As the restrictions on travel have been largely lifted we are all free to visit holy wells again further afield so this is my last armchair visit – hopefully!
Waltham Abbey in Essex was said to have been fed by a series of well recorded Holy Springs which were granted to the Abbey by William of Wormley. It gave them the right to fish in the piscina of Wormele, and all the fountains. Wormley, itself was an estate conferred by Edward the Confessor to Waltham’s college of secular cannons, founded by Harold in 1060. This was later re- founded as an Augustinian abbey. In 1220-1222, a conduit was laid to take water in lead pipes from Wormley, about three miles away. The granting of the rights to the springs, and the laying of this facility is well recorded in a Manuscript (Harl. MS 391 folio 6). The springs were called ‘fons Wrmeleiae’, and appear to have been situated on property adjoining the main road on the east, and bound on the north by the Parish boundary, and on the south by Wharf Road. Despite what would have been a distance from the Abbey!
This area has been known as Small Wells: the conduit started here. The manuscript shows an elaborate sketch is given, with several streams and three springs: a main pipe carries the water from a pool over a bank of clay into another large pool. On the south of this were two pipes or outlets intended to carry off waste water, and to convey water for washing. It continued eastward to Waltham Abbey.
In 1907, a large section of wooden conduit was discovered in Slipe Lane. Using the early documents as their source, Waltham Abbey Historical Society sought the site(s) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Excavations were made at Smallwells, but nothing was discovered. Further excavations were made to the site and grounds of Springs House, further south from Smallwells. A survey of Cheshunt dated 1562 shows ‘the conduite crofte’. Although, now in the Parish of Cheshunt, it is believed that it was in Wormley. This revealed a trough three feet wide and one foot deep in the centre, formed in a stone layer about four feet below modern ground level, and largely filled with silt. This could not be dated but appeared to be a leet. Despite this nothing conclusive was discovered. The exact site appears to have been lost. Or has it?
Perhaps the springs did not arise at Small wells. An interesting possible alternative is described by John Edward Cussans in his History of Hertfordshire (1870-3) and again on a visit by the East Herts Archaeological Society, who visited it in 1902. These ‘once celebrated Chalybeate springs’ lay in the meadow adjoining the house of Stanstedbury. Indeed the East Herts Archaeological Society suggest was the source for Waltham Abbey’s water supply, as the house was one of their granges. Interestingly, the report continues to state that one of the springs flows into the cellar part of the house called the Monk’s chapel, where a piscina and ambry are found.
In research for my Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Hertfordshire I approached the owners, the Trowers, in the early 1990s. They said they were happy to explore the site including the cellar. I arrived and saw that there were springs in the grounds close to the house. One arising in a roughly square grey stone structure, parts of which appear old, possibly mediaeval at the base, but the water arises in a black boggy hole. There was also nearby a circular brick well head, but has been filled in, and appeared Victorian. Close to this is a deep square well which is still full of water, covered by a concrete domed structure (like a pigsty). I was informed by Mr. Trower, the owner that he has to remove iron from their own water supply hence the chalybeate springs were still present.
The water from the well head appears to flow towards the house, which would be concurrent with view of the water entering the cellars. However, despite scrambling about for some time beneath the great hall in the cellar, I could not locate this piscina and ambry. It would appear to have been lost when the room above was deepened by shortening the cellar beneath in the 1930s. This required the walling to be improved and now it is red-bricked. Mrs. Trower remembers that the cellar was very damp. Why there should be such a chapel is unclear, possibly it was designed to continue Catholic mass after the Reformation, but as Mrs. Trower noted the property was never in the hands of a recusant family although it perhaps it was part of an under croft for the grange. Interestingly, I had heard of the springs were developed as a spa but the Trowers had never heard of this, and their family had been there for a long period; nor have I found any evidence other than the springs being celebrated.
Were these springs the Holy Springs of Waltham Abbey? The distance is the problem of course Stansted Abbotts is even further away than Wormley. Perhaps they were both owned by the Abbey but not as direct water supplies as such but as waters for the communities there perhaps as holy wells and the revenue went to the Abbey?
St Kenelm’s Well is not a tradition rag well location (although there is circumstantial evidence of the custom in Worcestershire) and the nature of the clooties left suggest a pagan association perhaps. Below is a photo archive of a visit in 2011.
Prayer flags at the well
Ribbons, bells and fake flowers the most common cloottie
Some more traditional cotton handkerchiefs
Found down a quiet lane, called Plemstall Lane near the church, is this well named after 9th century saint and Archbishop of Canterbury. The earliest record of the well is in 1302 but doubtlessly the settlement itself derived from Plemstow and supposedly where the saint lived a hermit life on a supposed island on which the church now stands, the spring arising at the base of its cliff. Plemstall taking its name from the saint.
Who was St Plegmund?
Rotha Mary Clay in her 1914 Hermit and anchorites of England states that Plegmund, an Eremite (lived) in the Isle of Chester’. He rose to a position of high office, being promoted Prinate of all England during King Alfred 871-899 AD being a learned individual noted for his writings and translations. He travelled to Rome to be consecrated the 19th Archbishop of Canterbury by Pope Formosus. Following the death of King Alfred, Plegmund crowned Alfred’s son, Edward the Elder. He continued to be Archbishop of Canterbury until his death in 923 AD and is buried in Canterbury Cathedral. There is no evidence of his association with the well as sadly, the earliest reference to the well is a 1301 quit rent.
The well today
The present structure was erected by Mr Osborne Aldis in 1907 is curbed with stones with steps down to the water. The site was dedicated by the Venerable E. Barber, Archdeacon of Chester, on 11 November 1907. A Latin couplet was placed on the stone supposedly reading:
“Here, as in days when Alfred erst was King, Baptismal water flows from Plegmund’s spring.”
Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews reported that in 1995 a survey of the well was carried out. This failed to find the slabs in added in 1907 but revealed that the well was a square stone-lined pit which had on either side two large slabs. The bottom of the well was a ceramic pipe inserted at a later date and there was water covering the first step as there was when I first visited. In 2002 a substantial wrought iron structure bearing the saint’s name and date was erected making the site easy to find.
As noted by the signage, site was supposedly used for baptisms and was called the church well or Christening well, and is mentioned in Churchwardens’ accounts, although this may be another well. In the 1990s rags, or clootties, have been placed around the site, and attached to a hawthorn overhanging the tree. However, there does not appear to be any folklore or historical reference to this activity at this site and it has probably been transferred by those in the know! However, there is a tradition of hanging rags at Alderley Edge in the same county so it may be traditional. According to Richards (1947), that:
“on Sunday, August 14th, 1938, the Saint’s Day, a large body of Roman Catholics made a pilgrimage on foot to the well.”
This was probably started by the curate at St Werburgh’s Chester at the time, Canon Frank Murphy. Canon Frank Murphy was clearly highly devoted to the saint, the church had stained glass windows of St Plegmund and the church hall opened by the Canon in 1971 is also dedicated to him and has stained glass featuring him. Curates Frs Gerry Courell and Peter Sharrocks in the 1970s, remember that there was an annual pilgrimage to the well from St Werburgh’s probably from the time Canon Murphy returned as the parish priest in 1959. When it ceased is unclear although in the late 1990s, Chester City Council archaeologists lead local children on a well dressing walk on the 2nd of August St Plegmund’s feast day. The children on arrival would informally dress the well inspired by the rags hanging nearby. This is said to have ceased in 2000,but according to stcolumbachester.wordpress.com a pilgrimage returned in 2016, The website states:
“On 11 Sept 2016, Fr Jonathan together with 11 parishioners representing 3 generations of St Columba’s and St Theresa’s parishes, revived the tradition of walking to the nearby well of St Plegmund. It was a lovely warm sunny day for the 3.6 mile walk which is now mostly along the Millennium Greenway. We said prayers at the well and were then welcomed with tea and chocolate biscuits by Mike, the verger to St Peter’s at Plemstall where we were impressed by the carvings mostly done by the Rev Toogood in the last century. There followed a picnic in the historic graveyard before a leisurely walk back to St Columba’s.”
Now since 2000 a Peak District style well dressing has been undertaken. Cheshire-Live website notes:
“THE annual tradition of well dressing is taking place in a Cheshire village this weekend. Volunteers in Mickle Trafford have been preparing the well dressing in the scout hut on School Lane in readiness for the blessing of St Plegmund’s Well ceremony on Sunday. Helpers include efforts by the Village Well Dressing Group, Mickle Trafford Primary School pupils and the Cestrian Scouts group. They have been providing decorations for the well and will transport their completed display from the scout hut to the well on Saturday in preparation for the ceremony. Only natural materials are permitted to be used within the display. The blessing of the well ceremony was originally intended to mark the new millennium but proved so successful it was decided to make the occasion an annual tradition. This year’s theme for the well is astronomy, with previous years’ displays based upon Alice in Wonderland, Hogwart’s Express and Creatures Great and Small.”
Themes varied from Royal Britannia to although this appears to have died out in 2010.
Sadly, no water flows through the well now said to be the result of a nearby Shell plant lowered the water table, but it clearly continues to be celebrated locally and provide a local connection to the age of saints. It is nice to hear of a village remembering its name’s original connection
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.
A fragment of cream coloured cloth is a curious exhibit piece at Oxford Universities’ Pitt Rivers museum. It states:
“Votive rags from St Helen’s Well, Thorp Arch near Boston Spa, West Yorkshire 1884.140.331 is an example of the votive rags that were tied to a tree near a well.”
Interestingly it also notes:
“Oddly this item was not accessioned into the Pitt Rivers Museum collections until the 1990s though it had lain in the museum for over a hundred years by then.”
This rag is perhaps unique being the only museum example of a rag taken from a rag well (considering the folklore associated with such sites I would be interested what happened to the collector). It is fitting to have this record of one of the countries most famed rag wells. For outside the famed Clootie Well and Madron Well, St Helen’s Well, Thorp Arch is perhaps the most famed rag well; one which today only a memory survives perhaps –and this acquisition is interestingly the earliest reference to the site. The earliest published reference is in A Thousand miles in Wharfedale by Edmund Bogg (1892) refers to it as:
“St Helen’s or the Wishing Well, which is often visited by young men and maidens… In a clump of trees near the river, hanging on the roots of the trees, are some scores of gewgaws left by anxious lovers, who suppose the well holds some subtle efficacy or charm.”
A gewgaw would appear to refer to rags as the dictionary definition being a showy thing, especially one that is useless or worthless. A term which has largely fallen out of usage since the Victorian times.
Our next reference is Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary Lore of Holy Wells. He explicitly now refers to rags, as he notes that:
“It was usual for those who consulted the oracle at this well to make an offering there of a scrap of cloth. This was fastened to an adjoining thorn, which, being literally covered with pieces of, rag, presented a peculiar appearance.”
Harry Speight (1902) Lower Wharfedale visited St. Helen’s Well he notes in reference to a cross:
“This interesting relic of the ancient faith was discovered here, hidden among brushwood near the celebrated spring which bears St. Helen’s name. Whitaker thinks that the distinguished lady had crossed the ford of Wharfe, and that in all probability she had drank at this well, which for centuries afterwards became a very popular resort of religious votaries, particularly from the vicinity of York. Subsequently a chapel was erected on the spot, which was standing in Leland’s time, but the Reformation did away with most of these wayside oratories, and not a stone now remains.
He description of the rag custom seems to suggest it was by his time in abeyance:
Such, however, was the fascination of this time-honoured spot, that down even to our own time pilgrimages continued to be made to the holy fountain, and bits of metal or pins were thrown into the water, or ribbons were attached to the adjoining bushes (as many as forty or fifty have been seen within living memory), in propitiation of the good cause of St. Helen and Christianity. The water is beautifully soft and clear, and in former times was much resorted to as a specific for sore or weak eyes.”
By the time that C.N. Bromehead wrote an article entitled ‘Rag Wells,’ in Antiquity IX, March 1935 he visited the well he recorded that:
“There is now no well or visible spring, but from the position at the lower margin of a gravel terrace it is obvious that water would be obtained by digging a few feet; a small stream flows just east of the site.”
Yet despite its lost he noted that:
“It is curious that the hanging of rags should survive when the actual well has vanished, but the writer has visited the spot many times in the last seven years and there are always plenty of obviously recent additions. The custom is to stand facing the well (i.e., due west), preferably after sunset, wish, and then attach something torn from one’s clothing either to the big tree — wych elm — or to any of the bushes.”
Like a precursor of the lovelocks folk craze now current everywhere the author then continues to observe:
“Probably the custom is largely maintained by vagrants who frequently camp in the wood, but it also has its attraction for courting couples from the neighbouring villages!”
Certainly the final nail in the coffin was in 1940 when a munitions factory called ROF Thorp Arch was opened following compulsory purchase of the land. This made St Helen’s Lane and the Rag Well out of bounds until 1958 when the site was closed. According to Pastscape historical record that in 1958 it recorded:
“St. Helen’s Well (a Votive or Rag Well) still used as such. The Well, now dry and overgrown, has no associated masonry, and appears to have been a simple spring.”
This appears to be to the contra of the fact the munitions factory had emasculated the custom. Yet it was doubtless on the way out for by 1963, this entry had been updated to read:
“There are no visible remains of the chapel, but the contour of the ground in the vicinity of the well, suggests a natural hillock at SE 45134583 as the probable site.
However even in the 2000s ribbons could still be seen in the vicinity but whether these were placed by locals seeking a cure or local pagans keen to continue the tradition is unclear but it is interestingly that one of the most famous English rag wells lives on. I only wish that those who had attached the current rags were aware of the that original in Oxford and ensured that their examples were cotton based!
Bedfordshire is a bit of forgotten county when it comes to research into holy wells but a digging into a range of resources coupled with field work indicates that the county does have a number of interesting sites. St Chad’s Well at Pertenhall is one such site. I was first made aware of the site reading Haunted Britain by Anthony Hippisley Coxe being one of only two holy wells he mentions in the county. It is also worth noting that despite an inclusion in Charles Hope’s 1893 Legendary lore of holy wells it has been largely forgotten. The author records:
“The other day, in passing through Pertenhall, I noticed the Chadwell Spring, at Chadwell End, to be a big one. At one time it was proposed to have a drain to carry the water to Kimbolton, a distance of seven miles. Within the last few years much water from this spring has been bottled, and used for sore eyes. The parish church is dedicated to St. Peter, and formerly Pertenhall was Saint Peter’s Hall, and there were seven churches altogether in the parish once on a time, so my informant, an old inhabitant I chanced upon, asserted.–A. C. G. Cameron, H.M. Geological Survey. March 14, 1891.”
When J. Steele Elliott compiled Bygone water supplies in 1933 he wrote:
“The water was referred to in 1806 for its ferruginous valves…Yields a considerable flow..”
By the time that Hippisley Coxe in his 1973’s Haunted Britain arrived he recorded another name:
“At Chadwell End, the southern part of the village, is Holy Spring (originally St Chad’s Well)
“where only eighty years ago water was bottled and used for sore eyes. The spring lies off Chadwell Farm, 200 yards to the west, through the farmyard, over a wooden bridge Miss Banks, the farmers’ daughter may not only give you permission to visit it, but also show the way. No building remains.”
The Bedfordshire County Council stated that:
“It is well documented that during the last century it was thought that the water in this well had curative properties, especially for eyesight problems, and people came from miles around hoping to cure their ailments.”
It is St Chad’s Well or Chadwell?
There is a distinction. There are a large number of wells named Chadwell particularly in the eastern part of the country.
Like quite a number of so called Chad Wells it is more likely to be derived from the Old English ceald meaning ‘cold’ and indeed it was called Chawdwell in 1607 according to Allen Mawer and F. M. Stenton’s 1926 The Place-Names of Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire. On this basis it appears not and indeed Steele Elliott notes that the name Cadwell is recorded in 1712-14.
Bedfordshire was part of Mercia where Chad lived but there is no evidence his visited this area of Bedfordshire. Furthermore, although the manor once belonged to the Knights Templar there is no evidence that the group either utilised the well or named it. However, Elliott does that there is a record of a Nun’s Well in the same parish but he does not give a location so perhaps this site and the Nun’s well are the same? Is Anthony D Hippisley Coxe naming of the site Holy Spring a clue?
The site today
A glance of the current O/S map shows in blue writing Chadwell spring in an indistinct location at the confluence of footpaths. Elliott shows a photo (see below) of the site which appears to show a spring flowing at some speed into a circular possibly stone lined basin.
Before decide to explore its current state my attention was drawn to the Bedfordshire County Council (2002) notes that:
“The well is still there today but in a poor state of repair, although the Parish Council are hoping to undertake restoration work in the near future.”
Bedfordshire 2002 – Issue 19, June 2002
Therefore I was expecting to see some sort of structure in line with Elliot perhaps. However the site is difficult to line up with his photo. It is possible that the site has been tanked although one can hear the sound of water flowing into a small pool of clear water but one could note easily reach this area. Not exactly derelict and just about observable from the footpath although the spring itself probably lies off of it. Clearly a spring of considerable importance but whether St Chad was there it seems very unlikely!
As noted last month due to the fact we are in lock down I shall continue to visit the holy wells via Youtube. This time we are visiting Scotland and we start with an excellent overview of the folklore given some while back by some unknown researcher! 🙂
Dear followers and casual readers, as Covid-19 spreads across the globe and around 80% of the World’s population are in Lock Down the chances of any of us visiting a holy well are less than usual – unless its on our recreational walk or like me its under the house! Therefore I thought I’d post some Youtube videos which enable us to travel to holy wells from the comfort and perhaps frustration of our armchairs. I plan to focus on an area each month until the Lock Down period is over in the UK – sorry the rest of the world!
This month – Wales
A great introductory lecture