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In search of rag wells: St Mary’s Well, Culloden – a photo archive

First sighting of a hybrid votive offering custom a lock lock at a rag well.

wide array of coloured rags some of some age.

A number of trees are ‘adorned’ with anti-establishment slogans.

The most recent rag

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A branch with a collection of cotton rags slowly being covered with algae and rotting and an appropriate tartan one.

Lots of iron encrusted coins in the stream of the spring

A children’s bike helmet has this been attached as thanks for surviving an accident?

Tree beside the wall of the well has the largest number of coloured rags.

A scarf attached to a tree the furthest away from the springhead.

Armchair holy wells – a Youtube focus part 1 Wales

Dear followers and casual readers, as Covid-19 spreads across the globe and around 80% of the World’s population are in Lock Down the chances of any of us visiting a holy well are less than usual – unless its on our recreational walk or like me its under the house! Therefore I thought I’d post some Youtube videos which enable us to travel to holy wells from the comfort and perhaps frustration of our armchairs. I plan to focus on an area each month until the Lock Down period is over in the UK – sorry the rest of the world!

This month – Wales

A great introductory lecture

A well for lovers – Maen-du Well, Brecon

Now on the edge of a modern housing estate on the outskirts of Brecon, the Maen du well is a delightful find. Nestling in a small wood, a signed footpath takes you from the road to another world. The well is a small building, measuring 1.7, by 1.5 m inside. It is constructed of stone with a high vaulted roof formed with overlapping slabs. A doorway leads into a shallow pool of clear water with steps descending into it. The water flows into a large stone lined pool below it.

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How old is it?

Despite resembling the early Christian chapel/monastic cells that survive in Ireland and Scotland . A stone by the entrance is engraved 1754 with the initials WW. Which suggests it is not medieval after all. However, this could be the date it was built, or perhaps of a later rebuilding. The remains of an older well-building maybe evidenced by the ring of rough boulders in the pool.

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An article provides more in The Express dated 27th February 1913:

“THE MAENDU WELL – The well-known and ancient well is situated four fields from Maendu Street, and is to the north of the Priory Church. There is a pathway leading from Maendu Street, but this path for many months of the year is simply a gutter to carry away the water overflowing from fields higher up which badly want draining. The well was for many years the chief supply for the people residing in the Baileyglas and Pendre, and in ancient times it also supplied the Brecknock Castle. Old Sam Cooke, whose father was at one time wood-man to the Camden estate at Brecon, tells us that the well for some years also supplied water to Priory House, being carried through pipes to a tank placed in one of the fields near the Priory Churchyard. There is always a strong and clean supply of water. The well is arched over with stone-work and behind is planted a holly tree. On a stone at the entrance are the letters and figures “W.W. 1754” – probably the date when the present arch was erected. The stone-work shows signs of decay on the N.E. The dimension of the well inside is about 5 feet square, and the roof is about 10 feet from the water, which is only a foot deep, but very clear. The water runs away to a place outside, where those who were in the habit of fetching the water could descend steps and there place their water vessels, beneath the running stream.”

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A well for the castle

Thompson notes Pen y Crug an iron age hill fort nearby and suggests that the population therein used the spring. Certainly, Maen-Du well supplied Brecon Castle with water. An account reads:

“THE MAENDU WELL SUPPLIES THE CASTLE.

Hugh Thomas tells us, that at each corner of what he calls the square of this spacious building, were two watch towers, as might then be seen. The ruins of two of them still remain at the southern angle, and join an elevated and artificial mound, to the north east is the keep, since the confinement of Morton bishop of Ely, called Ely tower, where the conversation with the duke of  Buckingham, mentioned in the former volume, is supposed to have passed. The adjoining ground  on this side is considerably higher than the site of the castle, which made the northern front more  assailable than on any other aspect ; there were here therefore, in addition to the deep ravine or  mote before noticed, two additional fosses, occasionally filled with water from a well called the  Maendy well, which also supplied the fortress, though from the facility with which this stream could be  interrupted by an enemy in the time of a siege, there can be no doubt that there was also a well  within the walls, as water could be procured there without digging to any great depth.”

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A well for lovers

This well is very generally known as “The Wishing Well”, and love sick maidens are said to make pilgrimages and drop pins in the water whilst making their wishes.

Ian and Francis Thompson note in their 1999 The Waters of Life notes:

“the water was also good for eye complaints. We were assured that one man still fills his bottles at the well for his own use and that of his dog, who will not drink the local tap water.”

Richard Hall, the Brecon poet, has a reference to this well in his “Tale of the Past and other poems.”  Today there are no pins in the well that can be seen so perhaps the lovers have ceased to come…and now only local children hide out in this place.

Thompson notes that:

“within living memory hat pins were dropped in the well by girls seeking a husband, and since hatpins were relatively expensive, cheap imitations were sold in local shops for this purpose.”

The pool was restored with EU money and a local group called the Maen Du Group since 2009 have looked after the site clearing litter from the site, keeping the pond clean and producing signage although part of this sign has recently been vandalised. One does wonder how long the well can survive with the encroachment of urbanisation on its doorstep but for now it remains a romantic curiosity.

In search of rag wells: The Ragged Springs of Healing, Lincolnshire

There are records of a considerable number of rag wells in Lincolnshire and as such a cluster can be identified. In a couple of posts we shall be exploring the sites focusing on some in detail such as the significantly named Ragged springs near Cleethorpes to the north of the county which is the focus on this blog post.

First it is worth considering the name. The springs themselves whilst possibly being an ancient site, noted by the fact that the earliest name for the parish is Heghelinge. One may make the assumption that perhaps this derives from the springs. However, this is at variance to the view of the Cameron (1985-2002) as it is noted that Hægelingas is derived from ‘the sons or followers of a man named Hægel’ rather than healing, although it is of course a strange coincidence perhaps.

The first reference appears to be Charles Edward Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of Holy Wells, which of course takes a number of sources, some hitherto unknown, but often from local accounts. He records it confusing under another nearby village and states?

“Lincolnshire GREAT COTES, ULCEBY. Here is a spring celebrated locally for its healing properties. It rises from the side of a bank in a plantation, and is overshadowed by an ancient thorn, on the branches of which hang innumerable rags, fastened there by those who have drunk of its waters.”

Gutch and Peacock (1908) note that a:

“Mr. Cordeaux visited them not long since for the purpose of discovering whether pins are ever dropped into them, but the bottom of the water in both cases was too muddy and full of leaves to allow accurate examination.”

According to Gutch and Peacock (1908) each well had a different use, one spring being a chalybeate one was done for eye problems, whereas the other was for skin problems. They continue to note that a:

“F S, a middle-aged man, who grew up in an adjoining parish, states that when he was a lad, one spring was used for bathing, and the second for drinking. The latter was considered good against consumption, among other forms of sickness. . . . What the special gift of the bathing well was F S cannot say. He often plunged his feet into it when a boy, but he does not venture to assert that it had any great power in reality, although ‘folks used to come for miles,’ and the gipsies, who called the place Ragged Spring or Ragged Well, frequently visited it. A Gentleman who hunts with the Yarborough pack every winter, says that he notices the rags fluttering on the shrubs and briars each season as he rides past. There is always a supply of these tatters, whether used superstitiously or not, and always has been since his father first knew the district some seventy years ago.”

The custom apparently continued until the 1940s, indeed a visitor in the 1920s noted that even the trunks were covered with longer pieces of rag. A picture in Healy (1995) shows a number of rags on the bushes as seen below.

It is worth noting that perhaps the presence of a large thorn perhaps suggests a great antiquity to the site   The springs are still marked on the current OS map, as Healing Wells, in a small plantation, but they are, as the photo shows, only marked by circular indentations in the ground, the first spring being the easier to trace and appears to have holes, although these may be made by animals.

The springs are now quite dry, perhaps that the clogging of the springs noted above continued as the springs were forgotten, resulting in the current situation. Lying around the springs are a range of metal buckets in various stages of decay and some metal pieces which may be remains of a metal fence around it. I was unable to find any sign of rags although the man I asked in the whereabouts referred to them as the ragged springs. So there name maybe remembered even if the custom has long since been forgotten.

A little known Suffolk holy well – the holy well of Kedington

Suffolk strangely is not over endowed with holy, healing and noted wells and one is indebted to the pioneering work of Michael Burgess in his nigh impossible to obtain 1978 Holy Wells and Ancient Crosses of Norfolk and Suffolk a East Suffolk & Norfolk Antiquarians Occasional Paper 2.  So when one is noted it is of considerable interest despite its provenance. The Holy Well at Kedington is mentioned in Burgess’s work. 

The village of Kedington near Haverill has such a site simply called the Holy Well. The village is itself a delightful place full of interest namely its church where a rare circular Saxon cross head with an image of Jesus is located.

Burgess (1978) informs us that in the rectory gardens, also called Ketton House and states:

“In the grounds of Kedington rectory is a ‘holy well’ with supposed healing powers. At one time it was actually by the roadside but the road has since been diverted. Covered by a rounded brick hood, the we us about 41/2 feet deep, and has never been known to fail.”

Finding the holy well

The site has been on my to do list for some while and then last year around Easter time I happened to be in the area and able to visit the site. The gardens are regularly open for the Garden Open Scheme so I felt the owner would be possible amenable to my search. The gates were open and I walked over to the large house walked on the steps and rang the bell. A call came out and the owner appeared. I explained my search and he said I’ll get my wellingtons on and show you. Its current owner Mr Max Dyre-Bartlett was happy to show me and as can be seen it is an unusual well situated below the house but a fair way I would say from the road to suggest this part of the account may be erroneous and perhaps recants a movement of the spring into this well head? Similarly, despite the claim it never failed, he remarked that in the 20 years of living on the property it had never flowed. He also repaired and cleared the well which has an unusual brick built spiral stepped walkway to the well. The well has either lost its hood or else the small curved brickwork is what remains of it or is the hood.  Mr Max Dyre-Bartlett could not remember if it had more brickwork but on inspection it seems unlikely. This brickwork looks around Victorian in part and pre-Imperial in other suggesting an early 1700 origin. There is a hole below the level of the floor which is either where the water flows into the well head or out to prevent flooding. 

A pilgrim route?

Apart from providing unfailing supply of water, another tradition states that pilgrims used it on their way to Bury stating:

“Tradition says it was used by pilgrims on their way to the shrine to St. Edmund at Bury.”

This could certainly be true as it is close by but perhaps more interestingly, it is also in a straight line passing not far from the holy wells of St Wendreda near Newmarket and Holy Well Row near Mildenhall to the greater shrine of Walsingham.

Holy Well or not?

The site does not appear to be well known. It is not mentioned in a review of the garden in Garden open scheme, the church warden was unaware of it and indeed the current owner, Mr Max Dyre-Bartlett was unaware that it was a holy well. However, he was certainly interested in it being one and me bonded over both sharing a holy well on our property mine being under the house of course! So is it one? It certainly is unusual, indeed I have never seen one with such an unusual path way. However, perhaps as Burgess is the only source should be cautious? The site is also not mentioned in Harte (2008) English Holy Wells. Its location in a rectory garden is significant but how much we can use this as a solution is unclear. This notwithstanding if you are in the area when the gardens are open it is worth examining. 

Was there a prehistoric water shrine in the Medway?

Despite the thundering sounds of motorways nearby, the industry of Aylesford and the urban sprawl of Maidstone and Rochester not far away the triangle of area trapped between this modernisation clinging to the edges of the ancient pilgrim’s way still has a feel of something ancient and mysterious. Many people visit the area to see its megalithic remains – Kit’s Coty, lower Kit’s Coty and the White horse stone, but in this area are a number of springs which tantalisingly may suggest a similar ancient ritual use.

Many years ago I picked up a delightfully named volume A Tramp in Kentish Pilgrim Land by Coles Finch. A 1925 book whose research and details are of much interest. One of the sites he discusses is the Pilgrim’s Spring, (TQ 731 614) in the old community of Tottington, which he describes a pool surrounded by sarsens believed to be of ancient origin:

“Spread around this beautiful spring head in plenteous disorder is a large number of huge stones, some thrown into the bed of the stream, others supporting its margins. Some half buried and peep through the ground. With Cromlech and altar thrown down and heaped around the spring, it is left to our imagination to picture this site of ancient water worship in the dim and distant past. The stone circle appears to have completely encircled the principal spring; hence there are reasonable grounds for concluding that too was devoted to water worship.”

Earlier in 1872 a James Fergusson visited the area and noted:

…nearer the village [Aylesford] exists or existed, a line of great stones, extending from a place called Spring Farm, in a north-easterly direction, for a distance of three quarters of a mile, to another spot known as Hale Farm passing through Tollington [sic], where the greater number of the stones are now found. In front of the line near the centre at Tollington lie two obelisks, known to the country people as the coffin stones – probably from their shape. They are 12 feet long by 4 to 6 broad, and about 2 to 3 feet thick. They appear to be partially hewn, or at least shaped, so as to resemble one another.

Of course, the description is perhaps tainted by the ‘Druid’ obsession of Victorian antiquarians, so perhaps the stones are natural, although close to recognised ancient monuments, they are still to be found in area some up righted by the farmer The springs still exist too, but the number of sarsens associated with them appears to have been reduced, and one would suggest that a number have been dragged from their position and placed on the Coffin Stone.

Another similar site is a Spring (TQ 745 599) which is also situated by the Pilgrims way, and was probably associated with the nearby lost chapel of St. Michael, Alfred John Dunkin in his 1846 History of the County of Kent describes it as a Druidical pool:

“East of the Medway at Cossington, at the base of the hill on which Kits Coty House stands, water of the spring is intensely cold in summer and very warm in the winter.” He records that stones and similar objects placed in the water become coated in a red tinge, which undoubtedly created deep superstition regarding their powers.”

He also notes that around the spring head:

 “still lie many of the massive boulders of their temple in a well preserved semicircular form.”

Dr. Thorpe’s work of 1788 cited in Hasted (1797-1811) History of Kent describes Cossington’s spring as:

“At the bottom issue several springs, which are so cold and sharp that the water is said to cramp and kill ducks, and the flints that lie in it are tinged red as blood, and to try the experiment stones have been marked and put in, which, in less than a year’s time, were of the same colour.” 

Finch (1925) believes that these properties were exaggerated, and were certainly not considered when the water company took charge of the water; he describes the stream as now only flowing at a meagre flow and only feeding some pools by the ruins of Cossington Manor. Sadly, the site was been taken over by the waterworks and consequently at the spring head there is nothing of interest. Near Cossington farm, there are the ruins of the ancient manor and beneath this a rag stone pool, built to grow watercress. Yet, these are the only artefacts of interest, as the spring head itself is of no longer interest.

Below Boxley’s All Saint’s Church, Finch (1925) recorded a Pilgrim’s Pool (TQ 775 589) where the pilgrims would have presumably refreshed themselves or bathed. This pool has become over grown and rubbish strewn, compared to Finch’s (1925) time. The railings that lined the pool as shown in Finch’s photo are now bent, buckled and rusty. Overall, the pool is largely forgotten, and not even mentioned by the church guide. Hasted (1797-1811) notes two Petrifying Springs in the vicinity, and these are presumably the ones which arise inaccessibly in a small copse near the ruins of Boxley Abbey and the old vicarage garden (TQ 766 591, and TQ 774 589).

All of these sites potentially suggest the location of the Haly Well of Haley Garden. This has caused a fair amount of confusion from Kent historians being some discussion has occurred regarding its exact location, although Hale Farm may have taken its name from it. Harris (1719) in his work on Kent Topography notes that a well, that had many virtues, in particular cleansing sin:

“Under Boreham (Burham, Burgham) formerly there was a fountain in this Parish (South Philipot) at a place called Haly or Holy Garden, which was accounted mighty sacred by common people, and had very uncommon virtues ascribed to it, and in the 17th year of King Richard II, The Friars Carmelites of Aylesford obtained a grant by letters Pateill to bring the water from to their monastery.”

The nearby Friars at Aylesford are also said to have built an aqueduct from the site.  Finch (1925) believes that the well lay eleven hundred yards due west of the Kewland Wheel Well house. Although, he also states that other authorities believed that this wheel well itself was the site. This belief was discredited, however, when its well shaft was explored: no chambers or tunnels were found to lead off of from it. Sadly, there is no evidence of Great Kewland house, although some house debris down a nearby wooded quarry can be located, although being tightly fenced in, one is unable to find any remains of a well or local knowledge.

Another possible site is  a Roman or Ancient Draw Well, (TQ 741 809) According to Finch (1925), there is a legend connecting the well with another that of Kewland by a secret tunnel. Finch (1925) notes that there is:

“…an elm tree and some stones of various sizes, beneath which is a well only some two feet in diameter, but tested to be 113 feet deep. This doubtlessly was sunk for a water supply for the Roman occupants hereabouts.”

Finch (1925) expected that this well was a local myth but was fortunate to find a sixty year old man, who as a boy, used to drop flints down it. He notes that:

“The elm tree is bowed over with age and its sinuous roots have all but closed the entrance to the well, leaving but a tiny aperture through which one could see the rough coping stones. With a little dexterity, one could drop a stone, time its fall, and hear the thus as it fell upon the accumulated debris on the bottom no casual visitor could find the well, even though accurately marked upon a plan, without a guide.”

Certainly, it is unmarked on the present maps, and attempting to uncover its location I was hindered by considerable ivy cover and rubbish. I did locate a large amount of brick and stone debris at one site and possibly remains of a dead elm, but conclusively. Its location and indeed the location and meaning of the springs remains a mystery. Much of my field and archival research was done in the 1990s and detailed in Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Kent but even with the power of the internet these sites have not revealed themselves.

In search of rag wells: The Clootie or St. Boniface’s Well, Munlochy, Scotland – a photo archive

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This year we are focusing on the often controversial subject of rag or clootie wells. The topic has already been explored on this blog a while back but with new research it is worth exploring again. So this year either view detailed history/folklore discussion or photo archive we shall be exploring the topic again. To start rather than a detailed History/folklore blog post it would be good to look at the range of clooties or rags left at the country’s most famous example with my ideas of why and I hope it might encourage discussion.

Over Beltane 2017 I had the privilege to spend much of the day at this famed holy well. My aim was two fold:

a – to photo as many as possible of the clooties and other offerings at the well as a record

b – to hopefully encounter visitors attaching clooties

Below is a photo archive cataloguing some of the diverse form of offerings at the well. For the background to this site please see the earlier post. I shall give my recollections of b in a later post with another on the site’s history

I have tried to categorise each item and give some rationale…it’s a controversial subject and now the site has been cleared recently do doubtless many of these have gone, which is not necessarily a bad thing in many cases!

Underwear – were these spare or did they completely undress? Are they associated with problems with these parts of the body? There is the famous bra fence in Australia associated with cures of cancer is this the same or are they ex votos as thanks?

Shoes – Similarly for foot problems or thanks for travelling safely…some new shoes as well

Teddies and dolls – personal items of a sick child perhaps?

Flags! – Hope for Nationalism and a record for overseas visitors

Football scarfs – wishing the team good luck!

Tabards – asking for solving work problems or to give protection for workers!

Personal messages – hope, thanks and memories of friendship renewed

Bags – good luck for school

Plaster casts – speak for themselves

Odd eggs! – Cowabunga! Fertility perhaps or just an attempt at egg rolling!?

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This one’s been here for a while!

And there are many many more…perhaps enough for another blog post at the end!

‘a curious spring called Holy or Ladyes Well’ a little known Norfolk Holy Well

When doing field work for holy wells you can never know what you might find. A boggy hole surrounded by nettles or a fantastic romantick folly! Sadly more often it is the former as regular readers of this blog could attest. However,

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There is said to be a little south of the old church is according to Francis Blomefield in his 1805 An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk :

 ‘a curious spring called Holy or Ladyes Well’

No such name appears on the first series OS but a well is marked to the south-east and this would be the same as that which is marked on the early 17th century map as Ladyeswell. From the early fourteenth century the priory was usually referred to as St. Mary ad fontes, St. Mary de fontibus or St. Mary at the Welle. The site lies in the south-eastern corner of the churchyard area, around 50m south east of the church.

When I first looked for the site I was thwarted by the gate and barbed wire. My sources suggested that there was a spring beside the lake and old maps did show this but I assumed it had been absorbed by the pond. Returning on a fine spring day I realised that the fence and barbed wire had a gap and a small gate which opened and a path lead towards the trees where the lack of foliage indicated some sort of well structure.

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It consists of an approximately semi-circular basin, lined with stone blocks, with a shelf or sitting area, although the water filled the whole area. Three steps go down into the water. Above this is a probably 19th century wellhead on its east side, consisting of a round headed wall with a central niche which constructed of some reused architectural fragments and stone blocks some laying on the bench surrounding the spring. These coming from the ruined church above which is Saxon in date.  Above the niche is a piece of relief carving. This would appear to be the same that Michael Burgess in his 1988 Holy Wells and Ancient Crosses of Norfolk and Suffolk notes as in West Newton called Pilgrim’s Well, which tradition suggests was used by pilgrims on the way to Walsingham. The field contained the remains of a deserted village the street plan of which apparently can still be seen in the snow

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A connection with a most likely Marian well cult can be found at the Augustinian priory of St. Mary at Flitcham with Appleton. From the early fourteenth century the priory was usually referred to as St. Mary ad fontes, St. Mary de fontibus or St. Mary at the Welle.

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Who built it?

William White, History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Norfolk (1845) may provide one suggestion a Rev. W. Allen, of Narborough, who he records ‘who performs divine service in the ruins once a year.’ With such an interest in continuing services in the ruined church it would suggest that he would have had an interest in restoring the local holy well if only to provide clean water for those services. Sadly nothing can be found to validate this claim but it makes a likely person. Landowners would have to be involved and it is known that AJ Humbert was interested in improving the area. Again nothing can be located to suggest so. As Bromefield would perhaps only have heard of extant and interesting wells – ie not boggy holes – it suggests that there was some structure at the time of his work.

The final solution is a possibly obvious one is King Edward VII. One of his friends wrote after his death in 1910:

“Up to the last year of his life he was continually improving his domain, repairing churches, spending money on the place in one way or another.”

Could the monarch have improved the spring? Sadly, the local parish council and Sandringham estate appear to have drawn a blank when I enquired.

However, the enigmatic origins lend itself to this little known and undoubtedly best of the county’s holy wells.

A Roman water shrine rediscovered? The Weir garden’s mysterious well

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The Weir garden is a delightful riverside garden owned by the National Trust. Many people naturally visit it for the gardens but it is the unusual and possibly unique relic that can be found.

Before entering the main section of the garden is a curious octagonal cistern lying close to the path on the left This was discovered when some work people were digging for a new water pipe in 1891 during a period of drought. Whilst removing earth for a trench they discovered the site. Unfortunately, several of the upper stones were removed before its significance was realized and the placed back. This did mean that the sections were replaced but in the wrong parts and this explains the tanks less than perfect outline. When it was first discovered the excavators believed it to be a medieval structure this was despite the discovery of tesserae plugging a central opening in the lower stone. The remains of a wooden water calcified for centuries which used to direct the flow of the spring above and angled by about 45°from above. Elsewhere were pieces of broken tile, tesserae and green painted wall plaster. More substantial remains of buttresses can still be seen in the river below.

Local legend?

Associated with the site and gardens is a legend recorded by Jonathan Sant in his 1994 Healing wells of Herefordshire. The legend records that two figures haunt the well and area. One was a Roman Soldier and the other ancient Briton women said to have been his lover. It is said that his general sent him to the well with a message for a lady but alas he say his Briton lower saw them meeting at the well and suspecting him for infidelity and thus threw herself into the river. He saw her do this and jumped in after her. They both sadly drowned

Once a year it is said that the ghosts appear and fill the well with their tears and according to Sant its waters were said to have magical powers for lovers.

All this is possibly Victorian romanticisms post the discovery of the well. Jonathan Sant (1994) also states that the well was traditionally said to have been filled in by order of the bishop of Hereford but he does not claim why or give the source. Does this suggest that it was used as a pagan site? Or are we talking about a protestant Bishop stopping Catholic practices at a holy well? None of these legends appear to have attracted the attention of either Ella Mary Leather’s The Folklore of Herefordshire or Roy Palmers The folklore of Hereford and Worcester.

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A local water deity?

It is possible that the ruins represent a high status third or fourth century Roman villa which contained a Romano-British shrine dedicated to water nymphs called a nymphaeum. A clue to a local deity may come from the Roman altar stone found in 1821 beneath the Billiard Hall near the Hereford library may have originally come from the Weir Gardens and of what can be read:

DEO SILVANO

As Silvano was a Roman God of the countryside it would make sense to have them worshipped by the river Wye. It is possible that if the legend is not a Victorian embellishment that records folk memory of the deities.

A curious site and possibly one of the only truly surviving Roman water shrines in situ. It may have been Christianised but all memory of that has been forgotten. Hopefully one day more can be found.

The Nine Wells Shelford Cambridge

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Although it is not strictly a holy well nor apparently healing, its name, Cambridge’s famous Nine Wells (TL 463 542) has a name which suggests cult significance which we shall explore in a moment. The water from these springs which appear not to have the required number forms part of the Hobson’s (of Hobson’s choice fame) conduit which dates from 1610-14 as part of a ‘new river’ a scheme first devised in 1574 by the then Master of Peterhouse to provide clean water for Cambridge (similar schemes were constructed in Hertfordshire). The springs arise at the foot of White Hill in an area which was recognised by the Town and University as worth preserving as they did purchasing it in 1835 after the 1834 Great Shelford Inclosure Act.  In 1861 an obelisk, was erected which details the scheme. The water is accessed from an ornate conduit house called Hobson’s conduit house at Lensfield Drive in the city of Cambridge and runs through channels called runnels in parts of the city. Thompson and Thompson (1999) note of the flow of the waters hence:

“From this point three conduits conveyed the water to the King’s Ditch: one along Trumpington Street (originally in the middle of the road by replaced by the side runnels c.1800); a second, slightly further east, which was later culverted; and a third (dug in 1631 to improve the scouring of the Ditch) which originally ran above ground from Lensfield Road to St. Andrew’s Street and entered the Close Ditch close to St Andrew’s Church. This channel too is now mostly culverted through runnels survive at two points in St. Andrew’s Street: beside the Post Office, and by the taxi rank opposite Hobson Street. This channel now supplies water for the swimming pool in the Fellow’s garden at Christs.”      

The monument records:

“Andrew Perne, Master of Peterhouse, who first (in 1574) suggested taking water from here into Cambridge, in order to clean out the King’s Ditch, on the southern and eastern edges of the town. The filthy state of the King’s Ditch was seen as being responsible for recent outbreaks of plague in Cambridge.

Thomas Chaplin, Lord of the Manor of Trumpington in 1610, who signed a “tripartite agreement” with the town and the university giving them rights over the newly made watercourse and the soil either side in order to maintain it in good order.

Thomas Hobson, the well known Cambridge carrier (referred to in the phrase Hobson’s choice). When Hobson died in 1631 he bequeathed land so that its income could be used to maintain the supply of water to the market place, for in 1614 some of the water from the original stream had been diverted to the market place where it was used as a public water supply. This splendid portrait of him hangs in the Guildhall in Cambridge.”

 

Streams leading out of Nine Wells - geograph.org.uk - 751770.jpg

The importance of nine wells

The nine wells thus was the city of Cambridge’s sole supply of clean running water for several centuries supplying the King’s ditch and providing a conduit through the streets of the city and providing the Cold Bath or Fellow’s Pool which still survives in Emmanuel College Fellows’ garden which was constructed in 1690 and is claimed to be the oldest swimming pool in the country. As a piped water system was developed the old supply system became less important and finally a modern system was developed although interestingly water is still pumped from this area to supply the city.  Ironically, the flow was sadly much reduced as the water is now extracted at the Babraham Cambridge Water company extraction.

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How many springs are there?

Numerical named springs are not uncommon in England with Seven springs or wells being the commonest, nine wells or springs are rarer. However, it is interesting to note there is a cluster around the Hertfordshire-Cambridgeshire area with a Nine Wells at Hitchin and a Nine Springs at St Paul’s Walden. None have an obvious nine springs so what is the name. One possible is that it has the same derivation as the Noon, a Roman word for ‘fate’ suggesting the springs were possibly used to foretell. This is interesting as the area is also noted for woe waters whose rise and fall were used to predict major events. Does this support the origin? Another possible suggestion is that it derives from a Celtic word meaning ‘bright’. This is supported by the alternative name for the Nine springs at St Paul’s Walden white is also called ‘whytewell’, with ‘whyte’ meaning in Old English ‘white’ as in pure. Furthermore the River Purwell has its source at the Nine springs! The two linked names suggest a considerably coincidence if they were not linked for a reason and suggests it was a way of describing the clearness of the water and hence its purity. Certainly water passing through the chalk is very clear. This seems a more sensible and likely origin. The fact that the springs arise on White hill may also be significant. An alternative maybe that the scholars at the University gave it such a mystical and romantic name.