Becket’s Well, Otford, Kent

by Norman Darwen

On Sunday 8th February 1987, my wife and I travelled to the delightful village of Otford, a couple of miles from Sevenoaks in Kent. Otford is a very ancient settlement lying in the Darenth valley, and the Pilgrim’s Way runs through its centre, where there is a circular duck pond, the Church of St Bartholomew (of Saxon origin) and a very conspicuous tower, which is all that remains of the Medieval Archbishops’ Palace. Several guidebooks we had read mentioned Becket’s Well, stating that it lay behind tall iron railings, but all giving the impression that it could at least be visited.

After looking round the church, we followed the instructions given in Christopher John Wright’s A guide to The Pilgrim’s Way and North Downs Way, taking the left hand path in the graveyard leading to the Railway Station and running alongside a meadow. We looked for the tall railings on the right. Following the path all the way, we came to ‘Well Road’, without finding any trace of the well. Eventually when we had come to the end of the road, we found a man cutting wood who told us that the well does still exist and is now the source of water for a fish farm, and that as it is now on private land, we would need to make an appointment to see it.

A little further on, at the house indicated as belonging to the owner of the fish farm, there was a woman stacking logs, who as it turned out was the owner. We asked her about the well, and she replied very emphatically that it is now on private property. She told us that previous visitors to the well had not known how to behave, leaving gates open and dropping litter, and as a result visits are not encouraged. However, after relating that the well had been full of junk when they had taken it over, and ‘anyway, it’s not really a well, it’s more like some sort of Roman bath’, she decided we could see it.

It was easy to understand why she had thought it was a Roman bath. The well is a large square tank 36 feet by 19 feet, stone lined and at one time covered by a wooden roof. Although this site was once visited by pilgrims on their way to Canterbury, there is now no opportunity for meditation, as two large pumps shatter the peace and cause large waves on the surface of the still crystal clear water. Recent excavations have revealed the presence of a Roman villa in the vicinity of the well. The legend of the well’s origin is that St Thomas Becket needed a water supply near to his palace and struck the ground with his staff, whereupon water immediately began to flow.

For anyone visiting Otford who does not get permission to visit the well, it cannot be seen from the path leading east from the church, but its site can be ascertained; about two ‘hundred yards up the path, look right across the meadow, and about 100 yards away can be seen an old bath, a fence and a pile of stones. The fence actually surrounds the well, and the pile of stones, which consists of the same Medieval masonry as that which lines the well, is on the far side of it.

There is another well in Otford, also on private property – the owner of the fish farm told us it lies on the other side of the church from her house, and just next to the church is a large house called ‘Colet’s Well’. I was unable to find out any more about this.

Text © Norman Darwen (1989)

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