The patron saint of shepherds is saint with a strong association with February, the 3rd being his feast day. He was much celebrated in sheep areas such as Kent and this was by virtue of his gruesome martyrdom involving iron combs, which resemble a sheep shearer’s combs. Bromley, itself, has had a long association for popular lore suggests that the Parish church was also once dedicated to him. The earliest known connection between the two was during the reign of Henry VI, with St. Blaise’s Day fairs. It was also a common practice for local blasphemers to give homage to the saint’s image at Bromley. One recorded example is by a Thomas Ferby, who in 1456, promoted a clandestine marriage in St. Paul’s Cray Church. He was excommunicated for this act, and had to present a wax taper of a pound weight at the image here.
In the town he surprisingly had a well, one of the few dedicated to him, St. Blaise’s Well (TQ 408 692). Hasted (1797-1801) notes:
“There is a well, in the Bishop’s garden, called St. Blaize’s Well, which, having great resort to it anciently, on account of its medicinal virtues, had an oratory attached dedicated to the saint. It was particularly frequented at Whitsuntide on account of forty days enjoined penance, to such as would visit this chapel, and offer up their orisons in it, and the three holy days of Pentecost. This oratory falling to ruin at the Reformation, the well too, came to be disused, and the site of both in process of time became totally forgotten.”
Hasted (1797-1801) continues to record a discovery in 1754, by a Rev. Harwood, at the Bishops Garden near the old palace ponds, of a chalybeate spring. This is believed by most authorities as the rediscovery of the well. Its discovery and qualities was detailed by the surgeon Thomas Reynolds:
“It was discovered in September 1754, by the Rev Mr. Harward, his Lordship’s domestic Chaplain, by means of yellow ochery sediment remaining in the track of a small current leading from the spring to the corner to the moat, with the waters of which it used to mix. It is very probable that this spring was formerly frequented, for in digging about it there were the remains of steps leading down to it made of oak plank, which appeared as if they had lain underground a great many years.
When his Lordship was acquainted that the Water of this spring had been examined and found to be a good Chalybeate, he, with great humanity, immediately ordered it to be secured from the mixture of other waters, by skilful workman, and enclosed in a circular brick work (stone work) like the top of a well; in hopes that it might be beneficial, as a medicine, to such as should think fit to drink it. This order was speedily and effectually executed, and the Water not only secured but the access to it made very commodious to the Public, by the generous care, and under the inspection of Mr. Wilcox his Lordship’s Son. And their benevolent intentions have already been answered with success: for great numbers of people, of all conditions, but chiefly middling and poorer sort, drink daily of this excellent Water, many of whom have been remarkably relieved from various infirmities and diseases, which were not afflicting but dangerous.”
Hasted (1797-1801), gives the discovery of the wooden steps as evidence that this is St. Blaise’s Well. Whatever its origin, the waters were apparently good enough as to encourage Reynolds to retire in the Bromley neighbourhood, to take its waters, rather than return to his earlier resort, Tunbridge Wells. A latter description by Hone (1827-8) refers to the well as the ‘Bishop’s Well’, describing it as a trickling through an orifice, at the moat or lake’s side. A contemporary sketch shows it covered with a conical thatched roof, supported by six pillars, with water arising in a circular basin, this is also shown in a photo in Horsburgh (1939). Sadly, in 1887, a snowstorm resulted in the roofs destruction and the then owner Mr. Coles Child replaced it with a tiled one in the early 1900s. By the 1930s, its flow was lost.
Although, commonly accepted that the chalybeate spring and St. Blaise’s Well, are one and the same, there is some element of doubt. For in the late 1800s, these doubts were fostered by correspondence in the Bromley Record, which stated that nothing in the history books could be found to suggest that they were the same. A site at the ‘end of a large upper pond now drained off, in springy ground, not far south of the huge oak tree blown down about three years since in a paddock in the front of the palace’ was favoured. At this site about four courses of circular brickwork could be seen. Indeed, Wilson (1797), a local historian believed that it: “.. was 200 yards NW of the mineral spring in a field near the road with eight oak trees in a cluster, on an elevated spot of the ground adjoining.”
Latter Dunkin (1815), quoting this work stated that this structure: “..appears to have been originally designed to supply the adjoining moat.” Horsburgh visited the ‘brick reservoir’, in 1916, and found it was below the present ground level, roofless, and dry. It measured ten feet long, four feet wide, with a depth of eight to nine feet. The plan was rectangular, and although the upper part of the brickwork was of no considerable age, those below looked older, and perhaps were covered with moss. Coles Child pointed out that one outlet was in communication with springs, and the water flowed through a pipe into the uppermost of the three ponds to the north within palace ground. This lay in a direct line between the moat and Widmore Road, the uppermost being filled in before he acquired tenancy, and by then only a depression marked its site. He had filled in the remaining two. These ponds were believed to be paradise ponds, corresponding to four fish ponds referred to in a 1646 Parliamentary Survey of Bromley Palace.
Whether this other site was the real St. Blaise’s Well is difficult to say; especially considering that it has now has been lost. Perhaps, if archaeological evidence on the location of the oratory could be found, this would shed light on the exact site. Popular opinion states that the chalybeate spring and holy well, are one and the same, and that the other site is just a conduit and of no significance. It is worth noting the unusual small building that now sits by the old entrance to the Palace grounds. Cox (1905) describes this as a chapel built in the Eighteenth Century. This hollow building with a Romanesque-Norman archway and a shield showing the St. Blaise is an estate folly, fashioned after interest in St. Blaise’s Well. Today, this building stands rather forlornly beside the entrance to the sprawling municipal council offices. These have swallowed up nearly all the old Palace Grounds. Sadly only the fabric of St. Blaise’s Well remains, a large round red brick structure, in the centre of which is a pipe, through which presently pool water is being recycled. Beside which a sign noting its brief history. It’s a sad end, but at least something is there to remember it.
Take from forthcoming Holy wells and healing springs of Kent
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 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!