Of St. Mary’s Well, Mansfield, English Heritage’s Pastscape entry reads:
“There is much modern development in this area and there is now no surface evidence of a former well: local enquiry also negative.”
Such is the entry detailing the investigation in 1974. With Pastscape being such as useful resource it would be easy to leave it there, but in holy well research it’s not always a good idea to leave others to do the research….
Of this well called the Virgin Mary’s Well or the Old Bath (SK 548 616) little history is recorded. Indeed, the earliest record is Harrold (1801) work on Mansfield, who appears to separate the two sites as he notes that:
“Near the bath is a huge rock from which issues a constant stream of water much coveted by amateurs of the lipid element…Though I am not of the tribe of water drinkers I had the curiosity to taste thereof and pronounce it to be neither saline nor tepid.”
According to Groves (1894) the well had valuable medicinal properties and notes that if exploited it could increase the importance of the town. However, there is no evidence that this attempt to develop the site into a spa happened, although it was much frequented. He notes that a man called White, who was 80 in 1891 used to bathe in the well when he was a boy, although the water was so cold that he would not bath in it long!
The spring was used to fill a public bath in 1823 being enclosed in the grounds of Bath or Goldie’s Mill which sadly was partly demolished in 2008 after years of dereliction. However, the well appears to disappear from view soon after Groves and no mention is made of it. Could it be destroyed?
Doing a bit more research, I uncovered a survey made by the Sherwood Archaeology Society (1998), which recorded a well which they referred to it as the Bath Mill Spring and suggest tradition thought it was a Roman Bath! It would appear that the well still survived (or at least did in 1998). They recorded it as follows:
“The spring’s chamber is around 2.5 metres square with a vaulted roof. The interior is of undressed local stone and completely rendered. At the rear of the chamber is a tank made of finely dressed limestone 75cm by 107cm and about 75cm deep. The tank was fed by water channels from the rear and the side of the structure and has an outlet conduit which presumably empties into the river which is approximately four metres below the tank. Due to the general drop in the level of the water table, the actual source of the water is now lost. Access to the water source is via four steps. The floor and a side platform show considerable evidence of heavy usage. The top three steps have been reconstructed at some time and it would appear that the chamber’s threshold has been raised. Also at a more recent date a low but substantial brick wall has been built immediately in front of the cistern. The purpose of this is not clear.”
Such a detailed report meant that the site should still exist and so I contacted the president of the society who gave me more information and I set out a warm Sunday morning to find it. Arriving at the location I met a man from Severn Trent who was doing a check on the sewerage works which was fortunate as he knew the site. Fortunately it was not in the works but the other side. He showed me from the other bank and I looked over into a morass of shoulder high nettles and brambles! Walking around to the other side my first obstacle was clear the walk way to the mill was very permanently locked! This was frustrating as I now knew the site was there and was eager to find out more. There was a second option, I noticed a garden abutted the waste area enclosing the well and I gingerly enquired of the lady there. She very kindly said it was okay and seemed pleased to hear someone was visiting the site for the right reasons, adding it was often the haunt of youths.
I jumped the fence into the boggy hole surrounding the site and made my way to where I thought it was. Soon I found the ground getting more sodden and soon I found the well. It was exactly as described above and quite substantial considering it was so little known. A 20 metre stone flagged pathway leads from the mill and such the cistern was probably built at the same time as the mill, and that the owner’s used it as a source of fresh water and was possibly moved when the approach road was moved. The description above fits what greets us today. Fortunately, it survives, but perhaps not for long as the site is now threatened with destruction as the derelict mill and lands around it are soon to be developed. Hopefully, this, the only surviving sacred spring in the towns of Nottinghamshire can be preserved for future generations.
Visiting holy wells often allows one to travel back to a past time, a pilgrimage to St. Mary’s or Our Lady’s Well Speen is an example, a rare holy well in a rather modern and largely urbanised county of Berkshire. It is a county not famed for holy wells, but just off the busy main A4 road to Newbury, down a grassy track and to the right, is this relic from a bygone age, although what age it actually is, is unclear. The earliest mention is in the 1783 Collections towards a parochial history of Berkshire:
“about a pistol shot above the church is a well called Lady’s Well, where there is a distinct and clear an echo as ever I heard. It repeats but once, but as such a distance of time, and so oud, that you can hear a word of four or five syllables as distinctly from the echo as you can from the person who speaks it.”
This echo is commonly noted by subsequent authors, however Edward Williams Gray’s 1839 The History and Antiquities of Newbury and its Environs is the first to describe the well’s properties He describes it as:
“A well about two hundred yards above the Church,…is called ‘Our Lady’s Well’… At the present day, the water is deemed to possess some peculiar healing qualities.”
These peculiar healing qualities are not that peculiar is Bayley’s 1994 account The Lady Well of Speen is current as he nots it was used to cure eyes ( as well as other undescribed ills). William Money (1882) in his History of Speen describes these other properties as including measles and rickets. Bayley relates that a travelling doctor, who visited the Newbury Maundy Thursday Horse and cattle Fair, called Doctor Parzianus Fisher used to promote its waters for their healing qualities. In more recent times Bayley informs us local children would throw a coin in it to hopefully get a wish. Although it is unclear if anyone visits it for healing, although I have noticed some neo-pagan interest, the well is still part of its community. There is a regular service at the well. In 2011 the Bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard visited the well on the 10th August and attended the thanksgiving service
How old is the well? Well the present structure despite a local of antiquity, looking as it does one of those Cornish medieval structures, is fairly recent. Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of holy wells notes:
“the appearance of the well has of late years been spoilt by the addition of a wooden curb and cover.”
Perhaps someone read this for not long after, as the plaque above the well notes, it was restored, proclaiming:
“Ye Ancient Ladye Well – restored 1902.”
This well consists of a stone built square structure and may have re-used some materials. It has a stone cap with a semi-circular decorative panel with sun rays. Sadly early records of the well appear non-existent although it does appear on the 1880 Ordnance Survey Map it does not appear on earlier maps. The biggest clue is the church of course, it is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin and is only 200 metres from the well. Geographically of course this is a significant place, off the old A4 Bath Road, an ancient Roman roadway, Ermin Street. Did the Romans know of the well? Gray (1839) does indeed note ‘some remains or impressions of its once sacred character.’ Did the Saxon’s settle here because of the well? What of the echo? It’s an unusual and unique association does it relate to the strange things seen here? For Bayley’s notes that a 20th century resident had seen a ghostly figure standing beside the well. Ghosts are often used as evidence for ancient origins and may remember an ancient pagan deity. Whatever the truth, the site retains that other worldly feel. Furthermore, despite some vandalism it remains as it did in the Edwardian period – when it was a common subject for postcards – a delightful escape for the modern age.
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!
In preparation for a volume on Holy and healing wells of Norfolk, a county with a high number of interesting and surviving sites, I was in North Norfolk doing research. Of course this area of Norfolk is dominated by the Walsingham wells, more of perhaps in a latter post, but I would like to focus on three less well known sites.
Many people visit the romantic gate house ruins of Burnham Norton’s Carmelite Friary, built in 1241, very few people would tbe able to tell you about the holy well. Described by the Procceedings of the Norfolk Archaeology as where the:
the monks walked to the wishing wells nearby to drink the cool water, which is claimed to make wishes come true.
These appear to be the same as that marked as Our Lady’s Well on the 1880s OS. The The spring has nine or ten sections of stone work around it as it arises close to the edge in the bed of the gravel stream. It is probable, especially as some of the stone work appears worked and may have come from the friary or was constructed by the friary although it does not seam as substantial as one would expect. Nearer the road is a rectangular stone lined ‘tank’ which may be associated with the spring and indeed may be it, as the older OS maps it is difficult to identify the exact site.
I failed to find Lady Bone Well, at Coxford. A site said to be near the remains of the Augustinian abbey and obviously its water source. One would assume a name after Our Lady, although Bone would be difficult to explain. Indeed, its name is said to be after a lady of the Priory who was drowned in the well by the priests of the priory; an odd lesson which I have been unable to date but is doubtlessly Reformation in origin. A visit by NAU in 1978 found the surrounding wall in reasonably good condition, approximately 30cm high and 1.8m in diameter, is broken in three places. Its water reaching ground level and its overflow joining River Wensum some 27m to the south. However, by 1990 it was thought to be in poor condition. and indeed my visit failed to find any evidence of a springhead at the site and it appears to have become very overgrown and lost in a marshy area.
The small village of Sedgeford does have a Lady Well, although only marked in blue italics on the current OS giving some doubt to its age. Little is known of the well, but I was told of processions that have gone to the well and one would expect that its water was used by filling the church font. Little appears to be recorded of this spring but its location not far from the parish church is significant. The spring flows from the bank forming a chalky stream and into a large pool. Significantly perhaps there is a large stone beside it.
More of Norfolk holy wells and springs later….