Although it is not strictly a holy well nor apparently healing, its name, Cambridge’s famous Nine Wells (TL 463 542) has a name which suggests cult significance which we shall explore in a moment. The water from these springs which appear not to have the required number forms part of the Hobson’s (of Hobson’s choice fame) conduit which dates from 1610-14 as part of a ‘new river’ a scheme first devised in 1574 by the then Master of Peterhouse to provide clean water for Cambridge (similar schemes were constructed in Hertfordshire). The springs arise at the foot of White Hill in an area which was recognised by the Town and University as worth preserving as they did purchasing it in 1835 after the 1834 Great Shelford Inclosure Act. In 1861 an obelisk, was erected which details the scheme. The water is accessed from an ornate conduit house called Hobson’s conduit house at Lensfield Drive in the city of Cambridge and runs through channels called runnels in parts of the city. Thompson and Thompson (1999) note of the flow of the waters hence:
“From this point three conduits conveyed the water to the King’s Ditch: one along Trumpington Street (originally in the middle of the road by replaced by the side runnels c.1800); a second, slightly further east, which was later culverted; and a third (dug in 1631 to improve the scouring of the Ditch) which originally ran above ground from Lensfield Road to St. Andrew’s Street and entered the Close Ditch close to St Andrew’s Church. This channel too is now mostly culverted through runnels survive at two points in St. Andrew’s Street: beside the Post Office, and by the taxi rank opposite Hobson Street. This channel now supplies water for the swimming pool in the Fellow’s garden at Christs.”
The monument records:
“Andrew Perne, Master of Peterhouse, who first (in 1574) suggested taking water from here into Cambridge, in order to clean out the King’s Ditch, on the southern and eastern edges of the town. The filthy state of the King’s Ditch was seen as being responsible for recent outbreaks of plague in Cambridge.
Thomas Chaplin, Lord of the Manor of Trumpington in 1610, who signed a “tripartite agreement” with the town and the university giving them rights over the newly made watercourse and the soil either side in order to maintain it in good order.
Thomas Hobson, the well known Cambridge carrier (referred to in the phrase Hobson’s choice). When Hobson died in 1631 he bequeathed land so that its income could be used to maintain the supply of water to the market place, for in 1614 some of the water from the original stream had been diverted to the market place where it was used as a public water supply. This splendid portrait of him hangs in the Guildhall in Cambridge.”
The importance of nine wells
The nine wells thus was the city of Cambridge’s sole supply of clean running water for several centuries supplying the King’s ditch and providing a conduit through the streets of the city and providing the Cold Bath or Fellow’s Pool which still survives in Emmanuel College Fellows’ garden which was constructed in 1690 and is claimed to be the oldest swimming pool in the country. As a piped water system was developed the old supply system became less important and finally a modern system was developed although interestingly water is still pumped from this area to supply the city. Ironically, the flow was sadly much reduced as the water is now extracted at the Babraham Cambridge Water company extraction.
How many springs are there?
Numerical named springs are not uncommon in England with Seven springs or wells being the commonest, nine wells or springs are rarer. However, it is interesting to note there is a cluster around the Hertfordshire-Cambridgeshire area with a Nine Wells at Hitchin and a Nine Springs at St Paul’s Walden. None have an obvious nine springs so what is the name. One possible is that it has the same derivation as the Noon, a Roman word for ‘fate’ suggesting the springs were possibly used to foretell. This is interesting as the area is also noted for woe waters whose rise and fall were used to predict major events. Does this support the origin? Another possible suggestion is that it derives from a Celtic word meaning ‘bright’. This is supported by the alternative name for the Nine springs at St Paul’s Walden white is also called ‘whytewell’, with ‘whyte’ meaning in Old English ‘white’ as in pure. Furthermore the River Purwell has its source at the Nine springs! The two linked names suggest a considerably coincidence if they were not linked for a reason and suggests it was a way of describing the clearness of the water and hence its purity. Certainly water passing through the chalk is very clear. This seems a more sensible and likely origin. The fact that the springs arise on White hill may also be significant. An alternative maybe that the scholars at the University gave it such a mystical and romantic name.
On the banks of the Cam in Cambridge is a rare site a popular outdoor public lido. However, what is less well-known is that Cambridge pioneered swimming pools by developing cold baths, which although developed for medicinal reasons have progressed into recreational uses.
A precursor for such baths was a cold bath which had a small arch with Gothic tracery existed in the gardens of John Mortlock on land which was owned by the Austin Friars. As such it may have had an earlier origin but sadly as all evidence of this has now gone.
However it is their establishment within the University’s college system which makes Cambridge unique (even rival Oxford could not match this). Five colleges have records of cold baths.
At Peterhouse College, it is noted that:
“There is a Grove South of the College, and a large Garden beyond, abounding with all manner of Wall-fruits, and a Cold-bath, much frequented by the Students.”
Ackermann notes that this site still survived in 1815, noting that: ‘a cold bath is one of the valuable appendages of the place’. It does not appear to have survived beyond this date however.
A Cold Bath was also found Clare College. John Willis Clark (1886) in The Architectural History of the University of Cambridge and of the Colleges of Cambridge and Eton Late describes it as:
“there was a bath, lately removed, in the basement of the west range, between the gate leading to the walks and the south-west corner of the quadrangle.”
Edward Carter (1753) in his The History of the County of Cambridge describes a cold bath at Pembroke College, at the end of his description of the gardens:
“There are besides several other Gardens, belonging to the Apartments of Fellows, in one of which, is another small and simple, yet well contrived WaterWork, which is continually supplying a large Cold-Bath with fresh Water; the over-plus of which runs through the Second Court, and so into the King’s Ditch.”
Yet the Cold Bath or Fellow’s Pool still survives in Emmanuel College Fellows’ garden. It was constructed in 1690 and is claimed to be the oldest swimming pool in the country although evidence suggests it may be the following site. Much of the current fabric however is from the 1800s. Its waters were derived from the Hobson conduit, and was often green with algae, some much that a white line was painted on the bottom to help Fellows swim. Yet since the restoration in the 1980s the supply is from the mains. The present changing thatched changing hut dates from the mid-19th century and replaced the previous classical style hut which was constructed about 1745. Although located in the Fellows’ Garden, junior members of the college are permitted to use the pool at certain times.
The Christ’s College cold bath (TL 451 585) also claims to be the oldest but has an accepted date of 1699 yet recent accounts from the archive suggests 1688. Clark (1886) notes:
“The Gardens of this college are pleasant and tastefully disposed containing a good bowling green summer house and a cold bath surrounded little wilderness. In the garden is a large mulberry.”
Perhaps the most famed of all such pools, being where Charles Darwin may have swam. Like Emmanuel at one end there is a tri-arched summerhouse and beside the pool are busts of Cudworth, Milton and Saunderson and stone vase in Memory of Joseph Mede.
Again until recently, the pool which is fed by Hobson’s conduit, was murky and uninviting and plans were in place to establish it as a duck pond. However, in 2010 it was restored and renamed Malcolm Bowie’s Bathing Pool in honour of the Master of the College from 2002 to 2006. Sadly, again like Emmanuel’s Bath, it is now fed by mains water, but at least like it, it is being used for swimming.
In a side development Clark (1886) also notes that when St. Catherine’s Hall was built in 1875, in the cellar of one of the houses a bath was constructed for the use of the undergraduates. Whether this was spring-fed or not is not noted.
The cold baths of Christ College and Emmanuel can be observed, although not at close hand in their gardens. To get a closer view find a friendly undergraduate.
Holy wells and healing springs of Cambridgeshire