Category Archives: Yorkshire
Today, 12th February is the birthday in 1809 of Charles Darwin, an unusual point to make reference to perhaps on a site noting mainly holy wells, but he does have a link to the topic. For in 1859 he visited the White Wells in Ilkley. Set high above the picturesque small town, the small white cafe and plunge bath was first built in 1690, but considering the proximity of ancient remains around may have an earlier origin. The spring, the main source of the Town Brook, was further enlarged and improved in 1780 by a William Middleton consisting a plunge bath now surrounded by railings with steps going down. The bath was a rather brave move for any pilgrim, the long and rough walk across moorland, I visited in the summer and it was freezing, the plunge within the ice cold waters. Some visitors would have drunk from a fountain to the rear or taken a shower or douche in another bath room, now converted to the cafe.
The water Darwin took had no mineral within it and it seems ironic perhaps that its curative properties were derived from either its immense cold or faith, something Darwin perhaps was beginning to lose for his traditional Christian upbringing.
Darwin visited the White Wells in the autumn of 1859, an important date for him for it was the year he published his most famous work, Origin of Species and indeed it is suggested that he travelled to this then rather remote town to escape the unwanted publicity which was published later that year in November. However, he is also said to have been very ill during all of 1859, whilst he was finishing up the final draft of ‘Origin of Species’ and had originally planned to visit in July but delays in finishing the book meant it was not until 2 October, once John Murray Publishers were sent that he went. First he stayed at Ilkley Wells House, a homeopathic establishment run by Dr. Edmund’s until the 17 October they took lodgings in North House, Wells Terrace House, indeed he was still staying here when the book was published. From here, he wrote to his friend William:
“On Monday they all come from Barlaston to the above address & I leave the Establishment. The House is at the foot of a rocky, turfy rather steep half-mountain. It would be nice with fine weather; but now looks dismal. There are nice excursions & fine walks for those that can walk. The Water Cure has done me much good; but I fell down on Sunday morning & sprained my ankle, and have not been able to walk since & this has greatly interfered with the treatment…”
Clearly little has changed today as the walk is equally a rocky one especially on the way down! The they he referred to were his family and at the time he was. The so-called ‘Water Cure’ was thought to draw blood away from the internal organs and provide relief but as well as his sprained ankle, he also got boils on his legs and found the experience rather depressing it appears. Interestingly, two days before the publication of that book Emma, his wife and children left and he himself moved back to Wells House leaving finally in the 7th December to Kent.
A visit to Conisbrough, noted for its Norman castle should include a visitor to its holy wells. That is holy wells, as the town can claim two sites! Although according to the Conisborough website there appears to be a denial of this.
That which is called the Holywell or rather Holywell spring is found at the edge of Holywell road and the A630 Sheffield Road. It is a spring which appears to arise further up the hill in an area now covered in scrub and inaccessible. However, a very copious spring erupts at the base of the hill and as such has been the subject of various complaints. Despite this it remains and fills a large semi-circular pool surrounded by low walling. The spring was noted for its healthy waters and was used for brewing beer by Nicholsons Bros Brewery and one assumes some of the stone work dates from this. Little else is recorded of the site
Nearer the castle, and although dry it is more substantial is another site variously called the Town well or Well of St Francis. This is as Innocent (1914) describes it as:
“Covered by a curious little building very medieval-looking with ita chamfered plinth and steeply slanted roof”
Who the St Francis is, is unclear but Alport ( 1898) records the local tradition which states that he was a local holy man and probably not a true saint and it is interesting that a number of churches are dedicated to a St. Francis in Yorkshire. Interestingly, though the date of creation of the well is recorded and quite late compared to other local saints perhaps. It is said that in 1320 -1321 the village was suffering from a particularly terrible drought and this St. Francis, said to be an old and wise man was sought for his advice. He suggested that the local people cut a willow tree from Willow Vale and then as the people sang psalms and hymns he lead them through the church and priory grounds to the site of the well. At the spot St Francis then struck is and not only did a spring arise and followed for the next 582 years (for its sadly dry now) but the tree took root.
Sadly this tree has either died or was dug up but the well continued under the name of the Town well up until the early 1900s when mains water arrived. It is possible that the legend suggests the holy man may have been, in fact, Clark (1986) believes the story recalls a Pagan priest and that the legend was a legacy of Conisbrough’s pre-Christian past; certainly the reference to a willow indicates a water diviner.
The other area in Conisbrough where St Francis the older man is said to have done a similar ritual and found water is at a place called The Holy Well Spring of St Francis. In 2003 this holy well was restored by historian Bernard Pearson with the aid of Community service and a special service was held at St Peter’s church attended by the High Sheriff of South Yorkshire who than processed to the site, erroneously as it happens in a re-enactment that was associated with the town well. Indeed a plaque at the site makes this error clear.
Allport, C.H., (1898) History of Conisborough
Clark, S., (1986) The Holy well of Conisborough Source Old Series 5.
Innocent, C.F (1914-18) Conisborough and its castle Trans of Hunter Archeaology Society.
on the re-dedication of the well.
The outside of the spa building. The left from the car-park, the right showing the two storeys
Back in September I re-visited the delightfully surprising Birley Spa. This is a rare spa building survival which was once in Derbyshire, but now firmly in the suburban edges of Sheffield.
An old origin?
Our first record is when it was established as seven baths by Earl Manners. However, it may have an ancient origin, the spring is located along Neolithic trade routes and indeed implements have been found in the vicinity. Some authorities have noted that there was a Roman bath here supported by the proximity to the Rykneid way. There is however no direct archaeological evidence to support this theory and it may have been spread around by the proprietors to support the quality of the water. A work by T. L. Platts (1976) contains much of the information and it is from this work I have taken most of the notes. The earliest establishment of the spa is thought to be in the early 1700s being built by a Quaker named Sutcliffe. The spa then consisted of a square stone building with a cold bath within with a bolt fixed on the inner side to ensure privacy. This structure appeared to exist until 1793 when the bath was ruined and filled with stones.
A spa reborn
In 1843, the Earl Manvers who owned the Manor developed this spa for a larger and more upmarket clientele. A Leeds chemist West analysed the waters stating that they were beneficial for those suffering from constipation. An administrative committee was appointed and even a Bath Charity was started so that poor people could benefit and take the waters.
A spa in decline
Unfortunately the baths did not make profit and by 1895 only one plunge bath remained; the Hotel apparently ceased to function as such about 1878. It is believed that Earl Manvers removed the marble from the warm bath for his own use. The site then went into a slow decline. In the 1920s and 30s a children’s pleasure ground was established but the grounds were closed in 1939, due to the prohibition of assemblies of crowds, introduced as a safety factor in case of air raids. The buildings and grounds were allowed to decay and become very dilapidated. Since the building of the Hackenthorpe Housing Estate in the 1950s Sheffield Corporation have become owners of the property.
The museum room (old warming room) and the coal room
A re-born again!
Fortunately unlike other sites, the bath house still exists, probably as a consequence of the first floor being used as community centre. The cold bath was derelict and rubbish strewn, but a splendid restoration has been undertaken. The bath house can be found in a small wooded dell in the housing estate. Despite predations by vandals on the house, the interior reveals an impressive oval stone lined cold bath with steps into the water either side. To the other side are a small collection of artefacts and the history of the site. There is also the store room where coal was stored for the warm bath which no longer exists.
Birley Spa is now open for special events and the first Saturday in the summer months; however it is best to check that the site is open as it is open by volunteers. It can be viewed from the outside when closed and can be reached off the A1635 take Occupation Lane then Birley Spa Lane on the left and once passing a school on the left there is a lane going into the woods on the left by a side, down here is the Spa. There is some parking.
Revised from Holy wells and healing springs of Derbyshire.
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