The Holy Well at King’s Newton, Derbyshire

by Howard Usher

King’s Newton is a hamlet within the parish of Melbourne, Derbyshire. It is sited on an east-west ridgeway above the alluvial flood plain of the river Trent. To the west of the hamlet, an old trackway descends the hill to cross the river at Swarkestone Bridge, and the nearby hostelry, ‘The Packhorse’, tells of the traffic which the lane used to carry. Just off the lane, at OSGR SK 386262, a spring rises to feed the Trent. This spring has long borne the name of the Holywell.

The earliest documentary reference to the spring occurs in a Duchy of Lancaster rental of 1366, when the stream is referred to as Halywalsiche. The purchase of the lands of St Catherine’s Chantry, lately dissolved, in 1564, refers to lands at Holy well hedge and Hollywell siche. The name then occurs frequently in various rentals and extents of the Duchy, and the Earl of Huntingdon.

Robert Hardinge was the tenant of Kings Newton Hall during the Civil War period. The Hall is only one field away from the well. Robert was a staunch Royalist, and he celebrated the Restoration of the Monarchy by building an arch over the well. There may indeed have been something of that sort there earlier. J. J. Briggs, writing in 1852, noted that the inscription on the headstone was worn and rendered it as ‘FONS SAGER HIC STRVITVR ROBERTO NOMINIS HARDINGE 16xx’; which translates to ‘This Holy well was built by Robert named Hardinge 16xx’. Briggs suggested the date of 1660, which is quite likely, as it coincides with the Restoration of Charles II. However, the inscription was later re-cut as pre-war postcards show the date to be quite clearly 1662. The arch survived for nearly 300 years but vandals and the roots of the nearby ash tree caused its collapse in the 1950s.

Briggs commented on the ‘superior excellence of its waters’ and it is of interest that Kings Newton is included in a list of mineral springs of Derbyshire, drawn up in 1840. However, the well was never particularly renowned for any healing properties and no local legends have survived.

In 1978, the well consisted of a pile of stones and a muddy brook course in a patch of weed-infested ground. A local resident drew the attention of the Melbourne Civic Society to the state of this monument and made a donation towards its restoration. The owner of the land was not willing to sell it, but freely gave permission for the restoration of the well. An inspection by Derbyshire County Council resulted in the listing of the well as a ‘County Treasure’, and the offer of a grant towards its restoration. The well area was then excavated and the old stones collected from the 17th century structure. Unfortunately the capstone containing the Latin inscription was missing and must be gracing someone’s rockery. There was some evidence of an earlier structure behind Robert Hardinge’s arch, but no artefacts were found, apart from pottery sherds of the 17th century Ticknall ware, and later tiles, drainpipes and other fragments. Most of the original stones were recovered, but the job of reconstructing them appeared to be a massive task and some new stone would be required.

The project languished for a few years until in 1981, Adrian Earp produced a design of plans for the site, using new stone in place of the original blocks. The roughly triangular piece of land was to be landscaped and rustic steps laid down from the lane to the well. With the offer of grants from Derbyshire County Council and South Derbyshire District Council, it was possible to commence rebuilding.

In December 1983, the lopping of some dangerous branches of the ash tree which had destroyed the arch was carried out. The Manpower Services Commission provided a task force who were busy early in 1984, in clearing the site and laying a flight of steps down the steep slope. It was necessary to hire a pump because of water which collected when the the site was cleared. Due to the projecting bole of the ash tree, it was not possible to rebuild the arch in exactly the same place, and the present arch displaced about two feet away from the original. Post and wire fencing was erected around the site, and dressed stone to Adrian’s design was ordered from Ellastone Masonry. The cost of the stone as just over £900, including VAT, which there was no way of voiding. However, by this time, the MSC had lost their skilled stone mason and were not able to erect the stone for us. The stone sat in the lane, weathering nicely, whilst we considered our next move. It was obvious that we would have to employ the services of a professional stone mason. The lowest quotation, for £800, was from a local mason, George Heath, who was desperately keen to help and was quite willing to wait for his money. By sales of publications, and the organisation of functions, we managed to raise about half of this amount, and then the day was saved by Melbourne Parish Council who made a grant for the other half. All systems were go!

Erection of the arch commenced in the winter of 1984/5, and the pervading water level gave rise to problems in the laying of the base. However, the arch was soon standing and the area wired off by the MSC team. Much heart-searching took place among Committee members regarding the carving of the Latin inscription of Robert Hardinge on the capstone. It was eventually decided that this would be misleading and unethical, so the arch was left blank. George heath provided us with a large piece local sandstone upon which it was decided to carve the Latin inscription with a note regarding the restoration of the well by the Society. The inscription was carved free of charge by Brendan Conway, a student from Telford. Society members planted shrubs and flowers so that the site would look attractive for the opening ceremony.

On the first Sunday after Ascension Day, May 19th 1985, over a hundred people gathered at the site for the opening ceremony. In view of the interest of the established Church in water and wells, the Vicar of Melbourne, the Reverend Frederick Ross, held a short dedication (or re-dedication) service. The plaque was unveiled by the Society’s President, the Marquess of Lothian, who resides at Melbourne Hall. Afterwards, refreshments were served at the nearby Scout and Guide Headquarters, and a framed photograph of the Holy Well as it appeared in the 1920s before its collapse, was presented to the Society by two local residents. This marked the successful ending of a project which had been a long time in the making, had cost over £2000 and had drawn on members’ thoughts and free time over several years.

Text © Howard Usher (1986)

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