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Gumfreston Wells by Gina Silverman Source New Series No 3 Spring 1995

Background information

The 12th century church of St Lawrence, Gumfreston (Pembrokeshire/Dyfed) lies off the road to Tenby to Sageston. In its churchyard three springs rise to form a stream that flows out through a ‘bridge’ in the churchyard wall. Although well-known and historically recorded in the past, Gumfreston Wells had become a local ‘secret’ that was in danger of being forgotten as the generations moved on.

It was in 1992 that my husband Trevor and I walked down the quiet lane to find the ancient church nestling in the woods and fields around it. It seemed an odd place to build a church, halfway down a hill, with no nearby houses. We knew nothing then, of course, about the history of Gumfreston. Walking through the churchyard gate was like walking into another time, into an almost awesome sense of peace, and for us, welcome. I really surprised myself by thinking ‘This is a place of healing’.

Sometimes people or places reach out to us, and so our journey with Gumfreston began. We had come from London to live in West Wales after Trevor had been made redundant a year before. Sp we had to,e tp bosoy the church and explore the churchyards. We found the wells, very overgrown with plant life, the stream choked with leaves and debris. Then for the first time we met someone once connected with the church, the then warden, Ken Handicott, who with a tiny but devoted congregation was struggling to keep the church going. It was Ken who first told us about the healing qualities of the wells, upon which he felt he had drawn personally. Sixteen years before, he had suffered a stroke and been partially paralysed on one side. With immense determination and often daily visits to the well, into which he dipped his paralysed arm, he regained his mobility, and went on to serve as a lay-reader and warden to Gumfreston. By this time the workload was heavy for him, and although we live in Manorbier over 5 miles away, we knew this was to be our church, and that we had the time and energy to give to this place we loved too.

That summer we were wading happily through the stream clearing the surplus greenery and nettles, discovering the beautiful stone structures of two of the wells in which the springs were rising, and the water trickled from another well was buried under natural debris. We began researching the history of the Gumfreston wells and discovered that they were listed in Holy Wells of Wales by Francis Jones (Cardiff 1954 p211) as pilgrimage healing wells. What had begun as  a play’ was becoming more serious now. Trevor became warden (mainly because nobody else wanted the job!) and we began looking up references to Gumfreston in every local library, and talking to local people, especially the elderly. Tenby Museum had old prints that showed Gumfreston had been a quay on the River Ritec which had carried boats from Tenby to St Florence before the river estuary became silted up and the railway embankment was built. 

In our small congregation we found a real sense of fellowship and purpose to maintain Gumfreston church and wells as a place of worship and a continuing ‘sanctuary’ for modern-day ‘pilgrims’/ Over the last couple of years we have become aware of the large numbers of visitors passing through Gumfreston many who return year after year, and are using the well water. We believe there have always been pilgrims coming here, and have begun to work for them. The church lost its keys years ago and is always open, so we invite people to come in and enjoy the peace of Gumfreston. We leave books in which visitors can write their thoughts and if they wish their prayers, which we join with our prayers on Sunday. There is usually a colourful display of the history of the Gumfreston Wells. The weather had been so damp recently, that I am currently making a new one which gives us a chance to add new information. We have no resident priests but are with the Rectorial Parish of Tenbyand fortunately receive encouragement and understanding from our Rector. I would like to mention here the unsung heroine of Gumfreston, Mrs Sheila Askew, whose devotion to the church and wells, hard work, and loving patience with us and the visitors has kept us going.

The History of Gumfreston Wells

The present history is based on a mixture of known and recorded facts, on-going surmise and research by fellow-enthusiasts at St Nicholas’ Church,Pennally, Brother Gildas on Caldey Island.and the interest and advice of David Austin, Head of Archaeology at Lampeter University College. He is in charge of the dig at Carew and as we are in his ‘catchment’ area within the new few years, he has offered to try and uncover the third well.

The three springs rising in such close proximity could have had a strong mystical significance for the early Celts who considered the number three to be connected with divinity. Springs and bodies of water were favourite places for worship, being associated with divine and healing powers. 

At the time of the peregrini (‘pilgrims’), the travelling ‘saints’ of Celtic Christianity, a holy man or woman probably used the wells, maybe settling there. They may have been buried there and a small chapel built. The well water could have been consecrated and used in baptism. Gumfreston was then on the river estuary that faced Caldey Island, a spiritual centre and monastery, and on ancient routes that led from the ridgeway and St Florence by water and land. The whole of West Wales was  a lively centre of Celtic Christianity, St Teilo being our local saint, born at Pennally and Gumfreston. 

There is evidence of relic-keeping in our church and an ambulatory for ‘private processions’ which is most unusual in such a small church. Possibilities are coming to light of monastic settlement between the churches of Gumfreston, Pennally and Manorbier. Certainly in the Celtic Church organisation these churches would have been under the control of a ‘mother’ church, a much larger Christian centre.

When the Normans invaded Wales in the 11th century they changed both social and church structures but the holy sites and practices remained if firmly established. Our present church of St Lawrence would have replaced earlier buildings, and the original saint’s name,but the atmosphere of the holy sanctuary and peace remained for the pilgrims wo are recorded as still coming to the wells for healing of mind and body.

The Holy Wells of Wales (p.90) records visits to Gumfreston Wells on Easter Day to drop bent pins into the water. This was called ‘throwing Lent away’ The last record of this was in the 17th century before the rector of Gumfreston was removed by the Puritan authorities.

In the ‘Age of reason’ the well waters were scientifically analysed, first by Dr Davis, a physician to William IV, who found their medicinal qualities, rich in iron to be ‘as good as the wells of Tunbridge’ Visitors to Tenby Spa would ‘take the waters’ at Gumfreston or pay local children to walk out collect bottled water from the wells. In the same century Dr Golding Bird, Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Professor of Therapeutics to Guy’s Hospital’ also reported on the waters (see below)

We intend to have the water analysed ourselves before we recommend it for drinking, although there are locals who drink them regularly . We are told that they make a good companion to whisky! Obviously there seem to be medicinal qualities in the water for our bodies, and there is a local tradition of using, one of the wells for eye ailments; but the account of the well dressing that follows is more concerned with the healing of our ‘souls’ and releasing our intuitive ‘creativity’ 

Well-dressing at Gumfreston

Why we did it

Gumfreston had been used in recent years as a setting for a floral display during the week of the Tenby Arts Festival. This year (1994), the team that did the display were busy elsewhere. I didn’t want to lose our participation in the Arts festival and was glad of the chance it gave us to be something for ourselves. I offered to do a small historical display on Wels holy wells and a iide yur of Gumfreston church and wells. Well dressing came into my mind as an artistic way of combining flowers and history that certainly attracted the festival committee – who weren’t sure what it was but it sounded different.!

All good practical reasons: but of course in hindsight I realise there was a much deeper person going on in my choice of well-dressing. For a while I had privately included the wells in all our Christian festivals by slipping quietly down to the watedz. Taking small tokens such as flowers, saying brief prayers and blessings, and ‘telling’ the wells what was being celebrated in the church. I wast sure why I was doing this but it felt ‘right’. At this point maybe I should explain that I am a Third Order Francisican and as such can get away with being somewhat ‘odd!’ but nevertheless my mind was needing to understand what was going on with all this intuitive activity. In researching what joly and healing wells had meant to generations before me. And would I hope to generations after me. I found the answers I needed for myself and which I could share with others.

How we did it

In my research, I had read of three instances of well-dressing in Wales (Jones pp 89, 91-2), so I knew it had been done; using garlands of mountain ash in one case (Priest’s well, Narbesh, Glamorgan), and in others at New Year, box (at Llanisen, Glamorgan), and mistletoe (at Diserth, Radnor).

Theoretically, I knew quite a bit about the more formalised art at Derbyshire well-dressing and toyed with the idea of using a similar technique on a small scale.

It was a quiet walk that it all began to take shape in my mind. This was Wales, not Derbyshire. I had been thinking of formal teaching, of constructing to a pre-planned end. Now I realised jay was mot to be the way at all. My whole approach became simpler. Researching for my historical display had made me realise that each well in Wales had its own history, its own associations with people and the uses it had been put to, so surely a well-dressing should reflect that.

I also realised that each well would have it own environment, of structure, flora, etc., and that flora available would vary with the reason of the well dressing. It seemed important to use what was growing around us, and to search for any plants of special significance. 

This approach to well-dressing was becoming personal to the people involved, their personalities responding to the ‘personality’  of the wells. It was also going to involve getting in touch with the ‘natural’ around us.

This approach to well-dressing was becoming personal to the people involved, their personalities  responding to the ‘personality’ of the wells. It was also going to involve getting in touch with the ‘natural’ around us.

So the Gumfreston workshops on well-dressing became a hands-on experience for those involved. The best place to ‘dress’ seemed to be the stone surrounds of the wells. In preparation I gathered large bunches of wild grass and barley, holly, laurel and other plants from the churchyard. There was an abundance of rosehips and blackberry sprays up the lane. Wild hydrangea and ferns and red sprays of berries, ivy and wild fuchsia. It’s amazing the variety of plant-life around us!

The day before the first workshop I made my own well-dressing so that I could get the feel of it. E could choose whether to work directly onto the wells, or use a container to place on them. I sat the total peace of Gumfreston in the autumn sun and would ferns around the edges of a wire frame I’d put together. A cross of wildflowers formed the centre of  ‘dressing’ to account for me the holiness and healing qualities of the wells. Other plants filled the gaps. It’s said that ‘love covers a multiple of sins’: plants certainly cover a multiple of mistakes!

We had small groups, mainly local people, for the actual ;dressing’. Some had expected just to watch the ‘experts’. I had so little to offer them really, just the actual materials and the invitation to ‘respond’ to the wells and use their own creativity. And each person seemed to enjoy it so much! We were so fortunate with the weather that week, the wells were at their most charming. All the ‘dressings’ were different, but by the time we finished there was a sense of personal satisfaction and the relaxation that working intuitively rings. Gumfreston’s Harvest festival was on the following Sunday, so the wells were dressed for that.

We will be well-dressing again at Gumfreston (by popular request) on 15 April 1995, Easter Saturday. Anyone who would like to join in with us will be very welcome. We should be there all afternoon, from midday onwards, as we will have a lot to do in the church as well. In addition, the church and churchyard are always open and visitors are warmly welcomed. Easter Sunday morning service is at 10 am. 

I feel that well-dressing is here to stay at Gumfreston. We still have a lot to learn and will always be happy to hear from anyone who has ideas and information to share.  

Dr Golding Bird’s Report

“In consequence of the shallowness of the basin, this water is apt to vary in composition after heavy rains, from its undergoing dilution; this however applies nearly exclusively to the solid ingredients as the evolution of carbonic acid gas from the subjacent strata is so considerable that the water is, under all circumstances, saturated with the gas, so as to sparkle vividly in a glass, and undergo violent ebullution when laced on the air-pump and very slightly exhausted. 

The water is remarkable for its singular purity, the quantity of the saline ingredients being exceedingly small. An imperial gallon contains but five grains of lime, part of which exists as carbonate, and is held in solution by an excess of carbonic acid. The exceeding minute quantity of sulphuric acid is remarkable, less being present than in the purist river water. The quantity of oxide of iron is about 2.4 grains of iron. 

The Gumfreston water is, however, one of the purest hitherto noticed, and owes its medical properties to the iron, and the larges quantity of the carbonic acid it contains. This extreme freedom from saline ingredients, the presence of which constitutes the hardiness of water would render this water of great value to those patients who cannot bear the ordinary chalybeate water. 

The Gumfreston water resembles that of Malvern in its purity, and of Tunbridge Wells in the quantity of iron it contains, exceeding all other chalybeate waters in Great Britain in the large quantity of Carbonic acid held in solution.

In cases of chlorosis, and other forms of deficiency of red blood in the system, this water would be invaluable.”

(Quoted in Samuel C. Hall and Anna M. Hall, The Book of South Wales, the Wye, and the Coast, first pub. London 1861 republished EP Pub Ltd 1977. Gumfreston is described pp 442-7, illustration of the well p446)

Ten Year anniversary – My top ten holy and healing wells sites from 10 years of blogging

In this article to celebrate 10 years of blogging I am selecting 10 of the best sites I have discovered and detailed since I had begun blogging on the topic 

The Monk’s Well, Southam – Nothing can prepare you for what I could describe the most unusual of all holy wells. Hidden deep in the landscape and under a nondescript metal cover a deep shaft of squared stone plunges deep into the ground to a small well chamber below. 

https://insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.com/2019/02/19/down-the-well-you-go-the-curious-monks-well-near-southam/ 

‘St Helen’s Well’, my house! I had to include this one as it is a possible holy well under my own house. Read how I discovered the spring and how the name of the house is suggestive of an ancient and lost St Helen’s Well

https://insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.com/2019/01/19/newsflash-holy-well-researcher-finds-possible-lost-holy-well-under-their-house/

St. Anne’s Well, Brough. Often a name of a ‘unknown’ well on a map leads the explorer to discover a boggy hole overgrown and difficult to image its importance. Here a few miles out of Buxton and in the shadow of a Roman fort is a well which appears have been missed by many researchers but well built and likely to be very significant, 

https://insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.com/2018/07/19/was-there-a-roman-water-shrine-at-brough-derbyshire/

Lady’s Well, Mansfield. This time a site which all authorities had recorded had been lost for good and attempts by ‘English heritage’ failed to find it. A bit of local field work and contacting local people and low and behold one can find the best preserved Nottinghamshire holy well…hopefully news of a residential development on the site will not result in its final demise!

https://insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.com/2018/04/19/a-lost-nottinghamshire-lady-well-rediscovered/ 

Lady’s Well, Wombourne. In this case a site which is well recorded but appeared to have disappeared off maps and thus thought to have gone. A bit of looking at older maps and field work revealed not only a magically placed site but a remarkable example of a natural spring carefully improved by past generations to create sometime quite evocative.

Searching for the Lady Well of Wombourne | holyandhealingwells (insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.com) 

St Peter’s Well, Peterchurch. A slightly different affair this one. When I first visited in the 1990s it was a forlorn site with the bath filled in with concrete and all that could be seen was the head through which the water once flowed (and had been tanked). Roll forward 30 odd years and community action had restored the site wonderfully back to what it first looked like – a bit of a triumph.

https://insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.com/2018/01/19/st-peters-wells-peterchurch-herefordshire/ 

Holiwell, Odell. Bedfordshire is a county not fully explored by holy well researchers and one I am slowly working through. This site again I had found an old photo and worked out its location as a likely place. Expecting to be wrong or find the site gone I was amazed to find it almost exactly as it was in the photo…well almost.

https://insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.com/2017/02/19/a-forgotten-bedfordshire-holy-well-the-holliwell-at-odell/ 

St Mary’s Well, Rhuddlan. I cannot claim to have discovered this as its quite prominent at the front of the stately house which is Bodrhyddan Hall but I didnt expect to find such a splendid building over the spring.

https://insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.com/2016/09/19/holy-wells-and-healing-springs-of-north-wales-st-marys-well-rhuddlan/ 

St Chad’s Well, Brettenham. It is probably not a St Chad’s well not an estate spring made into a folly holy well. Nevertheless a fascinating site. 

https://insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.com/2018/01/19/boundary-spring-or-holy-well-brettenhams-st-chads-well/ 

St Christopher’s Well, Denton. Again another grotto and is an overgrown wilderness that appeared to lay unvisited for many years…it still had old pre decimal coins in it. 

St Christopher’s Well, Denton…in its a grotto | holyandhealingwells (insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.com)

Mysterious creatures of springs and wells – The fairies, St. Cuthbert’s Well and the Luck of Edenhall

Fairies are often associated with springs for reasons I have explored previously but in this small Cumbrian village is a site associated with a famous legend involving fairies who frequented St. Cuthbert’s Well. William Hutchinson’s The History of the County of Cumberland started that

“In the garden, near to the house, is a well of excellent spring water, called St. Cuthbert’s well (the church is dedicated to the saint). This glass is supposed to have been a sacred chalice: but the legendary tale is, that the butler, going to draw water, surprised a company of fairies who were amusing themselves upon the green, near the well: he seized the glass, which was standing upon its margin; they tried to recover it; but, after an ineffectual struggle, flew away, saying,

If that glass either break or fall,

Farewell the luck of Edenhall.”

The glass in question is an ‘old painted drinking glass, called the Luck of Edenhall’ which was first mentioned in the Will of Sir Philip Musgrave in 1677.  The legend became immortalised in poetry by Ludwig Uhland and Longfellow . The true origins of the chalice is that it was probably originated in the middle east and perhaps was brought back by crusaders in the 14th century being made in Egypt or Syria. 

Whatever the origin the association with misfortune was apparently taken seriously by subsequent owners of the Hall. A Reverend William Mounsey of Bottesford records in 1791 in The Gentlemen’s Magazine in 1791 noted that it was carefully locked away and few were allowed to see it.  This certainly worked as when the Musgraves owned the house the faeries’ promise was kept and the house and family were successful. However, upon selling the house in 1900, the family kept hold of their ‘luck’. Thirty-four years later the house was demolished!

It seems to me that there is much to de-clutter from this legend and I would suggest that it probably obscures Catholic practices at the house after the reformation. The collection of water from a holy well suggests water being collected for religious worship and certainly the Luck could be seen as a vessel for sacrament for secrete services at the house. The association with fairies a legend to keep curious protestant onlookers away…and indeed even today very few people visit the well; laying as it does on private property…..finding a photo has not been possible…the fairies minus their vessel can enjoy the solitude. The Luck today resides at the V and A museum in London. 

Mysterious creatures of springs and wells – Frogs and wells

Frog and toads not unsurprisingly you might think are associated with springs. Two old English words O.E frosc meaning frog or O.E paddock for a ‘toad’ and their derivations can be found across the country.

In Essex there are a number of Freshwell derivations which suggest from Frosc. The earliest being a Freshwell mentioned in 1086 in Great Sampford, Freshwell in the 13th century and another in Saffron Walden first mentioned in 1605. In Panfield there was a Froshwell mentioned in 1586 and Upminster a Frogwell.

There seems a strange conglomeration of such sites in Essex and elsewhere it is more common to find toads. In Staffordshire, Padwalle first mentioned in 1481in Longnor and Padwell in Barborough, as Padwell (1830) and Edwalston and Wyaston a 1314 Padewalle. In Leicestershire there is a Paddock Well noted in 1638 in Church Langton, Leicestershire and Padwell in Fulstow (from the 1840 Tithe map) and Tadewell a 13th century mention in Ferriby. Kent’s Birling has a Puddle Well noted in 1837 and a Tadwell in Minster in Sheppey (noted in 1840).   There are surely others but why?

The obvious answer is that frogs and toads live in springs. However, they do not or rather very rarely. I’ve never seen one in a spring or well – perhaps the rarity offers a reason but it may be deeper than that. Toads in particular have supernatural connotations and a clue may be found in the Frogwell at Acton Burnell in Shropshire which folklore suggests the well was a guardian. Did people visit these wells to utilise the frogs for magical practices or was the frog seen as some sort of harmful creature.

Another possible source is that these animal represent totem animals which specific prehistoric groups associated with – akin to the spirit animals of first nation groups such as in the USA and Canada. This might explain the frequency of them in areas such as Essex perhaps.

Mysterious creatures of springs and wells – Phantom Black dogs

A phantom black dog usually much larger than an actual dog, often said to be the size of a calf, with glowing red eyes is a folklore standard being recorded from across the country. Whether they be called Black Shuck, Barguest, Gytrash, Trasher, Padifoot or many other names often there is an association with water. As a brief introduction I have again attempted to included as many as I have uncovered.

It  Lincolnshire often they are associated with bridges such as Brigg, Willingham (Till bridge) or banks of streams. At Kirton, there is a black dog was reported as living in a hole in the stream bank near this Belle Hole farm. Ponds were often associated with it such as the fish pond in Blyborough Lincolnshire. Rudkin in her 1937 Lincolnshire folk-lore notes a site called Bonny Well in Sturton upon Stow Lincolnshire which was an unfailing supply even in the great drought of 1860. One assumes that the site derived from O.Fr bonne for ‘good’. The site in the 1930s was a pond down Bonnywells Lane and was associated with a number of pieces of folklore; that it was haunted by a black dog and sow and litter of pigs which appeared on Hallowe’en. In the same county, Hibaldstow’s Bubbling Tom had a black dog protect it. Edward Bogg’s 1904 Lower Wharfeland, the Old City of York and the Ainsty, James tells how near St. Helen’s Well, Thorpe Arch:

 “padfoots and barguests…..which on dark nights kept its vigil”

In Elizabeth Southwart’s 1923 book on Bronte Moors and Villages: From Thornton to Haworth, she talks about Bloody tongue at Jim Craven’s Well, Yorkshire:

“The Bloody-tongue was a great dog, with staring red eyes, a tail as big as the branch of a tree, and a lolling tongue that dripped blood.  When he drank from the beck the water ran red right past the bridge, and away down—down—nearly to Bradford town.  As soon as it was quite dark he would lope up the narrow flagged causeway to the cottage at the top of Bent Ing on the north side, give one deep bark, then the woman who lived there would come out and feed him.  What he ate we never knew, but I can bear testimony to the delicious taste of the toffee she made.”

She relates one time:

“One Saturday a girl who lived at Headley came to a birthday party in the village, and was persuaded to stay to the end by her friends, who promised to see her ‘a-gaiterds’ if she would.  As soon as the party was over the brave little group started out.  But when they reached the end of the passage which leads to the fields, and gazed into the black well, at the bottom of which lurked the Bloody-tongue, one of them suggested that Mary should go alone, and they would wait there to see if anything happened to her.

“Mary was reluctant, but had no choice in the matter, for go home she must.  They waited, according to promise, listening to her footsteps on the path, and occasionally shouting into the darkness:

““Are you all right, Mary?”

““Ay!” would come the response.

“And well was it for Mary that the Gytrash had business elsewhere that night, for her friends confess now that at the first sound of a scream they would have fled back to lights and home.”

The author continues:

“We wonder sometimes if the Bloody-tongue were not better than his reputation, for he lived there many years and there was never a single case known of man, woman or child who got a bite from his teeth, or a scratch from his claws.  Now he is gone, nobody knows whither, though there have been rumours that he has been seen wandering disconsolately along Egypt Road, whimpering quietly to himself, creeping into the shadows when a human being approached, and, when a lantern was flashed on him, giving one sad, reproachful glance from his red eyes before he vanished from sight.”

In Redbrook, Gwent, Wales, at Swan Pool after the crying of a baby and then the appearance of a women holding a baby, a large black dog appears circles the pool and heads off a to kiln.  In the Highlands a pool containing treasure is guarded by a hound with two heads and it is said to have haunted a man who drained the pool and discovered the treasure. He soon returned it! A moat near Diamor County Meath is said to contain a nine kegs of gold protected by a large black and white spotted dog. One could collect the gold if the dog was stabbed three times on the white spot.  Another white dog is found, described as the size of a bullock, at Bath Slough Burgh in Suffolk.

Water appears also to be a place of confinement. At Dean Combe waterfalls in Devon the ghost of local weaver was banished by a local vicar and when he turned into a great black dog was taken to a pool by the waterfall. Here it was told that it could only concern people once it had emptied all the water using a cracked shell! At Beetham a local vicar banished a spirit called Cappel which manifested itself as a dog into the river Bela in the 1820s. Equally one wonders if the account associated with St Eustace’s Well, Wye Kent has more significance:

‘swollen up as it were by dropsy’ came to a priest, whom upon seeing her urged her to go the spring. This she did and no sooner had the women drunk the holy water, she recovered but vomited forth a pair of black toads, growing into black dogs, then black asses! The woman surprised vented her anger against these manifestations and the priest intervened, sprinkling the holy water on ‘they flew up into the air and vanished, leaving no traces of their foulness.’

Tracking down a forgotten spa of Huntingdonshire – Somersham Spa

Huntingdonshire attempted a number of spas none really established itself beyond the region and have been largely forgotten, although Hail Weston came the closest. Somersham is a small market town which boasted such a locally well know mineral water which was enabled the town to be developed into a small spa. Local tradition suggests that the water was known and exploited by the Romans and that the medieval Bishops utilised it and brewed beer but I fear there is little to no evidence of this tradition and is purely wishful thinking.

The land were the springs lay was once covered by the Royal Forests of Henry II, III or Edward I, the first official note of these springs appears to have been at the end of the 17th Century. It was rediscovered under the patronage of Dr More, Bishop of Ely (which probably explains the confusion of its medieval use). By 1720, the Duke of Manchester, Lord Hinchingbrook, Dr Wake, Bishop of Lincoln, with all the principal residents in the county, joined in a subscription for erecting a house near the spring, which was fitted up with a bowling green, and other accommodations.

Healing or harming waters?

Even though giddiness, feeling sick and turning stools black were attributed to drinking the water, Cambridge Physicians continued to prescribe it to their patients. It soon attracted many people from the nearby villages and orders from across East Anglia, such as Norfolk and Lincolnshire. The water was bottled and drank not only medicinally but as a good table water mixed with wine. However, the popularity of the spa was short and after people began suffering from stone or gravel(or kidney stones as we would call them) after drinking the water and some died. As such a rumour spread around that it caused such diseases supported by some experts in the field! This spelt the end of the spa and the house fell into ruin and its materials removed.

The revival

However, there was a revival in 1750 by a Dr Daniel Peter Layard, who was physician to the Princess Dowager of Wales. Another subscription was raised, supported by a respectable list of subscribers which include various physicians and even the King and Queen. Concerned by its side effects, between 1751 to 1767 tests were conducted tried to discover why it occasionally had a detrimental effect. By 1758, a management committee of thirteen subscribers was established who set up rules. set of rules documented. The spa opened between 5.00am to 7.00am for the poor, and until 12.00 noon for everyone else. A notice posted up at the time says:

“The springs are open from seven in the morning till 10 at night, the following being the charges: Admission for using and drinking the waters per month……5 0, Non-scribers……..0 6, Talking any quantity away from the wells per quart…….0 6”

Dr Layard erected a bath house and proper accommodation near the spring and rules were set out for the use of the spa. In 1767 Dr Layard wrote an account of the waters:

However, Dr. Layard left soon after and by 1820 the site was little regarded and probably closed by 1840. For many years, only foundations remained, but this were ploughed up when a local farmer planted fruit trees.

The site rediscovered

According to Burn-Murdock, curator of the Norris Museum, St. Ives, their exact location is unknown. However, there is a site marked Spring (Chalybeate) on the appropriate O/S on Bathe Hill on the road to Somersham which would likely be the location of the spa and as it stated spring I was hopeful of some remains.

Upon visiting nothing can be seen at the site, presently the garden of a house on the hill. Upon visiting the house the owner was accommodating enough to point to a flower bed where he believed was the approximate location for the spring, although he had not seen any evidence. He was told this being the location from a previous owner. However it did not match that which is indicated on the OS map which was in a small orchard. We visited this and equally saw nothing but it was possible some scrub hid it. Perhaps another exploration is needed?

 

The ancient and healing wells of Cuffley and Northaw – St Claridge’s Well and the Griffin’s Hole

In part one we discussed the famed King’s Well in this second part we explore three possible sites which are possibly all one site notwithstanding the possibility that one is completely made up.

The most curious one to disentangle is St. Claridge’s  Well Our sole source is Charles Lamb more of which in  moment who claims it is described in the Black Book of St Albans although I could not find it there. In a letter to Charles Cowden Clark in 1828 he records that saint would entertain angels and hermits for the blessing of the water, who sat of mossy stones called Claridge Covers.

Who is St Claridge?

St. Claridge may have been another name for Sigur, who was a hermit who lived in Northaw Woods. Mrs Fox-Wilson in her 1927 Notes on Northaw and district in the East Hertfordshire Archaeological society journal records that the hermit built a cell  near a well of pure water in Berevenue forest. This is recorded in Gesta Abbotum  Mon Sci Albani 1 105 (1119-1149), dating it around the 12th Century. There is accordingly, a tomb in St. Alban’s Abbey which reads: “Vir Domini verus jacet hic  hermeita Regerus et sub eo clarus meritus hermita Sigarus.”

Where was the well?

The exact location of the above is not clear, it is hinted to the south east of the  church by Lamb but if he was travelling from Buntingford, it would appear to be the  same as Griffin’s Hole which lays in Well Wood, a small private part  of the Great Wood. A footpath from Well Road leads directly to the well and  nowhere else, which suggests a great past importance for the site being the main  supply for the village. This path appeared to have been recently re-opened, and the  well itself has been repaired. The site consists of a roughly square pool of muddy  water with an edging of old red bricks, possibly Tudor. A fence of rhododendrons has  been erected around the site to prevent people falling in, but it does not deflect from  the mysteriousness of the site: which is very odd and eerie. Today a metal frame is placed over it which makes it less evocative I would say. However, is it the St Claridge’s Well of Lamb?

Griffin's Hole

The letter Charles Lamb wrote may help  locate it as he appears to have encountered the well on a four hour walk to “the  willow and lavender plantations to the south-east of Northaw Church.” However, this  is confusing as it would appear to suggest that the well is to the south-east but that  depends on where he was travelling from! He is known to have visited Buntingford.  He refers to Claridge’s covers:

“Clumps of the finest moss rising hillock fashion, I  counted to the number of two hundred and sixty…not a sweeter spot is in ten counties  around”.

Some authors suggest that the name is some sort of joke, this note withstanding, Fox Wilson states that this site was called John’s Hole, and that in the  1920s requests were still made to the landowner for the water as it cured rheumatism.

Unfortunately I have been  unable to find out why the site is called the Griffin’s Hole (one assumes it is a  personal name) or whether it is indeed The Hermit’s Well, John’s Hole or St.  Claridge’s Well in the 10 years on since publication.  However I do feel that this is at least the John’s Hole site if not St. Claridge’s Well

 

Mysterious creatures of springs and wells – the Griffin of Griffy’s Well

Griffy’s Well can be found signposted along the Bottom road in the small settlement of Griffydam. A natural spring which arises from the sandstone and is enclosed in a stone chamber. The earliest reference appears to be Edward Gibbon’s revised 1722 edition of William Camden’s Britannia:-

In this Parish of Cole-Overton (became Coleorton) is a noted mineral water call’d Griffy-dam. (as others also have been lately discover’d in this County, at Dunton and Cadeby.)”

Thus suggesting that the site was being exploited as a mineral spring although it was more likely to have been a domestic water supply. The Post Office Directory of Leics & Rutland 1855 states that:

“Griffy Well at Griffydam is worthy of some attention”.

The London General Gazetteer of 1825 makes mention of Griffydam mineral waters. In the “Beauties of England 1791 by Philip Luckombe he states that:

near the town of Ashby de la Zouch is a noted mineral water called Griffydam”.

​However, the well’s main notoriety is to do with its association with a legendary creature – a griffin, a beast with the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion. An account is given in Leicestershire legends retold by Black Annis

“The story goes that an old well at the side of the road got taken over by a griffin – a mythical beastie with the bottom half of a lion and the top half of an eagle. The villagers were a bit put out because this meant they had to walk two miles to the next village to get water. Anyway, one day a knight comes by and asks for water for himself and his horse. When he hears the problem he obligingly went along and put an arrow straight through the beastie’s neck – though don’t ask me why the villages couldn’t have done this themselves anyway, suppose it just makes a slightly better tale.”

As a result the well was restored to the villagers. It is unclear what reward the knight received however! The earliest account would appear to be Eric Swift’s 1954 Folk Tales of the East Midlands and perhaps as such could the author made it up? The above author stating that:

“Seems quite likely someone’s imagination ran away with them and thought the name Griffydam had something to do with griffins, which it doesn’t, it’s a corruption of “Griffiths’ Dam”, though no one seem to know who Mr Griffiths was.”

However,  Roy Palmer in his 1985 Folklore of Leicestershire and Rutland states that nearby Breedon church has a column with a griffin carved on it and I was said that that the skin was hung in the church and that every bride passed beneath it on their wedding day. This tradition perhaps suggests a greater age to the tradition and significance. Does it record some pagan tradition?

The ancient and healing wells of Cuffley and Northaw part one – The King’s Well

The most noted of these was the King’s Well. This was an early minor  spa, which was associated at first with James I, who took its waters whilst at Theobald’s Palace. It is said that he had made a number of visits to take the waters from there and became to popularise it.

However, it was granted royal name from Charles II in 1660.  Scots pines were planted at the site in the King’s honour.  It is believed that many wealthy gout sufferers built themselves mansions along Cooper’s Lane such as the 1668 Northaw Place and this resulted in Cuffley’s development. The well continued to be popular but perhaps not fully developed for the next three hundred years. It is recorded that by 1850 however, the well had long fallen into disuse

Certainly by the time of Septimus Sutherland’s 1915 Old London’s Spas, Baths and Wells  work:

“The spring was situated in the valley at Lower Cuffley, on the way to Cheshunt, but cannot now be easily traced.”

A few details are recorded of its structure. Stanley Foord in his 1910 Springs, Streams, and Spas of London notes of  “The low wall” and there is record of marble fountain head  was erected there. Foord continues to say of the low wall.

“which enclosed it has long since gone, and the spring itself, by subsoil draining around it, can now with difficulty be traced.”

I did think that this marble structure may still exist buried at the locale, but sadly, but back in the 1990s a field walk to this remote location revealed nothing. However, it is possible that the site I was surveying and that marked on the maps until 1951 was not the correct site. This is emphasised by a brief note by Brian Warren in the Potters Bar and district historical society newsletter of September 2001 who explored the facts behind its location. He stated that:

“The key map, included with the 1807 Northaw Enclosure Award indicated there were two wells, the first was ‘The King’s Well’ near the brick kilns on “Northaw Common. Secondly the Warren Allotment contained the medicinal spring called Northaw Wells. The ma sbpwed the Northaw wells to be north-east of the brickfield. However, the Drury and Andrews map of Hertfordshre 1766 and a map of Northaw common by Thomas Baskerfield c1700 showed the medical waters to be due east of the brickfields From this evidence one can see that the Ordnance survey had marked the Northaw Wells as the King’s well. Further evidence to support this conclusion is to be found in Mr Binyon’s Notebook (mid 19th century) where he noted the King’s Well ‘in a bottom’ (cf Carbone Bottom, Home wood), the ordnance survey’s position was halfway up a hill.”

This suggests that the site marked on the OS map is erroneous. It does mark a mineral spring the Northaw one. This I missed in my original gazetteer but in my defence so does Foord and Sutherland who  call it Northaw Water and Northaw Spring. However it is mentioned in the Comprehensive gazetteer of England and Wales of 1894-5 as Northall which states:

“Mineral spring is at Cuffley, and another mineral spring was on Northaw Common, now enclosed, but has been choked up.”

Sadly although one could hope that a misplacement may result in some relics of the King’s Well surviving. Gerald Millington in his 1975 Cuffley with Northaw suggests that:

“a comparison with the modern ordnance survey map places the well in the ground of the present day pumping station.”

A very likely location of course, which is nearer to Well’s Farm and sadly one which would have obliterated any remains.

Of the wells curative properties, Dr. Monro in his 1770 Treatise on Mineral Waters speaks of analyses made by Dr. Rutty at Dublin of this and of the Barnet spring. He notes that there was not much difference between them but the latter was the stronger tasted of the two ; neither of them were very powerful. A list of cures has noted survived but it is suggested that gout could be eased by drinking it.

Its water was said to be a saline chalybeate which is surprising if it has been used as a mains water supply. Older residents (in the 1950s)  remember that it was poor for making tea. For when the hot water was added the clear water became inky. This was due to the iron in the water reacting with the  tannin.  Foord (1910) states that:

“The Northaw water must have contained a considerable quantity of iron, as a favourite diversion of the inhabitants was to induce strangers to make tea with it. Though perfectly colourless, as soon as the boiling water was poured on the tea the iron combined with the tannin, and formed a kind of ink — as much to the astonishment of the tea-makers as to the delight of the practical jokers.”

Its unfortunate that no relic of this site or rather sites survive. One wonders what happened to that marble fountain head!

Mysterious creatures of wells and springs – Mermaids of the Peak District

Mermaids are traditionally thought of as a marine phenomena but there are a number of freshwater accounts such as that noted in Herefordshire, three in Suffolk (Bury St Edmunds, Rendelsham, Fornham All Saints) and another in Gloucestershire at Timsbury. The peak district probably because of its remote and desolate landscape claims two!

The first is associated with the Black or Blake Mere a small pond of irregular shape, lying in a little hollow on the summit of the high hill of Morridge, about three and a half miles. from Leek in Staffordshire. The pond appears to have a reputation of being haunted. In the pages of The Reliquary, Camden quoting Nicham, says it is:

“A lake that with prophetic noise doth roar; Where beasts can ne’er be made to venture o’er— By hounds, or men, or fleeter death pursued, They’ll not plunge in, but shun the hated flood.”

Robert Plot in his 1689 Natural History of Staffordshire notes that:

“no Cattle will drink of it, no bird light on it, or fly over it; all which are as false as that it is bottomless; it being found upon admeasurement, scarce four yards in the deepest place; my horse also drinking, when I was there, as freely of it as ever I saw him in any other place; and the Fowls are so far from declining to fly over it, that I spoke with several that had seen Geese upon it; so that I take this to be as good as the rest, notwithstanding the vulgar disrepute it lies under.”

Neither account mentions a mermaid and it is unclear when this creature is first applied to the site. One of the first accounts perhaps is Charlotte S. Burne 1896 notes in her “What Folkore is, and how it is to be collected” in the North Staffordshire Naturalists’ Field Club, Annual Report and Transactions. Two origins for the existence of this mermaid are given. One account states that she was a women ,who during a stormy night was drowned there by her lover after he discovered she was pregnant with his child. Another story suggests that she was a witch and was drowned by the local people. It is said that as she drowned she cursed the person who accused her and days later he was found clawed to death in the pool.  Local people state that she can be seen combing her hair and enticing people to their death. She is also said to have warned locals who were draining the lake to check its depth by threatening to flood the local town of Leek – they subsequently stopped!

Mermaid's Pool - geograph.org.uk - 247324.jpg by Dave Dunford

Mermaid’s Pool – geograph.org.uk – by Dave Dunford

Perhaps the more famous of the Peak’s merfolk is found in The Mermaid’s Pool a mysterious pool at the foot of  Kinder Scout, a strange site which appears to be a relic of pre-Christian water worship particular  as the water is said to have healing qualities. Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary lore of holy wells notes:

“There is a local tradition that a beautiful nymph ….who comes to bathe daily in the Mermaid’s  Pool, and that the man who has the good fortune to see her whilst bathing will become immortal.”

It is likely that Hope is sourcing Henry Kirke’s 1869 article “The Mermaid’s Pool” in The Reliquary notes:

“At Old Oak Wood, near Hayfield, Derbyshire, is the Mermaid’s Pool, where a beautiful woman is said to enter the water every day, and whoever has the good luck to see her will become immortal and will never die.”

Hope records a tradition of someone who had seen the mermaid thus:

“The old folk of Hayfield, moreover, have a long story of a man who, sometime in the last  century, went from Hayfield over the Scout, and was lucky enough to meet this mountain  nymph, by whom he was conducted to a cavern hard by. Tradition adds that she was pleased  with this humble mortal, and that he lingered there for some time, when she conferred on him  the precious gift of immortality.” 

The best time to find visit the Mermaid’s Pool is midnight on Easter eve when she could favour  you with your wishes, but if she did not favour you she will drag you to your death!

It is possible of course that local production of methane gases produced willo-the-wisps which were seen as the mermaid but that would ruin a good story would it not? Or perhaps you might argue that someone caught the said mermaid and put it in Buxton museum! – go along and have a look!