A Marlow Well

by Alan Cleaver

Ask 99 per cent of the people in Harlow, Buckinghamshire, about their holy well and they will not be aware they have got one. But, spurred on by the Holy Wells Research & Preservation Group, I and three other researchers tracked down its location.

I had only found one account of the well. A chapter in The Story of Bisham Abbey by Piers Compton (1973) was devoted to the well. Bisham Abbey is an old mansion just outside Marlow now converted to a sports training centre for the England football squad and other top teams.

Mr Compton’s account was obviously drawing on old records which, so far I have not tracked down. As usual, it was only because a Bishop tried to stop people visiting the well that we know now of its existence.

The well was supposed to cure people – particularly those with bad eyesight. The 14th century account also told of a bird that sat in a tree overhanging the well. The bird was so tame it could be handled quite easily.

A hermit soon took up residence ‘In the tree’ with the bird and no doubt shared offerings left by pilgrims in the bird’s nest. An attempt by Bishop Erghum of Salisbury to cover the well with stones and stop its use was foiled by some ‘sons of the devil’ from Marlow and neighbouring High Wycombe who removed the stones and restored the well to its former use.

Mr Compton’s account ends by saying the water was analysed in 1905. This suggests the well was still known about at that time. His account of the well gave some idea as to its location and the formation of the Holy Wells Research & Preservation Group gave me an incentive to try and track it down. I was also in the midst of forming the Wycombe local paranormal research group ‘Strange’ and thought it would be a good project for them to work on.

The Running Well Mystery by Andy Collins (1983) had, of course, given me an insight as to what could be achieved with the simple task of rediscovering a holy well.

On the morning of January 6th, Caroline Wise, John Merron, Chesca Potter and myself set off in search of the well. Near to Bisham Abbey runs a stream and we followed this back along its course. We occasionally followed a small tributary to see if it led to the well.

One of the tributaries led to a small clump of trees and I rushed on wondering if this could be the well. The others arrived and an examination of the water’s source and the surrounding banks confirmed it was the well.

As with most holy wells, it was a spring coming out from the chalk hills. It was beautifully clear and tasted delicious as well! In the banks were old brick walls, possibly Victorian in origin, and indicating that it had once been properly built-up.

It is now in a state of bad repair and perhaps when ‘Strange’ is able to spare some time the ‘sons of Marlow of High Wycombe’ will strike again and restore the well to its former glory!

We tried some psychic work while we were at the well. John, Caroline and Chesca tuned in to try and obtain some information about the well or its history. They came up with some interesting remarks which when followed up by myself or other members of ‘Strange’ may reveal some important clues.

But Caroline also realised the synchronicity of the time and date we had discovered the well. It was about 4:15 p.m., the time the moon – a full moon – was rising into the sky. The importance of the moon with wells is discussed by Andy Collins in The Running Well Mystery.

The date, January 6th, was the Epiphany, the night according to Christian tradition that the Kings first set eyes on the baby Jesus. It was an important date in the pagan calendar as well, and was marked in many parts of the country by bonfire celebrations. It is the 12th day of Christmas and the rhyme The Twelve Days of Christmas ends with the lines ‘…and a partridge in a pear tree,..’, echoing the 14th century account in which the tame bird is described as sitting in the tree next to the well!

There was a surprise waiting for us at the well. Next to it is a huge oak tree with a circumference of probably ten or fifteen feet. I am not expert enough to judge the age of oak trees but even if it isn’t the tree referred to in the 14th century accounts, it is almost certainly one of its descendants.

The account of the bird sitting in the tree intrigues me. I have heard of many holy wells having trees besides them. But a bird? And a hermit? I wonder if any other readers have any information about wells with these side stalls?

Our research on the well has only just started and it is hoped to try and discover some of the historical records referring to it and some of the legends about the well. We also want to trace the owner and seek permission in the future to renovate the well. It is on private land.

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