Holy & Notable Wells of the Cambridge District
by Nigel Pennick
The most notable holy well of the Cambridge area gave its name to a former suburb of the town, long since incorporated into its area Barnwell. Although the name Barnwell has been extended to cover a considerable area along the Newmarket road, originally it applied to a holy well at which certain festivities took place. For a record of this, we are indebted to Dugdale in his Monasticon Anglicanum (1692 edition). At Barnwell stood the Priory of Barnwell, a major foundation of the Canons Regular. In 1029, Picot, the Norman sheriff of Cambridge, and Hugolin, his wife, founded as the result of a vow made when Hugolin was believed to be dying, a monastic foundation next to St Gile’s and the Castle (the corner of the modern Castle Street and Chesterton Lane). Six Canons were brought in to set up the monastery, out after Picot’s death, his son was implicated in a conspiracy against King Henry I, and fled the country. Paganus Peveril was given his property, which was forfeit, and moved the monastery. In the words of the Monasticon;
‘Perceiving that the site on which their house stood was not sufficiently large for all the buildings needful to his canons, and was devoid of any spring of fresh water, Pain Peveril besought King Henry to give him a certain site near Cambridge…from the midst of that site there bubbled forth springs of clear fresh water, called at that time in English Barnewell, the Children’s Springs, because once a year on St John Baptist’s Eve, boys and lads met there, and amused themselves in the English fashion with wrestling matches and other games and applauded each other in singing songs and playing musical instruments. Hence, by reason of the crowd that met and played there, a habit grew up that on the same day a crowd of buyers and sellers should meet in the same place to do business’.
Thus Paganus Peveril moved the monastery to the site of observances of the Elder Faith, and took over the site. The great fair of Starbridge which survived until 1933 as a horse fair and until 1969 as a camping ground for gypsies, was held a few hundred yards downstream of this holy well, and may have transferred thence at the enclosure by Picot. On the dissolution of this house in 1536, the buildings were demolished gradually, and the area, which adjoins the river, was quarried for gravel. Finally, the 1811 enclosure of the Barnwell Commons led to the land being built upon, and the site of the springs, which is now the edge of Saxon Road, was obliterated.
Another holy well, about which much less is known, lies beneath the floor of the Rhadegund public house in King Street. King Street formerly was famous for its ‘run’, where students would drink a pint at each of the pubs (9 or so latterly) within an hour for a wager. The Rhadegund stands at the far end of King Street from the town and university end, and beneath the floor is the sealed well of St Rhadegund. On the other side of Jesus Lane, not far away from this site, is Jesus College, formerly the nunnery of St Rhadegund, so the nunnery, like the monastery of Barnwell, may have been founded in the vicinity of an already sacred well.
There is a legend of a tunnel which links the two religious houses, and one may speculate that this refers to an underground water link between the two wells. The terrain makes a real tunnel an impossibility. For a short while, the Rhadegund was owned by the landlord of the Dog and Pheasant in Newmarket Road (circa 1972), and re-named Le Chien II, but, fortunately, the original name was restored in the mid-70s. The pub itself is of early 19th century provenance, of the building type popularised in Cambridge by Charles Humfrey. What stood there before, if anything, is not recorded.
The only other well in the city with sacred connections, as far as can be ascertained, is that which nestles next to the steps down into the churchyard of St Bene’t’s. This church, notable for its pre-conquest tower and arch with half-a-rod span, is one of the oldest foundations in the city. The well, which is surmounted by a pump, is again outside the building, and of traditions about it I have been unable to find anything.
Other notable springs near the city are Nine Wells, the source of the Vicar’s Brook and Hobson’s Conduit, which carries water into the City of Cambridge. The conduit dates from about 1610, when it was cut as ‘the New River’. Nine wells lie at the foot of White Hill, being typically Rheocrene in character, with sufficient force to drive fine mud aside, leaving a clear basin. An obelisk, visible from the main railway line, was erected at the springs in 1861.
Another conduit, whose source may or may not have sacred connotations, is that which rises in a numinous wood off the Madingley Road at a place called Trinity Conduit Head. In 1327, a conduit was laid from this site to the Franciscan Friary which stood on the site of what is now Sidney Sussex College. Upon the dissolution of the monasteries, the conduit was granted to Trinity College by King Henry VIII, and it now feeds the fountain in the Great Court, erected 1601-2.