Hidden down a small lane signposted from the main road is one of the most impressive holy wells in Hampshire and certainly on the Isle of Wight – St Lawrence’s Well. A Victorian chapel well house structure covers the well in a Gothic revival style it is described on the current signage as follows:
“It is a simple structure of local sandstone, surmounted by a cross molline, with the water issuing from a dolphin’s mouth.”
Pevsner’s The Isle of Wight guide records it as:
“Near the entrance to Marine Villa is ST LAWRENCE WELL, an Early Victorian grotto-like structure with finely moulded, heavily hooded Gothic entrance to a rib-vaulted interior.”
The structure being a folly of sorts. The well house was built by the first Earl of Yarborough who was a significant landowner at St Lawrence in the early 1800s although the exact date is unknown. One of the first accounts appears to be Asenath Nicholson’s 1853’s Loose Papers; Or, Facts Gathered During Eight Years’ Residence in Ireland, Scotland, England, France, and Germany which records:
“Two miles from town is St. Lawrence Spring; a gate opens and shows a basin of water which is supplied from a rock; the stream runs through an aperture, and the basin is excavated from the rock, elevated so high that the precious draught is offered without stooping; here upon stone benches, under the shade of trees, the traveller may sit, read, take his lunch, and drink his water at pleasure.”
It had attracted considerable romantic interest in the mid 1800s being compared to deified groves and springs of Hellas and the Sabine springs of ancient Rome. Of course the spring is named after St Lawrence, a third century Roman martyr killed on a gridiron. This is particularly evident in the work St. Lawrence’s Well: A Fragmentary Legend of the Isle of Wight’ by Henry Brinsley Sheriden published in 1845. Which records in a lengthy poem:
“From Ventnor stretching scarce a mile, The loveliest spot on this blessed Isle , And near unto the castled pile ; A little trickling rill doth play, Through the worn rock — and dash its way, Into a basin formed to hold. The crystal stream so pure and cold , Where running through the tunnelled clay , It passes from the light of day. The basin’s like a scallop shell- The fount is called “St. Lawrence ‘ Well .”Art hath done much to deck the place, With carvings and with forms of grace ; The Norman arch is shaded oʻer, By bending willows , and before, The gates are seats for those who tire ; There they may rest , and still admire, The magic beauty of the spot, Which looks like some magician’s grot, And listen to that murmuring sound, The falling water echoes round, And note the dark – leaved ivy winding, Its trailing tendrils there , and binding, Its circling arms around the trees That rock at every passing breeze. And many a heart no doubt hath been, Charmed by the beauty of that scene.”
It was again immortalised in poetry by Albert Midlane’s 1860 The Vecta Garland, and Isle of Wight Souvenir:
“Hail, lovely grotto ! Hail Elysian soil! Thou fairest spot of fair Britannia’s isle.”— Tickell. Turn aside, poor weary traveller, Drink, and be refresh’ d; On these rustic shaded benches, Sit thee down and rest; All around conspires to assure thee, Thou’rt a welcome guest
Sit thee down and I will tell thee, What of late befel; One who came to drink the waters. Of this crystal well,— Streaming from the rocks above us, Where the sea-gulls dwell.
What his name, or birth I wot not, What he did I know; This bright rill of cooling water, Thou to him dost owe; Had he lacked the free-man’s spirit Hidden it would flow.”
Temporary loss of access
The poem goes on to record how access to the site was once restricted by the Earl of Yarborough, it is said as a consequence of ‘various depredations having been committed at the well’. It said that:
“During the summer of 1843, the following lines were written by a person unknown, and placed over the door, which, on being taken down by a gentleman in that neighbourhood, were handed to his Lordship, who was so much pleased with the jeu d’esprit, as to give directions for the Well to be unlocked, and it has ever since been open to the public: —
“This Well, we must own, is most splendidly placed, And very romantic we think it; The water, no doubt, too, would pleasantly taste If we could but get at it, to drink it!”
We wish that the person who owneth this Well, May walk a long way, and get ‘ knocked up;’ And then, if its pleasant or not, he can tell, When he comes to some water that’s lock’d up !”
Access was restored because no mention of it is made in William Henry Davenport Adam’s Nelson’s 1864 Hand-Book to the Isle of Wight
“On the road, to the right, in a recess under a Gothic arch, and overshadowed by some fine trees, bubbles and gushes most refreshingly an abundant spring, long celebrated as St. Lawrence’s Well. The quaint little edifice which encloses it was built by the late Earl of Yarborough.”
Permanent loss of water?
My visit after a rather heavy rain period showed no sign of water in well house. The interior which is now looked forever it would appear is very mossy and algae covered and the spout appears to indicate the calcified nature of the water by being encrusted. However there is no water. Yet there is plenty of water nearby and just up the lane a lot of water can he heard entering the drain. Just across from the signpost to the well on the other side of the road is a natural spring head with water emerging romantically from under mossy stones. This clearly was the original source. The original St. Lawrence’s Well? If there was an original of course I feel this site is a romantic invention back invented from the village name. This notwithstanding it is a delightful site.
A well dressed site.
In the 21st century a well-dressing tradition has been established at the site but details have been difficult to find about when it started and whether it will continue after the pandemic. The site has been connected to the Island’s other well-known holy well – Whitwell by a pilgrim path.