This year I published my long researched Holy wells and healing springs of Kent, number six in the series. Here is an analysis of the county’s urban wells which may interest.
Ancient water supplies do not survive well in urban areas. What were once the very focal points of such communities quickly become swept away by progress and the need for better sanitation and supply. However, in my research into ancient wells of the county, I have been interested to note that there appear to have been some particularly interesting examples in what is now the most urbanised area of Kent that which has now in the most part been incorporated into the London sprawl. Some of these sites, Lewisham’s Lady Well, Bromley’s St. Blaise’s Well and Keston’s Caesar’s Well, are well known and suitable for articles in their own right, but there are a number of other interesting sites. In some cases unfortunately their existence in most cases is only remembered by their placenames such as street names or wood names and in some cases actually survive.
For example Greenwich drew the majority of its water from a source called the Stockwell, being the main source of the palace’s conduit tunnels. It may well have drawn upon spring water used by the Romans as Roman wells were located nearby. The site has long gone, and all that remains to remind us is a plaque on the site. Another spring head, not given a name anciently it appears, has in recent years been a focus for local pagans.
Blackheath’s water history is even less clear. Two names are noted Cresswell, a road name and Queen Elizabeth’s Well. The origin of the latter name is lost. Does it suggest that Elizabeth I drank from it when resident in the Royal Palace?
Lewisham had a number of noted water supplies, the Lady Well ( probably the same as the Woe Water ) and the Mineral Spring, however modern street names may record other interesting examples: Abbot’s Well, Cordwell and Foxwell. Swanley street names record a Kettlewell.
Further out, in the Parish of Eltham, there was an interesting well called the Lemon Well. The properties and brief histories of this spring are recorded by a correspondent of Dunkin ( 1856 ):
“..a spring which rises in the hedge by the road side a little beyond the residence of Thomas Lewin Esq, in the road towards Bexley. This spring has long gone by the name of Lemon Well; and has been supposed by the sort of people who entertain such notions, curative of sore eyes.”
This correspondent continues to note that the well was once filled in, but complaints from local people resulted in the culprit cleaning out the well and ‘putting it in a convenient form with new brick work.’ Yet an examination appropriate ordnance survey map and of the area fails to show a well or spring in this position; hence one presumes that the site was indeed finally filled in.
Nearby in the Elmstead Parish, was Garret’s Well. This marked on an 1841 tithe award, and may be derived from Old English garra for the triangular pieces of land left once the furrows were established. Indeed, old tithe awards are often the only evidence of these lost water supplies. For example at Downe, one records a Herwell, although no spring is noted, it would appear to be likely to be a site. The name probably derives from O.E hara for a hare or her for soldier, but possibly hearg for a pagan sacred grove.
A Sundridge tithe awards record a Camberwell and an Orpington tithe awards record a Cornwell, whether this records a spring that was noted for being able to predict corn prices? Another interestingly named site is noted on a Tithe Award in the Parish of St Paul’s Cray. It is called Henrietta Spring, and was the main supply for the village, being located north of the road. One imagines that its name came from local lady benefactor. Often ancient wells are recorded in wills and testaments. Such a mentions can suggest that the well was considered of importance. One such example, may have been found in Erith. Here records of a will of Robert Hethorpe of 1493, describe a Belton Well, ‘3s 5d for the mendying of a well called Beton well.’ This well would appear to be described as Beden Well in 1769 and Beeting Well in 1843. The origin for its name is unclear, it was probably taken from a landowner, but it may have been derived from the pagan festival of Beltaine – unlikely but more interesting if it was. The Cray valley has some interesting examples. The name Cray itself is believed to derive from Celtic for ‘fresh water’, so one would except its source to be considered important. This would appear to called as Craegas aeuuelme in the 8th Century, or fons aewielm, otherwise the ‘Great Spring’. In more modern times it gained the name Newell.
Further out was an interesting site, located near the ornamental ponds of Hayes Place. Located near the ornamental ponds of Hayes Place on the road side was Jacob’s or Hussey’s Well so called because it was repaired with stonework with a hollow stone by a Jacob Angus, and later by a Rev. Dr. Thomas Hussey, Rector from 1831-54. Its water was rich in calcium and sulphates and considered to be medicinal. Sadly, although the ponds remain, the well’s only monument is the name of the street encircling these pools. Hussey has also given his name to the Archdeacons’s or Hussey’s Well. This being a public fountain set up by Archdeacon Clarke of Norwich and Rector.
Cray has an interesting named site, called the Hobling Well which is probably the same as that marked as Robin’s Hole, on Tithe map. Both names suggest that the well was believed to be the abode of elementals. The name Hob being an Old English name for goblin, and Robin possibly recording the pagan character of Robin-a-Tiptoe, an elemental that would do arduous farm work without pay. Why the site should be so name is unclear. What I have always assume is the site, a boggy spring fed pool in Hobling Well wood still survives and recently saw off a plan to use the area as a waste dump. Presumably there was also a site called Palewell, as it has given its name to a local street.
There was also a unnamed pin well in the Parish at Beckenham. Langley was famed for its woe water, but also had an unnamed spring, which was used by a local physician, Dr. Scott in his research into the production of anti-bilious pills. This is now dry, but was known to have medicinal properties.
Yet despite the urbanisation of some parts, other areas retain a rural feel, and the Parish of Chislehurst is one such a place. It boasts two interestingly named sites, the first apparently lost, the latter surviving if little known. The first apparently is where Pett’s Wood derived its name, being that of Swellinde Pette, a name first recorded in 862 as Swelgende. The name refers to Whirl Pool, which was in Pett’s Wood. I have been unable to find any details regarding why local people should have believed there was such a site. Its early date suggests that it was Saxon, and may have been there interpretation of a local Dane Hole. But it is interesting that Horblingwell wood and pookridden woods are nearby was someone trying to warn us of these wood’s danger.
Despite there being some confusion over this site, Chislehurst still has one surviving site, a little known holy well called the Bishop’s Well. I searched for this site whilst undertaking research for my forthcoming book on the subject and was pleased to find that it was still extant. The well, like St. Blaise’s Well, was said to be one of the springs consecrated by the Bishop’s of Rochester during their tenure at Bromley. It was enclosed into the grounds of the Crown Inn in Victorian times. This is not the current Crown, but now the private residence of Old Crown Cottage. I was fortunate to discover the owners in Yet despite the urbanisation of some parts, other areas retain a rural feel, and the Parish of Chislehurst is one such a place. It boasts two interestingly named sites, the first apparently lost, the latter surviving if little known.
I was informed by the then present owner, Bill Orman, that when the previous owners had taken over the property in the 1940s, the well was surrounded by a number of small crosses, which sadly they disposed of. The well shaft is of considerable depth, and older brickwork is visible towards its bottom. The top is enclosed in a square brick chamber, and water still fills the chamber below. There is some dispute regarding the exact site, and I was shown another well, capped and fitted with an old pump, laying in the grounds of Bishop’s Well House. However, despite the name, it is generally believed that the Old Crown Cottage’s well is the said site, and that this other well being above the other draws water from that. So despite the fear of such watering holes spreading cholera, and hence cleared away on sanitary grounds, such an interesting site exists. Fortunately the sprawl of London into the county, the interesting water history of this region of Kent still continues in documents and antiquarian accounts.
Well research can be quite rewarding in a strange way…and finding St. Alkmund’s Well in the urban setting of north Derby laying virtually beneath the tower blocks is one. Where urbanisation has swept away many wells in a joint wave of sanitation and urban expansion, the planners in the city wisely decided to preserve this relic in no doubt protected by the long vanished church bearing its name. It is excellent that they do for not only is its setting and preservation unique its dedication is too.
The site is first recorded in 1190 in a rental agreement but considering its association probably earlier. Indeed it is likely that the well was so named from the time of the Saxon saint who who died 800 AD and whose tomb or shrine was located in church nearby (and is now located in the Derby Museum). It would be interesting to contemplate that pilgrims to his shrine took to the waters but there is not evidence. Indeed there is little is recorded of its history however and much of which we know comes from the plaque which reads:
“Until the area was built up from 1814, the well was in a rural setting, part of St Helen’s Park. The stone niche surrounding the well was built by the Rev Henry Cantrell in the early 18th century”.
What is also known is that according to church historian Cox (1875–9) in his Derbyshire churches records that a vicar of the local S. Werburgh’s was cured of his low consumption, after constantly drinking its water, although the sign It has been traditionally dressed, revived in 1870 and continued infrequently until 1993, stopping because the boards were thoughtlessly vandalised. The demolishing of the St. Alkmund’s Church in the 1960s for road widening stopped the tradition of processing to the well.
The well is below ground level with four steps to its water which flows with some force into an oval basin. A stone carving states its name. When I first visited it was possible to reach the water. I was told by a local elderly lady that she still drank the water and that it was very pure…I was not sure myself! Now I would not be able to know as the railings have enclosed the whole structure.
It now sits rather incongruously in an area of urban landscape, an odd juxtaposition amongst the older houses and tower blocks still exists, but is often prone to vandalism. and has suffered from it. Well dressings were discontinued due to vandalism and it was blocked off my tall metal fencing for a period recently. Now it is surrounded by a small wall and black railings which has blocked access but will protect it.
Who was St Alkmund?
An 8th century son of a Northumbrian king, Alkmund who was murdered by those who had overthrown the King, Eardwulf and was buried first in Shrewsbury and then Northworthy, the Saxon settlement which became Derby. The removal of his relics to Derby in 1140 produced a perfume. The tomb in which he was enshrined was discovered at the demolishing of his church in 1968 to make the ring road! It can now be seen in Derby Museum.
Despite an attempt to emasculate the site with the railings its importance has seen a revival. What is more remarkable is that the modern St Alkmund’s Church has revived or created a procession to the well at Whitsuntide. The church process carrying banners to the well where a blessing and hymns are made. All in all it is good to see even in this urban land ancient wells can still have a role!
Now here’s a conundrum. Is the eighteen inch Dagenham Idol associated with water or not? It was uncovered, in 1922 buried in peaty marshy soil on the edge of the River Thames on the site when 8 years later the Ford’s works was built. The accepted view is that it was an offering to increase the fertility of the land, associated as it was with a sacrificed deer skeleton, but is discovery in marshland surely goes against that view and underlines the lack of understanding of votive offerings.
The Idol is one of the oldest European effigy of a person and dates from the Neolithic period (between c4000 and 2000 BC) making it date from 4300 years old. Made of Scots Pine a tree which is often found in dry areas of peat bogs
It is a most striking effigy. The figure has an almost modernist feel about it; its head is disc shaped with a large rectangular nose and has thin but proportionate legs. It lacks arms but does not appear unusual for that and it is possible that the loss of arms is significant. Does it emphasise a need that the depositor wanted to heal, if so this is an action akin to many deposits in Celtic springs.
Another feature which has been identified to give some idea of its origin is the possibility of it having one eye. It has been suggested that this is a very early representative image of the Norse God Odin. This would make it unusual as the earliest recognised image dates from the Bronze Age in Denmark being Broddenbjerg’s effigy. Odin is of course significant in water worship as he is said to had self-sacrificed his eye at Mimir’s Well a well which lay at the base of the great world tree Yggdrasil, to obtain a drink and the wisdom within it.
A translation of Prose Edda reads:
“Of what wouldst thou ask me?
Why temptest thou me?
Odin! I know all,
where thou thine eye didst sink
in the pure well of Mim.
Mim drinks from mead each morn
from Valfather’s pledge.”
What is greater evidence for the effigy being Odin of course is the circular hole between the legs. This would appear to suggest that like the Broddenbjerg a phallus would be inserted in it. Of course no phallus was found but the similarity despite the unlikely fact that a Viking God being over 3000 years older than we expect, the evidence appears to support the view. Furthermore it appears to again suggest a water association.
For many years the Idol sat pride of place in Colchester Museum. That was until November 2009 when it went missing. Where did it go? Police in San Francisco bizarrely had the answer. They were called to a house where a next door neighbour was dancing and chanting naked in his backyard. When the police arrived he pleaded to them to “harness the power of the Idol”. The man had been carved a replica of it around which he was dancing
He admitted the theft telling the police that:
“I was visiting Colchester Castle and the Idol spoke to me, as soon as I saw it I felt its power, its hard to describe, I just suddenly felt Neolithic and I knew I had to have it”
“When I came back to San Francisco strange things began to happen, I soon felt my life spinning out of control and I knew it was the power of the Idol, I thought I could speak to it and it would help me but the more I spoke to it the worse things got”.
The man noted that once he returned to San Francisco
“My construction business really took off when I got back, despite the recession I started making more money than ever, while everyone else was struggling I was having success, it had to be the power of the Idol”
The power was short lived as he noted:
“Then all of a sudden everything turned upside down, my cat died and then my favourite cactus, and then I got a visit from the IRS and things really went downhill, I started drinking heavily and gambling and I squandered all the money I had made, Dawn threatened to leave me, worst of all, my football team started losing every game”.
This would appear to be in line with the view of Colchester Museum curator:
“Some very odd and unpleasant things have happened to people who have dealt with the Idol over the centuries, it is said to be cursed”.
This curse does not appear to have discouraged Valence House Museum in Dagenham who petitioned for a permanent display there and now it stands there in a class cabinet all alone in the room.
So the does the Dagenham Idol relate to lost pagan water worship. I think yes, but perhaps one day we will know for sure.
Copyright Pixyled Publications