Leicester unsurprisingly being an ancient settlement boasts a number of wells all of which have been lost. The most noted is the spring-name called Tostings Well, which some authorities believe derives St Augustine’s Well. An author with the name ‘Leicestriensis’ says in 1852 (quoted in Potter (1985)) that it was
“now covered and enclosed; but within the memory of persons still living it was in the state… described by Nichols… “Good for sore eyes”… even since the enclosure of the well, many applications for water from the pump erected in the adjoining ground have, I know, been made… On making some enquiries a few years ago of “the oldest inhabitant”, he… exclaimed “Oh! You mean Tostings’s Well!”’.
Nichols (1795–1815) places near a footbridge called Bow-Bridge ran from the Friary near the West Bridge, over a back water of the Soar, to the garden called Bow Church Yard. He describes it as:
“for the use of the friars to a constant spring of limpid water, on the paved road side, a few paces distant, called St Austin’s Well”
It is noted when the Corporation mended the bridge in 1688, St Austin’s well was mending for £2 14s 8d. Nichols (1795-1815) notes that it was:
“Still overflowing with contribution to the back water… the well is three quarters of a yard broad, and the same in length within its inclosure, the depth of its water from the lip or back-edging on the earth, where it commonly overflows, is half a yard. It is covered with a mill-stone, and enclosed with stone and brick on three sides; that towards Bow-bridge and the town is open.”
Sadly it has now been entirely destroyed, occasioned by widening the road.
Slightly more difficult were the springs associated with Leicester Abbey were the Merrie Wells which Potter (1985) and Rattue (1993) suggest derivation of St. Mary’s Well, although no record confirms this. The springs too have been lost. .
More likely is unusually named St Sepulchre’s Well, recorded as Pulcre well in 1476 and was believed to be associated with a chantry of Corpus Christi recorded in 1458 in the payment records of de Joh. Paulmer pro crofto juxta fontem S. Sepulchri. It appears that by 1574 it was called according to Cox (1998-2004) ‘the spring at St James Chapell’ 1573, ‘the hermitage well’ 1638, and ‘the Chappell Well’ 1689,
‘Leicestriensis’ (1852) calls it St James’s Well, as the Chapel of St James survived that dedicated to St. Sepulchre. Billson (1895) notes it as:
“a holy well close to the old pond at the corner of Infirmary Square. This well had a never-failing supply of fresh water, until the deep drainage of the town diverted it from its original outlet.”
Leicester had two attempts at developing a spa, Spa place a terrace of four late Georgian houses remembers the first. Here in 1787 a mineral spring was discovered when a well was being sunk for cattle, and 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”.
The Leicester Journal reported in 1794 that ‘Leicester Spa is now in high perfection’, Yet it was unsuccessful and by 1798 to a General Baptist College had taken over the site, this became a private house and latter offices. It is remember as Spa Lane.
Another mineral spring was discovered close to what is now Fosse Road North in 1830 by a local market gardener called Isaac Harrison. As a result the area becoming known as Newfoundpool. At the site a Hydropathic Institution was built but by 1835 it was converted into a private residence, Newfoundpool House where the Harrison family lived. However, some of the baths remained open for occasional use. There was another attempt in 1853 to advertise them as having:
“these baths will be found equal, if not superior, to any other baths in the neighbourhood”.
However the revival did not work and when in the 1880s ,the area was being developed, the Hydropathic Institution became the Empire Hotel. This become derelict in the 2005 and was demolished to build a Lidl supermarket in 2014.
The only other surviving of the city’s water history is the Cank Well a plaque of which exists on Cank Street.
Local tradition states that it was famous as a meeting place of gossips, the word cank being a term for cackle. However, this might be folk etymology as in Leicestershire it is a name of a hard ferruginous (i.e iron rich) sandstone and it may record chalybeate (iron rich) and those healing qualities. Alternatively cank may refer to cancer and it was a curative well…but we can debate and gossip that all we want, there is no evidence!
Lincolnshire is not the first place on thinks of concerning holy and healing springs but as my research for my book on Holy wells and Healing springs of Lincolnshire showed closer examination can reveal some interesting sites and traditions. One such site now completely forgotten is found in the aptly named Welton. Here the Old Man’s Spring and five wells, which the spring head supplies, in the village were the source of a local little known and forgotten well dressing custom. A correspondent of Maureen Sutton in her excellent Lincolnshire Calendar (1996) a resident of Welton notes:
“The custom of well dressing was an annual event which took place on Ascension day. Five wells in the village were dressed including one in the churchyard, one in the grounds of the vicarage, two in West Carr and one in spring cottage in Sudbeck Lane. The origin of the source being ‘old man’s head spring’ in Welton Cliffe (Westhall Farm) The dressing of the wells took a different format to that of neighbouring counties, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. In Welton each area surrounding the well was marked with an arch formed from a tree branch and decorated with lilac and laburnum. A linen, white calico cloth on which was depicted a text taken from the bible was put into each arch; this was put up by the men in the village early on Ascension Day morning. The ceremony began with a service in Saint Mary’s Church followed by a parade to the decorated beck in the churchyard. Each well was then dressed in turn and a prayer said and a hymn sung. The local Sunday school children took part in the ceremony by placing wild flowers at each well. ”
“On Ascension Day we again propose to continue the custom of ‘Well dressing’ as an act of thanks-giving to Almighty God for the blessing of bountiful supply of pure water to Welton. Celebration of Holy Communion 8 am; Well dressing service 2pm; Procession to the wells 3pm; Public and Day school Tea 4.30pm; Children’s concert and Prize distribution 6.30 pm We pray to God to favour us with fine weather for the festival”.
Who was John Wycliffe?
He was a Yorkshire born scholastic philosopher, with his critical views on the the veneration of saints, the taking of sacraments, use of requiem masses, the concept of transubstantiation, monasticism, and the pomp of ceremonial worship, the status of clergy and the existence of the Pope he is seen quite rightly as the morning star of Protestantism. His views influencing the great protestant reformers of a hundred years or so later. Famed also for translating the bible into English. His views and activities were clearly a thorn in the side of the Catholic church but he was protected by influential figures such as John Of Gaunt. He was Rector of Lutterworth, where he died in 1384 on New Year’s Eve giving a sermon! After his burial the Papacy demanded he be dug up and burnt, his remains being thrown in the river. And it is this terrible act of ‘sacrilege’ which is pivotal to his Holy Well.
A miraculous origin
“Tradition also says, that, at the time of this ceremony [the exhumation or burning of John Wycliffe’s bones], one person who staid, after the rest had left his grave, in order to search as strictly after the least bit of bone… having found one, ran hastily to his companions with it in a triumphant manner; but, before he reached them, fell down, and dashed his brains out; and from the very place where he fell immediately gushed out a spring of water, which to this day is called St John’s Well.”
Dyson (1913) in Lutterworth, John Wycliffe’s Town, notes a later version of the legend tells how this bone fell from the bier and was later dug out, and how a spring issued from the place. It would be ironic if this well was really named after the reforming cleric and opponent of pilgrimages and adoration of saints.
“THE HOLY WELL OF ST. JOHN THAT the name of Wycliffe was regarded with something more than veneration by the people of Lutterworth during the Middle Ages is proved by the story of the Holy Well of St. John. The legend is that, as the bones of the holy man were being carried on a bier from the church to the riverside for burning, in accordance with the ecclesiastical decree, in passing down the steep slope at what is now the bottom of High Street a bone fell to the ground and was immediately trampled into the soft soil of the unmade roadway by the crowds which followed. Some years afterwards a man working upon the spot brought to light the missing bone, and, upon taking it from its position, forthwith there issued from the hole where it had lain embedded a fountain of the purest water, which ceased not to flow day or night to the joy of the inhabitants of the town, who regarded it as a display of Divine favour upon the remains of their local saint. The water was immediately looked upon as miraculous and was conveyed to a stone drinking- fount placed by the side of the way at the spot where the discovery was made.”
Dyson (1913) Lutterworth, John Wycliffe’s Town, also notes that it had:
“For ages the power to cure all manner of diseases especially where the eyesight was affected, was attributed to this water, and the actual stone basin which received it is believed still to exist behind the brick wall which was built in front of it some sixty years ago. The spring itself was tapped a few years ago in excavating for a sewer, and was so strong that it had to be conveyed into the common drain.”
Holt (1884) in John de Wycliffe; the first of the reformers, and what he did for England notes;
“Even then, thirty years after his voice had been stilled in death, evidence remains to show that his parishioners at Lutterworth had regarded him with a heart-veneration which, had he fought for Rome instead of Christ, would have gone far to earn him canonization. Legends sprang up and took root among them, to the effect that no water would flow under that arch where Wycliffe’s ashes had been flung ; and that on the spot where one of his bones had fallen sprang ” St. John’s Well,” which still runs clear and abundant, never drying up even in the hottest seasons.”
A noted well
Finding evidence for the site’s provenance is illusive. The 15th century topographer William of Worcestre never visited the town and certainly when Leland visited in 16th century he did not mention it, despite mentioning springs arising in the hills in the area but not this well. However it is possible that earliest record may be a note of 1695 by Edmund Gough which was referred to be Camden (1695)):
“Lutterworth… near which is a spring of water so very cold, that in a little time it converts straws and sticks into stone.”
Yet no later authority refers to a different site a petrifying spring especially as Harte (2008) in his Holy Wells of England states Gough mentions it just before discussing the exhumation of Wycliffe’s body. Of St. John’s Well, a contributor to Nichols (1795–1815) does describe it as petrifying and that:
“in the neighbourhood of Lutterworth is a petrifying spring called St John’s well, the water of which is exceeding cold, and so strongly impregnated with petrifying qualities, that in a very little time it is said to convert wood and several other substances into stone.”
But Nichols himself gives the name to a different site:
“St John’s Well is in the town, opposite to the last house, on the left hand side towards London. It is a soft water, and used for drinking.”
The association with the bones giving a petrifying properties to the spring and hence the association.
Despite an obvious association with John Wycliffe, it appears more likely to be named after a hospital in the town which was dedicated to St John the Baptist, over time local memory of this would have been forgotten but the name remembered. Indeed even Dyson (1913) Lutterworth, John Wycliffe’s Town, relays this:
“It has been thought bv some to have been called the Holy Well of St. John from its position within sight of the Hospital of that name, to which we have already alluded, but it seems to us, in the face of the above tradition, that the dedication to St. John was far more likely to have had reference to the Christian name of Lutterworth’s great rector.”
The spring was clearly an important water source hence reference in the Town Masters account book of 1716 it is recorded that four shillings was paid for “a spout of elm 7 foot long to lay at St. John’s Well”
Searching for the well
Field researchers (record on pastscape as F2 FDC 18-AUG-1960) in 1960 stated:
“Enquiries of the owner/occupier revealed that the building was so named from “St John’s Spring” which is in the ornamental garden at the rear of the house and which was surveyed. The owner was aware of the legend… and stated that the well was believed to lie beneath an ash tree adjacent to the spring but that structural remains had not been found. The spring, freely flowing, is perpetual.”
According to the Bords (1985) Sacred Waters:
“It is now situated in the garden of a private house, but can be visited by making an appointment with the owner, John Daniell, of the Springs”
Since I picked up the book in 1986 I have been planning to search out the well. I had written to the address, kindly provided in Sacred Waters – but to no avail. So 32 years I decided to look for it. I found The Springs, easily found on the road to Rugby and knocked on the door – no answer. It looked like the property was now a busy property and empty. I knocked next door and noticed a small garden adjoining – was this where the spring was? Unlikely. I saw an elderly man engaging with another in a house overlooking the springs and decided to ask him. At first he was not sure of what I was talking about but when I mentioned spring he realised he knew where it was.
I was right the spring was no longer in the grounds of The Spring in the subsequent decades houses have been built in the garden of the house. In fact he told me that when the houses were built the builders had a problem with the spring. He remembered it as a circular dip or pool. Fortunately, the builders did not destroy the site and it remains in the front garden of the house. No one was home but as it was in the front garden I decided it did not harm taking a few photos. The spring now flows rather sluggishly through a pipe enclosed in a brick and stone structure. It fills an oval pool, possibly that referred to by the neighbour and then flows out into a small brick structure.
The rediscovery of the original well was a bonus. A foot away it could be found obviously discovered when the original wall was removed to build these new houses. The well a circular stone line structure is dry and crosses under the fence into the next door property. Which was a great find!
A common theme
What is interesting hagiographically is that this was a frequently encountered trope which was used to show the sanctity and power of saintly figures; a theme in itself derived from a pagan folk belief. Furthermore, the emergence of a spring underlines not only the sanctity of the person but emphasised that the act was unjust, being a victim of persecution such as many saints murdered by pagan kings or jealous step-mothers! In this case it might appear strange to associate such a site with a figure so firmly connected with the Reformation. However, this is perhaps a post-modern revisionist view point. To the followers of Wycliffe, the common town folk, who perhaps did not know the full ramifications of his politicised religious views, worthy religious people became saints and feasibly they did not see why their Wycliffe would not. Saints needed sites to justify their saintliness and a local mineral spring already named after a John would be a likely candidate. It is an irony to those who understood his anti-veneration of saints view but lost to the generations just after him, they would only remember his importance to the town. Indeed in 1518, a John Stilman was indicted for saying that ‘Wycliffe was a saint in heaven’. The date may be significant and may explain the lack of appearance of the spring until the late medieval period. It was a local site whose fame would only be noted post the Reformation’s most zealous period. I have discussed how sites associated with Queen Elizabeth I also took on the properties of saint’s wells and it is also possible that in the vacuum created by the Reformation figures associated with the principles of the Reformation were treated like the pre-Reformation saints by the uneducated faithful to provide the same forms of solace. Even today it is clear from the church the importance of Wycliffe where his pulpit, door he passed through when he collapsed on New Years Eve 1384, a font from his era and possibly his garments are proudly on show..all saintly equivalents!
The once much visited well seems to have consisted of two stone basins or cisterns. Water from one was supposed to have great medicinal properties, especially for ailments of the eyes. The other seems to have made a very good pot of tea.
Frederick C. Jones in his The Glory that was Bristol in 1946 suggests that the well may have had another dedication:
“Much speculation must always surround the venerable fountain called Mother (or Dame) Pugsley’s Well which rose amid the daisied turf at Kingsdown. That the well existed long prior to the seventeenth-century is certain, and its feminine appellation has suggested to some students an earlier dedication, possibly Saint Mary, since an ancient title appears to have been “the Virgin’s Well.”
Jones continues by suggesting a ritual approach to those visiting the well:
“the well furnished for many centuries a copious supply of water, it being the custom for substantial citizens to perambulate on summer evenings around the meadows enclosing the two stone-basins, one holding healing water and the other crystal liquid for domestic purposes. Miss Marian Pease informed the writer that she has heard her mother say that when she was a very little child, about 1832/3, living at Union Street, it was a favourite place for the nurses to take “the children there.”
Who was Dame Pusgley?
Pugsley was said to be Royalist officer and he owned or died in the well the field was in but the name may hide a local wise women who lived near the well. F. Nicholls and John Taylor in Volume III of their 1882 Bristol, Past and Present gives greater detail:
“Mrs. Pugsley died August 4th, 1700, aged eighty. Her funeral was according to here directions, and was ‘punctually performed to the admiration and in the view of ten thousand spectators.’ Her body was borne uncoffined on a litter, with a sheet for shroud, preceded by a fiddler playing a sprightly air, and two damsels strewing sweet herbs and flowers, while the bells of St. Nicholas church rung a merry peal. Thus it was carried to a grave in a field adjoining Nine-tree hill. Dame Pugsley was supposed to be the widow of a young soldier killed at the siege of Bristol, 1645, and buried with military honours on Nine-tree hill. His widow wore mourning all her life, and desired to be borne to her grave with demonstrations of joy at their happy reunion. Mother Pugsley’s well is within recent memory. It consisted of two stone basins, one of which contained ‘an infallible remedy for the eyes,’ whilst the other was especially renowned for making tea. She built a hut over the spot where her husband fell and was buried, which gave her name to the field and well. At her death she bequeathed money for a sixpenny loaf and a ninepenny loaf at Easter, and a twopenny loaf on Twelfth-day, to each of the sixteen women inhabiting St. Nicholas’ almshouse. The vulgar supposed her to have been a witch, and they trampled upon her grave. A skull, thought to have been her husband’s, was dug up; it had a bullet hole just above the temple.”
The disappearing well
Mr. F. J. Burt (of Brislington) writing in the Western Press in 1920 remembered that the well situated in a builder’s yard at the top of Nugent Hill, Cotham when he was a child, he recalled drinking the water which had the reputation of being of medicinal value, especially for the eyes.
In January 1845 a local meeting met over the proposal to build Fremantle Square on the site which meant that free access would not be allowed. The meeting was unsuccessful in finding money to support the survival of the rights. Then in 1864, the following statement was made:
“29 July 1864 As regards ‘Mother Pugsley’s well’ it appears that the quantity of water is not large and that in order to render this available for the public use it would be necessary to purchase the property on which the well stands, the cost of the premises and of laying pipes for leading the water would be more than the benefit to accrue therefrom would warrant”
Thus the well was lost. A compromise was the placing of a pump on the site which was recorded as still being extant in 1940.
Its exact location being the boundary wall of 10, Nugent Hill from 2, Clare Road, Cotham. Quinn (199) in his Holy Wells of Bristol and Bath states some evidence of the well head remains but I was unable to discover it. One day it may be recovered.
Warwickshire does not perhaps have the greatest reputation for holy and healing springs and appears to be hide in the shadows of nearby Gloucestershire. However, my research into the county has revealed there’s more to the county’s healing waters than Leamington Spa. Here are a few lesser known sites towards the Banbury side of the county; any further information on them is gratefully received. Hopefully the book is out this year!
Many of the county’s healing springs are compared to Leamington, the Stockwell is no exception, being saline in nature it was bound to be compared such, as Leamington was. However, that is as far as the comparison goes for little other than it made a decent cup of tea is recorded of it. It currently arises in a three feet by three foot roughly square chamber with stone surrounds. Old railings enclose the spring head and steps go down from the road.
It is worth contemplating on the thoughts of Bob Trubshaw on the origin of Stockwells Old English stoc meaning ‘holy’ or ‘sacred’ being the apparent same derivation as stow. That would give the site an explanation perhaps for the belief in its healing waters but it could equally derived from the place cattle stock were watered or even less interesting Old English stocc for ‘spring by stumps’, a description which could describe it today.
Not far away is St. Anne’s Well which arises a small stone chamber beside the footpath from the hamlet of Arlescote. The well consists in a shallow square basin and flows downhill forming a muddy area beneath. A stone set into the back of the fabric reads:
“ST. ANNE’S WELL / Reparavit M. L / A. D. / MCMXI”
However, beyond that nothing is recorded. It is likely to be ancient as it found below an iron-age earthwork and clearly the footpath past it is of some age and past significance, yet the early forms of the OS only record spring.
Considering that the hamlet above the well is called Knowle End it is possible that the legend recorded considering fairies moving the stone is related to this site and not the Knowle End in Birmingham as reported by folklorists. Again little is recorded but it must have been thought well enough in the 1930s considering how far the spring is from any houses. A site to visit in the winter or spring however, because it gets very overgrown!
The next holy well is a considerable find and it is surprising that no photo exists of it or more recorded, considering it survives in a popular National Trust garden and is quite strikingly unique. Found in the Bog Garden in the grounds of Upton Hall is an 18th century stone Monk’s Well. The Bog Garden consists of a number of ponds originally Stew ponds fed by this spring improved in the 17th century. Trace the flow back and be ready for a surprise. For the spring erupts from the base of a rock face in a cave/grotto and flows over mossy stones to fill the ponds. The spring head is enclosed in an early C18 red brick vaulted chamber (listed grade II) set into the rock face laying c 100m west of the House. All in all pretty unique and surprisingly unheralded. Indeed the Bog Garden was closed off when I visited but the gardeners were happy to allow me over to see it. I cannot say whether access is achievable without asking however. The well is so named because Upton was held in the twelfth century by the canons of St Sepulchre’s at Warwick but it may have a grange property as no one has worked out where any house would have been located. The site does not have any recorded properties and it is only holy by its name association
The last well is a bit of an enigma, in the deserted Burton Dassett village in Northend, is found a substantial well head which has claims to be a ‘Holy Well’ although the provenance is unclear. Burgess (1876) in his Warwickshire History simply notes that it was used for baptism and immersion. Whilst Bord and Bord (1985) Sacred Waters appear to be earliest to refer to it as such stating:
“the holy well with its stone cover will be seen on the left-hand side of the lane as you approach the church”.
The present stone well house is of a considerable size being constructed of local red sandstone around 1840 in a Grecian style. The central doorway is party below ground level and has steps down into a square chamber. Over the stone lintel but the worn instruction is an inscription with carved flowers. It possibly states 1534 but it was not clear. It is evident that the well was part of an estate improvement but when and by whom? And did it exist before? If it does say 1534 that is an early date for a landed estate improvement. It certainly is still visited by well wishers as coins are found in its waters. Sadly, despite a substantial water supply it did not stop the demise of the village and now only the substantial church remains, which incidentally is worthy of a visit.
With many more sites yet to explore…Warwickshire is proving to be another interesting County.
Only a few feet from the hurtling sound of the train is a large spring head. This is St. Helen’s Spring or Tevantwell. (TL 841 874) still exists although as Manning (1993) in there work on Taking the Waters in Norfolk notes the original site may have been displaced by the construction of the railway nearby. Thomas Martin (1779) in his History of Thetford notes that:
“St Helens was a parish church in the time of the Confessor…It stood on a hill two miles out of the town on the Santon road. At the foot of the hill is a spring commonly called Holywell or Tevant-well, corruptly for St Helen’s-well.”
W. G. Clarke (1925) in Breckland wilds states that:
“It is said that a man who was working in the harvest field suffered from extreme heat and expressed his intention of going to St. Helen’s Well to get some water to drink. His companions endeavoured to dissuade him from drinking icy-cold water in his heated condition, but he was obstinate, went to the spring and drank till he died. His spirit thereupon haunted the pit in which the spring was situated.”
Leigh Hunt (1870) in his The capital of the ancient kingdom of East Anglia reports finding foundations of this building, and these may still be those still exist and are described by Manning (1993). According to Manning (1993):
“six or seven springs emerge in the floor of the quarry… the building of the railway cut through the original St Helen’s Well and the present springs represent a post-railway emergence”.
She states that there are signs of a structure consisting of a grey brick bridge spanning the conduit arch and two further arches have been infilled at either side of the conduit, but this do not appear to be visible now and perhaps have become overgrown.
The spring does arise from stonework although it is difficult to judge whether these are natural or have had the touch of human hand.
A lost church
The first mention the church is the Domesday Book which notes:
“one church of St Helen with one ploughland”.
The next mention is that there was a fair there mentioned in a roll of fair belonging to the Borough of Thetford, this was also recorded in 1347 as a market or fair at Santon. However, by the time of the 1368 Archdeacon’s visitation it was absent from this very comprehensive survey. This suggests that the church was gone by then. Various excavations have revealed the remains of an apsidal church and that it incorporated Roman works into it, mainly tiles in its east end and north wall foundations. But was there a village? It appears not and so you may ask why was it here? The answer is quite clear it was here to capitalise on the spring, but what is surprising is that no adoption is apparent by the church perhaps this indicates that the church had indeed gone by the time of the real adoption of such springs by the church with appropriate masonary…it is difficult to tell.
An ancient site
Examples of Palaeolithic flint tools have been found in the gravels at St Helen’s Pit. As at other sites in the Little Ouse valley such as Broomhill (another Trail site), these are likely to have been incorporated into the gravels after being washed off a land surface where they had been discarded, or having been drawn into them by the churning effects of frost action.Pagan site
What is clear is that this remote site has become a pagan site again, Pagan Federation of Norfolk website records:
”This is a strangely beautiful spot, which forms a point of connection between the earth and the leaves and the water of the land itself, the scars of quarrying, echoes of ancient Pagan veneration, faint traces of Anglo-Saxon Christianity, the brutal power of Victorian industrialisation and a new, Pagan appreciation of sacredness. “
“Although I have never met anyone else down there, it is obvious from the energy and from some of the items one occasionally finds, that various groups and individuals do a lot of magical work there. Wands can sometimes be respectfully cut from one of the Hazels and the water itself is, of course, very powerful and useful in a variety of magical contexts. St. Helen, or Helen of the Roads (also known as Elen of the Ways) is considered by John and Caitlín Matthews to be one of our oldest native deities. Since she is associated with travel, water from her well can be used for magic relating to physical journeys, but also to help with pathworkings and with quests to seek ancient knowledge and wisdom.”
What is interesting is that a hazel tree nearby has become a rag well. Interestingly the Pagan federation add:
“This practice, of tying rags and other offerings to trees at sacred spots, has found its way to us from our more westerly colleagues and is not one which I personally feel particularly comfortable with, mainly because so many people use items made of synthetic materials, which do not rot away like wool or linen, and end up just looking like a lot of litter desecrating the place. It is very rare in Norfolk, though and even at St. Helen’s there are only ever a few of them.)”
Indeed other than St Micheal’s Well in Longstanton outside of Cambridge and Woolpit’s Our Lady have ever had only one! It is possible as there are a number of St. Helen’s Well which are rag wells up north that someone in the know decided to start it off here. Whatever, someone had clearly thought the rag tree was an intrusion for upon a recent visit no rags were apparent being replaced by a bouquet of bright red tulips. It is indeed an unworldly site…climb down to it the trees give an eerie feel to it and even the sound of the train hurtling by cannot break the connection one can get to this peaceful place.
Could the Birch Well be the Wanstead Well?
Tucked away on Leyton Flats in a Birch Wood near to the boundary fence of Snaresbrook Crown Court and near the Eagle Pond, is an enigmatic spring, called the Birch Well.
Enigmatic because there must be more we should know about the site. The spring arises in a substantial stone-lined oval well head around 1.5 metres long, one of the most substantial of any well in Essex.
The lost Wanstead Spring?
Discovered early in the Seventeenth Century, the Wanstead Spring was a potential spa. A John Chamberlain, the news-letter writer, writing from London to Sir Dudley Carleton, on August 1619, stated:
“ We have great noise here of a new Spa, or spring of that nature, found lately about Wansted; and much running there is to yt dayly, both by Lords and Ladies and other great companie, so that they have almost drawne yt drie alredy; and, yf yt should hold on, yt wold put downe the waters at Tunbridge; wch, for these three or foure yeares, have ben much frequented, specially this summer, by many great persons; insomuch that they wch have seene both say that yt [i.e., Tunbridge] is not inferior to the Spaa [in Belgium] for goode companie, numbers of people, and other appurtenances.”
Thresh and Christy (1913) in their seminal Medicinal Wells of Essex note significantly:
“We have been quite unable to ascertain anything as to the part of Wanstead parish in which this spring was situated. In all probability, it was quite a small spring. One may infer as much from Chamberlain’s statement that, within a short time of its discovery, the company resorting to it had ‘almost drawn it dry.’ If such was the case, the spring was, no doubt, soon deserted and ultimately forgotten.”
Both accounts appear to suggest that any significant spring in the Wanstead area could vie for the said well. The Birch Well has good provenance, particularly as it is a chalybeate, that is iron rich spring, a common feature of the early medicinal springs, and indeed Chamberlain by comparing to Tunbridge, possibly the best-known chalybeate well, is underling it is.
Further evidence is given by a correspondent, a Mr. Walter Crouch, F.Z.S., of Wanstead, who writes to Thresh and Miller. They state that the correspondent’s knowledge of the history of the parish is unequalled. He stated:
“I have always had the idea that this Mineral Spring was not at the Park end of our parish, which abuts ou Bushwood and Wanstead Flats, but in the vicinity of Snaresbrook and on the road which leads to Walthamstow; but it is possible that it was in the grounds of ‘The Grove’ (now cut up and built over).The spring is not marked on Kip’s View (1710), nor on Rocque’s large Map (1735), nor on Rocque’s still larger map of a few years later.”
Thresh and Christy (1913) took the suggestion of Snaresbrook and visited the Birch Well but was not 100% convinced. However, it is difficult on the paucity of evidence to be anyway near 100%!
Winifred Eastment in her 1946 Wanstead through the ages gives no indication that the spa spring and the Birch well are one and the same but does emphasis that it was one of the most important public wells of Wanstead and indeed people from beyond the parish payed a penny for three buckets or 1.6d for a buttful! Although it is clear it was only used for drinking water. More curiously a local tradition tells how at least one person drowned at the well before the stone surround was established. Before this the site was more open, described as an open gravel pit with wooden steps, much like some of the earlier spas are indeed described.
So, is the Birch Well Wanstead Spa? I think it is highly probable. The site is clearly important by its position by the boundary, noted by a small boundary stone by the well. However, the chalybeate water produced by the spring head is perhaps the most suggestive.
Wellingborough as its name suggests is related to wells and the town celebrates five main wells and there is a mosaic recording the wells in the town centre. However, which five wells appears to be a matter of contention. However most cases appear to record the Red well, Whyte well, Stan well, Buck well and Lady well to be the specific wells. There are however many more wells/springs noted in other surveys however not all of them (as indeed the list above) below the main text of this volume. These are, Ancient well, London Well, Whitchurch well, Harrowden Well, Burymoor well, Hemming well, Hartwell, Monk’s well, Wichus well, Rising Sun well, Hollywell, St. John’s well and Cross well of which the last six have significance.
The most famed spring here is the Red Well being noted in a number of works and was the closest the county appears to have developed a spa in competition with Astrop. Allen (1699) in his work on Mineral springs of England records that:
“This water weigh d at the Spring eighteen grains lighter than common water in a quantity of about twelve ounces with a few drops of Tincture of Logwood gave a black with Syrup of Violets a deep green with Syrup of Cloves blackish with Galls a violet.”
Fuller (1662) in his Worthies records that the the town was called Wellingborough from a sovereign well therein which was of ancient origin, lost and rediscovered in the 1600s. Cole (1837) in his The History and Antiquities of Wellingborough in the County of Northampton noted that:
“THE RED WELL spring rises in a field from the town and centuries of highly stated that in the Queen resided in of drinking By residing it is the advantage of the times of the purpose of watering places in rooms. This chalybeate spring rises in a field about half a mile north west from the town and was in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries of very great celebrity and esteemed highly efficacious in various disorders It is stated that in the year 1628 King Charles I and his Queen resided in tents a whole season for the benefit of drinking the water pure at its source By residing it is conceived is here meant having the advantage of the tent as a place of resort at the times of drinking the water and to answer the purpose of those convenient erections used at watering places in the present day called pump rooms.”
John Morton (1712) in his Natural History of Northamptonshire records that:
“ From King’s Cliff I went to Wellingborough to make like observations upon the Medicinal Water there This on July 29 1703. The Medicinal Spring which is called the Red Well is about half a mile distant the town on the north west side of it almost at the of a hill in an open field. What the strata the water through consists of is hard to be discovered. But some parts of the hill above the spring there are strata a reddish sort of stone with iron like veins in it underneath a bed of clay. In the extreme hard frost 1683 it so far from being frozen that it ran more briskly ever. When or by whom it was first apply’d to upon a medicinal account I cannot learn Certain it is that a hundred ago it was very famous Mr Drayton a co temporary with Sir Philip Sidney supposes that the town was so called from its wells and we of none that ever was considerable thereabouts but And by the observations of Mr John Goodyer an Botanist who mentions it by the name of Red it appears to have been a water of some note in the year 1626 about which time a tradition they have there it was honoured with of King Charles the First and of his Queen who the benefit of these waters were pleased to reside whole season in tents that were erected if we may credit common fame on the side of the hill above where it is likely Sir Theodore Mayern Physician who in his writings recommends water did then attend them Dr Merret in his Nat Brit has also mentioned it. He places with the purging waters of England from which may observe it has been formerly of far greater fame than now it is not that the virtues of it are at all impaired but the true occasions seem to be the mismanagement of the water in the course of drinking &c Mr Morton then devotes several folio pages of his work to Observations and Trials I have made of it myself In addition to the recommendation of these waters by Sir Theodore Mayerne Physician to King Charles I and that of Dr Merret may be included the subjoined description of But Master Camden doth marr their mart avouching the ancient name thereof Wellingborough However thirty years since a water herein grew very famous insomuch that Queen Mary lay many weeks thereat. What benefit her Majesty received by the Spring here I know not this I know that the spring received benefit from her Majesty and the town got credit and profit thereby. But it seems all waters of this kind have though far from the sea their ebbing and flowing I mean in esteem. It was then full tide with Wellingborough Well which ever since hath abated and now I believe is at low water in its reputation.”
Over the years Cole (1837) informs us of the improvements down to the well from the Old Town Books:
“1640 Paid to Thomas Payne for timber for repair of Red well and for carriage thereof 2 19 0 Paid to Mead of Harrowden for more timber and carriage of ditto 0 13 0 Paid to Henry Batley for work and stone and cost to repair Red well 5 0 0 Paid to William Batley for timber work at Red well 1 10 0.”
He states that:
“From the above enumeration of items it seems that considerable pains and expense were bestowed upon the Red well in order to render it commodious and worthy of public patronage.”
Clearly considering the patronage of the well it was hoped that the well would allow the town to be developed into a spa and although Cole (1837) notes:
“During the reign of King Charles I there was a great influx of the nobility to drink the water and even so late as the middle of the last century the inhabitants of the neighbourhood continued to resort to the Spring.”
The English civil war prevented such a venture. Despite this in the 1800s there was some consideration of developing the site. Cole (1837) again notes of:
“Two Correspondents whose communications appeared in The Northampton Mercury under the signatures of Antiquarius and Anonymous in the year 1811 used their endeavours to re establish the celebrity of this Spring but their exertions have hitherto unfortunately proved ineffectual Their communications however demand a place in this history TO THE PRINTERS OF THE NORTHAMPTON MERCURY Sirs Some time ago I was perusing Walpole’s British Traveller and among other accounts read the following of the town of Wellingborough in this county being formerly much celebrated for its mineral springs Wellingborough is a large populous town situated on a rising ground and supposed to have received its name from the great number of springs that rise in its neighbourhood. It was formerly celebrated on account of its medicinal waters which were esteemed efficacious in various disorders and Queen Henrietta wife of Charles the First resided here some weeks for the benefit of her health her physicians having prescribed the waters as for her constitution. And it is further said that there is a chalybeate well about half a mile northward of the town. As these waters were then said to possess such singular virtues it is presumed they still retain them It is sincerely to be wished that some of the intelligent gentlemen resident there would analyse the waters in order that their virtues might be fully ascertained and that the afflicted might know where to apply for relief. Probably it would remunerate the present proprietor of the chalybeate well to erect a house bath and other accommodations on the spot that the benefit might become general. Besides the town is well calculated for the reception of visitants of every class having several capital inns in it and a plentiful weekly market lam Sirs Your humble Servant. Antiquarius August 20th 1811”
The correspondent replied:
“TO THE PRINTERS OF THE NORTHAMPTON MERCURY Sirs As I read your Correspondent’s account of the Red wells at Wellingborough in your paper of Aug 24 I anticipated an answer to his wish that some gentleman resident there would analyse the waters. Recent cases however can be produced wherein the waters have been useful and from an accurate analysis of the water and a comparison of it with that of Tunbridge and other Chalybeates it proves to be possessed of considerable virtues. Examined with the proper chemical re agents this water appears to differ from Tunbridge water in no respect except that of containing chiefly chalk carbonate of lime which being held in solution by the fixed air is deposited on boiling and also by mere exposure also it may contain more gas which gives it a more sparkling appearance than Tunbridge and Islington waters the deposition of this matter forms a calcareous crust intermixed with the ochre on the sides and bottom of the basin into which the water flows the other contents of the water are iron fixed air and a small quantity of purging salts. The best mode of taking the water is to begin early in the morning with a dose of half a pint then to walk or take exercise for an hour and after that to take a pint and to repeat the dose a third time an hour or two before dinner this plan should be continued for six weeks or two months and if the complaints are not removed after two or three months interval a second course should be gone through in the same manner. Its effects are to quicken the pulse produce a general glow immediately after being drank and to prove gently aperient more so than most chalybeates the continued use of the water increases the appetite exhilarates the spirits improves the strength and braces the whole system the water very frequently purges briskly at first but after a long use produces a costive habit of body when this is the case aperient medicines should be occasionally taken. The diseases in which the use of the Red well water promises to be of most service are indigestion with its various symptoms debility and pallid countenance listlessness and aversion to every kind of exercise so frequent among the young and particularly those of a delicate habit and are more speedily and certainly removed by a course of these waters than by any other means. Of stomach complaints flatulency an uncertain and capricious appetite heartburn and all the symptoms attendant upon irregular and incomplete digestion are such as point out the great use of this class of waters There is no occasion for any preparation to the use of the water unless the stomach is judged to be foul and then a single emetic may precede its use. It is sincerely hoped that some gentlemen will give such other information as will direct the afflicted where to apply relief and stimulate the increasing number of attendants to observe what salutary effects are produced l am Sirs Yours most respectfully Anonymous Oct 26th 1811.”
However, the correspondence was to no avail and Cole (1837) referring to the correspondence laments and suggests:
“If at this juncture a handsome pump room had been erected embellished in front we will say by an enriched colonnade of pillars surmounted by a dome and the contiguous grounds laid out in walks in a tasteful manner in order to blend utility with comfort and pleasure an attraction would have been presented to entice company to Wellingborough Red Well but I was going to observe I fear the time is gone by perhaps not so for if the proprietor would allow the water to be conducted by pipes into a pleasant part of the town some good might yet accrue to Wellingborough from this once famed spring. It is a circumstance much to be lamented that a chalybeate spring containing such alleged virtues should be now unnoticed and no benefit derived from its sanative qualities which might be the case to individuals resident here if not to the interests of the town itself if only some means were resorted to in order to revive its ancient fame for even the towns people to whom it is now freely open do not avail themselves of its advantages an effort is wanting to make even those on the spot try at this day its healing effects. Nor is this denominated the Red well the only spring of the same nature in the lordship as from the ochrey dye and similar chalybeate flavour of another near White delves the like virtues in degree it is likely would be derived.”
The well was not lost it fell into relative obscurity. According to Cole (1837) the Red Well:
“about forty years ago was a large stone watering trough which was used by the attendants upon horses previous to the inclosure as a place at which to refresh their animals. It was sufficiently large to admit twenty horses to drink together. The water was made to pass through a sculptured head and came pouring out with considerable force at the mouth.”
J and M. Palmer in their History of Wellingborough (1972) note:
“In 1823 a water mill was built not far from the Red Well and was, appropriately called Red Well Mill. It appears on a local map of 1825. The stream that fed the mill rises between Appleby Lodge and Park Farm, just south of Sywell Road. It meanders its way to pass under Hardwick Road, it then emerges at a point that was in the grounds of Hatton Hall Park and feeds a pond there. Skirting the Red Well spring, and joined by another small stream it became the millrace, by the making of a dam, and passed under the Kettering Road.”
In the Northampton Chronicle and Echo photo shows it was a substantial brick structure in the early 20th century possibly constructed for the mill’s convenience. This structure would appear to have been slowly lost as by the mid-20th century the site consisted of two troughs surrounded by broken slabs one of which one had fallen into one of the two chambers. However in 2011, Wellingborough Council with Glamis Grove Volunteers placed stone edgings over the foundations but a rather unsightly galvanised metal grid installed over it, presumably to prevent vandalism but it also presents access and a decent photo. The later is solved by the water running from the side into a stream. A sign informing passers by of the history of the Red Well has also be installed and so now this well will hopefully remain remembered!
In the Hindu belief springs, wells and rivers are protected by nagas. They are thought to provide fertility, prosperity and provide in some cases immortality. Water worship in Indonesia is typified by their Pura Tirtra a water temple, and no where are these more well-known than that found near the town of Tampaksiring in Bali.
This site was founded during the Warmadewa dynasty around 962 A.D and it derives its name from the water source called Tirta Empul, a source of the Pakerisan river. Legendarily it is recorded that the spring arose as follows:
“The fight of gods and Beelzebub Mayadenawa continued. The Beelzebub threw the poison into the river one day. And, the gods died one after another drinking the water of the river. Indra who had survived only beat the earth with the cane, and, amrita ‘Amerta’ sprang up. And, gods revived, and defeated the Beelzebub.”
The temple itself is dedicated to the Hindu god, Vishnu and consists of a bathing area called a petirtaan where local devotees ritually purify themselves in the spring. The temple pond also has a spring which is considered amritha or holy. The temple has three sections: Jaba Pura (the front yard), Jaba Tengah (the central yard) and Jeroan (the inner yard). Jaba Tengah contains two pools with 30 showers which are named accordingly: Pengelukatan, Pebersihan and Sudamala dan Pancuran Cetik. These springs are said to be healing, purifying mind and body, particularly skin diseases.
Another famed holy spring, is the sulphur hot springs of Banjar. Here from the mouths of carved nagas flows the healing waters. The temple consists again of three pools. The top one, is a narrow pool which is shallow, having a consistent depth of metre, and the warmest. Below is another pool filled by five naga heads which is much larger and deeper by two metres. The third pool, the water flows from three spouts. This creates a focused spout of water which allow people to be massaged by the water. The pools are filled each morning and the pools gradually cool during the day, at the end of the day it is emptied to filled once more.
Deep in the woods is one of Surrey’s forgotten springs, a site possibly a holy well, probably a pagan spring, so nearly a spa. In Fields, Paths and Green Lanes being county walks, chiefly in Surrey and Sussex , Louise Jennings in 1878 notes:
“Mr. Urban’s correspondent is among the very few writers who have made any mention of ” Mag’s Well,” a spot which the compilers of all the local guide-books have passed by without a word. It is the charmed spring of the district, and lies not far from the village of Coldharbour.”
However, Mag’s Well was noted at length by William Thorne’s The Garden of Surrey:
“MAG’S WELL This is a mineral spring rising on a farm called Meriden about three miles from Dorking and forming the source of the stream called Pipbrook which runs past Dorking town Instances of extraordinary cures in cutaneous and scrofulous diseases are related of it and it is said to have derived the name of Mag’s Well from a poor woman of the name of Margery who first experienced its healing effects in the cure of a scorbutic disorder.”
John Aubreys’ 1719 Natural History and Antiquities of Surrey is the first to note it and gives its origin as
“The reason it was called Mag well was because a poor wench, whose name was Meg, that was troubled with the itch, and lived thereabout, first cured herself with washing”
Cures for all – even the animals
John Timbs in A picturesque promenade round Dorking, in which he quotes the Gazette of Health thus speaks of the water
“The water of Mag’s Well on accurate analysis proves to be slightly impregnated with the sulphate of magnesia and iron It is entirely free from calcareous matter and approaches very nearly to the Malvern water It may prove beneficial as an alternative and in obviating costiveness but to produce an aperient effect it must be combined with the sulphate of magnesia or the sulphate of soda.”
The account continues noting its possible use for animals as well:
“ equally efficacious there being as 1 understand not only a convenient place of bathing for bipeds but a species of bath for quadrupeds which are frequently brought from a distance to be cured of various distempers by immersion in Mag’s Well which in summer it is said is colder and in winter warmer than the water of other springs”
Timbs again continues:
“Taken internally the water was long believed to be at once strongly cathartic and emetic That opinion has probably been less prevalent since the publication of Manning’s Surrey in which these alleged properties are strongly controverted although in that work it is said to be detergent.”
Timbs decides to examine at first hand the site:
“ however that many of the country people continue to put great faith in the virtue of Mag’s Wells 1 resolved personally to examine what is esteemed one of the curiosities of Surrey The farm on which the well is situated belongs to the College Guildford and is in the tenantry of George Dewdney esq banker remote from any public road and embosomed in woods A pedestrian excursion to the vale in which the spring rises appeared the only mode by which I could obtain my object the obscurity in which the well is hidden rendering it inaccessible to a carriage and almost to a horse for nearly the last mile of approach.”
It was perhaps its remoteness that preventing any commercial venture, that notwithstanding he notes that:
“The bath or well is comprehended within a building the sides and ends of which are joined into right angles but there is no roof Immediately opposite the entrance of the building is the door way to the bath into which there is a descent of five steps the bath is in length about seven feet and in width and in depth between four and five feet The water enters at an aperture on the right and the surplus when the bath is full discharges itself over a lip on the left the whole can be readily run off through a vent at the bottom and at the left hand corner by drawing a plug The whole structure has apparently been for sometime much neglected The entrance and the exit of the water being imperfect the bath was nearly empty the depth not being more than three or four inches.”
Of the water he gives the lengthy discourse:
“Although the day was extremely cold there did not appear any extraordinary sensation of coldness on immersing the hand in the well and the mercury of a thermometer the bulb of which was immersed for ten minutes did not descend much below fifty A taste differing from ordinary spring water was not positively to be discriminated certainly not the slightest perception of saline particles could be distinguished The only taste I could fancy I detected was that of iron but in so slight a degree as to preclude all positive assertion of the fact In order however to ascertain if the powers imputed to the water of the spring are or are not fallacious a scientific examination of its properties would undoubtedly be satisfactory factory to the public I have therefore directed a quantity of water to be taken from the well and sent to you sufficient I conceive for analysis in the hope that you may not deem it unworthy of your notice Dorking December 1817 JM The water of Mag’s Well on accurate analysis proves to be slightly impregnated with the sulphate of magnesia And iron It is entirely free from calcareous matter and approaches very nearly to the Malvern water It may prove beneficial as an alternative and in obviating costiveness but to produce an aperient effect it must be combined with the sulphate magnesia or the sulphate of soda”
Mag’s well still survives although it is difficult to gauge which is the source as the neglect has continued since Timb’s day. There is a well structure covered by a decaying wooden lid and nearby a larger pool, perhaps the aforementioned bath.
An ancient well?
Some historians have attempted to produce evidence for a pre-Christian origin of the site, some suggesting the name Mag may refer to a pre-Christian deity. More convincing was its location in an area called Cold Harbour. For many years this was the accepted view given by Basil Barham of the East Herts Archæological Society, Author of “Changing Place Names,” in the Times:
“The origin of the name Cold Harbour has been discussed several times. It is a Saxon place name, and means exactly what it says, viz., a “cold,” as distinct from an inhabited refuge. The Cold Harbours are all in the vicinity of one or other of the great Neolithic or Roman roads, and were originally the remains of partially destroyed Roman or Romano-British dwellings, or settlements. Travellers used them as being more or less secure places in which to spend a night. As the places became known, traders gathered there to distribute goods and do business, and eventually the places once more became villages, but retained the old generic name.”
However, despite the convenience of this view point it is now generally discredited. Of course as the majority of England’s road are based on Roman ones it is statistically likely they would be found with them! Indeed half of the populated places in England are 3.5 km or less from a Roman road This and research that showed the name Coldharbour was popular in the 17th century seems to suggest otherwise!”
Notwithstanding there is sometime otherworldly about this well and whatever its origin it survives, slightly forgotten, in its woodland setting.