An abecedary of Sacred springs of the world: The ancient springs of Greece
“O for a beaker full of the warm South Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene, With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, And purple-stained mouth; That I might drink, and leave the world unseen, And with thee fade away into the forest dim”
John Keats Ode to a Nightingale
Sacred springs were an integral part of Greek Mythology. Perhaps the most famous were the springs said to have arisen on Mount Helicon. Here overlooking the Valley of the Muses was a spring formed by the hoof of the Horse Pegasus (a theme which has transferred to Ann Boleyn’s Well in Carshalton). It is said that he hit the rock with such force that the spring arose as a result. This was called Hippocrene or Horse’s fountain. Being associated with the muses, (those providing poetical inspiration) drinking its water was supposed to induce that poetic inspiration. The poet Hesiod in his work, Theogeny refers to the spring in the late 7th century BC:
|“From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing,
Who hold the great and holy mount of Helicon,
And dance on soft feet about the deep-blue spring
And the altar of the almighty son of Cronos, and,
When they have washed their tender bodies in Permessus
Or in the Horse’s Spring or Olmeius,
Make their fair, lovely dances upon highest Helicon
And move with vigorous feet.”
Callimachus in his 3rd century BC Aitia follows in Hesiod’s footsteps and in the work, Tiresias finds the spring and Athena bathing with it and is blinded as a result. However, as a compensation he gains the ability to prophesize.
The Hippocrene spring is identified as a spring which still flows on the mountainside arising in a stone hollow. Also on the mountain was the spring where Narcissisus looked upon his own beauty but its location appears to have been lost.
Perhaps the second most famed spring is that found at the sacred landscape of Delphi. It too was thought to provide poetic inspiration. The Roman saw this as the location where Apollo killed the Python who guarded over the spring. This was the Castalian Spring. Pausanias stated that its name was derived from a local lady called Castalia, a daughter of the river Achelous
Interesting the site may have been a sanctuary associated to a local hero who vanquished the Persions, called Autonous according to Greek writer Herodotus which may have been a precursor to its association with Apollo .
However its greatest importance was to provide preparation for those visiting the famed Delphic Oracle. Here the priests would cleanse themselves before invoking the oracle, sprinkling it over the temple, and pilgrims according to Euripides Ion would prepare according to their background. For many just a wash of their hair would be enough, but murderers would have to completely cleansed! Pausanias Guide to Greece stated that the water had a delicious taste!
The spring was said to have arisen from two rocks called the Pheriads becoming a stream called Papaddia and joining the river Pleistos below Delphi. In the grounds of the ruined Delphi the Greek and Roman fountains fed by the springs survive. Water is delivered by s small aqueduct to the Greek fountain emptying through lion-headed spouts into a marble-line basin, nine by three metres, surrounded by benches. It dates from the 6th Century BCE. Interestingly, the Roman fountain from the 1st BC is found higher up from the original spring. It has niches carved into the rocks for the giving of votive offerings and it is interesting that it was later converted into a church of St. John the Baptist. Water reached the fountain by an aqueduct and seven bronze spouts on the fountain.
Interestingly, it is claimed in the English translation of Pausanias’s Guide to Greece by Peter Levi that the water was still bottled and secretly supplied for its magical healing properties!
Hot springs can be found across Greece, historically one of the most famed was the Thermopylae, hot sulphur springs. These were thought to be the Hot Gates and as such the entrance to Hades. The site was first associated with the cult of Demeter but later Greek myths associate him with Heracles. Here it is said to have jumped in of wash of the poison from the Hydra which had attached to his cloak. This is why the spring became hot and sulphurous. The springs still arise but no structure exists around them.
In Southwestern Greece is the Kaiafas Thermal Spring which have unlike the above been developed into a spa town. Arising in a natural cave at the foot of Mount Laphithas, historically, here the Angrides, cave dwelling nymphs were found and people would pray at the waters hoping to be relieved of leprosy, which the nymphs could cure. The waters which have a temperature around 340C are rich in sulphur compounds and are thought to be good for musculosketal diseases. In 1907 a spa facility was established outside the mouth of the cave which still provides healing support today.
Greece is a country whose ancient wells continue to provide spiritual and physical healing into the modern age.
A pilgrimage to Walsingham’s holy well
Well which well is it?
This is without doubt the most famous site of all holy wells and indeed Christianity in the county, now the main well is perhaps a modern one (we’ll explore its provenance below).) but in the ruins of its famed Abbey are ‘Wishing Wells’ clearly holy wells, the more likely location of the 1061, vision of Mary by Richeldis de Faverches,, who built a replica of the Holy House where a spring arose. The site became a major pilgrimage centre and its waters were said to be good for curing headaches and stomach complaints. If these are the original site, after Reformation, they denigrated to mere wishing wells.
Howeverr, most attention quite rightly is directed to the well enclosed in the modern Anglican shrine. A site which now could be classed as one of the most active holy wells in the country, Our Lady’s Well. This is the central focus of modern veneration at Walsingham. Its history is difficult however. It was during the digging for a new shrine in the 1930s.The shrine needed a well and this was convenient Consequent excavations revealed did suggest that this well was Saxon and thus as near the site of the original Holy House thought to be the original shrine. However this is difficult to prove. Now enclosed in a modern shrine, above this well an effigy of Our Lady with infant Jesus, is placed in as a centre piece of this modern arched alcove. Local belief suggests that an underground conduit connects these wells to the Anglican well of Our Lady, their source.
Little Walsingham was once the greatest shrine in Europe, with commoners and kings all following the many pilgrim paths to the shrine of ‘Our Lady of Walsingham’. It had a sacred image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a phial of her milk, and many other spurious relics, not to mention the two miraculous wells in the priory garden.
In 1061 the Lady Richeldis de Faveraches, wife of a Norman lord of the manor, is said to have had a vision at Walsingham in which the Virgin Mary appeared to her, took her in spirit to the ‘Sancta Casa’ – the home of Christ in Nazareth – and commanded her to build in Norfolk an exact replica. Aided by angels, the shrine was built of wood and later encased in stone, the site being ordained by the welling up of two clear streams at the behest of Mary. Rumours began to spread that Mary herself had fled there before the threat of invasion, and then that the chapel was the Sancta Casa itself, transported there by angels.
A priory was built there in the early 12th century, which the scholar and theologian Desiderius Erasmus visited in 1511, writing in his ‘Colloquy on Pilgrimage’:
“Before the chapel is a shed, under which are two wells full to the brink; the water is wonderfully cold, and efficacious in curing pains in the head & stomach. They affirm that the spring suddenly burst from the earth at the command of the most holy Virgin”.
The wishing wells
These are circular wells and a square stone bath can be found near an isolated remnant of Norman archway in the priory ruins, in the grounds of a house called Walsingham Abbey. The wells are most noted nowadays for being wishing wells. If you remain totally silent within about 10 feet of the water, you should kneel first at one well, then at the other, and make a wish as you drink – but tell no-one what you wish for. Committing one error in the ritual is said to be fatal.
Another version mentions a stone between the wells on which one must kneel with their right knee bare, then put one hand in each well up to the wrist, and drink as much of the water as you can hold in your palms. Provided your wishes are never spoken aloud, they will be fulfilled within the year. On my visit I was keen to try it out…but found the wells covered by metal grills.
More on Norfolk’s holy wells in the forthcoming Holy Wells and healing springs of Norfolk coming in 2017.
The Trent Aegir: a sacred river and its god?
March is a time when the Trent Aegir is at its strongest with the High Spring tides with heights ranging from 8 feet to 13 feet. However in 2013, July and August have the highest predicted Aegir and much of its impact has been reduced by dredging. Brown’s (1874) Notes about Notts describes it as:
“Near the mouth of the Trent at spring-tides the influx of sea water causes that of the river to mount up into a tidal wave six or eight feet high which rolls on its onward course between the confined banks in a remarkable manner. Boatman call it the Eagre, and woe betide the craft that upon such occasion has not a man standing by to pay out a sufficient of cable.”
Firth’s (1915) Highways and Byways of Nottinghamshire notes:
“At Littleborough if you have good fortune, you may see the Aegir. This is the bore, or wall of water, which rushes up the Trent during the spring tides, followed by a series of waves known as the ‘Whelps’. It is caused by the tide moving up the Humber to the mouth of the Trent where they are met by the big volume of water coming down. A wall rises and flows rapidly up the river, sweeping round the bends with great speed and with a curious rippling sound. Sometimes the wall of water is six feet high, and it brings disaster to any boats which it catches unprepared. George Elliott speaks of the Aegir and the floods in the Mill on the Floss, for the Floss is the Trent.”
Swinnerton’s (1910) Nottinghamshire History notes:
“The influence of the spring tide is felt as far as Sutton, but for some miles above Stockwith it is shown as remarkable bore.”
Sadly although West and East Stockwith is still a good place to see it, weirs to the north of Newark and dredging beyond means that locations such as Littleborough are no longer good view points.
Origin of the name
Marsden’s Lincolnshire stated that it derived from a Norse god of the sea, Kaye in Lincolnshire and South Humberside, suggests that it took its name from ‘Oegir the Terrible’ a Danish god and significantly refers to St. Oggs in the Gainsborough area. It could itself also mean Og suggests it is the same as the sea-giant Hlér, who lives on the isle of href. Aegir is said to be the brother of Logi (fire), Kari (wind) and his wife a sea goddess”Rán”Their children were nine billow maidens who were Unnr (or Uðr, wave), Bára (or Dröfn, wave), Blóðughadda (bloody sea), Bylgja (large wave), Dúfa (the pitching wave), Hefring (the surging wave), Himinglæva (reflecting) Hrönn (the grasping wave) and Kólga (cold wave) doubtless waves which may have gone up the Trent.
A sacrifice to appease the god
The suggestion of an origin from a pre-Christian god, is indicated by the fact that sacrifices were given to the Aegir. This is recorded by Sutton in her Lincolnshire Calendar. Animal sacrifice was according to Sutton (1996) to be celebrated in the Gainsborough area within living memory:
“It was said that the river Trent was a greedy river and would take seven lives a year, so in March when many of the lambs were born a farmer would sacrifice to the river a cade or weak lamb. He believed that by his action a human life would be saved.”
Latter perhaps the giving of a coin was good enough:
“It was the custom to throw a coin into the Aegir to appease the anger of the flow. A number of people believed that the more money the less angry it became.”
From Gainsborough in the 1920s:
“When I was a boy it was the custom to throw a piece of silver into the Trent during the Aegir at the high spring tide and the autumn tide (the equinox). The piece of silver was a toll fee to prevent you from drowning in the Trent. I’ve done it a few time myself as a bot; the silver was a silver three-penny bit, or a tanner (6d). I was once out on the river in a cob-boat diring an Aegir and was lifted very high on the tidal wave. It was very scary at the time but being a kid I didn’t realise just how lucky I was to get away with it. The Aegir always dumped plenty of mud along the river bank and when the mud dried out it was like Fuller’s Earth, a kind of fine powder. It was custom for local mothers to gather this mud for babies’ nappy rash: it was very effective for a sore bottom.”
The Aegir and King Cnut
Another legend is that whilst Gainsborough castle, now covered by Gainsborough Old Hall, King Cnut annoyed by the flattery heaped upon by his courtiers asked to be carried down to the sea in his throne. It is thought that the Aegir was what he was trying to repel. He was of course unsuccessful, noting:
“Let all the world know that the power of monarchs is vain…no one deserves the name of King but He whose Will the Heavens, Earth and Sea obey.”
Other Trent traditions
It was at some point believed to be lucky to cross the river by boat and it conferred healing in some cases, this as may explain why the ferryman across the Trent received a very warm welcome at Clifton, where every Christmas he received a free meal and hospitality on the Parish. The family at North Clifton were famously said to be haunted by a great fish which appeared in the river as a harbinger of doom for one of its members. Notes on it suggest it was a considerable sized surgeon.
Similarly at a bend of the Trent at Owston Ferry was haunted by Jenny Hearn or Hurn or Jenny Yonde. This little creature was like a small man or woman, though it had a face of a seal with long hair. It travelled on the water in a large pie dish.
The Trent is still a mysterious and foreboding river, much of its route quiet and remote…that is until the sound of the tidal wave appears.
A Yorkshire field trip: Conisborough’s two holy wells!
A visit to Conisbrough, noted for its Norman castle should include a visitor to its holy wells. That is holy wells, as the town can claim two sites! Although according to the Conisborough website there appears to be a denial of this.
That which is called the Holywell or rather Holywell spring is found at the edge of Holywell road and the A630 Sheffield Road. It is a spring which appears to arise further up the hill in an area now covered in scrub and inaccessible. However, a very copious spring erupts at the base of the hill and as such has been the subject of various complaints. Despite this it remains and fills a large semi-circular pool surrounded by low walling. The spring was noted for its healthy waters and was used for brewing beer by Nicholsons Bros Brewery and one assumes some of the stone work dates from this. Little else is recorded of the site
Nearer the castle, and although dry it is more substantial is another site variously called the Town well or Well of St Francis. This is as Innocent (1914) describes it as:
“Covered by a curious little building very medieval-looking with ita chamfered plinth and steeply slanted roof”
Who the St Francis is, is unclear but Alport ( 1898) records the local tradition which states that he was a local holy man and probably not a true saint and it is interesting that a number of churches are dedicated to a St. Francis in Yorkshire. Interestingly, though the date of creation of the well is recorded and quite late compared to other local saints perhaps. It is said that in 1320 -1321 the village was suffering from a particularly terrible drought and this St. Francis, said to be an old and wise man was sought for his advice. He suggested that the local people cut a willow tree from Willow Vale and then as the people sang psalms and hymns he lead them through the church and priory grounds to the site of the well. At the spot St Francis then struck is and not only did a spring arise and followed for the next 582 years (for its sadly dry now) but the tree took root.
Sadly this tree has either died or was dug up but the well continued under the name of the Town well up until the early 1900s when mains water arrived. It is possible that the legend suggests the holy man may have been, in fact, Clark (1986) believes the story recalls a Pagan priest and that the legend was a legacy of Conisbrough’s pre-Christian past; certainly the reference to a willow indicates a water diviner.
The other area in Conisbrough where St Francis the older man is said to have done a similar ritual and found water is at a place called The Holy Well Spring of St Francis. In 2003 this holy well was restored by historian Bernard Pearson with the aid of Community service and a special service was held at St Peter’s church attended by the High Sheriff of South Yorkshire who than processed to the site, erroneously as it happens in a re-enactment that was associated with the town well. Indeed a plaque at the site makes this error clear.
Allport, C.H., (1898) History of Conisborough
Clark, S., (1986) The Holy well of Conisborough Source Old Series 5.
Innocent, C.F (1914-18) Conisborough and its castle Trans of Hunter Archeaology Society.
on the re-dedication of the well.
Birley Spa, Sheffield – a remarkable survival
The outside of the spa building. The left from the car-park, the right showing the two storeys
Back in September I re-visited the delightfully surprising Birley Spa. This is a rare spa building survival which was once in Derbyshire, but now firmly in the suburban edges of Sheffield.
An old origin?
Our first record is when it was established as seven baths by Earl Manners. However, it may have an ancient origin, the spring is located along Neolithic trade routes and indeed implements have been found in the vicinity. Some authorities have noted that there was a Roman bath here supported by the proximity to the Rykneid way. There is however no direct archaeological evidence to support this theory and it may have been spread around by the proprietors to support the quality of the water. A work by T. L. Platts (1976) contains much of the information and it is from this work I have taken most of the notes. The earliest establishment of the spa is thought to be in the early 1700s being built by a Quaker named Sutcliffe. The spa then consisted of a square stone building with a cold bath within with a bolt fixed on the inner side to ensure privacy. This structure appeared to exist until 1793 when the bath was ruined and filled with stones.
A spa reborn
In 1843, the Earl Manvers who owned the Manor developed this spa for a larger and more upmarket clientele. A Leeds chemist West analysed the waters stating that they were beneficial for those suffering from constipation. An administrative committee was appointed and even a Bath Charity was started so that poor people could benefit and take the waters.
A spa in decline
Unfortunately the baths did not make profit and by 1895 only one plunge bath remained; the Hotel apparently ceased to function as such about 1878. It is believed that Earl Manvers removed the marble from the warm bath for his own use. The site then went into a slow decline. In the 1920s and 30s a children’s pleasure ground was established but the grounds were closed in 1939, due to the prohibition of assemblies of crowds, introduced as a safety factor in case of air raids. The buildings and grounds were allowed to decay and become very dilapidated. Since the building of the Hackenthorpe Housing Estate in the 1950s Sheffield Corporation have become owners of the property.
The museum room (old warming room) and the coal room
A re-born again!
Fortunately unlike other sites, the bath house still exists, probably as a consequence of the first floor being used as community centre. The cold bath was derelict and rubbish strewn, but a splendid restoration has been undertaken. The bath house can be found in a small wooded dell in the housing estate. Despite predations by vandals on the house, the interior reveals an impressive oval stone lined cold bath with steps into the water either side. To the other side are a small collection of artefacts and the history of the site. There is also the store room where coal was stored for the warm bath which no longer exists.
Birley Spa is now open for special events and the first Saturday in the summer months; however it is best to check that the site is open as it is open by volunteers. It can be viewed from the outside when closed and can be reached off the A1635 take Occupation Lane then Birley Spa Lane on the left and once passing a school on the left there is a lane going into the woods on the left by a side, down here is the Spa. There is some parking.
Revised from Holy wells and healing springs of Derbyshire.
Copyright Pixyled publications
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
Essex holy wells and healing springs – an Overview
The following is taken from Holy wells and healing springs of Essex (This blog includes reference sites not included in the original text and will be described in a further volume of the works as an appendix)
In regards to healing springs, Essex has been better served, in regards the study of mineral waters and particularly notable surveys are Allen (1699/1710), and more recently Christy and Thresh (1910). Both have touched upon holy wells but this was certainly not in an exhaustive manner. Cowell (2000) updates much of this work but again only touches upon holy wells. This work attempts to catalogue and update these previous works, with the aim of providing the definitive accurate guide to both mineral spas, holy wells and water bodies with associated folklore in the county.
In approximate terms there are probably many thousands of holy wells across the country. Although there appear to be areas or counties with high concentrations, this is probably because the others have as yet been adequately studied. Only three works have attempted to give a countrywide survey of sites (Hope (1893), Bords (1985), Rattue (1995) and Bord (2008)). (and subsequently Harte (2008)) Perhaps an accurate survey of all sites would result in an average distribution across the country; topographical features allowing, which would show that all counties have a similar distribution.
Despite some attention for specific sites and counties, the holy well has been largely ignored by the historical and archaeological establishment, leaving the field open to antiquarians and enthusiasts. Consequently, much mythology has developed around them, and very few have been professionally excavated, particularly in East Anglia. Hence, a general lack in archaeological interest in such sites, claims for ancient origins is difficult to make.
I have adopted Francis Jones’s (1954) category system for wells. The main body of the text covers Class A (saint’s names, those named after God, Trinity, Easter etc), B (associated with chapels and churches), C ( those with healing traditions which in this case includes spas and mineral springs) and some E (miscellaneous with folklore) sites The second part includes a list of named ancient wells with explanatory notes (mostly Class D i.e. those named after secular persons but possibly also holy wells and E). Hopefully once the volumes are completed and using similar documents for other counties this fuller picture will be achieved.
There does not appear to be any holy wells which can claim this pre-Christian heritage via written record, although there are wells called Roman spring (Earl’s Colne), Chesterwell (castle well) (Great Horkesley) and Dengewell (Danishwell) (Great Oakley) and possibly Herwell (Army well) (Little Bardfield) and totwell (from O.E toot for meeting place or look out) (Birchanger), which suggest great age but there is no evidence of these being healing or holy. There is a Puck well (Waltham Holy Cross) recorded suggesting a site associated with O.E pwca for goblin. Records of ghosts, often used by folklorists to indicate either pagan or Christian traditions are scant in the county, with St. Oysth’s well (St Oysths) and Charlotte’s Well (Birchanger) being the only examples.
Certainly, compared to other counties per square mile, Essex is low on numbers of holy wells. Why is this? It seems likely that there may be many more sites but poorly recorded. Others may be recorded in names which do not suggest holy or healing immediately. There are for example many sites called hog well in the county, whose name may derive from halig Old English (O.E) for healing. However, other sites said to be holy wells, such as the number of Chadwells (9) in the county, reveal themselves to be more likely to be derived from Caldwell irrespective of local folklore. Most common are Lady well (9), followed by Holy wells (4), Cedd (2) (brother of Chad),and two named after God, although this could be derived from a personal name. All the other sites have one dedication(in some case one off dedications suggesting local cults (or loss of knowledge)): St. Edmund, St Thomas, St Anne, St Germain, and local saints St. Oysth and St. Botolph.
Taking only holy wells (and I have been generous to include some sites likely to be) Essex has a density of 0.3 wells per square mile. Taking into consideration all noted, healing and holy wells, this density becomes 0.6 of a well per square mile. This suggests that holy wells and healing springs are in low numbers across the county.
The reason for the low numbers of holy wells may be explained by the larger amount of mineral springs noted in the county. Across the country many of the old holy wells were re-discovered as mineral springs and established as spas. As noted Essex is fortunate for its mineral spring history is well recorded. However, in no examples given by either Allen or Trinder is it noted that the site had previously been a holy well. Certainly, it is hinted at with such sites as Brentwood, Havering Well, Woodford and Felstead, (all with some pre-Reformation past) but nothing is explicitly stated. This may indicate the strength of anti-Catholic feeling in the authors or the Essex people. Was the impact of Protestantism and non-conformism that great? This would explain the paucity of holy wells for such a large county, particularly to the eastern side. By comparison there are a large number of mineral springs. Perhaps we can consider these all as past holy wells?……….
To learn more about the healing and holy water history of the county read Holy Wells and healing springs of Essex
Hertfordshire holy wells and healing springs – an overview
This account is taken from the introduction of Holy Wells and healing springs of Hertfordshire
No book has comprehensively covered the topic in the county; which is surprising considering the fame of its most noted site St. Alban’s Well. The nature of this work, indeed all volumes, is thus to describe the sites under the respective parishes giving historical details and present conditions (with directions if the sites can be accessed). I have adopted Francis Jones’s (1954) category system for wells. The main body of the text covers Class A (saint’s names, those named after God, Trinity, Easter etc), B (associated with chapels and churches), C ( those with healing traditions which in this case includes spas and mineral springs) and some E (miscellaneous with folklore) sites The second part includes a list of named ancient wells with explanatory notes (mostly Class D i.e. those named after secular persons but possibly also holy wells and E). Hopefully once the volumes are completed and using similar documents for other counties this fuller picture will be achieved.
In regards dedications there are few in the county: the most common is Chadwell ( possibly not from St. Chad), Hertfordshire has holywells (including holwells which may be derived by O.E hol for hollow), Lady Well, St Faith, St. Alban, St Claridge, St John and Emma (a possibly unregarded local saint)
Some sites for example, often ponds are associated with the traditions of hidden treasure or hauntings. Treasure legends are common in the county. The only one in Hertfordshire is Rose’s Hole. This is not directly connected with a pool or well, but its description is virtually identical to other waterlore across the country and is worth noting. It states that the hole lay on Berkhampsted Common, named after an old man called Rose, who dreamt that there was treasure there. He and a companion went to the spot, where he was told it could only be reached by not speaking. They dug and soon encountered the lid, to which he exclaimed ‘Damn it Jack, here it is!’, and as soon as they did it sank back into the ground.
Similarly, there are other examples of water related ghosts, the only well-known one in the county is at Little Gaddeston. Here the village pond and manor is haunted by a suicide called Jennings, who killed himself after being unable to marry his sweetheart, the daughter of Lord Bridgewater of nearby Ashridge Park. The incident dates back to the 17th century, but may cover older traditions. Others are included in the gazetteer.
These have been interpreted widely by some authorities as denoting some ‘religious’ activity. Traditions of treasure may derive from folk traditions of when the water body was regarded as sacred and that valuable offerings or votive gifts were placed in the water to appease the water deity. Similarly some have identified these water deities as the ancestors of water ‘ghost’ traditions, perhaps being the result of Christian missionaries, who personified them as ‘evil’.
Two interesting geological phenomena are known to have attracted folklore across the country: swallow holes and intermittent springs and streams. Of the former, there appears to be a number. Examples can be traced at North Mymms, associated with the Colne. These are where the streams appear to flow back underground, the reverse of springs. This would certainly have appeared wondrous to our forefathers, however, I have been unable to locate any folklore. The former, were called Woe waters in Hertfordshire (and other counties), are discussed in more detail in the parishes in which they arise.
Across the county many of the old holy wells were re-discovered as mineral springs and established as spas. Such secular conversions are hinted at Welwyn, Northaw (where St. Claridge’s Well may have been the original dedication for Griffin Well or The King’s Well at Cuffley) and possibly Barnet, but there is no firm evidence that it happened in Hertfordshire, despite there being a fair number of ‘spas’ for a small county. Dedications survived in greater numbers than the nearby county of Essex, where very few holy wells can be traced, but large numbers of mineral springs were exploited. Does this suggest that either the old ways persisted longer in the county, or else the wells were too valuable a commodity to disregard?…………
To learn more about the healing and holy water history of the county read Holy Wells and healing springs of Hertfordshire
Nottinghamshire holy wells and healing springs an overview
This is information is edited from the book Holy wells and healing springs of Nottinghamshire
Morrell’s (1988) work on Nottinghamshire holy wells was one of the first non-Celtic volumes on the subject (ie not Cornwall, Wales or Scotland) in the later half of the 20th century. At first I was reluctant to research the area thinking the work had already been done, but no I discovered double the number of sites. Nottinghamshire can claim record of 94 related sites (including some dubious sites and possible repetition) over 834 square miles. This would give a density of 8.8 square miles per well. This would compare with Leicestershire 9.9 wells per square mile (Rattue (1990) perhaps controversially removing those probably not healing or holy from this survey on this basis the concentration increases to 6.5 square miles per well in Nottinghamshire compared to 6.1 in Rattue’s survey (Full details on Derbyshire, Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire being not available when this survey was completed.)
I have included within this survey wells associated with the term holy, saint’s names or religious institutions. (Often springs associated with churches can be added to this list, but one must be cautious as such arrangements can be coincidental. Wardie (2003) notes 12 such sites on his map, but none are explained. )To this are added those with healing traditions e.g. noted mineral, chalybeate and spa waters and those with folklore associations; petrifying, ebbing and flowing or possible pagan deity names.
In general there is little folklore associated with water in the county. Thurgarton had a boggart which lived in the dumble (the source of whose booming voice was found to be a bittern), The Clifton family (at Clifton) had their harbinger fish, appearing at times of death (which was a sturgeon), Girton’s bottomless Horsepool and the Aegir, the most famed feature of the Trent, a tidal wave named after a Norse god. Interestingly, Nottingham appears to have few wells explicitly associated with rituals or folk customs unlike neighbouring Derbyshire or even Lincolnshire. There are only four rag wells, all in Nottingham and although well dressing has taken place in the county, this is a modern invention.
The nature of this work, indeed all volumes, is thus to describe the sites under the respective parishes giving historical details and present conditions (with directions if the sites can be accessed). I have adopted Francis Jones’s (1954) category system for wells. The main body of the text covers Class A (saint’s names, those named after God, Trinity, Easter etc), B (associated with chapels and churches), C (those with healing traditions which in this case includes spas and mineral springs) and some E (miscellaneous with folklore) sites The second part includes a list of named ancient wells with explanatory notes (mostly Class D i.e. those named after secular persons but possibly also holy wells and E).
In regards to those of category D, archaeologically speaking, many wells may have had an ancient pre-historic origin. Some in the county may have been Romano-British shrines, such as Kingshaugh and Newton. Similarly, it has been argued that sites named Hart’s Well and a number of wells with prefixes possibly deriving from Here O.E for ‘army’ are probably associated with tribal totems particularly of Danish use (although Morrell (1988) does note that Harwell is near the Roman road to Segontium), as is a site called Norsput. Sadly, it should be stressed that the general lack in archaeological interest in such sites, such claims cannot be ascertained.
The range of dedications is much more limited than surrounding counties, particularly Yorkshire, most being called simply Holy wells (10 confirmed sites, 20 possible sites), and those with names are restricted to presumably foreign or biblical saints: St. Mary (or rather Lady Wells) (9 with an extra 3 possible), (not including Orange’s (1840) Lady’s Bath as a possible origin of Lady Bay and a possible Lady Well at Egmanton, said by the Reverend Levy to have been associated with the vision of Our Lady to a local women at the edge of Ladywood. However, correspondence to long time residents in the parish has not revealed knowledge of the site nor has the Nottinghamshire record office. Interestingly, the suggested site does have oil wells which may suggest that the vision was due to a Willo the wisp!), St. Ann’s Well (2), St. Helen (1/2), St. Catherine’s (2) and St. John (2). With a possible St. Lawrence dedication, Jacob Well, Lord’s Well and others hidden in place name changes, to add to the list. There does not appear to be any local dedications or native saints. Class A wells thus totalling a confirmed 38 (unconfirmed total of 48). Of Class B there are four associated with crosses, but none with churches. There are thirteen Spas or mineral springs and 18 with varied names but healing traditions (Class C), 9 (Class D) and 5 (Class E) although there are a number in the inventory.
Harte (2008) argues that many holy well sites; in particular St. Catherine’s Well are spurious modern sites, due to the lack of earlier evidence. However, one must be careful here as absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; much of what we know of medieval England could be considered fragmentary due to the purges of documents during the Reformation and Commonwealth. Where it may be necessary to err on the safe side it is just as probable (if unlikely) that a site remains unknown to antiquarians or past historians until recent times retained in generations of local knowledge. (Indeed as many communities lose this tradition it is more important to record sites).
The reasons for this are unclear, but it maybe the affect of the Reformation and like in other counties can we assume many of these old holy wells were re-discovered as mineral springs and established as spas? Harte (2008) argues against this convincingly, but there are at least two sites which may have existed previously as holy wells; Clarborough and Westthorpe, Southwell. Although one could argue that these may have had a back developed origin as details are scant.
Another possible example is Retford’s Spa, although its pre-Spa history may be confusion with St. John’s Well at Clarborough. Nottinghamshire does not appear to have developed a major spa like neighbouring Derbyshire, or even Lincolnshire. Spa names are applied to eight sites. Interesting, it would appear that using spa was a local word meaning medicinal waters however parochial in nature. Indeed, the term was apparently still being used in the early 20th century in Langold. (One must be careful as there is a Spa Lane in Sutton in Ashfield but this is close to Leamington Street so is unlikely to preserve a site name.) There are others which are mineral waters having apparently never being formally named but appear to have been exploited…….
To learn more about the healing and holy water history of the county read Holy wells and healing springs of Nottinghamshire
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.