by Mark Valentine
C. Hope, in his The Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England, 1893, mentions only two examples in Buckinghamshire, at Aylesbury and North Marston. But his survey has been found to be inadequate for a number of counties, especially in the South, and this is once again the case.
For this study, I have relied mainly upon a detailed 19th century directory, the History and Topography of Buckinghamshire, Comprising a General Survey of the County… of James Joseph Sheahan, published London & Pontefract, 1862, reprinted by Paul P. B. Minet, Chicheley, Bucks., 1971 (but now unavailable again). In giving a description of each parish and its features and antiquities, Sheahan mentions a number of named wells, and others with particular traditions or reputed qualities.
In addition to the information extracted from Sheahan’s directory, I have used a few other sources which will be mentioned as they occur. All quotations are from Sheahan unless specified. Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to visit any of the locations mentioned to confirm what, if anything, survives. This is therefore the next stage in order for a proper survey of Buckinghamshire wells to emerge; and I would welcome any information that readers can provide, should they happen to visit any of these sites.
Hope records information received from a M. A. Smethurst concerning the Hartwell Springs of the town. Local tradition held that the name arose when Julius Caesar, invading Britain, saw a hart drinking at this site. The water was reputed to cure weak eyes, and other complaints (not specified); Smethurst could personally testify to having been cured of rheumatism by it. It is hardly necessary to add that Julius Caesar could never have been in this area, but that the name does nonetheless derive from a spring which was once a drinking place for deer.
‘The site of Boarstall House… about 3 acres, is encompassed by a very wide and deep moat… Within the moated area are several fine holly trees which denote age; and a deep well.’ Sheahan then reports that in 1645 the bells of the church were ordered to be melted down and sent to Oxford for use in cannon, but instead, according to local tradition, ‘they were buried in some part of the grounds of Boarstall House. We have been informed, on the spot, that Sir John Aubrey caused a search to be made for the bells in the well within the moated enclosure; that on a large stone covering the mouth of the well was noticed a cut inscription; that the stone was prised by means of leverage into a favourable position for deciphering the inscription; that one of the labourers who was assisting let the stone fall, by which fall his leg was broken; and that this accident cast such a gloom upon Sir John, that the undertaking was abandoned, and the stone was replaced – the inscription remaining a mystery, and the well unsearched.’ It may be noted that legends of drowned bells, and bells in rivers, pools and wells, are quite persistent, and this example, even if its origin is as late as 1645, is intriguing. (Nigel Pennick’s ‘Bell Lore’ in The Symbol magazine, Cambridge, 1984, gives details of other traditions).
On a prominent hill of 683 ft. in this parish is ‘a fine spring of pure water which has never been known to fail.’ I have included a few such descriptions, even though they do not directly show the well to be ‘holy’ or otherwise popularly regarded, for completeness, and in case further evidence is later found.
‘At Chinkwell Wood, about half a mile from Brill, is a spring of fine water which formerly issued from the breasts of a female figure in stone (a portion of which is remaining) and hence is called Old Woman’s Spring.’ Also, ‘In a field on the South side of the church, called Well Close, is a spring of excellent water.’ Sheahan also makes mention of a Ludd’s Well in this parish.
‘St Rumbald. A number of churches and wells were dedicated to this infant saint… to these springs the lame and blind resorted in large numbers, relying upon the healing qualities said to exist in the waters. The principal well at Buckingham appears to have been situated in the Prebend End of the town, not far from the Cross Keys Inn – this was filled up in 1830… Well Street too is doubtless a memorial… There was a religious fraternity or order called Gilde Sancti Romwald incorporated 12/11/1450.’
Other St Rumbald Wells flourished at Astrop, King’s Sutton (see A Hundred British Spas by Kathleen Denbigh, 1981 for a good description of this) and at Brackley, both Northants. According to legend , the saint was a Mercian prince who died aged 3 days after expounding upon aspects of the Christian faith, and instructing he should be buried at King’s Sutton, then Brackley, then Buckingham. His cult was remarkably persistent.
‘At Middle Weald in the village is a Chalybeate Spring called the “Bloody Balk” which is now filled in and all but forgotten.’ There was a legendary murder at the Manor House here, in either 1691 or 1693, of the squire’s widow, a Mrs Grace Benet. It is possible the spring has associations with that.
The village green had a venerable ‘fountain shaded by elm trees.’
‘In the Southern part of the parish, on the brow of a hill just below Dadbrook House, is a medicinal Spring, which rises in Haddenham parish, and was formerly of some celebrity. The water is received in a stone reservoir, near the highway, and is remarkably clear and pleasant to taste.’
This spring, which was for a brief period a spa with its own elegant, classical Pump Room, ornamental gardens and pleasant glades, may well have been noted since Saxon times, since Dorton means ‘the place of the waters.’ A description of its history and present condition are given in Kathleen Denbigh’s book mentioned above. A small brick hut now encloses the spring, which lies in Spa Wood, in the grounds of Ashfold Preparatory School.
Denbigh evokes the lost glories of the little spa as follows; ‘a splendid pump-room in the Regency classical style with an entrance on the eastern side consisting of a semi-circular portico supported by nine Corinthian pillars. Perhaps the most impressive feature of all was the tower, which was built to resemble the Winds of Athens. There were also fancy glades, a natural woodland stream and well laid-out gardens with flower-bordered footpaths… all that remains… is a decorative stalactite built into the water-garden of Dorton House and two broken pillars lying abandoned at the side of a marshy track through the dense undergrowth of the wood…’ Amongst the reasons for Dorton’s failure were the lack of suitable hotels or other accommodation for visitors, and the royal patronage of rival Leamington, by Princess Victoria in 1836.
The spring is chalybeate.
‘Botolph Claydon hamlet is situated on the SW side of the parish… There is a good spring called St Botolph’s Well.’ Botolph (Botulf) was a 7th century East Anglian abbot. No other wells are recorded as dedicated to him in Hope’s survey.
‘Steward’s Well, on the Manor Farm, (is) slightly chalybeate.’
‘Formerly there was a Chalybeate Spring in a field called the Digging, but all trace of it has been lost.’
In the Magna Brittania, vol. I, part III; Buckinghamshire of the Rev. Daniel Lysons & Samuel Lysons, London, 1813, there is the following; ‘Linchlade… had formerly a market on Thursdays, granted to William de Beauchamp in 1251. A fair was granted by the same charter, to be held for eight days at Lady-day. About that time there was a great resort of pilgrims, and frequent processions made to a holy well at Linchlade, which were prohibited in 1299, by a mandate of Oliver Sutton, bishop of Lincoln, who severley censures such resort to a profane (meaning, it is probable) an unconsecrated place. The vicar who, for his own emolument, had encouraged these pilgrimages, was cited to appear in the bishop’s court.’ George Lipscomb, in his 18th century History and Antiquities of the County of Buckingham gives details of the holy well’s location. It was ‘situated in the northern part of the parish, near the church’ but has been ‘wholly included in the line of the Grand Junction Canal, its precise situation was close to the western bank, a little north of the bridge leading into Linslade from the Grange Mill, and Bedfordshire.’
‘At the bottom of the hill, on the high road leading to Thame, is a fine spring of excellent water, protected by a neat brick work. The water issues from a fountain forming a lion’s head, and falls into a stone trough. An iron drinking ladle is chained to the building. The water is said to contain medicinal properties.’
‘There is a reputed “Chalybeate Well” here’ notes Sheahan, but gives no details.
Lipscomb mentions an old well ‘near the site of a large building, South of the village, which has been assigned by tradition as the depository of treasure. This well has been filled up. Some old tiles and the supposed remains of stone coffins found here have been forwarded to the Bucks. Architectural and Archaeol. Society by the Rev. Thomas Martyn.’
A spring near Bisham Abbey was described by Alan Cleaver in issue 1 of Source (First Series). Neither Sheahan nor the Lysons mention this site, evidence that even their information is not exhaustive. Sheahan does refer, however, to a hamlet called Well Head, in the parish of Little Marlow, but without explaining the name.
Sir John Schorne’s Well, one of the most noted and popular in England, is copiously described by both Sheahan and Hope. It takes its name from the rector of the parish 1290-1315, who is said to have miraculously founded the spring during a period of great drought, by striking the ground with his staff, whereupon a fount of crystal clear water emerged. The water was soon believed to have curative properties, and pilgrimages became widespread.
The well was 150 yards from the church, and according to Hope, consisted of ‘a cistern, 5 feet 4 inches square, and 6 feet 9 inches deep. This is walled around with stone, and has a flight of four stone steps descending into the water. The cistern is enclosed by a building… of brick and stone, about 5 feet high, and covered with a roof of board.’ Hope speculates the well was used as a bath for the cure of invalids. There was an inscription at the well, which read; ‘Sir John Shorn, Gentleman born, Conjured the Devil into a Boot’ – a recollection of another of his miracles. Many hostelries served the pilgrims who came to this shrine, and today ten public houses in Beds., Bucks., and Hants. are called ‘The Boot’, which became Schorne’s recognised symbol. An entry in North Marston’s parish register in 1860 records the traditions associated with him, and his well, and notes the great prosperity brought to the village as a result. Sheahan notes that the water was ‘remarkable for its purity and extreme coldness’ and reputed never to freeze or fail. A sign on nearby Oving hill, where five ancient ways meet, 1 mile east, pointed to the well. According to Eric Delderfield, in his books on inn signs (David & Charles), the well is now covered by a concrete slab.
‘There is a close called Home Field, at the north end of the town, where local tradition says once stood a Castle… the ground is very uneven. In the same field is a spring known as ‘Christian Well.’..(there) are traces of ancient road in the direction of Lavendon.’ Sheahan then quotes from Some Notes Concerning Olny by Walter Pennington Storer (June 1860), in Records of Bucks., vol. ii, which describes the ‘junction of the roads to Warrington and Yardley’, an area known as ‘the old churchyard’ where bones have been discovered, and there is a well with an ancient elm.
Lipscomb says; ‘On the descent from the hill on which the church stands is a large orchard, moated, and in which was formerly a fishpond, since filled up, and a well of clear water, covered with ancient wrought stone, through the cavity of which, the stream proceeding from it runs into a small brook… the stone is evidently part of a niche, seemingly inverted…’ This is on the site of an Austin Priory, founded 1254, and Lipscomb refers to another writer (not named) who mentions the ‘Holy Well, last vestige of the Priory.’ Sheahan adds that the stone was 4 feet 3 inches by 1 foot 8 inches, and still in place.
Near the village centre, says Sheahan, was ‘a spring which served as a drinking fountain, and was covered over with stone in 1851.’
At Nash hamlet, at the cross-roads ‘is the base of an old stone cross, and a short distance from it is a Chalybeate Spring, called “Bretch Well”. This water never freezes, and will thaw other water in an icy state; during the Summer months it is remarkable for its coldness.’
Sheahan refers to ‘The water house…an ancient building situated near a fine spring of clear water on the North side of the church. In “The park field” under an arch is another good spring called “The Fountain”.’
I am grateful to Mr Rowland Baker for sending me a pamphlet entitled Two Lectures on the History of Whitchurch… by Joseph Holloway, Winslow, 1889, which includes a commendable section discussing the wells and springs of the village. One called the Well Head or Head Well, formerly the Holy Well, lay to the East of the church and was ‘held in sacred esteem and supposed to possess peculiar properties’ – Holloway quotes an unspecified source that ‘even today its waters contain certain mineral qualities rarely to be met with, and it holds a wonderful power of incrustation. He further comments that water from the well was taken to the sick, or else a piece of clothing from an ailing person was placed in the well; if it floated, recovery might be expected, but if it sank, there was no hope.
Another spring, the Whittle Hole, or White Well, which was to the west of the church, on a parallel line with the Holy Well, was ‘not held so sacred’ but its water was ‘blest and given to and for the free and good use of the inhabitants.’ The Whittle Hole had an average flow of 32 gallons per minute, or up to 3 times that volume during a glut.
A further spring was called Fair Alice, ‘which gushes out of the rocks under the site of the old castle. Legend says that Alice de Bolebec derived great benefit from drinking this water.’
Holloway mentions two other springs without particular traditions, the ‘Park Spring’ previously a cattle watering place, and the Crabsgrove Spring, a little to the NW of the village, which quickly returns underground after its brief rise. Sheahan simply refers to ‘several copious springs’ in the village, and notes they never freeze or dry up.
Since there is no clear definition of what makes a well ‘holy’ , it may be of interest to analyse the above examples. I consider we may notice four broad categories; ‘Christian’ wells (dedicated to saints or sited by churches etc.) which are what may be termed ‘officially’ holy; Healing wells (those reputed to have curative properties, or to be generally beneficial), Traditional wells (those with other qualities, e.g. the granting of wishes, or individual legends, folklore etc.); and other noted wells, where often there is a vague attribution making the spring better-known than a common water-source e.g. exceptional purity, a special name, but nothing more.
Obviously, several wells will partake of more than one category, and what survive as ‘Christian’ wells may have pagan origins; also, many traditional wells will preserve, in a fragment of custom or legend, the memory of past pagan worship. It may also be argued that what I have termed ‘Others’ (represented by Bow Brickhill, Chenies, and Shalstone in this survey) should not really concern us at all, insofar as though they may be ancient and respected, there is no evidence they were ‘holy.’ Much depends how widely we wish to cast our net, and as long as we make plain the grounds for including such examples in a survey, there can be no confusion.
In Bucks., we may see that Buckingham, East Claydon, Linchlade, North Marston, Olney, Ravenstone and Whitchurch wells all had church or Christian connections, and some were also healing; whereas those at Aylesbury, Cuddington, Dorton, Haddenham, Leckhampstead, Long Crendon, Loughton, Nash, were deemed curative but without any note of church involvement; the others, notably Boarstall and Ludgershall have their own separate legends, whose origin may be obscure.