Perhaps Hertfordshire’s most famed well, dedicated to the first British Christian Martyr, and thus called St. Alban’s Well or Holy Well (TL 149 068) and as such one could argue it is the earliest Christian holy well in Britain.
Who was St. Alban?
Gildas and Bede accredit his martyrdom to the ruler Diocletian (c305), later authorities attribute Septimus severnus (c209) or Decieus (c254) to the act. His conversion to Christianity occurred when he sheltered a wanted priest (later St. Amphibalus). The priest taught Alban and baptised him as a Christian. The two exchanged clothes and, allowing the priest to escape, Alban was captured instead. He was tried and sent to be executed. The journey to his execution, now locally commemorated each weekend close to St Alban’s Feast Day, is when the spring arose!
The legend of the spring
It is said that upon climbing the hill to his martyrdom became tired and thirsty. Falling to his knees he prayed to God to quench this thirst and miraculously a spring of fresh water appeared. This is however only one origin for the spring. The other story states that after being taken to the old city of Verulam, he refused to offer pagan sacrifice, and was executed. His severed head rolled down the hill and where it rested a spring burst forth. This is a common holy well motif. After the adoption of the Christian church in the third century the spring gained great notoriety (although it is of course plausible that the spring was a pre-Christian site, gaining greater pilgrimage with Christian doctrine). St. Alban was also adopted, and finally installed in a Shrine in the Abbey. This was restored after the Reformation and is a beautiful example of a Pre-Reformation Shrine.
A spring of Arthurian romance?
This spring was strangely absorbed into Arthurian romance. It has been associated with mythical Romano-Celt ruler Uther Pendragon, father of the also possibly mythical King Arthur. The spring is said to have healed his wounds, and the incident is recorded during the reign of Richard II, by Chronicler Brompton:
“….Uter Pendragon, a British Prince, had fought the Saxons in a great battle at this place, and received a dangerous wound: and lay a long time confined to his bed: and that he was cured at length by resorting to a well or spring not far distant from the city; at that time salubrious; and for that reason, and for the cures thereby performed, esteemed holy; and blessed in a peculiar manner with the flavour of Heaven ..”
The well through the ages
The Benedictine nuns of the nearby nunnery were according to Matthew Paris, said to have dipped their bread in the well, and hence earned it the name of Sopwell. Until the reformation the well rivalled Walsingham in its popularity among the sick and troubled. Even in the 19th century the ‘Holy-well’ was “still held in some estimation, for its purity and salubrious qualities.” It then lay on the lawns of the Duke of Marlborough’s Holywell House, which was latter demolished.
Until the 1980s, the site was marked by a stone on the playing fields of the local Grammar school. However, in the 1980s, the site was at risk from developers, as the school wished to sell off its fields. This precipitated local interest, and a campaign organised by a Mr. Tony Haines, and set out to rediscover the well and ensure that it was preserved. This they finally did, although the site was not officially recognised by the local council, despite it corresponding to ancient maps, local knowledge as well as remains of medieval brickwork. Fortunately, the developer was sympathetic and in a rare example of preservation, restored it. It now stands in a small walled garden. The well was repaired by brickwork, and fitted with a protective grille over it. Interestingly, a combination of wet weather coupled with the water authorities ceasing pumping from the Ver’s source, has meant that the water table has returned and water can be seen in the well.
This restored site can be found by going up Holywell Hill Road, then taking the righthand road, Belmont Hill ( if approaching from Junction one M10 ). Take next right, into new housing estate, then left and the well is found in a small garden on the left.
The well survives, well as long as the housing estate does! It has become the centre of a local religious groups devutions as well!
In the quiet village of Eltisley in the old county of Huntingdonshire, now Cambridgeshire was a uniquely dedicated holy well associated with a saintly shrine. This was St Pandonia’s Well of which Charles Hope in his 1893 notes stood outside the chancel until being filled in the 16th Century by the Reverend Palmer for ‘superstitious purposes’. It is noted:
“The vicar… Robert Palmer, who was charged before the Consistory court in 1576 with many misdemeanours. Amongst them… that he had broken the stonework round a well in the churchyard to the great danger of children playing in the churchyard. To the latter he replied “that it was a well used for superstitious purposes, therefore he broke it down”
Despite the obvious desecration the Parish church still shares this unusual dedication combined with St. John the Baptist. It is evident from the fact the vicar was charged that the villagers still considered their well important.
Who was St Pandonia?
Pandonia was a local saint but not Huntingdonshire born and bred. It is recorded in the 13th century to c.1250 to St Pandonia or Pandionia; original name appears to have been O.E Pendwynn. St. Pandonia was a nun at Ely, the daughter of a Scottish Prince who died in 904. When her body was translated into the church in 1344 miracles occurred. Leland, c. 1540 (1906–10) notes:
“at “Eltesle was sumtyme a nunnery wher Pandonia the Scottish virgine was buried, and there is a well of her name yn the south side of the quire’, and, ‘it appearithe by the legende of S. Pandonia that she was a kynge of Scotts dowghter, and after flienge them that would have deflowrid hir, she cam to a kynns woman of hirs, priorese of a nunrey at Eltesley in Cambridgeshire, 4 myles from Saint Neotes, and aftar dyenge was byried in Eltesley by a well cawled S. Pandonia Welle. She was translatyd into Eltesley Churche anno 1344 as it aperithe by the lessons of hir translation made by one Ser Richarde, parishe priste there”.
Kelly’s directory (1929) notes:
“There was formerly a convent of Benedictine nuns here, subsequently removed in the reign of William I. to Hinchinbrooke, in Huntingdonshire. St. Pandionia was the daughter of a Scottish king, who, in her flight from some persons who attempted her chastity, is said to have taken refuge in the nunnery of Eltisley, the prioress of which was her kinswoman; she eventually adopted the religious life, and on account of her piety was canonized; she died, it is said, in the convent, and was buried by a well called St. Pandionia’s Well, whence her body was removed into Eltisley church in the year 1344.”
In the 1808 Cambridgeshire volume it is recorded the priory was where the rectory was and destroyed at the Conquest. However, another view places it some distance out of the village at Papley Grove, where a modern farm house is to be found.
Any sign of the well?
There is an interesting aspect to the tradition. Why was she buried near the well and not in the church of the Priory she was nunnery? Was if the story above is true still considered an outsider? Was she diseased and those needed to be buried elsewhere? Why bury her near a well? Surely this would both contaminate the grave and the water. How close was it to the church. Hope appears to state it outside the chancel which sounds pretty close to the church and his accounts states that a bricked around well was in the churchyard. If so perhaps some remains of it still exist awaiting to be discovered. But why was she buried near a well? Had she become a hermit there? Is there more to the story – was she buried and a spring arise like nearby St Ive’s Well in the town? The account appear to suggest that it might have arose after her body was transferred to the high altar. A local story states that her spirit appeared to local children revealing the location of the spring; perhaps this was at a time when there was a drought.
Sacred garden pool?
Interestingly, it is said that the water of the well fills pool in an adjoining property. It is a far distance from the chancel end but not impossible. They are hidden by trees on the picture shown on Google maps. They are not accessible to the public however…hopefully one day they excavate the churchyard and find remains of the well and restore it so far as the village history website (http://www.eltisleyhistorysociety.org.uk/) suggests it and the priory have yet to be discovered.
In our final post on the noted wells of the area, we cover perhaps the most famous well around the town that of St. John or Sandford’s Well. Despite its fame it is the most unattractive of the town’s surviving sites. Charles Davies describes it as thus:
“The well, oval in shape, of 6½ft. and 4½ft. diameters and 13½ft. in depth below the surface, with a covered flight of 20 steps, is about 85 yards south of the Church, and about 500 yards from the shore : its position is marked on a map of Dutch origin of 1646.”
Charles Davies in his 1938 The History of the Ancient church situate at Newton Porthcawl states:
“The Holy Well in close proximity to the Parish Church at Newton, and possessing a like Patron, has also a lay name “Sandford Well” – which sheds considerable light on the time of the Church’s original foundation. Now it is Impossible to seriously doubt, when certain external evidences are considered, that Sir Thomas de Sandford had as much to do with the original foundation of the Church as with that of the Well. Dre-Newydd, Nova Villa, New Town, by whichever name be it called, was a dowry on his marriage, a “dot” of a new village, and it is not likely that he confined his legacy to it to the mere well, when we remember its intimate connexion with the Church.”
Who was de Sandford?
It is believed that De Sanford, was a crusading Knight of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, who in the 12th century founded the church being granted land by William Earl of Gloucester between 1147 and 1183.
Rituals at the well
The legend of the well is inscribed on a large plaque by its side as seen below:
A number of traditions are associated with the well. It is reported that May Day or rather one would presume Beltaine bonfires were lit close to the well, although one would have thought Midsummer – or the feast of St John would have been a more obvious time. Those visiting the well would use the water to wish away sins and if water removed from the well was spilt bad luck would ensue
Ebbing and flowing
The well is mainly noted for being an ebbing and flowing well. Author R.D.Blackmore wrote of the well:
“It comes and goes, in a manner, against the coming and going of the sea, which is only half a mile from it: and twice a day it is many feet deep, and again not as many inches. And the water is so crystal clear, that down in the dark it is like a dream. – The children are all a little afraid of it… partly because of its maker’s name… and partly on account of its curious ways and the sand coming out of its “nostrils” when first it begins to flow”.
It is possible that this deep well is connected via fissures in the rock with the sea where the tide would force water up into the well. It is probable that the two were linked and that if there was a time difference, that it is contrary to the tides this could be explained by the time taken for the water to flow through the cracks to the well.
The well today
For such a famed well and especially when compared with the other wells in the area, St John’s Well looks a little forlorn and long overdue a repair. The well consists as described by pastscape as:
“a gated rubble stone entrance doorway to, and side walls of, a long descending flight of stone steps with stone slab roof and limewashed interior. At street level to side right set in a walled recess is a semi circular stone basin with iron pump in wall to rear and stone drainage channel right.”
The pump is dry and it is impossible to access the waters and indeed one cannot see it as the grill is too narrow and the depth too deep. The door is rusty and unsightly as is the attempt to extend the walling to include an electric substation. St John’s Well is long overdue an improvement.
The final site appeared to base its reputation on the above site this being St. John’s Spa. Davies (1938) again records:
“The water discharged on the beach deserves notice. Recent investigation has confirmed the tradition that the waters of this particular issue have extraordinary healing powers over external and internal ulcers, old wounds, rheumatisms, neuritis and various other ailments. Cold and clear as crystal, the scores of analyses that have been made in hospitals and by specialists, throw not the slightest light on the cause of the water’s efficacy. Its temperature is about 51 degrees Fahrenheit at all times of the year, a sensation of intense cold is felt by the hand which, after a deep immersion lasting for about ten minutes, regains its warmth, and, for a considerable length of time after withdrawal, shows a decided redness. Investigation may prove the presence of isotonic properties which may account for the beneficent effect on the many visitants with divers ailments, who drink the water or immerse the affected parts.”
He continued to note that:
“St. John’s Spa is renowned ; countless invalids have benefitted by their visits to “Doctor Dwr” (Doctor Water), who is always at home when the tide is out, and overs free treatment in a surgery which is thoroughly cleansed twice a day. In all probability, the therapeutic value of this water would be unknown in these days, were it not for the chance discovery of Dr. Hartland who has proved, beyond doubts, its curative properties.”
Whatever happened to the latest instalment is unclear but St John’s Well survives albeit massively in need of some TLC!
Back in the mid 90s when I started seeking out holy wells, I came across reference to a site just outside of Thetford. I’d planed to visit the site and found it to be one of the most curious in the county. It is marked on the first series of the OS map in Gothic writing but was it that old?
A substantial site is located in Shadwell Park called St. Chad’s Well (TL 933 830). However, despite the name I can find no history or traditions about it, the first author to refer to the well is Bryant (1901) who states it is marked on an ancient map but as I note below I have been unable to substantiate this. Was it an ancient well?
Icewell, holy well or folly?
The well is enclosed is a circular dome of flint and mortar with a passage entrance facing west. The structure is supported by a stone pillar. The structure is not dissimilar to an ice-well which indeed it has been claimed it was but no-one would build an ice-well with a spring in it. A medieval fabric claim was made, but is of probable 19th Century date and is an estate folly; a grottification of a simple spring, utilising old stone work. This spring arises from the hillside and enters into a basin kerbed in stone through a hole in the flint wall of the structure. Above this is an arched recess. The water is channelled into a narrow gutter to exit through the north wall. The concrete floor of the chamber is below ground level reached by five stairs in the passageway. There are two lighting niches in the walls at the east and the southwest. Six stone blocks are arranged to form seats. Below the arch of the spring of the arch of the domed roof are six brackets which possibly served as candle stands.
St Chad or Boundary spring?
Unlikely although St Cedd his brother evangelised East Anglia, Chad wells are very common in the region. This is because they arise from the Old English Chaud meaning cold and thus cold spring! In this case it is apparent that the name may well be a back-derivation as its location on East Hall and Gonville Manors boundary suggests name derives from O.E scead for ‘boundary’ this is emphasised by the name of the estate Shadwell – sceadwell! Indeed the estate Shadwell Court is only first mentioned in White (1845) as the house was built in the 1830s with associated statues. Historic England records:
“Robert Buxton acquired the manor of Rushworth in Shadwell during the C16, initially holding a lease from the fourth Duke of Norfolk. In c 1715 John Buxton, amateur architect of Channonz Hall in Tibenham, began to rebuild what he called Shadwell Lodge and to lay out the grounds. The main features however of the design which survives today (1999), including the layout of the plantations and the creation of the lake, are the work of his son, also John, between the 1740s and 1760s and these are recorded on William Faden’s map of the county dated 1797. “
This suggests the well was a folly capitalising on the spring name using the carved stonework which may have originally been part of Thetford Priory, giving it a rustic religious feel. However this does not mean that the well was not of significance. Boundaries often incorporated springs as sites of note, or as disputed sites and having them on boundaries allowed equal access. As many Parish boundaries date from Angl0-Saxon periods it is possible that the well had a significant position in the settlement. There is evidence of an ancient settlement here with flint flakes and blades from the Neolithic and Bronze Age were found around the well and Roman funeral urns and Saxon tumuli in the park. Furthermore the well is also located close to Peddar’s Way, suggesting pilgrim use perhaps. So was it a Holy well as noted 1870-72, John Marius Wilson’s Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales:
“SHADWELL……It takes its name from a spring called St. Chad’s well, formerly much frequented by pilgrims.”
This begs the question is this just antiquarian fancy or are we missing some records of its history? Was it frequented by those on the way to Walsingham…if so its forgotten by them now.
As part of my research for the forthcoming Holy wells and healings springs of Staffordshire I sought out the existence of two sulphurous wells in the Parish of Codsall. The first of these was called the Brimstone Well a wonderfully evocatively named site. However despite some early sketches it appears to be largely forgotten. One illustration shows a circular rough stone well head among leafy foliage in the William Salt Collection. An account locates it as:
“Halfway up the road between Wheatstone Park and Pendrell Hall is a sulphur spring – the medical properties of the water being noted in Plot’s ‘Natural History of Staffordshire’ (1898)…Sometimes the water oozes through the tarmac surface of the road.”
There did not appear to be any well head matching the description between the two locations, although there was a rush lined pool close by. Enquires made in the hamlet of Codsall Wood failed to locate the site and apparently it has been lost. I traversed the area for some time up and down the lanes and concluded that.
The other is more famed, being the Leper’s Well by comparison it was easy to locate, especially as I had the company of Kate Gomez author of the excellent Little Book of Staffordshire and Lichfield Lore blog. This was another site according to Plot (1696) which is:
“sated with sulphurous particles; for it always emits a sulphurous smell: and in winter, and sometimes against rain, the odour is so strong, that, with the advantage of the wind, one may smell it now and then at least 23 yards off. Moreover, so volatile is it, and so little restrained, that when set over the fire, it flies away so fast, that the water quickly loses its smell.”
Plot (1696) continues:
“In ancient times, when leprosies were frequent, this water was accounted a sovereign remedy for such as were troubled with that foul distemper; and for whose better accommodation there was a house built near it, which retains to this day the name of the Leper House. This water is in use at present against scabs and itch, both in man and beast, and purges both by ‘siege and urine. It not only rakes the body within, but most effectually drives forth all ill humours, and sometimes it vomits, according to the constitutions of the patients, who commonly drink about three quarts at a time. Less, scarce works except by vomit, where it meets with weak stomachs.”
This Leper House now a small farm still exists a few yards above the well on the other side of the road. Plot also notes continues to note that the inhabitants hereabout brew their drink with this water, especially at that which they call the Brimstone Alehouse; and boil their meat with it. Upon which it is observed, that none of them are ever troubled either with scabs or itch, or such like cuticular diseases.
William Pitt in his 1817 A Topographical History of Staffordshire notes that the spring arose, up through the hollow stump of a tree, and runs down the road, leaving a yellowness on the moss resembling flour of brimstone: in warm dry weather it emits a sulphurous exhalation. However, this is clearly not the Leper well but if the sketch in the Salt collection is to be believed the Sulphur well. It was also noted that well dressing seems to have been customary in the area, however which wells and when is unclear not when it ceased. The well is a keyhole shaped stone lined well now enclosed by a fence for safety reasons. A large ash tree found over the well in the 1990s appears to have been felled probably because its roots were damaging the fabric or generally unsafe. The water is covered with thick duckweed but when disturbed there is a clear smell of sulphur. Around four steps can be traced on the east side of the well and it is probably considering the size that the well was designed for bodily immersion. This would of course link with the idea of its use by lepers. The only disadvantage is the barbed wire. I jumped over for a closer look and tore my trousers but that was preferable to being as pixy led as I was finding the Brimstone well.
“All ye who hither come to drink/Rest not your thoughts below/Look at that sacred sign and think/Whence living waters flow”.
Ashwell’s Wishing’ Well is one of those frustrating sites. It is clearly a structure of some importance, being one of the best built up in the midlands, but how significant is it?
The sacred Ash
Peter Binnall (1935) in his Folklore of Wells notes that ash tree are very often associated with holy wells. The Ash was considered a sacred tree in Scaninavian countries and Britain. It was identified as Yggdrasil, the legendary tree associated with the god Odin. It is significant to note that at its roots was a spring where the Norns: Fate, Being and Necessity lived who used the spring to water the tree each day and used clay from it to keep the tree white to preserve its life. and whitened it with clay from the well, preserving its life.
However that does not mean that a well named after an ash is a culted spring. However, as Val Shepherd notes in her 1994 Historic wells around Bradford notes Holy Well Ash as well as Syke Well, Priestly which still has ash trees over it, as have Peggy Well, Riddlesden and White Well Harden. Hertfordshire has a significant seven springs in the town of Ashwells which is associated with a Roman shrine and the ash above St Betram’s Well, Ilam Staffordshire was protected by a ‘curse’ which suggested that any person who harmed it would themselves be harmed. Indeed my research has suggested there is an Ashwell in every county but I have not been bold enough to suggest there would be any significance in these names
Is this the well of the village?
Over the time the name of the village has changed from Exwell in the xi century; then Assewell, Ayswell, Aiswell (xiii century; and then Aswelle, Ashewell, Assewell xiv century and possibly the spring in which the village is named after, although some authorities note is derived from O.E wiella for stream although that does not preclude the spring being the source of course.
Furthermore, finding any associated tradition or history is impossible. The name wishing well is a modern term it appears unsupported by evidence. Some local belief that it may have been a holy well, and a cross was once erected over the structure.
The well today
When I first visited the well in the 1990s it looked a little forlorn, the cross said to be affixed to the apex of the building had gone and apparently fallen into private hands (I subsequently discovered its current whereabouts and it is safe!)
The spring arises in a substantial stone well house. This is made of squared rubble with a dressed stone coping. It is like a small grotto-like covered niche with an opening to the front with convex curved walls each side. Above the arched doorway an inscription reads. The spring fills a small pool at base of niche within in the rockface showing this is a spring not a well.
In conclusion it would suggest that the spring’s development was an attempt by a Victorian clergymen to both gentrify the site and as thus built a proper well house with its legend. Was there a High Church tradition in the village in the 1800s not that I have so far discovered?
Sacred springs of the Zorastrians
Kazakstan is a mysterious country for many reasons, one being shrine is in the village of Kentau, here is the Zhilagan-Ata or the the Crying Grandfather. This spring is only said to flow for the pure of heart and that if you are not pure no water will be forthcoming.
One of the most holy places of the Zoroastrians is Pie- e- Sabz, a mountain shrine. A local legend tells that Nikbanoo, daughter of Emperor Yazdgird III was being chased by the conquering Arab army and reached he prayed to Ahura Mazda to save her at which case the mountain opened up. At the same time a spring arose which flows from the towering cliff called Chak Chak which in Persian means drop drop. This spring is said to be the tears of the mountain crying for Nikbanoo. Beside the spring is ancient tree which arose from Nikbanoo’s cane, which might suggest another origin for the spring. There was also said to be a cloth nearby from Nikbanoo. The shrine itself is a marble floored man-made cave with an eternal flame which has darkened the walls On the 14th-18th June the site is the goal of 1000s of bare footed Zoroastrians from Iran, India and other countries
Hot springs – sacred springs to spas
Hot springs are found in the mountainous regions and indeed appear to attract a mystical belief. Alex Lee explains on the website of Kazakh culture, Edgekz, a familiar tradition to readers of this blog:
“Springs are sources of healing and spirituality in many cultures, and near Kazakhstan’s hot and cold springs, you can still see ribbons tied to trees, which locals have tied there when they make wishes on the magical waters.”
The laying of ribbons being a custom widespread across England and in Europe. One of the most famed of these hot springs is Rakhmanovsky Springs, a remote spring though to relieve pain, improve heart and circulatory problems and even slow aging and help regeneration. The reason for the later belief may derive from a local story linked to its discovery. This is named after a local hunter who discovered the spring following a wounded deer. Being ready to finish it off he watched amazed as the fatally wounded animal lay in the hot waters and was apparently healed, running away from the hunter unharmed. Understandably amazed by what he saw he did not shoot it but told the locals of what he saw.
Other springs in the country are famed for hydrocarbonate and sulphate waters as well as silica, bromide, iodine and even Radon. The east of Kazakhstan boasts thermal hot springs with sulphate and hydrocarbonate waters. Additionally, Kazakhstan offers silicic water springs, as well as bromide and iodine waters. Bromide water calms one’s nerve system and also has anti-inflammatory effects, while iodine is considered helpful for gastrointestinal tract diseases with atherosclerosis and thyroid dysfunction.
Perhaps the most established is the Alma Arasan hot spring established as a spa in 1886 for rheumatism, metabolic disease, blood problems with over 2000 patients seeking its waters a year. These waters have a temperature 35-7 C and said to be radioactive much like the Pyrenean Aix Les Bains. This might explain why it is claimed that those poisoned by heavy metals such as lead will get cured.
This is one of a large number of such springs which await any healing water pilgrim in this country.
The modern seaside town of Porthcawl is classic British seaside and in the summer the eateries swam with visitors, surfers ride the waves and children clamber over rocks in search of crabs…a few miles from this buzz of seaside fun are three watery relics which have survived the spread of the town. How many of those seaside visitors come and examine them is unclear but if they did they would be privy to a magic otherworld..quite literally in fact!
The first of our wells really does appear to contact to another world being Ffynnon Fawr. A flight of stone steps descend into a world deep beneath us into a pool where light just about penetrates. Inside a large chamber brimming with clear water. Ffynnon Fawr lives up to its name – it is indeed a large well!
It is not the easiest to find. My sources pinpointed it on a modern roundabout on the outskirts, but on the wrong side so I spent a fair time looking in the wrong place and resigned myself to not finding it. However, I was determined and returning found it below the level of the ground at the roundabout.
The well is a rectangular grey stone building with a camber headed doorway with an iron gate. On the side it reads:
“Y Fynnon Fawr”
“Mae Dwr Yn Fendith Angenreidol Rhoddes Duw Inni Ar Lawr; Cofiwyn ‘Awdur Pob Daioni’ Wrth Yfed Dwr O ‘r Fynnon Fawr’
“Water Is A Necessary Blessing Which God Has Given Us On Earth; Let Us Remember ‘The Author Of All Goodness’ As We Drink From Fynnon Fawr”.
The well provided water for the older village of Newton Nottage now absorbed into the Porthcawl sprawl however no legends or traditions are recorded.
Not far away is St. David’s Well sitting just beside the edge of a lane but still feeling from a distant age. This is a true holy well and its present fabric albeit early 20th century doubtlessly includes medieval work as noted by Charles Davies in his 1938 The History of the Ancient Church situate at Newton, Porthcawl in the Parish of Newton Nottage.:
“A few years ago there was but a muddy heap of stones by the way-side; lately a partial restoration has been attempted, but without even indicating the name that gives it importance and interest.”.
Charles Davies further states:
“We are justified in surmising that the Well at Nottage owed its origin to the Memory of St. David, for the axiom of archaeology states that, when found in proximity, the shrine and its adjacent spring both commemorate the identical saint. A chain of evidence is available showing that such was the case. The remains of an ancient roadway bearing the significant name of “Heol-y-Capel” (Chapel Road), can be traced through the Croft leadmg from The Holy Well to the site of the Vanished Chapel and the adjoining “Cwrt Offeiriad”. Now this Chapel was situated on the west bank of the little valley, watered by Ffynnon Dewi (David’s Well), which is known today as “The Rhyll”, but in the 12th century was named “Dewiscumbe”. These facts prove an intimate relationship between the little hamlet and the National Saint of Wales in Pre-Norman days the nourishing of a Davidian Cultus – and all that is implied by Saint David having been its Patron Saint.
It is regrettable that the memory of the Shrine and Valley has completely faded ; not without shame do we remember our neglect of the Holy well itself, which has been the means of our resurrecting the past. …. Many are still spared who can remember It as it was some forty years ago. The limped water, of a constant depth, flows to the rough stone font, unaffected by winter flood or summer drought, incapable of gain or decline The rivulet still makes tremulous music as it meanders down the little valley of Dewiscumbe. Here, in mediaeval days, many a pilgrim quest found its consummation, and even today the idyllic surroundings appear to summon up the long-vanished atmosphere of the Welsh Saint.”
The site consists of a small stone enclosure with a style, said to be the church’s old altar, to prevent animals access it. The well itself is an ancient looking structure whose roof is made of large stone slabs and steps again go deep into the ground to a roofed chamber.
It is said that the ghost of a girl peering into its waters in the evening having been seen on a number times. She may have drowned in its deep waters. Today this is not possible as access again to the waters is no longer possible.
Could the Birch Well be the Wanstead Well?
Tucked away on Leyton Flats in a Birch Wood near to the boundary fence of Snaresbrook Crown Court and near the Eagle Pond, is an enigmatic spring, called the Birch Well.
Enigmatic because there must be more we should know about the site. The spring arises in a substantial stone-lined oval well head around 1.5 metres long, one of the most substantial of any well in Essex.
The lost Wanstead Spring?
Discovered early in the Seventeenth Century, the Wanstead Spring was a potential spa. A John Chamberlain, the news-letter writer, writing from London to Sir Dudley Carleton, on August 1619, stated:
“ We have great noise here of a new Spa, or spring of that nature, found lately about Wansted; and much running there is to yt dayly, both by Lords and Ladies and other great companie, so that they have almost drawne yt drie alredy; and, yf yt should hold on, yt wold put downe the waters at Tunbridge; wch, for these three or foure yeares, have ben much frequented, specially this summer, by many great persons; insomuch that they wch have seene both say that yt [i.e., Tunbridge] is not inferior to the Spaa [in Belgium] for goode companie, numbers of people, and other appurtenances.”
Thresh and Christy (1913) in their seminal Medicinal Wells of Essex note significantly:
“We have been quite unable to ascertain anything as to the part of Wanstead parish in which this spring was situated. In all probability, it was quite a small spring. One may infer as much from Chamberlain’s statement that, within a short time of its discovery, the company resorting to it had ‘almost drawn it dry.’ If such was the case, the spring was, no doubt, soon deserted and ultimately forgotten.”
Both accounts appear to suggest that any significant spring in the Wanstead area could vie for the said well. The Birch Well has good provenance, particularly as it is a chalybeate, that is iron rich spring, a common feature of the early medicinal springs, and indeed Chamberlain by comparing to Tunbridge, possibly the best-known chalybeate well, is underling it is.
Further evidence is given by a correspondent, a Mr. Walter Crouch, F.Z.S., of Wanstead, who writes to Thresh and Miller. They state that the correspondent’s knowledge of the history of the parish is unequalled. He stated:
“I have always had the idea that this Mineral Spring was not at the Park end of our parish, which abuts ou Bushwood and Wanstead Flats, but in the vicinity of Snaresbrook and on the road which leads to Walthamstow; but it is possible that it was in the grounds of ‘The Grove’ (now cut up and built over).The spring is not marked on Kip’s View (1710), nor on Rocque’s large Map (1735), nor on Rocque’s still larger map of a few years later.”
Thresh and Christy (1913) took the suggestion of Snaresbrook and visited the Birch Well but was not 100% convinced. However, it is difficult on the paucity of evidence to be anyway near 100%!
Winifred Eastment in her 1946 Wanstead through the ages gives no indication that the spa spring and the Birch well are one and the same but does emphasis that it was one of the most important public wells of Wanstead and indeed people from beyond the parish payed a penny for three buckets or 1.6d for a buttful! Although it is clear it was only used for drinking water. More curiously a local tradition tells how at least one person drowned at the well before the stone surround was established. Before this the site was more open, described as an open gravel pit with wooden steps, much like some of the earlier spas are indeed described.
So, is the Birch Well Wanstead Spa? I think it is highly probable. The site is clearly important by its position by the boundary, noted by a small boundary stone by the well. However, the chalybeate water produced by the spring head is perhaps the most suggestive.
Wellingborough as its name suggests is related to wells and the town celebrates five main wells and there is a mosaic recording the wells in the town centre. However, which five wells appears to be a matter of contention. However most cases appear to record the Red well, Whyte well, Stan well, Buck well and Lady well to be the specific wells. There are however many more wells/springs noted in other surveys however not all of them (as indeed the list above) below the main text of this volume. These are, Ancient well, London Well, Whitchurch well, Harrowden Well, Burymoor well, Hemming well, Hartwell, Monk’s well, Wichus well, Rising Sun well, Hollywell, St. John’s well and Cross well of which the last six have significance.
The most famed spring here is the Red Well being noted in a number of works and was the closest the county appears to have developed a spa in competition with Astrop. Allen (1699) in his work on Mineral springs of England records that:
“This water weigh d at the Spring eighteen grains lighter than common water in a quantity of about twelve ounces with a few drops of Tincture of Logwood gave a black with Syrup of Violets a deep green with Syrup of Cloves blackish with Galls a violet.”
Fuller (1662) in his Worthies records that the the town was called Wellingborough from a sovereign well therein which was of ancient origin, lost and rediscovered in the 1600s. Cole (1837) in his The History and Antiquities of Wellingborough in the County of Northampton noted that:
“THE RED WELL spring rises in a field from the town and centuries of highly stated that in the Queen resided in of drinking By residing it is the advantage of the times of the purpose of watering places in rooms. This chalybeate spring rises in a field about half a mile north west from the town and was in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries of very great celebrity and esteemed highly efficacious in various disorders It is stated that in the year 1628 King Charles I and his Queen resided in tents a whole season for the benefit of drinking the water pure at its source By residing it is conceived is here meant having the advantage of the tent as a place of resort at the times of drinking the water and to answer the purpose of those convenient erections used at watering places in the present day called pump rooms.”
John Morton (1712) in his Natural History of Northamptonshire records that:
“ From King’s Cliff I went to Wellingborough to make like observations upon the Medicinal Water there This on July 29 1703. The Medicinal Spring which is called the Red Well is about half a mile distant the town on the north west side of it almost at the of a hill in an open field. What the strata the water through consists of is hard to be discovered. But some parts of the hill above the spring there are strata a reddish sort of stone with iron like veins in it underneath a bed of clay. In the extreme hard frost 1683 it so far from being frozen that it ran more briskly ever. When or by whom it was first apply’d to upon a medicinal account I cannot learn Certain it is that a hundred ago it was very famous Mr Drayton a co temporary with Sir Philip Sidney supposes that the town was so called from its wells and we of none that ever was considerable thereabouts but And by the observations of Mr John Goodyer an Botanist who mentions it by the name of Red it appears to have been a water of some note in the year 1626 about which time a tradition they have there it was honoured with of King Charles the First and of his Queen who the benefit of these waters were pleased to reside whole season in tents that were erected if we may credit common fame on the side of the hill above where it is likely Sir Theodore Mayern Physician who in his writings recommends water did then attend them Dr Merret in his Nat Brit has also mentioned it. He places with the purging waters of England from which may observe it has been formerly of far greater fame than now it is not that the virtues of it are at all impaired but the true occasions seem to be the mismanagement of the water in the course of drinking &c Mr Morton then devotes several folio pages of his work to Observations and Trials I have made of it myself In addition to the recommendation of these waters by Sir Theodore Mayerne Physician to King Charles I and that of Dr Merret may be included the subjoined description of But Master Camden doth marr their mart avouching the ancient name thereof Wellingborough However thirty years since a water herein grew very famous insomuch that Queen Mary lay many weeks thereat. What benefit her Majesty received by the Spring here I know not this I know that the spring received benefit from her Majesty and the town got credit and profit thereby. But it seems all waters of this kind have though far from the sea their ebbing and flowing I mean in esteem. It was then full tide with Wellingborough Well which ever since hath abated and now I believe is at low water in its reputation.”
Over the years Cole (1837) informs us of the improvements down to the well from the Old Town Books:
“1640 Paid to Thomas Payne for timber for repair of Red well and for carriage thereof 2 19 0 Paid to Mead of Harrowden for more timber and carriage of ditto 0 13 0 Paid to Henry Batley for work and stone and cost to repair Red well 5 0 0 Paid to William Batley for timber work at Red well 1 10 0.”
He states that:
“From the above enumeration of items it seems that considerable pains and expense were bestowed upon the Red well in order to render it commodious and worthy of public patronage.”
Clearly considering the patronage of the well it was hoped that the well would allow the town to be developed into a spa and although Cole (1837) notes:
“During the reign of King Charles I there was a great influx of the nobility to drink the water and even so late as the middle of the last century the inhabitants of the neighbourhood continued to resort to the Spring.”
The English civil war prevented such a venture. Despite this in the 1800s there was some consideration of developing the site. Cole (1837) again notes of:
“Two Correspondents whose communications appeared in The Northampton Mercury under the signatures of Antiquarius and Anonymous in the year 1811 used their endeavours to re establish the celebrity of this Spring but their exertions have hitherto unfortunately proved ineffectual Their communications however demand a place in this history TO THE PRINTERS OF THE NORTHAMPTON MERCURY Sirs Some time ago I was perusing Walpole’s British Traveller and among other accounts read the following of the town of Wellingborough in this county being formerly much celebrated for its mineral springs Wellingborough is a large populous town situated on a rising ground and supposed to have received its name from the great number of springs that rise in its neighbourhood. It was formerly celebrated on account of its medicinal waters which were esteemed efficacious in various disorders and Queen Henrietta wife of Charles the First resided here some weeks for the benefit of her health her physicians having prescribed the waters as for her constitution. And it is further said that there is a chalybeate well about half a mile northward of the town. As these waters were then said to possess such singular virtues it is presumed they still retain them It is sincerely to be wished that some of the intelligent gentlemen resident there would analyse the waters in order that their virtues might be fully ascertained and that the afflicted might know where to apply for relief. Probably it would remunerate the present proprietor of the chalybeate well to erect a house bath and other accommodations on the spot that the benefit might become general. Besides the town is well calculated for the reception of visitants of every class having several capital inns in it and a plentiful weekly market lam Sirs Your humble Servant. Antiquarius August 20th 1811”
The correspondent replied:
“TO THE PRINTERS OF THE NORTHAMPTON MERCURY Sirs As I read your Correspondent’s account of the Red wells at Wellingborough in your paper of Aug 24 I anticipated an answer to his wish that some gentleman resident there would analyse the waters. Recent cases however can be produced wherein the waters have been useful and from an accurate analysis of the water and a comparison of it with that of Tunbridge and other Chalybeates it proves to be possessed of considerable virtues. Examined with the proper chemical re agents this water appears to differ from Tunbridge water in no respect except that of containing chiefly chalk carbonate of lime which being held in solution by the fixed air is deposited on boiling and also by mere exposure also it may contain more gas which gives it a more sparkling appearance than Tunbridge and Islington waters the deposition of this matter forms a calcareous crust intermixed with the ochre on the sides and bottom of the basin into which the water flows the other contents of the water are iron fixed air and a small quantity of purging salts. The best mode of taking the water is to begin early in the morning with a dose of half a pint then to walk or take exercise for an hour and after that to take a pint and to repeat the dose a third time an hour or two before dinner this plan should be continued for six weeks or two months and if the complaints are not removed after two or three months interval a second course should be gone through in the same manner. Its effects are to quicken the pulse produce a general glow immediately after being drank and to prove gently aperient more so than most chalybeates the continued use of the water increases the appetite exhilarates the spirits improves the strength and braces the whole system the water very frequently purges briskly at first but after a long use produces a costive habit of body when this is the case aperient medicines should be occasionally taken. The diseases in which the use of the Red well water promises to be of most service are indigestion with its various symptoms debility and pallid countenance listlessness and aversion to every kind of exercise so frequent among the young and particularly those of a delicate habit and are more speedily and certainly removed by a course of these waters than by any other means. Of stomach complaints flatulency an uncertain and capricious appetite heartburn and all the symptoms attendant upon irregular and incomplete digestion are such as point out the great use of this class of waters There is no occasion for any preparation to the use of the water unless the stomach is judged to be foul and then a single emetic may precede its use. It is sincerely hoped that some gentlemen will give such other information as will direct the afflicted where to apply relief and stimulate the increasing number of attendants to observe what salutary effects are produced l am Sirs Yours most respectfully Anonymous Oct 26th 1811.”
However, the correspondence was to no avail and Cole (1837) referring to the correspondence laments and suggests:
“If at this juncture a handsome pump room had been erected embellished in front we will say by an enriched colonnade of pillars surmounted by a dome and the contiguous grounds laid out in walks in a tasteful manner in order to blend utility with comfort and pleasure an attraction would have been presented to entice company to Wellingborough Red Well but I was going to observe I fear the time is gone by perhaps not so for if the proprietor would allow the water to be conducted by pipes into a pleasant part of the town some good might yet accrue to Wellingborough from this once famed spring. It is a circumstance much to be lamented that a chalybeate spring containing such alleged virtues should be now unnoticed and no benefit derived from its sanative qualities which might be the case to individuals resident here if not to the interests of the town itself if only some means were resorted to in order to revive its ancient fame for even the towns people to whom it is now freely open do not avail themselves of its advantages an effort is wanting to make even those on the spot try at this day its healing effects. Nor is this denominated the Red well the only spring of the same nature in the lordship as from the ochrey dye and similar chalybeate flavour of another near White delves the like virtues in degree it is likely would be derived.”
The well was not lost it fell into relative obscurity. According to Cole (1837) the Red Well:
“about forty years ago was a large stone watering trough which was used by the attendants upon horses previous to the inclosure as a place at which to refresh their animals. It was sufficiently large to admit twenty horses to drink together. The water was made to pass through a sculptured head and came pouring out with considerable force at the mouth.”
J and M. Palmer in their History of Wellingborough (1972) note:
“In 1823 a water mill was built not far from the Red Well and was, appropriately called Red Well Mill. It appears on a local map of 1825. The stream that fed the mill rises between Appleby Lodge and Park Farm, just south of Sywell Road. It meanders its way to pass under Hardwick Road, it then emerges at a point that was in the grounds of Hatton Hall Park and feeds a pond there. Skirting the Red Well spring, and joined by another small stream it became the millrace, by the making of a dam, and passed under the Kettering Road.”
In the Northampton Chronicle and Echo photo shows it was a substantial brick structure in the early 20th century possibly constructed for the mill’s convenience. This structure would appear to have been slowly lost as by the mid-20th century the site consisted of two troughs surrounded by broken slabs one of which one had fallen into one of the two chambers. However in 2011, Wellingborough Council with Glamis Grove Volunteers placed stone edgings over the foundations but a rather unsightly galvanised metal grid installed over it, presumably to prevent vandalism but it also presents access and a decent photo. The later is solved by the water running from the side into a stream. A sign informing passers by of the history of the Red Well has also be installed and so now this well will hopefully remain remembered!