Tunbridge wells and well was called the Queen’s well.
Of course in the next two centuries, the rise of the spas saw many mineral springs develop the patronage of the monarch such as George IV, yet despite this times had changed and the wells did not take the monarch’s name directly. By the reign of Victoria, her name was then applied to fountainheads and pumps, as old wells were filled in and channelled away amidst growing concerns for the need for clean and freely accessible water. A few sites such as the confusing named Coronation or Jubilee Well (so marked on the 1844 OS map so difficult to record which monarch and which jubilee or coronation is referred to) in Wessington (Derbyshire) buck the trend.
In summary it is interesting that despite a large number of memorable and in some case not so memorable monarchs, there is are a limited number of them associated with wells. Why? Is it due to these particular monarchs having pricked the public’s folk memory, or in some cases inherited some sort of pious notion akin to that associated with holy wells.
Wells associated with Royalty can be divided into the following categories:
a) Those drunk before a battle or whilst on the run from a battle. This could include the Battle Well Evesham (Worcestershire), with its associations with Simon de Montford is out of the scope of this blog but shows this trend, the water becoming curative.
b) Those associated with their castles, palaces, hunting lodges. But why these particular monarchs is unclear?
c) Those made by miraculous events such as that associated King Henry VIs well. It seems perhaps these sites had developed in anticipation of the eventual sanctifying of the individuals which of course never happened.
A visit to Hastings will reward those interested in ancient wells as the town preserves a number of perhaps lesser known sites, many of which still flow and produce large quantities of water. This is particularly true of the East Well, whose water can be sampled by a tap which produces its waters readily below a sign which reads ‘waste not want not!’ The water is enclosed in large conical conduit house sitting at the base of the East cliff railway at Rock a Nore. The East Well is situated next to the East Hill Lift and was built in the 1840’s with part of the money raised from a local fundraising campaign by Dr McCabe, more of him later.
Nearby but presently inaccessible is the spring found in the crypt of St Marys in the Castle, which confusingly is not in the castle grounds but below in the old town. This is a sizable white edifice. This is unusual in an Anglican church as it is a tank for baptism by immersion. It dates from 1928 and is fed by one of the five springs found emerging from the cliff-face when the church was built.
Hastings like neighbouring Brighton had pretensions to be a spa town and in Alexandra Park is the remnant of this attempt, which appears to have taken its name from the park and became a ‘holy well’ by virtue of its adoption, as it was called St Andrew’s Spa on the 1878 OS map. A building called Spa Grange may be evidence of a spa building utilising the spring. This spring is still extant and can be easily found and the flow is quite incredible pumping out iron rich orange water. The sign of which reads:
“chalybeate spring, originally in open farmland, Robert Marnock incorporated this feature into Alexandra Park in 1880. The underground spring supplies a steady flow of foul iron-rich water once drunk for its alleged health-giving properties.”
In 1881, Parsons (1881) in ‘Highlands of Hastings & St. Leonards as a Health Resort’, describes the spring as follows:
“It appears that the water is impregnated with iron, to an unusual extent, containing a larger amount than the waters of Tunbridge Wells, Scarborough, Whitby, Buxton or Bath. It also has the advantage of not causing constipation.”
A nearby well is called Dr. McCabe’s Well and percolates clearer water but very intermittently. The plaque reads:
“Peter McCabe, an Irish physician based in Wellington Square, was mayor of Hastings in 1838 and 1843. A committed campaigner for clean water- he constructed both this spring and the East Hill public well at the foot of the cliffs at Rock-a-nore.”
Despite an association with a local doctor does not appear to have been a medicinal spring, although it was was the most well known at the enclosure of the park perhaps because it was the most useful.
It seems likely that either of these spring was once the eponymous St Helen’s Well, which is arguably Hastings only holy well. This may be supported by a medieval settlement being located in the valley of the park perhaps. However, another site is claimed to be St. Helen’s and this is situated in the small area of park land behind the ruined church of the same name. Asking for the location of the site I was given a ‘it does exist…I think I know the site….but not telling you approach’ to helping. Despite this I did find what I would assume was the site, a mossy pool beside the lane.
The final site is perhaps the least well known but more rewarding and impressive. This is the Roman Bath, laying enclosed romantically in the wooded hillside below the Leisure centre on Bohemia road in what remains of the Summerfield estate. Despite what a leaflet distributed in Hastings in the early 20th century which offered 3d guided tours of what it claims was built in AD51 by King Caractus, it was certainly built by a Wastel Brisco who commishioned the building after obtaining the estate in 1831.
The building is made of sandstone and some cement with a retaining wall of about 12 feet in height. At either side were steps, although those of the left are better preserved. These led to a viewing platform over the bath. The bath itself is a rectangular 15 feet by 8 feet sandstone pool with four or three worn cement steps gaining access to its debris strewn but clear waters. The spring which feeds the pool arises in a grotto and once through a lion’s head, now stolen into the pool. A Romanesque archway with colonettes covers this springhead which once had a lion’s head keystone and this is the most impressive of the remaining features. Early depictions show a circular structure with an arched entrance which may have been a changing room if the bath was of course used, or alternatively covered another spring as there is possible evidence of this where this was located. There does not appear to be any evidence of stone work from this structure, which indicates a degree of more organised vandalism of the site perhaps. The run off channel which carried the water to the stream below is exposed although early photos show it stone lined.
Hasting’s Roman Bath is without doubt the most impressive of the town’s water supplies and deserves to be known better. It is pleasing to see that there is local interest in preserving it and hopefully the vandalism which has gone on will now cease.