A holy well reborn or a new holy wells for the 21st century? Eastbourne’s Holy Well
For many years, the only evidence of Eastbourne’s claim in sacred spring history was the area named Holywell, favourite of the retiree. However, since 20 the town has some real tangible evidence for a holy well, although whether the spring is the original holy well is open to debate.
The first record of a settlements called Holywelle dates from 1316 and by the 15th century the name Haliwell, Hallywell is recorded. Yet the first reference to a spring is by James Royer (1787) East-Bourne, being a descriptive account of that village who reports that:
“one of the springs is called Holy-well, supposed to be so named from the many advantages received from drinking those waters”.
In in the anonymous 1861 book Eastbourne as a Resort for Invalides [sic] it notes:
“At Holywell there is a chalybeate spring, the curative properties of which have given the name of the Holy Well. However, a subsequent analysis of the water demonstrated that it had no particular ‘curative properties”.
A location has been suggested by historians by associating it with the Chapel of St Gregory once near the South Cliff Tower in Bolsover Road, however it is thought that this was too far from the current area so called. Thomas Horsfield (1835) History of Sussex noted:
“the chalybeate springs at Holywell, a short distance west of the Sea House, are highly worth the attention of the visitor. The quality of the water is said intimately to resemble the far-famed springs at Clifton”.
George Chambers A Handbook of Sussex (1862) records that:
“they have however been analysed, at the instance of the present vicar, and found to consist of simple but very fine surface water.”
The well was apparently rediscovered in 2009 as a spring arising at the foot of the chalk cliff. A wooden sign has now been affixed as well as a cup and chain. Akyildiz (2011) notes in Landscape and Arts Network Articles – The rediscovery of a Fresh Water Spring beside the sea: a local holy well?
“The low stone wall built by Dan and fellow helpers, Pat and Shaun, is both a built physical structure designed to protect the site and a creative act of care. All these three have a passion for the well and provide their labour for free; they say “We feel we are doing a job of worth at the spring and that we are helping people access an alternate source local freshwater…the Holywell spring is such a peaceful place to be, and we have made many new friends here.” The low wall of large stones gathered from around the site protects the spring – and its vital source: the spring water.”
He also notes that a local Catholic church has blessed this site twice and on each occasion has attracted a gathering of nearly 50-70 people and in 2014 there was an evening concert at the well with a New Age flavour, so it is good to see this local spring being embraced by its local community, whether is the titular spring is unclear however.
A Royal visit – Queen Elizabeth’s Well at Rye
As this April, we mark 90 years old Elizabeth II, I thought it is worth looking at a well associated with her famed same named ancestor, Queen Elizabeth I. She as we have seen has been associated with quite a number of wells and springs, so many to suggest that perhaps a cult was developed to capitalise on her. One of the most interesting is situated in a private garden of a house in Rye. Called the Queen’s Well or Queen Elizabeth’s Well it was one of the principal source of water for the extensive conduits of the town. It arises at the base of grey stone walling in a semi-circular hole. A keystone over well reads:
The origin of the name is said to have derived from the Queen’s visit in 1573 when she met Thomas Walsingham and the Jurats of the town. The story is recorded by William Holloway (1847) The History and Antiquities, of the Ancient, Town and Port of Rye, In The County of Sussex, Incidental Notices of the Cinque Ports, Compiled from Manuscripts and Original Authorities in his who records:
“in a northerly direction, beneath a high bank, once a wild and sequestered spot, and still overshadowed by some ancient oaks, rises a perennial spring of clear and sweet water, honoured with the high and royal appellation of ‘Queen Elizabeth’s Well,’ from the circumstance of her Majesty, in one of her progresses through the kingdom, having visited Rye, when she halted at this spot, either to drink of the water which flowed from this spring, or for the purpose of receiving the corporation of the town, when the mayor and jurats went in procession out of the town to receive her, clad in scarlet robes.
Whereupon the queen, as Jeake says, “from the noble entertainment she had, accompanied with the testimonies of love and loyalty, duty and reverence she received from the people, was pleased to call it ‘Rye Royal.’”
Adam’s. 1925 London noted that:
“The event was not recorded until 1588, when two stones were placed over the head of the spring, bearing the following inscription : “1588E.R.” (signifying Elizabeth Regina) ; and ” M. Gaymer, Maior” (Michael Gaymer, who was Mayor when the stones were put up). There is a traditionary report that the members of the Corporation went out of the town in procession, clad in scarlet robes, to-‘ receive and welcome Her Majesty, she probably halting for this purpose at the spring above mentioned, afterwards entering the town by the Postern Gate, which then faced the road leading to this spot.”
Interestingly Holloway (1847) notes:
“But though the year is thus distinctly inscribed on this stone as being 1588, yet Jeake sets down the date of the queen’s coming to Rye in 1573. How these dates are to be reconciled I know not, unless we conclude, which seems to be the case, that her Majesty came to Rye in 1573, while the event was not recorded until 1588.”
Lost traditions of the well?
Deacon (1911) in his Ancient Rye raises some interesting points. Why did Elizabeth process from the well? Was it recording a tradition that the Jurats of the town knew of?
Furthermore, the 1588 dedication is interesting. Why did it take so long from her 1564 visit till then to name the well? The answer is easier probably because in the euphoria of the Armada celebration many sites were probably dedicated to the Queen as a mark of solidarity.
It is interesting to note that the house, Mountsfield, beside the well was built upon land donated by Elizabeth and the owners allowed local people to use the land for festivals and I wonder whether this is significant. A point I will refer to in a moment. Lost healing well?
Another name for the well is Dodeswell, which derives from O.E dowde for a ‘plain woman, a scold or shrew’, presumably describing the women who gathered there! Moreover were these women local white witches one wonders who knew the powers of the well? In L. A. Vidler’s 1934 book ‘A New History of Rye’ states that the alternative name for the well was ‘Blekewell’ rather than ‘Brekewell’, so it probably does not refer to the bricked nature of the well, but from O.E bleke, referring to the ‘blay’ a freshwater fish. Alternatively it may refer to bleak meaning in medieval times pale or sickly, rather than its common usage today. Does this suggest the well was curative? Another piece of potential evidence is recorded in 1762, when an acre of Brickwell field was leased to for the building of an isolation house for smallpox victims. Is this still coincidence? Did Elizabeth stop because she knew of the healing waters? Another rather more prosaic alternative origin is from a local landower, there was a Thomas Blekewelle living in the town in 1459. Whether it was a holy well is unclear, it appears to have soon fallen out of domestic use in the 1800s as Holloway (1847) notes that:
“Queen Elizabeth’s Well is about four hundred and eighty yards from the foot of Conduit hill, where the Postern gate formerly stood. The well was always visible from the road which passes by it till the year 1843, when a wall was erected which excluded it from the public view.”
Deacon (1911) notes that in 1858, Mr Curteis, owner of Grove Cottage, where the well lies was asked by the Borough Treasurer to deposit a keys so that the public could see the well. I am not sure that such an arrangement exists today but I was lucky to find the owner in when I called and the well was in full flow overfilling the small semi-circular dip hole filling a small pool and then into a round brick built conduit house. Comparing with early photos the well has changed a bit. The wall remains the same, although the plaques may have moved, it is the square hatch at the basin covered by a wooden lid, which has markedly has gone, being filled with stonework to match the wall. This access appears to have been replaced by the dip well which does not appear to exist in the early photos. I have been unable to find out when it was done.
I am sure there is much to be learnt about this ancient Sussex well but holy, healing or just politically famous, the old Queen’s Well is at least a great memorial to a time of political and religious change.
Springs by the seaside…beside the sea
With the sun shining, many of us will head to the seaside to soak up the rays, do some rock-pooling and eat some ice-cream, however hundreds of years ago, when the sea was predominantly an industrial location and the therapeutic nature of sea bathing unknown, pilgrims would visit the sea-side to sample its sacred springs as they would elsewhere.
A classic example is recorded by Wallis (1769) in his Natural History of Northumberland, he tells us that:
“Among the sea-rocks, on the north side of the church at Newbiggen, is a sacred fresh-water spring, called St Mary’s well, over which the tide flows.”
Such an arrangement would mean that often springs would have greater powers because the high tide would mean they were available for less time. A similar spring being St. Agnes’s Well Humphrey Head (Cumbria) where at the foot of the limestone cliffs is the spring arising in a rectangular chamber. A similar well has already been discussed at St. Govan’s chapel, but sadly dry. In Wales, a location which cannot be bettered for grandeur can be found at St. Mary’s Well on the Lleyn Peninsula. Regularly covered by the tide with its salty water, the spring remains fresh at low tide. The natural spring was said to be the location pilgrims to Bardsey Island would stop. To get a cure it is said that a mouthful of water from the well would be needed as you would climb the cliff above to walk around the chapel above three times.
The most famous seaside spring is the most evocative, Holy Well in a sea cave Holywell Bay near Newquay (Cornwall). Many doubtlessly pass this sea cave on the way to the sea without a second thought. Many hundreds of years ago it is said that the bay was littered with crutches as evidence of those who had been cured there. Despite no sign of any obvious Christianisation, a legend is told of its creation. It is said that the cave was one of the places that the cortège carrying the body of St. Cuthbert rested here on their way to Iona. However, that sounds like a convenient story to cover and explain attendance at this most pagan of wells. The water trickles across multicoloured natural basins of limestone, in the dim light of a torch, the pinks and blues, provide a remarkable view of a peaceful refuge.
Not surprisingly, being a fluid environment, such spring can be lost to the erosive power of the sea. Such may have happened to that at Eastbourne (Sussex), first recorded in the 15th century. Described by Horsfield (1835), no exact location is given. It reports:
“the chalybeate springs at Holywell, a short distance west of the Sea House, are highly worth the attention of the visitor. The quality of the water is said intimately to resemble the far-famed springs at Clifton.”
Then in 2010 they were re-discovered, repaired and rededicated and cures are now reported…goes to show that some seafronts can provide all aspects, so if you are off with bucket and spade consider there may be a sacred spring somewhere to give a quench to the spirit and thirst perhaps.
Ancient wells and springs of Hastings
A visit to Hastings will reward those interested in ancient wells as the town preserves a number of perhaps lesser known sites, many of which still flow and produce large quantities of water. This is particularly true of the East Well, whose water can be sampled by a tap which produces its waters readily below a sign which reads ‘waste not want not!’ The water is enclosed in large conical conduit house sitting at the base of the East cliff railway at Rock a Nore. The East Well is situated next to the East Hill Lift and was built in the 1840’s with part of the money raised from a local fundraising campaign by Dr McCabe, more of him later.
Nearby but presently inaccessible is the spring found in the crypt of St Marys in the Castle, which confusingly is not in the castle grounds but below in the old town. This is a sizable white edifice. This is unusual in an Anglican church as it is a tank for baptism by immersion. It dates from 1928 and is fed by one of the five springs found emerging from the cliff-face when the church was built.
Hastings like neighbouring Brighton had pretensions to be a spa town and in Alexandra Park is the remnant of this attempt, which appears to have taken its name from the park and became a ‘holy well’ by virtue of its adoption, as it was called St Andrew’s Spa on the 1878 OS map. A building called Spa Grange may be evidence of a spa building utilising the spring. This spring is still extant and can be easily found and the flow is quite incredible pumping out iron rich orange water. The sign of which reads:
“chalybeate spring, originally in open farmland, Robert Marnock incorporated this feature into Alexandra Park in 1880. The underground spring supplies a steady flow of foul iron-rich water once drunk for its alleged health-giving properties.”
In 1881, Parsons (1881) in ‘Highlands of Hastings & St. Leonards as a Health Resort’, describes the spring as follows:
“It appears that the water is impregnated with iron, to an unusual extent, containing a larger amount than the waters of Tunbridge Wells, Scarborough, Whitby, Buxton or Bath. It also has the advantage of not causing constipation.”
A nearby well is called Dr. McCabe’s Well and percolates clearer water but very intermittently. The plaque reads:
“Peter McCabe, an Irish physician based in Wellington Square, was mayor of Hastings in 1838 and 1843. A committed campaigner for clean water- he constructed both this spring and the East Hill public well at the foot of the cliffs at Rock-a-nore.”
Despite an association with a local doctor does not appear to have been a medicinal spring, although it was was the most well known at the enclosure of the park perhaps because it was the most useful.
It seems likely that either of these spring was once the eponymous St Helen’s Well, which is arguably Hastings only holy well. This may be supported by a medieval settlement being located in the valley of the park perhaps. However, another site is claimed to be St. Helen’s and this is situated in the small area of park land behind the ruined church of the same name. Asking for the location of the site I was given a ‘it does exist…I think I know the site….but not telling you approach’ to helping. Despite this I did find what I would assume was the site, a mossy pool beside the lane.
The final site is perhaps the least well known but more rewarding and impressive. This is the Roman Bath, laying enclosed romantically in the wooded hillside below the Leisure centre on Bohemia road in what remains of the Summerfield estate. Despite what a leaflet distributed in Hastings in the early 20th century which offered 3d guided tours of what it claims was built in AD51 by King Caractus, it was certainly built by a Wastel Brisco who commishioned the building after obtaining the estate in 1831.
The building is made of sandstone and some cement with a retaining wall of about 12 feet in height. At either side were steps, although those of the left are better preserved. These led to a viewing platform over the bath. The bath itself is a rectangular 15 feet by 8 feet sandstone pool with four or three worn cement steps gaining access to its debris strewn but clear waters. The spring which feeds the pool arises in a grotto and once through a lion’s head, now stolen into the pool. A Romanesque archway with colonettes covers this springhead which once had a lion’s head keystone and this is the most impressive of the remaining features. Early depictions show a circular structure with an arched entrance which may have been a changing room if the bath was of course used, or alternatively covered another spring as there is possible evidence of this where this was located. There does not appear to be any evidence of stone work from this structure, which indicates a degree of more organised vandalism of the site perhaps. The run off channel which carried the water to the stream below is exposed although early photos show it stone lined.
Hasting’s Roman Bath is without doubt the most impressive of the town’s water supplies and deserves to be known better. It is pleasing to see that there is local interest in preserving it and hopefully the vandalism which has gone on will now cease.
High Hurstwood’s The Wishing Well and Rock Hermitage
Sussex is not well known for its holy or healing wells, although close research will reveal a number. There is one particular site, which because of its location is of great interest. Fortunately, thanks to the present owners, Mr and Mrs Carroll, it was my great pleasure recently to be allowed access to examine one of East Sussex’s strangest sites.
The Hermitage site has attracted considerable attention over the years, and became a ‘tourist attraction’ in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In an extremely obscure work, produced for a Cecil De M. Caulfield Pratt by one Charles Dawson (n.d.), The history of the Hermitage at Buxted, Sussex, a full account is given of its history, as well as a number of Edwardian-style pictures of the estate.
The caves are hewn from grey sandstone, lower Tunbridge Well Sands, indeed the type for which the pleasant spa town is most picturesquely famed. The extent of this sandstone is quite impressive, at 275 metres long, providing a long sharp vertical ridge to one side of the garden. The site has apparently a long history of habitation. Archaeological research by Jacobi and Tebutt (1981, pp.1-26) identified a Mesolithic site at the foot of the long outcrop, dating certainly from around five thousand years BC, and possibly even from the seventh millennium BC, making it one of the earliest sites in England. The site yielded a number of microliths, and it is theorised that it was used by male hunting parties (four thousand flints and two sandstone hearths were identified). At this time the area was presumably enclosed in the ancient Forest of Andred, which according to the Saxon Chronicle (Anon. 1993, p.114) covered much of Sussex.
The caves, probably partly natural, certainly carved, have attracted considerable interest. They appear to have been a minor tourist attraction in the eighteenth century. Certainly they attracted artists and antiquarians. There are two drawings of the site in Gough’s Topographical Collections (Gough 1795, unpaginated). These were made on May 28th 1785, and are pencil and wash.
One of these illustrations shows the ‘Rocks at Buxted, called ‘The Vineyard’. This was because a plantation of vines was established here. Apparently they thrived, as the site was naturally quite sheltered. However, according to Alexander (1996, p.2), it was established in 1824, by a Mr Lidbetter, who trailed the vines over Smuggler’s Rock.
The second is captioned, ‘Outside of the rock habitation of the Vineyard Rocks near Buxted, in Sussex, it is decidely of great antiquity. Traces of its having been a vineyard still remain.’ Other drawings of the site exist in the Burrell Collection at the British Museum. The site probably continued to attract visitors into the twentieth century. Indeed, an interesting source of information on the site is a small handwritten note, which was bizarrely found by an upholsterer in an old chair during its repair, and thoughtfully sent to the owner. One presumes it was written by a visitor to the site in the early twentieth century, and it makes some interesting points, which are not noted in other works.
However, an excellent description is given by Grenville Cook who wrote a considerable piece concerning this unusual hermitage:
‘It is uncertain when the partly artificial caves known locally as the hermitage were made or inhabited, but there can be little doubt but that they were the habitation of an anchorite or Hermit at some remote age. They now lie within the parish of High Hurstwood, but of course were then in the parish of Buxted. There are three principal rooms carved out of the rock, connected with each other by passages which were once secured by doors, having strong posts and cross bars, the mortices of which are still visible. The main rooms or caves were very large, one extending some twenty-four feet by eighteen feet, with a height of twelve feet. This was floored, the bearings of the joists being still plainly to be seen. A flight of steps gives access in one corner to a small cellar underneath: the fireplace, with a chimney cut through the solid rock… Another room measures twenty-seven feet by sixteen feet; and this has a pointed archway, over which is a niche for an image of a saint or crucifix.’
Of this the Reverend Edward Turner, former rector of Maresfield, writing in the Sussex Archaeological Collections states:
‘Within the memory of persons now living there is said to have been a cross about the centre of this cave, cut out in the rock opposite the entrance, by the side of which was a niche, designed doubtless for the reception of the image of some saint.’
The date of the caves is unclear. Grenville Cook (1960, p.16) suggests that the presence of the niche and pointed archway are signs that the Hermit who dwelt here may have lived later than the Norman times, since Norman arches were rounded, and the making of niches for images was not earlier so prevalent, especially in a Hermit’s ascetic dwelling. Furthermore, the presence of a fireplace is an interesting historical point, for such features were rarely rare in this period, and certainly missing from domestic architecture. This further indicates a late mediaeval date for the structure. Even so Grenville Cook notes that it ‘is considered to have been probably one of the first ever constructed at the side of an apartment’ (Grenville Cook 1960, p.16).
There are mixed views regarding the fate of the Hermit. According to the present owner, Mrs Carroll, local belief asserts (Mrs Carroll, pers. comm.) that he was removed from the site and buried in consecrated ground. However, according to Dawson (n.d., p.9), the remains of a person were found in a niche (given the date 1915 on the note). This was whilst building operations were being carried out to erect the modern house by a Mr E. W. Streeter, a former owner. The niche was cut into the sand at the top of the rock, and according to Pratt it was still visible (although I fear that it now has become rather more overgrown).
Alternatively the skeleton may be the remains of a plague victim as a Mr C. L. Prince, former surgeon at nearby Uckfield, notes:
‘Soon after the commencement of the present century (nineteenth), my father entered into the practice with Mr Fuller, of Uckfield, whose family, for at least three generations, had been resident medical practitioners there. The history of these caves had been handed down from one generation to another, and thence to my father; with the information that they had been used as a Pest House, into which many poor wretches were thrust who had become the victims of any infectious disease; and herein they were compelled to remain until they either died (which was too frequently the case), or recovered.’
(Prince 1896, p.265)
Indeed, it is suggested that this was the original function of the caves, and that perhaps the name ‘hermitage’ was a more romantic appellation. However, it would be unlikely that such a feat of work would have such a primary use, as a simple building often sufficed elsewhere.
Naturally too smugglers have been connected to the site, although there association is to a piece of rock on the sandstone ridge some distance from the hermitage. This is called ‘Smuggler’s Rock’, where it has been suggested contraband was hidden. There is no evidence for this and the name may be a result of some tourist fabrication. The cave, according to Jacobi and Tebutt (1981, p.1) was probably last used for malting or as a hop oast.
The house adjoining the cave is said to be ‘modern’, built in Edwardian times. It certainly has architectural features from this period, but I am of the view that rather than replacing one which completely burned down, it incorporated some of its remains. Certainly the roofs appear much older and Mrs Carroll informed me that it has old timbers. An Elizabethan date would appear suitable. However, little is known of any building on this site during this period. The caves were situated on land which was once part of Charity Farm at Buxted, which belonged to a Dr Saunders, (who founded the Grammar School there in 1718), but where his building was situated is unclear. Nevertheless this ‘modern’ house utilises the Hermitage, as a vestibule, well. One entrance to the house is reached through the caves, and the whole house is fitted snugly to the rock. A delightful octagonal room sits upon the caves’ roof and one presumes that its construction led to the skeleton’s discovery.
Of the well itself, very little is known. It lies at the end of the more formal part of the grounds, a far distance from the cave, and nearer the Mesolithic site. Very little appears to have been recorded about the well. Until I contacted her, the oddly-discovered note had been Mrs Carroll’s only indication that the site was of interest. It notes that the site was known as the ‘Wishing Well’, and that it was where the hermit baptised his converts. Its use as a baptismal site is not referred to by the only other source of information:
‘The well in the orchard in front (and north) of this cell. Half way down the orchard (also called the Vineyard) is the Wishing Well, ten feet in diameter…with steining of rough stone with a few blocks apparently worked, and a gap or opening on the east side, probably the former approach or “dipping place”’.
(Hope 1893, p.167)
The site is now considerably overgrown and lies in a small copse. Small saplings have encroached upon the edge of the well. Mrs Carroll now hopes to remove these. Worked stones can still be seen around the edge of the well, and she informed me that probing it revealed a stone bottom. Sadly, the contents are very murky and black.
The spring water formed a marshy stream which ran down into the paddock, forming four pools. The Carrolls filled in three of these to allow for better drainage, but the furthest one remains. Mrs Carroll expressed the opinion that it would be interesting to clean out the well, but said such an enterprise would be a fair way off!
However, in these days of rapid change it is pleasing to note that this most bizarre landscape remains for future generations. It must be stressed that The Hermitage and wishing well lie on private land, and uninvited guests are not welcomed. However, Mrs Carroll is proud of the estate she has acquired and hopes to open the site for future Garden Open Days.
Anon. (n.d.). Note in the private collection of the Carrolls.
Anon. (1993). The Saxon chronicle, AD 1 to AD 1154. (trans. by Rev. J. Ingram). London: Studio Editions. [orig. pub. 1823]
Alexander, R. (1996). A short history of Buxted. Tunbridge Wells: Opax.
Dawson, C. (n.d.). The history of the Hermitage at Buxted, Sussex, kindly written and compiled for Cecil De M. Caulfield Pratt, Esq. Privately published?
Gough, R. (1795). Topographical Collections. London: Payne.
Grenville Cook, A. (1960). A short history of the Parish of Buxted. Privately published.
Hope, C. (1893). The legendary lore of the holy wells of England. London: Elliot Stock.
Jacobi, R. M., and Tebbutt, C. F. (1981). ‘A late Mesolithic rock-shelter site at High Hurstwood, Sussex’. Sussex Archaeological Collections, 119, pp.1-36.
Prince, C. L. (1896). ‘Notes and Queries No.1’. Sussex Archaeological Collections, 40, p.265.
Turner, E. (1859). ‘Uckfield Past and Present’. Sussex Archaeological Collections, 12, pp.1-22.
Please note that the ‘hermitage’ and spring are on private property and are not open to the public.
Thanks to Mrs Carroll, the owner of the site, who also had in her possession a note on the site.
This site originally appeared on the disfunct Living Springs Journal Copyright Pixyledpublications
Top Ten Unusual Holy well locations
In my searches for holy wells, here are ten of the oddest places I have found them. If you know any odder ones let me know. I’ve hyperlinked to megalithic portal for most were a page exists. Note due to the locations some of these sites are on private land.
Under a church. Much is spoken of the Christianisation of pagan springs by siting churches over them but the evidence is not common, St Ethelbert’s Well in Marden Herefordshire is one such example, located in a room to the west end of the nave, existing as a circular hole in the carpet mounted by a wooden frame.
In a bridge, Bridge chapels are a rarity in England and so were bridge holy wells and as far as I can tell of those said to exist at Barking in Essex and possibly in Nottingham at Trent bridge, only Biddenham’s Holy Well still survives in an ancient bridge, probably dating from the 17th century its worn steps lead down to a chamber beneath the bridge, although access is hampered by a locked gate.
Under my kitchen. A visit in search of St John’s Well near Retford, Nottinghamshire reveals a subterranean rectangular stone lined chamber designed to be a plunge pool for body immersions beneath a trap door in a person’s kitchen. More can be learned here or in Holy wells and healing springs of Nottinghamshire.
In the shadow of the tower blocks. Urbanisation has a tendency to sweep away anything inconvenient and messy like an ancient well and have in conduited away in pipes or just filled in, luckily one of oldest of Derbyshire’s holy wells (or at least with one of the oldest provenances) survives in a juxtaposition between some older housing and some tower blocks. Vandalised over the years and currently protected by an unsightly metal cage it St. Alkmund’s Well, flows on at the point where his body is said to have rested on the way to his shrine (supposedly in the city museum)
On a golf course. Surprisingly, despite what you would think would be an inconvenience, a number of holy wells arise between the bunkers and fairways of the countries golf courses. In Kent we have St Augustine’s Well at Ebbsfleet, Oxfordshire’s Holy Well at Tadmarton, and Jesus’s well at Miniver, Cornwall. My favourite, although it may not be a holy well per se (deriving from O.E holh or hol) is Holwell on Newstead Golf Course, Nottinghamshire. A natural fern, moss and liverwort adorned cave whose sweet waters are still available via a cup attached to a metal chain.
In the grounds of a school. As long as they don’t fill them with paper aeroplanes and rubbers, wells can survive in school estates well. The best example is the Lady’s Well located within the Bedgebury School Estate, a large sandstone structure has been raised over the spring either to celebrate Our Lady, original landowner Vicountess Beresford or perhaps a past Bedgebury School Headmistress!
Amongst the rock pools on the beach. Although now dry, St Govan’s Well and its associated Chapel are undoubtedly the most atmospherically positioned of any of this list. A small stone well house covers the spring which has either dried or being filled up by too many pebbles.
In a cave. Perhaps the most atmospheric of holy wells is the Holy Well of Holy Well bay near Newquay Cornwall. A large sea cave reveals a magical multicoloured series of troughs made by a natural spring that has dripped its mineral load over the rocks and formed a perfect immersion set up. Its origins are linked to the resting of St. Cuthbert on his way to Durham. Crotches were left on the beach outside by healed pilgrims.
Under a holiday home and an old Courthouse – St Winifred’s Well Woolston is a delightfully picturesque black and white tudor courthouse now a holiday home sitting up top of the chambers of St Winifred’s Well. A site associated with the pilgrim route to her shrine in Shrewsbury and well at Holy Well in Flintshire.
Restored in a new housing estate. Developers of new estates are not always sympathetic to history perhaps and certainly not water history, but the designers of De Tany Court in St Alban’s took good advice and preserved the newly discovered St. Alban’s Well, lost for decades in the grounds of the nearby school’s playing fields, in their new housing estate and made it a garden feature.
The Holy Well, or St Cloud’s Well, at Longthorpe Peterborough
The following is copied and edited from an article on the defunct Living Spring website –
One of the country’s most interesting and yet little-known holy wells can be found incongruously situated behind a modern housing estate a few miles from Peterborough. The site consists of a natural spring which bubbles up through oolite limestone. Around this have been built three chambers of undressed stone, the whole of which is enclosed in an artificial mound on which trees and shrubs have encroached. It is one of my favourite holy wells, despite being much neglected.
Folklore and History
Much of the site’s folklore and history derives from a story entitled The Knight of the Red Cross, a story based in the twelfth century, in Richard I’s reign. There is some confusion about the place where this work is published. Thompson (1913, p.111) in his Peculiarities of water and wells states that it is contained within a work called Wild flowers gathered: original pieces in prose and rhyme, printed by J. S. Clarke, with no author or date; whereas Arrowsmith (n.d., p.20) states it comes from a similarly titled, A list of wild flowers found in the neighbourhood of Peterborough, by F. A. Paley. Arrowsmith further notes that the work is advertised on the back of the same author’s Notes on twenty Parish churches round Peterborough, published in 1859. Unfortunately, I have been unable to trace either of these to confirm which is the right source. How much the story is based on any ancient account is unclear. It may be ‘faction’ or fiction, a problem of course with many sites. The applicable parts are produced below as Thompson notes:
‘There is a beautiful spot, called Holywell, in the neighbourhood of Peterborough, well known, and much frequented by the inhabitants. the road lies through a pleasant park, where stands an ancient edifice belonging to the Fitzwilliam family, called Thorpe Hall… After passing the front of this mansion, turn to the left, by the stables and outer buildings will lead, through a white gate, to a small green field from whence this picturesque little spot is seen, with its ivy clad walls, and its dark cypress and yew trees, casting their gloomy shadows around. Passing some broken steps which form the entrance, a shady path conducts to a modern niche, supported by two pilasters, over a slab pavement to a stone basin about six feet in depth and thirty in circumference. This is constantly supplied with clear water, running from the mouth of a subterraneous passage which connects Holywell with the cathedral of Peterborough. An artificial mound of earth is thrown up above this cavity, which is covered with creepers, ground-ivy and a few wild flowers.
Contiguous to the basin are some small fish ponds, partially shaded by beautiful trees; and the green rushes which grow at their bank form undisturbed retreat in which the moor-hen builds her solitary nest. A little further on is a piece of an old pillar, which is gracefully overhung with a wreath of ivy… An old wall surrounding Holywell on two sides, in which traces of windows and doorways are still discernible, is the last feature we shall mention.’
These pools have been called ‘Monk’s Stew Ponds’ or ‘Paradise Ponds’, although Arrowsmith considers that the long distance from the Abbey makes it unlikely, as the Abbey was close to good fishing waters (Arrowsmith n.d., p.21). He continues, ‘The waters of this well were formerly in high repute, and were much frequented by those who came on pilgrimages’ (Arrowsmith n.d., p.19).
Its waters, according to Thompson (1913, p.115), are said to be slightly ferruginous, though he detected no sign of it, and nor did I. It was also thought to be efficacious for gout, rheumatism, skin diseases, and good for eyes.
It was believed that a Hermit, called St Cloud, lived at the site. Thompson (1913, p.112) continues, quoting J. S. Clarke, that he was ‘of great celebrity, whose pious councils and paternosters were generally in request amongst all pilgrims who visited the spot.’
Some authorities, such as Arrowsmith, have identified this hermit as St Botolph, who is said to have lived within a mile of his chapel during its construction on the Thorpe Avenue site. He is associated with other wells, such as that at Hadstock, Essex, so it is not impossible.
The well was enclosed in grounds belonging to St John family, an estate laid out in a style similar to the pleasure gardens of Vauxhall. Within these grounds was an 18th century summerhouse, which has now vanished. A distillery was established here by a Doctor Skirmshire, who lived at Longthorpe, for making ‘considerable quantities of lavender and peppermint, cultivated in adjacent fields..’ (Arrowsmith, n.d., unpaginated).
Sadly, there appear to be no ancient records which justify ascribing an ancient date to the Holy Well complex. Indeed, it would appear to be contemporary with the summerhouse. Perhaps it was built to provide a folly-hermitage to support the legend? It is said that the summerhouse was demolished in the mid-ninteenth century because of the disorderly proceedings undertaken in it by visitors from Peterborough! According to Thompson (1913, p.113), the dressed stone was used for the kitchen floor of the nearby Manor House.
Thompson gives a plan of the well along with an accurate description, which luckily does not differ from the sight which greets the visitor today (although there is now an ugly metal gate on the structure):
‘The subterranean chambers constitute a medley of design and structure; they are not caves, although now underground, but were apparently first built….
The walls and domed roofs consist of undressed stone. The passage from the pool runs in a direction of N 60 W, and is some six feet long. The entrance being two feet four inches wide by five feet high. The first chamber or antechamber is mostly to the left and nearly at right angles to the passage; it is approximately ten feet by eight feet. In this there is a window high up, evidently a more recent introduction, for the frame is of dressed stone, and the rough stone roof cuts across it, so that external appearance rather than internal use would appear to have been the dominating factor in its design. On the opposite wall of the window is a doorway, and at one time evidently a door, for one stone jamb of dressed stone is left. This doorway opens into the very irregular second or main chamber, roughly twenty feet long, by fifteen feet wide near the widest part. Immediately within the doorway is a well, with dressed stone curb, of three feet internal diameter, and exactly above, in the roof is another smaller circular opening lined with dressed stone as though arranged to draw water from the well from the mound above without going into the chamber, but this is not now open. The well is now choked with stones, but the water used to overflow from the well and run down the passage way to the pool outside, it now flows out oat a lower level leaving the passage way dry. Immediately on the right, after entering the large chamber is am opening leading to a third chamber, smaller, crudely oval, but an indescribable shape, approximately eight to nine feet one way by twelve feet another. One side of this is the opening, now blocked up, to a supposed underground passage to Peterboroug Cathedral, by which the monks of the Abbey of Burgh, it is said used to come to bathe in the pool….
To the left of this large chamber, on entering the latter, is a recess some fifteen feet wide and nine feet deep, with a floor consisting essentially of two steps, both apparently of ‘live’ rock, i.e. rock in situ; the upper step being the wider and more like a dais. There is a rather small opening high up on the outer wall of this recess, some five feet from the dais, and is about seventeen inches wide by twenty two feet high, but goes four feet or more in the thickness of the wall or mound without providing an external opening.’
(Thompson 1913, p.114)
The site’s greatest fame stems from the tunnel mentioned above by Thompson, which is said to run from the Holy Well to the Abbey at Peterborough (also described by Bord and Bord 1985, p.76). A blocked-up doorway in the third chamber is described as the entrance to this tunnel, although one can imagine that the nature of the whole edifice would lend to such a belief. Certainly records show that the Abbey was supplied by a conduit at the Infirmary end of the Chapel of St Lawrence. However, it is more likely that this took its waters from the St Leonard’s Well at Spital, whose water also filled the Boroughbury Pools and Swan’s Pool.
Yet records show that the Abbey was interested in the site. During Abbot Godfreys tenure, in 1130s the following document states:
‘Amos ejus viii inclusat porceum Burgi Sumptus iiij I lb: xv sol. Item feat fossutum salveunium inter Thorpe fen et le Dom Sumptus xx sol‘.
(Anon. 1904-1906, p.22)
This enclosure cost four pounds and fifteen shillings. Under Abbot Gyerge another document notes the extent of this land (Halywelle), of four acres, three rood and twenty pearches, which until the building of the estate remained the same (Anon. 1904-1906, p.22 ). Yet neither of these documents explicitly refers to the laying of a conduit.
The only possible justification for this belief came in November 6th 1964, when workmen, excavating to set up telephone kiosks beside the old Guildhall on Cathedral square, unearthed an underground passage. This continued for twenty five feet under church street, and ran parallel to land belonging to the Almoner’s Garden that was exchanged in the 1194-1200 agreement between the Abbot and the Vicar of Burgh and Longthorpe. Although the passage was only four feet six inches high, it was not impossible that it could have been a tunnel, especially considering the average height of mediaeval people. Unfortunately, the underground passage turned out to be some kind of eighteenth century fire precautions.
Comparing Thompson’s description and the photograph, one can note a few differences, the main one being that the site in general has become noticeably overgrown. The wall which appears to run along one side has become overgrown and derelict, the pool overgrown, and rubbish-strewn. Within the structure, the curbed well has gone and now one can see the water bubbling from the rock.
In 2010 I was asked to talk about the well from BBC Radio Cambridgeshire and detailed the history and folklore for their religious strand on sacred places.
Despite the construction of a housing estate, the old Holy Well remains to mystify and fascinate us. Ignore the rubbish and the ugly metal doorway, and you can imagine it being the site of great pilgrimage from olden days to the Victorians. Today, nearly forgotten and forlorn, it is an amazing surprise, especially if you seek the site without knowing what you expect to see!
Anon. (1904-06). Holywell. Fenland Notes and Queries, 6, pp.22-4.
Arrowsmith, A. L. (n.d.). Longthorpe and its environs: microcosm of a village. Privately published.
Bord, J. and C., (1985). Sacred waters. London: Granada.
Thompson, B. (1913) .The peculiarities of water and wells. Journal of Northants Natural History Society and Field Club, 18(135).