An Act for Making and Maintaining a Navigable Canal from the Coventry Canal records
“Use of the said Canal or Works from or out of a certain Spring called the Holywell in the Parish of Ashby de la Zouch or out of the Stream or Brook flowing from the same whereby Town is in Part supplied with Water nor in any way to divert or the Course of the said Spring Stream or Brook but that the same shall and may at all Times hereafter flow as freely fully and beneficially to said Town of Ashby de la Zouch and along the antient Course thereof to Intents and Purposes as heretofore.”
Such an important notice to preserve Ashby de la Zouch’s holy well one would have thought it had been better known perhaps. However, although Ashby-de-la Zouch is famed for its Spa a more ancient spring. These springs of which were on the borders with Derbyshire and now fill ponds at the Conkers activity centre where there is a small information board about it. The famed portico was destroyed in the early 1970s and the site of the springs is still noted in the Conkers adventure park although there is nothing to see. However, there is something to see at the Holywell at the town.
It first appears in the LRO Description of Ashby De La Zouch in 1735 as Hollywell a name we will come back to. John Nichols (1795–1815) in his work The History and Antiquities of the County of Leicester notes is the first to note site stating that:
“Ashby is well watered with springs, by the name of… Holywell”
In the 1831 A descriptive and historical guide to Ashby-de-la-Zouch and the neighbourhood it notes:
“Ashby possesses several fine springs of water they are distinguished as Holy Well Lyon sWell and Perring’s Well”
This spring still arises as John Richardson (1931) the Water supply of Leicestershire calls it as:
“a good spring (30,000 to 35,000 gallons a day, not now used)… half-a-mile NNW of the Church”.
Holy or Hollow?
A lack of tradition, legends, folklore or even properties can be problematic. However what is more problematic is the name Hollywell compared to the geography of the well. Such names can often derive from the Old English word ‘Holh’ for hollow rather than ‘Halig’ for holy! The well not only appears to rise in a small cave but the whole stream flows to the town in a deep hollow! So is it Hollowell? Possibly.
The site today
The site still exists being near Holy Well Farm on the outskirts of the town. The spring arises in a dense thicket at the edge of Holywell Spring Farm. Some years back I was given assistance to examine it, a rather hazardous occupation, as the site is very steep.
Its source is fills a large rectangular pool which is brick and stone lined. Water then flows under a small arch into a much large rectangular pool. The exact source is too overgrown to see clearly, but its water then cascades over the basin to form a small sandy stream. The structure appears to be too ornate to be modern and probably in parts date back to the use of the water in the spa period. Its waters are said to feed two taps in the town: one in the Spa and the other in council grounds. The area around the springhead is soon to be developed for housing so hopefully this ancient water source will survive the change!
On the outskirts of Loughborough is an area called holywell, but pronounced ‘holly’, I have found very little about the well which gave its name. Trubshaw (1990) in his book on holy wells of Leicestershire and Rutland mentions it and there is a post with a modern picture on Megalithic Portal, but shows a rather boring brick structure and not he elliptical basin the former mentions. So I decided to investigate the twin sites of the well and it’s associated Holywell Haw.
A cursory glance at the map shows that it is virtually swallowed up by Loughborough University (hence the honours joke) is the estate of Holywell Haw, the present farmhouse taking its name from a spring nearby. Of the house itself it probably began life as a hostel for those lost in the most substantial Charnwood forest which has retracted around it. However by 1180 it had become a hermitage owned by Garendon Abbey and is first noted by the name of Holywell Haw, the later deriving from haw meaning enclosure, the same origin as hawthorn. Potter in his “History and Antiquities of Charnwood Forest”. (1842) notes it was described in a grant by Robert de Jort to the abbey the site being described as heremitorium de Halliwellhaga. The Testa de Nevill, 13th century records ‘a dairy, with a small wood, called Haliwelle Hawe’, which by the 14th century the Leicester Abbey purchased from a Henry Lord Beaumont ‘a certain parcel of wood called Holy-well Haw for £28′. They appear to have developed the area to what can be seen today: fishponds and moats, and probably used the site as a grange and possible a diary. What remains today is mainly 15th century with fragments of a medieval structure such as gothic doorways and timbers. Whether it was Holywell Haw or Hall is unclear. It has been blamed on the Ordnance Survey and indeed some blunders have been done in the past. However, it is possible that a 19th century owner, March Philips, had some sort of pretensions for the building and thought the name was better. By the eighteenth century name to Holywell Dyke, an eighteenth-century boundary mark for Charnwood Forest .It is now better known as a farm.
The Holy Well
The spring, is icy cold and never run dry, produces, according to Trubshaw 20,000 galloons a day and is one of the only non-incorporated spring in the Severn Trent catchment classed as A1 Drinkable. Local tradition states that it has medicinal qualities. Nichols (1795–1815) notes:
“The excellent spring is yet preserved”
Potter (1852) notes that it:
“.derives part of its name from a well, to the waters of which, even in recent times, considerable virtues have been attributed.”
However, its most famous legend is said to date from the 15th century
Potter (1852) notes that:
“The popular idea seems to be, that the Comyns (of Whitwick Castle) were great giants. One of them, said my informant, attempted to carry off one of the Ladies of Groby Castle, who left that place for security, intending to take sanctuary at Grace Dieu. Going, however, by a circuitous route, to avoid Charley and Whitwick, she was benighted, and would have perished in the Outwoods, but for one of the Monks of the Holy Well.”
The legend tells how after a considerable pursuit, she upon reaching the hermitage, collapsed and died. A monk then used the water to bring her back to life. Potter (1942) tells the story in verse:
|The oaks of the forest were Autumn-tinged, And the winds were at sport with their leaves When a maiden traversed the rugged rocks That frown over WOODHOUSE EAVES.||The Hermit upraised the stiffened form, And he bore to the HOLY WELL: Three Paters or more he muttered o’er, And he filled his scallop shell.|
|The rain fell fast – she heeded it not Though no hut or home appears; She scarcely knew if the falling drops Were rain drops or her tears.||He sprinkled the lymph on the Maiden’s face, And he knelt and he prayed by her side Not a minute’s space had he gazed on her face Ere signs of life he spied…..|
|Onward she hied through the OUTWOODS dark (And the Outwoods were darker then) She feared not the Forest’s deepening gloom She feared unholy men.||Spring had invested the CHARNWOOD oaks With their robe of glistening green, When on palfreys borne, one smiling morn, At the HOLY WELL’s HAW were seen.|
|Lord Comyn’s scouts were in close pursuit, For Lord Comyn the Maid had seen, And had marked her mother’s only child For his paramour, I ween.||A youth and a Lady, passing fair, Who asked for the scallop shell: A sparkling draught each freely quaffed, And they blessed the HOLY WELL.|
|A whistle, a whoop from the BUYK HYLLS side, Told Agnes her foes were nigh: And screened by the cleft of an aged oak, She heard quick steps pass by.||They blessed that Well, and they fervently blessed The Holy Hermit too; To that and to him they filled to the brim The scallop, and drank anew.|
|Dark and dread fell that autumn night: The wind-gusts fitful blew: The thunder rattled: – the lightning’s glare Showed BEACON’s crags to view.||“Thanks, Father! Thanks! – To this well and thee,” Said the youth, “But to Heaven most, I owe the life of the fairest wife That CHARNWOOD’s bounds can boast.|
|The thunder neared – the lightning played Around the sheltering oak; But Agnes, of men, not God afraid, Shrank not at the lightning’s stroke!||“The blushing bride thou seest at my side. (Three hours ago made mine) Is she who from death was restored to breath By Heaven’s own hand and thine”.|
|The thunder passed – the silvery moon Burst forth from her cave of cloud, And showed in the glen “Red Comyn’s” men, And she breathed a prayer aloud:-||“The Prior of ULVERSCROFT made us one, And we hastened here to tell How much we owe to kind Heaven and thee, For the gift of the HOLY WELL”.|
|Maiden mother of God! Look down List to a maidens prayer: Keep undefiled my mother’s sole child The spotless are thy care”||“In proof of which – to the HOLYWELL HAW I give as a votive gift, From year to year three fallow deer, And the right of the Challenge drift”.|
|” The sun had not glinted on BEACON HILL Ere the Hermit of the HOLY WELL Went forth to pray, as his wont each day, At the cross in Fayre-Oke dell.||“I give, besides, of land two hides, To be marked from the Breedon Brand: To be held while men draw from the Well in this Haw A draught with the hollow hand”.|
|Ten steps had he gone from the green grassy mound Still hemming the HOLY WELL HAW, When, stretched on the grass – by the path he must pass A statue-like form he saw!||The Hermit knelt, and the Hermit rose, And breathed “Benedicite! And tell me”, he said, with a hand on each head, “What heaven sent pair I see!”|
|He crossed himself once, he crossed himself twice, And he knelt by the corse in prayer: “Jesu Maria! cold as ice – Cold – cold – but still how fair!”||“This is the lost de Ferrers’ child, Who dwelt at the Steward’s Hay; And, father, my name – yet unknown to fame Is simply EDWARD GREY”.|
It is thought that after being revived she gave her name to God and became a prioress and some historians link it to a real life account of Eleanor Ferrars whose was carried off. It also has similarity to legends associated with Essex’s Running Well and Kent’s St. Thomas’s well at Singlewell.
The well today
Despite a leaflet mentioning the well from the University, available as pdf, it is a little reticent in regards to whether it can be visited. However, exploring around the back of the enormous Holywell complex a small path passes some gas cylinders and then to a stile. No keep out signs are present so I assumed it was okay to jump over. There almost in front of me is a large brick chamber covered by two large fibre glass up turned boats. These appear to cover the well. Peering between a gap however this rather unpromising edifice reveals something more interesting. The brick chamber encloses an elliptical natural stone or possibly medieval basin, into which a copious flow enters and fills and then flows through a pipe into the brook below. Despite the rather ugly surrounds there is still something ancient and mysterious about this most well known of Leicestershire sacred springs. The local farm, the Holywell Haw, still apparently uses the water and it is regularly checked by the Uni authorities. One hopes it can get a better cover, surely the university could afford a metal grid more worthy of this venerable site.
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Leicestershire is perhaps not readily associated with medicinal springs or mineral springs but it does have a number of sites including one called once the nobliest spring in England. Roughly speaking there are three main types of springs: Saline, Chalybeate and Sulphurous. Leicestershire had examples of each. Often as at Loddinton’s Eye Well, the impregnation with Epsom salts made it undrinkable and in this case was used for ocular complaints. In other cases, surveys by antiquarians, in particular Nichols (1795-1810) referred to them as medicinal such as at Newton Linford, Shawell’s Shady Well and Ullesthrope Cawdel Well. Chemically many of the springs contained salts, although this did not make them necessarily salty in the general meaning to this although , Nichols (1795-1810) describes a spring at Belvoir as ‘Brackish Well’ and he also refers to a Salt Spring at Donisthorpe. Which he says was used for used against scorbutic disorders, and was visited on summer Sunday mornings. Nichols refers to a salt well at Saddington once used for scrofula and scurvy, but was thought to be useless in point of medicine at the time of his survey perhaps suggesting contamination or the dropping of the water table.
Chalybeate springs were more common such as Holwell’s spring, but also at Hinckley where Richardson (1931) notes a Cogg’s Well, at Old Dalby, as well as Neville Holt’s spa.
Indeed the name Spa is associated with minor springs in the county as it is across the midlands it appears, the name is recorded at Thorpe Arnold, Hinckley, called Christopher spa perhaps after the saint or its founder/owner and the most interesting at Burton Lazar. Here the spring with its sodium chloride and hydroxide brackish water was perhaps used by the inhabitants of a lazar house in the village. However, a minor spa was established in 1760 after a discovery that the health of cattle was improved by drinking the spring. The spa continued until at least 1849
Often in the county the colour of the spring suggests its properties, such as Nevill Holt’s Goldthorpe Spring was said to be curative and at Sapcote the Gold Well was noted a sulphur spring. Here the water was used to cure nervous complaints, consumption, scurvy, eyes. A bath house built in 1806 by a Mr. J. Turner for £600 still stands and is a private house. By 1853 apparently it was little resorted and may have closed soon after, At bath was supposedly to be found at Staunton Harold although very little was left by 1795. These sites hint at the wider establishments set up elsewhere, the true spas. However, only three sites reached what we could consider as a true spa.
Leicester had a spa, commemorated in Spa Place. Watts (1820) comments how:
“furnished by the proprietor with neat marble baths and easy convenient appendage for bathing, has not been found to be sufficiently impregnated with mild properties to bring proper use”.
Nevill Holt’s spa, a separate site from the Goldthorpe spring it would appear, was discovered by 1728 when a local farmer utilising a spring found that he could get his cattle to drink from it. Within two years it was identified as a spa water and christened Holt Spa. Its fame appears to have been cemented by Shorts work on mineral springs. The site was soon developed, utilising the Hall as a residence for attendees and a season from April to October was established. Over the spring the Countess Migliorocci of the Hall built a fountain head. The waters were chalybeate in nature and that:
“became famous for their speedy and surprising cures of the most stubborn diseases: externally applied they removed complaints of the eyes, healed fresh wounds, and died up old ones. Taken inwardly they have cured the rheumatism, bloody flux, stone, spitting of blood, scurvy and restored lost appetites.”
Such was the fame of the spring that it was called the nobliest spring in the county. Despite this it soon appears to have fallen into decline. Close by is Shearsby Well, located in a hollow and mentioned by the Leicestershire 18th century historian, John Nichols. This was converted into a spa and became renowned as a famous salt spring. Bath hotel remains and supposedly one can bath in its waters in the cellar but I have failed to have this confirmed. Hinckley’s mineral spring, whose water was said to resemble Harrogate, Tunbridge, Buxton and Carlsbad, were developed into baths in the 1830s with the opening of the Mineral Baths hotel and its pleasure grounds in 1849 for bathing and drinking of its waters. The main bath being 20 feet by 60 feet. The outlay never met the profit and in 1892 or thereabouts the baths were demolished and the New Mineral Bath’s Hotel built on the site. The waters have vanished but the pub remains.
But the most famous was Ashby de la Zouch’s spa. This was a prospected spring so to speak, having arisen as a result of colliery work at Moira in 1801, water being struck some 700 feet below the surface. Its waters were said to be good for skin diseases, scrofula. First the water was transported in carts or boats to the town. However, the first Marquis of Hastings realising the commerciality of the waters set about developing a proper spa, with hotels, theatre, elegant terraces and a bath house. The bath house was completed in 1822 and named Ivanhoe baths after the association of the Sir Water Scott’s book with the nearby castle. Six baths were established in the Doric portico temple spa and the waters were recommended for gout and ‘full neck, nerve-ache, green sickness and ringworm’ However, it was too late a spa and could not compete with established spas and the growing trend for maritime spas.
The springs of which were on the borders with Derbyshire and now fill ponds at the Conkers activity centre where there is a small information board about it. The famed baths were destroyed in the early 1970s. This was the last attempt at undertaken to develop mineral springs in the county.