Here is potentially a little known holy well of note. It is absent from Charles Hope’s pioneering 1893 work Legendary Lore of Holy Wells nor did it fall into the net of Jeremy Harte’s 2008 Holy Wells sourcebook! Its exact history and provenance is under question but if genuine it is a survival of that early time of Christianisation in East Anglia. The possible site I rediscovered during research for my forthcoming book on Norfolk holy and healing wells…but as always things are not always as clear cut as that!
One possible site?
However there is debate whether this or another well called the Roman Well is the site. That itself is of questionable age, Dahl in his 1913, The Roman Camp and the Irish Saint at Burgh Castle notes:
“There is a public path at the foot of ‘The Hanger’ which leads to a small piece of ground, still belonging to the glebe, but which has been thrown open to the public, and which is termed in some of the old maps ‘The Roman Well,’ but this is a mere tradition and cannot be accepted as having any foundation of truth. There is undoubtedly a spring of water here, but it is certainly not Roman.”
Of this site local tradition states that the well was restored by Canon Venables in 1893 who is said to have discovered a sump hole, lined it with a wall of flints set into a bank and two upright stones recording the date of April 9th 1893 or 1803. Above the well are biblical verses which read:
“The Lord is my shepherd, he leadeth me beside still waters, He restereth my soul”
By 1928 although the site was already overgrown it remained visible until the 1950s but research in the 1980s failed to find any trace. Scott (1902) appears to suggest that the Roman well at the foot of the cliffs is the said site marked on the 1883 OS. However, this would be at odds with the report by Saul (2007) in their portrait of the village in the 1950s which states that the well is firmly in the churchyard. It is possible that there of course two wells and they have become confused. The question being of course why would Canon Venables restore a well which was not a holy one (but perhaps he did also restore that in the churchyard) and why does Dahl (1913) not mention the churchyard site?
Who was St Fursey?
St. Fursey was an Irish missionary saint who had built a monastery at Burgh and as far as I am aware this is the only dedication to him in the country.
Another possible site?
The well above appears lost but the churchyard well, and therefore the more likely origin well survives albeit nearly lost under a considerable amount of ivy and surrounded by nettles in a forgotten section of the churchyard is St. Fursey’s Well (TG 476 049). The site is not recorded by any authorities that I can find.
Although dry and looking forlorn, St. Fursey’s Well can be easily found. It is a six foot brick built arch structure, two feet deep and much covered with ivy. The brick is plastered over although parts of this plaster are crumbling due to the action of the ivy. It resembles many small well chapels covering wells in Cornwall and is not seen elsewhere in the county and probably dates from the 1800s. Hopefully it can be restored with a flow – if there ever was one that is – such is the confusion over this site.
Taken from and adapted from the forthcoming R. B. Parish Holy Wells and healing springs of Norfolk
This was first recorded 1366 as ‘Halywalsiche. and then in purchase of the lands of St Catherine’s Chantry, lately dissolved, in 1564, it refers to lands here at ‘Holy well hedge’ and ‘Hollywell siche.’ However, nether of the dates help identify when the structure shown by Hope was actually built. Over the arch was carved inscription an inscription which read:
“Fons sacer hic strvitvr Roberto Nominus Hardinge 16xx”
“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 as the family at the nearby hall. The aforementioned Hardinge, were staunch Royalists, and of course puritans disliked holy wells as many other so called ‘popish’ things. However, its restoration may have been for little more than to maintain a good water supply. Later depictions such as pre-war postcards show the date to be quite clearly 1662.
The present condition of the well is tribute to its local community. The arch survived for nearly 300 years but a combination of vandals and the roots of the nearby ash tree caused the arch fall down and it lay in pieces in the 1950s. Sadly the original inscription appears to have been stolen or entirely broken to pieces. However, unlike many similar sites, this was not the final fate of the well. In the 1980s it was restored using as many of the old stones as possible. The landowner was happy to sell the land and Melbourne Civic Society donated money for its restoration. No artifacts were found, apart from 17th century Ticknall ware pottery, later tiles, and drainpipes fragments. Most of the original stones were recovered, but the job of reconstructing them appeared to be a large task and new stone was required. The arch over the well was left blank as it was thought misleading to re-inscribe it. H. Usher in there (1984) The Holy Well at King’s Newton, Derbyshire in the Old Series of holy wells journal Source notes that on the first Sunday after Ascension Day, May 19th 1985, over a hundred people gathered for the opening ceremony when the plaque was unveiled by the Society’s President, the Marquees of Lothian, of Melbourne Hall. It is delightful to see it restored and celebrated by the community.
There appears to be no records regarding its properties baring its ‘superior excellence of its waters‘, and being noted as a mineral spring. Interestingly, its waters are said to flow towards the rising sun.
Extracted from R.B.Parish’s (2011) Holy wells and healing springs of Derbyshire
Situated beneath 5 Strand Lane is one of the city’s most enigmatic and perhaps little known relic, the so-called Roman Baths. Laying four feet six inches (1.4m) below the modern street level, the bath measures about 15 foot (4.72m) by 6 feet (1.91m), with a depth of just over four feet (1.37 m) deep. Its lining is built from bricks measuring 9 inches (22.9 cm) by 3 inches (7.6 cm) and is 1.75 inches (4.4 cm) thick.
John Pinkerton (1784) is the first author to describe the site, called it a:
“fine antique bath’ in the cellar of a house in Norfolk Street in the Strand formerly belonging to the Earl of Arundel whose house and vast gardens were adjacent”
The next notice was when MP William Weddell, a well-known antiquarian died of a sudden chill when bathing there in April 1792. Even Dickens (1849) used the bath as a location in David Copperfield having the titular character having cold plunge within and describes it as ‘at the bottom of one of the streets out of the Strand.’ A sign on the baths in the eighteenth century, put up by its then owner read:
“the celebrated Cold Plunging Bath (built by the Earl of Essex in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, 1588) is open all the year round. It is known to be the most pure and healthy bath in London ensuring every comfort and convenience to those availing themselves of this luxury. This bath, which is strongly recommended by the Medical Profession, is essentially supplied from the Spring, and discharges at the rate of ten tons per diem. Consequently, every bather has the advantage of a continual change of water. The old Roman spring water bath, nearly two thousand years old, can be viewed.”
Roman or more recent?
Despite this claim the actual origins of the origins of the bath are unclear. Although Roman London lay 1 mile (1.6 km) to the east and all the remains appear to suggest a Tudor origin at the earliest. They may have indeed been built for Arundel House, which was built by the Earl of Essex as a water cistern. When this house was lost in the 16th century, the area was built over by a row of houses and it was only rediscovered after a fire in 1774. A man called James Smith appeared to be responsible in converting the derelict cistern into a cold bath when he moved into No 33 Surrey Street in the mid 1770s. He soon started to advertise it as:
“the cold bath at No. 33, Surry-street, in the Strand … for the Reception of Ladies and Gentlemen, supplied with Water from a Spring, which continually runs through it.”
Two years later he constructed a second bath which was lined with marble. This the Essex Bath survives robbed of its cladding in the basement on the Norfolk Hotel but currently due to the building being empty is inaccessible.
A survey of the brickwork by Dr. Kevin Hayward of Pre-Construct Archaeology in May 2011 revealed that brickwork and tiles to date from 1450 to 1700. Further chemical analysis by Dr Stuart Black of University of Reading suggested a date between 1550 and 1650. Although, the date would support the cistern origin for Arundel House, Trapp (2010) believes that it may have been associated with the grotto fountain, said to represent Mount Parnassus or Helicon, in the privy garden of adjoining Somerset House. The area where it stood was being redeveloped in the 18th century. Trapp (2010) notes that Treasury Warrant book for April 1710 records a petition from Thomas Vernon, the then owner of this land nearby which records:
“for the grant of a little old shed in Strand Lane…being 14 feet square, formerly a water house to a grotto in Somerset House but now in ruinous condition and like to fall into the petitioner’s land.”
This is clearly the Roman Bath for its dimensions are identical and Vernon’s property Surrey Street property would have abutted the site. Interestingly a record of 1724 which records ‘Old Waterhouse’ (a decayed building of no use)’ suggests it was still standing and when it was demolished and became the bath today is unclear.
The source of water
It may seem so surprising in an area where so many wells have been capped, filled in and culverted into sewers, the water supply has been relatively constant bar when in the 1940s it was blocked with rubbish or during 1970s building work. However it has been unclear how where it comes from.in the mid 1800 it was bubbling from a hole in the floor but this was apparently patched over, then meaning by the early 1920s it entered by the north-east corner but since then it has been supplied via a settling tank at its east end.
It is probable that one of a number of lost holy wells fill it either St Clement’s Well or the Holy Well which gave Holywell street its name. Certainly the properties of the water being high in phosphate could suggest it was a medicinal spring
A remarkable survival
Despite not being as the 1838 advertising would say an ‘Old Roman Bath’ the bath’s survival is no more remarkable. In 1893, one of its users a New Oxford Street draper called Henry Glave bought the complex – he sold off the Essex bath and its building and focused on the older one refurbishing it by using the Essex Bath’s stone flooring, marble lining and wall tiles and creating changing-stalls and decorative sculpture. The family, the site being inherited by his daughters, ran the site until 1922 when it was offered for sale for £500. It was subsequently purchased by the Rector of St Clement Danes, the Reverend William Pennington Bickford. His ambition was for the bath to be restored to its Roman glory and be a major historical monument. He was supported by historian Edward Foord who wrote about its provenance. The plans never materialized and then when he died in 1941 it was bequeathed to St Clement Danes patron, Lord Exeter. Then through various complications it ended with it being taken over by the National Trust but controlled by Westminster Council who would organise the day to day maintenance. After some decorations it was opened once more to the public in June 1951.
On a recent Open London Day I was able to have a closer look again. The site is remarkable as being still full of water in a city with demands on water and a plus are the remarkable Dutch tiles. Of course no one is able to take a bath in it but it remains a curious relic of London’s cold bath system – the only one remaining of many in the city
There is certainly an otherworldly feel to the woods of Alderley Edge. Unsurprisingly, it is a landscape which boasts three mysterious springs: the Holy Well, Wizard’s Well and the Wishing Well.Roeder and F. S. Graves in 1905s Recent archaeological discoveries at Alderley Edge by C Roeder and F S Graves, in the Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society states:
“Well and the Holy Well. These, and especially the latter, were in ancient times connected with well-worship, and propitiatory offerings were made by people to the presiding deities, and also were frequently resorted to in Christian times, but doubtless the cult was observed here in much earlier days.”
They detail the cures and nature of the votive offers:
“Their healing powers were considered to be unfailing; the barren, the blind, the lame, and bodily-afflicted constantly made their way thither; maidens whispered their vows and prayers over them, their lovers and their future lives being their theme. Crooked silver coins were dropped into the well, but these have been cleared out long ago. At the present time the devotees are satisfied, in their economical habit, to offer mere pins and hairpins; the custom is not dead yet, for some of the immersed pins are still quite uncorroded and bright. Some of the sex deposit the pins in their straight and original form, others bend them only at right angle, and as many again seem to consider the charm alone to act effectively when carefully and conscientiously doubled up. Maidens of a more superficial cast just give the slightest twist to the object. To judge from the state of corrosion, and the old-fashioned thick, globular heads, some of these pins must have been in the well for at least sixty years. We have brought three cases to show the various forms into which the visitors have tortured the pins, and classified them into groups. There are occasionally to be seen also a few white pebbles in the two wells.”
The Holy Well
The Holy Well is first mentioned in an 1763 Court Rolls of Bollin Fee in a perambulation however its first written account is in Memoires of the Family of Finney, of Fulshaw, (near Wilmslow) Cheshire, by Samuel Finney of Fulshaw, Esquire’, in 1787. Which noted:
“Lower down the Hill, just below the Beacon, is a Spring of very clear Sweet Water, that issues pretty plentifully out of the Rock, called the Holy Well, which, no doubt, in times of Superstition, had its Virtues, which are now unknown, though many young people, in the Summer time, resort to it in parties, and regale themselves with this water, which is still supposed to have a prolific quality in it.”
Robert Bakewell’s 1843 Alderley Edge and Its Neighbourhood, who states:
“this well trickles in a constant stream from a cleft in a large rock about 60 yards below the Beacon… the waters of this well are said to be a cure for barrenness.”
Mystical author Alan Garner in his 1998 The Voice That Thunders: Essays and Lectures work tells us much of the site:
“Our water supply derived from the Holy Well, which granted wishes to tourists at weekends, and an income for the child of our family who, on a Monday morning, cleaned out the small change. Yet for no money would that child have climbed the yew that stood beside the well. “If I ever so much as see you touch that”, my grandfather had said, “I’ll have the hide off you”. And there was a memory that could hardly be restored to words: of how the well was not for wishing, but for the curing of barren women; and the offerings were of bent pins, not of pence.”
Interesting Garner notes:
“And Grandad spoke of rags tied to trees there. That had been a long time ago, he said.”
As such it is the only such recorded rag well in Cheshire/Staffordshire/Derbyshire area and perhaps was imported from Wales however the nearest traditional site would be over 100 miles away and as such it is an odd anomaly or evidence of a wider lost practice!
The Holy Well today
The Holy well is situated beneath a piece of rock filling an old stone trough set into the ground with a break at one end allowing its waters to flow out.
In the next post we shall explore the legend of the Wizard’s Well and the mysterious Wishing well.
Who was John Wycliffe?
He was a Yorkshire born scholastic philosopher, with his critical views on the the veneration of saints, the taking of sacraments, use of requiem masses, the concept of transubstantiation, monasticism, and the pomp of ceremonial worship, the status of clergy and the existence of the Pope he is seen quite rightly as the morning star of Protestantism. His views influencing the great protestant reformers of a hundred years or so later. Famed also for translating the bible into English. His views and activities were clearly a thorn in the side of the Catholic church but he was protected by influential figures such as John Of Gaunt. He was Rector of Lutterworth, where he died in 1384 on New Year’s Eve giving a sermon! After his burial the Papacy demanded he be dug up and burnt, his remains being thrown in the river. And it is this terrible act of ‘sacrilege’ which is pivotal to his Holy Well.
A miraculous origin
“Tradition also says, that, at the time of this ceremony [the exhumation or burning of John Wycliffe’s bones], one person who staid, after the rest had left his grave, in order to search as strictly after the least bit of bone… having found one, ran hastily to his companions with it in a triumphant manner; but, before he reached them, fell down, and dashed his brains out; and from the very place where he fell immediately gushed out a spring of water, which to this day is called St John’s Well.”
Dyson (1913) in Lutterworth, John Wycliffe’s Town, notes a later version of the legend tells how this bone fell from the bier and was later dug out, and how a spring issued from the place. It would be ironic if this well was really named after the reforming cleric and opponent of pilgrimages and adoration of saints.
“THE HOLY WELL OF ST. JOHN THAT the name of Wycliffe was regarded with something more than veneration by the people of Lutterworth during the Middle Ages is proved by the story of the Holy Well of St. John. The legend is that, as the bones of the holy man were being carried on a bier from the church to the riverside for burning, in accordance with the ecclesiastical decree, in passing down the steep slope at what is now the bottom of High Street a bone fell to the ground and was immediately trampled into the soft soil of the unmade roadway by the crowds which followed. Some years afterwards a man working upon the spot brought to light the missing bone, and, upon taking it from its position, forthwith there issued from the hole where it had lain embedded a fountain of the purest water, which ceased not to flow day or night to the joy of the inhabitants of the town, who regarded it as a display of Divine favour upon the remains of their local saint. The water was immediately looked upon as miraculous and was conveyed to a stone drinking- fount placed by the side of the way at the spot where the discovery was made.”
Dyson (1913) Lutterworth, John Wycliffe’s Town, also notes that it had:
“For ages the power to cure all manner of diseases especially where the eyesight was affected, was attributed to this water, and the actual stone basin which received it is believed still to exist behind the brick wall which was built in front of it some sixty years ago. The spring itself was tapped a few years ago in excavating for a sewer, and was so strong that it had to be conveyed into the common drain.”
Holt (1884) in John de Wycliffe; the first of the reformers, and what he did for England notes;
“Even then, thirty years after his voice had been stilled in death, evidence remains to show that his parishioners at Lutterworth had regarded him with a heart-veneration which, had he fought for Rome instead of Christ, would have gone far to earn him canonization. Legends sprang up and took root among them, to the effect that no water would flow under that arch where Wycliffe’s ashes had been flung ; and that on the spot where one of his bones had fallen sprang ” St. John’s Well,” which still runs clear and abundant, never drying up even in the hottest seasons.”
A noted well
Finding evidence for the site’s provenance is illusive. The 15th century topographer William of Worcestre never visited the town and certainly when Leland visited in 16th century he did not mention it, despite mentioning springs arising in the hills in the area but not this well. However it is possible that earliest record may be a note of 1695 by Edmund Gough which was referred to be Camden (1695)):
“Lutterworth… near which is a spring of water so very cold, that in a little time it converts straws and sticks into stone.”
Yet no later authority refers to a different site a petrifying spring especially as Harte (2008) in his Holy Wells of England states Gough mentions it just before discussing the exhumation of Wycliffe’s body. Of St. John’s Well, a contributor to Nichols (1795–1815) does describe it as petrifying and that:
“in the neighbourhood of Lutterworth is a petrifying spring called St John’s well, the water of which is exceeding cold, and so strongly impregnated with petrifying qualities, that in a very little time it is said to convert wood and several other substances into stone.”
But Nichols himself gives the name to a different site:
“St John’s Well is in the town, opposite to the last house, on the left hand side towards London. It is a soft water, and used for drinking.”
The association with the bones giving a petrifying properties to the spring and hence the association.
Despite an obvious association with John Wycliffe, it appears more likely to be named after a hospital in the town which was dedicated to St John the Baptist, over time local memory of this would have been forgotten but the name remembered. Indeed even Dyson (1913) Lutterworth, John Wycliffe’s Town, relays this:
“It has been thought bv some to have been called the Holy Well of St. John from its position within sight of the Hospital of that name, to which we have already alluded, but it seems to us, in the face of the above tradition, that the dedication to St. John was far more likely to have had reference to the Christian name of Lutterworth’s great rector.”
The spring was clearly an important water source hence reference in the Town Masters account book of 1716 it is recorded that four shillings was paid for “a spout of elm 7 foot long to lay at St. John’s Well”
Searching for the well
Field researchers (record on pastscape as F2 FDC 18-AUG-1960) in 1960 stated:
“Enquiries of the owner/occupier revealed that the building was so named from “St John’s Spring” which is in the ornamental garden at the rear of the house and which was surveyed. The owner was aware of the legend… and stated that the well was believed to lie beneath an ash tree adjacent to the spring but that structural remains had not been found. The spring, freely flowing, is perpetual.”
According to the Bords (1985) Sacred Waters:
“It is now situated in the garden of a private house, but can be visited by making an appointment with the owner, John Daniell, of the Springs”
Since I picked up the book in 1986 I have been planning to search out the well. I had written to the address, kindly provided in Sacred Waters – but to no avail. So 32 years I decided to look for it. I found The Springs, easily found on the road to Rugby and knocked on the door – no answer. It looked like the property was now a busy property and empty. I knocked next door and noticed a small garden adjoining – was this where the spring was? Unlikely. I saw an elderly man engaging with another in a house overlooking the springs and decided to ask him. At first he was not sure of what I was talking about but when I mentioned spring he realised he knew where it was.
I was right the spring was no longer in the grounds of The Spring in the subsequent decades houses have been built in the garden of the house. In fact he told me that when the houses were built the builders had a problem with the spring. He remembered it as a circular dip or pool. Fortunately, the builders did not destroy the site and it remains in the front garden of the house. No one was home but as it was in the front garden I decided it did not harm taking a few photos. The spring now flows rather sluggishly through a pipe enclosed in a brick and stone structure. It fills an oval pool, possibly that referred to by the neighbour and then flows out into a small brick structure.
The rediscovery of the original well was a bonus. A foot away it could be found obviously discovered when the original wall was removed to build these new houses. The well a circular stone line structure is dry and crosses under the fence into the next door property. Which was a great find!
A common theme
What is interesting hagiographically is that this was a frequently encountered trope which was used to show the sanctity and power of saintly figures; a theme in itself derived from a pagan folk belief. Furthermore, the emergence of a spring underlines not only the sanctity of the person but emphasised that the act was unjust, being a victim of persecution such as many saints murdered by pagan kings or jealous step-mothers! In this case it might appear strange to associate such a site with a figure so firmly connected with the Reformation. However, this is perhaps a post-modern revisionist view point. To the followers of Wycliffe, the common town folk, who perhaps did not know the full ramifications of his politicised religious views, worthy religious people became saints and feasibly they did not see why their Wycliffe would not. Saints needed sites to justify their saintliness and a local mineral spring already named after a John would be a likely candidate. It is an irony to those who understood his anti-veneration of saints view but lost to the generations just after him, they would only remember his importance to the town. Indeed in 1518, a John Stilman was indicted for saying that ‘Wycliffe was a saint in heaven’. The date may be significant and may explain the lack of appearance of the spring until the late medieval period. It was a local site whose fame would only be noted post the Reformation’s most zealous period. I have discussed how sites associated with Queen Elizabeth I also took on the properties of saint’s wells and it is also possible that in the vacuum created by the Reformation figures associated with the principles of the Reformation were treated like the pre-Reformation saints by the uneducated faithful to provide the same forms of solace. Even today it is clear from the church the importance of Wycliffe where his pulpit, door he passed through when he collapsed on New Years Eve 1384, a font from his era and possibly his garments are proudly on show..all saintly equivalents!
“So the Divine Pity, which hath distributed gifts of diverse kinds, not delaying to make clear the purity of virginal innocence and the merits of the virgin martyr, made to spring forth, where her blood fell drop by drop, a most sparkling spring. Where it flowed the butchers, alarmed when they could not hide what they had perpetrated by covering the fount with grass, tried to cover up the body.”
So speaks John de Grandison’s 1330 Legend of St Sidwell. Like many similar stories the titular saint was asked to do something by her stepmother only to find those butchers, some mowers lying in wait with scythes. A rather unpleasant death! Like similar deaths her martyrdom was revealed by a column of light. She is then said to have risen from her grave taking her head with her and walked to where a church was built in her honour where a shrine did exist by 1373 according to Roscarrock. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with similar legends associated with wells at St Walstan’s Norfolk and St Elthelbert’s Herefordshire.
The first official mention of the well comes from a grant by the then Dean of Exeter to St. Nicholas Priory in 1226 which records
“a third share in the waters of St Sidwell’s Well”.
Now whether this referred to a share in regards to water supply or money is not clear but similar endowments indicate it was the former. Certainly by 1267 repairs were needed as John de Douglys left money for:
“the repair and maintenance of St Sidwell’s Well, one acre, called Bromeacre, and half an acre called Stokisland, which latter was about forty-five feet from the well towards the north”.
Then at some point between 1150 and 1180 Exeter developed a conduit system. It drew water from a site called Headwell which appears to have been in the same location as St Sidwell that they may have been one and the same. The water being used to provide the Cathedral. However, the Cartulary of St John’s Hospital in 1498 records that:
“in Saynte Sydwylle is Paroche, ther as she was byhedded, ys a well, and the close that lyeth nexte aboff directely is called and named Hedwyllmede. The Prior of St John’s and his Brothers haff moste grounde yn that Hylde or close, and they be bound to repayre the wylle”.
Lega-Weekes (1924–5) recorded that the site was:
“the well that once existed near the foot of Devonshire Place… Mr William French, dairyman (aged about 65)… remembered, as a boy, not only seeing the old well shaft, but dipping water out of it, though it was then choked and muddy. It was very deep, and when fullest the water reached to within six or seven feet of the ground level”.
Roque’s 1774 map of Exeter indicates a Sidwell’s Well near St Sidwell’s Church of Lega-Weekes (1924–5a) in their piece ‘St Sidwell: I’ in Devon & Cornwall Notes & Queries states that it
“ stood in Well Street, near the corner of York Road, in what is now a garden between nos. 2 and 5… opposite the Schoolhouse. From old inhabitant I learn that it was commonly known as St Sidwell’s well, and was sometimes also called “the Beehive Well”, from the form of the little circular hut of red Heavitree stone about 8 ft high by about 12 ft (?circumference) which sheltered the shaft that went down to a depth of 75 ft. There was a “sort of window” in the front, at which people filled their jugs”.
When the site disappeared is unclear but by the Lega-Weekes time it had clearly gone and largely forgotten!
Then in the development of 3 Well Street a remarkable discovery was made. The company working on the flat development stated on their website:
“The remains of the ancient holy well of St Sidwell have now been uncovered and our client is considering utilising the ground floor of the development as a tea room to allow public access for viewing of the well, fully supported by Exeter City Council. The holy well is said to mark where the ‘virtuous maiden’ St Sidwell, an Anglo-Saxon saint who gave her name to this part of the city, was cut down by haymakers’ scythes. Legend says a spring burst forth where she fell, and it then became a place of pilgrimage throughout the medieval period. Since at least 1226 the well supplied the cathedral clergy with fresh water, and was linked to the Cathedral by a piped water supply that later became part of the medieval underground passages that can be visited today. In 1347 however it was disconnected, and replaced by another well (Headwell) further along Well Street near St James Park. It probably still continued to be used as a local supply and place of pilgrimage.”
“This is an especially exciting find, as discovering the actual remains of a holy well is not common and we highly recommend a visit to the café when open. The high quality of the workmanship suggests that the medieval cathedral masons were involved in building it, and it also reflects the importance of the site as a place of pilgrimage. St Sidwell’s Well is clearly shown on this site on historic maps, and as a result the city council made it a condition of the redevelopment that any remains of it should be recorded and preserved within the new building.”
So St Sidwell’s Well returns!
The once much visited well seems to have consisted of two stone basins or cisterns. Water from one was supposed to have great medicinal properties, especially for ailments of the eyes. The other seems to have made a very good pot of tea.
Frederick C. Jones in his The Glory that was Bristol in 1946 suggests that the well may have had another dedication:
“Much speculation must always surround the venerable fountain called Mother (or Dame) Pugsley’s Well which rose amid the daisied turf at Kingsdown. That the well existed long prior to the seventeenth-century is certain, and its feminine appellation has suggested to some students an earlier dedication, possibly Saint Mary, since an ancient title appears to have been “the Virgin’s Well.”
Jones continues by suggesting a ritual approach to those visiting the well:
“the well furnished for many centuries a copious supply of water, it being the custom for substantial citizens to perambulate on summer evenings around the meadows enclosing the two stone-basins, one holding healing water and the other crystal liquid for domestic purposes. Miss Marian Pease informed the writer that she has heard her mother say that when she was a very little child, about 1832/3, living at Union Street, it was a favourite place for the nurses to take “the children there.”
Who was Dame Pusgley?
Pugsley was said to be Royalist officer and he owned or died in the well the field was in but the name may hide a local wise women who lived near the well. F. Nicholls and John Taylor in Volume III of their 1882 Bristol, Past and Present gives greater detail:
“Mrs. Pugsley died August 4th, 1700, aged eighty. Her funeral was according to here directions, and was ‘punctually performed to the admiration and in the view of ten thousand spectators.’ Her body was borne uncoffined on a litter, with a sheet for shroud, preceded by a fiddler playing a sprightly air, and two damsels strewing sweet herbs and flowers, while the bells of St. Nicholas church rung a merry peal. Thus it was carried to a grave in a field adjoining Nine-tree hill. Dame Pugsley was supposed to be the widow of a young soldier killed at the siege of Bristol, 1645, and buried with military honours on Nine-tree hill. His widow wore mourning all her life, and desired to be borne to her grave with demonstrations of joy at their happy reunion. Mother Pugsley’s well is within recent memory. It consisted of two stone basins, one of which contained ‘an infallible remedy for the eyes,’ whilst the other was especially renowned for making tea. She built a hut over the spot where her husband fell and was buried, which gave her name to the field and well. At her death she bequeathed money for a sixpenny loaf and a ninepenny loaf at Easter, and a twopenny loaf on Twelfth-day, to each of the sixteen women inhabiting St. Nicholas’ almshouse. The vulgar supposed her to have been a witch, and they trampled upon her grave. A skull, thought to have been her husband’s, was dug up; it had a bullet hole just above the temple.”
The disappearing well
Mr. F. J. Burt (of Brislington) writing in the Western Press in 1920 remembered that the well situated in a builder’s yard at the top of Nugent Hill, Cotham when he was a child, he recalled drinking the water which had the reputation of being of medicinal value, especially for the eyes.
In January 1845 a local meeting met over the proposal to build Fremantle Square on the site which meant that free access would not be allowed. The meeting was unsuccessful in finding money to support the survival of the rights. Then in 1864, the following statement was made:
“29 July 1864 As regards ‘Mother Pugsley’s well’ it appears that the quantity of water is not large and that in order to render this available for the public use it would be necessary to purchase the property on which the well stands, the cost of the premises and of laying pipes for leading the water would be more than the benefit to accrue therefrom would warrant”
Thus the well was lost. A compromise was the placing of a pump on the site which was recorded as still being extant in 1940.
Its exact location being the boundary wall of 10, Nugent Hill from 2, Clare Road, Cotham. Quinn (199) in his Holy Wells of Bristol and Bath states some evidence of the well head remains but I was unable to discover it. One day it may be recovered.
Warwickshire does not perhaps have the greatest reputation for holy and healing springs and appears to be hide in the shadows of nearby Gloucestershire. However, my research into the county has revealed there’s more to the county’s healing waters than Leamington Spa. Here are a few lesser known sites towards the Banbury side of the county; any further information on them is gratefully received. Hopefully the book is out this year!
Many of the county’s healing springs are compared to Leamington, the Stockwell is no exception, being saline in nature it was bound to be compared such, as Leamington was. However, that is as far as the comparison goes for little other than it made a decent cup of tea is recorded of it. It currently arises in a three feet by three foot roughly square chamber with stone surrounds. Old railings enclose the spring head and steps go down from the road.
It is worth contemplating on the thoughts of Bob Trubshaw on the origin of Stockwells Old English stoc meaning ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’ being the apparent same derivation as stow. That would give the site an explanation perhaps for the belief in its healing waters but it could equally derived from the place cattle stock were watered or even less interesting Old English stocc for ‘spring by stumps’, a description which could describe it today.
Not far away is St. Anne’s Well which arises a small stone chamber beside the footpath from the hamlet of Arlescote. The well consists in a shallow square basin and flows downhill forming a muddy area beneath. A stone set into the back of the fabric reads:
“ST. ANNE’S WELL / Reparavit M. L / A. D. / MCMXI”
However, beyond that nothing is recorded. It is likely to be ancient as it found below an iron-age earthwork and clearly the footpath past it is of some age and past significance, yet the early forms of the OS only record spring.
Considering that the hamlet above the well is called Knowle End it is possible that the legend recorded considering fairies moving the stone is related to this site and not the Knowle End in Birmingham as reported by folklorists. Again little is recorded but it must have been thought well enough in the 1930s considering how far the spring is from any houses. A site to visit in the winter or spring however, because it gets very overgrown!
The next holy well is a considerable find and it is surprising that no photo exists of it or more recorded, considering it survives in a popular National Trust garden and is quite strikingly unique. Found in the Bog Garden in the grounds of Upton Hall is an 18th century stone Monk’s Well. The Bog Garden consists of a number of ponds originally Stew ponds fed by this spring improved in the 17th century. Trace the flow back and be ready for a surprise. For the spring erupts from the base of a rock face in a cave/grotto and flows over mossy stones to fill the ponds. The spring head is enclosed in an early C18 red brick vaulted chamber (listed grade II) set into the rock face laying c 100m west of the House. All in all pretty unique and surprisingly unheralded. Indeed the Bog Garden was closed off when I visited but the gardeners were happy to allow me over to see it. I cannot say whether access is achievable without asking however. The well is so named because Upton was held in the twelfth century by the canons of St Sepulchre’s at Warwick but it may have a grange property as no one has worked out where any house would have been located. The site does not have any recorded properties and it is only holy by its name association
The last well is a bit of an enigma, in the deserted Burton Dassett village in Northend, is found a substantial well head which has claims to be a ‘Holy Well’ although the provenance is unclear. Burgess (1876) in his Warwickshire History simply notes that it was used for baptism and immersion. Whilst Bord and Bord (1985) Sacred Waters appear to be earliest to refer to it as such stating:
“the holy well with its stone cover will be seen on the left-hand side of the lane as you approach the church”.
The present stone well house is of a considerable size being constructed of local red sandstone around 1840 in a Grecian style. The central doorway is party below ground level and has steps down into a square chamber. Over the stone lintel but the worn instruction is an inscription with carved flowers. It possibly states 1534 but it was not clear. It is evident that the well was part of an estate improvement but when and by whom? And did it exist before? If it does say 1534 that is an early date for a landed estate improvement. It certainly is still visited by well wishers as coins are found in its waters. Sadly, despite a substantial water supply it did not stop the demise of the village and now only the substantial church remains, which incidentally is worthy of a visit.
With many more sites yet to explore…Warwickshire is proving to be another interesting County.
Perhaps Hertfordshire’s most famed well, dedicated to the first British Christian Martyr, and thus called St. Alban’s Well or Holy Well (TL 149 068) and as such one could argue it is the earliest Christian holy well in Britain.
Who was St. Alban?
Gildas and Bede accredit his martyrdom to the ruler Diocletian (c305), later authorities attribute Septimus severnus (c209) or Decieus (c254) to the act. His conversion to Christianity occurred when he sheltered a wanted priest (later St. Amphibalus). The priest taught Alban and baptised him as a Christian. The two exchanged clothes and, allowing the priest to escape, Alban was captured instead. He was tried and sent to be executed. The journey to his execution, now locally commemorated each weekend close to St Alban’s Feast Day, is when the spring arose!
The legend of the spring
It is said that upon climbing the hill to his martyrdom became tired and thirsty. Falling to his knees he prayed to God to quench this thirst and miraculously a spring of fresh water appeared. This is however only one origin for the spring. The other story states that after being taken to the old city of Verulam, he refused to offer pagan sacrifice, and was executed. His severed head rolled down the hill and where it rested a spring burst forth. This is a common holy well motif. After the adoption of the Christian church in the third century the spring gained great notoriety (although it is of course plausible that the spring was a pre-Christian site, gaining greater pilgrimage with Christian doctrine). St. Alban was also adopted, and finally installed in a Shrine in the Abbey. This was restored after the Reformation and is a beautiful example of a Pre-Reformation Shrine.
A spring of Arthurian romance?
This spring was strangely absorbed into Arthurian romance. It has been associated with mythical Romano-Celt ruler Uther Pendragon, father of the also possibly mythical King Arthur. The spring is said to have healed his wounds, and the incident is recorded during the reign of Richard II, by Chronicler Brompton:
“….Uter Pendragon, a British Prince, had fought the Saxons in a great battle at this place, and received a dangerous wound: and lay a long time confined to his bed: and that he was cured at length by resorting to a well or spring not far distant from the city; at that time salubrious; and for that reason, and for the cures thereby performed, esteemed holy; and blessed in a peculiar manner with the flavour of Heaven ..”
The well through the ages
The Benedictine nuns of the nearby nunnery were according to Matthew Paris, said to have dipped their bread in the well, and hence earned it the name of Sopwell. Until the reformation the well rivalled Walsingham in its popularity among the sick and troubled. Even in the 19th century the ‘Holy-well’ was “still held in some estimation, for its purity and salubrious qualities.” It then lay on the lawns of the Duke of Marlborough’s Holywell House, which was latter demolished.
Until the 1980s, the site was marked by a stone on the playing fields of the local Grammar school. However, in the 1980s, the site was at risk from developers, as the school wished to sell off its fields. This precipitated local interest, and a campaign organised by a Mr. Tony Haines, and set out to rediscover the well and ensure that it was preserved. This they finally did, although the site was not officially recognised by the local council, despite it corresponding to ancient maps, local knowledge as well as remains of medieval brickwork. Fortunately, the developer was sympathetic and in a rare example of preservation, restored it. It now stands in a small walled garden. The well was repaired by brickwork, and fitted with a protective grille over it. Interestingly, a combination of wet weather coupled with the water authorities ceasing pumping from the Ver’s source, has meant that the water table has returned and water can be seen in the well.
This restored site can be found by going up Holywell Hill Road, then taking the righthand road, Belmont Hill ( if approaching from Junction one M10 ). Take next right, into new housing estate, then left and the well is found in a small garden on the left.
The well survives, well as long as the housing estate does! It has become the centre of a local religious groups devutions as well!
In the quiet village of Eltisley in the old county of Huntingdonshire, now Cambridgeshire was a uniquely dedicated holy well associated with a saintly shrine. This was St Pandonia’s Well of which Charles Hope in his 1893 notes stood outside the chancel until being filled in the 16th Century by the Reverend Palmer for ‘superstitious purposes’. It is noted:
“The vicar… Robert Palmer, who was charged before the Consistory court in 1576 with many misdemeanours. Amongst them… that he had broken the stonework round a well in the churchyard to the great danger of children playing in the churchyard. To the latter he replied “that it was a well used for superstitious purposes, therefore he broke it down”
Despite the obvious desecration the Parish church still shares this unusual dedication combined with St. John the Baptist. It is evident from the fact the vicar was charged that the villagers still considered their well important.
Who was St Pandonia?
Pandonia was a local saint but not Huntingdonshire born and bred. It is recorded in the 13th century to c.1250 to St Pandonia or Pandionia; original name appears to have been O.E Pendwynn. St. Pandonia was a nun at Ely, the daughter of a Scottish Prince who died in 904. When her body was translated into the church in 1344 miracles occurred. Leland, c. 1540 (1906–10) notes:
“at “Eltesle was sumtyme a nunnery wher Pandonia the Scottish virgine was buried, and there is a well of her name yn the south side of the quire’, and, ‘it appearithe by the legende of S. Pandonia that she was a kynge of Scotts dowghter, and after flienge them that would have deflowrid hir, she cam to a kynns woman of hirs, priorese of a nunrey at Eltesley in Cambridgeshire, 4 myles from Saint Neotes, and aftar dyenge was byried in Eltesley by a well cawled S. Pandonia Welle. She was translatyd into Eltesley Churche anno 1344 as it aperithe by the lessons of hir translation made by one Ser Richarde, parishe priste there”.
Kelly’s directory (1929) notes:
“There was formerly a convent of Benedictine nuns here, subsequently removed in the reign of William I. to Hinchinbrooke, in Huntingdonshire. St. Pandionia was the daughter of a Scottish king, who, in her flight from some persons who attempted her chastity, is said to have taken refuge in the nunnery of Eltisley, the prioress of which was her kinswoman; she eventually adopted the religious life, and on account of her piety was canonized; she died, it is said, in the convent, and was buried by a well called St. Pandionia’s Well, whence her body was removed into Eltisley church in the year 1344.”
In the 1808 Cambridgeshire volume it is recorded the priory was where the rectory was and destroyed at the Conquest. However, another view places it some distance out of the village at Papley Grove, where a modern farm house is to be found.
Any sign of the well?
There is an interesting aspect to the tradition. Why was she buried near the well and not in the church of the Priory she was nunnery? Was if the story above is true still considered an outsider? Was she diseased and those needed to be buried elsewhere? Why bury her near a well? Surely this would both contaminate the grave and the water. How close was it to the church. Hope appears to state it outside the chancel which sounds pretty close to the church and his accounts states that a bricked around well was in the churchyard. If so perhaps some remains of it still exist awaiting to be discovered. But why was she buried near a well? Had she become a hermit there? Is there more to the story – was she buried and a spring arise like nearby St Ive’s Well in the town? The account appear to suggest that it might have arose after her body was transferred to the high altar. A local story states that her spirit appeared to local children revealing the location of the spring; perhaps this was at a time when there was a drought.
Sacred garden pool?
Interestingly, it is said that the water of the well fills pool in an adjoining property. It is a far distance from the chancel end but not impossible. They are hidden by trees on the picture shown on Google maps. They are not accessible to the public however…hopefully one day they excavate the churchyard and find remains of the well and restore it so far as the village history website (http://www.eltisleyhistorysociety.org.uk/) suggests it and the priory have yet to be discovered.