Sometimes holy wells turn up in odd locations and the survival of a site in a very urban cityscape shows how such sites can survive despite the predations! For in the church is a pump which draws its water from the newly discovered spring found in the boiler house said to be St. Mary’s Well associated with a shrine to the Blessed Virgin or Black Virgin of Willesden. The origin of the shrine is unknown, but the first mention of a statue occurs in 1249, when an inventory of church goods mentions two large sculptured images of Our Lady. Legend has it that the shrine originated due to an appearance of Our Lady Mary in the Churchyard.
The celebrated black image of Our Lady was a centre of pilgrimage until its destruction at the Reformation. In 1535 the statue was torn down and taken to Chelsea and publicly burned on the same fire as the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham. Consequently, Henry VIII imposed a fine on the ‘idolatrous’ Church to be paid every year by the Priest and indeed it is clear that interest in the shrine did not wane at the destruction of the image. It is noted that a vision of the Holy Trinity was seen by a Dr. Crewkerne who in a conversation in with Our Lady, telling him to preach abroad and that she wished to be honoured at Ipswich and Willesden, as she had been once before. A restoration never happened during this period however. However, when Fr. James Dixon became Vicar in 1902, he restored the shrine and a statue of Mary and Jesus was placed in the Chancel and devotion to the shrine has been encouraged. In 1972 a new statue was made and pleased by the Bishop of London on the feast of Corpus Christi.
Of the well, J.T Gillet’s 1964 The History of Willesden notes that:
“There is a distant tradition that Our Lady appeared in an oak tree in the churchyard to a client, and that a well began to flow, at which miracles were wrought and which became noted for cures from blindness. The well was used until comparatively recent times, but then it was condemned as ‘unsanitary’ and was covered over.”
Jeremy Harte in his 2008 English Holy Wells notes that the tradition also appears to date to 1885, and was thus probably propaganda set up by a Catholic mission was set up to revive the mediaeval Marian shrine at Willesden, although the VCH (1969–2004) take it as evidence that:
‘the church was built on the site of a holy well possibly that which gives the settlement its name, first recorded in 939 by King Athelstan.’
An alternative tradition is recorded by John Norden in 1596. Norden (1723) Speculum Britanniæ: an historical and chorographical description of Middlesex and Hartfordshire which notes in relation to Alderman Roe’s a:
“springe of faire water, which is now within the compass of house”.
However of course this does not stipulate that this is a holy well nor the exact spring. Similarly, it is likely to refer to Willesden from the Anglo-Saxon Wiell-dun – hill of springs as noted in Nicholas Schofield’s 2002 Our Lady of Willesden, a brief history of the Shrine and Parish who also state
This is said to have been associated with pilgrimages to the Virgin’s shrine. The church website notes that:
“The water from the well is used extensively to this day, for Baptisms, anointing and mixing with the wine in the Chalice. On Saturday 4 July 1998, at the Annual Willesden Pilgrimage, a new Holy Well was dedicated enabling the healing Waters of Willesden to flow freely at St. Mary’s. The waters are available to be used in Church and to be taken away.”
Interestingly Foord appears to describe it as:
“in regard of a great cure which was performed by this water, upon a king of Scots, who being strangely diseased, was by some devine intelligence, advised to take the water of a Well in England, called Muswell, which after long scrutation, and inquisition, this Well was found and performed the cure’. Later this king was identified as Robert the Bruce (the Bruces held land nearby), and the illness was held to be leprosy.”
However is this another site?
The well is although described as now surmounted with a pump within the church, this appears to have gone and now a demijohn of water is found in the Lady Chapel. Apparently the source was rediscovered in 1998 but access cannot be granted.
One of the frequently encountered mysterious creatures near springs and wells, as well as other bodies is called Jenny Greenteeth. In an article in the Transactions and proceedings of the American Philological Association in 1895, Charles P.G. Scott notes in the Devil and his imps remarks:
“Jenny Green-teeth, in the vernacular Jinny Green-teeth, is the pretty name of a female goblin who inhabits wells or ponds.”
The name Jinny Green-Teeth is recorded in the Folk-speech of South Cheshire (1887) and A Glossary of Words Used in the County of Chester (1886) stating that:
“Children are often deterred from approaching such places [as wells or ponds] by the threat that “Jinny Green-Teeth will have them.”
Edwin Waugh notes in 1857 Sketches of Lancashire life and localities
“ lurking in the streams and pools, like ‘Green-Teeth,’ and ‘Jenny Long Arms,’ waiting, with skinny claws and secret dart, for an opportunity to clutch the unwary wanderer upon the bank into the water.”
Often description is given of this goblin and it appears to be restricted to the west of the country, with references made in the Notes and queries around Manchester, Birmingham and as far east as Shropshire. Roy Vickery in a piece on his excellent Plant-Lore blog reports an account from Bebington Merseyside in the 1980s:
“Although Jenny Greenteeth was usually unseen, in about 1920 the bogey which inhabited two pools beside Moss Pitts Lane in Fazakerley, ‘had pale green skin, green teeth, very long green locks of hair, long green fingers with long nails, and she was very thin with pointed chin and very big eyes.”
Moreover it is possible that in Lincolnshire the same goblin is encountered as Jenny Hearn, Hurn or Yonde. This name is found associated with a bend of the Trent at Owston Ferry was haunted by Jenny Hearn or Hurn or Jenny Yonde. Unlike Jenny Greenteeth the creature is described. In Lincolnshire folklore Ethel Rudkin reports:
“The pygmy propels the dish rapidly across the stream by means of a minute pair of oars, the size of teaspoons. It is said, that having reached shore this being crosses the road and proceeds to browse in the field. ‘Or again it is said that a ‘thing’ is known to come crawling out of the water, having large eyes, and long hair, and tusks a walrus. It goes into the fields to feed. The river bank here curves in the shape of a horse-shoe, consequently a short-cut footpath has been used for years to counteract this bend.”
A possible ancient origin of this creature is suggested by another Lincolnshire location: Jenny Stanny Well a site has appeared to have passed through a number of name changes. Abraham de la Pryme discussed it in his 1680 discussion of Lincolnshire described the well as Julian’s Stony Well and now it is called Stanniwell. The name is suggestive of a Roman heritage.
Here interestingly, the name Jenny Stanny well has been supported by the suggestion that the site is haunted by a ghost presumably of that girl who carries her head under her arm. She is said to have drowned in the water. Is this a confusion of the Jenny Greenteeth tradition?
Interestingly in Preston the goblin is associated with a holy well. In the anonymous 1852 piece A Prestonian, ‘Preston More than Forty Years Ago’ in the Preston Chronicle:
“Near Friargate, and not far from the houses now called Mount Pleasant, was ‘Lady well’, about which the superstitious old women used to tell strange tales of one ‘Jenny Greenteeth’, who was said to be occasionally seen riding on a broomstick, cutting wonderful capers.”
The association of drowning with Jenny Greenteeth is significant as it would seem that the folklore probably developed as a way to warn children off playing in dangerous areas of water. This being done by associating the goblin with algae and duckweed. A note in an 1820s version of Notes and queries records Jenny Greenteeth being a name for duckweed in Birmingham. In A Glossary of the Words and Phrases of Furness (North Lancashire) (1869) she is called
“Jinny-green-Teeth — green conversa on pools.
“green scum on ponds, but supposed to imply the presence of a water-sprite or “boggart”, a terror to children as they pass the pond on which the appearance is seen.”
This is emphasised by an article by A.R. Vickery, Lemna minor and Jenny Greenteeth, in Folklore 94: 247-50, 1983. whose correspondent noted:
“ I was brought up in the Upton/Crenton area of the west side of Widnes in Lancashire (now Cheshire) …It was and still is…a farming area and many of the fields contained contained pits – some of them have quite steep sides Jinny was well known to me and my contemporaries and was simply the green weed Duckweed, which covered the surface of stagnant water.”
Finally, it is interesting the correspondent also notes
“Children who strayed too close to the edge…would be warned to watch out of Jinny Greenteeth, but it was the weed itself which was believed to hold children under water. There was never any suggestion there was a witch of any kind there!”
And such does a folk tradition become diminished! However, it was a clever way to use a common plant of stagnant water to signify dangerous waters – pity it wasn’t used in 1970s Public information films – Dark and dangerous water!
The Lady Magdalene’s Well
Back in the 1990s I was busily researching for my Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Kent and was searching for two notable wells which existed on private grounds. Back in those well searching days there were really only three ways to find out if a site existed beyond someone else’s account and the appropriate map. These were – writing, turn up on spec and linked to the later try to see the well by doing a bit of exploring. As both laid firmly on private ground (and one a school) it seemed prudent to enact the first option. So I wrote and fortunately both were forthcoming so I arranged a day to explore them.
Lady Magdalene’s Well (TQ 707 333) is in fact one of a number of chalybeate springs which surround Combwell Priory, probably named after Mary. Although Combwell itself is a ‘modern’ building, it is constructed around the old priory, pieces of which are recognisable in its fabric. Nearby under a mound the un-excavated remains of other sections of the priory. Little is clear concerning its history. The earliest reference to the well is on a 1622 Combwell Estate map and Combwell Priory was granted a fair on St Mary Magdalene’s Day in 1226-7 so it is doubtlessly an ancient source.
Only a few years before my visit, the site was a boggy area. When I visited it is tanked and enclosed in modern brickwork (although there would appear to be signs of an earlier, probably Victorian structure). The overflow from the spring emerges as a stream a few feet from this structure. There is little here to excite the antiquarian. Mrs. Fehler, of Combwell Priory, informed me that it was used as drinking water at the house, although she suspected its quality, having a blue tinge. The carved bust of a woman, said to be a cook who foiled a Roundhead attack is of interest at the Priory. Mrs. Fehler refers to this as ‘The Combwell.’ Could it have been associated with the well? Perhaps the story was later constructed around the object to explain it.
The Lady’s Well
The Lady’s Well (TQ 341 721) is noted in blue italics on the map, with the words chalybeate spring beneath. It was located within the private Bedgebury School Estate. Although the name suggests a dedication to Our Lady, it is according to local historian Mr. Bachelor, its origin appears to be secular, deriving from Viscountess Beresford who resided at Bedgebury. To add to the confusion the well is now dedicated to a past Bedgebury School Headmistress. A plaque at the well records this. Yet despite this it is a pleasing site, the spring arising in a distinctive square sandstone well house, found nestling in a Rhododendron dell below the main building.
This structure, Romanesque in style, is six foot high, with water emerging through a pipe in its centre to fill a semi-circular basin set at its base. The structure’s condition suggests that it is of no great age and would correspond with early Nineteenth Century. Whether the water was taken for its waters, being a noted for its iron rich water like Tunbridge wells, is unknown. Since visiting the site is no longer enclosed in the grounds of the school as it closed in 2006 and the building is currently derelict.
Interestingly there was another chalybeate spring in the wider grounds of the school I did not visit and two more in the woods nearby – I did fail to visit these but no history or tradition was apparently recorded concerning these.
Chigwell on the Essex outskirts of London is a site claimed to have derived its name from a spring called the King’s Well as Samuel Lewis in his 1848 Topography notes:
“within the bounds of the great forest of Waltham and in ancient records is styled Cingwella supposed to imply the King’s Well a purgative spring here from which its present name is derived.”
However did it? According to P. H. Reaney’s Place-Names of Essex the name means ‘Cicca’s well’, Cicca being an Anglo-Saxon personal name. Furthermore, the 18th-century historian Nathaniel Salmon The History and Antiquities of Essex stated that the “-well” element in the name derives from Anglo-Saxon weald meaning wood which would make sense considering its proximity to Hainault Forest. Hence my claim in the book Holy wells and healing springs of Essex that it was
“The King’s well was certainly an ancient site, possibly a pre-Christian origin”
May seem now a little over-enthusiastic!
Philip Morant in his 1763-8 History and Antiquities of Essex gives the earliest account of the well, being found:
“…..behind the wind-mill, among the trees whose water has a purging quality, and the late Dr Frewin used to speak of its flavour….Near the well is a hole wherein the water of the fame nature, perhaps proceeding from the other.”
Morant (1763-8) also suggests that the well was once frequented, but less so by his time. By the end of the 18th century it appears to have become entirely neglected. This situation never improved, as even in 1838, a Professor Booth noted it to be ‘now quite neglected’. This decline lead to its final destruction in the late 1870, when the site was drained, filled in and turfed over, by a Mr. Radley, acting on behalf of the then owner. By the time Christy (1910) visited the site, the well had long gone, but fortunately he too obtained some vital details concerning the well. The well was reached by a private road, although once a public right of way, near a mill pond. Unusually it would appear that the fame of the water differed in regards its appearance, for when yellow it was best only for cattle. He was informed by the older residents of the community that this well laid in a meadow of about thirty acres called ‘Parkfield’, belonging to a Mr. Philip Saville, and near his residence of ‘The Woodlands’. It was situated due south of Forest House, about 300 yards from the road, and not very far from Grange Hill Station. It lay on the steep slope of London clay, lying on the south side of the road.
A description of the site
Fortunately, a description of the site survives. A Mr. Green, who had lived many years in the Parish described the well as a hollow place, bricked around, with steps leading down to the water. Surplus water was relayed to a ditch via pipes. Yet despite its destruction 30 years before, it was still famed in the 1900s. A local man Mr College referred to it as the ‘purging well’. Furthermore a Dr. Reeve, formerly of Chigwell Row, described it as good as any medicine as a purgative.
The site today
In the book Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Essex I recorded that the site was located in Whitehall Close, but there is now nothing to mark it; the area being developed for housing.
Since Morant’s (1763-8) description the whole area has drastically changed. The windmill was burnt down in about the 1850s, and the trees that surrounding the well (part of the old Hanault Forest) were probably cut down even earlier.
However, in 1907 about 50 yards from the reputed site of the well, there was a stagnant cattle pond. Miller Christy and May Thresh’s 1910 A History of the Mineral Waters and Medicinal Springs of the County of Essex believes that this is probably the hollow described by Morant (1763-8). This too has gone.
However, there is some confusion and subsequent research places it more precisely in the rear of the house located at 67 Brocket Way being marked on the land registration map of Redbridge Council shows “Chig Well (site of)”
However, that might not be the whole story! In an excellent article on the Chigwell Row community blogsite called Chigwell derived from King’s Well or Cicca’s Well the jury is out! the author notes:
“I hope to work on a project to commemorate that early past and have it recognised locally. Hopefully a local project will revive an interest in our historical past like the Mammoth replica project has in Redbridge. I have followed the map I bought with local resident Neil Patel who has lived her for over 40 years. We believe that the location of Chig Well would have been in land adjacent to the wells Park School or at it’s rear. I have contacted the school to try and ascertain whether the name of the school is somehow linked to the history of the well listed on the map. A call to the school office was met with short-shrift and the woman who answered said she knew nothing about the origins and nor would other school staff. she said:“The decision to name the school was made by Essex Council.“They gave the school to options and early decision-makers went with Wells Park School.”When pressed on how Essex Council derived the two name options, I was reminded to contact Essex Council. I have contacted the Essex Record Office who is not able to advise me on the origins of the name of the school, but I will ask the officer there and the school again, in hope of clearing up this mystery. Later it would be able to gain access to the rear of the school or the private land next to it, to locate any remnant of the potential well site.”
It seems sad that such a renowned site, that had given the place its central focus and name, should have been destroyed with little regard for its importance. However one does wonder what they have found in the garden of number 67, or Whitehall Close or as the author above states the School!
Ask anyone to name one thing about Wantage and they will tell you it was the birth place of King Alfred. When I visited the town in the 1990s I had read of a King Alfred’s Well and naturally was keen to find out more. John Murray’s 1923 A Handbook for Travellers in Berks, Bucks, and Oxfordshire:
“1/4 m. W. of the town, at the Mead, are King Alfred’s Bath and Well ; the latter a basin of clear water, in a pretty dingle, formed by a number of small petrifying springs.”
I was not the first one to visit it of course and it appears to be a popular site for school parties if this account is an example this account in the St Mary’s, Longworth, Parish Magazine, 1910:
“August 1910 On Saturday, June 25, the Sunday School children, to the number of nineteen, were taken by the Rev. T. H. Trott a little outing to Wantage. They were met at the end of their journey by Mr. A. A. Herring, who after kindly giving them some refreshments at the Temperance Hotel, took them round the town to see the principal objects of interest, such as the Parish Church, the Victoria Picture Gallery, King Alfred’s Well and King Alfred’s Bath.”
It had clearly become one of the places to see in the town and doubtless and opportunity to stress the history of King Alfred. The biggest recognition of the site’s history was for the 1000th celebration of his birth. The Freemason’s Quarterly Journal recording:
“THE ALFRED JUBILEE A grand jubilee in honour of the one thousandth anniversary of the birth of King Alfred who according to antiquarian calculation was born in 849 was celebrated at Wantage on the October 1849 The town was decorated for the occasion the shops and business except in the hotels which were crowded generally Many visitors thronged into the place and at one o clock a was formed to King Alfred’s Well about a quarter of a mile the town and supposed to be the site of the ancient stronghold of Saxon kings.”
The Gentleman’s Magazine records that year that a speech on the:
“history and traditions of King Alfred The Rev CL Richmond from America made an eloquent speech to the concourse outside After this a procession was made to King Alfred’s Well about a quarter of a mile from the town and supposed to be at the site of the Anglo Saxon palace.”
Some people still hold firmly to the idea that the palace stood on the ground now occupied by ” The Mead’ (the property of Lord Wantage).
In the 1901 Wantage past and present the author, Agnes Gibbons adds more to the rationale stating that:
“traces of Alfred’s palace are still believed to remain in the High Garden, where there is a close still bearing the name of ” Court Close,” and ” Pallett’s More ” which has been supposed to be a corruption of Palace More.”
However, they continue to claim that:
“Their chief reason for this belief is the fact that there is near the Mead a brick “bath” or ” well ” which has for some time been called King Alfred’s Bath.”
So it appears a cart before the horse situation perhaps!
King Alfred or just Alfred’s?
It would appear that those who had made their pilgrimage to the site were possibly at best mistaken or at most deluded about the history of the site. This is stressed by Gibbons again who claims
“It is, however, extremely doubtful if the bricks which compose the bath are one hundred years old, so that no value can be attached to this argument. “
Wantage Now and Then informs us of the true origin of the well:
“It is said that in reality the ” bath ” was dug out and bricked in, by one Alfred Hazel, a former owner of the Mead (possibly for sheep dipping) and was then called ” Alfred Hazel’s Bath.’”
One can see it this became ” Alfred’s Bath,” and then ” King Alfred’s Bath.” Although how this could be forgotten in less than 100 years seems odd! The author continues:
“The bricks have a suspicious resemblance to those which were made at Challow, early last century, of green sand, many of which are still to be found in the town.”
An odd piece of folklore commonly encountered elsewhere with supposed ghostly appearance on its anniversary, is that the pond nearby which appears to have been the bath with the spring nearby being the well, was a coach. The author continues:
“The pond which is close to the bath, is said to have beneath its muddy surface an old coach, said to be the one formerly used by Mr. Chas. Price (he was Lord Mayor of London in 1802, and his family lived in Wantage) on his journeys to and from the metropolis. It was highly gilded, and minus wheels, and was at one time used as a bathing machine, by men who bathed in the pond. supposed to be the King’s bath or cellar! Both references to Alfred are equally mythical supposed to be the King’s bath or cellar! Both references to Alfred are equally mythical.”
So what was claimed and is still claimed to be his well and bath was Victorian construct possibly and a sheep wash at that. But how could its construction be forgotten about!
When I visited the site it was overgrown and a muddy morass. I could not easily trace any spring but subsequently it has been improved and tidied up to make it easier to visit.
What is interesting that what was formed as dam to clean fleeces and cloth may have also had linked with baptisms, Alfred Hazel was a Baptist. In the late 19th century Lord Wantage VC bought the area and had it landscaped as a fern garden and it may have been around this time that the story of King Alfred became consolidated as perhaps he adopted it as a sort of folly although this would not explain the visit in 1849 unless they didn’t go to this well and there is another King Alfred Well lost in Wantage. Of course there are examples of Lady Wells being repaired by the Lady of the manor! This could be the same the springs are noted a petrifying and so it is possible that they were noted but whether it was Alfred or not is unclear. It is also confusing what was the well and what was the bath – was the bath Alfred Hazels but the springs had been called after King Alfred before that!
In 1921 a descendant, Arthur Thomas Lloyd, presented the area to the town of Wantage and such it has been ever since landscaped and improved more recently. Whatever its history the site with its improved flow is a delightfully refreshing place to visit.
If there was a claim for the Scottish holy well visited by the most famous people it must be the suitably named Scotlandwell. It would add that it is also one of the most picturesque holy wells in Britain and very easy to find – being signposted down a lane with parking off the village that shares its name.
A Roman site
It is said that in the late 1st century A.D the Romans named the well Fons Scotiae’ . Whilts it is known in 84 AD, Roman soldiers were marching between their camps at Lochore in Fife and Ardoch in Perthshire however, there does not appear to be any evidence especially archaeologically, but what is known that a hospital dedicated to St Mary was established in the area in 1250 by the Trinitarian Friars. It is locally said that they utilised the water. Their association may have attracted one of the most famous of Scotland’s kings – Robert the Bruce. It is alleged that he came here to be cured of leprosy. Janet and Colin Bord in their 1985 Sacred Waters note:
“Robert Bruce, King of Scotland (1306-29) suffered from leprosy, and at least three wells were reputedly used by him in his search for a cure. He is said to have been responsible for a well at Prestwick (Ayr) which flowed where he stuck his spear in the sand while resting from his struggles with the English. He stayed for several days, and his leprosy was reputedly cured. He is said to have built a leper hospital for those who could not afford treatment. He also visited the St Lazarus Well at Muswell Hill (London) being granted a free pass by the King of England to do so.”
It is thus said to have become a place of pilgrimage. Another monarch, Mary Queen of Scots also is said to have visited it. However, the Friar’s establishment remembered as Friar Place was demolished in 1587 probably not long after Mary’s patronage at the start of the great Reformation in Scotland.
However, the well itself must have been accessible as Bill Anderton in his 1991 Ancient Britain tells us that:
“ records show that Charles II travelled from his Dunfermline Palace to take the waters.”
Whatever these records are, are in themselves unclear and whilst the ancient royal seat of Dunfermline is indeed not many miles from the site, I have been unable to find further details.
The site may have slowly disappeared into obscuring if it was not for the fortitude of local landowners. When in the early 1820s the site, itself common land, could be described as:
“an almost unapproachable slough of mire and filth” and within it “a half ruinous building used sometimes as a washing house and sometimes as a slaughter house.”
This may have been some remains of the Friar’s buildings perhaps and it is impossible that some older stone in the current fabric of the well house could be from this date. The building of the ornamental well and its nearby wash house was done by a Thomas Bruce of Arnot who owned land in the aras between 1857 and 1860 after acquiring the land. He employed David Bryce an important Edinburgh architect to draw up plans for both in 1857 which consisted of a large stone lined bath like chamber covered accessing all around by covered by grill. Over which is an ornate wooden roof, akin to a alpine chalet style. All painted dark green. Water bumbles up through sandy soil in the water quite obviously and then emerges from a small gap into a small circular basin and then run off. Steps go down from both sides to reach the outflow. Using stone available from quarries nearby that the well was completed soon after at the cost of £154 in 1858. On either side of the water spout are the initials TBA for Thomas Bruce of Arnot and his wife Henrietta Dorin embossed. The nearby washhouse also bears TBA and 1860.
Thomas Bruce of Arnot stated in his memoirs:
“The improvement of the village and of its “Well” has cost me more money than some might perhaps say I aught to have expended upon them, but it has been a subject of great interest to me and I have been far more than repaid in one way at least by the gratification it has afforded to the villagers by a desire for whose moral improvement it was that I was mainly actuated in what I did and am still doing.”
Then in 1922 two years after the death of Sir Charles Bruce of Arnot the well and wash house, were handed over to the people of Scotlandwell as a gift and the site is currently looked after by the Parish council.
The bath house locally called ‘The Steamie’ was where laundry was washed, being connected to the well’s underground water source, ceased being used in 1960s but has recently been restored as a small tourist attraction and currently leaflets are given out concerning the well and the bath house
In Ruth and Frank Morris’s 1978 Scottish Healing Well they note:
“In October 1978 we met there a women, her husband and brother who had travelled from Edinburgh a round trip of some 80 miles which they frequently made, to fill to two large bottles with clear well water. One of the men, a cancer sufferer had been induced to take the water some time before and found it did him some good , clearing a stubborn body rash that he continued to use the water: “If it was good enough for Robert the Bruce, it’s good enough for me. ”
However, reaching for the metal cup I took myself a large gulp not noticing that the sign that he had read when Ruth and Frank Morris had visited in 1978: ‘Health giving water of Scotlandwell was for many years used to help cure the sick…” was replaced with UNFIT TO DRINK DO NOT DRINK!
Oh well this was a few summers ago and I am still okay. Whether you drink or not, Scotlandwell is one of the country’s most attractive and perhaps oldest healing springs.
On and off I have been surveying the holy wells of East and West Sussex which is an area which does not appear to have collected much academic interest. Thanks to myself and James Rattue Kent is now covered more than satisfactorily, ditto Rattue’s Surrey and now Dorset, Hampshire and Sussex in a way await further exploration. Thus it is possible that new and interesting holy wells maybe found in these counties, ones missed by Jeremy Harte’s 2008 magnus opus English Holy wells
Battle is such a place. It is a place I have visited many times and thought there should be a holy well there and indeed there was. However, the Wishing, Holy or Dr Graye’s Well is described by one source Her Grace the Duchess of Cleveland’s account of the History of Battle Abbey as:
“a square opening five or six feet wide, enclosed by a massive stone wall nearly seven feet high; a flight of steps led up to it on either side, and at each angle was what he called a vase, or receptacle for flowers and votive offerings. The spring was conveyed to the other side of the church wall.”
It was located:
“On the north side of the Cloister Garth stood the Holy Well, from which some writers have derived the name of Senlac, given to this place by Ordericus Vitalis. It is mentioned in Queen Elizabeth’s time, as a place held sacred by recusants’ :-whither many, especially women, resort, like a young pilgrimage, and call it Dr. Graye’s well.’
Did this have an older history? The author suggests that its water gave Battle its old name of Senlac – possibly – but there is no evidence as such- and the origin of that name has itself been debated. What is more likely perhaps is that the spring provided the domestic water supply of the Abbey and later converted post Reformation as suggested above as a holy well needed to meet Catholic recusant use.
Who was Dr Graye?
The author continues to explain that Dr Grey was a priest, the Dowager Viscountess Montague’s chaplain, a zealous Roman Catholic, who resided at the Abbey in Elizabethan times. He was imprisoned by Sir Francis Walsingham. He appears a likely person to concoct a holy well out of an available spring.
What happened to the well?
The author continues to record that:
“ It was afterwards known as the Wishing Well, and was unfortunately destroyed in the course of Sir Godfrey Webster’s alterations, in 1814….and now furnishes the drinking water of the household; it is remarkably sweet and pure, and we appreciated it for its own sake long before we were made aware that it was the charmed water of the old Holy Well.”
And so it disappeared into obscurity after perhaps a brief period of fame – a holy well of the Catholic faith in hiding and as such of great interest.
The real sacred well of Battle?
However, another claimant to have an association with the Battle of Senlac is still to be found. King Harold’s Well is enclosed in a circular well can be found in the front garden of Three Virgins Lane.
Local tradition records that the spring was drunk by King Harold before the Battle of Hastings. Whether it is originally a Saxon well is unknown it certainly does not look it. It is perhaps not the most attractive site but at least something remains to remind us of the days of King Harold.
In a quiet corner of Kent is one of the county’s most renowned wells. A well known local legend is associated with St. Eustace’s Well (TR 062 458) Hasted (1797 -1801) based his knowledge on the work of Roger of Wendover describes the well as follows:
“In it (Wye) is a hamlet, called Withersden, formerly accounted a manor, in which there is a well, which was once famous being called St. Eustace’s Well, taking its name from Eustachus, Abbot of Flei,…..a man of learning and sanctity…to come and preached at Wye, and blessed a fountain there, so that afterwards its waters were endowed by such miraculous power, that by all diseases were cured.”
Hasted (1797-1811) relates the properties of the well in detail:
“..from the taste of it alone, the blind recovered sight, the lame their power of walking, the dumb their speech, the deaf their hearing, and whatever sick person drank of it in faith enjoyed renewed health.”
The legend set in 1189, during Godfrey de Luce’s tenure at the vicarage. Pope Innocent III sent St. Eustace, a Norman Cistercian Abbot, who held his first meeting at Wye after a terrible sea journey. Thirsty, he searched for water, and finding this spring, blessed it, afterwards it attracted pilgrims, and a guardian priest was established. A specific legend tells of a woman, possessed of the devil, and ‘swollen up as it were by dropsy’ came to a priest, whom upon seeing her urged her to go the spring. This she did and no sooner had the women drunk the holy water, she recovered but vomited forth a pair of black toads, growing into black dogs, then black asses! The woman surprised vented her anger against these manifestations and the priest intervened, sprinkling the holy water on ‘they flew up into the air and vanished, leaving no traces of their foulness.’
When I first became interested in holy wells – some would say obsessed – my interest being piqued by a copy of Janet and Colin Bord’s 1984 Sacred Waters picked up in a Truro bookshop back in the 1990s and in it was St Eustace’s Well. It was described as follows:
“The well is close to Withersdane cottage 3/4 mile southeast of Wye and reached along a lane by Withersdane hall. the well now has an air of neglect but in medieval times it was famous because it was visited by St Eustace when visiting the country. People visited for eye cures.”
As the well was place with the Saint Edith and The Black Prince’s Wells, both exceptional sites, I expected something on an ilk. With the book in hand and armed with a map I looked for the site, and looked and looked. I was expecting to find something beside the road at the corner where the map albeit a less than accurate landranger placed it. To no avail I could not find it. So finally I decided to ask a person in a nearby cottage thinking that perhaps the site was lost in the undergrowth or else unfortunately filled in. Especially as Robert Goodsall in his 1968 A second Kentish patchwork first visiting the site in 1966, found the site overgrown with saplings and weeds, but recently the site has been tidied up. There was report of steps and rails from the roadside down to the spring head with a stone nearby near the pond for leaving water vessels.
Upon asking I thus discovered that the person I was asking had it in the corner of their garden. The owner, a Mr. John Hilton and he gladly showed me the well. It consists of a shallow rectangular shaped pond, with its source enclosed within a square brick structure with a concrete top, to the north of the actual well basin. I was informed by the then owner Mr. Hilton that even in the 1976 drought, there was no apparent difference in depth, the only considerable change being the influx of agricultural fertiliser causing overgrowth in algae over the years.
Within recent years it has been reported that St. Eustace’s Well had become very yet overgrown again. Perhaps due to a change of ownership it has again been cleared of bushes and this time it was noted that the water table had fallen due to water abstraction for mains supply nearby and thus turned the well more into a murky pool. However, I noticed that in a recent photo from Will Parson of the Pilgrimage Trust that it looks much more inviting with the steps down to it having been tidied up and the water looking clear and clean. It is clear from the planting that this back garden holy well is much appreciated.
Essex is not that noted for its holy wells, but as Holy Wells and Healing springs of Essex will attest there are a few and perhaps the most interesting is that of St Botolph’s in the picturesque village of Hadstock.
The earliest reference is in William Harrison’s 1567 Description of England he records:
“divers wells which have wrought many miracles in time of superstition, as St Botolph’s Well in Hadstock.”
John Wilson in his Imperial Gazetteer, III (1872) describes it as:
“A well set round with stones, and called St. Botolph’s Well, is in the churchyard.”
John Player’s 1877 Sketches of Saffron Walden and its vicinity notes
“We see it in that ever flowing stream passing under the Church yard wall affords an ample supply of pure unadulterated water of which the villagers gladly avail themselves. The well St Botolph’s well is near the Church and may it long continue a symbol of the purity of that heavenly lore which should proceed from that desk where the Rev Addisson Carr so long known and so much respected in this district pursued the even tenor of his sacred calling for so many years.”
However, by the time of Royal Commission on Historic Monuments, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Essex, I (1916) it was:
“In the churchyard—a well, known as St. Botolph’s well, now covered.”
Indeed there would be some confusion regarding the exact location of this well. The church guide describes a pump to the west end of the churchyard as the well (but the only pump apparent was that across the road), however I was informed that this well was the one picturesquely situated by the road beneath the church. This is a brick-lined square well whose spring percolates into a pool covered in duckweed. No evidence of any material earlier than Victorian is apparent, suggesting it may date from when the pump was established. A wooden fence has been erected around it to prevent people falling in, but apparently the well itself has been covered.
An ancient site
Locally there is evidence of Iron Age occupation. Not far on the Cambridgeshire border is a ring enclosure, and pot shreds have been found in Hadstock Wood as well as bronze axe and an arrow in the village area. However, it is for its association with an Anglo – Saxon saint, Botolph, which has more relevance to the well.
Who was St Botolph?
“that place sanctified to religion in the days of the holy Botolph, there at rest”,
So states Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury in 1142. The well could be a significant site associated with a significant Anglo-Saxon saint interment. In 1974 Dr Warwick Rodwell carried out an archaeological investigation of the church and reported in The Antiquaries Journal, March 1976, 56 Part 1.:
“Total excavation of the nave, crossing, and transepts of Hadstock church in 1974, together with a detailed examination of parts of the upstanding fabric, revealed that this well-known Anglo-Saxon building is not a single-period structure, as has long been assumed. Three periods of Anglo-Saxon work are now known, the earliest of which probably belongs to the pre-Danish era: it comprised a large, five-cell cruciform church which, it is suggested, may be part of the seventh-century monastery founded by St. Botolph, at Icanho. Rebuilding on a monumental scale took place in the early eleventh century and the possibility is discussed that this was Canute’s minster, dedicated in 1020. The church was extensively repaired in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, following the collapse of the central tower. Subsequently the decline in the size and importance of Hadstock as a village saved the church from further extensive alteration.”
These three stages would appear to link to the idea that Icanho was destroyed by the Danish armies in 869 and by 970s all there was left was a one priest chantry chapel. It is thought that Bishop Aethelwold of Winchester obtained the King’s permission to remove the saint’s remains. He would then distribute them to a newly established Thorney which then became dedicated to Botolph, the royal reliquary at Westminster and Ely (which got the head). Although tradition also states that in 1090 they were stolen from Ely! What is interesting is that against the south transept’s east wall an empty grave. This being a significant location it seems highly likely this would be an important person. The village continued its connection with the saint having upheld a pre-Norman charter which allowed a fair to be held on St Botolph’s Day, the 17th of June.
Curative or kill?
Its waters have had a mixed reputation. Tradition records their ability to cure scrofula. Until recently the well was the important source of drinking water for the village. One tradition suggests that if a ring was dropped into it by a lovelorn girl she would find her true love. This tradition was supported by the finding of two rings recently in the cleaning of the well. Wilson (1970) notes a strange activity was practiced within living memory by the white witch: to keep the water pure, dead cats were placed down the well. Obviously, this was not continued for on one occasion the water was the harbinger of a typhoid outbreak, and forty percent of the population—or 40 people—died (although there is no evidence for either). The contamination was the result of the Rev F. E. Smith using the spring as an outlet for his lavatory. If this was not bad enough, one of his staff was a typhoid carrier! This is also notwithstanding, that it was commonly believed that the spring water drains from the graveyard above it: and hence it has earned the name ‘bone gravy’. Despite all these traditions, this did not deter the locals, who vouched for its goodness. Even when piped water was brought to the village in the 1930s, many locals could not see the point as the well water was good enough.
However, once cleaned it could surely be as good as suggested by this review in the London Strand Magazine:
“A Well In a Churchyard. Hadstock. in Essex. Possesses what is probably a unique water supply. It ls entirely derived from a deep well in the pariah churchyard The well is over 800 years old and ls known is St. Botolph’s well. The Inhabitants of Hadstock declare that it contains the best tea making water in Great Britain, and as the village in question ls one of the healthiest places In Essex there ls undoubtedly some truth In their boast?”
Sadly, now apparently due to some odd health and safety claim the well itself is covered with a large metal sheet and covered with flints, however its water still fill the pool beyond.
One has the feeling that St Botolph’s Well is one of the most significant wells of Anglo-Saxon England but so little is known. It is good that in a way that what was once a little known holy well is better known.
Last month I introduced the rag wells associated with Lincolnshire we now move southwards to explore the other sites.
At the significantly named Hemswell are the seven springs apparently rise from the spring wells and one of these is dedicated to St Helen’s Well (SK 932 911). The site has an eerie but not unquiet atmosphere. The proximity of a local stone called the Devil’s pulpit may help this of course. It is a large approximately six foot high piece of sandstone under which a small spring arises. This Ian Thompson (1999) Lincolnshire Wells and Springs notes local opinion thought was St. Helen’s, he said it tasted sweeten than the other waters (a fact that I cannot testify as the spring has appeared to have almost dried up the year I went). Peter Binnall (1845) in his theories on eye wells notes that the spring wells were regarded as possessing curative powers and rags were hung on the surrounding bushes. The dedication of St Helen is an interesting one of course and just within the main area. Jeremy Harte’s 2008 English Holy Wells suggests that the name is spurious and that Ethel Rudkin (1936) Lincolnshire Folklore does not refer to it as such, however in support of the view I had no problem locally detecting the well using this name in the village (incidentally Harte makes an error referring to the springs as Aisthorpe Springs, these are clearly another site). There was supposed to be a chapel or church associated with the site, of which there is no trace or record. There was no evidence of any rags on any of the trees and the only thing hanging was a rope for a tyre swing!
Not far away and still surviving are the Aisthorpe springs (SK 956 899) a curative spring and a rag well, despite what Thompson (1999) notes is not now incorporated into a sewage farm, although this is nearby. The spring arises with some force near by the footpath which passes towards the sewage farm and has a separate flow from that of the plant. The spring flows from a pipe beneath some thorn bushes, sadly without any sign of rags.
To the east is Holton cum Beckering were to the east of Holton Hall was a Rag Well according to Lincolnshire Notes and Queries which was said to have had some medicinal qualities, however recent correspondence with local vicar has shown that there is now no local knowledge of this well. The only evidence was a local name for a field to the south of the town known as Well Walk. There is a spring fed pool in churchyard but no traditions are given concerning this. It is possible perhaps that this is the same site as the Wishing Well at Nettleton.
Here at Nettleton, the Wishing well which is records as being half mile from church, east of the grange on land belonging to Holton Park hence the possible confusion with above. Eliza Gutch and Mabel Peacock (1908) Lincolnshire County Folklore note that:
“It was famous for its curative virtues, and thither many of the afflicted, until very recently, if not now, were wont to make a pilgrimage. A thorn tree grew over the well, which used to be covered with votive offerings, chiefly bits of rag, the understood condition to any benefit being that whoever partook of the water should ‘leave something.’ The thorn tree, however, is now cut down.”
Again no local people could determine the existence of this site and nothing is marked on maps.
Kingerby Spa (TF 045 914) whose name first appears in 1824 as the site of a Chalybeate spring might seem an unusual place for a rag well but it is an old site. In Lincolnshire notes and queries state that large numbers of coins dating back to Elizabeth I, were dredged from the pool. Records tell that in 1900, pins and coins were found nearby, and the thorn rags were full of rags. Mr Wilkinson states that it became popular in Victorian times as a place to go for the healing waters and he had seen a photo of the spring with strips of cloth fastened to the bushes surrounding the spring but could not locate it. He believed it fell out of popularity after the turn of the century, and suggested that the landowner was against people tramping over his land to reach it. However, as late as the 1990s, that the then owner was thinking of selling the waters. Mr. Wilkinson also noted that last time he saw the spa it resembled a pipe discharging into a dyke. This is at variance to Pastscape, which notes that the site consists of a small oval shaped isolated pool which has three courses of narrow brickwork forming a semi-circular rim with another brick course and a coping stone set into the side of the hollow suggesting that was a well house. Despite appearing to exist as a small pool on both the current O/S and Google maps; recent field work failed to reveal it. The site would appear to have either dried up or purposely filled in. Field train channels were nearby. This was despite being described on the parish map outside the church, although interestingly this revealed itself to be in another location to that noted on the map so maybe I was pixy led.
The last traditional site is the chalybeate Blind Well (TF 085 208) on the edge to Bourne Wood is the furthest south rag well. However, there are no signs of rags now. Its water was used to cure eye complaints and sold in Bourne Market. It is now rather neglected being rather weed filled and untidy surrounded by a rather ugly wooden frame.
Thus completes the traditional rag wells but as I have eluded to before what is interesting is the site called Lud’s Well (TF 176 937) at Stainton Le Vale. The evocative site is a spring which arises in a small cave like structure and fills a small pool. When I saw it in the summer it was a bit dry but apparently it forms a small waterfall according to local sources. I learnt of the site from Thompson’s 1999 work and when visited did not see any sign of ribbons. Now this is the county’s only rag well. This can be seen from this screenshot from a recent video visiting the site. Why?
The origin of the name may suggest why. Although it is believed to come from O.E Hlud meaning ‘loud’ others prefer to believe it is derived from Celtic deity Lud, this however is unlikely. Thus it seems very likely that the site has been adopted by the local pagan community who have adopted the attaching of ribbons as a pagan gesture.
So why. Such a cluster as far east as it is as possible to go puts in question the idea that the custom is strongly Celtic in origin perhaps. So why in Lincolnshire. A theory I discuss in my working thesis on the work is that the custom was brought by gypsy communities who had a stronghold in the county. However, why these particular springs is unclear perhaps like Winterton, Hemswell, Aisthorpe, Healing they were close to main roads – we cannot state this in the case of the lost sites of course.
What is interesting is how quickly the custom died out in the county and one wonders whether this is correlated by the reduction in gypsy numbers as well.