Well research can be quite rewarding in a strange way…and finding St. Alkmund’s Well in the urban setting of north Derby laying virtually beneath the tower blocks is one. Where urbanisation has swept away many wells in a joint wave of sanitation and urban expansion, the planners in the city wisely decided to preserve this relic in no doubt protected by the long vanished church bearing its name. It is excellent that they do for not only is its setting and preservation unique its dedication is too.
The site is first recorded in 1190 in a rental agreement but considering its association probably earlier. Indeed it is likely that the well was so named from the time of the Saxon saint who who died 800 AD and whose tomb or shrine was located in church nearby (and is now located in the Derby Museum). It would be interesting to contemplate that pilgrims to his shrine took to the waters but there is not evidence. Indeed there is little is recorded of its history however and much of which we know comes from the plaque which reads:
“Until the area was built up from 1814, the well was in a rural setting, part of St Helen’s Park. The stone niche surrounding the well was built by the Rev Henry Cantrell in the early 18th century”.
What is also known is that according to church historian Cox (1875–9) in his Derbyshire churches records that a vicar of the local S. Werburgh’s was cured of his low consumption, after constantly drinking its water, although the sign It has been traditionally dressed, revived in 1870 and continued infrequently until 1993, stopping because the boards were thoughtlessly vandalised. The demolishing of the St. Alkmund’s Church in the 1960s for road widening stopped the tradition of processing to the well.
The well is below ground level with four steps to its water which flows with some force into an oval basin. A stone carving states its name. When I first visited it was possible to reach the water. I was told by a local elderly lady that she still drank the water and that it was very pure…I was not sure myself! Now I would not be able to know as the railings have enclosed the whole structure.
It now sits rather incongruously in an area of urban landscape, an odd juxtaposition amongst the older houses and tower blocks still exists, but is often prone to vandalism. and has suffered from it. Well dressings were discontinued due to vandalism and it was blocked off my tall metal fencing for a period recently. Now it is surrounded by a small wall and black railings which has blocked access but will protect it.
Who was St Alkmund?
An 8th century son of a Northumbrian king, Alkmund who was murdered by those who had overthrown the King, Eardwulf and was buried first in Shrewsbury and then Northworthy, the Saxon settlement which became Derby. The removal of his relics to Derby in 1140 produced a perfume. The tomb in which he was enshrined was discovered at the demolishing of his church in 1968 to make the ring road! It can now be seen in Derby Museum.
Despite an attempt to emasculate the site with the railings its importance has seen a revival. What is more remarkable is that the modern St Alkmund’s Church has revived or created a procession to the well at Whitsuntide. The church process carrying banners to the well where a blessing and hymns are made. All in all it is good to see even in this urban land ancient wells can still have a role!