Ask anyone to name one thing about Wantage and they will tell you it was the birth place of King Alfred. When I visited the town in the 1990s I had read of a King Alfred’s Well and naturally was keen to find out more. John Murray’s 1923 A Handbook for Travellers in Berks, Bucks, and Oxfordshire:
“1/4 m. W. of the town, at the Mead, are King Alfred’s Bath and Well ; the latter a basin of clear water, in a pretty dingle, formed by a number of small petrifying springs.”
I was not the first one to visit it of course and it appears to be a popular site for school parties if this account is an example this account in the St Mary’s, Longworth, Parish Magazine, 1910:
“August 1910 On Saturday, June 25, the Sunday School children, to the number of nineteen, were taken by the Rev. T. H. Trott a little outing to Wantage. They were met at the end of their journey by Mr. A. A. Herring, who after kindly giving them some refreshments at the Temperance Hotel, took them round the town to see the principal objects of interest, such as the Parish Church, the Victoria Picture Gallery, King Alfred’s Well and King Alfred’s Bath.”
It had clearly become one of the places to see in the town and doubtless and opportunity to stress the history of King Alfred. The biggest recognition of the site’s history was for the 1000th celebration of his birth. The Freemason’s Quarterly Journal recording:
“THE ALFRED JUBILEE A grand jubilee in honour of the one thousandth anniversary of the birth of King Alfred who according to antiquarian calculation was born in 849 was celebrated at Wantage on the October 1849 The town was decorated for the occasion the shops and business except in the hotels which were crowded generally Many visitors thronged into the place and at one o clock a was formed to King Alfred’s Well about a quarter of a mile the town and supposed to be the site of the ancient stronghold of Saxon kings.”
The Gentleman’s Magazine records that year that a speech on the:
“history and traditions of King Alfred The Rev CL Richmond from America made an eloquent speech to the concourse outside After this a procession was made to King Alfred’s Well about a quarter of a mile from the town and supposed to be at the site of the Anglo Saxon palace.”
Some people still hold firmly to the idea that the palace stood on the ground now occupied by ” The Mead’ (the property of Lord Wantage).
In the 1901 Wantage past and present the author, Agnes Gibbons adds more to the rationale stating that:
“traces of Alfred’s palace are still believed to remain in the High Garden, where there is a close still bearing the name of ” Court Close,” and ” Pallett’s More ” which has been supposed to be a corruption of Palace More.”
However, they continue to claim that:
“Their chief reason for this belief is the fact that there is near the Mead a brick “bath” or ” well ” which has for some time been called King Alfred’s Bath.”
So it appears a cart before the horse situation perhaps!
King Alfred or just Alfred’s?
It would appear that those who had made their pilgrimage to the site were possibly at best mistaken or at most deluded about the history of the site. This is stressed by Gibbons again who claims
“It is, however, extremely doubtful if the bricks which compose the bath are one hundred years old, so that no value can be attached to this argument. “
Wantage Now and Then informs us of the true origin of the well:
“It is said that in reality the ” bath ” was dug out and bricked in, by one Alfred Hazel, a former owner of the Mead (possibly for sheep dipping) and was then called ” Alfred Hazel’s Bath.’”
One can see it this became ” Alfred’s Bath,” and then ” King Alfred’s Bath.” Although how this could be forgotten in less than 100 years seems odd! The author continues:
“The bricks have a suspicious resemblance to those which were made at Challow, early last century, of green sand, many of which are still to be found in the town.”
An odd piece of folklore commonly encountered elsewhere with supposed ghostly appearance on its anniversary, is that the pond nearby which appears to have been the bath with the spring nearby being the well, was a coach. The author continues:
“The pond which is close to the bath, is said to have beneath its muddy surface an old coach, said to be the one formerly used by Mr. Chas. Price (he was Lord Mayor of London in 1802, and his family lived in Wantage) on his journeys to and from the metropolis. It was highly gilded, and minus wheels, and was at one time used as a bathing machine, by men who bathed in the pond. supposed to be the King’s bath or cellar! Both references to Alfred are equally mythical supposed to be the King’s bath or cellar! Both references to Alfred are equally mythical.”
So what was claimed and is still claimed to be his well and bath was Victorian construct possibly and a sheep wash at that. But how could its construction be forgotten about!
When I visited the site it was overgrown and a muddy morass. I could not easily trace any spring but subsequently it has been improved and tidied up to make it easier to visit.
What is interesting that what was formed as dam to clean fleeces and cloth may have also had linked with baptisms, Alfred Hazel was a Baptist. In the late 19th century Lord Wantage VC bought the area and had it landscaped as a fern garden and it may have been around this time that the story of King Alfred became consolidated as perhaps he adopted it as a sort of folly although this would not explain the visit in 1849 unless they didn’t go to this well and there is another King Alfred Well lost in Wantage. Of course there are examples of Lady Wells being repaired by the Lady of the manor! This could be the same the springs are noted a petrifying and so it is possible that they were noted but whether it was Alfred or not is unclear. It is also confusing what was the well and what was the bath – was the bath Alfred Hazels but the springs had been called after King Alfred before that!
In 1921 a descendant, Arthur Thomas Lloyd, presented the area to the town of Wantage and such it has been ever since landscaped and improved more recently. Whatever its history the site with its improved flow is a delightfully refreshing place to visit.
Folly estates are often a good place to find substantial holy wells and sacred sites and to north-west of Stourhead Gardens splendid Stourhead Estate, a National Trust property, is a splendid example – St. Peter’s Pump. However, yet like many such sites, the origins and names are confusing to explain. The well head, unlike some sites, is very easy to find being a high medieval cross sitting slightly incongruously upon a rubble grotto where the spring, now dry, arose. A strange hotchpotch
The well, is one of supposedly six, giving the site the official name of Six Wells. The earliest reference, is before the folly was John Leland in the 16th century noted:
“ther of 6 fountaines or springes, whereof 3 be on the northe side of the parke harde withyn the pale.”
He also noted that Lord Stourton, a family name of great antiquity has six fountains on his coat of arms. Such sources of great rivers often attract folklore, although none appear surprisingly to be holy wells. The name Six Wells first appears in 1822.
King Alfred’s holy well?
The origin of the springs is said to owe itself to King Alfred the Great, the great Anglo-Saxon King. In her 1932 book, Moonraking a little book of Wiltshire stories, Edith Oliver tells us
“It is said, when tired from fighting with the Danes, King Alfred and his soldiers prayed for water, and up came six wells or springs. If the legend is true, if this is not a holy well, surely a heaven-sent one.”
Indeed, I have argued how royal wells were often seen as sacred and considering Alfred’s standing it seems likely these were. However, his name appears never to have been associated with the well. The king is remembered in a substantial folly tower not far from the springs, but his absence here is quite surprising?
Why St. Peter?
Where the name St. Peter’s Pump comes from is at first unclear. There is a record according to Gover, Mawer and Stenton’s 1939 Place Names of Wiltshire of a Peterswells in 1279 somewhere in Wiltshire, was it here? The name St. Peter is in itself rarely associated with British Holy Wells. To add to the confusion, the site is also called St. Agnes Pump, the reason being that it derives from the origin of the medieval cross which tops the grotto structure. The present structure was built by Henry Hoare in 1786.
The moving cross
The cross was originally a pump, which has six square posts with moulded cappings to six ogee- arched openings each with cherubs over each, then there are six niches with semi-circular heads above each containing a seated figure with hexagonal moulded pillar and narrower shaft to top. Interestingly a date 1768 is incised on east side of pillar. An odd date for a medieval cross said to be 14th century, so why?
The reason why the date of 1768 is incised on the pump is because it was moved. The pump head originally sat over St. Edith’s Well, in the City of Bristol. It once stood at the junction of Peter Street and Dolphin Street in Bristol for 300 years and provided water for the city. Then in a strange form of forward thinking beneficial vandalism, it was dismantled under an 1766 Act of Parliament, which looked to improve transport in Bristol and placed upon a purposely made grotto. The well itself was also moved. It may seem strange that I view this as beneficial, but the exact spot of the cross was hit by a bomb in the Second World War, which caused the nearby church to be ruined and would have destroyed the cross. The well according to Phil Quinn’s 1999 Holy wells of Bristol and Bath Region:
“Today both the old and new wells lie under the flagstones of Castle Park, the site of the old St. Edith’s Well being marked by a slab laid upside down and of a lighter colour than its neighbours.”
Quinn states that the Bristol well was called St Peter when it was repaired in the 15th century after the church nearby…the Peterswell in Wiltshire would appear to be a red herring! The name originating when in 1546 pumping mechanisms were established subsequently being recorded as Saynt Peter’s plumpe. So mystery solved.
Another reason for the 17th century date is to explain the difference between the original cross in Bristol and its appearance now. What is above the niches is 18th century as the top of the cross is lost. Was it broken in transit? Vandalised in the 18th century? Or too Catholic?
So all in all a curious hotchpotch of history, much like the structure itself.