“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.
Back in the mid 90s when I started seeking out holy wells, I came across reference to a site just outside of Thetford. I’d planed to visit the site and found it to be one of the most curious in the county. It is marked on the first series of the OS map in Gothic writing but was it that old?
A substantial site is located in Shadwell Park called St. Chad’s Well (TL 933 830). However, despite the name I can find no history or traditions about it, the first author to refer to the well is Bryant (1901) who states it is marked on an ancient map but as I note below I have been unable to substantiate this. Was it an ancient well?
Icewell, holy well or folly?
The well is enclosed is a circular dome of flint and mortar with a passage entrance facing west. The structure is supported by a stone pillar. The structure is not dissimilar to an ice-well which indeed it has been claimed it was but no-one would build an ice-well with a spring in it. A medieval fabric claim was made, but is of probable 19th Century date and is an estate folly; a grottification of a simple spring, utilising old stone work. This spring arises from the hillside and enters into a basin kerbed in stone through a hole in the flint wall of the structure. Above this is an arched recess. The water is channelled into a narrow gutter to exit through the north wall. The concrete floor of the chamber is below ground level reached by five stairs in the passageway. There are two lighting niches in the walls at the east and the southwest. Six stone blocks are arranged to form seats. Below the arch of the spring of the arch of the domed roof are six brackets which possibly served as candle stands.
St Chad or Boundary spring?
Unlikely although St Cedd his brother evangelised East Anglia, Chad wells are very common in the region. This is because they arise from the Old English Chaud meaning cold and thus cold spring! In this case it is apparent that the name may well be a back-derivation as its location on East Hall and Gonville Manors boundary suggests name derives from O.E scead for ‘boundary’ this is emphasised by the name of the estate Shadwell – sceadwell! Indeed the estate Shadwell Court is only first mentioned in White (1845) as the house was built in the 1830s with associated statues. Historic England records:
“Robert Buxton acquired the manor of Rushworth in Shadwell during the C16, initially holding a lease from the fourth Duke of Norfolk. In c 1715 John Buxton, amateur architect of Channonz Hall in Tibenham, began to rebuild what he called Shadwell Lodge and to lay out the grounds. The main features however of the design which survives today (1999), including the layout of the plantations and the creation of the lake, are the work of his son, also John, between the 1740s and 1760s and these are recorded on William Faden’s map of the county dated 1797. “
This suggests the well was a folly capitalising on the spring name using the carved stonework which may have originally been part of Thetford Priory, giving it a rustic religious feel. However this does not mean that the well was not of significance. Boundaries often incorporated springs as sites of note, or as disputed sites and having them on boundaries allowed equal access. As many Parish boundaries date from Angl0-Saxon periods it is possible that the well had a significant position in the settlement. There is evidence of an ancient settlement here with flint flakes and blades from the Neolithic and Bronze Age were found around the well and Roman funeral urns and Saxon tumuli in the park. Furthermore the well is also located close to Peddar’s Way, suggesting pilgrim use perhaps. So was it a Holy well as noted 1870-72, John Marius Wilson’s Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales:
“SHADWELL……It takes its name from a spring called St. Chad’s well, formerly much frequented by pilgrims.”
This begs the question is this just antiquarian fancy or are we missing some records of its history? Was it frequented by those on the way to Walsingham…if so its forgotten by them now.
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?
Sacred springs of the Zorastrians
Kazakstan is a mysterious country for many reasons, one being shrine is in the village of Kentau, here is the Zhilagan-Ata or the the Crying Grandfather. This spring is only said to flow for the pure of heart and that if you are not pure no water will be forthcoming.
One of the most holy places of the Zoroastrians is Pie- e- Sabz, a mountain shrine. A local legend tells that Nikbanoo, daughter of Emperor Yazdgird III was being chased by the conquering Arab army and reached he prayed to Ahura Mazda to save her at which case the mountain opened up. At the same time a spring arose which flows from the towering cliff called Chak Chak which in Persian means drop drop. This spring is said to be the tears of the mountain crying for Nikbanoo. Beside the spring is ancient tree which arose from Nikbanoo’s cane, which might suggest another origin for the spring. There was also said to be a cloth nearby from Nikbanoo. The shrine itself is a marble floored man-made cave with an eternal flame which has darkened the walls On the 14th-18th June the site is the goal of 1000s of bare footed Zoroastrians from Iran, India and other countries
Hot springs – sacred springs to spas
Hot springs are found in the mountainous regions and indeed appear to attract a mystical belief. Alex Lee explains on the website of Kazakh culture, Edgekz, a familiar tradition to readers of this blog:
“Springs are sources of healing and spirituality in many cultures, and near Kazakhstan’s hot and cold springs, you can still see ribbons tied to trees, which locals have tied there when they make wishes on the magical waters.”
The laying of ribbons being a custom widespread across England and in Europe. One of the most famed of these hot springs is Rakhmanovsky Springs, a remote spring though to relieve pain, improve heart and circulatory problems and even slow aging and help regeneration. The reason for the later belief may derive from a local story linked to its discovery. This is named after a local hunter who discovered the spring following a wounded deer. Being ready to finish it off he watched amazed as the fatally wounded animal lay in the hot waters and was apparently healed, running away from the hunter unharmed. Understandably amazed by what he saw he did not shoot it but told the locals of what he saw.
Other springs in the country are famed for hydrocarbonate and sulphate waters as well as silica, bromide, iodine and even Radon. The east of Kazakhstan boasts thermal hot springs with sulphate and hydrocarbonate waters. Additionally, Kazakhstan offers silicic water springs, as well as bromide and iodine waters. Bromide water calms one’s nerve system and also has anti-inflammatory effects, while iodine is considered helpful for gastrointestinal tract diseases with atherosclerosis and thyroid dysfunction.
Perhaps the most established is the Alma Arasan hot spring established as a spa in 1886 for rheumatism, metabolic disease, blood problems with over 2000 patients seeking its waters a year. These waters have a temperature 35-7 C and said to be radioactive much like the Pyrenean Aix Les Bains. This might explain why it is claimed that those poisoned by heavy metals such as lead will get cured.
This is one of a large number of such springs which await any healing water pilgrim in this country.
The modern seaside town of Porthcawl is classic British seaside and in the summer the eateries swam with visitors, surfers ride the waves and children clamber over rocks in search of crabs…a few miles from this buzz of seaside fun are three watery relics which have survived the spread of the town. How many of those seaside visitors come and examine them is unclear but if they did they would be privy to a magic otherworld..quite literally in fact!
The first of our wells really does appear to contact to another world being Ffynnon Fawr. A flight of stone steps descend into a world deep beneath us into a pool where light just about penetrates. Inside a large chamber brimming with clear water. Ffynnon Fawr lives up to its name – it is indeed a large well!
It is not the easiest to find. My sources pinpointed it on a modern roundabout on the outskirts, but on the wrong side so I spent a fair time looking in the wrong place and resigned myself to not finding it. However, I was determined and returning found it below the level of the ground at the roundabout.
The well is a rectangular grey stone building with a camber headed doorway with an iron gate. On the side it reads:
“Y Fynnon Fawr”
“Mae Dwr Yn Fendith Angenreidol Rhoddes Duw Inni Ar Lawr; Cofiwyn ‘Awdur Pob Daioni’ Wrth Yfed Dwr O ‘r Fynnon Fawr’
“Water Is A Necessary Blessing Which God Has Given Us On Earth; Let Us Remember ‘The Author Of All Goodness’ As We Drink From Fynnon Fawr”.
The well provided water for the older village of Newton Nottage now absorbed into the Porthcawl sprawl however no legends or traditions are recorded.
Not far away is St. David’s Well sitting just beside the edge of a lane but still feeling from a distant age. This is a true holy well and its present fabric albeit early 20th century doubtlessly includes medieval work as noted by Charles Davies in his 1938 The History of the Ancient Church situate at Newton, Porthcawl in the Parish of Newton Nottage.:
“A few years ago there was but a muddy heap of stones by the way-side; lately a partial restoration has been attempted, but without even indicating the name that gives it importance and interest.”.
Charles Davies further states:
“We are justified in surmising that the Well at Nottage owed its origin to the Memory of St. David, for the axiom of archaeology states that, when found in proximity, the shrine and its adjacent spring both commemorate the identical saint. A chain of evidence is available showing that such was the case. The remains of an ancient roadway bearing the significant name of “Heol-y-Capel” (Chapel Road), can be traced through the Croft leadmg from The Holy Well to the site of the Vanished Chapel and the adjoining “Cwrt Offeiriad”. Now this Chapel was situated on the west bank of the little valley, watered by Ffynnon Dewi (David’s Well), which is known today as “The Rhyll”, but in the 12th century was named “Dewiscumbe”. These facts prove an intimate relationship between the little hamlet and the National Saint of Wales in Pre-Norman days the nourishing of a Davidian Cultus – and all that is implied by Saint David having been its Patron Saint.
It is regrettable that the memory of the Shrine and Valley has completely faded ; not without shame do we remember our neglect of the Holy well itself, which has been the means of our resurrecting the past. …. Many are still spared who can remember It as it was some forty years ago. The limped water, of a constant depth, flows to the rough stone font, unaffected by winter flood or summer drought, incapable of gain or decline The rivulet still makes tremulous music as it meanders down the little valley of Dewiscumbe. Here, in mediaeval days, many a pilgrim quest found its consummation, and even today the idyllic surroundings appear to summon up the long-vanished atmosphere of the Welsh Saint.”
The site consists of a small stone enclosure with a style, said to be the church’s old altar, to prevent animals access it. The well itself is an ancient looking structure whose roof is made of large stone slabs and steps again go deep into the ground to a roofed chamber.
It is said that the ghost of a girl peering into its waters in the evening having been seen on a number times. She may have drowned in its deep waters. Today this is not possible as access again to the waters is no longer possible.
Could the Birch Well be the Wanstead Well?
Tucked away on Leyton Flats in a Birch Wood near to the boundary fence of Snaresbrook Crown Court and near the Eagle Pond, is an enigmatic spring, called the Birch Well.
Enigmatic because there must be more we should know about the site. The spring arises in a substantial stone-lined oval well head around 1.5 metres long, one of the most substantial of any well in Essex.
The lost Wanstead Spring?
Discovered early in the Seventeenth Century, the Wanstead Spring was a potential spa. A John Chamberlain, the news-letter writer, writing from London to Sir Dudley Carleton, on August 1619, stated:
“ We have great noise here of a new Spa, or spring of that nature, found lately about Wansted; and much running there is to yt dayly, both by Lords and Ladies and other great companie, so that they have almost drawne yt drie alredy; and, yf yt should hold on, yt wold put downe the waters at Tunbridge; wch, for these three or foure yeares, have ben much frequented, specially this summer, by many great persons; insomuch that they wch have seene both say that yt [i.e., Tunbridge] is not inferior to the Spaa [in Belgium] for goode companie, numbers of people, and other appurtenances.”
Thresh and Christy (1913) in their seminal Medicinal Wells of Essex note significantly:
“We have been quite unable to ascertain anything as to the part of Wanstead parish in which this spring was situated. In all probability, it was quite a small spring. One may infer as much from Chamberlain’s statement that, within a short time of its discovery, the company resorting to it had ‘almost drawn it dry.’ If such was the case, the spring was, no doubt, soon deserted and ultimately forgotten.”
Both accounts appear to suggest that any significant spring in the Wanstead area could vie for the said well. The Birch Well has good provenance, particularly as it is a chalybeate, that is iron rich spring, a common feature of the early medicinal springs, and indeed Chamberlain by comparing to Tunbridge, possibly the best-known chalybeate well, is underling it is.
Further evidence is given by a correspondent, a Mr. Walter Crouch, F.Z.S., of Wanstead, who writes to Thresh and Miller. They state that the correspondent’s knowledge of the history of the parish is unequalled. He stated:
“I have always had the idea that this Mineral Spring was not at the Park end of our parish, which abuts ou Bushwood and Wanstead Flats, but in the vicinity of Snaresbrook and on the road which leads to Walthamstow; but it is possible that it was in the grounds of ‘The Grove’ (now cut up and built over).The spring is not marked on Kip’s View (1710), nor on Rocque’s large Map (1735), nor on Rocque’s still larger map of a few years later.”
Thresh and Christy (1913) took the suggestion of Snaresbrook and visited the Birch Well but was not 100% convinced. However, it is difficult on the paucity of evidence to be anyway near 100%!
Winifred Eastment in her 1946 Wanstead through the ages gives no indication that the spa spring and the Birch well are one and the same but does emphasis that it was one of the most important public wells of Wanstead and indeed people from beyond the parish payed a penny for three buckets or 1.6d for a buttful! Although it is clear it was only used for drinking water. More curiously a local tradition tells how at least one person drowned at the well before the stone surround was established. Before this the site was more open, described as an open gravel pit with wooden steps, much like some of the earlier spas are indeed described.
So, is the Birch Well Wanstead Spa? I think it is highly probable. The site is clearly important by its position by the boundary, noted by a small boundary stone by the well. However, the chalybeate water produced by the spring head is perhaps the most suggestive.
Japan is a spiritual place. One of many sacred places. The majority of these being associated with the Shinto faith. Water is protected by the Suijin, a type of kami or Shinto spirit. These creatures were believed to be either serpents, eels or kappa . Women in the Shinto society were thought to be able commune with the Suijin and across Japan there are a number of sacred springs.
One important Shinto site is Mount Fuji which is doted with shrines or Akagami. In the grounds of the main one, Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha is a the sacred water of Mt Fuji said to have considerable healing properties. At the Goshado Shrine is the Sugatami-no Ido, or the Well of Full-Length Mirror, which is supposed to reflect the person’s remaining days who looks into the well. If no reflection is seen the person will die in three years!
A feature of the temples are the purification pools, or Mitarashi-no Ike, or ‘Holy Washing Pond’ Local legend states that at the one on Mount Hakusan that it is still haunted by mountain spirits and that it was formed in a single night, and through the years it has never run dry, even when the region was struck by droughts. At the Kashima Shrine, it is said that whether tall or short, the pond will have the same depth!
Japan’s other main religion is Buddhism and this too has it sacred water sources. The Daishi-do temple is set into the cliff of the Goishizan mountain. Dedicated to Shingon Buddhist founder Kobo Daishi. It is here that a spring can be found. Local legend tells us that Kobo Daishi formed it by hitting the ground with his staff. Beside the spring is a figure of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, a Buddhist Bodhisattva, an enlightened figure. What is interesting is that the area of Dounzan is especially sacred during the Summer Solstice because an image of Kannon appears on the rock said to caused by the light.
Of course Japan is particularly famed for its Onsen or Hot Springs, which are distributed widely across the country
In the last post, we discussed the well dedicated to St, Ethelbert, in this post I shall introduce the other curious piece of local waterlore, the tale of the bell and the mermaid. Ella Mary Leather in her 1912 Folklore of Herefordshire. She relates in a story communicated by a Mr Galliers, of King Pyon and completed from other oral versions:
“In former times Marden church stood close to the river, and by some mischance one of the bells was allowed to fall into it, it was immediately sized by a mermaid who carried it to the bottom and held it there so fast that any number of horses could move it.”
She continues to state how the bell could be recovered:
“The people of the parish were told how to recover it, by wise men, according to some; others say the bell itself gave directions from the bottom of the river. A team of twelve white Free Martins heifers was to be obtained and attached to the bell with yokes of the sacred yew tree and bands of wittern or in some versions, the drivers’ goads were to be of witty or wittern mountain ash.”
Here interestingly is related a common folklore motif. The recovery by a set number of oxen, often unblemished of pattern in some way, the number twelve being a significant folklore number of course. Also interesting is the mention of yew and wittern – or mountain ash. Mountain Ash was an important plant often used in May time as adornment on houses and was held against witchcraft. Indeed, Aubrey noted
“They used when I was a boy to make pinnes for the yoakes of their oxen of them believing it had virtue to preserve them from being fore spoke. As they call it and they used the plant one by their dwelling house believing it to preserve them from witches and Evil Eyes.”
The next stage again is often told at other locations when treasure needs to be uncovered:
“The bell was to be drawn out in perfect silence it was successfully raised to the edge of the river with the mermaid inside fast asleep. In the excitement a driver, forgetting that silence was all important called out
“In spite of the Devils in hell, now well land Marden’s great bell”
This woke the mermaid, who darted back into the river, taking the bell with her ringing.”
The Mermaid replying:
“If it has not been for your wittern bands or witty goads and your yew tree lin, I’d have you twelve free martins in.”
This of course appears to indicate the power of the sacred foliage used which prevented the full effort of the mermaid.
“So Marden folks have never had their bell back from the bottom of the river to this day, and sometimes it may still be heard ringing, echoing the bells of the church. It does in a deep clear pool.”
A common story
Now this is as I have said a common folk motif. A similar story is recorded at the Callow Pit, Southwold in Norfolk about not speaking. Here an iron chest filled with gold said to lay at the bottom of the pit. Many years ago, two adventurous men determined to retrieve it. Having placed a platform of ladders across the pit they were success to insert a staff into the ring in the lid of the chest, and bore it up from the water. They then placed the staff on their shoulders and prepared to bar their trophy off. As they did so one of them exclaimed: ‘We’ve got it safe, and the devil himself can’t get it from us.’ Instantly a cloud of sulphurous steam arose and a black hand from the pool and latched onto the chest. A terrible struggle ensued and after much exhaustion, their treasure sank back down into the murky depths. All the men retained was the ring.
A closer version is told at Newington Kent, associated with the Libbet Well, the legend blames the church wardens, who decided to sell thechurch’s great bell to pay for the repair of the others. So as not to be seen they did it at night, but the Devil appeared and threw it in the well. At first they had great success at raising the bell to the surface, but the rope broke, they tried again and failed. A local witch arrived, and told them that the only way it could be raised was by drawing it up by four pure white oxen. This was done, and it was almost raised to the surface until, a local urchin, who was passing, shouted out at the top of his voice, ‘Look at the black spot behind that bull’s ear’. The rope instantly broke, and the bell was lost forever!
Rediscovery of the bell!
Now these other legends are just that legends and usually such a story ends, but this one has a postscript. Leather (1912) further records:
“In 1848 in cleaning out a pond in Marden, an ancient bronze bell was discovered . It lay at a depth of eighteen feet, beneath the accumulated mud and rubbish of centuries. The bel, which is now in the Hereford museum is rectangular in shape the plates are riveted together on each side. The clapper is lost , but there remains the loop inside from which it was suspended.”
Now of course what is unknown here is what came first, the bell’s discovery or the legend. The bell’s rediscovery would be vindication for such a legend but as Leather is the first to record it, it could be that the legend was constructed around the bell. However, I feel less sceptical about it considering how complex the legend is.
Let us first consider the bell. Leather herself introduces the idea that these were bells that the sexton or clerk took to the houses of the deceased on the day of the funeral. However, they originated as portable bells often associated with saints, indeed one in Glascwm a bell called Bangu was said to have belonged to St David,. Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In his work Wirt Sykes 1880 British Goblins it is noted that:
“Clergy were more afraid of swearing falsely by them than the gospels, because of some hidden and miraculous power with which they were gifted, and by the vengeance of the Saint to who, they were particular pleasing; their despisers and transgressors were severely punished…. Have in all probability hidden long ago by reformers on account of the superstitious beliefs attached to them.”
Now it seems likely that the bell was perhaps used to warn off the mermaid (whatever that might be) as a way of Christianizing the site and removing any pagan imaginary. Does the story recall the battle between the pre-Christian world and the Christian world? The message being in this remote region that paganism still has its grip despite the church!
What was the mermaid?
It might seem unusual to hear about a freshwater Mermaid, certainly one so far from the sea. However, she is not alone. There are mermaids in the Peak District, Lancashire and elsewhere – indeed there are more freshwater ones than sea water in England. Why? It is probable that these are folk memories of water deities which are converted to otherworldly creatures. In the case of Marden’s slightly sympathetically, in other mermaid stories she steals people and drowns them.
Was the mermaid the deity which was originally associated with St Ethelbert’s Well? It is possible although there is a long gap between a likely Celtic deity and Saxon Christian conversion, although it is possible that a Saxon deity like Nerthus could be the origin. That is of course if St Ethelbert is the original saintly dedication. His legend is so generic as stated in the earlier post, he could have easily replaced or been mistaken for a local pre-Saxon saint. Certainly Leather suggests the bell has an association with the saint:
“The Marden bell was perhaps associated with St Ethelbert ; the pond in which it was found is near the church which stands on the spot on which the body was first buried before its removal to Hereford. “
Such a bell is not a Saxon type but it is not without reason that the style continued into the Saxon period, especially in boarder country. Alternatively, the bell may be an indication of the existence of the pre-Saxon saint I muted. Certainly the discovery of the bell in a pond may indicate the true location of the village’s holy well and not the dry pit that survives in the church. Whatever the truth it is an interesting and little known story and one would welcome observations by readers.