A holy well reborn or a new holy wells for the 21st century? Eastbourne’s Holy Well
For many years, the only evidence of Eastbourne’s claim in sacred spring history was the area named Holywell, favourite of the retiree. However, since 20 the town has some real tangible evidence for a holy well, although whether the spring is the original holy well is open to debate.
The first record of a settlements called Holywelle dates from 1316 and by the 15th century the name Haliwell, Hallywell is recorded. Yet the first reference to a spring is by James Royer (1787) East-Bourne, being a descriptive account of that village who reports that:
“one of the springs is called Holy-well, supposed to be so named from the many advantages received from drinking those waters”.
In in the anonymous 1861 book Eastbourne as a Resort for Invalides [sic] it notes:
“At Holywell there is a chalybeate spring, the curative properties of which have given the name of the Holy Well. However, a subsequent analysis of the water demonstrated that it had no particular ‘curative properties”.
A location has been suggested by historians by associating it with the Chapel of St Gregory once near the South Cliff Tower in Bolsover Road, however it is thought that this was too far from the current area so called. Thomas Horsfield (1835) History of Sussex noted:
“the chalybeate springs at Holywell, a short distance west of the Sea House, are highly worth the attention of the visitor. The quality of the water is said intimately to resemble the far-famed springs at Clifton”.
George Chambers A Handbook of Sussex (1862) records that:
“they have however been analysed, at the instance of the present vicar, and found to consist of simple but very fine surface water.”
The well was apparently rediscovered in 2009 as a spring arising at the foot of the chalk cliff. A wooden sign has now been affixed as well as a cup and chain. Akyildiz (2011) notes in Landscape and Arts Network Articles – The rediscovery of a Fresh Water Spring beside the sea: a local holy well?
“The low stone wall built by Dan and fellow helpers, Pat and Shaun, is both a built physical structure designed to protect the site and a creative act of care. All these three have a passion for the well and provide their labour for free; they say “We feel we are doing a job of worth at the spring and that we are helping people access an alternate source local freshwater…the Holywell spring is such a peaceful place to be, and we have made many new friends here.” The low wall of large stones gathered from around the site protects the spring – and its vital source: the spring water.”
He also notes that a local Catholic church has blessed this site twice and on each occasion has attracted a gathering of nearly 50-70 people and in 2014 there was an evening concert at the well with a New Age flavour, so it is good to see this local spring being embraced by its local community, whether is the titular spring is unclear however.
Searching for the Lady Well of Wombourne
One of the great pleasures in researching our sacred springs is the field work. In a world where the internet is said to have all the answers and this blog is just as responsible for forwarding the information, it might be surprising to find that not all the information is available. As I am close to completing my work on Staffordshire Holy Wells and the weather is getting nicer I thought it as a good idea to share one of the more interesting sites.
A few years back at the beginning of my Staffordshire research I came across a site a Wombourne. The site according to Hope’s Legendary Lore of Holy Wells (1893) was a spring was ‘known by the name of “Our Lady’s Well” or “Lady Well”. Hope (1893) states:
“Another famous local well, which has fortunately escaped the destructive hand of time, is that near Wombourne, known by the name of Our Lady’s Well, or Lady Well. It is cut out of the solid rock, which crops out at the top of a lofty hill, situate between Wombourne and Lower Fenn. The well is of considerable antiquity, and several species of cryptogrammic plants give to the surface of the stone a venerable appearance. It is supposed to have been sacred to the virgin in mediæval times, and its waters to have possessed curative properties. Here, ages ago, a holy hermit is said to have dwelt, and to have been visited by many persons in search of consolation and instruction. The well is still a favourite resort of local pleasure-seekers, who go to drink of the cooling and delicious beverage, and ruralize in the adjacent wood.”
Of course in the last 130 odd years quite a lot has happened. Wells drained, filled in or absorbed into the domestic supply. Land urbanised, agriculture changes boundaries and forests torn from the landscape…so it can be very unlikely for a well to survive.
The first place to look is always the current ordnance survey map however, no well is marked on the current OS one but the name Lady Well Wood is still marked. This concurs with the field-name Ladywell Hill on the 1840 Tithe map. Being a wood is a good sign as the pressures of building and agriculture are less likely to have had an impact. Better still on the 1883 OS map W is marked beneath Ladywell cottages on the escarpment. However, there might propose an issue. Clearly the cottages were built to utilise the water as a domestic source. Such an activity can often result in destruction as the source is tanked and modernised. I hoped for the best.
There appeared to be a footpath which based close enough, if the land was not enclosed to be useful. However, it could not be seen whether the land was enclosed in someone’s garden. This path lay up Orton Lane beside a house called Orton Springs house (although it is not signed) which passes up the hill. The name sounded promising but I think it was more likely woodland spring rather than water spring.
I climbed the hill which provided great views of the valley. Taking a right hand path I followed it as it appeared to lead to what could be the cottages. As moved closer it was very evident there were not any cottages, but the foundations were to be seen by the path. Was the well similarly destroyed? Looking at the 1883 OS the well appeared to be down the slope from them and my eye was cast that way. A few yards away was something which did not fit into the general scene, for the hill was covered by a mix of deciduous trees but there in front was a yew. A solitary yew. This appeared to be very significant was this where the well was?
I scrambled down a muddy slope, nearly losing my footing at one point and got closer to the yew. The yew was growing romantically on a rocky ledge, the only rocky ledge I could see, I scrambled closer and could see some evidence of water flowing from beneath the rocky ledge. There was definitely some water source here but would be a brick municipal structure, a simple spring or something a bit more interesting.
Peering around the rock, the spring appeared to flow into a small square brick built chamber, which appeared to probably date from before the time of Hope’s account. It was full of clear water, the stream is currently constant running from a fissure in the rock; around it are the cryptogrammic plants, mosses, growing in profusion. The spring over fills the chamber and forms a small stream which flows down the hillside. A number of names, possibly dating back from Hope’s time are carved into the rock and sadly the site has fallen afoul of graffiti artists.
A lost pagan site?
A lot of commentators construct the view that many Christian sites derive from pagan ones. Sadly, the evidence is lacking. However, here I was struck by the circumstantial evidence which appeared to point in the direction of the well being depicted to a female deity. The first piece of evidence is perhaps the name of the settlement, Wombourne, deriving from bourne meaning a stream or river but the first bit is more elusive, officially it derives from ‘valley’ but could it have a more feminine origin? Could this be the spring entering from the mother earth’s womb? The only problem being that the wom brook, thought to be the origin of the name is somewhere else. Interestingly, the VCH (1908–1984) suggest that this site is to be identified with a Wodewelle recorded near Orton in the thirteenth century, but this might easily have been a different well. If it is the same of course the name easily derived from wood, which explains its location, however it might be from Woden? Unlikely though. The second piece of evidence is the presence of the Yew tree with its roots entering the spring. Neo-pagans would see it as Yggdrasil, the sacred tree and it’s certainly significant as it is the only one, although Wombourne is a Saxon not Norse foundation. Yews were also sacred to the Celts as well. The third piece of evidence is that a holy hermit lived there, perhaps descending from some pagan wise man? The fourth that the festivities were possibly ancient in nature although Hope give no clues on dates and what actually went on.
Whatever the conjecture, the Lady’s Well is a great survival and a taster of what fascinating sites exist in the county. My work on Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Staffordshire is hopefully out this year!
A Warwickshire field trip – the sad story of Margaret’s well
Whilst researching for a future volume on holy and healing wells in Warwickshire, I came across an interesting site called Margaret’s well. This site one would assume takes its name from a saint, but no, showing how easy it is for holy well researchers to be confused. However, this site has a far more interesting origin, it is cited by some as being the site where a local girl committed suicide. That in itself, although tragic, is not perhaps that interesting, but the suicide may have been the inspiration for the tragic character of Ophelia who drowned in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
A tragic suicide?
For those unfamiliar with Hamle: Ophelia loves and was courted by Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, but is helpless when he starts behaving strangely after his uncle marries his mother, having killed Hamlet’s father. After, Hamlet treats her poorly and abondons her she goes mad and drowns in a pool prompting the Laertes and Hamlet duel which results in both dying.
Who was Margaret?
Margaret Clopton, was the daughter of a leading Catholic family in the town and was a contemporary of Shakesphere. She was abandoned by her lover, drowned herself. News of her death would have reached Shakespeare as the family was so well known even if he was living in London especially as his wife, Anne Hathaway still resided in Statford. The dates certainly match, Hamlet is believed to have been written by the Bard in the 1590s, shortly after Margaret’s supposed death.
Searching on line for evidence, I found the following website: http://www.theanswerbank.co.uk/History/article/whats-the-evidence-for-ophelia/
In it a Dr. Bearman, who is the chief archivist at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, said the evidence was open to interpretation, but a possible link with Ophelia could not be denied. He stated that although there was a Margaret Clopton there are no records of her marriage or death which would lead you to suspect she died in infancy or early youth. However, he does note that there is a tradition of a young woman drowing in the well and the death is first recorded in Jordan’s History of Stratford written in1790. Whether this was Margaret and whether this was the source perhaps can never be proved! Indeed the vagueness of a ghost haunting the well may suggest a religious origin? Is the Margaret St Margaret?
Nearly lost for good?
The well built as a conduit for the hall was constructed in 1686 as the inscribed stone SJC 1686 records. The SJC refering to Sir John Clopton, but is obviously a pool or well before this but nothing is recorded. The site was for many inaccessible for years due to its being immersed in thick briars, bramble and boggy underneath and only the very top of the stonework being visible. It was decided in October 2002 to restore the well and a new path was laid to it, the work being completed in 2003. Archaeological field work once the land was drained revealed the brick vaulting, steps and flagstones. Masonry foundations were were found south-west of Margaret’s Well, and may have been remains of arbours shown on the 1848 Tithe map and estate plans of 1849.Once the private estate of Clopton house, the site now in a public park.
Visiting in 2011, the site is marked out by a fence and has a small plaque, but unfortunately this and the well itself have been vandalized. The well which consists of a barrel shaped structure over a rectangular pool has lost some of the brick work from the top and the concrete rendering. The water arises clearly from within, but I could not see the carved stone described.