This year I am returning to my abdecary of holy wells and healings springs of the world I started in 2017. As Friar Diego de Landa observed in 1566 after visiting Chichen Itza:
“Into this well they have had, and then had, the custom of throwing men alive as a sacrifice to the gods, in times of draught, and they believed that they did not die though they never saw them again. They also threw into it a great many other things, like precious stones and things which they prized. And so, if this country had possessed gold, it would be this well that would have the great part of it.”
Alfred M. Tozzer (trans.), ed. Landa’s Relacion de las Cosas de Yucatan
On the Yucatan peninsula, the limestone worn by millennia of the elements has created remarkable sink holes or cenotes that at Chichen Itza is known as the Cenote Sagrada, the sacred cenote or more disturbingly the Well of Sacrifice; an eerie and mysterious place but how true is it?
Site of sacrifice
Local tradition both Mayan and Spanish claim that before the Spanish settlements the Maya would sacrifice objects and human beings to placate Chaac the rain god. Ever keen to reveal the truth it was Edward Herbert Thompson who between 1904 to 1910 decided to dredge the bottom and revealed some interesting objects. Thompson was working through unstable times during the Mexican revolution and understandably perhaps some of the objects went missing before they were catalogued. His house was also burnt down during his time there consequently resulting in him losing notes.
Thompson is said to have bought the site and used a pulley system with a bucket. Although much of the early work involved clearing debris such as trees which hampered the procedure. The buckets would be removed and local people sifted through the water to find artefacts and categorise them accordingly. These objects according to Clemency Chase Coggins 1984 Cenote of Sacrifice: Maya Treasures from the Sacred Well at Chichen Itz were obsidian, wood, shells, bone cloth, rubber, pottery an flints as well as gold, jadeite, copal. Some of these materials were not native to the Yucatan peninsular suggesting that perhaps pilgrimages were made to the site and that it was an important cultural centre. Was there also evidence that some of the materials were purposely damaged before being thrown into it a common activity throughout the world to ‘kill’ the object before sacrificing it. What is interesting is the organic matter which was remarkably preserved particularly the wooden ones which indicated what weapons they sacrificed.
Thompson also decided to dive in 1909 into the Cenote but what with its unstable rocky bottom, loose trees and murky water, it was both hazardous and difficult to see. He was very produce that he was the last person to tread on the bottom of the Cenote adding:
“full of long narrow cracks, radiating from centers as if the glass bottom of a dish had been broken by a pointed instrument. We found down in the cracks and holes a grayish mud in which were imbedded the heavier gold objects, jades, and copper bells in numbers.”
Other excavations were subsequently less successful, the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (INAH) director William Folan in 1961 did find wooden ear flares with jade and turquoise mosac, a large chert knife, a gold sheathed bone with a wooden handle. The subsequent exploration of Norman Scott and Roman Pina-Chan in 1967-8 tried emptying the cenote and trying to clear the water. However, only 13 feet or so of water could be removed and it did not really clear.
What about the human sacrifice?
What of course interests archaeologists is the human sacrificial remains. The bones found in the site had marks that concurred with wounds associated with sacrifice These sacrifices consisted of both male and females, children and infants Guillermo de Anda (2007) Sacrifice and Ritual Body Mutilation in Postclassical Maya Society: Taphonomy of the Human Remains from Chichén Itzá’s Cenote Sagrado”. In Vera Tiesler and Andrea Cucina (eds.). New Perspectives on Human Sacrifice and Ritual Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society.of the University of Yucatán, states that Mayan mythology emphasises that children 6 to 12 were often male being captured or purchased. Those kidnaped were collected whilst parents toiled fields, or via battle. They were more often than not killed prior to being thrown and what made this site special that it was a sacrificial one as others were used for domestic supplies. Perhaps the last person to witness this was Franciscan leader Diego de Landa as he claimed to have witnessed live sacrifices:
“ the custom of throwing men alive as a sacrifice to the gods, in times of draught, and they believed that they did not die though they never saw them again.”
It is a pleasure to present Tristan Gray Hulse’s second part of his monograph on Ffynnon Leinw
On the Tuesday of Holy Week 1188 Giraldus and Archbishop Baldwin rode from Bangor to Rhuddlan Castle, where they were entertained for the night. On Wednesday Baldwin preached the Crusade in Rhuddlan, before saying Mass in St Asaph cathedral, after which his party rode on to spend the night at Basingwerk Abbey, near Holywell. On the Thursday they rode to Chester. At some point (Giraldus’ mention is made between his accounts of Tuesday evening and the events of Wednesday, so that he probably heard it at Rhuddlan on Tuesday night) they were told of a spring not far from Rhuddlan which ebbed and flowed twice daily with the tides, but which was also liable to rise and fall frequently throughout the day. Humphrey Llwyd identified Giraldus’ unnamed spring with an unnamed ebbing-and-flowing well in Cilcain parish; adding that the spring was observed to dry up at a certain time of the year. Llwyd’s identification of Giraldus’ spring with the Cilcain well was followed by David Powel, who named the latter as Ffynnon Leinw; and Camden followed Powel in locating an ebbing-and-flowing spring in the parish of Cilcain, without naming it. Richard Mostyn and, after him, Edward Lhwyd, suggested that Ffynnon Asa, in Cwm parish, as being closer to Rhuddlan, was a more plausible match for Giraldus’ spring; also noting that Ffynnon Leinw no longer ebbed and flowed.
Giraldus’ topographical notices in the Itinerarium were almost entirely anecdotal, apparently dependent upon the casual comments of his hosts; the hit-and-miss character of this kind of information-gathering can be assessed from the fact that, although he spent a night at Basingwerk, he has no account of St Winefride’s Well, Holywell, although its fame was by then long established in north-east Wales and the northern Marches – its absence is best explained by assuming that no-one happened to mention the Holywell well to Giraldus during his few brief hours at Basingwerk.
Ffynnon Leinw and Ffynnon Asa were not the only ebbing-and-flowing wells in Wales. Giraldus had mentioned another one in his Itinerarium Cambriae, at Dinefwr (I, 10: Giraldus 1908, 74). Francis Jones wrote that ebbing and flowing was “a claim common to many Welsh wells”. (Jones 1954, 53: Jones noticed the claim for a Ffynnon Fednant, in Caernarfonshire – ib. 154; Llandyfeisant Well, Carmarthenshire, i.e., the Dinefwr well – p. 171; Ff. Asa and Ff. Leinw, in Flintshire – 178, 180; Ff. Maen y Milgi, Llandrillo, in Merioneth – 193; two wells at Chepstow, Monmouthshire – 196; and St Non’s Well, at St Davids, Carncwn Well, at Newport, Ff. Lygaid, at St Davids, and Pencw Wells, at Goodwick, all in Pembrokeshire – 210, 212, 213, 216.) James Rattue (1995, 114) notes that such wells were reported in England, and were particularly attractive to antiquarian writers such as Camden; on p. 117 he quotes Camden quoting an ode by Sir John Stradling to an ebbing-and-flowing well at Newton, in Glamorganshire. (This is St John’s Well, Newton; Jones 1954, 183, listed the well, but missed the ebbing-and-flowing claim, and Stradling’s poem.)
Less than two miles from Rhuddlan, Ffynnon Asa is a plausible identification for Giraldus’ spring; Ffynnon Leinw, rather less so. But, given the sheer number of wells for which such claims were made, it cannot be certain that Giraldus’ spring should be identified with either Ffynnon Asa or Ffynnon Leinw. What is certain is that the ubiquity of Camden’s Britannia guaranteed that a well in Cilcain parish – more exactly identified by Powel with Ffynnon Leinw – was for centuries identified as being fed by an ebbing-and-flowing spring.
So far as I am aware, the claim of regular twice-daily ebbing and flowing has never been established for any of the many springs for which the claim has been made in the past. What is probably being witnessed by such claims is a common but irregular fluctuation in water levels created by sustained periods of more or less rainfall, observed casually, from time to time, by persons who noted different water levels each time they had cause to visit the well, and invoked the example of the universal regular tidal ebbing and flowing as an explanation of a local phenomenon. In certain instances it may be that one has to do with a periodic spring, dry for part of the year, but returning after prolonged rainfall; certainly this seems to be what Humphrey Llwyd was recording for the Cilcain well.
Flintshire is famous for its wells, which owe their existence to the Carboniferous Limestone that constitutes its central plain. This rock is porous and the water percolates it till it comes in contact with impermeable shale or clay, where it accumulates and finds its way again to the surface through some of the many fissures … Ffynnon Leinw, “the flowing well,” in Cilcain parish, was at one time an intermittent spring, flowing at regular intervals, owing to syphon action, but it has long lost this peculiarity (Edwards 1914, 25, 27).
This and related phenomena are common in the local limestone landscape. Numbers of the rivers and streams flowing through Cilcain parish run underground for some distance at certain times of the year; as the Parochialia noted:
All their rivulets dive. [It names the Alun, “underground abt 3 quarters of a mile” (it sinks at a place below Cilcain village called Hesp Alun, “the dry Alun”); the Fechlas, “underground hlf a mile it breaks forth at a place therefore call’d tarth y Dŵr” (Tardd y Dŵr, “eruption, or issue, of water”); and the Cain, “dives for hlf a mile more and so to Alen within the P’ish”.] They have severall other Rills that dive (Lhwyd 1909, 80-1).
(The overflow from Ffynnon Leinw drains into the Fechlas; Tardd y Dŵr is two-thirds of a mile west of the well: SJ 175 675. Tardd y Dŵr and Ffynnon Leinw are both in the former Cilcain township of Dolfechlas.) The places of their re-emergence would all exhibit greater or lesser volumes of water, depending on the rainfall. With regard to Ffynnon Leinw, more careful observation (as suggested by Richard Mostyn and Pennant) would have cleared up the popular suggestion of any twice-daily ebbing and flowing.
The suggestion here is that Ffynnon Leinw, before its final drying-up as a result of mining locally (cf. RCAHM 1912, 16; Davies 1959, 65 – if indeed it has really dried up; it would seem still to flow periodically: cf. Davis 2003, 71), was a periodic spring whose flow varied with the rainfall, and which often ceased to flow altogether during drier periods of the year. This idea is perhaps reinforced by the name of the well. The element leinw has caused placename scholars a number of problems (cf. e.g. Davies 1959, 65), but it may simply relate in some way to the verb llanw or llenwi, “to fill”, and to the masculine noun llanw, “influx”. (The ll > l is simply the regular lenition, following the feminine noun ffynnon, “well”; in just this way the personal names Mair and Mihangel mutate to give Ffynnon Fair and Ffynnon Fihangel. ) It is in this sense that Pennant understood the element, when he translated Ffynnon Leinw as “the flowing well”. Professor Hywel Wyn Owen has commented on the name:
The form leinw cannot be explained as a noun or adjective. Most Welsh speakers would know leinw from Psalms 84.6 ‘y glaw a leinw y llynnau’ [“the rain also filleth the pools” – AV]. That was in the old translation … The Psalms use leads me to suspect that the well was originally y ffynnon a leinw ‘the well which fills’. In time the relative pronoun was omitted leaving us with y ffynnon leinw > Ffynnon Leinw (pers. comm. to TGH, 14 December 2015).
The name would thus seem to reference the sudden filling of a well with the recommencement of a periodic spring after heavy rain. It would seem not to carry any inevitable sense of a regular ebbing and flowing like the sea’s tides, but only of flowing; though doubtless the secondary use of the noun llanw for “the flow of the tide” would facilitate any popular misinterpretation of such periodic springs as regularly ebbing and flowing.
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The area of Charlcombe and Lansdown on the outskirts of Bath boasts three holy wells. The first one is of these is St Mary’s Well which attracted some notoriety in the 1980s when its existence seemed threatened. An article in the Bristol Evening Post of 6th June 1986 entitled ‘Hermit told to quit holy well site’, related according to an article in the Source Journal of Holy Wells how:
“the Bishop of Bath and Wells had obtained a court order to evict ‘bearded 42 year-old artist Alan Broughton’ who had made a makeshift home under a tree in the grounds of Charlcombe Rectory, near Bath. The rectory is due to be sold by the church even though its grounds include St Mary’s holy well. Churchwarden John Kirkman is leading a campaign to preserve the well in some way and I sent a letter of support on behalf of Source to be added to similar letters from other concerned parties for presentation to the Church Commissioners. It is to be hoped the Church will not put profit before sanctity.”
A report in the Proceedings of the Bath and District Branch of the Somersetshire Archaeological and Natural History Society for 1909-1913 records:
“Mr. Grey … tells me he has known of this one, under the name of St. Mary’s Well, for a great number of years. It is close to the old Norman Church at Charlcombe, in the Rectory garden, amid a clump of ferns. The inhabitants have a tradition that the water is good for the eyes, and some twenty years ago persons were known to come and take it away in bottles. It is also stated to be a “wishing well,” and I believe the water is still taken from this source for baptisms. Mr. Grey gives an extract from a letter in which the writer states that a lady derived considerable benefit from this well, through applying the water to her eyes.”
The Rectory was sold and the hermit was removed. But what happened to the well? Dom Horne (1923) in his Somerset Holy Wells records the site as being:
“ situated in a bank, now covered with ferns, and the water flows through a pipe into a small natural basin. The village people used to take away the water from this well, as it was reputed to be ‘good for the eyes’, and the font in the church was filled from the same source.”
Searching for the site in the 1990s I couldn’t get access to the Rectory and feared it may have been lost but soon found a sign for it! It had been moved a controversial option for a holy well. It now lay in a public garden and filled a small elliptical pool. Overlooking the pool is a stone carving of Christ being baptised in the river Jordan This according to Quinn’s 1999 xxx it was done in 1989. It was very good to see someone preserve it, but I did wonder what had happened to the origin stonework. Was there something still in the Rectory, Quinn is silent on this. In a way this sort of modern day action underlines the contradictory views of those who look upon the site in regards to its waters and those, such as historians, who might be more concerned with its fabric. The Holy Well is used for baptisms and Christian festivals such as Ascension Day and Easter Day.
Above the village not far from Beckford’s Tower is another well, one which is in a way far more interesting by virtue of its dedication. This is St Alphege’s Well. Its first reference was in the 15th century were it is recorded that there were lands
“apud fontem Sancti Alphege.”
When Horne visited he stated that:
“This well is situated on…the opposite side of the road to the old cricket ground. A steep path, which looks as if it was once made with cobblestones, leads down from the road to the bottom of the field. The water issues from a bank and falls into a Roman coffin. This…was brought from Northstoke about forty or fifty years ago, by a farmer who wanted to make a drinking place for his cattle…A mile from this well, on the road to the Monument, is Chapel Farm. This was originally St Laurence’s Hospice for pilgrims on their way to Glastonbury. It is not uncommon to find a holy well by frequented pilgrim tracks, and this is a good example…This is probably the only well in England dedicated to this saint.”
Horne is not correct there are records of other Alphege wells one in far way Solihul and a possible another one in Kent. Both lost! What is interesting concerning St. Alphege’s well is that a path remains as a track linking it to a fifteenth-century chapel which half a mile away which suggests it was on a pilgrim route. Indeed Quinn (1999) relates that its waters were sought until recently:
“by the Catholic Church of St Alphege in Bath, who came to take away a gallon of the holy water for use in the baptismal font. At one time there was a deposit of soot on the roof of the well chamber, left by the burning candles of generations of pilgrims’.
Today they would find it difficult to fill the water for the access to the well is very overgrown and the doorway locked. One hopes that soon access can be improved otherwise I fear the well may be forgotten
Alphege was a local saint so to speak living in Gloucestershire at the Deerhurst monastery near Tewkesbury in the late 900s. Why here? Well he is said to lived as a hermit in a small hut here and was latter associated with the building of Bath Abbey before meeting a death of a Dane in the early 11th century Greenwich, the site being now a church!
The final well is now lost St Winefredes Well, Sion Hill, Lansdown. St Winifred unlike St. Alphege probably needs little introduction being a noted Welsh Martyr whose death at the hands of a pagan ‘husband’ she was forced to marry and resurrection by her uncle St Beuno are well known in hagiographical terms and of course a well-known healing water shrine arose – The Lourdes of Wales. But in Bath’s suburbs such as dedication is curious. Of this well it is described in 1749 in John Wood’s An Essay Towards a Description of Bath as:
“A Spring of Water, which, for some Mineral Quality, was, in former times, dedicated to St Winifred; the Fountain still bearing the name of Winifred’s Well; and it is much frequented in the Spring of the Year by People who drink the Water, some with Sugar and some without.”
As such this would make it the furthest south and west of the Sugar wells i.e those where people would drink them on specific days with sugar or licorice. However finding provenance for the well is difficult and it seems likely that its name was adopted at a later date when it became acceptable once again to visit the Flintshire shrine. Evidence may be drawn from Robert Peach’s 1883, Historical Houses in Bath and their Associations which recalls that Mary of Modena lived nearby. Now it is known this was around the same time as she travelled back from the more famous St Winifred’s Well in Flintshire to utilise the Cross Bath and other local springs to hopefully fulfil a wish to conceive. Did someone locally know her location and puffed a local mineral spring as a St. Winifred’s Well. Indeed Peach notes that the spring was sought by:
“women with superstitious hopes of maternity.”
Of course a St Winifred’s Well did exist, 19th century deeds for a Winifred House refer to
“Pasture-Ground, called the Barn-piece, wherein was a well called Winifred’s Well.”
And it does appear as St Winifred’s Well on the 1888 OS at ST 742661 and although John Collinson in his 1791 The History and Antiquities of the County of Somerset does mention a chapel of St. Winifred he is the only one. By the time of Dom Horne (1923) looked for it he stated that it
“been covered in and its exact position is doubtful. The water is said to be of a hard brackish nature.”
Nothing remains at Sion Hill to note it today and many people will have forgotten this interesting footnote in the local history.
This month sees insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.com is 7 a good birthday for sacred spring researchers – look it up@! Also it becomes the platform to host the Source and Living Spring Archive. The Source Archive consists of articles written in the mid 1980s and early 1990s for the Source Journal a short-lived but very influential attempt to bring together research on the topic. with Living Spring an even shorter lived but important online attempt to do the same. The original journal (divided into new and old series) was influenced by the burgeoning earth mysteries movement on the late 70s and early 80s and one of the most prominent exponents was Janet Bord. As is commonly said Janet needs no introduction amongst anyone interested in the space between archaeology and folklore. Janet work in the holy well field includes the Curses and Cures, Holy wells in Britain and the seminal Sacred Waters – a copy of which I myself purchased back in a Truro bookstore in 1985. A purchase which was very influential and lead to the birth of my fascination and research into the area. So it is with great honour that I introduce the first of a Source inspired articles (the next three from similarly influential James Rattue, Mark Valentine the original founder and Tristan Gray-Hulse editor of the new Series)
Anyone who regularly visits holy wells must be aware of how they can differ in appearance and atmosphere. We all know the delight of finding a hidden spring bubbling into a clear pool, tucked away in a forgotten corner of the landscape; and probably we can also all remember wells that are unloved and derelict. Those can often have a charm of their own too, perhaps being in an evocative place, or with enough remaining to suggest what the place was once like. Sadly there are also wells that are in awful locations, and perhaps have also been badly restored; but luckily I can’t remember too many that come into this last category. One that does is St Tewdrig’s Well at Mathern in Monmouthshire (ST52279116), just to the south-west of Chepstow and distressingly close to the M48 motorway. It’s a shame that the well has been so insensitively and over-thoroughly restored, because the area around the church and well has an interesting history.
St Tewdrig was a king and martyr, probably born in the late 6th century. He handed over his kingdom to his son Meurig and lived as a hermit – until an angel appeared to him advising him to go and help Meurig who was in danger of being overrun by his enemies. Despite also being told by the angel that he would die, Tewdrig went to help his son, and the enemies fled on seeing the two men and their army standing on the bank of the River Wye at Tintern. Unfortunately Tewdrig was stuck by a lance thrown by a fleeing soldier, and mortally wounded. He was taken in a cart pulled by stags to a meadow near the River Severn, where a spring began to flow, and there he died and was buried. The place was given the name Merthyr Tewdrig (now Mathern) and a church was built over his grave. The name confirms that this is a genuinely ancient tradition, a ‘merthyr’ being an early Christian martyr’s burial place.
In the early 17th century, Francis Godwin, Bishop of Llandaff, gave orders that a coffin found beneath the church floor was to be repaired, as it was thought to be Tewdrig’s: ‘I discovered his bones, not in the smallest degree changed, though after a period of a thousand years, the skull retained the aperture of a large wound, which appeared as if it had been recently inflicted.’ On his orders, the coffin was reburied in the chancel and a stone tablet put on the wall above, telling the story of St Tewdrig and his death. In 1881 the coffin was rediscovered when repairs were being carried out, and in 1946 an old lady told author Fred Hando that the vicar had taken her into the church when she was a child and showed her a big hole that had been dug in the chancel, and ‘in a stone coffin, she saw the remains of King Tewdrig, with the hole made by the spear-point still visible in his skull.’
The well named for St Tewdrig is to be seen beside the lane just north of Mathern church, immediately south of the motorway. There seems to be no record as to what it looked like before being restored by the Monmouth District Council in 1977. Although they are to be thanked for ensuring the well wasn’t lost, it’s a pity that they decided on this earnest municipal restoration that is completely lacking in atmosphere. With its steep steps leading down between walls to the well below, it puts one in mind of a drinking water well, rather than a place where a saintly king died over a thousand years ago. But… it is impossible to be absolutely sure if this really was the spring which flowed where he died, because I have found no mention of it before 1847, at which time it was called Ffynnon Gor Teyrn. This name may possibly derive from the Welsh word cateyrn, meaning a ‘battle-king’, and is all the evidence we currently have that might confirm this as the saint’s well. But it is very close to the church, and all the evidence we have does suggest that this is indeed St Tewdrig’s well.
Those who are well versed in the subject of holy wells will be aware of James Rattue’s contribution to the subject. His county guides for Kent, Buckinghamshire and Surrey set a high benchmark for such research – including my own – and his magnus opus – The Living Stream: holy wells in historical context (1995) is as it states in one of the intros to his work on the Living Stream ‘the most detailed and rigorous historical study of holy wells yet published in book format’. He was one of the main contributors to both the first or Old Series and New Series as well as the Living Spring Journal.
The establishment of the old Source magazine in 1985 coincided providentially with my own discovery that there were such things as holy wells. At the distance of over thirty years I can’t now remember quite how I found out about it: I have a memory that I made contact with Mark Valentine about his monograph on Northamptonshire wells and he told me the magazine was about to emerge. What I do remember clearly is the excitement the first edition brought as it plopped through the letterbox, an experience repeated with every one of its eight successors spread over the following few years. There were never enough! And the very first article in that initial, blue-covered, number was Jeremy Harte’s survey of holy wells in my native Dorset. Could it be any better?
Before Source my only guide to the sacred springs of my own county (and pretty much everywhere else) was, for all its shortcomings, RC Hope’s Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England. Bournemouth Central Library had a copy and as I turned its pages during one school summer holiday trying not to crumble the edges too much, I wondered how long it had been since anyone looked at it. Hope only lists six wells in Dorset, and of those, one site, the springs near Shaftesbury which were the subject of the annual Byzant ceremony, aren’t really holy wells of any description, while another, the supposed holy spring at Abbotsbury, doesn’t exist at all. Jeremy’s article in Source 1, however, introduced me to the fact that there were lots and lots of these places.
I wanted to visit them, but it would take years before I managed to chase them down, and by then I would realise that even Jeremy’s list was inadequate and that there were over a hundred named springs (if not holy wells, exactly) in Dorset alone. The probable Holy Well of East Stoke I have only just visited, thirty-five years later; I now know that the time I spent uncovering the featureless spring I thought was the well in 1987 or so, sinking in bog over the top of my wellingtons and snagging my jumper on barbed wire, was wasted apart from using up some calories. I couldn’t have visited the Holy Well of Hazelbury Bryan: that was only dug out of the Dorset mud to celebrate the Millennium fifteen years after Jeremy wrote about it.
My own contributions to Source first appeared in issue 5. Most of them were more detailed accounts of wells that Jeremy had mentioned, with the exception of St Andrew’s Well at Bradpole just north of Bridport, and the format of my pieces was heavily influenced by the way John Meyrick had laid out A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Wells of Cornwall a little before, meticulously listing the date a site was visited and its map reference. That was all very well, but later on I began to deface the surface of holy well research, already far from pristine, with a variety of unwonted speculations. My article in Source 6 included ‘All Saints’ Well Hordle’ in Hampshire, presumed to be holy on the grounds of its proximity to an ancient church, a fact which at least I had the grace to admit. Issue 7 described ‘All Saints’ Well Thorney Hill’, a well in the grounds of a chapel I generously described as ‘no more than 250 years old’ (in fact it dates to 1906). It’s a nice feature but no one has ever treated it as a holy well of any kind. There was more wishful thinking in issue 8 when I wrote about ‘St Andrew’s Well Corton Denham’ in Somerset, another spring I’d given a sacred identity due to its being near a church. All these speculations resulted from me adopting completely uncritically the idea that pre-Reformation Christians had, wittingly or not, sited their places of worship on previously sacred locations which preserved an ancient awareness of the mystical power of the earth. I hope nobody now uses my descriptions of these ‘holy wells’ as evidence that they ever existed, at least not without heavy caveats!
By the time Source re-emerged in 1994 under the editorship of Tristan Gray-Hulse it was as sceptical about these ideas as I had become. I now knew far more about the field of holy wells and therefore that it was beyond the scope of any small journal to list every one that might be found in a given area, and as if in sympathy, the new Source didn’t try to do this. Instead it concentrated on focused studies of particular sites or motifs that could illustrate wider themes. Tristan must have solicited a contribution from me before the first edition appeared as it carried a piece I’d written about the Holy Well of Frome, created by a Victorian Anglo-Catholic clergyman; it was followed by a short article on the folly-wells of Stourhead and one speculating on the origin of some wells dedicated to St Swithun in a Yorkshire dialect word meaning something completely different. These were all elements in the history of holy wells in which I’d become increasingly interested as I’d discovered that their story was much more complicated than I originally thought. No longer were holy wells merely taciturn, numinous features in the landscape: I understood more about them and how they had developed, their enormous diversity as well as the way they intersected with other features and historical themes.
It was something of a necessary loss of innocence, I suppose, and Source had followed me in this, until its final appearance in 1998. But in the same way that coming across a really nice well that I’ve never seen before (even through the accounts of someone else) brings a sense of excitement, and re-visiting one of my favourite sites to see what mood it might be in carries a thrill of anticipation – because the well is continually changing – I will always remember with greatest affection the arrival of that first issue of Source, all those years ago.
Mark Valentine was the founder and editor of the first or Old Series of Source. He went on to become an editor of over 40 books and writer of ghost or supernatural stories, and an essayist on book-collecting. numerous articles for Book and Magazine Collector, and his essays on book-collecting, minor writers and related subjects have been collected in Haunted By Books (2015) and A Country Still All Mystery (2017). His short stories have been published in a number of collections and in anthologies.
The inspiration for Source was a hand-duplicated A4 magazine called Wood & Water, edited from Swindon by Hilary Llewellyn-Williams and Tony Padfield, and dedicated to ancient springs and groves. I had found a copy on a visit to Glastonbury, along with a clutch of other fascinating publications, including Caerdroia, devoted to turf mazes (and still going), Pendragon, an Arthurian magazine, Sangraal, about the Mysteries of Britain, and a broadsheet Druid journal printed on deep gold-coloured paper.
The only holy wells I knew about before I found W&W were the Chalice Well at Glastonbury, which had a gentle quiet garden, and St Anne’s Well, Malvern, which had an octagonal cottage which was then a kite shop. I had no idea there were hundreds of other holy wells. But after reading W&W, I at once set about trying to find any holy wells in Northamptonshire, where I lived, and by following up clues in old history and folklore books I soon discovered some. They often had rather splendid names – Old Mother Redcap’s; Puck’s; Priest’s; the Drumming Well (which foretold danger to the nation) – and they were mostly fairly neglected. It felt exciting and mysterious looking into things nobody else seemed to know about, deep in lonely country, so naturally this encouraged me even more.
I was already involved in amateur publishing in various ways, contributing to a punk fanzine, Crash Smash Crack Ring, and a ghost stories journal, Dark Dreams, and editing a literary magazine, the incurable. So it seemed obvious that I should start writing about holy wells. I therefore self-published a booklet, The Holy Wells of Northamptonshire (1984), cataloguing all the references I could find, and reporting on my site visits. I also visited the better-known and slightly better-preserved wells in West Penwith, Cornwall, where I went on holiday, and wrote about some of these for Wood & Water.
After a while, Hilary and Tony decided to widen the magazine’s scope and it became a “radical ecopagan feminist” journal, still very much brimming with inspiration and featuring holy wells alongside these broader themes. (Hilary was later to become a respected published poet, whose work I followed, and highly recommend). However, I thought there might be space still for a magazine just about holy wells, and so I started Source. I asked a few friends for contributions and got similar sorts of antiquities and mysteries magazines to mention what I was up to. My first readers were from the earth mysteries scene because that’s where I was coming from, but soon others got to hear about it who had a background in folklore, saints’ legends, paganism, local history and so on: I tried to keep the magazine as open-minded as possible, including both factual and impressionistic material.
I was delighted and encouraged by the number of people who came forward to help out, providing articles, artwork, publicity, subscriptions. It really seemed as though there was a great network of researchers, custodians and well-wishers out there who had just been waiting for some focal point for all their work: I just needed to be the conduit. I was also cheered when I heard from quite a few people that Source had inspired them to look after their own local holy well. I was also still sufficiently impressionable to be astounded when I got subscriptions and warm words from famous people, as I thought of them, such as the New Age writers John Michell and Rupert Sheldrake and the pagan artist Monica Sjoo.
Though major work had already been done in some parts of the country (eg, Meyrick in Cornwall; Skyring-Walters in Gloucestershire; Francis Jones in Wales) I think we probably published the first surveys of some of the lesser-known counties and areas. It therefore seemed to me that the next step should be to publish full-scale books like those earlier surveys, but I could see it would be hard to edit Source and do this too. I was fortunate to find that a keen reader, Tristan Gray Hulse, was willing to take over the magazine and grstefully handed over. The first of the books I had in mind was, I am afraid, also the last: Yorkshire Holy Wells and Springs (1989) by Edna Whelan and Ian Taylor was a splendid account, informed by Ian’s determined field-work, and accompanied by Edna’s illustrations.
Although I’m not so active in holy wells research and preservation as I was then, I’m pleased to see the way in which these ancient and lovely sacred shrines still inspire deep interest and care. I’m very grateful to Ross for taking on and looking after the Source archive, and I hope it will continue to be of interest to many readers and well-wishers.
In 1994 after a period of absence Source was reborn under the helm of Tristan Gray Hulse and Roy Fry. Under their stewardship Source became more academically minded and in particular focused more on monograms of specific sites which were merticulously researched. Tristan himself due to his monastic background contributing some important pieces as well as questioning some long held folklore views in the subject such as head cults. After source went on to research and write a number of scholarly pieces on saint cults and holy wells including a piece on votive offerings at St Trillo’s well in the folklore journal as well as being involved with St Winifred’s well in Holywell. So it is with great pleasure and a great honour that his unpublished monogram on a north Welsh well – and how Welsh wells doyen Francis Jones could get it wrong – in my celebration of Source.
Immediately to the north of Plas Llandecwyn, on the side of an ancient lane leading uphill towards the church of St Tecwyn, Llandecwyn, Merioneth, a short distance away, is the holy well of St Tecwyn. It is still just as it was described 100 years ago by the Royal Commission Inspecting Officer.
Ffynnon Decwyn … The antiquary Edward Lhuyd, or a correspondent of his, writing about the year 1698, has the note “Fynnon Deckwyn by plas Ll. Deckwyn not far from ye church”.
Near Plas Llandecwyn is a spring which flows into a cavity about 3 feet at the front and 2 feet at the back by a breadth of 21 inches; the water stands in its rock cistern to a depth of 14 inches, and as there is a slight but steady overflow the water is kept sweet. There can be little doubt that this is the well noted by Lhuyd, but the name of Tecwyn is now not connected with it … Visited, 15 August, 1914 (An Inventory 1921, 82, § 214).
The name Ffynnon Decwyn is apparently now in common use for the well once more.
The Inspecting Officer continued his entry by noting
“a spot about 330 yards north-east of the church where is a hole about 21 inches square cut into the rock at the level of the road, water dripping within and overflowing the road”.
This unnamed well also survives much as described, though it is now covered with small rough slabs of stone, for protection. And a few yards south of the lych-gate is another spring, rising at the northern or upper end of what appears to have been a regularly rectangular tank, now choked with water-weeds. It is initially tempting to guess that one or other of these unnamed springs represents a further sacred well claimed for the parish, Ffynnon Fair, listed by Francis Jones in his The Holy Wells of Wales (1954).
Jones, citing Edward Lhwyd in reference, included the well in his list of Ffynhonnau Mair in Merioneth in his gazetteer of Welsh holy wells:
Ff. Fair … 2. ‘By ye Church’ in Llandecwyn parish – Lhuyd Par. ii. 105 (Jones 1954, 191).
However, it turns out that this well is no more than a “ghost”, created by Jones’ trusting but careless reading of Lhwyd in the at-this-point potentially confusing editing of the Parochialia texts by Rupert Morris. As the printed edition stands (Lhwyd Paroch., part 2, 1910), the entry for “Llandekwyn” runs from p. 103 to the foot of p. 106, and notices “Fynnon vair by ye Church” on p. 105 and “Fynnon Deckwyn by plas Ll Deckwyn not far from ye church” on p. 106. The Llandecwyn entry is immediately followed by that for “Mantwrog” (top of p. 107), which, as it stands, consists of only six lines.
But it is clear that a section of this arrangement (from p. 104 line 7 to p. 105 line 30, reproducing pp. 131-133 of the original Lhwyd ms as seen and edited by Morris) has been displaced in the original Lhwyd ms; this section all refers to Maentwrog parish, not to Llandecwyn, and must originally have followed and completed the now minimal Maentwrog entry (at the bottom of original ms p. 137) printed at the top of Lhwyd 1910, p. 107. This restores the original reading, a complete text, of the normal Parochialia format, for Maentwrog immediately following a complete text of familiar format for Llandecwyn (thus, originally: Llandecwyn, ms pp. 129-130, 136-137; Maentwrog, ms pp. foot of p. 137, 131-133).
This explains why the mentions of Ffynnon Decwyn and Ffynnon Fair are separated in the Morris printed text. It also means that “Fynnon vair by ye Church” was in Maentwrog parish, not in Llandecwyn; and that, therefore, there is no mention of a Ffynnon Fair in Llandecwyn parish. The Llandecwyn Ffynnon Fair is an inadvertent creation of Francis Jones, who then duplicates the well by separately noticing the Maentwrog well, from the Royal Commission Inventory for Merioneth:
Ff. Fair … 7. About 80 yards SE of Maentwrog church: it supplied the neighbouring houses – Anc. Mon. Mer. (Jones 1954, 191).
The Maentwrog well still survives, basically as per the Inventory:
Ffynnon Fair … This well is situated on sloping ground about 80 yards south-east of the church, and north of a terrace called Bron Fair. It is now enclosed in a square slate cistern, and [in 1914 still, but no longer] supplies the neighbouring houses (An Inventory 1921, 154, § 498).
Tristan Gray Hulse
25 April 2016
An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire. VI. County of Merioneth, London: HMSO, 1921
Jones, Francis, The Holy Wells of Wales, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1954
Lhwyd, Edward, Parochialia, being a summary of answers to “Parochial Queries in order to a Geographical Dictionary, etc., of Wales”, ed. Rupert H. Morris, part 2, London: The Cambrian Archaeological Association, 1910
“Sowey… risith… at Doulting village owte of a welle bering the name of S. Aldelm.”
John Leland in his Itinerary, c. 1540
Crocker (1796) describes it as
“a fine spring of excellent water, enclosed in a recess in an old wall, and which to this day is called St Adhelm’s well”.
William of Malmesbury tells us that St Aldhelm died at Doulting, where the church is dedicated to him, and William of Malmesbury describes his cult here in the Deeds of the Bishops of England, 1120s. However, he does not make reference to a well and as he shows interest in where the saint’s name is remembered it appears likely here were not any traditions at the time at the well. He is well known to write poetry but probably not as Caroline Sherwood in her 1994 piece for Source, the Divine Juggler of Doulting stand in the cold water and entertain his visitors juggling!
Farbrother (1859) describes how:
‘a spring… darts under cover of an arch; then it tumbles headlong over some descent… I have heard of a late learned divine, who was in the habit of walking thither from Shepton, regularly every morning, for the purpose of bathing his eyes, and whose sight was said to have been much benefited thereby’.
Glastonbury Abbey, owned the land and may have built the original structure. It is believed that in 1867, the Revd Fussell, had the wellhead and basin improved with the old dressed stone from the old church, some of the material not being used being left in the vicinity. This appeared to confuse, Dom Ethelbert Horne in his 1923 Somerset Holy Wells. He this suggested there was a wellhouse and a bath here:
‘The ground about it is strewn with dressed and well-cut stone… The water comes out under two solidly made arches… In front of these arches, a long channel or trough, originally lined with dressed stone, extends for some yards’.
Thompson & Thompson (2004) in Springs of Mainland Britain felt that the Victorian alterations:
“were probably confined to a few additional courses of stonework, on the top of which sat a cross and two finials. They can be seen in two photographs taken c.1929 but all this superstructure was later removed”.
A place of pilgrimage
Horne (1915) notes that:
“In 1896 the Stratton-on-the-Fosse village congregation made a pilgrimage to this well, and again in 1909, the year of the twelfth centenary of St Aldhelm’s death, a second and much larger pilgrimage, joined by Catholics from Wells and Shepton, made its way to Doulting.”
No such organised pilgrimages exist as far as I am aware, but Sherwood in 1994 noted that the well was under the management of the Shepton Mallet amenity Trust and stated that:
“It was customary until recently to use the well water for all christenings…Fred Davis, of the Amenity Trust, told me that less than ten years ago a Shepton woman of his acquaintance bathed her child’s severe eczema with the water from the well and the condition cleared… The well continues to be a place of pilgrimage and, from time to time, local people have decorated it with flowers and candles.”
Today it is still much visited by the curious and its setting in a small copse is a delight in the spring
Leicester unsurprisingly being an ancient settlement boasts a number of wells all of which have been lost. The most noted is the spring-name called Tostings Well, which some authorities believe derives St Augustine’s Well. An author with the name ‘Leicestriensis’ says in 1852 (quoted in Potter (1985)) that it was
“now covered and enclosed; but within the memory of persons still living it was in the state… described by Nichols… “Good for sore eyes”… even since the enclosure of the well, many applications for water from the pump erected in the adjoining ground have, I know, been made… On making some enquiries a few years ago of “the oldest inhabitant”, he… exclaimed “Oh! You mean Tostings’s Well!”’.
Nichols (1795–1815) places near a footbridge called Bow-Bridge ran from the Friary near the West Bridge, over a back water of the Soar, to the garden called Bow Church Yard. He describes it as:
“for the use of the friars to a constant spring of limpid water, on the paved road side, a few paces distant, called St Austin’s Well”
It is noted when the Corporation mended the bridge in 1688, St Austin’s well was mending for £2 14s 8d. Nichols (1795-1815) notes that it was:
“Still overflowing with contribution to the back water… the well is three quarters of a yard broad, and the same in length within its inclosure, the depth of its water from the lip or back-edging on the earth, where it commonly overflows, is half a yard. It is covered with a mill-stone, and enclosed with stone and brick on three sides; that towards Bow-bridge and the town is open.”
Sadly it has now been entirely destroyed, occasioned by widening the road.
Slightly more difficult were the springs associated with Leicester Abbey were the Merrie Wells which Potter (1985) and Rattue (1993) suggest derivation of St. Mary’s Well, although no record confirms this. The springs too have been lost. .
More likely is unusually named St Sepulchre’s Well, recorded as Pulcre well in 1476 and was believed to be associated with a chantry of Corpus Christi recorded in 1458 in the payment records of de Joh. Paulmer pro crofto juxta fontem S. Sepulchri. It appears that by 1574 it was called according to Cox (1998-2004) ‘the spring at St James Chapell’ 1573, ‘the hermitage well’ 1638, and ‘the Chappell Well’ 1689,
‘Leicestriensis’ (1852) calls it St James’s Well, as the Chapel of St James survived that dedicated to St. Sepulchre. Billson (1895) notes it as:
“a holy well close to the old pond at the corner of Infirmary Square. This well had a never-failing supply of fresh water, until the deep drainage of the town diverted it from its original outlet.”
Leicester had two attempts at developing a spa, Spa place a terrace of four late Georgian houses remembers the first. Here in 1787 a mineral spring was discovered when a well was being sunk for cattle, and Spa Place. Watts (1820) comments how:
“furnished by the proprietor with neat marble baths and easy convenient appendage for bathing, has not been found to be sufficiently impregnated with mild properties to bring proper use”.
The Leicester Journal reported in 1794 that ‘Leicester Spa is now in high perfection’, Yet it was unsuccessful and by 1798 to a General Baptist College had taken over the site, this became a private house and latter offices. It is remember as Spa Lane.
Another mineral spring was discovered close to what is now Fosse Road North in 1830 by a local market gardener called Isaac Harrison. As a result the area becoming known as Newfoundpool. At the site a Hydropathic Institution was built but by 1835 it was converted into a private residence, Newfoundpool House where the Harrison family lived. However, some of the baths remained open for occasional use. There was another attempt in 1853 to advertise them as having:
“these baths will be found equal, if not superior, to any other baths in the neighbourhood”.
However the revival did not work and when in the 1880s ,the area was being developed, the Hydropathic Institution became the Empire Hotel. This become derelict in the 2005 and was demolished to build a Lidl supermarket in 2014.
The only other surviving of the city’s water history is the Cank Well a plaque of which exists on Cank Street.
Local tradition states that it was famous as a meeting place of gossips, the word cank being a term for cackle. However, this might be folk etymology as in Leicestershire it is a name of a hard ferruginous (i.e iron rich) sandstone and it may record chalybeate (iron rich) and those healing qualities. Alternatively cank may refer to cancer and it was a curative well…but we can debate and gossip that all we want, there is no evidence!
A search for fresh water
When landowner Mr S. H. Godson was looking for a better supply of water in , he exposed a brine mineral water which although not good for drinking could have potential. Then Dr. A. B. Granville took an interest. In 1837 he had written a book on The Spas in Germany which aroused much interest and in 1839/1840 he undertook a tour of England and in the Midlands section he toured Buxton, Matlock, Woodhall, Spa, Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Tenbury, Malvern, Leamington, Cheltenham etc. He wrote of the waters describing the effect on them on his digestive system:
“Immediately upon swallowing half a tumbler of Tenbury water, a disturbance, or rather a commotion, is set up in the abdomen, which, upon a repetition of the same quantity of the fluid, after a proper interval, will be found in most cases to end in a way desirable in the circumstances.”
Visiting the site 1839 Grenville advised on modifications to the well structure in which would prevent contamination from other springs and prevent dilution of the mineral properties. His analysis suggested it contained Iodine and as such would have healing properties. To be successful, Grenville suggested that to be successful the town needed:
“baths pump rooms and a promenades, lodging houses, walks roads and other accommodation in order to constitute a Spa of the first class.”
There was a problem with such an enterprise, Godson’s land at The Court could not be expanded as there was local opposition. Grenville however was so keen it seeing the site developed that his son, an architect, was sent but this was to no available Mr. Price of the adjacent Crown Inn decided that one well was not enough to supply the amount of bottled water needed. He commenced sinking a well on his premises and on August 24th 1840 at a depth of 42ft he reached the mineral water layer. This opposition was soon bought out by Septimus Godson. They and the small red brick bath house was constructed in 1840, and by March 1841 they published the rules and regulations for using the well, the Court ground were used for promenading after drinking or bathing often listening to a band. Then by 1850 a London surgeon was in residence running the Spa and two wells were now available. However, financial difficulties made the site close albeit temporarily in 1855, but the coming of the railway revitalised it. Local businessmen developed the ‘Tenbury Wells Improvement Company’ in December of 1860 and built the present pump room on the meadow by the Swan Hotel. In A Mr. James Cranston of Birmingham in 1862 was behind the design of new Spa, consisting of 2 halls with a Pump Room including a recess with a fountain. The Spa. An octagonal tower was built containing the well and pumps. the whole were surrounded by pleasure grounds. The building costing approximately £1000.
Taking a 99 year lease on the site, the Tenbury Wells Improvement Company asked Mr Thomas Morris, well sinker, to remove the whole of the bricks, curls and ironwork from the old mineral well by the Swan Inn and used at the new site. However, the Crow’s well was cleaned and established as a reservoir. The Well was 58ft from the surface and produced mineral water at the rate of 20 gallons hour. The smell was said to be something like when a gun was discharged.
The Tenbury History website state:
“He got the idea for the design of the Spa from some greenhouses he was designing at Holmer, near Hereford. In 1862 he published a book about a newly patented design for Horticulural Buildings and he used this principle for The Tenbury Spa replacing glass panels with those of sheet steel, It was erected on a pre-fabricated principle being one of the first in the country. The wrought iron plates and cast iron clips with foliated ends were made in Birmingham and erected on site. The building was described as being ‘Chinese Gothic’. The roof was painted in French Grey with rolls between being deeper and bluer in shade. The Spa was supposed to attract the ‘Middle to Working Class’.”
On May 1st 1883 the baths opened for the summer season, they consisted of six hot baths cost 9/- ( 45p) and six cold baths 5/- (25p). It was suggested by the 1916 Medical Times that after the first world war, convalescent soldiers should go to Tenbury Wells and by 1913 the name of Tenbury Wells had stuck becoming official later. Ironically the Pump rooms were about to decline. During the war it was used for bathing evacuees but this was the last time it was used for any bathing albeit not medicinal. Despite plans as late as 1931 the wells were filled in in 1939.
Slowly the building fell into decline, becoming a brewery, a tea room and Women’s institute but by 1978 it was in serious decline and decay. Kathleen Denbign in her A hundred British Spas wrote in 1981
“In such a bad state of decay that it was bolted and barred and threatened with demolition – though not without protest from local residents.”
It was purchased by the Leominster District Council in 1986 but that did not halt the decline. Repairs were finally done in 1998/9 with funds from English Heritage, Advantage West Midlands, the European Regional Development Fund, Malvern Hills and Leominster District Councils and Teme Rural Challenge. The Tenbury wells history website note the problems with the repair:
“The major problem that the architects responsible for the repair had to deal with was a major sag of one of the portal frames over the conservatory glass. It appears to have been due to bad design. Each roof structure now has a steel member going down to a concrete block cast at foundation level.
There was also a big problem with regalvanising the wrought iron sheets. After being regalvanised they buckled and would not fit the structure. This was solved by sending the sheets to specialist car body firm in the Medway who were used to dealing with very thin steel. Another big problem was to ensure that the roof was watertight. The roof was an extremely complicated shape, there were valleys and areas of flat roof and all sorts of unusual angles between one part of the building and another. It never was watertight originally, but hopefully, all the problems have now been solved.
All the wrought iron sheets now have spaces between them to try and stop any rust problems recurring and it has been fully insulated. A lot of the brick work was only 1/2 brick thick and so would always have been rather wobbly. This has all been straightened, but still keeping the exterior as it was built in 1862.
With insulation, damp barriers and other weatherproofing measures means that it is now up to modern building standards and hopefully now as an office and tiny museum one can now peer into the well, see its ornate foundation, baths and read all about it. It was probably originally designed for a life of only 25 years, but has lasted 137 years.