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Holy Wells of South Wales: A peaceful retreat by the sea St. Anthony’s Well Llansteffan

One of south Wales’s most evocative and peaceful holy well is that of St Anthony’s Well in Llansteffan. One approaches the site by a path that leads from the castle site down to the beach.

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Why St Anthony?

A fair few Welsh holy wells are dedicated to their local holy people but this one is dedicated to St Anthony. However, this still underlines its association with hermits as titular saint is St Anthony of Egypt who in around 251-356 AD was believed to be the first Christian hermit. Like modern day Catholics who take a saintly name at confirmation Celtic holy people would adopt names which had a spiritual significance. Thus locally this hermit was called Antwn; a Welsh form of Anthony who is said to have lived here in the sixth century. The plaque on the wall of the well records:

“Little St Anthony’s Well is barely large enough to get your hand inside for a drink of water. But you must wait patiently for the clear drops to seep from the mossy recess in the hillside.”

Chris J Thomas in his 2004 Sacred Welsh Wales describes it as cold and bland so it may not be worth the wait.

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It is recorded that in 1811 existing stonework has been built around the natural spring in the form of a pointed arch with an offerings shelf at the back. A small recess above the shelf is where a statue of the saint was reputedly placed. Now there is an icon of the saint.  Prayer flags festoon the area as well.

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In more modern times the surrounding area has been rather heavily improved with extra retaining walls and a paved forecourt. It is now described as a Grade II listed site is describe as having a well chamber  set within a triangular-headed recess into the southwest facing wall of the enclosure and above it are two stone shelves and a carved niche. Above it is a relief carving, presumably of Antwn, is on the rear wall of the enclosure

The shelf is full of cockle shells -and some other small votives and it is apparent that the tradition is alive and well. However, I am unaware of why they are doing so.

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A hermit’s well

So this was a hermit’s well which suggests in the location there was a hermitage or at least a site of refuge. A suggested site is a cave further down the bay shaped similarly to the well arch – however there is no evidence.

Local tradition suggests that he used the water to baptise local people It is still a site of pilgrimage. Paul Davis 2003’s Sacred Springs: In Search of the Holy Wells and Spas of Wales notes that:

“frequented by lovesick travellers intent on casting a pin into the well to fulfil their hearts desires.”

No photo description available.Thomas (2004) notes:

“Pilgrims still visit this well for their own secret purposes, the most prevalent of which is for ‘wishing’. Romantic aspirations and reparations are what St Anthony’s Well is best at, apparently. You must be totally alone, offer a small white stone and wish very sincerely. There ae no known statistics regarding its success rate.”

It is not difficult to see why this site would not be in anyone’s top 10 of sites – the seaside location, its secretive enclosure and the sweeping gardens and sylvanian setting surrounding it mean it would be easy to spend a few hours in solitude listening to the dripping water and the sounds of the waves. A more peaceful place would be hard to find.

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Tracking down a forgotten spa of Huntingdonshire – Somersham Spa

Huntingdonshire attempted a number of spas none really established itself beyond the region and have been largely forgotten, although Hail Weston came the closest. Somersham is a small market town which boasted such a locally well know mineral water which was enabled the town to be developed into a small spa. Local tradition suggests that the water was known and exploited by the Romans and that the medieval Bishops utilised it and brewed beer but I fear there is little to no evidence of this tradition and is purely wishful thinking.

The land were the springs lay was once covered by the Royal Forests of Henry II, III or Edward I, the first official note of these springs appears to have been at the end of the 17th Century. It was rediscovered under the patronage of Dr More, Bishop of Ely (which probably explains the confusion of its medieval use). By 1720, the Duke of Manchester, Lord Hinchingbrook, Dr Wake, Bishop of Lincoln, with all the principal residents in the county, joined in a subscription for erecting a house near the spring, which was fitted up with a bowling green, and other accommodations.

Healing or harming waters?

Even though giddiness, feeling sick and turning stools black were attributed to drinking the water, Cambridge Physicians continued to prescribe it to their patients. It soon attracted many people from the nearby villages and orders from across East Anglia, such as Norfolk and Lincolnshire. The water was bottled and drank not only medicinally but as a good table water mixed with wine. However, the popularity of the spa was short and after people began suffering from stone or gravel(or kidney stones as we would call them) after drinking the water and some died. As such a rumour spread around that it caused such diseases supported by some experts in the field! This spelt the end of the spa and the house fell into ruin and its materials removed.

The revival

However, there was a revival in 1750 by a Dr Daniel Peter Layard, who was physician to the Princess Dowager of Wales. Another subscription was raised, supported by a respectable list of subscribers which include various physicians and even the King and Queen. Concerned by its side effects, between 1751 to 1767 tests were conducted tried to discover why it occasionally had a detrimental effect. By 1758, a management committee of thirteen subscribers was established who set up rules. set of rules documented. The spa opened between 5.00am to 7.00am for the poor, and until 12.00 noon for everyone else. A notice posted up at the time says:

“The springs are open from seven in the morning till 10 at night, the following being the charges: Admission for using and drinking the waters per month……5 0, Non-scribers……..0 6, Talking any quantity away from the wells per quart…….0 6”

Dr Layard erected a bath house and proper accommodation near the spring and rules were set out for the use of the spa. In 1767 Dr Layard wrote an account of the waters:

However, Dr. Layard left soon after and by 1820 the site was little regarded and probably closed by 1840. For many years, only foundations remained, but this were ploughed up when a local farmer planted fruit trees.

The site rediscovered

According to Burn-Murdock, curator of the Norris Museum, St. Ives, their exact location is unknown. However, there is a site marked Spring (Chalybeate) on the appropriate O/S on Bathe Hill on the road to Somersham which would likely be the location of the spa and as it stated spring I was hopeful of some remains.

Upon visiting nothing can be seen at the site, presently the garden of a house on the hill. Upon visiting the house the owner was accommodating enough to point to a flower bed where he believed was the approximate location for the spring, although he had not seen any evidence. He was told this being the location from a previous owner. However it did not match that which is indicated on the OS map which was in a small orchard. We visited this and equally saw nothing but it was possible some scrub hid it. Perhaps another exploration is needed?

 

Mysterious creatures of springs and wells – phantoms horses and coaches!

A possibly un-investigated sub-genre associated with holy wells and varied water bodies are the coach and horse phantom. The phenomena is wide spread. And in lieu of a longer elaboration I thought I’d introduce some examples here and please feel free to add other examples in the comments. The furthest south one I have found is association with the Trent Barrow Spring, in Dorset Marianne Daccombe in her 1935 Dorset Up Along and Down Along states:

“One dark and stormy night a coach, horses, driver and passengers plunged into this pit and disappeared, leaving no trace behind. But passers-by along the road may still hear, in stormy weather, the sound of galloping horses and wailing voices borne by them on the wind”.

However, the majority appear to be in the eastern side of England which is not surprising as these were and in some cases are boggy, desolate marshland areas which clearly were treacherous in olden times.

In Lincolnshire, the Brant Broughton Quakers (1977) note a site in their history of the village. This was found on the corner near the allotments on Clay road was a deep pond called Holy well pond or All well or Allwells. They note that

it was haunted by a coach and horses which plunged into its waters. I was informed by Mrs Lyon, the church warden that the pond was filled in at least before the writing of the above book.

In Lincolnshire, most noted site is Madam’s Well or Ma’am’s Well. Wild (1901) notes that this was a blow hole which Charles Hope’s 1893 Legendary lore of Holy wells describes as a deep circular pit, the water of which rises to the level of the surface, but never overflows and such it is considered bottomless by the superstitious. Rev John Wild’s 1901 book on Tetney states that they were connected to the Antipodes, and relates the story which gave the site its name:

“In one of these ponds a legend relates how a great lady together with her coach and four was swallowed bodily and never seen again. It is yet called Madam’s blowhole”

Wild (1901) also tells how:

“a dark object was seen which was found to be a man’s hat…when the man was retrieved belonging to it….my horse and gig are down below.”

Norfolk has the greatest amount. Near Thetford a coach and four went off the road and all the occupants were drowned in Balor’s Pit on Caddor’s Hill, which they now haunt.  On the right-hand side of the road from Thetford, just before reaching Swaffham, is a place called Bride’s Pit, after a fathomless pool once to be seen there. The name was actually a corruption of Bird’s Pit, but tradition says that a couple returning home from their wedding in a horse drawn coach plunged into the pond one dark night, and the bride was drowned. An alternative origin is that it may be a memory of the Celtic Goddess, Brede or the early saint St Bride.

The picturesquely named Lily Pit was found on the main road from Gorleston to Beccles (A143), hides a more ominous tradition, that it was haunted by a phantom. The story states that at midnight a phantom pony and trap used to thunder along the road and disappear into the water. What this phantom is confusingly differs!  One tradition states the phantom was a mail-coach missed the road one night and careered into the pit, vanishing forever. This may be a man named James Keable who lost in the fog fell into the pool in 1888 his body never being recovered. Or a farm-hand eloped with his master’s daughter, who fell into the pool and drowned. He so racked with guilt later hung himself on a nearby tree.  This may be the a man from Gorleston who went mad after his only daughter was lost in the pool, and so hung himself from an oak tree which stood there into the 1930s. There is an account in this Youtube video.

Farnborough’s St Botolph’s Well

During my research for Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Warwickshire one of the surprising discoveries is St Botolph’s Well at Farnborough. Surprising because in P.M Patchell and E.M. Patchell’s 1987 ‘The wells of old Warwickshire’ in the first series of Source 1 note that:

“The well is chalybeate and reputed to cure eye ailments, but is now only a cattle drinking place on private land. It is just a little way down the lane leading south from the church, at a little bridge.”  

I had read this perhaps as being no more than the site being is an uninspiring boggy hole but this was not the case!

The earliest reference however to the site is William Dugdale in his 1730 The Antiquities of Warwickshire. He notes that: 

“Near the house of Mr Holbeach there rises a Chalybeat Spring, called… St Botolph’s Well.”

As the parish church is dedicated to St Botolph and the settlement was in existence at the time of the Domesday book and it is probable that the well dates from this period being associated as it is with a Saxon saint. There is certainly a traditional relationship with the holy well as the relic of a path which leads down to the well from the church can be traced in the grass the other side of the road from the estate. This leads to a wooden door close to the well – although interestingly the handle is on the estate side suggesting permission in more recent times was needed. As noted by Stephen Wass in their 2012 thesis A Way With Water: Water Resources and the Life of an Eighteenth-century Park.
http://www.polyolbion.org.uk/Farnborough/Dissertation/A%20Way%20With%20Water.html#2

“Of further significance was the exclusion of the community from access to St. Botolph’s Well (Fig. 33). The arrangement of church, holy well and connecting thoroughfare was probably an ancient one which reflected the communal use of this spring for practical and spiritual purposes. What is striking today about the spatial relationship is that the seventeenth-century park wall cuts across the bottom of the former route and effectively restricts access to the well as it is now on private property.
A door in the wall, which by analogy to other local properties, appears to be eighteenth century (Wood-Jones, R. B. 1963.  Traditional Domestic Architecture of the Banbury Region), was provided to allow some access. This door could only be opened from the park side. Even allowing for the fact that the Reformation brought about a divorce between the established church and the idolatrous practice of visiting a holy well one must assume that on some level of superstition the well still occupied an important part in the community’s consciousness. What was communal has become private.”

Healing waters and development as a spa

Francis Smith in their 1825 Warwickshire delineated

“A chalybeate spring rises at Farnborough, known by the name of St. Botolph’s Well, which was formerly resorted to by the credulous and superstitious, for its wonder-working miracles!”. 

According to C.S. Wharton (cited in A.W. Bates’S 1993, ‘Healing waters: holy wells and spas in Warwickshire’ in Warwickshire History): 

“its’ reddish water is said to be coloured by rust from the nails of the Cross”.

Which is an interesting and as far as I am aware a unique tradition. Does it suggest an association with a nearby relic?

Bates (1993) says that it had only a very limited reputation as a spa, and had fallen out of use by 1890, certainly there is no evidence of people visiting it and perhaps this was associated with the development of the estate by Sanderson Miller, the folly architect. However, its current structure although not a boggy hole is perhaps a little lacking the panache of a structure one would associate in a folly estate.

The current state of the well

The well is now enclosed in land owned by the National Trust. St Botolph’s well consists of an archway of red sandstone built into the wall surrounding the park which is a surprising arrangement and one would have imagined if it was developed a spa a more impressive arrangement would be found.  The water arises in a two foot deep rectangular chamber in a recess in the park’s wall. An arch of dressed stone covered the well but this has all but gone and either lays beneath it or else robbed. This notwithstanding the site was certainly more impressive than what Patchell and Patchell suggested and there were no cattle in sight! However, perhaps due to its ruined status it might not be far off becoming a boggy hole if its not repaired soon. 

The ancient and healing wells of Cuffley and Northaw – St Claridge’s Well and the Griffin’s Hole

In part one we discussed the famed King’s Well in this second part we explore three possible sites which are possibly all one site notwithstanding the possibility that one is completely made up.

The most curious one to disentangle is St. Claridge’s  Well Our sole source is Charles Lamb more of which in  moment who claims it is described in the Black Book of St Albans although I could not find it there. In a letter to Charles Cowden Clark in 1828 he records that saint would entertain angels and hermits for the blessing of the water, who sat of mossy stones called Claridge Covers.

Who is St Claridge?

St. Claridge may have been another name for Sigur, who was a hermit who lived in Northaw Woods. Mrs Fox-Wilson in her 1927 Notes on Northaw and district in the East Hertfordshire Archaeological society journal records that the hermit built a cell  near a well of pure water in Berevenue forest. This is recorded in Gesta Abbotum  Mon Sci Albani 1 105 (1119-1149), dating it around the 12th Century. There is accordingly, a tomb in St. Alban’s Abbey which reads: “Vir Domini verus jacet hic  hermeita Regerus et sub eo clarus meritus hermita Sigarus.”

Where was the well?

The exact location of the above is not clear, it is hinted to the south east of the  church by Lamb but if he was travelling from Buntingford, it would appear to be the  same as Griffin’s Hole which lays in Well Wood, a small private part  of the Great Wood. A footpath from Well Road leads directly to the well and  nowhere else, which suggests a great past importance for the site being the main  supply for the village. This path appeared to have been recently re-opened, and the  well itself has been repaired. The site consists of a roughly square pool of muddy  water with an edging of old red bricks, possibly Tudor. A fence of rhododendrons has  been erected around the site to prevent people falling in, but it does not deflect from  the mysteriousness of the site: which is very odd and eerie. Today a metal frame is placed over it which makes it less evocative I would say. However, is it the St Claridge’s Well of Lamb?

Griffin's Hole

The letter Charles Lamb wrote may help  locate it as he appears to have encountered the well on a four hour walk to “the  willow and lavender plantations to the south-east of Northaw Church.” However, this  is confusing as it would appear to suggest that the well is to the south-east but that  depends on where he was travelling from! He is known to have visited Buntingford.  He refers to Claridge’s covers:

“Clumps of the finest moss rising hillock fashion, I  counted to the number of two hundred and sixty…not a sweeter spot is in ten counties  around”.

Some authors suggest that the name is some sort of joke, this note withstanding, Fox Wilson states that this site was called John’s Hole, and that in the  1920s requests were still made to the landowner for the water as it cured rheumatism.

Unfortunately I have been  unable to find out why the site is called the Griffin’s Hole (one assumes it is a  personal name) or whether it is indeed The Hermit’s Well, John’s Hole or St.  Claridge’s Well in the 10 years on since publication.  However I do feel that this is at least the John’s Hole site if not St. Claridge’s Well

 

Will the real patron of St Gudula’s Well stand up?

First noted by P.F.S Amery in his 1882 Old Ashburton: Being Recollections of Master Robert Prideaux, (Attorney-at-Law) 1509–1569 as:

‘Gulwell, a short distance down the Totnes road, in the corner of the vicar’s glebe field, which was called after St Gudula, the ancient patroness of blind folk. A stone cross… stood by… The tall stone still gives the name of Stone Park to the vicar’s field’.

St Gudula’s is one of the best known of Devonshire wells but whether it is a holy well or back derivation of its name is a matter of discussion as well shall discuss.  

Who was St Gudula?  

The most likely source recommended by Sabine Baring-Gould in his 1899–1902 A Book of the West is a little known 6th century Celtic evangelist who is claimed to have converted Brittany called St. Gudwal as Terry Faull, 2004 Secrets of the Hidden source, emphatically states:

“local interpretation of St. Gulwell who is also known as St. Wulvella, and was sister of Saint Sidwell of Exeter. They are claimed to have been the daughter of royalty being probably born in Wales.”

However, the site is dedicate to St Gudula who was born in Hamme, Flanders in around AD 648 and was associated with healing the blind. This appears to be what the plaque at the well claims:

 ‘This Well, The Waters Of Which Are Said To Be Good For Weak Eyes, Was Dedicated To St Gudula, The Ancient Patroness Of The Blind. The Cross (Probably 14th Century) Was Removed Prior To 1510. It Was Restored, Re-Erected, And Presented To The Parish Of Ashburton, 1933’.

However, this seems very unlikely and it would be more reasonable to assume that some learned antiquarian, probably Amery, has associated the saint with the site due to its name and properties – the name is being more likely be descriptive about it forming a gully.

The origins of the cross

William Crossing in his 1902, The Ancient Stone Crosses of Dartmoor and its Borderland, says:

‘we shall not find the cross here, but at a farm a little further on, which bears the same name as the well… This consists of the shaft only, and… I learnt in 1892 from the late Mr Perry, the owner of Gulwell, who was then eighty-three years of age, that it was in its present situation in the time of his grandfather’

Another site?

Even more confusing is that there is a well at Gulwell Farm and it is possible that this the real site especially if we re-read what Crossing states he suggests that the cross was brought from another site. “and if it really was brought from the spring it must be long ago”, does that suggest that someone decided to transfer the site to another spring and to emphasise it move the cross! Faull (2004) states it was returned to its original site in 1933 as noted by the plaque of course.

The current situation

Even more confusing is that there is a well at Gulwell Farm and it is possible that this the real site especially if we re-read what Crossing states he suggests that the cross was brought from another site. “and if it really was brought from the spring it must be long ago”, does that suggest that someone decided to transfer the site to another spring and to emphasise it move the cross! Faull (2004) states it was returned to its original site in 1933 as noted by the plaque of course as noted by the 10th March 1933 Western Times. It recorded that it was re-erected by some unemployed men after being recovered from the location where it had been for several generations. It also notes at the same time it was planned to restore the well but there was not enough money available.

The ancient and healing wells of Cuffley and Northaw part one – The King’s Well

The most noted of these was the King’s Well. This was an early minor  spa, which was associated at first with James I, who took its waters whilst at Theobald’s Palace. It is said that he had made a number of visits to take the waters from there and became to popularise it.

However, it was granted royal name from Charles II in 1660.  Scots pines were planted at the site in the King’s honour.  It is believed that many wealthy gout sufferers built themselves mansions along Cooper’s Lane such as the 1668 Northaw Place and this resulted in Cuffley’s development. The well continued to be popular but perhaps not fully developed for the next three hundred years. It is recorded that by 1850 however, the well had long fallen into disuse

Certainly by the time of Septimus Sutherland’s 1915 Old London’s Spas, Baths and Wells  work:

“The spring was situated in the valley at Lower Cuffley, on the way to Cheshunt, but cannot now be easily traced.”

A few details are recorded of its structure. Stanley Foord in his 1910 Springs, Streams, and Spas of London notes of  “The low wall” and there is record of marble fountain head  was erected there. Foord continues to say of the low wall.

“which enclosed it has long since gone, and the spring itself, by subsoil draining around it, can now with difficulty be traced.”

I did think that this marble structure may still exist buried at the locale, but sadly, but back in the 1990s a field walk to this remote location revealed nothing. However, it is possible that the site I was surveying and that marked on the maps until 1951 was not the correct site. This is emphasised by a brief note by Brian Warren in the Potters Bar and district historical society newsletter of September 2001 who explored the facts behind its location. He stated that:

“The key map, included with the 1807 Northaw Enclosure Award indicated there were two wells, the first was ‘The King’s Well’ near the brick kilns on “Northaw Common. Secondly the Warren Allotment contained the medicinal spring called Northaw Wells. The ma sbpwed the Northaw wells to be north-east of the brickfield. However, the Drury and Andrews map of Hertfordshre 1766 and a map of Northaw common by Thomas Baskerfield c1700 showed the medical waters to be due east of the brickfields From this evidence one can see that the Ordnance survey had marked the Northaw Wells as the King’s well. Further evidence to support this conclusion is to be found in Mr Binyon’s Notebook (mid 19th century) where he noted the King’s Well ‘in a bottom’ (cf Carbone Bottom, Home wood), the ordnance survey’s position was halfway up a hill.”

This suggests that the site marked on the OS map is erroneous. It does mark a mineral spring the Northaw one. This I missed in my original gazetteer but in my defence so does Foord and Sutherland who  call it Northaw Water and Northaw Spring. However it is mentioned in the Comprehensive gazetteer of England and Wales of 1894-5 as Northall which states:

“Mineral spring is at Cuffley, and another mineral spring was on Northaw Common, now enclosed, but has been choked up.”

Sadly although one could hope that a misplacement may result in some relics of the King’s Well surviving. Gerald Millington in his 1975 Cuffley with Northaw suggests that:

“a comparison with the modern ordnance survey map places the well in the ground of the present day pumping station.”

A very likely location of course, which is nearer to Well’s Farm and sadly one which would have obliterated any remains.

Of the wells curative properties, Dr. Monro in his 1770 Treatise on Mineral Waters speaks of analyses made by Dr. Rutty at Dublin of this and of the Barnet spring. He notes that there was not much difference between them but the latter was the stronger tasted of the two ; neither of them were very powerful. A list of cures has noted survived but it is suggested that gout could be eased by drinking it.

Its water was said to be a saline chalybeate which is surprising if it has been used as a mains water supply. Older residents (in the 1950s)  remember that it was poor for making tea. For when the hot water was added the clear water became inky. This was due to the iron in the water reacting with the  tannin.  Foord (1910) states that:

“The Northaw water must have contained a considerable quantity of iron, as a favourite diversion of the inhabitants was to induce strangers to make tea with it. Though perfectly colourless, as soon as the boiling water was poured on the tea the iron combined with the tannin, and formed a kind of ink — as much to the astonishment of the tea-makers as to the delight of the practical jokers.”

Its unfortunate that no relic of this site or rather sites survive. One wonders what happened to that marble fountain head!

Mysterious creatures of wells and springs – Mermaids of the Peak District

Mermaids are traditionally thought of as a marine phenomena but there are a number of freshwater accounts such as that noted in Herefordshire, three in Suffolk (Bury St Edmunds, Rendelsham, Fornham All Saints) and another in Gloucestershire at Timsbury. The peak district probably because of its remote and desolate landscape claims two!

The first is associated with the Black or Blake Mere a small pond of irregular shape, lying in a little hollow on the summit of the high hill of Morridge, about three and a half miles. from Leek in Staffordshire. The pond appears to have a reputation of being haunted. In the pages of The Reliquary, Camden quoting Nicham, says it is:

“A lake that with prophetic noise doth roar; Where beasts can ne’er be made to venture o’er— By hounds, or men, or fleeter death pursued, They’ll not plunge in, but shun the hated flood.”

Robert Plot in his 1689 Natural History of Staffordshire notes that:

“no Cattle will drink of it, no bird light on it, or fly over it; all which are as false as that it is bottomless; it being found upon admeasurement, scarce four yards in the deepest place; my horse also drinking, when I was there, as freely of it as ever I saw him in any other place; and the Fowls are so far from declining to fly over it, that I spoke with several that had seen Geese upon it; so that I take this to be as good as the rest, notwithstanding the vulgar disrepute it lies under.”

Neither account mentions a mermaid and it is unclear when this creature is first applied to the site. One of the first accounts perhaps is Charlotte S. Burne 1896 notes in her “What Folkore is, and how it is to be collected” in the North Staffordshire Naturalists’ Field Club, Annual Report and Transactions. Two origins for the existence of this mermaid are given. One account states that she was a women ,who during a stormy night was drowned there by her lover after he discovered she was pregnant with his child. Another story suggests that she was a witch and was drowned by the local people. It is said that as she drowned she cursed the person who accused her and days later he was found clawed to death in the pool.  Local people state that she can be seen combing her hair and enticing people to their death. She is also said to have warned locals who were draining the lake to check its depth by threatening to flood the local town of Leek – they subsequently stopped!

Mermaid's Pool - geograph.org.uk - 247324.jpg by Dave Dunford

Mermaid’s Pool – geograph.org.uk – by Dave Dunford

Perhaps the more famous of the Peak’s merfolk is found in The Mermaid’s Pool a mysterious pool at the foot of  Kinder Scout, a strange site which appears to be a relic of pre-Christian water worship particular  as the water is said to have healing qualities. Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary lore of holy wells notes:

“There is a local tradition that a beautiful nymph ….who comes to bathe daily in the Mermaid’s  Pool, and that the man who has the good fortune to see her whilst bathing will become immortal.”

It is likely that Hope is sourcing Henry Kirke’s 1869 article “The Mermaid’s Pool” in The Reliquary notes:

“At Old Oak Wood, near Hayfield, Derbyshire, is the Mermaid’s Pool, where a beautiful woman is said to enter the water every day, and whoever has the good luck to see her will become immortal and will never die.”

Hope records a tradition of someone who had seen the mermaid thus:

“The old folk of Hayfield, moreover, have a long story of a man who, sometime in the last  century, went from Hayfield over the Scout, and was lucky enough to meet this mountain  nymph, by whom he was conducted to a cavern hard by. Tradition adds that she was pleased  with this humble mortal, and that he lingered there for some time, when she conferred on him  the precious gift of immortality.” 

The best time to find visit the Mermaid’s Pool is midnight on Easter eve when she could favour  you with your wishes, but if she did not favour you she will drag you to your death!

It is possible of course that local production of methane gases produced willo-the-wisps which were seen as the mermaid but that would ruin a good story would it not? Or perhaps you might argue that someone caught the said mermaid and put it in Buxton museum! – go along and have a look!

The Holy Well of Our Lady of Willesden

Sometimes holy wells turn up in odd locations and the survival of a site in a very urban cityscape shows how such sites can survive despite the predations! For in the church is a pump which draws its water from the newly discovered spring found in the boiler house said to be St. Mary’s Well associated with a shrine to the Blessed Virgin or Black Virgin of Willesden. The origin of the shrine is unknown, but the first mention of a statue occurs in 1249, when an inventory of church goods mentions two large sculptured images of Our Lady. Legend has it that the shrine originated due to an appearance of Our Lady Mary in the Churchyard.

The celebrated black image of Our Lady was a centre of pilgrimage until its destruction at the Reformation. In 1535 the statue was torn down and taken to Chelsea and publicly burned on the same fire as the statue of Our Lady of Walsingham. Consequently, Henry VIII imposed a fine on the ‘idolatrous’ Church to be paid every year by the Priest and indeed it is clear that interest in the shrine did not wane at the destruction of the image. It is noted that a vision of the Holy Trinity was seen by a Dr. Crewkerne who in a conversation in with Our Lady, telling him to preach abroad and that she wished to be honoured at Ipswich and Willesden, as she had been once before. A restoration never happened during this period however. However, when Fr. James Dixon became Vicar in 1902, he restored the shrine and a statue of Mary and Jesus was placed in the Chancel and devotion to the shrine has been encouraged. In 1972 a new statue was made and pleased by the Bishop of London on the feast of Corpus Christi.

Of the well, J.T Gillet’s 1964 The History of Willesden notes that:

“There is a distant tradition that Our Lady appeared in an oak tree in the churchyard to a client, and that a well began to flow, at which miracles were wrought and which became noted for cures from blindness. The well was used until comparatively recent times, but then it was condemned as ‘unsanitary’ and was covered over.”  

Jeremy Harte in his 2008 English Holy Wells notes that the tradition also appears to date to 1885, and was thus probably propaganda set up by a Catholic mission was set up to revive the mediaeval Marian shrine at Willesden, although the VCH (1969–2004) take it as evidence that:

‘the church was built on the site of a holy well possibly that which gives the settlement its name, first recorded in 939 by King Athelstan.’

An alternative tradition is recorded by John Norden in 1596. Norden (1723) Speculum Britanniæ: an historical and chorographical description of Middlesex and Hartfordshire which notes in relation to Alderman Roe’s a:

“springe of faire water, which is now within the compass of house”.

However of course this does not stipulate that this is a holy well nor the exact spring. Similarly, it is likely to refer to Willesden from the Anglo-Saxon Wiell-dun – hill of springs as noted in Nicholas Schofield’s 2002 Our Lady of Willesden, a brief history of the Shrine and Parish who also state

This is said to have been associated with pilgrimages to the Virgin’s shrine. The church website notes that:

“The water from the well is used extensively to this day, for Baptisms, anointing and mixing with the wine in the Chalice. On Saturday 4 July 1998, at the Annual Willesden Pilgrimage, a new Holy Well was dedicated enabling the healing Waters of Willesden to flow freely at St. Mary’s. The waters are available to be used in Church and to be taken away.”                                                      

Interestingly Foord appears to describe it as:

“in regard of a great cure which was performed by this water, upon a king of Scots, who being strangely diseased, was by some devine intelligence, advised to take the water of a Well in England, called Muswell, which after long scrutation, and inquisition, this Well was found and performed the cure’. Later this king was identified as Robert the Bruce (the Bruces held land nearby), and the illness was held to be leprosy.”

However is this another site?

The well is although described as now surmounted with a pump within the church, this appears to have gone and now a demijohn of water is found in the Lady Chapel. Apparently the source was rediscovered in 1998 but access cannot be granted.

A forgotten spa – Orston Spa Nottinghamshire