The best recorded holy well in the Cambridgeshire is that of St. Audry’s Well (TL 540 801). It is noted in the 12th century that a spring arose at the place where the saint was first buried
St Audry or rather Ethelreda or Æthelthryth was an Anglo Saxon saint who was a 7th century East Anglian princess, one of four saintly daughters of Anna, queen of Northumbria and Abbess of Ely. Interestingly she was born at Exning in Suffolk where a well is also associated with her. She died and was buried at Ely and it is recorded by Bede that when her body was disinterred her body was uncorrupt as such her powers and clothes were said to have special powers. She was reburied in the Cathedral and her shrine remained until the reformation. She is best known for the term tawdry for rubbish, a term which derived from the poor quality clothing sold at fairs on her feast days.
In the 12th century it is reported that:
“If any sick people take a drink from this spring, or have been sprinkled with its water, it is reported that they subsequently recover their original vigour…. in account of her merits, are acquainted with remedies and assiduous in curing the sick”.
It is noted that the monks made the spring site into a pit like cistern so that they could collect some of their water. Several miracles are associated with the well. One tells how a blind woman washing her face and eyes became able to see, how a man travelled from Northamptonshire to be healed and found the door locked. He was apparently barred entrance and was told that there was no bucket at the well and nothing to collect it with. He did not take no as an answer and so barged his way in where he found the well overflowing into the courtyard and thus cupped some water into his hands. He evoked the saint’s name and as he did so begin to recover. Another story tells how a woman fell into the well after accidently being pushed in by a crowd at the well. She was apparently left in the water for two hours and was found still alive by the monks.
The established site of the well is at Barton Farm to the east of the Cathedral. The site is shown on a Moore’s map of the fens dated in 1684 shown as St. Aldreth’s Well. According to Hippisley-Coxe in his 1973 Haunted Britain this site still survived as a muddy pool in a clump of elms near Barton Farm. The spring fills a small tree lined pool on the edge of the grounds of Ely’s Cathedral School, which has absorbed Barton Farm, and the Golf course. There does not appear to be any evidence of fabric but at some point, some brickwork has been used to create a channel to allow the water to flow way showing that the spring is still active.
Conversely the metrical Life and Miracles of St Æthelthryth by Gregory of Ely, c.1120 states that ‘the holy precinct of the church includes a spring’, but does not identify this as a holy well; the original grave of St Audrey lay:
“somewhere in the vicinity of the former Bishop’s Palace, the area close to the Fountain Inn, and the present St Mary’s Church, where the water-table is high.”
This was where:
“…where the people of the neighbourhood do now resort to drink the waters of it, it being a sort of mineral water”.
This suggests two things, one that it was an arrangement like current St. Withburga’s well at East Dereham and that it was nearer the Cathedral. Indeed I was shown by Mr Hart of Ely School a possible alternative site, a small duck pond in the grounds of the Bishop’s Palace. This however although might be a more likely sight indeed it lay across from the school’s old chapel and in the shadow of the Bishop’s Palace.
Details in Holy Wells and healing springs of Cambridgeshire and the Isle of the Ely.
Hidden deep in the woods on St. Anne’s Hill is the mysterious St Ann’s or Nun’s well…mysterious for many reasons, least of all its difficulty in finding (although read at the end of a sure-fire way to find it)
St Ann’s well or Catholic folly?
Although the first account of the well is by John Aubrey in his 1718 Surrey he describes it as:
“Westwards of this Town, on a steep Hill, stood St Anne’s Chapel, where, in the Time of the Abbots, was Mass said every Morning… Near the Top of the Hill is a fine clear Spring, dress’d with squar’d Stone.”
Manning and Bray in their 1809 History and Antiquities of Surrey similarly do not name it only stating it was:
“a spring, lined on the sides with hewn stone”
It is only in S.C. Hall’s 1853 Chertsey and neighbourhood that the name appears. It is also curious that the the current structure does not resemble that shown in Hall’s work either more in keeping with Aubrey’s description. It is probable that as the site was gaining a more religious name that it was getting a new structure. This is probably to do with the then owners of the hill, Lord and Lady Holland, who had converted to Roman Catholicism which would explain the improvements in 1850s and its associated with the saint and closer affinity to the chapel. This lending it to the idea of being a sort of romanticised folly.
The chapel itself is first mentioned in 1402 as the capella Sancte Anne is recorded although a chapel was licensed in 1334, but in 1440 St Anne’s hill was still the “hill of St Anne… otherwise called Eldebury Hill.” when a fair was granted which continues today although not unbroken as the Blackcherrry Fair in the town. The chapel is associated with an Abbey which was founded by St Erkenwald in 666 and such the cradle of Christianity in Surrey but it is a big jump to assume the well dates from then. This chapel remains on the hill, the guide in the car park refers to a mound near the house but the nearby mysterious Reservoir cottage incorporated most. However, it is improbable that a considerable amount of water would have been left untapped. The area was a hill fort whose exact history is unclear due to the predations over the centuries, but a Bronze Age date has been suggested.
A Topographical History of Surrey by Edward Brayley and Edward Mantell (1850) state
“and up to within recent years the country folk round about have been used to fetch away water from it, in the belief that it has virtues as an eye lotion. It has a strong taste of iron; would that be good for the eyes?”
Manning and Bray in their 1809 History and Antiquities of Surrey were stating that the waters were:
“not now used for any medicinal purpose. It rarely freezes when other springs do”.
Yet Hall (1853) under the name Nun’s Well states that:
“even now, the peasants believe that its waters are a cure for diseases of the eyes.”
Looking at its dirty murky waters today one would suggest it might cause as many eye problems as it cures!
Ghostly goings on!
Long in his 2002 Haunted Pubs of Surrey records the legends associated with the hill. It is possible that the nun’s well name may derive from a legend of a murder of a nun at St Ann’s convent who was buried in a sandpit. The veracity of this story and even the location of a convent is unclear. The well, it is said being the resort of the nun:
“whose deep begging signs can be heard on certain nights…on such a day, this place reeks of remorse, suffering or sorrow.”
On a spring evening with no one around one could quite imagine such ghostly cries.
A prehistoric landscape
In A Topographical History of Surrey by Brayley and Mantell (1850) it notes:
“Another curiosity is the so-called Devil’s Stone, or Treasure Stone. Aubrey calls this “a conglobation of gravel and sand,” and says that the inhabitants know it as “the Devil’s Stone, and believe it cannot be mov’d, and that treasure is hid underneath.” There have been many searchers after the treasure. One of them once dug down ten feet or more, hoping to come to the base of the huge mass, but his task grew unkinder as he got deeper, and he gave it up. He might well do so, for what is pretty certain is that he was trying to dig up St. Anne’s Hill. All over the face of the hill there are masses of this hard pebbly sandstone cropping up, though they are not so noticeable as the so-called Devil’s Stone because they are flat and occasionally crumbling, and have not had their sides laid bare by energetic treasure-seekers.”
Such stones are often found in conjunction with stones and the treasure may suggest the giving of votive offerings. The combination of a healing spring, an ancient stone and as the name of the hill might suggest a sacred tree is something of considerable interest to those interesting in sacred landscapes and suggests a possible old cult hereabouts. The existence of a ghostly nun may also be significant, there are near identical legends at Canwell and Newington Kent and, the later associated with another Devil’s stone. Do they remember old pagan deities, water spirits who lived by the spring? But this is the only evidence, the old writers are silent on anything more! My musing are just that musings!
The well today is indeed a substantial is ruined structure. It resembles an ice well in structure, its plan being a key shape with a rectangular basin and a dome over the source, although this is difficult to locate. Much of the dome has been weathered and ruined by the ages and being built into the earthen back this has preserved it. The brick work is a curious mix of redbrick, iron slag, cobbles and some older possible reused squared medieval stone work.
Another healing spring?
In their A Topographical History of Surrey by Brayley and Mantell (1850) again:
“Another Spring, once highly reputed for its medicinal virtues, rises on the north-east side of the hill, in the wood or coppice called Monk’s Grove, which gives name to the seat inhabited by the Right Hon. Lady Montfort. This spring, according to Aubrey, had been long covered up and lost; but was again found and re-opened two or three years before he wrote. The water is now received into a bason about twelve feet square, lined with tiles. “
James Rattue in his indispensable 2008 Holy wells of Surrey found this site stating that it resembled in part the Nun’s well and was clearly part of the landscapers attempt to improve the area. It was a dry circle of brickwork and filled with leaves. He describes it as being on the flat part of the hill. However with his instructions, OS reference and old maps showing a spring I failed to find it – although I did find another spring overgrown in the rhododendrons.
However, despite this author and others claims I did find the Nun’s well easy and here the fail-safe way to find it. Don’t go through the car park and continue along the road, passing the second car parking area in the dingle and then as the lane drops just past a house on the right there is a signposted public footpath. Take this and continue until passing a crossroads of another public footpath just past a hedge in the field on the left. As you past this and before the path you are on drops into a series of wooden steps there is a path to the right where the Nun’s well can be seen – simple! Good luck!
Boughton is a curious place, a place of desolation and decline…it’s ancient parish church lies ruined, now a distance from its settlement, its famed fair forgotten, its great Hall gone and its estate overgrown and little visited. It is a settlement which is associated with a number of noted ancient wells –two of which can be visited and one as yet mysteriously untraceable.
The easier to find is that at the ruined church of St John’s. Called St John’s Well it lies in its shadow creating a picturesque scene of forlornness. Despite a supposed medieval origin, the church is first recorded in the 13th century, its first mention is by Baker (1822–30) in his History of Northamptonshire:
“St John the Baptist, whose name is appended both to the church and the spring in the church yard.”
In William Whellan’s 1849 History of Northamptonshire states:
“St John’s spring which rises from the east bank of the church yard formerly furnished the element for the holy rite of baptism, but now supplies the water for culinary purposes at the fair’”
This fair was what the settlement was famed for. Being a three-day chartered event being established in 1351. It was focused around the feast of St John the Baptist suggesting it was based on the patronal festival of the now ruined church. Nothing is left of the fair, its last vestige, the Shepherd’s Race turf maze cut on a triangular piece of church overlooked by the church, survived to the first world war when practice trenches were cut across it, obliterating in once and for all, although some accounts suggest it survived until 1946.
Beeby Thompson (1913–14) in his Peculiarities of Water and wells describes it as:
“enclosed on all sides but one by stone local sandstone apparently like the main portion of the church the opening to the east being approximately one yard square. The covering slab had on it a cross fleury.”
This covering slab I have never been able to find, perhaps the earth has built up too much since, yet it was pleasing to see that on a recent visit the site had even improved since my first in the 1980s, when the nettles and bramble were virtually enclosed upon it and the church. This was certainly the experience of Mark Valentine who in his 1985 Holy Wells of Northamptonshire noted:
“When I last visited this site, the Spring trickled into a ditch which was chocked up with abandoned refuse. With a little imagination, this spot could be the scene of a wayside park, with appropriate displays to recall its past glories. As it is, it remains tumbledown and forlorn.”
Perhaps they heeded his word? Now the grass it kept short and the water flows quite freely the outflow protected by a curb of stones. While it is not exactly a country park, there are information boards and it is more cared for. Yet despite the tidy up there’s still a rather otherworldy feel when one peers inside the chamber and the place does have an unquiet feeling – perhaps because of the ghost of Captain Slash! (but that is another story)
Even more otherworldly is the Grotto Well or Petrifying Spring, a spring which arises within a simple Grade II listed Grotto in the estate of Boughton Hall. Although grotto is perhaps a rather too enticing name for what is basically a limestone rubble hemisphere beneath an earth mound and consisting of unadorned stone walls. The whole structure interestingly seems devoid of cement or mortar. It was constructed by William Wentworth, the second Earl of Stratford around 1770. The spring itself being the supply for his artificial lake which lay at the bottom of the valley.
However he could have improved upon an earlier structure for a local A local legend tells that when Charles I was imprisoned at nearby Holdenby House in 1647 he visited the spring. He is said to have bathed in it and used the grotto as a changing room. This suggests that there was a structure predating the 1770s one ascribed to it. Indeed this association may have started when the King was sent a skull said to have been petrified in the waters of the well. The Northamptonshire Mercury of 25th August 1810 records:
“At Boughton is a spring, conceived to turn wood into stone. The truth is that it doth encrust anything with stone. I’ve seen a skull bought thence to Sydney Sussex College in Cambridge, candied over with stone…The skull was sent for by King Charles the First to satisfy his curiosity and again returned to the college.”
Although it was indeed loaned to Charles I and according to a letter written by the college to the author Simon Scott to The Follies of Boughton Park it still survives. It is housed in a wooden box dated 1627. However before head cult theorists get too excited the origins of the skull are dubious. The skull of what appears to be a child’s, are Cretian not Northamptonshire! Was it a hoax to support a project to advertise the well or a simple mistake. Is it the correct skull? Is the association with Charles correct or is it a confusion with the bathing legend. All in all it is a confused story.
Charles Kimbell in 1946 in the Boughton Parish magazine wrote that:
“The spring cascaded into a gloomy pond whose waters were black through layers of decomposing leafage…about 50 years ago my father made a water pit under the archway and piped the stream out of the little wood and down the valley. And so the petrifying spring was incorporated into the village xx system without apparently any ill effects on consumers.”
Our third and final peculiar water source, to quote Beeby’s phrase, was the Marvel-Sick. The account by topographer John Morton (1712) Natural history of Northamptonshire recording:
“THIS spring is in Boughton Field, near Brampton Bridge, near the Kingsthorpe Road; it is of great note with the common people. It never runs but in mighty gluts of wet, and whenever it does so, it is thought ominous by the country people, who consider these breakings out of the spring to foretell dearth, the death of some great person, or very troublesome times.”
This is a common folk motif based on geology, a woe water, the name sick referring to an old English word for stream still current in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire place names. Where was this stream? It is impossible to say with any certainty however Brampton Bridge to the west can still be found and the road which crosses it does go to Kingsthorpe. No spring is marked on the map but there area does have a number of streams. Is this one? Of course in a way this a spring we don’t want to find, warn as it does of war…another word of warning should you go looking for Boughton’s surviving springs don’t go in high summer…as your journey to find the grotto well will involve a considerable fight against the undergrowth.
This year I published my long researched Holy wells and healing springs of Kent, number six in the series. Here is an analysis of the county’s urban wells which may interest.
Ancient water supplies do not survive well in urban areas. What were once the very focal points of such communities quickly become swept away by progress and the need for better sanitation and supply. However, in my research into ancient wells of the county, I have been interested to note that there appear to have been some particularly interesting examples in what is now the most urbanised area of Kent that which has now in the most part been incorporated into the London sprawl. Some of these sites, Lewisham’s Lady Well, Bromley’s St. Blaise’s Well and Keston’s Caesar’s Well, are well known and suitable for articles in their own right, but there are a number of other interesting sites. In some cases unfortunately their existence in most cases is only remembered by their placenames such as street names or wood names and in some cases actually survive.
For example Greenwich drew the majority of its water from a source called the Stockwell, being the main source of the palace’s conduit tunnels. It may well have drawn upon spring water used by the Romans as Roman wells were located nearby. The site has long gone, and all that remains to remind us is a plaque on the site. Another spring head, not given a name anciently it appears, has in recent years been a focus for local pagans.
Blackheath’s water history is even less clear. Two names are noted Cresswell, a road name and Queen Elizabeth’s Well. The origin of the latter name is lost. Does it suggest that Elizabeth I drank from it when resident in the Royal Palace?
Lewisham had a number of noted water supplies, the Lady Well ( probably the same as the Woe Water ) and the Mineral Spring, however modern street names may record other interesting examples: Abbot’s Well, Cordwell and Foxwell. Swanley street names record a Kettlewell.
Further out, in the Parish of Eltham, there was an interesting well called the Lemon Well. The properties and brief histories of this spring are recorded by a correspondent of Dunkin ( 1856 ):
“..a spring which rises in the hedge by the road side a little beyond the residence of Thomas Lewin Esq, in the road towards Bexley. This spring has long gone by the name of Lemon Well; and has been supposed by the sort of people who entertain such notions, curative of sore eyes.”
This correspondent continues to note that the well was once filled in, but complaints from local people resulted in the culprit cleaning out the well and ‘putting it in a convenient form with new brick work.’ Yet an examination appropriate ordnance survey map and of the area fails to show a well or spring in this position; hence one presumes that the site was indeed finally filled in.
Nearby in the Elmstead Parish, was Garret’s Well. This marked on an 1841 tithe award, and may be derived from Old English garra for the triangular pieces of land left once the furrows were established. Indeed, old tithe awards are often the only evidence of these lost water supplies. For example at Downe, one records a Herwell, although no spring is noted, it would appear to be likely to be a site. The name probably derives from O.E hara for a hare or her for soldier, but possibly hearg for a pagan sacred grove.
A Sundridge tithe awards record a Camberwell and an Orpington tithe awards record a Cornwell, whether this records a spring that was noted for being able to predict corn prices? Another interestingly named site is noted on a Tithe Award in the Parish of St Paul’s Cray. It is called Henrietta Spring, and was the main supply for the village, being located north of the road. One imagines that its name came from local lady benefactor. Often ancient wells are recorded in wills and testaments. Such a mentions can suggest that the well was considered of importance. One such example, may have been found in Erith. Here records of a will of Robert Hethorpe of 1493, describe a Belton Well, ‘3s 5d for the mendying of a well called Beton well.’ This well would appear to be described as Beden Well in 1769 and Beeting Well in 1843. The origin for its name is unclear, it was probably taken from a landowner, but it may have been derived from the pagan festival of Beltaine – unlikely but more interesting if it was. The Cray valley has some interesting examples. The name Cray itself is believed to derive from Celtic for ‘fresh water’, so one would except its source to be considered important. This would appear to called as Craegas aeuuelme in the 8th Century, or fons aewielm, otherwise the ‘Great Spring’. In more modern times it gained the name Newell.
Further out was an interesting site, located near the ornamental ponds of Hayes Place. Located near the ornamental ponds of Hayes Place on the road side was Jacob’s or Hussey’s Well so called because it was repaired with stonework with a hollow stone by a Jacob Angus, and later by a Rev. Dr. Thomas Hussey, Rector from 1831-54. Its water was rich in calcium and sulphates and considered to be medicinal. Sadly, although the ponds remain, the well’s only monument is the name of the street encircling these pools. Hussey has also given his name to the Archdeacons’s or Hussey’s Well. This being a public fountain set up by Archdeacon Clarke of Norwich and Rector.
Cray has an interesting named site, called the Hobling Well which is probably the same as that marked as Robin’s Hole, on Tithe map. Both names suggest that the well was believed to be the abode of elementals. The name Hob being an Old English name for goblin, and Robin possibly recording the pagan character of Robin-a-Tiptoe, an elemental that would do arduous farm work without pay. Why the site should be so name is unclear. What I have always assume is the site, a boggy spring fed pool in Hobling Well wood still survives and recently saw off a plan to use the area as a waste dump. Presumably there was also a site called Palewell, as it has given its name to a local street.
There was also a unnamed pin well in the Parish at Beckenham. Langley was famed for its woe water, but also had an unnamed spring, which was used by a local physician, Dr. Scott in his research into the production of anti-bilious pills. This is now dry, but was known to have medicinal properties.
Yet despite the urbanisation of some parts, other areas retain a rural feel, and the Parish of Chislehurst is one such a place. It boasts two interestingly named sites, the first apparently lost, the latter surviving if little known. The first apparently is where Pett’s Wood derived its name, being that of Swellinde Pette, a name first recorded in 862 as Swelgende. The name refers to Whirl Pool, which was in Pett’s Wood. I have been unable to find any details regarding why local people should have believed there was such a site. Its early date suggests that it was Saxon, and may have been there interpretation of a local Dane Hole. But it is interesting that Horblingwell wood and pookridden woods are nearby was someone trying to warn us of these wood’s danger.
Despite there being some confusion over this site, Chislehurst still has one surviving site, a little known holy well called the Bishop’s Well. I searched for this site whilst undertaking research for my forthcoming book on the subject and was pleased to find that it was still extant. The well, like St. Blaise’s Well, was said to be one of the springs consecrated by the Bishop’s of Rochester during their tenure at Bromley. It was enclosed into the grounds of the Crown Inn in Victorian times. This is not the current Crown, but now the private residence of Old Crown Cottage. I was fortunate to discover the owners in Yet despite the urbanisation of some parts, other areas retain a rural feel, and the Parish of Chislehurst is one such a place. It boasts two interestingly named sites, the first apparently lost, the latter surviving if little known.
I was informed by the then present owner, Bill Orman, that when the previous owners had taken over the property in the 1940s, the well was surrounded by a number of small crosses, which sadly they disposed of. The well shaft is of considerable depth, and older brickwork is visible towards its bottom. The top is enclosed in a square brick chamber, and water still fills the chamber below. There is some dispute regarding the exact site, and I was shown another well, capped and fitted with an old pump, laying in the grounds of Bishop’s Well House. However, despite the name, it is generally believed that the Old Crown Cottage’s well is the said site, and that this other well being above the other draws water from that. So despite the fear of such watering holes spreading cholera, and hence cleared away on sanitary grounds, such an interesting site exists. Fortunately the sprawl of London into the county, the interesting water history of this region of Kent still continues in documents and antiquarian accounts.
I did become a bit pixy led looking for this one…it was the hottest day of the year so far, fortunately the walk to the well, or rather what I could assign to it poorly marked on the OS, was down hill! Good job as it was very hot. A long way from the weather today…
The Nun’s Well is a fascinating site. I have yet to find any concrete facts about its history, yet its local legend of a ghost which is most appealing. Legend tells that a local nun was pushed down the well and it was covered over, only to be discovered by farm labourers, some years later. As a result she has said to have haunted the area. I have been unable to neither substantiate the origins of this story or the nun in question, neither F. W. Hackwood’s 1924 work nor Jon Raven’s 1974 work, both on the folklore of the county, record a ghost or the well, despite the latter’s detailed notes on wells in the county. Only Duignan (1884) suggests a grant of Henry II to a priory of Farewell and the spring may have gained its name from then, suggesting the origin of the story. Nuns immured in wells are not unique in well folklore and it is possible that they mask a more ancient tradition.
A hidden source
This is perhaps the most hidden of all the springs and wells I have investigated. Accounts are misleading, some accounts on the web suggest it has been destroyed, but that is far from true. It is however, difficult to come across for the well arises beside, not under as some accounts state, an oak tree. Despite having a photos of the said tree I walked past it and went into the wood beyond which led to the Nun’s well car park..which was locked! I followed my instincts and took a path which looked well trod, but led to the edge of the wood but to a man mowing a lawn. After disturbing him, in more ways than one, he said he did not know where exactly it was but it was not here! Tracking my route back I noticed the tree I passed had a blue sign upon it:
“Nun well. End of permissive path.”
I had found my tree and the well. This tree was surrounded by a small white fence which I at first feared may have been electrified. It wasn’t fortunately. However the area was surrounded by tall nettles. I gently lay them down so that I could have a look for the well.
More substantial than first thought
I found the narrow hole described by Tim Prevett on Megalithic Portal, with one or two bricks around it and thinking this was the only hole used by 33mm camera to get some shots. This is a bit disappointing if it’s the only viewing point. However, it was only when I took some shots upwards to capture I thought the chamber’s roof that I noticed I had taken a shot of sky. There was another viewing area! Sure enough the other side of the tree was a much larger opening about two feet square which was covered with boughs for safety. Removing one or two of these boughs (replacing them back afterwards) I could see a better view of the well. The first aspect I observed was the remains of a brick arch and it was clear that well was still partly covered by a barrel roof made of bricks which was in quite good condition. Using my SLR camera I took some shots. From these it is clear that the chamber is quite a large one, partly cut from the sandstone rock from which the spring arises, although some of this wall appears to be made of dressed stand stone blocks, particularly at the back I thought. Towards the front a piece of corrugated iron and some barbed wire has been placed there, when it is difficult to gage but it must have done by someone in the well chamber and presumably to prevent the earth back filling. The brick work is said to be 16th century and came from a local iron works. The tree’s roots have clearly grown partly over the roof at some time and causing it to collapse resulting in the rubble of stones around and the large hole to the north of the tree. One could climb down into the well but I thought twice, one could I climb out? Probably. Secondly, peering down the well I felt a little disquiet. Had I disturbed the nun?
The well contained a considerable amount of water which was quite clear despite the considerable amount of debris and leaf litter within. Access the water is difficult and one needs to stretch so clearly access was better from the front before the tree. Despite this its waters were said to cure eyes.
An interesting site pity despite the park being named after it no one thought of putting an information sign up!
Taken and amended from Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Staffordshire – forthcoming 2015.
Water holds an innate fascination with us as a species; it is both source of essential life giving power but a still untameable force which can be unpredictable and dangerous. So it is not surprising that as well as considered to healing and holy, springs and wells have a darker side. A side I am going to explore, in a fitting post for Hallowe’en. In this overview I intend to discuss these sites, many of which only have their name to suggest this dark origin. Of these Puck or Pook Wells are the commonest, deriving from O.E pwca meaning goblin. Puck is as Shakespeare immortalises, a type of fairy. Of these there are site recorded on the Isle of Wight (Whitwell), Wiltshire (West Knowle), Essex (Waltham Holy Cross), Derbyshire (Repton), Somerset (Rode), Northamptonshire (Aynho) and Kent (Rolvenden and St. Paul’s Cray), The latter does underline the otherworldy nature of springs which despite being in an area of urbanisation. It fills a boggy hollow just off the footpath and even on a busy summer’s day you feel remote. Joining the Puckwells is the more general Pisky or Pixy well (the spirit which has led the written many times astray), a term found generally in the South-west such as the site in Cornwall (Alternun) and Somerset (Allerford). One can certainly feel the presence of these folk on a visit to the former especially with is ancient mossy basin and small wellhouse. The second most common otherworldly character is Knucker, Nicker, Nikor or Nicher. This is a pagan Norse monster, which some have associated with St. Nicholas, who is said to have fought a sea monster. The most famous site is the Knucker Pit in Lyminster (West Sussex). This is associated with a notable legend which records that the dragon terrorised the countryside and took away the daughter of the King of Sussex. The king offered the hand this daughter to anyone who would kill it and a wandering knight did poison the beast and claimed her hand. The term appears to apply to sites from Kent (Westbere), Edgefield (Norfolk) and Lincoln. One wonders, whether these had similar legends. Thor is perhaps commemorated in a number of wells and springs, especially it seems in the counties were the Danish influence was greatest, the most famed of these being Thorswell at Thorskeld, near Burnstall (North Yorkshire), interestingly this is one of the areas St Wilifrid is said to have converted. Less well known are other sites can be postulated in Lincolnshire with Thirspitts (Waltham, Lincs), Threshole (Saxilby Lincs), Thuswell (Stallinborough, Lincs) and Uffington’s Thirpolwell (Lincs). The latter most certainly, a likely candidate, but of the others there may not even be evidence they are springs let alone their otherworldly origin. The O.N term Thyrs for giant may be an origin. There are a number of springs and water bodies associated with what could be considered pagan gods, but I will elaborate on these in a future post. Many spectral water figures in the country are called Jenny. Whelan (2001) notes a Jenny Brewster’s Well, Jenny Friske’s well, Jenny Bradley’s Well. The name is frequently encountered in Lincolnshire, were a Hibbaldstow’s Stanny Well, where a woman carrying her head under her arm, called Jenny Stannywell, who once upon a time drowned herself in the water. 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. It would cross the water in a boat shaped like a pie dish, using spoons to row. One wonders whether there is a story behind Jenny’s Well near Biggin (Derbyshire). Sometimes these weird creatures were doglike like that said to frequent Bonny Well in Lincolnshire. Many of these creatures such as the one eyed women from Atwick’s Holy well span the real and the otherworldly.
When discussing the spirit world, by far the commonest otherworldy being associated with wells. Ghosts are also associated with springs. Sometimes they are saintly, such as St Osyth (Essex), but often if not a saint, they are female such as a pool in Chislehurst caves, Lady’s Well, Whittingham (Northumberland), Lady well, Ashdon (Essex), White Lady’s Spring, (Derbyshire) Peg of Nells Well , Waddow (Lancashire) Marian’s Well Uttoxeter (Staffordshire), Julian’s Well, Wellow (Somerset), Agnes’s Well Whitestaunton (Somerset), a Chalybeate spring in Cranbrook (Kent) and so the list goes on and is a suitable discussion point for a longer future post. All that can be said is that the female spirits outweigh the male ones and this must be significant. To end with, that staple of Hallowe’en, the witch, is sometimes associated with springs, especially in Wales. This associated perhaps reflects their ‘pagan origins’ or else there procurement post-Reformation, afterall it was thought that they stole sacred water from fonts, so it is freely flowing elsewhere why make the effort! The most famous of these being Somerset’s Witches Well (Pardlestone) this was said to have been avoided by locals until it a local wise man three salt over the well and removed their presence. So there was a rather brief and perhaps incomplete exploration of the unlikely combination between holy wells and the darker aspects. In a future post I will explore the associations with ghosts and in another on supposed evidence of pre-Christian gods and goddesses at wells.
In my volume of Essex holy and healing wells I referred to Sandon’s Lady well which is recorded on the first series of Ordnance Survey and that I recorded as being lost. My further research suggested that the site may exist. Closer inspection of a modern map combined with google map satellite images appeared to show a lane off the main road, called Ladywell lane and some springs near a tennis centre there.
I contacted the Tennis Club but they knew nothing of a spring so I assumed the spring I could see was not as I had assumed on their property. The best idea was to do some field work. At first I investigated the bushes near the Tennis Club, and after exploring where I thought the spring was, found nothing and appeared much to the surprise of a man walking his dog. Despite being interested and having lived in the area for many years, he had never questioned why it was called lady well.
Exploring further down the lane I rang the doorbell of a Ladywell House and a lady appeared. She did know the reason for the lane’s name and confirmed that it still existed! She pointed me to a small copse on the edge, but beyond, her garden where the spring lay. She did not know who owned the land but added that access would not be a problem. Taking the footpath, and there I did I find a gate into the woods, long since broken away which served access to the woody area. Going back on myself as instructed I found a steep channel carved through the mud and tracing back to the source, a spring arising from a clay pipe and forming a shallow but quickly moving stream. Perhaps not the most picturesque of wells but in Essex something unique, a surviving Lady well. Why this sort should be a lady well is unclear, the church dedication is St Andrew although Great Baddow’s church is dedicated to St Mary and interestingly the named Baddow is believed to mean bad water!
I was informed by the owner of Ladywell House, that it was believed locally that a local women drowned in the spring and this is why it is so called. I am always intrigued by such explanations and clearly this cannot be the reason and I postulate it is more likely to be due to some post-Reformation reassignment. Of course I say rediscovered peope knew it existed in the area but not many!!
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 Platt (undated but around 1930s) 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
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.
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
Whilst in Australia I was able to visit two water related sites with associations with indigenous or Aboriginal folklore and legend. The most famous is the Babinda boulders and in particular the Devil’s Pool in North Queensland is known in Aboriginal legend as a cursed place and has features not dissimilar to that one would find in England. The curse according to local tribesmen is related to the story of a woman who ran away from an arranged marriage with a respected elder with a younger man. When she was captured and threw herself off and created the boulders, waterfall and pool. She waits for her lover and is said to cause people to drown, 17 people in all according to wikipedia.
On Wikipedia, a local, Annie Wonga, gave this account:
There was a tribe that lived here. In this tribe was an elder, and his name was called Waroonoo and Waroonoo was promised to a girl called Oolana. When they got married, they had a big dance. As they went dancing a wandering tribe passed through and they welcomed them. In this tribe was a handsome young warrior and his name was Dyga. Oolana fell in love with him, and he fell in love with Oolana. While they were dancing, they decided to run further up the creek and camp there overnight. And at the morning, the wandering tribe and our tribe saw that they were missing. So they went in search of them and they said to Oolana, “You’ve got to come with us.” And his tribe took him away. And when she saw that, she just came and she threw herself into the creek. She loved him that much. And there was a mighty upheaval, and rocks were strewn everywhere and where she lay is now called the Devil’s Pool. And every now and again she might call a wandering man to her, thinking that it’s Dyga.
She is said to haunt the place and 2009 a woman is said to have captured the image of her in the pool, local Aboriginals state that the 17 people who have died did so because they did not respect the place. It is a remarkably peaceful and frightening place in one stroke.
The Innot hot springs are perhaps less well known outside of the country. However, they have to be the hottest springs I have ever experience, one can bearly stand a few minutes with ones foot immersed. A Dreamtime legend is told of its creation. The origin of the spring has an Aboriginal legend. This tells how a father and son would regularly go out collecting Sugar Bag (wild honey). Often the father would leave some of the honey for the spirits to ensure its continual provision. However, often the son would eat it and would be scolded by the father. On one occassion whilst eating the honey, a Yamanie (a snake) came behind him and swallowed him making a thumping sound which caught the attention of the father. He can running back and tried everything to make the creature look the other way. Finally he threw a gunamore or sweat potato in the river to catch its attention as it turned around the father cut the creature’s head off. The serpent lay in the water bleeding, steam began to rise and it became hotter and hotter because the Yamanie’s temper was so great making the hot spring ever more.
The water supposedly used to fill a large pool of overflowing water which was large enough to allow 50 people to bath in it. In the 1890s two hotels (pubs for non-Australians), a bath house and a weekly coach from Herberton were established. In 1891 the Australian Medical gazzette stated:
the springs have gained a reputation for their curative properties in chronic rheumatism, goat, liver and kidney disease.
Water was placed in barrels and hauled by mules across to the coast and was sold in Townsville by the Innot Spa Waters Ltd and as far away as back into Europe until the first world war. The water produced today fills temporary pools made by local people along the Creek, although a bath is to be found in the camp nearby. The temperature is 71.5 0C and issues at three litres a second.