First noted by P.F.S Amery in his 1882 Old Ashburton: Being Recollections of Master Robert Prideaux, (Attorney-at-Law) 1509–1569 as:
‘Gulwell, a short distance down the Totnes road, in the corner of the vicar’s glebe field, which was called after St Gudula, the ancient patroness of blind folk. A stone cross… stood by… The tall stone still gives the name of Stone Park to the vicar’s field’.
St Gudula’s is one of the best known of Devonshire wells but whether it is a holy well or back derivation of its name is a matter of discussion as well shall discuss.
Who was St Gudula?
The most likely source recommended by Sabine Baring-Gould in his 1899–1902 A Book of the West is a little known 6th century Celtic evangelist who is claimed to have converted Brittany called St. Gudwal as Terry Faull, 2004 Secrets of the Hidden source, emphatically states:
“local interpretation of St. Gulwell who is also known as St. Wulvella, and was sister of Saint Sidwell of Exeter. They are claimed to have been the daughter of royalty being probably born in Wales.”
However, the site is dedicate to St Gudula who was born in Hamme, Flanders in around AD 648 and was associated with healing the blind. This appears to be what the plaque at the well claims:
‘This Well, The Waters Of Which Are Said To Be Good For Weak Eyes, Was Dedicated To St Gudula, The Ancient Patroness Of The Blind. The Cross (Probably 14th Century) Was Removed Prior To 1510. It Was Restored, Re-Erected, And Presented To The Parish Of Ashburton, 1933’.
However, this seems very unlikely and it would be more reasonable to assume that some learned antiquarian, probably Amery, has associated the saint with the site due to its name and properties – the name is being more likely be descriptive about it forming a gully.
The origins of the cross
William Crossing in his 1902, The Ancient Stone Crosses of Dartmoor and its Borderland, says:
‘we shall not find the cross here, but at a farm a little further on, which bears the same name as the well… This consists of the shaft only, and… I learnt in 1892 from the late Mr Perry, the owner of Gulwell, who was then eighty-three years of age, that it was in its present situation in the time of his grandfather’
Even more confusing is that there is a well at Gulwell Farm and it is possible that this the real site especially if we re-read what Crossing states he suggests that the cross was brought from another site. “and if it really was brought from the spring it must be long ago”, does that suggest that someone decided to transfer the site to another spring and to emphasise it move the cross! Faull (2004) states it was returned to its original site in 1933 as noted by the plaque of course.
The current situation
Even more confusing is that there is a well at Gulwell Farm and it is possible that this the real site especially if we re-read what Crossing states he suggests that the cross was brought from another site. “and if it really was brought from the spring it must be long ago”, does that suggest that someone decided to transfer the site to another spring and to emphasise it move the cross! Faull (2004) states it was returned to its original site in 1933 as noted by the plaque of course as noted by the 10th March 1933 Western Times. It recorded that it was re-erected by some unemployed men after being recovered from the location where it had been for several generations. It also notes at the same time it was planned to restore the well but there was not enough money available.
The most noted of these was the King’s Well. This was an early minor spa, which was associated at first with James I, who took its waters whilst at Theobald’s Palace. It is said that he had made a number of visits to take the waters from there and became to popularise it.
However, it was granted royal name from Charles II in 1660. Scots pines were planted at the site in the King’s honour. It is believed that many wealthy gout sufferers built themselves mansions along Cooper’s Lane such as the 1668 Northaw Place and this resulted in Cuffley’s development. The well continued to be popular but perhaps not fully developed for the next three hundred years. It is recorded that by 1850 however, the well had long fallen into disuse
Certainly by the time of Septimus Sutherland’s 1915 Old London’s Spas, Baths and Wells work:
“The spring was situated in the valley at Lower Cuffley, on the way to Cheshunt, but cannot now be easily traced.”
A few details are recorded of its structure. Stanley Foord in his 1910 Springs, Streams, and Spas of London notes of “The low wall” and there is record of marble fountain head was erected there. Foord continues to say of the low wall.
“which enclosed it has long since gone, and the spring itself, by subsoil draining around it, can now with difficulty be traced.”
I did think that this marble structure may still exist buried at the locale, but sadly, but back in the 1990s a field walk to this remote location revealed nothing. However, it is possible that the site I was surveying and that marked on the maps until 1951 was not the correct site. This is emphasised by a brief note by Brian Warren in the Potters Bar and district historical society newsletter of September 2001 who explored the facts behind its location. He stated that:
“The key map, included with the 1807 Northaw Enclosure Award indicated there were two wells, the first was ‘The King’s Well’ near the brick kilns on “Northaw Common. Secondly the Warren Allotment contained the medicinal spring called Northaw Wells. The ma sbpwed the Northaw wells to be north-east of the brickfield. However, the Drury and Andrews map of Hertfordshre 1766 and a map of Northaw common by Thomas Baskerfield c1700 showed the medical waters to be due east of the brickfields From this evidence one can see that the Ordnance survey had marked the Northaw Wells as the King’s well. Further evidence to support this conclusion is to be found in Mr Binyon’s Notebook (mid 19th century) where he noted the King’s Well ‘in a bottom’ (cf Carbone Bottom, Home wood), the ordnance survey’s position was halfway up a hill.”
This suggests that the site marked on the OS map is erroneous. It does mark a mineral spring the Northaw one. This I missed in my original gazetteer but in my defence so does Foord and Sutherland who call it Northaw Water and Northaw Spring. However it is mentioned in the Comprehensive gazetteer of England and Wales of 1894-5 as Northall which states:
“Mineral spring is at Cuffley, and another mineral spring was on Northaw Common, now enclosed, but has been choked up.”
Sadly although one could hope that a misplacement may result in some relics of the King’s Well surviving. Gerald Millington in his 1975 Cuffley with Northaw suggests that:
“a comparison with the modern ordnance survey map places the well in the ground of the present day pumping station.”
A very likely location of course, which is nearer to Well’s Farm and sadly one which would have obliterated any remains.
Of the wells curative properties, Dr. Monro in his 1770 Treatise on Mineral Waters speaks of analyses made by Dr. Rutty at Dublin of this and of the Barnet spring. He notes that there was not much difference between them but the latter was the stronger tasted of the two ; neither of them were very powerful. A list of cures has noted survived but it is suggested that gout could be eased by drinking it.
Its water was said to be a saline chalybeate which is surprising if it has been used as a mains water supply. Older residents (in the 1950s) remember that it was poor for making tea. For when the hot water was added the clear water became inky. This was due to the iron in the water reacting with the tannin. Foord (1910) states that:
“The Northaw water must have contained a considerable quantity of iron, as a favourite diversion of the inhabitants was to induce strangers to make tea with it. Though perfectly colourless, as soon as the boiling water was poured on the tea the iron combined with the tannin, and formed a kind of ink — as much to the astonishment of the tea-makers as to the delight of the practical jokers.”
Its unfortunate that no relic of this site or rather sites survive. One wonders what happened to that marble fountain head!
Mermaids are traditionally thought of as a marine phenomena but there are a number of freshwater accounts such as that noted in Herefordshire, three in Suffolk (Bury St Edmunds, Rendelsham, Fornham All Saints) and another in Gloucestershire at Timsbury. The peak district probably because of its remote and desolate landscape claims two!
The first is associated with the Black or Blake Mere a small pond of irregular shape, lying in a little hollow on the summit of the high hill of Morridge, about three and a half miles. from Leek in Staffordshire. The pond appears to have a reputation of being haunted. In the pages of The Reliquary, Camden quoting Nicham, says it is:
“A lake that with prophetic noise doth roar; Where beasts can ne’er be made to venture o’er— By hounds, or men, or fleeter death pursued, They’ll not plunge in, but shun the hated flood.”
Robert Plot in his 1689 Natural History of Staffordshire notes that:
“no Cattle will drink of it, no bird light on it, or fly over it; all which are as false as that it is bottomless; it being found upon admeasurement, scarce four yards in the deepest place; my horse also drinking, when I was there, as freely of it as ever I saw him in any other place; and the Fowls are so far from declining to fly over it, that I spoke with several that had seen Geese upon it; so that I take this to be as good as the rest, notwithstanding the vulgar disrepute it lies under.”
Neither account mentions a mermaid and it is unclear when this creature is first applied to the site. One of the first accounts perhaps is Charlotte S. Burne 1896 notes in her “What Folkore is, and how it is to be collected” in the North Staffordshire Naturalists’ Field Club, Annual Report and Transactions. Two origins for the existence of this mermaid are given. One account states that she was a women ,who during a stormy night was drowned there by her lover after he discovered she was pregnant with his child. Another story suggests that she was a witch and was drowned by the local people. It is said that as she drowned she cursed the person who accused her and days later he was found clawed to death in the pool. Local people state that she can be seen combing her hair and enticing people to their death. She is also said to have warned locals who were draining the lake to check its depth by threatening to flood the local town of Leek – they subsequently stopped!
Mermaid’s Pool – geograph.org.uk – by Dave Dunford
Perhaps the more famous of the Peak’s merfolk is found in The Mermaid’s Pool a mysterious pool at the foot of Kinder Scout, a strange site which appears to be a relic of pre-Christian water worship particular as the water is said to have healing qualities. Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary lore of holy wells notes:
“There is a local tradition that a beautiful nymph ….who comes to bathe daily in the Mermaid’s Pool, and that the man who has the good fortune to see her whilst bathing will become immortal.”
It is likely that Hope is sourcing Henry Kirke’s 1869 article “The Mermaid’s Pool” in The Reliquary notes:
“At Old Oak Wood, near Hayfield, Derbyshire, is the Mermaid’s Pool, where a beautiful woman is said to enter the water every day, and whoever has the good luck to see her will become immortal and will never die.”
Hope records a tradition of someone who had seen the mermaid thus:
“The old folk of Hayfield, moreover, have a long story of a man who, sometime in the last century, went from Hayfield over the Scout, and was lucky enough to meet this mountain nymph, by whom he was conducted to a cavern hard by. Tradition adds that she was pleased with this humble mortal, and that he lingered there for some time, when she conferred on him the precious gift of immortality.”
The best time to find visit the Mermaid’s Pool is midnight on Easter eve when she could favour you with your wishes, but if she did not favour you she will drag you to your death!
It is possible of course that local production of methane gases produced willo-the-wisps which were seen as the mermaid but that would ruin a good story would it not? Or perhaps you might argue that someone caught the said mermaid and put it in Buxton museum! – go along and have a look!
Sometimes holy wells turn up in odd locations and the survival of a site in a very urban cityscape shows how such sites can survive despite the predations! For in the church is a pump which draws its water from the newly discovered spring found in the boiler house said to be St. Mary’s Well associated with a shrine to the Blessed Virgin or Black Virgin of Willesden. The origin of the shrine is unknown, but the first mention of a statue occurs in 1249, when an inventory of church goods mentions two large sculptured images of Our Lady. Legend has it that the shrine originated due to an appearance of Our Lady Mary in the Churchyard.
The celebrated black image of Our Lady was a centre of pilgrimage until its destruction at the Reformation. In 1535 the statue was torn down and taken to Chelsea and publicly burned on the same fire as the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham. Consequently, Henry VIII imposed a fine on the ‘idolatrous’ Church to be paid every year by the Priest and indeed it is clear that interest in the shrine did not wane at the destruction of the image. It is noted that a vision of the Holy Trinity was seen by a Dr. Crewkerne who in a conversation in with Our Lady, telling him to preach abroad and that she wished to be honoured at Ipswich and Willesden, as she had been once before. A restoration never happened during this period however. However, when Fr. James Dixon became Vicar in 1902, he restored the shrine and a statue of Mary and Jesus was placed in the Chancel and devotion to the shrine has been encouraged. In 1972 a new statue was made and pleased by the Bishop of London on the feast of Corpus Christi.
Of the well, J.T Gillet’s 1964 The History of Willesden notes that:
“There is a distant tradition that Our Lady appeared in an oak tree in the churchyard to a client, and that a well began to flow, at which miracles were wrought and which became noted for cures from blindness. The well was used until comparatively recent times, but then it was condemned as ‘unsanitary’ and was covered over.”
Jeremy Harte in his 2008 English Holy Wells notes that the tradition also appears to date to 1885, and was thus probably propaganda set up by a Catholic mission was set up to revive the mediaeval Marian shrine at Willesden, although the VCH (1969–2004) take it as evidence that:
‘the church was built on the site of a holy well possibly that which gives the settlement its name, first recorded in 939 by King Athelstan.’
An alternative tradition is recorded by John Norden in 1596. Norden (1723) Speculum Britanniæ: an historical and chorographical description of Middlesex and Hartfordshire which notes in relation to Alderman Roe’s a:
“springe of faire water, which is now within the compass of house”.
However of course this does not stipulate that this is a holy well nor the exact spring. Similarly, it is likely to refer to Willesden from the Anglo-Saxon Wiell-dun – hill of springs as noted in Nicholas Schofield’s 2002 Our Lady of Willesden, a brief history of the Shrine and Parish who also state
This is said to have been associated with pilgrimages to the Virgin’s shrine. The church website notes that:
“The water from the well is used extensively to this day, for Baptisms, anointing and mixing with the wine in the Chalice. On Saturday 4 July 1998, at the Annual Willesden Pilgrimage, a new Holy Well was dedicated enabling the healing Waters of Willesden to flow freely at St. Mary’s. The waters are available to be used in Church and to be taken away.”
Interestingly Foord appears to describe it as:
“in regard of a great cure which was performed by this water, upon a king of Scots, who being strangely diseased, was by some devine intelligence, advised to take the water of a Well in England, called Muswell, which after long scrutation, and inquisition, this Well was found and performed the cure’. Later this king was identified as Robert the Bruce (the Bruces held land nearby), and the illness was held to be leprosy.”
However is this another site?
The well is although described as now surmounted with a pump within the church, this appears to have gone and now a demijohn of water is found in the Lady Chapel. Apparently the source was rediscovered in 1998 but access cannot be granted.
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 […]
Sometimes mysterious creatures at wells and springs have mysterious origins and perhaps one of the most mysterious is Nanny Rutt, who is associated with an artesian well in Math Wood near Bourne, Lincolnshire.
The story tells of a young girl who arranges to meet her lover in the wood and sets out early in the evening and meets an old woman wrapped in a shawl which obscures her face. She warns of the dangers of the wood at night as well as why she should not elope without knowledge of her parents. She ignores this advice and reaches the well where she has arranged to meet her lover. Waiting for a long time she realises her lover is not going to come and it has become very late. With tears in her eyes she becomes hopelessly lost and stumbles upon an overgrown stone house in a clearing and there in its doorway is the old woman who’s face is revealed it the moonlight to be hideous. As the girl runs, the old woman’s shadow paralyses her and her throat becomes so dry she is unable to scream and is never seen again.
Math Wood adorned with bluebells – but no well!!
How old is it?
An interesting legend, who apart from the name of the Old women is very modern and resembles an ‘urban legend’. What is unclear is why there is a well included. Does this suggest that at some point it had a greater role? Did Nanny Rutt haunt the well? Was she another Jenny Greenteeth? Did the girl actually drown in the well?
Its origin is equally mysterious, neither the authors Eliza Gutch and Mabel Peacock in their Examples of Printed Folk-Lore Concerning Lincolnshire, Volume 5 or Ethel Rudkin in her Lincolnshire folklore , both very thorough folklore collectors in the turn of the last century
According to the Wikipedia entry, the earliest reference is 1920s, but the name Rutt is possibly very old deriving O.F rut the same origin as Latin rugitus both meaning ‘sexual drive’ and perhaps suggest a greater date. The contributor notes:
“It may be possible to suggest an explanation for the story of the disappearance. Perhaps at some date a girl took her developing sexuality into Math wood, met someone who complemented it and was soon taken off to a home for un-married mothers never to return to Northorpe. An explanation was required for the other young people and at a time of reticence about sexuality, Nanny Rutt was invented. If this happened when the use of the French language in England was remembered, the story is medieval. Nanny Rutt could also be based on a real woman who once lived in the wood”
Rutt could also reference rutting or a goat both again very sexualised! Nanny is a common name for a fairy character but equally for someone who might offer baby sitting!
Although the woods still exist I could find any evidence of a well on the 1880 O/S or current map, and according to my correspondence with local historian Rex Needle, he believed the whole story is made up, but when, why and by who and more importantly why include a well, name it after the main character, but do not explain why. In all it is a very confused story. Even more confusing is that since including the well in my work on Holy wells and healing springs of Lincolnshire the well is included in a geocache! Does it exist then?
St Chad’s Well at Stowe on the edge of Lichfield is perhaps one of the few such named wells with a direct link to the saint. The site has a more direct link as Thomas Dugdale’s 1817 County of Warwickshire states in his translation of the death of Saints Wulfade and Rufinus based on 14th century text that Wulfade the son of the pagan king Wulfhere of the Mercians was hunting when he pursued a white hart, and the wounded stag took him to the hermitage of St Chad:
“which he had built within the thickets of the wood on the edge of a spring, so that he might throw himself into its waters to overpower the heaviness of sleep and reawaken himself with its cold”.
St Chad took advantage of the occasion to preach to the prince, telling him that:
“as the hart desireth the water brooks, so he should seek after the cool grace of baptism, and Wulfade, converted by this analogy, consented to be baptised from the well. Rufinus soon followed the same course. At first his father was angry and killed his sons, but afterwards he repented and gave nobly to the Church. “
According to Simon Gunton’s 1686 History of Peterburgh Cathedral there were windows in the cloisters of Peterborough Cathedral, accompanied by mottoes apparently of the fifteenth century which told how
‘the Hart brought Wulfade to a Well and ‘That was beside Seynt Chaddy’s Cell.”
John Floyer discussing St Chad in his 1702 Essay to prove cold bathing both safe and useful proposes that:
“the Well near Stow, which may bear his Name, was probably his Baptistery, it being deep enough for Immersion, and conveniently seated near that Church; and that has the Reputation of curing Sore Eyes, Scabs, &c. as most Holy Wells in England do”.
Robert Hope in his 1893 Legendary Lore of Holy Wells states that the water was thought to be dangerous to drink because it caused fits. Septimus Sunderland’s 1915 Old London’s Baths, Spas and wells also met a woman who looked after the well who said that it still had a reputation for bad eyes and rheumatism and was known as a Wishing Well. Thomas Harwood in his 1806 The History and Antiquities of the Church and City of Lichfield states that at the well it was adorned with:
“…boughs, and of reading the gospel for the day, at this and at other wells and pumps, is yet observed in this city on Ascension Day.”
However, by the time of Langford (1896) he noted that it was but sadly shorn of its ancient glory. According to Skyking Walters’ 1928 Ancient Wells and Springs of the Cotswolds, the site was still decorated with flowers on Ascension Day, a tradition which continues today in a modern form similar to that seen in Derbyshire. The site despite being in the grounds of an Anglican church was the site of Catholic pilgrimages from 1922 until the 1930s (although an Anglican one visited in 1926)
In his Itinerary of c. 1540 (published 1906–10), John Leland reports that:
“Stowchurche in the est end of the towne, whereas is St Cedd’s well, a thinge of pure water, where is sene a stone in the bottom of it, on the whiche some say that Cedde was wont nakyd to stond on in the water, and pray.”
The stone mentioned by Leland was still there or a version of it in the 1830s as it was shown to any visitors who visited the site and appears to have had its own significance in cures and rituals at the well.
The tour diary of John Loveday, 1732 (published 1890) states in reference to Stowe church that:
“near it, in a little garden is St Chad’s Well, its Water is good for sore Eyes; it is of different colours in a very little time, as They say.”
According to the V.C.H. (1908–84), the well was cleaned in 1820 by the churchwardens as it had become only six feet deep and the supply of water had become reduced by the draining of local water meadows. The well basin itself had become filled up with mud and in 1830 a local physician James Rawson built an octagonal stone structure over the well bemoaning in the Gentlemen’s magazine in 1864:
“Whatever the well might have been originally, it had, by the year 1833, degenerated into a most undignified puddle, more than six feet deep . . . …..from two men of far-advanced age, in the year 1833, I learned that the supply of clear water around the well had become much lessened by the drainage of the lower meadows during the latter part of the eighteenth century, At all events, by the date first named here, the well-basin had become filled up with mud and filth; and on top of this impurity a stone had been placed was described by the sight-showers as the identical stone on which St Chad used to kneel and pray! For my own part, hoping by means of a public subscription to procure a new supply of water for the site of this ancient baptistry . . . I endeavoured to exclude the surface water of the old marsh land from the well, because of this surface water being loaded with orchre: and, as a feeder for the well, a supply of clear water was carefully obtained from the rock at a moderate distance, for close to the well a running sand became an impediment to the work. Over the well an octagonal building was erected with a saxon-headed doorway, and a stone roof surmounted by a plain Latin cross .”
It is interesting how a tradition soon built up around this new structure. Langford (1896) notes how wishes would be granted by placing one’s hand on a granite stone built into the well house, which was said to be that originally used by St. Chad.
By the early 1920s, the supply dried up and the well was lined with brick and a pump was fitted over the well and a special service was held in 1923 by the rector to officially open the pump. This created a revival. Catholic pilgrimages begun each year from 1922 to the 1930s and even an Anglican pilgrimage in 1926.
However by 1941 the well had become derelict, and after a commission set up by the Bishop of Lichfield it was restored in the 1950s, unfortunately replacing the 1840 octagonal structure with an open structure with a tiled roof (with R. Morrell in his 1992 Source article calls the Stowe bandstand). And so St Chad’s Well remains, not perhaps the most romantic of structures, but a link to those early Christian times.
“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!
One of the frequently encountered mysterious creatures near springs and wells, as well as other bodies is called Jenny Greenteeth. In an article in the Transactions and proceedings of the American Philological Association in 1895, Charles P.G. Scott notes in the Devil and his imps remarks:
“Jenny Green-teeth, in the vernacular Jinny Green-teeth, is the pretty name of a female goblin who inhabits wells or ponds.”
The name Jinny Green-Teeth is recorded in the Folk-speech of South Cheshire (1887) and A Glossary of Words Used in the County of Chester (1886) stating that:
“Children are often deterred from approaching such places [as wells or ponds] by the threat that “Jinny Green-Teeth will have them.”
Edwin Waugh notes in 1857 Sketches of Lancashire life and localities
“ lurking in the streams and pools, like ‘Green-Teeth,’ and ‘Jenny Long Arms,’ waiting, with skinny claws and secret dart, for an opportunity to clutch the unwary wanderer upon the bank into the water.”
Often description is given of this goblin and it appears to be restricted to the west of the country, with references made in the Notes and queries around Manchester, Birmingham and as far east as Shropshire. Roy Vickery in a piece on his excellent Plant-Lore blog reports an account from Bebington Merseyside in the 1980s:
“Although Jenny Greenteeth was usually unseen, in about 1920 the bogey which inhabited two pools beside Moss Pitts Lane in Fazakerley, ‘had pale green skin, green teeth, very long green locks of hair, long green fingers with long nails, and she was very thin with pointed chin and very big eyes.”
Moreover it is possible that in Lincolnshire the same goblin is encountered as Jenny Hearn, Hurn or Yonde. This name is found associated with a bend of the Trent at Owston Ferry was haunted by Jenny Hearn or Hurn or Jenny Yonde. Unlike Jenny Greenteeth the creature is described. In Lincolnshire folklore Ethel Rudkin reports:
“The pygmy propels the dish rapidly across the stream by means of a minute pair of oars, the size of teaspoons. It is said, that having reached shore this being crosses the road and proceeds to browse in the field. ‘Or again it is said that a ‘thing’ is known to come crawling out of the water, having large eyes, and long hair, and tusks a walrus. It goes into the fields to feed. The river bank here curves in the shape of a horse-shoe, consequently a short-cut footpath has been used for years to counteract this bend.”
A possible ancient origin of this creature is suggested by another Lincolnshire location: Jenny Stanny Well a site has appeared to have passed through a number of name changes. Abraham de la Pryme discussed it in his 1680 discussion of Lincolnshire described the well as Julian’s Stony Well and now it is called Stanniwell. The name is suggestive of a Roman heritage.
Here interestingly, the name Jenny Stanny well has been supported by the suggestion that the site is haunted by a ghost presumably of that girl who carries her head under her arm. She is said to have drowned in the water. Is this a confusion of the Jenny Greenteeth tradition?
Interestingly in Preston the goblin is associated with a holy well. In the anonymous 1852 piece A Prestonian, ‘Preston More than Forty Years Ago’ in the Preston Chronicle:
“Near Friargate, and not far from the houses now called Mount Pleasant, was ‘Lady well’, about which the superstitious old women used to tell strange tales of one ‘Jenny Greenteeth’, who was said to be occasionally seen riding on a broomstick, cutting wonderful capers.”
The association of drowning with Jenny Greenteeth is significant as it would seem that the folklore probably developed as a way to warn children off playing in dangerous areas of water. This being done by associating the goblin with algae and duckweed. A note in an 1820s version of Notes and queries records Jenny Greenteeth being a name for duckweed in Birmingham. In A Glossary of the Words and Phrases of Furness (North Lancashire) (1869) she is called
“Jinny-green-Teeth — green conversa on pools.
“green scum on ponds, but supposed to imply the presence of a water-sprite or “boggart”, a terror to children as they pass the pond on which the appearance is seen.”
This is emphasised by an article by A.R. Vickery, Lemna minor and Jenny Greenteeth, in Folklore 94: 247-50, 1983. whose correspondent noted:
“ I was brought up in the Upton/Crenton area of the west side of Widnes in Lancashire (now Cheshire) …It was and still is…a farming area and many of the fields contained contained pits – some of them have quite steep sides Jinny was well known to me and my contemporaries and was simply the green weed Duckweed, which covered the surface of stagnant water.”
Finally, it is interesting the correspondent also notes
“Children who strayed too close to the edge…would be warned to watch out of Jinny Greenteeth, but it was the weed itself which was believed to hold children under water. There was never any suggestion there was a witch of any kind there!”
And such does a folk tradition become diminished! However, it was a clever way to use a common plant of stagnant water to signify dangerous waters – pity it wasn’t used in 1970s Public information films – Dark and dangerous water!
Back in the 1990s I was busily researching for my Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Kent and was searching for two notable wells which existed on private grounds. Back in those well searching days there were really only three ways to find out if a site existed beyond someone else’s account and the appropriate map. These were – writing, turn up on spec and linked to the later try to see the well by doing a bit of exploring. As both laid firmly on private ground (and one a school) it seemed prudent to enact the first option. So I wrote and fortunately both were forthcoming so I arranged a day to explore them.
Lady Magdalene’s Well (TQ 707 333) is in fact one of a number of chalybeate springs which surround Combwell Priory, probably named after Mary. Although Combwell itself is a ‘modern’ building, it is constructed around the old priory, pieces of which are recognisable in its fabric. Nearby under a mound the un-excavated remains of other sections of the priory. Little is clear concerning its history. The earliest reference to the well is on a 1622 Combwell Estate map and Combwell Priory was granted a fair on St Mary Magdalene’s Day in 1226-7 so it is doubtlessly an ancient source.
Only a few years before my visit, the site was a boggy area. When I visited it is tanked and enclosed in modern brickwork (although there would appear to be signs of an earlier, probably Victorian structure). The overflow from the spring emerges as a stream a few feet from this structure. There is little here to excite the antiquarian. Mrs. Fehler, of Combwell Priory, informed me that it was used as drinking water at the house, although she suspected its quality, having a blue tinge. The carved bust of a woman, said to be a cook who foiled a Roundhead attack is of interest at the Priory. Mrs. Fehler refers to this as ‘The Combwell.’ Could it have been associated with the well? Perhaps the story was later constructed around the object to explain it.
The Lady’s Well
The Lady’s Well (TQ 341 721) is noted in blue italics on the map, with the words chalybeate spring beneath. It was located within the private Bedgebury School Estate. Although the name suggests a dedication to Our Lady, it is according to local historian Mr. Bachelor, its origin appears to be secular, deriving from Viscountess Beresford who resided at Bedgebury. To add to the confusion the well is now dedicated to a past Bedgebury School Headmistress. A plaque at the well records this. Yet despite this it is a pleasing site, the spring arising in a distinctive square sandstone well house, found nestling in a Rhododendron dell below the main building.
This structure, Romanesque in style, is six foot high, with water emerging through a pipe in its centre to fill a semi-circular basin set at its base. The structure’s condition suggests that it is of no great age and would correspond with early Nineteenth Century. Whether the water was taken for its waters, being a noted for its iron rich water like Tunbridge wells, is unknown. Since visiting the site is no longer enclosed in the grounds of the school as it closed in 2006 and the building is currently derelict.
Interestingly there was another chalybeate spring in the wider grounds of the school I did not visit and two more in the woods nearby – I did fail to visit these but no history or tradition was apparently recorded concerning these.