Mermaids are traditionally thought of as a marine phenomena but there are a number of freshwater accounts such as that noted in Herefordshire, three in Suffolk (Bury St Edmunds, Rendelsham, Fornham All Saints) and another in Gloucestershire at Timsbury. The peak district probably because of its remote and desolate landscape claims two!
The first is associated with the Black or Blake Mere a small pond of irregular shape, lying in a little hollow on the summit of the high hill of Morridge, about three and a half miles. from Leek in Staffordshire. The pond appears to have a reputation of being haunted. In the pages of The Reliquary, Camden quoting Nicham, says it is:
“A lake that with prophetic noise doth roar; Where beasts can ne’er be made to venture o’er— By hounds, or men, or fleeter death pursued, They’ll not plunge in, but shun the hated flood.”
Robert Plot in his 1689 Natural History of Staffordshire notes that:
“no Cattle will drink of it, no bird light on it, or fly over it; all which are as false as that it is bottomless; it being found upon admeasurement, scarce four yards in the deepest place; my horse also drinking, when I was there, as freely of it as ever I saw him in any other place; and the Fowls are so far from declining to fly over it, that I spoke with several that had seen Geese upon it; so that I take this to be as good as the rest, notwithstanding the vulgar disrepute it lies under.”
Neither account mentions a mermaid and it is unclear when this creature is first applied to the site. One of the first accounts perhaps is Charlotte S. Burne 1896 notes in her “What Folkore is, and how it is to be collected” in the North Staffordshire Naturalists’ Field Club, Annual Report and Transactions. Two origins for the existence of this mermaid are given. One account states that she was a women ,who during a stormy night was drowned there by her lover after he discovered she was pregnant with his child. Another story suggests that she was a witch and was drowned by the local people. It is said that as she drowned she cursed the person who accused her and days later he was found clawed to death in the pool. Local people state that she can be seen combing her hair and enticing people to their death. She is also said to have warned locals who were draining the lake to check its depth by threatening to flood the local town of Leek – they subsequently stopped!
Perhaps the more famous of the Peak’s merfolk is found in The Mermaid’s Pool a mysterious pool at the foot of Kinder Scout, a strange site which appears to be a relic of pre-Christian water worship particular as the water is said to have healing qualities. Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary lore of holy wells notes:
“There is a local tradition that a beautiful nymph ….who comes to bathe daily in the Mermaid’s Pool, and that the man who has the good fortune to see her whilst bathing will become immortal.”
It is likely that Hope is sourcing Henry Kirke’s 1869 article “The Mermaid’s Pool” in The Reliquary notes:
“At Old Oak Wood, near Hayfield, Derbyshire, is the Mermaid’s Pool, where a beautiful woman is said to enter the water every day, and whoever has the good luck to see her will become immortal and will never die.”
Hope records a tradition of someone who had seen the mermaid thus:
“The old folk of Hayfield, moreover, have a long story of a man who, sometime in the last century, went from Hayfield over the Scout, and was lucky enough to meet this mountain nymph, by whom he was conducted to a cavern hard by. Tradition adds that she was pleased with this humble mortal, and that he lingered there for some time, when she conferred on him the precious gift of immortality.”
The best time to find visit the Mermaid’s Pool is midnight on Easter eve when she could favour you with your wishes, but if she did not favour you she will drag you to your death!
It is possible of course that local production of methane gases produced willo-the-wisps which were seen as the mermaid but that would ruin a good story would it not? Or perhaps you might argue that someone caught the said mermaid and put it in Buxton museum! – go along and have a look!
The Lady Magdalene’s Well
Back in the 1990s I was busily researching for my Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Kent and was searching for two notable wells which existed on private grounds. Back in those well searching days there were really only three ways to find out if a site existed beyond someone else’s account and the appropriate map. These were – writing, turn up on spec and linked to the later try to see the well by doing a bit of exploring. As both laid firmly on private ground (and one a school) it seemed prudent to enact the first option. So I wrote and fortunately both were forthcoming so I arranged a day to explore them.
Lady Magdalene’s Well (TQ 707 333) is in fact one of a number of chalybeate springs which surround Combwell Priory, probably named after Mary. Although Combwell itself is a ‘modern’ building, it is constructed around the old priory, pieces of which are recognisable in its fabric. Nearby under a mound the un-excavated remains of other sections of the priory. Little is clear concerning its history. The earliest reference to the well is on a 1622 Combwell Estate map and Combwell Priory was granted a fair on St Mary Magdalene’s Day in 1226-7 so it is doubtlessly an ancient source.
Only a few years before my visit, the site was a boggy area. When I visited it is tanked and enclosed in modern brickwork (although there would appear to be signs of an earlier, probably Victorian structure). The overflow from the spring emerges as a stream a few feet from this structure. There is little here to excite the antiquarian. Mrs. Fehler, of Combwell Priory, informed me that it was used as drinking water at the house, although she suspected its quality, having a blue tinge. The carved bust of a woman, said to be a cook who foiled a Roundhead attack is of interest at the Priory. Mrs. Fehler refers to this as ‘The Combwell.’ Could it have been associated with the well? Perhaps the story was later constructed around the object to explain it.
The Lady’s Well
The Lady’s Well (TQ 341 721) is noted in blue italics on the map, with the words chalybeate spring beneath. It was located within the private Bedgebury School Estate. Although the name suggests a dedication to Our Lady, it is according to local historian Mr. Bachelor, its origin appears to be secular, deriving from Viscountess Beresford who resided at Bedgebury. To add to the confusion the well is now dedicated to a past Bedgebury School Headmistress. A plaque at the well records this. Yet despite this it is a pleasing site, the spring arising in a distinctive square sandstone well house, found nestling in a Rhododendron dell below the main building.
This structure, Romanesque in style, is six foot high, with water emerging through a pipe in its centre to fill a semi-circular basin set at its base. The structure’s condition suggests that it is of no great age and would correspond with early Nineteenth Century. Whether the water was taken for its waters, being a noted for its iron rich water like Tunbridge wells, is unknown. Since visiting the site is no longer enclosed in the grounds of the school as it closed in 2006 and the building is currently derelict.
Interestingly there was another chalybeate spring in the wider grounds of the school I did not visit and two more in the woods nearby – I did fail to visit these but no history or tradition was apparently recorded concerning these.
Chigwell on the Essex outskirts of London is a site claimed to have derived its name from a spring called the King’s Well as Samuel Lewis in his 1848 Topography notes:
“within the bounds of the great forest of Waltham and in ancient records is styled Cingwella supposed to imply the King’s Well a purgative spring here from which its present name is derived.”
However did it? According to P. H. Reaney’s Place-Names of Essex the name means ‘Cicca’s well’, Cicca being an Anglo-Saxon personal name. Furthermore, the 18th-century historian Nathaniel Salmon The History and Antiquities of Essex stated that the “-well” element in the name derives from Anglo-Saxon weald meaning wood which would make sense considering its proximity to Hainault Forest. Hence my claim in the book Holy wells and healing springs of Essex that it was
“The King’s well was certainly an ancient site, possibly a pre-Christian origin”
May seem now a little over-enthusiastic!
Philip Morant in his 1763-8 History and Antiquities of Essex gives the earliest account of the well, being found:
“…..behind the wind-mill, among the trees whose water has a purging quality, and the late Dr Frewin used to speak of its flavour….Near the well is a hole wherein the water of the fame nature, perhaps proceeding from the other.”
Morant (1763-8) also suggests that the well was once frequented, but less so by his time. By the end of the 18th century it appears to have become entirely neglected. This situation never improved, as even in 1838, a Professor Booth noted it to be ‘now quite neglected’. This decline lead to its final destruction in the late 1870, when the site was drained, filled in and turfed over, by a Mr. Radley, acting on behalf of the then owner. By the time Christy (1910) visited the site, the well had long gone, but fortunately he too obtained some vital details concerning the well. The well was reached by a private road, although once a public right of way, near a mill pond. Unusually it would appear that the fame of the water differed in regards its appearance, for when yellow it was best only for cattle. He was informed by the older residents of the community that this well laid in a meadow of about thirty acres called ‘Parkfield’, belonging to a Mr. Philip Saville, and near his residence of ‘The Woodlands’. It was situated due south of Forest House, about 300 yards from the road, and not very far from Grange Hill Station. It lay on the steep slope of London clay, lying on the south side of the road.
A description of the site
Fortunately, a description of the site survives. A Mr. Green, who had lived many years in the Parish described the well as a hollow place, bricked around, with steps leading down to the water. Surplus water was relayed to a ditch via pipes. Yet despite its destruction 30 years before, it was still famed in the 1900s. A local man Mr College referred to it as the ‘purging well’. Furthermore a Dr. Reeve, formerly of Chigwell Row, described it as good as any medicine as a purgative.
The site today
In the book Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Essex I recorded that the site was located in Whitehall Close, but there is now nothing to mark it; the area being developed for housing.
Since Morant’s (1763-8) description the whole area has drastically changed. The windmill was burnt down in about the 1850s, and the trees that surrounding the well (part of the old Hanault Forest) were probably cut down even earlier.
However, in 1907 about 50 yards from the reputed site of the well, there was a stagnant cattle pond. Miller Christy and May Thresh’s 1910 A History of the Mineral Waters and Medicinal Springs of the County of Essex believes that this is probably the hollow described by Morant (1763-8). This too has gone.
However, there is some confusion and subsequent research places it more precisely in the rear of the house located at 67 Brocket Way being marked on the land registration map of Redbridge Council shows “Chig Well (site of)”
However, that might not be the whole story! In an excellent article on the Chigwell Row community blogsite called Chigwell derived from King’s Well or Cicca’s Well the jury is out! the author notes:
“I hope to work on a project to commemorate that early past and have it recognised locally. Hopefully a local project will revive an interest in our historical past like the Mammoth replica project has in Redbridge. I have followed the map I bought with local resident Neil Patel who has lived her for over 40 years. We believe that the location of Chig Well would have been in land adjacent to the wells Park School or at it’s rear. I have contacted the school to try and ascertain whether the name of the school is somehow linked to the history of the well listed on the map. A call to the school office was met with short-shrift and the woman who answered said she knew nothing about the origins and nor would other school staff. she said:“The decision to name the school was made by Essex Council.“They gave the school to options and early decision-makers went with Wells Park School.”When pressed on how Essex Council derived the two name options, I was reminded to contact Essex Council. I have contacted the Essex Record Office who is not able to advise me on the origins of the name of the school, but I will ask the officer there and the school again, in hope of clearing up this mystery. Later it would be able to gain access to the rear of the school or the private land next to it, to locate any remnant of the potential well site.”
It seems sad that such a renowned site, that had given the place its central focus and name, should have been destroyed with little regard for its importance. However one does wonder what they have found in the garden of number 67, or Whitehall Close or as the author above states the School!
Why dangerous? St Anne’s Well lies along probably the busiest road of any holy well and thus is difficult to reach safely, and despite being along a road it is easy to miss often being full of litter.
The name St Anne’s Well appears on the 1830 OS map and the parish church is also dedicated to St Anne. It is worth noting that the cult of St. Ann was a later one, arriving in the 14th century. Perhaps E. Mardon’s 1857, ‘Rambles around Bristol’, in the Bristol Magazine and West of England Monthly Review 1 who also has the earliest written record has another origin for its name. For they describe it as:
“the once celebrated medicinal spring, of whose waters Queen Anne used to drink, visiting the village for that purpose.”
Was a then dedicated to Queen Anne and later this was misinterpreted as St Anne? Or vica versa. The reverse seems more likely as it seems odd that the Queen would have visited and the association of her name may be evidence of some attempt to de- Christianise and secularise the spring post-Reformation. Mardon (1857) also records:
“It would appear from the plaque affixed to the spring, that the villagers, in 1790, in grateful remembrance of past honours, named the waters ‘‘Saint Anne’s Well‘’, and the bridge a little further on ‘‘Saint Anne’s Bridge‘”
When R.C. Skyring Walters in 1928 in his The Ancient Wells, Springs and Holy Wells of Gloucestershire: Their Legends, History and Topography he noted that on his visit this plaque had been stolen. However, when I visited in the site in the early 1990s, there was a green sign denoting it, but upon my visit it too was lost in the hedge. He described it as:
“a stone trough at ground level, 4ft 6in by 2ft, which is divided in a curious manner into two unequal parts… There is a high stone wall behind the trough. Until about two years ago there was an iron plate, bearing the inscription “St Anne’s Well”… Water from the well… was well-known throughout the parish of Pucklechurch for its excellent properties as an eye lotion.”
Being divided into an unusual manner Skyring Walters believed that the smallest part for a puppy the larger for a mature dog?! Presently it contains very murky water and is perhaps in need of some restoration and protection. The last time it was restored properly may have been recorded by Dorothy Vintner in her 1966, ‘Holy wells near Bristol’, Gloucestershire Countryside June 1966, when they were told that:
“local inhabitants welcome the fact that its stonework is being restored and its water-supply improved.”
Its supply arises at the Lower Lias and Rhaetic limestone lying on Keyper Marl. A. Braine in their 1891 The History of Kingswood Forest calls it a chalybeate spring and states that:
“Here a large number of poor persons who have weak eyes resort to try its healing effects.”
This reference to healing eyes and it is recorded that people travelled for miles to try the cure, being still being publicised into the 1930’s. Interestingly Phil Quinn Quinn in the excellent 1999 The Holy Wells of Bath and Bristol Region, says that:
“women would come to the well with pins to drop in, in the hope of bearing a child.”
However after reviewing Vintner’s 1966 article that author refers to this tradition in Brittany not Siston! (sadly). Unfortunately, this belief has now slipped into other accounts of the well including the excellent website btsarnia.org//the-holy-wells-of-gloucestershire which records:
“In its heyday it drew people from Bristol especially the poor and those with weak eyes or those who were infertile. Pins were dropped into the well by women, hoping to become pregnant at the next intercourse. The efficacy of the waters as an eye cure was locally publicised as late as the 1930s. Similar wells with this custom and intention existed at Wrington, East Harptree and Portishead.”
Quinn (1999) is correct of course in his observation that it is:
“now sadly holds little more than rainwater.”
Stating that it was affected by road widening another impact on this noted holy well and slowly vegetation, litter and neglect may one day claim it.
Enfield might not seem the most profitable for holy and healing well hunting but there were some interesting sites. Sadly searching for the first site was less than fruitful. According to Samuel Lewis’s 1831 Topographical directory) there is a spring called King’s Ring, although Hope (1893) calls it Tim Ringer’s Well, he also notes that whose waters never freeze nor dry up. Lewis (1831) notes its location:
“To the south-west of the town, and about a mile from Old Bury, is a smaller moat, on the estate of John Clayton, Esq; and to the south of Goulsdown lane is another, separating two square fields, in the first of which are the remains of out-buildings belonging to a mansion in which Judge Jeffreys is said to have resided, and near the entrance a deep well called King’s Ring, the water of which is deemed efficacious in diseases of the eye: a celt was dug up in 1793, at the depth of twelve feet from the surface.”
G. M. Hodson and E. Ford 1873’s A History of Enfield note that it was on the south side of Nag’s Head Lane, near Ponder’s End. It was a deep well, probably the brick conduit noted in Ogilby’s roads 1698. Mr Leonard Will, local historian notes that Godfrey Maps reproduction of the Ordnance Survey map of Ponders End, 1896, shows King’s Ring (WELL) (Site of) on the south side of Southbury Road, just to the east of Churchbury Station (now called Southbury station).
The site does not appear to have survived as the area is heavily urbanised, it would appear to correspond to Poppy drive and despite some green spaces there nothing could be found!
More mysterious is the pond located in Trent Country Park called Camlet Moat, a name which first appears in 1440 A.D. The name has been thought to suggest that this was the site of the legendary castle of King Arthur Camelot. The site is also noted for a ghost of Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Sussex and Hertfordshire and Constable of the Tower of London whose ghost was apparently first recorded in the 12th century. He is said to guard a pot of treasure he hid down a nearby well before he was arrested for treason. Local legend also records has a paved bottom beneath which the treasure would be found which is protected by a magic spell. Curiously he is also associated with guarding treasure in ‘castle’ well in earthworks at South Mimms (cf Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Hertfordshire)
A steep crater in the north-east corner of the moat has been identified as the well. During excavation in the 1920s by the then owner, a on 6th April 1924, the Zanesville Times-Signal, an Ohio, USA based newspaper, ran a full page story with the headline ‘The Ghost that Guards the Treasure in the Well’ discussing the issues of disturbing the ghost of Geoffrey de Mandeville. According to A. Mitellas 2015’s A Concise History of Trent Country Park Version 3:
“The February 21st 1903 issue of Country Life tells of a story about the ‘last owner of The Chase’, who, having been accused of treason, hid in a hollow tree. Later that night, he sneaked out to make his escape but then fell down the well at the north-east corner of Camlet Moat and ‘perished miserably’. The ghost of this last owner is said to haunt the moat.”
Also associated with the site is Dick Turpin who would hide by the moat. He does not haunt the site but according to local Pagan and New Age groups, a female ghost called the ‘The White Lady or Goddess’ does. The groups who have taken to adopting the site as a significant religious. They have adorned the trees with votive offerings and make bowers from local branches in which they place shrines. As Mitellas (2015) notes:
“Camlet Moat is considered to be a sacred place by a Pagan and mystic network that stretches out far beyond the local vicinity, and, indeed, the country. Local Pagans who regularly visit the site occasionally build bender huts from the surrounding branches and brushwood, complete with shrines. In particular, the well is considered to be sacred. Followers have adorned a partially felled hornbeam tree that leans over the well with prayer rags, symbols and trinkets.”
C. Street’s 2009 London’s Camelot and the Secrets of the Grail believes that the site was a place of healing and inspiration being a site of an ancient oracular shrine. He also notes that it is one of the corners of ‘The Barnet Triangle’ with the east Barnet’s St Mary the Virgin and Monken Hadley’s St Mary the Virgin churches forming a perfect equilateral triangle. A triangle which is claimed to be a powerful conduit of energy feeding ley lines locally.
The name Camlet is thought by many to have been corrupted from Camelot and hence theories have developed regarding a link to the legendary King Arthur, indeed it has been called ‘London’s Camelot’. A reference from May 1439 does record the demolishing the ‘manor of Camelot’ supporting the idea. Another possible origin is that the 14th century stonemason William Ramsey who constructed Edward III’s round table for Windsor, lived here and named it Camelot out of homage.
In my Holy Wells and healing springs of Middlesex I believed to have located Noddin’s Well as a small boggy hole near the old Middlesex University buildings. However even more mysterious is that others appear to identify it as the ruins of what appear to be a folly building perhaps a bath house. Equally mysterious is the name local Pagan groups have attempted to associate the well with the Celtic God Noden’s who is associated with spring in his mythology. However, equally it could derive from a local land owner. No-one appears to know and it remains an enigmatic site.
Extracted in part from Holy Wells and healing springs of Middlesex
If there was a claim for the Scottish holy well visited by the most famous people it must be the suitably named Scotlandwell. It would add that it is also one of the most picturesque holy wells in Britain and very easy to find – being signposted down a lane with parking off the village that shares its name.
A Roman site
It is said that in the late 1st century A.D the Romans named the well Fons Scotiae’ . Whilts it is known in 84 AD, Roman soldiers were marching between their camps at Lochore in Fife and Ardoch in Perthshire however, there does not appear to be any evidence especially archaeologically, but what is known that a hospital dedicated to St Mary was established in the area in 1250 by the Trinitarian Friars. It is locally said that they utilised the water. Their association may have attracted one of the most famous of Scotland’s kings – Robert the Bruce. It is alleged that he came here to be cured of leprosy. Janet and Colin Bord in their 1985 Sacred Waters note:
“Robert Bruce, King of Scotland (1306-29) suffered from leprosy, and at least three wells were reputedly used by him in his search for a cure. He is said to have been responsible for a well at Prestwick (Ayr) which flowed where he stuck his spear in the sand while resting from his struggles with the English. He stayed for several days, and his leprosy was reputedly cured. He is said to have built a leper hospital for those who could not afford treatment. He also visited the St Lazarus Well at Muswell Hill (London) being granted a free pass by the King of England to do so.”
It is thus said to have become a place of pilgrimage. Another monarch, Mary Queen of Scots also is said to have visited it. However, the Friar’s establishment remembered as Friar Place was demolished in 1587 probably not long after Mary’s patronage at the start of the great Reformation in Scotland.
However, the well itself must have been accessible as Bill Anderton in his 1991 Ancient Britain tells us that:
“ records show that Charles II travelled from his Dunfermline Palace to take the waters.”
Whatever these records are, are in themselves unclear and whilst the ancient royal seat of Dunfermline is indeed not many miles from the site, I have been unable to find further details.
The site may have slowly disappeared into obscuring if it was not for the fortitude of local landowners. When in the early 1820s the site, itself common land, could be described as:
“an almost unapproachable slough of mire and filth” and within it “a half ruinous building used sometimes as a washing house and sometimes as a slaughter house.”
This may have been some remains of the Friar’s buildings perhaps and it is impossible that some older stone in the current fabric of the well house could be from this date. The building of the ornamental well and its nearby wash house was done by a Thomas Bruce of Arnot who owned land in the aras between 1857 and 1860 after acquiring the land. He employed David Bryce an important Edinburgh architect to draw up plans for both in 1857 which consisted of a large stone lined bath like chamber covered accessing all around by covered by grill. Over which is an ornate wooden roof, akin to a alpine chalet style. All painted dark green. Water bumbles up through sandy soil in the water quite obviously and then emerges from a small gap into a small circular basin and then run off. Steps go down from both sides to reach the outflow. Using stone available from quarries nearby that the well was completed soon after at the cost of £154 in 1858. On either side of the water spout are the initials TBA for Thomas Bruce of Arnot and his wife Henrietta Dorin embossed. The nearby washhouse also bears TBA and 1860.
Thomas Bruce of Arnot stated in his memoirs:
“The improvement of the village and of its “Well” has cost me more money than some might perhaps say I aught to have expended upon them, but it has been a subject of great interest to me and I have been far more than repaid in one way at least by the gratification it has afforded to the villagers by a desire for whose moral improvement it was that I was mainly actuated in what I did and am still doing.”
Then in 1922 two years after the death of Sir Charles Bruce of Arnot the well and wash house, were handed over to the people of Scotlandwell as a gift and the site is currently looked after by the Parish council.
The bath house locally called ‘The Steamie’ was where laundry was washed, being connected to the well’s underground water source, ceased being used in 1960s but has recently been restored as a small tourist attraction and currently leaflets are given out concerning the well and the bath house
In Ruth and Frank Morris’s 1978 Scottish Healing Well they note:
“In October 1978 we met there a women, her husband and brother who had travelled from Edinburgh a round trip of some 80 miles which they frequently made, to fill to two large bottles with clear well water. One of the men, a cancer sufferer had been induced to take the water some time before and found it did him some good , clearing a stubborn body rash that he continued to use the water: “If it was good enough for Robert the Bruce, it’s good enough for me. ”
However, reaching for the metal cup I took myself a large gulp not noticing that the sign that he had read when Ruth and Frank Morris had visited in 1978: ‘Health giving water of Scotlandwell was for many years used to help cure the sick…” was replaced with UNFIT TO DRINK DO NOT DRINK!
Oh well this was a few summers ago and I am still okay. Whether you drink or not, Scotlandwell is one of the country’s most attractive and perhaps oldest healing springs.
On and off I have been surveying the holy wells of East and West Sussex which is an area which does not appear to have collected much academic interest. Thanks to myself and James Rattue Kent is now covered more than satisfactorily, ditto Rattue’s Surrey and now Dorset, Hampshire and Sussex in a way await further exploration. Thus it is possible that new and interesting holy wells maybe found in these counties, ones missed by Jeremy Harte’s 2008 magnus opus English Holy wells
Battle is such a place. It is a place I have visited many times and thought there should be a holy well there and indeed there was. However, the Wishing, Holy or Dr Graye’s Well is described by one source Her Grace the Duchess of Cleveland’s account of the History of Battle Abbey as:
“a square opening five or six feet wide, enclosed by a massive stone wall nearly seven feet high; a flight of steps led up to it on either side, and at each angle was what he called a vase, or receptacle for flowers and votive offerings. The spring was conveyed to the other side of the church wall.”
It was located:
“On the north side of the Cloister Garth stood the Holy Well, from which some writers have derived the name of Senlac, given to this place by Ordericus Vitalis. It is mentioned in Queen Elizabeth’s time, as a place held sacred by recusants’ :-whither many, especially women, resort, like a young pilgrimage, and call it Dr. Graye’s well.’
Did this have an older history? The author suggests that its water gave Battle its old name of Senlac – possibly – but there is no evidence as such- and the origin of that name has itself been debated. What is more likely perhaps is that the spring provided the domestic water supply of the Abbey and later converted post Reformation as suggested above as a holy well needed to meet Catholic recusant use.
Who was Dr Graye?
The author continues to explain that Dr Grey was a priest, the Dowager Viscountess Montague’s chaplain, a zealous Roman Catholic, who resided at the Abbey in Elizabethan times. He was imprisoned by Sir Francis Walsingham. He appears a likely person to concoct a holy well out of an available spring.
What happened to the well?
The author continues to record that:
“ It was afterwards known as the Wishing Well, and was unfortunately destroyed in the course of Sir Godfrey Webster’s alterations, in 1814….and now furnishes the drinking water of the household; it is remarkably sweet and pure, and we appreciated it for its own sake long before we were made aware that it was the charmed water of the old Holy Well.”
And so it disappeared into obscurity after perhaps a brief period of fame – a holy well of the Catholic faith in hiding and as such of great interest.
The real sacred well of Battle?
However, another claimant to have an association with the Battle of Senlac is still to be found. King Harold’s Well is enclosed in a circular well can be found in the front garden of Three Virgins Lane.
Local tradition records that the spring was drunk by King Harold before the Battle of Hastings. Whether it is originally a Saxon well is unknown it certainly does not look it. It is perhaps not the most attractive site but at least something remains to remind us of the days of King Harold.
Often the Heritage Open Day in September gives the curious an opportunity to see some hidden gems and Gledhow’s Bath House in Leeds is a great example. The bath house probably the oldest standing in the UK is a delightful find on the edge of the woodland cliff.
The building is grade 2 listed and consists of a small building with a fireplace designed to sweat patients after immersion in the sunken bath outside. It is made of coursed square gritstone with a slate gabled roof. There are high ways enclosing the plunge pool which is around 1.75 m deep and three metres square with a small edge around three sides of it. The entrance has quoined jambs with a circular window in the gable and moulded gable coping. There is a large Latin plaque which reads “constructed by Edward Waddington of Gledhow in 1671”.
How old is the bath house?
The earliest reference to the spa is when it was constructed in 1671 by Edward Waddington of Gledhow Hall subsequently it alternative name is Waddington Bath. A Latin inscription reading:
Annovae Domini 1671”
However, it first receives academic interest when in 1708 when the noted Leeds Antiquarian Ralph Thoresby took his younger song, Richard to the site. He had been suffering with either rhickets or rheumatism and as part of his treatment it was recommended that he visit the bath regularly to take a cold immersion. In his diary for the 5th of July the author wrote:
“Walked with my dear by Chapel-town and Gledhow to Gypton-Well (whence my Lord Irwin who comes thither in his coach daily, was but just gone) to enquire for conveniences for my dear child Richard’s bathing”.
It must have been a successful because he found in his 1715 Ducatus Leodiensis easily to promote the site stating:
“The Gipton well was accommodated with convenient lodgings to sweat the patient after bathing and is frequented by Persons of Honour, being reputed little or nothing inferior to St Monagh’s’
The later comment referring to a spa spring near Ripon which was popular at the time. Not much is known of the intervening century of the bath house as it does not appear to be much mentioned but it would still appear to have been utilised by 1817 as Edward Baines’ Leeds Guide of 1817 described the village as
” a small, pleasant village, 2 miles from Leeds. Within the wood is a cold spring with a small bathing house attached.”
However by 1834 the fame of the spring was waning as Edward Parson’s notes in his
History of Leeds: ”
“The Waters of Gipton have lost their celebrity and are no longer frequented.”
However he is positive by stating:
“There is no reason why they should not be restored to fame. If some chemist was to report an analysis of their component parts, if some physician were to publish a book in their praise, if some speculator were to build a decorative bath, a large hotel or perhaps a crescent of houses with a sounding name, it is certain that quite as much benefit would be reaped from Gipton Well as from many of the Springs which are highly extolled for their salutiferous qualities and around which complaining valetudinaians and idle loungers so numerously congregate.”
It had not been forgotten of course because Kelly’s directory of 1881 notes that they “are still resorted to by people who live in the neighbourhood.”
Fortunately, when in 1888 the eldest daughter of the first Lord Airedale, Honourable Hilda Kitson, , bought the farm which the bath house stood on she didn’t remove it but was concerned for its survival and as such she offered £200 to the Leeds Corporation from which the interest would repair it. However it was not until 1926 did they take her up on the offer and the Corporation took it over.
Sadly despite this the bath house went through considerable amount of neglect over the intervening times. The roof had been seriously damaged, trees grew through it and it was frequented by drug users and prostitutes. The site was fenced off as a result in 2004. Finally in 2005 the Friends of Gledhow Valley Woods cleaned up the site and repaired it ready to open it to the public. And a delight it is too, when I visited I found the small place very atmospheric with candles flickering in the small fireplace.
The water was deep clear and inviting although I did not in. Nearby the group had made bottles of the spring water beside the pool although I would be interested if anyone drunk it.
One of the most evocative holy wells is perhaps one of the most unique fittingly. The first to record it was William Hals in his 1685-1736 History of Cornwall. He records that:
“In this parish is that famous and well-known spring of water called Holy-well (so named the inhabitants say, for that the virtues of this water was first discovered on Allhallows- day).”
So far not perhaps that unusual. But he continues:
“The same stands in a dark cavern of the sea- cliff’ rocks, beneath full sea-mark on spring-tides ; from the top of which cavern foils down or distils continually drops of water, from the white, blue, red, and green veins of those rocks. And accordingly, in the place where those drops of water fall, it swells to a lump of considerable bigness, and there petrifies to the hardness of ice, glass, or freestone, of the several colours aforesaid, according to the nature of those veins in the rock from whence it proceeds, and is of a hard brittle nature, apt to break like glass.”
Over a hundred years later, John Cardell Oliver’s 1877 Guide to Newquay romantically records:
“It is a somewhat curious place. After passing over a few boulders the mouth of the cave will be reached, where steps will be found leading up to the well. This rock-formed cistern is of a duplicate form, consisting of two wells, having a communication existing between them. The supply of water is from above; and this water, being of a calcareous nature, has coated the rock with its earthy deposits, giving to the surrounding walls and to the well itself a variegated appearance of white, green and purple. Above and beyond the well will be seen a deep hole extending into the cliff.”
Thomas Quiller-Couch in Holy Wells of Cornwall
“This well has Nature only for its architect, no mark of man’s hand being seen in its construction ; a pink enamelled basin, filled by drippings from the stalactitic roof, forms a picture of which it is difficult to describe the loveliness. What wonder, then, that the simple folk around should endow it with mystic virtues?”
Cures for children
Richard Polwhele, in his 1803 History of Cornwall states
“The virtues of the waters are, if taken inward, a notable vomit, or as a purgent. If applied outward, it presently strikes in, or dries up, all itch, scurf, dandriff, and such-like distempers in men or women. Numbers of persons in summer season frequent this place and waters from countries far distant. It is a petrifying well.”
Further details are given by John Cardell Oliver
“The legend respecting the well is, that in olden times mothers on Ascension Day brought their deformed or sickly children here, and dipped them in, at the same time passing them through the aperture connecting the two cisterns ; and thus, it is said, they became healed of their disease or deformity. It would seem that other classes also believed virtue to reside in its water; for it is said that the cripples were accustomed to leave their crutches in the hole at the head of the well.”
“The virtues of this water are very great. It is incredible what numbers in summer season frequent this place and waters from counties far distant.”
Why is it St Cuthbert’s Well?
One account tells how Alchun, Bishop of Holy Island, Lindisfarne in 995 AD to take the body of previous bishop, St Cuthbert, to Ireland to escape Danish raiders. However, it is said that the weather drove them to the north coast of Cornwall where they were beached and settled at time and built a church at Cubert. They presumably rested at the cave and the relics touched the spring which then became holy and healing. After settling down in Cornwall, the Bishop and the relics finally set off to Durham where the saint was finally laid to rest.
This seems a fairly unlikely journey and a story made up by the ill-informed it would seem as the parish is named after St Cubert, an 8th century companion of St Carantoc, who came to convert the local pagans. What is interesting is that there are two holy wells in the parish. A more traditional chapel type being found on higher ground and I would hypothesis that this was constructed to sway local people from visiting the more primeval sea cave. Perhaps as that did not work local Christians applied the St Cuthbert story to the sea cave to attempt to finally push out the pagan connotations – the saintly name however still jars in this most primitive and ancient site.
Interestingly despite it being a wholly natural site it became a Scheduled Monument by Historic England in 2001
A cursory check of the internet will show the perceived view of rag wells – most commonly called – clootie wells are that they are a Celtic pagan as summed up by the 21st century source of all information it seems Wikipedia:
“Clootie wells (also Cloutie or Cloughtie wells) are places of pilgrimage in Celtic areas.”
The online article goes on to list three sites in Scotland, Cornwall and Ireland – to emphasise this! However, the earliest recorded site is not only in England, but a fair distance from traditional Celtic homelands being on the north east in Yorkshire!
It is in 1600 work of A Description of Cleveland in a Letter Addressed by H. Tr. to Sir Thomas Chaloner earliest reference is made to an association with a well. It describes St. Oswald’s Well, Great Ayton that:
“they teare of a ragge of the shirte, and hange yt on the bryers thereabouts”.
Francis Grose in his 1773 The Antiquities of England and Wales also records that:
“Between the towns of Alten and Newton near the foot of Roseberrye Toppinge there is a well dedicated to St Oswald. The neighbours have an opinion that a shirt or shift taken off a sick person and thrown into that well, will show whether that person will recover or die; for if it floated it denoted the recovery of the party; if it sunk, there remained no hope of their life: and to reward the saint for his intelligence , they tear off a rag off the shirt and leave it hanging on the briars thereabouts: where I have seen such numbers as might have made a fayre rhime in a paper mill.”
However by Rev. John Graves 1808’s The History of Cleveland all mention of hanging rags appears forgotten or not known by the author who states that:
“Within the parish, at the northern extremity of Cliffrigg-Wood, and about two hundred paces to the eastward from Langbargh-Quarry, there is a copious spring of clear water, called Chapel-Well, which had formerly a bath &c. and was, till of late years, much resorted on the Sundays in the summer months by the youth of the neighbouring villages, who assembled to drink the simple beverage, and to join in a variety of rural diversions. But the harmlessness of this innocent recreation was at length destroyed by Spiritous liquors, furnished by the village-innkeepers: when the custom became discountenanced, and was soon after discontinued”
Yet when the Rev. George Young in his 1817 History of Whitby he does refer to the festivities but mentions the rags suggesting the custom was still concurrent:
“At the north end of Cliffrigg Wood, a little to the east of Langbargh quarry, is a copious spring, once the resort of superstition. It was supposed that when a shirt or shift was taken from a sick person and thrown into this well, the person would recover if it floated, but would die if it sunk. A rag of the shirt was torn off and hung on the bushes, as an offering to St Oswald, to whom the well was dedicated; and so numerous were the devotees, that, as an ancient writer states, the quantity of rags, suspended around the well, might have furnished material for a ream of paper. It is called Chapel Well, having once had a chapel, or cell, beside it, with a bath and other conveniences. As superstition is the handmaid of impiety, it is not surprising to find that a sunday fair was held here for many ages: this disgraceful nuisance is now happily removed.”
Perhaps the loss of the merrymaking resulted in a loss of the custom as when Frank Elgee visited in the 1930s noted in his 1957 A Man of the Moors, extracts from the Diaries and Letters of Frank Elgee (published in 1992) he described as:
“18 July 1936. “This evening we took the bus to Langbaurgh Quarries to examine the site an ancient Chapel and its sacred Well, which are close by…a spring flowing out of an iron pipe to meet a pool muddied by the feet of cattle”.
He had hoped to find fragments of the garments hung over the pool, in past times, as charms against disease, but was disappointed.
The site today?
A visit by Graeme Chapel on the Yorkshire holy well website noted that:
“The site of this once famous well is located just to the north of Great Ayton village, in a small fenced off area at the edge of a grassy field. Today the well is a wet boggy area at the foot of a Hawthorn bush (dead?). The wells healing waters appear to have had chalybeate properties, as orange-red deposits are still visible on the boggy surface of the spring, unfortunately the spring head is now so choked that the waters seep away instead of flowing along its former drainage channel. However probing through the mud reveals what may be a paved or cobbled area in front of the spring.
Finding the exact site was a bit of a challenge. Despite being marked on the old OS maps and guidance: a couple of sites appeared to suggest to be the exact one. Sadly it was completely forgotten – no rags and not even any water – but the indication of a dead hawthorn and a soft soil suggests the correct site. No sign of any pavement except some stones nearby and no chalybeate water! Unfortunately, it was largely inaccessible being surrounded by barbed wire! However, archaeologically it would sound that may would possibly be some significant remains hereabouts – not only a well, but a bath and suggestive by the name a chapel perhaps?
Graeme Chapel’s excellent Yorkshire holy well continues:
The well lies on the parish boundary between Great Ayton and Guisborough, while to the west of the well a little used single track railway line lies a little too close for comfort, but the view to the east is dominated by the mountain-like peak of Roseberry Topping (anciently called Odinsberg) where legend has it, Oswy, the young son of king Oswald, drowned in the Odinsbery spring high up on the hill top.
A footpath leading up to the summit passes near to the well and it is possible the two places were connected in local tradition.”
Now the Odinsbery spring has often been confused with the chapel well and as Chapel notes it seems likely the two were linked. The legends associated with this site deserve a full exploration but what is interesting is that Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary lore of holy wells records a version of the legend of Oswy, the ill-fated drowned son of Oswald:
“strolling out one day with her child, they met a party of gipsies, who were anxious to tell her the child’s fortune. After being much importuned, she assented to their request. To the mother’s astonishment and grief they prognosticated that the child would be drowned.”
Why do I make reference to this? Well one of my theories about rag wells is their association with the travelling community and although this does not explicitly mention the well it suggests that gypsies were found in the area. Indeed I saw several traditional pony and trap and caravans in the area. However, it is clear that everyone has forgotten this spring!