Here is potentially a little known holy well of note. It is absent from Charles Hope’s pioneering 1893 work Legendary Lore of Holy Wells nor did it fall into the net of Jeremy Harte’s 2008 Holy Wells sourcebook! Its exact history and provenance is under question but if genuine it is a survival of that early time of Christianisation in East Anglia. The possible site I rediscovered during research for my forthcoming book on Norfolk holy and healing wells…but as always things are not always as clear cut as that!
One possible site?
However there is debate whether this or another well called the Roman Well is the site. That itself is of questionable age, Dahl in his 1913, The Roman Camp and the Irish Saint at Burgh Castle notes:
“There is a public path at the foot of ‘The Hanger’ which leads to a small piece of ground, still belonging to the glebe, but which has been thrown open to the public, and which is termed in some of the old maps ‘The Roman Well,’ but this is a mere tradition and cannot be accepted as having any foundation of truth. There is undoubtedly a spring of water here, but it is certainly not Roman.”
Of this site local tradition states that the well was restored by Canon Venables in 1893 who is said to have discovered a sump hole, lined it with a wall of flints set into a bank and two upright stones recording the date of April 9th 1893 or 1803. Above the well are biblical verses which read:
“The Lord is my shepherd, he leadeth me beside still waters, He restereth my soul”
By 1928 although the site was already overgrown it remained visible until the 1950s but research in the 1980s failed to find any trace. Scott (1902) appears to suggest that the Roman well at the foot of the cliffs is the said site marked on the 1883 OS. However, this would be at odds with the report by Saul (2007) in their portrait of the village in the 1950s which states that the well is firmly in the churchyard. It is possible that there of course two wells and they have become confused. The question being of course why would Canon Venables restore a well which was not a holy one (but perhaps he did also restore that in the churchyard) and why does Dahl (1913) not mention the churchyard site?
Who was St Fursey?
St. Fursey was an Irish missionary saint who had built a monastery at Burgh and as far as I am aware this is the only dedication to him in the country.
Another possible site?
The well above appears lost but the churchyard well, and therefore the more likely origin well survives albeit nearly lost under a considerable amount of ivy and surrounded by nettles in a forgotten section of the churchyard is St. Fursey’s Well (TG 476 049). The site is not recorded by any authorities that I can find.
Although dry and looking forlorn, St. Fursey’s Well can be easily found. It is a six foot brick built arch structure, two feet deep and much covered with ivy. The brick is plastered over although parts of this plaster are crumbling due to the action of the ivy. It resembles many small well chapels covering wells in Cornwall and is not seen elsewhere in the county and probably dates from the 1800s. Hopefully it can be restored with a flow – if there ever was one that is – such is the confusion over this site.
Taken from and adapted from the forthcoming R. B. Parish Holy Wells and healing springs of Norfolk
An Act for Making and Maintaining a Navigable Canal from the Coventry Canal records
“Use of the said Canal or Works from or out of a certain Spring called the Holywell in the Parish of Ashby de la Zouch or out of the Stream or Brook flowing from the same whereby Town is in Part supplied with Water nor in any way to divert or the Course of the said Spring Stream or Brook but that the same shall and may at all Times hereafter flow as freely fully and beneficially to said Town of Ashby de la Zouch and along the antient Course thereof to Intents and Purposes as heretofore.”
Such an important notice to preserve Ashby de la Zouch’s holy well one would have thought it had been better known perhaps. However, although Ashby-de-la Zouch is famed for its Spa a more ancient spring. These springs of which were on the borders with Derbyshire and now fill ponds at the Conkers activity centre where there is a small information board about it. The famed portico was destroyed in the early 1970s and the site of the springs is still noted in the Conkers adventure park although there is nothing to see. However, there is something to see at the Holywell at the town.
It first appears in the LRO Description of Ashby De La Zouch in 1735 as Hollywell a name we will come back to. John Nichols (1795–1815) in his work The History and Antiquities of the County of Leicester notes is the first to note site stating that:
“Ashby is well watered with springs, by the name of… Holywell”
In the 1831 A descriptive and historical guide to Ashby-de-la-Zouch and the neighbourhood it notes:
“Ashby possesses several fine springs of water they are distinguished as Holy Well Lyon sWell and Perring’s Well”
This spring still arises as John Richardson (1931) the Water supply of Leicestershire calls it as:
“a good spring (30,000 to 35,000 gallons a day, not now used)… half-a-mile NNW of the Church”.
Holy or Hollow?
A lack of tradition, legends, folklore or even properties can be problematic. However what is more problematic is the name Hollywell compared to the geography of the well. Such names can often derive from the Old English word ‘Holh’ for hollow rather than ‘Halig’ for holy! The well not only appears to rise in a small cave but the whole stream flows to the town in a deep hollow! So is it Hollowell? Possibly.
The site today
The site still exists being near Holy Well Farm on the outskirts of the town. The spring arises in a dense thicket at the edge of Holywell Spring Farm. Some years back I was given assistance to examine it, a rather hazardous occupation, as the site is very steep.
Its source is fills a large rectangular pool which is brick and stone lined. Water then flows under a small arch into a much large rectangular pool. The exact source is too overgrown to see clearly, but its water then cascades over the basin to form a small sandy stream. The structure appears to be too ornate to be modern and probably in parts date back to the use of the water in the spa period. Its waters are said to feed two taps in the town: one in the Spa and the other in council grounds. The area around the springhead is soon to be developed for housing so hopefully this ancient water source will survive the change!
This was first recorded 1366 as ‘Halywalsiche. and then in purchase of the lands of St Catherine’s Chantry, lately dissolved, in 1564, it refers to lands here at ‘Holy well hedge’ and ‘Hollywell siche.’ However, nether of the dates help identify when the structure shown by Hope was actually built. Over the arch was carved inscription an inscription which read:
“Fons sacer hic strvitvr Roberto Nominus Hardinge 16xx”
“this Holy well was built by Robert named Hardinge 16xx“.
Briggs suggested the date of 1660, which is quite likely, as it coincides with the Restoration of Charles II as the family at the nearby hall. The aforementioned Hardinge, were staunch Royalists, and of course puritans disliked holy wells as many other so called ‘popish’ things. However, its restoration may have been for little more than to maintain a good water supply. Later depictions such as pre-war postcards show the date to be quite clearly 1662.
The present condition of the well is tribute to its local community. The arch survived for nearly 300 years but a combination of vandals and the roots of the nearby ash tree caused the arch fall down and it lay in pieces in the 1950s. Sadly the original inscription appears to have been stolen or entirely broken to pieces. However, unlike many similar sites, this was not the final fate of the well. In the 1980s it was restored using as many of the old stones as possible. The landowner was happy to sell the land and Melbourne Civic Society donated money for its restoration. No artifacts were found, apart from 17th century Ticknall ware pottery, later tiles, and drainpipes fragments. Most of the original stones were recovered, but the job of reconstructing them appeared to be a large task and new stone was required. The arch over the well was left blank as it was thought misleading to re-inscribe it. H. Usher in there (1984) The Holy Well at King’s Newton, Derbyshire in the Old Series of holy wells journal Source notes that on the first Sunday after Ascension Day, May 19th 1985, over a hundred people gathered for the opening ceremony when the plaque was unveiled by the Society’s President, the Marquees of Lothian, of Melbourne Hall. It is delightful to see it restored and celebrated by the community.
There appears to be no records regarding its properties baring its ‘superior excellence of its waters‘, and being noted as a mineral spring. Interestingly, its waters are said to flow towards the rising sun.
Extracted from R.B.Parish’s (2011) Holy wells and healing springs of Derbyshire
Situated beneath 5 Strand Lane is one of the city’s most enigmatic and perhaps little known relic, the so-called Roman Baths. Laying four feet six inches (1.4m) below the modern street level, the bath measures about 15 foot (4.72m) by 6 feet (1.91m), with a depth of just over four feet (1.37 m) deep. Its lining is built from bricks measuring 9 inches (22.9 cm) by 3 inches (7.6 cm) and is 1.75 inches (4.4 cm) thick.
John Pinkerton (1784) is the first author to describe the site, called it a:
“fine antique bath’ in the cellar of a house in Norfolk Street in the Strand formerly belonging to the Earl of Arundel whose house and vast gardens were adjacent”
The next notice was when MP William Weddell, a well-known antiquarian died of a sudden chill when bathing there in April 1792. Even Dickens (1849) used the bath as a location in David Copperfield having the titular character having cold plunge within and describes it as ‘at the bottom of one of the streets out of the Strand.’ A sign on the baths in the eighteenth century, put up by its then owner read:
“the celebrated Cold Plunging Bath (built by the Earl of Essex in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, 1588) is open all the year round. It is known to be the most pure and healthy bath in London ensuring every comfort and convenience to those availing themselves of this luxury. This bath, which is strongly recommended by the Medical Profession, is essentially supplied from the Spring, and discharges at the rate of ten tons per diem. Consequently, every bather has the advantage of a continual change of water. The old Roman spring water bath, nearly two thousand years old, can be viewed.”
Roman or more recent?
Despite this claim the actual origins of the origins of the bath are unclear. Although Roman London lay 1 mile (1.6 km) to the east and all the remains appear to suggest a Tudor origin at the earliest. They may have indeed been built for Arundel House, which was built by the Earl of Essex as a water cistern. When this house was lost in the 16th century, the area was built over by a row of houses and it was only rediscovered after a fire in 1774. A man called James Smith appeared to be responsible in converting the derelict cistern into a cold bath when he moved into No 33 Surrey Street in the mid 1770s. He soon started to advertise it as:
“the cold bath at No. 33, Surry-street, in the Strand … for the Reception of Ladies and Gentlemen, supplied with Water from a Spring, which continually runs through it.”
Two years later he constructed a second bath which was lined with marble. This the Essex Bath survives robbed of its cladding in the basement on the Norfolk Hotel but currently due to the building being empty is inaccessible.
A survey of the brickwork by Dr. Kevin Hayward of Pre-Construct Archaeology in May 2011 revealed that brickwork and tiles to date from 1450 to 1700. Further chemical analysis by Dr Stuart Black of University of Reading suggested a date between 1550 and 1650. Although, the date would support the cistern origin for Arundel House, Trapp (2010) believes that it may have been associated with the grotto fountain, said to represent Mount Parnassus or Helicon, in the privy garden of adjoining Somerset House. The area where it stood was being redeveloped in the 18th century. Trapp (2010) notes that Treasury Warrant book for April 1710 records a petition from Thomas Vernon, the then owner of this land nearby which records:
“for the grant of a little old shed in Strand Lane…being 14 feet square, formerly a water house to a grotto in Somerset House but now in ruinous condition and like to fall into the petitioner’s land.”
This is clearly the Roman Bath for its dimensions are identical and Vernon’s property Surrey Street property would have abutted the site. Interestingly a record of 1724 which records ‘Old Waterhouse’ (a decayed building of no use)’ suggests it was still standing and when it was demolished and became the bath today is unclear.
The source of water
It may seem so surprising in an area where so many wells have been capped, filled in and culverted into sewers, the water supply has been relatively constant bar when in the 1940s it was blocked with rubbish or during 1970s building work. However it has been unclear how where it comes from.in the mid 1800 it was bubbling from a hole in the floor but this was apparently patched over, then meaning by the early 1920s it entered by the north-east corner but since then it has been supplied via a settling tank at its east end.
It is probable that one of a number of lost holy wells fill it either St Clement’s Well or the Holy Well which gave Holywell street its name. Certainly the properties of the water being high in phosphate could suggest it was a medicinal spring
A remarkable survival
Despite not being as the 1838 advertising would say an ‘Old Roman Bath’ the bath’s survival is no more remarkable. In 1893, one of its users a New Oxford Street draper called Henry Glave bought the complex – he sold off the Essex bath and its building and focused on the older one refurbishing it by using the Essex Bath’s stone flooring, marble lining and wall tiles and creating changing-stalls and decorative sculpture. The family, the site being inherited by his daughters, ran the site until 1922 when it was offered for sale for £500. It was subsequently purchased by the Rector of St Clement Danes, the Reverend William Pennington Bickford. His ambition was for the bath to be restored to its Roman glory and be a major historical monument. He was supported by historian Edward Foord who wrote about its provenance. The plans never materialized and then when he died in 1941 it was bequeathed to St Clement Danes patron, Lord Exeter. Then through various complications it ended with it being taken over by the National Trust but controlled by Westminster Council who would organise the day to day maintenance. After some decorations it was opened once more to the public in June 1951.
On a recent Open London Day I was able to have a closer look again. The site is remarkable as being still full of water in a city with demands on water and a plus are the remarkable Dutch tiles. Of course no one is able to take a bath in it but it remains a curious relic of London’s cold bath system – the only one remaining of many in the city
Who was John Wycliffe?
He was a Yorkshire born scholastic philosopher, with his critical views on the the veneration of saints, the taking of sacraments, use of requiem masses, the concept of transubstantiation, monasticism, and the pomp of ceremonial worship, the status of clergy and the existence of the Pope he is seen quite rightly as the morning star of Protestantism. His views influencing the great protestant reformers of a hundred years or so later. Famed also for translating the bible into English. His views and activities were clearly a thorn in the side of the Catholic church but he was protected by influential figures such as John Of Gaunt. He was Rector of Lutterworth, where he died in 1384 on New Year’s Eve giving a sermon! After his burial the Papacy demanded he be dug up and burnt, his remains being thrown in the river. And it is this terrible act of ‘sacrilege’ which is pivotal to his Holy Well.
A miraculous origin
“Tradition also says, that, at the time of this ceremony [the exhumation or burning of John Wycliffe’s bones], one person who staid, after the rest had left his grave, in order to search as strictly after the least bit of bone… having found one, ran hastily to his companions with it in a triumphant manner; but, before he reached them, fell down, and dashed his brains out; and from the very place where he fell immediately gushed out a spring of water, which to this day is called St John’s Well.”
Dyson (1913) in Lutterworth, John Wycliffe’s Town, notes a later version of the legend tells how this bone fell from the bier and was later dug out, and how a spring issued from the place. It would be ironic if this well was really named after the reforming cleric and opponent of pilgrimages and adoration of saints.
“THE HOLY WELL OF ST. JOHN THAT the name of Wycliffe was regarded with something more than veneration by the people of Lutterworth during the Middle Ages is proved by the story of the Holy Well of St. John. The legend is that, as the bones of the holy man were being carried on a bier from the church to the riverside for burning, in accordance with the ecclesiastical decree, in passing down the steep slope at what is now the bottom of High Street a bone fell to the ground and was immediately trampled into the soft soil of the unmade roadway by the crowds which followed. Some years afterwards a man working upon the spot brought to light the missing bone, and, upon taking it from its position, forthwith there issued from the hole where it had lain embedded a fountain of the purest water, which ceased not to flow day or night to the joy of the inhabitants of the town, who regarded it as a display of Divine favour upon the remains of their local saint. The water was immediately looked upon as miraculous and was conveyed to a stone drinking- fount placed by the side of the way at the spot where the discovery was made.”
Dyson (1913) Lutterworth, John Wycliffe’s Town, also notes that it had:
“For ages the power to cure all manner of diseases especially where the eyesight was affected, was attributed to this water, and the actual stone basin which received it is believed still to exist behind the brick wall which was built in front of it some sixty years ago. The spring itself was tapped a few years ago in excavating for a sewer, and was so strong that it had to be conveyed into the common drain.”
Holt (1884) in John de Wycliffe; the first of the reformers, and what he did for England notes;
“Even then, thirty years after his voice had been stilled in death, evidence remains to show that his parishioners at Lutterworth had regarded him with a heart-veneration which, had he fought for Rome instead of Christ, would have gone far to earn him canonization. Legends sprang up and took root among them, to the effect that no water would flow under that arch where Wycliffe’s ashes had been flung ; and that on the spot where one of his bones had fallen sprang ” St. John’s Well,” which still runs clear and abundant, never drying up even in the hottest seasons.”
A noted well
Finding evidence for the site’s provenance is illusive. The 15th century topographer William of Worcestre never visited the town and certainly when Leland visited in 16th century he did not mention it, despite mentioning springs arising in the hills in the area but not this well. However it is possible that earliest record may be a note of 1695 by Edmund Gough which was referred to be Camden (1695)):
“Lutterworth… near which is a spring of water so very cold, that in a little time it converts straws and sticks into stone.”
Yet no later authority refers to a different site a petrifying spring especially as Harte (2008) in his Holy Wells of England states Gough mentions it just before discussing the exhumation of Wycliffe’s body. Of St. John’s Well, a contributor to Nichols (1795–1815) does describe it as petrifying and that:
“in the neighbourhood of Lutterworth is a petrifying spring called St John’s well, the water of which is exceeding cold, and so strongly impregnated with petrifying qualities, that in a very little time it is said to convert wood and several other substances into stone.”
But Nichols himself gives the name to a different site:
“St John’s Well is in the town, opposite to the last house, on the left hand side towards London. It is a soft water, and used for drinking.”
The association with the bones giving a petrifying properties to the spring and hence the association.
Despite an obvious association with John Wycliffe, it appears more likely to be named after a hospital in the town which was dedicated to St John the Baptist, over time local memory of this would have been forgotten but the name remembered. Indeed even Dyson (1913) Lutterworth, John Wycliffe’s Town, relays this:
“It has been thought bv some to have been called the Holy Well of St. John from its position within sight of the Hospital of that name, to which we have already alluded, but it seems to us, in the face of the above tradition, that the dedication to St. John was far more likely to have had reference to the Christian name of Lutterworth’s great rector.”
The spring was clearly an important water source hence reference in the Town Masters account book of 1716 it is recorded that four shillings was paid for “a spout of elm 7 foot long to lay at St. John’s Well”
Searching for the well
Field researchers (record on pastscape as F2 FDC 18-AUG-1960) in 1960 stated:
“Enquiries of the owner/occupier revealed that the building was so named from “St John’s Spring” which is in the ornamental garden at the rear of the house and which was surveyed. The owner was aware of the legend… and stated that the well was believed to lie beneath an ash tree adjacent to the spring but that structural remains had not been found. The spring, freely flowing, is perpetual.”
According to the Bords (1985) Sacred Waters:
“It is now situated in the garden of a private house, but can be visited by making an appointment with the owner, John Daniell, of the Springs”
Since I picked up the book in 1986 I have been planning to search out the well. I had written to the address, kindly provided in Sacred Waters – but to no avail. So 32 years I decided to look for it. I found The Springs, easily found on the road to Rugby and knocked on the door – no answer. It looked like the property was now a busy property and empty. I knocked next door and noticed a small garden adjoining – was this where the spring was? Unlikely. I saw an elderly man engaging with another in a house overlooking the springs and decided to ask him. At first he was not sure of what I was talking about but when I mentioned spring he realised he knew where it was.
I was right the spring was no longer in the grounds of The Spring in the subsequent decades houses have been built in the garden of the house. In fact he told me that when the houses were built the builders had a problem with the spring. He remembered it as a circular dip or pool. Fortunately, the builders did not destroy the site and it remains in the front garden of the house. No one was home but as it was in the front garden I decided it did not harm taking a few photos. The spring now flows rather sluggishly through a pipe enclosed in a brick and stone structure. It fills an oval pool, possibly that referred to by the neighbour and then flows out into a small brick structure.
The rediscovery of the original well was a bonus. A foot away it could be found obviously discovered when the original wall was removed to build these new houses. The well a circular stone line structure is dry and crosses under the fence into the next door property. Which was a great find!
A common theme
What is interesting hagiographically is that this was a frequently encountered trope which was used to show the sanctity and power of saintly figures; a theme in itself derived from a pagan folk belief. Furthermore, the emergence of a spring underlines not only the sanctity of the person but emphasised that the act was unjust, being a victim of persecution such as many saints murdered by pagan kings or jealous step-mothers! In this case it might appear strange to associate such a site with a figure so firmly connected with the Reformation. However, this is perhaps a post-modern revisionist view point. To the followers of Wycliffe, the common town folk, who perhaps did not know the full ramifications of his politicised religious views, worthy religious people became saints and feasibly they did not see why their Wycliffe would not. Saints needed sites to justify their saintliness and a local mineral spring already named after a John would be a likely candidate. It is an irony to those who understood his anti-veneration of saints view but lost to the generations just after him, they would only remember his importance to the town. Indeed in 1518, a John Stilman was indicted for saying that ‘Wycliffe was a saint in heaven’. The date may be significant and may explain the lack of appearance of the spring until the late medieval period. It was a local site whose fame would only be noted post the Reformation’s most zealous period. I have discussed how sites associated with Queen Elizabeth I also took on the properties of saint’s wells and it is also possible that in the vacuum created by the Reformation figures associated with the principles of the Reformation were treated like the pre-Reformation saints by the uneducated faithful to provide the same forms of solace. Even today it is clear from the church the importance of Wycliffe where his pulpit, door he passed through when he collapsed on New Years Eve 1384, a font from his era and possibly his garments are proudly on show..all saintly equivalents!
Oxford’s ancient and holy wells are well-recorded, Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary Lore of Holy Wells dedicates a considerable amount of space to the subject. However by his time many of these wells had already vanished. Hope (1893) records:.
“Ulward’s Well called soe from John Ulward who held lands there of Dionisia Burewald, which she gave to Godstow.”
It has vanished, so too has:
“ARISTOTLE’S Well is not far from Elmer’s (and Wolward’s) Well in the north suburbs, neare or in the fields of Walnercote or Ulgars–or Algar’s Cote. It was anciently (as by some now) called Brumman’s Well, together with that at Walton, because Brumman le Rich or de Walton lived and owned lands about the said wells, most, if not all, of which he gave by the favour of Robert D’oilly, his lord and master, who came into England with the Conqueror, to St. George’s College in the Castell at his first foundation, A.D. 1074.”
He continues that in the Anthony Wood’s 1661 Survey of the Antiquities of the City of Oxford:
“After his time, if not, be likely, before, it was christened by the name of Aristotle’s Well, because that it was then–as now ’tis–frequented in the summer season by our Peripateticks.”
Hope notes that:
“In the present summer (1888) it was built over by the garden wall of a house erected on the south of the road leading to the canal bridge,”
And so it apparently remains. A lane remembers the well but there is no trace of its fabric
Aristotle was not the only philosopher remembered in a well in Oxford. Stoke or more Plato’s Well
“The reason why it was soe called was from a well situated therby called Stoke well, being the same which is to this day apparent to the beholders under the wall of Cornwall Close, and called beyond the memory of man by the students of this University Platoes Well, and Cornish Chough Well. It was on the north edge of the path which ran from the end of Thames (now George) Street to Hythe Bridge.”
The Plato well again is lost. However, the next well survives, this being Walton’s or Bruman’sWell. Hope (1893) again records:
“Still remembered in the name of Walton Well Road, and having on its site a fountain, erected in 1885 by the liberality of Alderman Ward. The inscription is as follows: 1885. Drink and think of Him who is the fountain of life. With the consent of the lords of the manor, this drinking-fountain is erected by Mr. William Ward, to mark the site of a celebrated spring, known as Walton Well, adjacent to the ancient fordway into Colt Meadow, now called Walton Ford.”
This fountain remains although it is now dry but remains. However, whether it has any significance is unclear. The last spring is this part of the survey is the Child Well
“Child’s Well, by the holyness of the chapleynes successively serving there, had vertue to make women that were barren to bring forth children.”
This spring still exists in a form feeding a fen in a nature reserve in the Chiswell Valley. Its name is more likely to be derived from Old English chald meaning cold as found in other childwell types. What is interesting is that the area was called Happy Valley for being the site of picnics the most popular day being Good Friday. Was this a remembrance of taking the waters from this spring on Good Friday as was traditional in other places?
“The stone head from the mouth of which the main spring flows, pictured in Mrs Leather’s the Folklore of Herefordshire has miraculously survived the tanking of this well for a water supply, although he is now buried almost up to his nose in concrete.”
Jonathan Sant 1994’s Healing wells of Herefordshire
Such was the description that when I was touring the area visiting holy and healing wells in Herefordshire I gave St Peter’s Wells a miss thinking I’d be disappointed. However, the well was a notable one John Littlebury in his 1876, Directory and Gazetteer of Herefordshire notes that:
“The water of these wells was formerly extensively used for the cure of rheumatism and sore eyes.”
Indeed these appear to other springs, and this explains the name, St Peter’s Wells, Ella Leather in her Folklore of Herefordshire notes of these:
“There were formerly three springs here. Two near together, above the large well, were good for eye troubles; into these pins were thrown. They are now closed up.”
Ella Leather continues:
“The water of the larger well flowed through a sculptured head of St Peter into a shallow bathing place made for the use of sufferers from rheumatism. Mr J. Powell, of Peterchurch, told me in 1905, that he could remember this chilly remedy being actually used: it was in his boyhood. The ash tree which formerly stood near the well had been cut down, and still lay above it.”
It is evident from Leather’s photo that the head no longer had a flow of water through it and it appears that the bath was no longer beneath it. I would suggest that the head had not flowed for some time because it is clean and lacking in any moss which would come with constant water. L. Richards in his 1935 Wells and Springs of Herefordshire notes that:
“A considerable quantity of water issues from sandstone in the neighbourhood of St. Peter’s Wells above Wellbrook Farm and gives rise to Well Brook—joined by a tributary from a good spring in Bradley’s Wood—which flows under the road at Crossway and so into the River Dore. The spring water is hard, especially that from the ‘ Limestone ‘ which is well displayed in a quarry below Urishay Castle and on analysis by C. C. Duncan, F.I.C., F.C.S., proved to be 96.37 per cent, carbonate of lime.”
This hard water may explain its use for rheumatics perhaps.
Ancient pagan well?
With such a prominent head it is not surprisingly that there has been conjecture over a pagan origin, citing the Celtics fascination with heads, especially in connection with wells It is interesting that an ash tree is mentioned Ash trees were thought be sacred in pagan times and where associated with the legend of Odin’s eye and the well, but of course it is a common tree and it could be a coincidence. Sant (1994) notes:
“An iron cross has been found in the wood above the well, and this may have come from the well where it would have lent a less pagan air to the place.”
Where there was a link is not clear considering it was found in the woods and not at the well
A bath and baptism
Sant (1994) notes that the baths were provided with a:
“ shed for the rheumatic bather’s use.”
And according to George Marshall in 1933–5, ‘Fourth field meeting, 1933’, Tr. of the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club 1933–5: xxvi–ix states that:
“up to quite recent times, baptisms were performed here, the bath being approached by eight stone steps. Mr Watkins explained that the steps and bath into which they lead was choked to the top with earth and the head was covered with water until recently, when excavations were made and the well renovated.”
Adopted for a water supply
The bath was restored in 1932 according to Richardson 1935 but this was short lived for it was soon adopted as a local water supply for the town
“Village Supply.—This belongs to the ‘ Peterchurch Water Supply Company ‘—a company constituted by an Indenture dated 2nd February, 1921,and consisting of the users of the scheme. There are two separate undertakings: a spring from sandstone collected at outburst into a brick tank above Wellbrook (by the side of the road to Stockley Hill where it is joined by the lane from St Peter’s Wells supplies the lower part of the village….”
The current reservoir was installed here in the 1960s, and its insensitive positioning rendered the ancient stone head redundant as noted by Sant 1994 and shown below.
However in 2015, as part of an infrastructure upgrade, a way was found to direct excess water through the stone head and water once again flowed through its mouth. In periods of very low groundwater levels the flow from the stone head may be reduced to a trickle due to demands from the water supply network.
When I did finally visit the site in 2017 I was delighted indeed to see this head restored to its usage and the well chamber visible, albeit difficult to approach as a result of the fence which understandable is around the site to protect the water supply. It now boasts to be the most notable holy well in the county once again.
As part of my research for the forthcoming Holy wells and healings springs of Staffordshire I sought out the existence of two sulphurous wells in the Parish of Codsall. The first of these was called the Brimstone Well a wonderfully evocatively named site. However despite some early sketches it appears to be largely forgotten. One illustration shows a circular rough stone well head among leafy foliage in the William Salt Collection. An account locates it as:
“Halfway up the road between Wheatstone Park and Pendrell Hall is a sulphur spring – the medical properties of the water being noted in Plot’s ‘Natural History of Staffordshire’ (1898)…Sometimes the water oozes through the tarmac surface of the road.”
There did not appear to be any well head matching the description between the two locations, although there was a rush lined pool close by. Enquires made in the hamlet of Codsall Wood failed to locate the site and apparently it has been lost. I traversed the area for some time up and down the lanes and concluded that.
The other is more famed, being the Leper’s Well by comparison it was easy to locate, especially as I had the company of Kate Gomez author of the excellent Little Book of Staffordshire and Lichfield Lore blog. This was another site according to Plot (1696) which is:
“sated with sulphurous particles; for it always emits a sulphurous smell: and in winter, and sometimes against rain, the odour is so strong, that, with the advantage of the wind, one may smell it now and then at least 23 yards off. Moreover, so volatile is it, and so little restrained, that when set over the fire, it flies away so fast, that the water quickly loses its smell.”
Plot (1696) continues:
“In ancient times, when leprosies were frequent, this water was accounted a sovereign remedy for such as were troubled with that foul distemper; and for whose better accommodation there was a house built near it, which retains to this day the name of the Leper House. This water is in use at present against scabs and itch, both in man and beast, and purges both by ‘siege and urine. It not only rakes the body within, but most effectually drives forth all ill humours, and sometimes it vomits, according to the constitutions of the patients, who commonly drink about three quarts at a time. Less, scarce works except by vomit, where it meets with weak stomachs.”
This Leper House now a small farm still exists a few yards above the well on the other side of the road. Plot also notes continues to note that the inhabitants hereabout brew their drink with this water, especially at that which they call the Brimstone Alehouse; and boil their meat with it. Upon which it is observed, that none of them are ever troubled either with scabs or itch, or such like cuticular diseases.
William Pitt in his 1817 A Topographical History of Staffordshire notes that the spring arose, up through the hollow stump of a tree, and runs down the road, leaving a yellowness on the moss resembling flour of brimstone: in warm dry weather it emits a sulphurous exhalation. However, this is clearly not the Leper well but if the sketch in the Salt collection is to be believed the Sulphur well. It was also noted that well dressing seems to have been customary in the area, however which wells and when is unclear not when it ceased. The well is a keyhole shaped stone lined well now enclosed by a fence for safety reasons. A large ash tree found over the well in the 1990s appears to have been felled probably because its roots were damaging the fabric or generally unsafe. The water is covered with thick duckweed but when disturbed there is a clear smell of sulphur. Around four steps can be traced on the east side of the well and it is probably considering the size that the well was designed for bodily immersion. This would of course link with the idea of its use by lepers. The only disadvantage is the barbed wire. I jumped over for a closer look and tore my trousers but that was preferable to being as pixy led as I was finding the Brimstone well.
Only a few feet from the hurtling sound of the train is a large spring head. This is St. Helen’s Spring or Tevantwell. (TL 841 874) still exists although as Manning (1993) in there work on Taking the Waters in Norfolk notes the original site may have been displaced by the construction of the railway nearby. Thomas Martin (1779) in his History of Thetford notes that:
“St Helens was a parish church in the time of the Confessor…It stood on a hill two miles out of the town on the Santon road. At the foot of the hill is a spring commonly called Holywell or Tevant-well, corruptly for St Helen’s-well.”
W. G. Clarke (1925) in Breckland wilds states that:
“It is said that a man who was working in the harvest field suffered from extreme heat and expressed his intention of going to St. Helen’s Well to get some water to drink. His companions endeavoured to dissuade him from drinking icy-cold water in his heated condition, but he was obstinate, went to the spring and drank till he died. His spirit thereupon haunted the pit in which the spring was situated.”
Leigh Hunt (1870) in his The capital of the ancient kingdom of East Anglia reports finding foundations of this building, and these may still be those still exist and are described by Manning (1993). According to Manning (1993):
“six or seven springs emerge in the floor of the quarry… the building of the railway cut through the original St Helen’s Well and the present springs represent a post-railway emergence”.
She states that there are signs of a structure consisting of a grey brick bridge spanning the conduit arch and two further arches have been infilled at either side of the conduit, but this do not appear to be visible now and perhaps have become overgrown.
The spring does arise from stonework although it is difficult to judge whether these are natural or have had the touch of human hand.
A lost church
The first mention the church is the Domesday Book which notes:
“one church of St Helen with one ploughland”.
The next mention is that there was a fair there mentioned in a roll of fair belonging to the Borough of Thetford, this was also recorded in 1347 as a market or fair at Santon. However, by the time of the 1368 Archdeacon’s visitation it was absent from this very comprehensive survey. This suggests that the church was gone by then. Various excavations have revealed the remains of an apsidal church and that it incorporated Roman works into it, mainly tiles in its east end and north wall foundations. But was there a village? It appears not and so you may ask why was it here? The answer is quite clear it was here to capitalise on the spring, but what is surprising is that no adoption is apparent by the church perhaps this indicates that the church had indeed gone by the time of the real adoption of such springs by the church with appropriate masonary…it is difficult to tell.
An ancient site
Examples of Palaeolithic flint tools have been found in the gravels at St Helen’s Pit. As at other sites in the Little Ouse valley such as Broomhill (another Trail site), these are likely to have been incorporated into the gravels after being washed off a land surface where they had been discarded, or having been drawn into them by the churning effects of frost action.Pagan site
What is clear is that this remote site has become a pagan site again, Pagan Federation of Norfolk website records:
”This is a strangely beautiful spot, which forms a point of connection between the earth and the leaves and the water of the land itself, the scars of quarrying, echoes of ancient Pagan veneration, faint traces of Anglo-Saxon Christianity, the brutal power of Victorian industrialisation and a new, Pagan appreciation of sacredness. “
“Although I have never met anyone else down there, it is obvious from the energy and from some of the items one occasionally finds, that various groups and individuals do a lot of magical work there. Wands can sometimes be respectfully cut from one of the Hazels and the water itself is, of course, very powerful and useful in a variety of magical contexts. St. Helen, or Helen of the Roads (also known as Elen of the Ways) is considered by John and Caitlín Matthews to be one of our oldest native deities. Since she is associated with travel, water from her well can be used for magic relating to physical journeys, but also to help with pathworkings and with quests to seek ancient knowledge and wisdom.”
What is interesting is that a hazel tree nearby has become a rag well. Interestingly the Pagan federation add:
“This practice, of tying rags and other offerings to trees at sacred spots, has found its way to us from our more westerly colleagues and is not one which I personally feel particularly comfortable with, mainly because so many people use items made of synthetic materials, which do not rot away like wool or linen, and end up just looking like a lot of litter desecrating the place. It is very rare in Norfolk, though and even at St. Helen’s there are only ever a few of them.)”
Indeed other than St Micheal’s Well in Longstanton outside of Cambridge and Woolpit’s Our Lady have ever had only one! It is possible as there are a number of St. Helen’s Well which are rag wells up north that someone in the know decided to start it off here. Whatever, someone had clearly thought the rag tree was an intrusion for upon a recent visit no rags were apparent being replaced by a bouquet of bright red tulips. It is indeed an unworldly site…climb down to it the trees give an eerie feel to it and even the sound of the train hurtling by cannot break the connection one can get to this peaceful place.
“All ye who hither come to drink/Rest not your thoughts below/Look at that sacred sign and think/Whence living waters flow”.
Ashwell’s Wishing’ Well is one of those frustrating sites. It is clearly a structure of some importance, being one of the best built up in the midlands, but how significant is it?
The sacred Ash
Peter Binnall (1935) in his Folklore of Wells notes that ash tree are very often associated with holy wells. The Ash was considered a sacred tree in Scaninavian countries and Britain. It was identified as Yggdrasil, the legendary tree associated with the god Odin. It is significant to note that at its roots was a spring where the Norns: Fate, Being and Necessity lived who used the spring to water the tree each day and used clay from it to keep the tree white to preserve its life. and whitened it with clay from the well, preserving its life.
However that does not mean that a well named after an ash is a culted spring. However, as Val Shepherd notes in her 1994 Historic wells around Bradford notes Holy Well Ash as well as Syke Well, Priestly which still has ash trees over it, as have Peggy Well, Riddlesden and White Well Harden. Hertfordshire has a significant seven springs in the town of Ashwells which is associated with a Roman shrine and the ash above St Betram’s Well, Ilam Staffordshire was protected by a ‘curse’ which suggested that any person who harmed it would themselves be harmed. Indeed my research has suggested there is an Ashwell in every county but I have not been bold enough to suggest there would be any significance in these names
Is this the well of the village?
Over the time the name of the village has changed from Exwell in the xi century; then Assewell, Ayswell, Aiswell (xiii century; and then Aswelle, Ashewell, Assewell xiv century and possibly the spring in which the village is named after, although some authorities note is derived from O.E wiella for stream although that does not preclude the spring being the source of course.
Furthermore, finding any associated tradition or history is impossible. The name wishing well is a modern term it appears unsupported by evidence. Some local belief that it may have been a holy well, and a cross was once erected over the structure.
The well today
When I first visited the well in the 1990s it looked a little forlorn, the cross said to be affixed to the apex of the building had gone and apparently fallen into private hands (I subsequently discovered its current whereabouts and it is safe!)
The spring arises in a substantial stone well house. This is made of squared rubble with a dressed stone coping. It is like a small grotto-like covered niche with an opening to the front with convex curved walls each side. Above the arched doorway an inscription reads. The spring fills a small pool at base of niche within in the rockface showing this is a spring not a well.
In conclusion it would suggest that the spring’s development was an attempt by a Victorian clergymen to both gentrify the site and as thus built a proper well house with its legend. Was there a High Church tradition in the village in the 1800s not that I have so far discovered?