Blog Archives

Rediscovered/Restored: A holy well fit for a Pope..the Holy Well of Abbott’s Langley

STOP PRESS: You can hear me talking about Holy Wells on the 8th November 7.30 for the Upper Broughton (Notts) Local History Society and the 11th November at the Dreaming Bread and Skyrie Stanes: A Celebration of Scottish Folk Magic and Community Traditions in Edinburgh’s Netherbow Theatre. Check the events page for more information.

bedmond-breakspeare-farm-trent%20w1024 bedmond-holy-well

In Bedmond, a small hamlet associated with the larger Abbotts Langley is famed as the place which gave birth to the only Englishman ever to become Pope, Nicholas Breakspeare later Adrian or Hadrian IV. Local tradition records that he was born in a farmhouse there around 1200, latterly called Breakspear farm. Sadly all possibility of proving the age of the farm through examination of its fabric was lost when thoughtlessly it was demolished in the 1960s. What is less well known is that beside this farm was a Holy Well

The description of the site

Aside from being a water source of the farm, the spring attracted celebratory. Whether this was the result of its association with Adrian IV is unclear. However, probably because of its association with the Pope’s farm, the well is well photographed. In fact it is one of the few holy wells in the county of which anything other than pre-late 20th century images exist. This fact in itself suggests that the site was well thought of a regularly visited by the curious. The site is shown on a postcard dated 1909, which shows the spring issuing from a pipe set into some walling with the wording. Two different magic lantern slides appear to exist, however these show a different arrangement. They do not show the walling but a simple spring. This means either the photos are more recent and the brickwork was demolished or that the walling shown in the postcard, was a tap available at the road, flowing from the other spring head and conduited to it. I originally thought this but superimposing one on another the tree shown in both images suggests we are looking at the same place.


Traditions associated with the site

There is no evidence of either Adrian IV being treated as a saint nor of course that he even visited the spring, although as he was born in the house he must have done. According to the Rev. Canon Andrews, it was much frequented in the mediaeval period as a place of pilgrimage, and its waters were thought to be curative, particularly for eyes. An account in Scott Hastie’s 1993 Abbotts Langley – A Hertfordshire village records:

“Breakspear farm was demolished in the 1960’s to make way for a small crescent of modern houses, built off the Bedmond Road. Today only a concrete plaque commemorates the site’s significance. Behind the old farmhouse was a well. This was said to possess ‘holy water’ which had special curative properties, particularly for the healing of the eyes. Throughout the centuries the well became a site of regular religious pilgrimage. …”

A site rediscovered.

This account suggests the well is no longer in existence and in my book Holy wells and healing springs of Hertfordshire, I was informed by the Rev. Canon Andrews, the site was lost, presumably it was lost when the farm was demolished in the 1960s. However, I was wrong and below are some photos from the Abbotts Langley Local History Society. The tree is still there lending argument to my previous thought. I plan too soon in this year of seeing the instalment of a new pope to visit this simple spring and think of an older papal person drinking from its water.

holywell bedmont

Emma's well

The ancient springs of London’s first commercial water supply – The great scheme

In the early 1600s London undertook an ambitious project to bring clean drinking water from the countryside into the heart of the metropolis. Central to this play were two ancient springs. Unlike their Victorian entrepreneurs who often emasculated their spring heads, those utilised in Sir Hugh Myddleton’s New River remain picturesque relics. He was given the responsibility in March 1609, with the provision that he completed it in four years. However, he encountered considerable problems with acquiring the land necessary, and many land owners believed that the scheme would result in their lands being flooded. Indeed, they even petitioned the government over the matter, but fortunately Parliament was dissolved and the matter was not discussed.
Finally, in 1611, the Corporation of London extended the contract for another four years, but Myddleton sensibly approached James I for help. He agreed to take over half the costs and take half the revenue. This not only helped financially but landowners were impressed by the Royal patronage, and furthermore the King’s connection discouraged a rival scheme to use the River Lea at Hackney.
On Michaelmas Day 1613, the scheme was completed, and a ceremony took place, not far from where Saddler’s Wells Theatre now stands, attended by The Lord Mayor, Myddleton’s brother, Thomas, and a great number of Alderman. With the accompaniment of rolling drums and ringing church bells, the sluice gates opened and water direct from Hertfordshire gushed into the Clerkenwell reservoir.
The total cost at the end was £500,000 in those days an enormous amount. A joint stock company entitled ‘The Governor and Company of New River Brought from Chadwell and Amwell to London.’ The company enjoyed a Royal Charter, and Myddelton was appointed governor. However, it was not until after his death, in 1631, that any profit was made. Yet, in 1640s it saw great periods of prosperity, and remained a separate company for 300 years until it was absorbed by the Metropolitan Water Board. Myddleton in 1622, he was duly made a Baronet, and apart from those at Amwell, monuments at Islington Gardens, The Holborn Viaduct, and the courtyard of the Royal Exchange were erected to his enterprise.

The springheads

Emma'stone (2)
The most picturesque of these is the ancient spring, called Emma’s Well (TL 372 125) which has given the parish its name still exists, having formed part of the system established to supply freshwater to London via the New River It is a well known beauty spot, but the actual well is often missed by visitors, who focus on the delightful turfed islands with their monuments. The well itself is located opposite to this site, and is defined as a small piped opening, through which the spring flows. Just above the well is a small stone monument, slightly obscured by foliage. Upon this source stone a poem is inscribed:

“O’vering with shrubs that fringe the chalky rock. A little fount purr’d forth its gurgling rill. In flinty channel trickling o’er the green, From EMMA nam’d perhaps some sainted maid, For holy life rever’d so such erewhile, Fond superstition many a pleasant grove, And limpid Spring was wont to consecrate, Of Emma’s story nought Tradition speaks, Conjecture who behind Oblivion’s veil. Along the doubtful past delights to fray, boasts now indeed that from her well he place Received as appellation. In Domesday book this village Amwell written Emmaswelle.”

The well’s water flows under the road, and fills the aforementioned artificial pool, created by damming, with its two interlinked manicured turfed isles. Upon the islet is a monument to this scheme’s deviser Sir Hugh Myddleton (1609). It states:

“From the spring at Chadwell 2 miles west and from this source at Amwell the aqueduct meanders for the space of XL miles conveying health, pleasure and convenience to the metropolis of Great Britain. An immortal task since man cannot more nearly initiate the Deity than by bestowing health. This monument was dedicated by Robert Mylne, architect, engineer in 1800. Sacred to the memory of Sir Hugh Myddleton Bart., whose successful assisted by the patronage of his King, conveyed this stream to London. This humble tribute to the genius, talents and clarity of mind.”

The second smaller islet has a yew tree with another monument (1818) with lines of verse penned by locally renowned poet Scott (whose grotto nearby at Ware is well worth a visit ). This he called ‘Amwell ‘ :

“Amwell. Perpetual be thy stream. Nor ever thy spring be less. Which thousands drink who never dream whence flows the streams they bless.”

The name Amwell appeared after the 14th Century before then the well retained its original dedication of Emma. The name is believed to be derived from the wife of King Cnut or Canute. Confusingly, folklorist Gerish (1899) appears to suggest that the churchyard well was that regarded as ‘Holy’, being used in baptisms and being efficacious in cures. He does not give an exact location and I have been unable to locate another well. Easier locate is that commonly called St Chad’s Well (TL 350 135) is located between below the road between Ware and Hertford. It would appear that, rather than being associated with the Mercian missionary and patron saint of springs, its name is derived from O.E ceals for ‘cold’ spring, for in the middle ages, the site was called ‘chaldwelle’ or ‘caldewelle’. The name St. Chad’s well only appears from 1727. However, its water was said to be good for eyes.
The spring arises in this large stone lined pool, and joins the flow from Amwell, into the New River towards London. Around the pool are the stone monuments. The largest one states (on one side):

This belongs to New River Company 178 feet. Chadwell Spring. The other side: This belongs to the New River Company 270 feet. Repaired 1728. The side panels reading, one side: 269 Feet. Opened 1608, and on the other: 43 Feet. Conveyed 40 Miles.

The other, smaller stone which appears to have a trig-point attached also states:

This belongs to the New River Company.

According to Hawkwood (1924) these monuments predate an older inscribed stone, which was found with the words ‘Chadwell’ on it in 1743. The presence whereabouts of this is not known.



An oft repeated piece of folklore

An interesting piece of folklore is connected with both this site and Amwell. Recorded by William Vallens in the ‘Tale of Two Swannes’ (1589) and referred to by Cussans, the Hertfordshire historian, it relates how the two sites were connected by an underground tunnel. It states:

“A tale there is deliver’d unto us, from hand to hand, how that a haunted ducke, Diving within this chalk-well head or hole, Was forced underneath the hollow ground, To swimme along by wayes that be unknowne, And afterward at Amwell Spring (they say) Was thrown up featherless and bare.”

This is a common folklore motif, and is often connected to mysterious caves and legends of secret tunnels. However, it has also been connected to holy wells. For example there is said to be a tunnel between Guildford Castle and St Mary’s Well, Farnham, both in Surrey. This was supposedly traversed by a goose, who also like the above tail appeared a little worse for wear the other end!

What is pleasing to note that unlike their Victorian counterparts, the scheme did not emasculate the spring and enclose it within an inaccessible chamber, they celebrated and romanticised their water supplies rather than santise and have left a romantic site for future generations to enjoy.

The Physic Well Barnet: a case for restoration

This mineral spring, called the Physic Well (TL 230 958) was of considerable fame in the county and beyond, and was the resort of many wealthy and famed Regency folk. Its discovery is noted in 1652, although 50 years earlier, Camden (1551-1623) in his Britannica wrote that:

“Upon the south border..was discovered a mineral is of great service to the Sex where there is general languor, difficult and rheumatic complaints the Barnet Whey is much recommended.”

This suggests it is possible that the well had been long known locally. Furthermore Fuller in his Worthies of England recalls that:

“already a catalogue of cure by this spring amounteth to a great number; insomuch that there is hope in the process the water rising here will repair bloodshed hard by and save as many lives as were lost in the fatal battle at Barnet.”

Chauncy (1700) describes its virtues suggests that its water would be good to:

“..dissolve acid tough Flegm in the stomach and guts, with sharp Choler, much better than other Purgers; and of great Efficacy in Cholicks, proceeding from both those Humours; in short, for most diseases that proceed from sharp and hot Humours (if they pass freely) they prove excellent safe Purgers.”

It was on the 11th July 1664 the famed diarist Samuel Pepys took its waters. He stated:

half a mile off; and there I drunk three glasses and went and walked, and came back and drunk two more. The woman would have had me drunk three more; but I could not, my belly being full -but this wrought me very well; and so we rode home… and my waters working at least seven or eight times upon the road, which pleased me well“.


“arrived home was not very well, and so went to bed, and during the night got worse and worse so that melted almost to water.”

Yet, this did not deter him for on the 11th of August 1667 he returned, but this time he drank only three glasses. He put his earlier experience down to too much water!

Another famed visitor, Celia Fiennes (whose visits to spas are well known) also complained. This time it was about the conditions at the well. She described it then as an enclosed building of lattice work, in which visitors descended steps to take the waters (so deep that one could not see the bottom). She disliked the means at which the water was drawn, being dirty, full of leaves and having to wait for the water to settle.

In 1677, 20s was given; this was to be paid in perpetuity, by a Mr Owen, an Alderman of London, of the Fishmongers Company, for repairing of the well. By 1690s the dipper had gone and people were helping themselves, Daniel Defoe, in 1724 notes that it was ‘almost forgotten’.Indeed, the well was so popular that a clause had to be inserted in an Act of Parliament in George II‟s reign to secure access in perpetuity. The well was fashionable throughout the 18th Century and remained in good conditions until 1790.

Subscription in 1808 was raised for arching over the well, and erecting a pump to aid any invalid who wished to drink. This was finally demolished in 1840, and a farmhouse erected near the site. Even in 1867, however, funding came from a local boy’s school for its repairs. Finally, in 1907 the water was declared unfit for drinking and consequently the well fell into obscurity.

Indeed it was not until 1922, when during excavation for a housing site, that the well-chamber was found to be in perfect condition and described as typical example of 17th Century architecture. A report in 1922 reported :

“ This is a slightly ferruginous, highly saline and alum water, containing an excess of organic matter and a large number of ordinary bacteria. Doubtless this is due to the disturbance of local conditions when opening up the well, as the sample contained fragments of grass and straw, etc. There is no evidence of direct sewage contamination, Streptococci being absent and B. Coli Communis not being present in less than IOO cubic centimetres. It is, therefore, unsuitable for ordinary domestic use.”

Of the building by the Barnet U.D.C. that they should restore the Well to its former position as one of the attractions of Barnet, and the following year they opened the well and found:

 “ an underground chamber and a flight of stone steps leading thereto. The Well Chamber is perfect and undisturbed, preserved by the earth that had covered it up. It has brick-built walls, floor and barrel-shaped roof alike. The bricks are small, red, hand-pounded and burnt. The room would hold about 20 persons. Two sumps, stone-lined, are sunk a foot or so in the floor for convenience in dipping out the water, and into them the spring is led by channels and pipes penetrating the surrounding ground.”

As the structure was in such a good condition, plans were made to preserve it, and a Neo-Tudor black and white well-house was built with a red-tiled pyramidal roof over it. This cost £500 and was completed by 1937.

Copywright christine matthews

Unfortunately, by 1960 it was again in poor condition, and plans were made for its disposal. Fortunately, the hue and cry made by local conservationists saved it, and it was given a facelift. Today, it is surrounded by suburbia, being in the centre of a housing estate. Sadly, it is a little worse for vandalism, and one is unable to test the waters, as it is now padlocked. A peer through the door will show an octagonal well and its glimmering water source. The surrounding green is boggy underfoot, and one can only suggest that this is the spring arising around the area. This site is surely in need of greater protection and care and should be a candidate for Civic Trust openings. I don’t seeing it lasting long without some better protection.

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