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.