Back in the mid 90s when I started seeking out holy wells, I came across reference to a site just outside of Thetford. I’d planed to visit the site and found it to be one of the most curious in the county. It is marked on the first series of the OS map in Gothic writing but was it that old?
A substantial site is located in Shadwell Park called St. Chad’s Well (TL 933 830). However, despite the name I can find no history or traditions about it, the first author to refer to the well is Bryant (1901) who states it is marked on an ancient map but as I note below I have been unable to substantiate this. Was it an ancient well?
Icewell, holy well or folly?
The well is enclosed is a circular dome of flint and mortar with a passage entrance facing west. The structure is supported by a stone pillar. The structure is not dissimilar to an ice-well which indeed it has been claimed it was but no-one would build an ice-well with a spring in it. A medieval fabric claim was made, but is of probable 19th Century date and is an estate folly; a grottification of a simple spring, utilising old stone work. This spring arises from the hillside and enters into a basin kerbed in stone through a hole in the flint wall of the structure. Above this is an arched recess. The water is channelled into a narrow gutter to exit through the north wall. The concrete floor of the chamber is below ground level reached by five stairs in the passageway. There are two lighting niches in the walls at the east and the southwest. Six stone blocks are arranged to form seats. Below the arch of the spring of the arch of the domed roof are six brackets which possibly served as candle stands.
St Chad or Boundary spring?
Unlikely although St Cedd his brother evangelised East Anglia, Chad wells are very common in the region. This is because they arise from the Old English Chaud meaning cold and thus cold spring! In this case it is apparent that the name may well be a back-derivation as its location on East Hall and Gonville Manors boundary suggests name derives from O.E scead for ‘boundary’ this is emphasised by the name of the estate Shadwell – sceadwell! Indeed the estate Shadwell Court is only first mentioned in White (1845) as the house was built in the 1830s with associated statues. Historic England records:
“Robert Buxton acquired the manor of Rushworth in Shadwell during the C16, initially holding a lease from the fourth Duke of Norfolk. In c 1715 John Buxton, amateur architect of Channonz Hall in Tibenham, began to rebuild what he called Shadwell Lodge and to lay out the grounds. The main features however of the design which survives today (1999), including the layout of the plantations and the creation of the lake, are the work of his son, also John, between the 1740s and 1760s and these are recorded on William Faden’s map of the county dated 1797. “
This suggests the well was a folly capitalising on the spring name using the carved stonework which may have originally been part of Thetford Priory, giving it a rustic religious feel. However this does not mean that the well was not of significance. Boundaries often incorporated springs as sites of note, or as disputed sites and having them on boundaries allowed equal access. As many Parish boundaries date from Angl0-Saxon periods it is possible that the well had a significant position in the settlement. There is evidence of an ancient settlement here with flint flakes and blades from the Neolithic and Bronze Age were found around the well and Roman funeral urns and Saxon tumuli in the park. Furthermore the well is also located close to Peddar’s Way, suggesting pilgrim use perhaps. So was it a Holy well as noted 1870-72, John Marius Wilson’s Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales:
“SHADWELL……It takes its name from a spring called St. Chad’s well, formerly much frequented by pilgrims.”
This begs the question is this just antiquarian fancy or are we missing some records of its history? Was it frequented by those on the way to Walsingham…if so its forgotten by them now.
2016 is a 1000 years since the death of St. Walstan. Now he may not be a very familiar saint and one that you may not think is readily associated with holy wells, however he is. Furthermore, he is unusually associated with three holy wells, in an area not always readily associated with such sites- East Anglia – which in itself is a rare occurrence. Not only that, however, unlike other multiple applications these wells are said to have a direct connection with the saint’s life and death.
Who is St. Walstan?
St Walstan was according to most accounts an Anglo-Saxon prince, the son of Blida and Benedict. Most accounts place his birth at Bawburgh (more of this place later) and his life appeared restricted to the west of Norwich. Despite being a royal he forsook the crown and all its privileges to become a simple farm labourer, giving whatever wealth he had to help the poor. After his death a localised cult developed, which grew and grew and in a way outlived the Reformation, as a saint for farmers and animals.
Three holy wells
In 2016 I decided to seek each of these wells and follow as close as possible the journey that St. Walstan is said to have made which resulted in these springs – Taverham, Costesssey and Bawburgh. Already I have tried to locate the first at Taverham’s and now I turn to Costessey.
Before Walstan died he had given instructions to the farmer and his wife, to place his body in a cart, which would be drawn by his own white oxen. With a procession of mourners, a procession started towards Bawburgh, and after crossing the river Wensum at Costessey (where it is said that wheel marks are said to be seen on the riverbed), they stopped and rested his body, and here another healing spring arose, St Walstan’s Well (TG 153 114) in Costessey Park. In St Walstan Confessor de sancto Walstanus confessore Fr Husenbeth in 1859 records:
“Another miracle also happened. When in the aforementioned wood, the bulls stood for a while with the body of St. Walstan on top of a steep hill, a spring of water as a sign of grace for love of St. Walstan appeared against the nature of the place (for until that time no water had been found there) and through divine mercy is still there today.”
Interestingly, the History of St. Walston (sic) an ancient manuscript held at Lambeth Palace and translated by Fr Husenbeth in 1859, fails to mention this second spring. However, it was marked as Walsam’s Well on the 1832 OS map, it is recorded that the well had dried up by the end of the 18th century, after 1750. It was described in 1878 as being:
“beside the Tud is a field called St. Walstan’s Well where as a boy I saw the stones where a spring once came out of the hillside – but the well had dried up”
Jeremy Harte in his 2008 English Holy Wells reported that in the mid-1990s that this site has been destroyed. However, pleasingly this is far from the case. Carol Twinch in her 2015 St Walstan the third search informs us that:
“in 1992, the Bawburgh News editor Betty Matins, visited the site with local historian Ernest Gage, but in spite of a long walk along the river Tud, negotiating barbed wire fences, and a trek along a field edge, they were unable to locate the site.”
However, the author does note that the year after a second attempt in the company of a Robert Akins revealed something. However this was soon under threat from an extension of the Costessey Park Golf course, this is presumably where Harte gets his information from. However, this golf course extension would be the saviour of the site not its nemesis.
Speaking with Mr. Larry Rowe Costessey Golf Course manager, I was informed that when he purchased the land to extend the golf course, he was informed of the well and its history but doubted its existence. Indeed, there appeared to be some debate on its location, however, in October 2013 as Twinch (2015) notes the precise location was revised by Norfolk County Council based on Ordnance Survey second edition. Mr Rowe and his groundsmen went to the location and tried to find it. They at first were unsuccessful but looking down from a small piece of rising ground they noticed a dip with a silver birch tree in the centre. It was removed and a quantity of loose flints were revealed. It is unclear whether with Mr. Rowe was aware of the earlier discoveries. The well is described as around 12 feet in diameter, with about eight foot sloping walls lined with flints and flints deposited at the bottom.
Twinch (2015) tells us that:
“on 17th January 2015 Costessey had its first sprinkling of snow and on a very cold morning local resident Paul Cooper, Larry Rowe from Costessey Park Limited and Norfolk Archaeologist Garry Grace walked to the spot where almost 1000 years before Walstan’s funeral cortege stopped on its journey from Taverham to Bawburgh.”
According to Rose of Norfolk Archaeological Unit defined it as a deep circular pit with a diameter of 12 feet and a depth of six feet with lumps of flint walling at the bottom. It was identified as being medieval in date and suggested that it once had a passage entering it from one side, which could not now be traced. Despite the concern from local residents it would be destroyed by the golf course, Mr Rowe agreed to preserve it.
In May 2015 a flint from the well was presented to Father David Ward of Our Lady and St. Walstan Roman Catholic church in the village and this was set into the gable end of the old dinning wall of the 1837 presbytery, predesignated a garden room. Then in April 2017, after a wooden painted sign was erected at the well, made from a door frame of the Catholic Church, it was rededicated and blessed by the said church. The sign states: ‘St Walstan’s Well Holy Well’.
Whilst perhaps not the most visually impacting of the county’s well, but its rediscovery and preservation is great testament to the joint efforts of local people. The well is now protected and preserved. Although dry the flint rows are interesting and fairly unique, interestingly only the well of the Anglican shrine at Walsingham has a similar design emphasising perhaps its Saxon origin. It is good to see this important site preserved and remembered.
Please note St Walstan’s Well is in the far corner of Costessey Park Golf Course and as such inaccessible without permission. I found the owner receptive to my enquiries however and would be best visited in the winter months or during the evening, post six o’clock, when there is less play.
From the forthcoming Holy Wells and healing springs of Norfolk
For more information on St. Walstan refer to Carol Twinch’s excellent trilogy of works 1995 In Search of St. Walstan, 2011 Saint with the silver shoes and 2015 St Walstan the Third Search
Well which well is it?
This is without doubt the most famous site of all holy wells and indeed Christianity in the county, now the main well is perhaps a modern one (we’ll explore its provenance below).) but in the ruins of its famed Abbey are ‘Wishing Wells’ clearly holy wells, the more likely location of the 1061, vision of Mary by Richeldis de Faverches,, who built a replica of the Holy House where a spring arose. The site became a major pilgrimage centre and its waters were said to be good for curing headaches and stomach complaints. If these are the original site, after Reformation, they denigrated to mere wishing wells.
Howeverr, most attention quite rightly is directed to the well enclosed in the modern Anglican shrine. A site which now could be classed as one of the most active holy wells in the country, Our Lady’s Well. This is the central focus of modern veneration at Walsingham. Its history is difficult however. It was during the digging for a new shrine in the 1930s.The shrine needed a well and this was convenient Consequent excavations revealed did suggest that this well was Saxon and thus as near the site of the original Holy House thought to be the original shrine. However this is difficult to prove. Now enclosed in a modern shrine, above this well an effigy of Our Lady with infant Jesus, is placed in as a centre piece of this modern arched alcove. Local belief suggests that an underground conduit connects these wells to the Anglican well of Our Lady, their source.
Little Walsingham was once the greatest shrine in Europe, with commoners and kings all following the many pilgrim paths to the shrine of ‘Our Lady of Walsingham’. It had a sacred image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a phial of her milk, and many other spurious relics, not to mention the two miraculous wells in the priory garden.
In 1061 the Lady Richeldis de Faveraches, wife of a Norman lord of the manor, is said to have had a vision at Walsingham in which the Virgin Mary appeared to her, took her in spirit to the ‘Sancta Casa’ – the home of Christ in Nazareth – and commanded her to build in Norfolk an exact replica. Aided by angels, the shrine was built of wood and later encased in stone, the site being ordained by the welling up of two clear streams at the behest of Mary. Rumours began to spread that Mary herself had fled there before the threat of invasion, and then that the chapel was the Sancta Casa itself, transported there by angels.
A priory was built there in the early 12th century, which the scholar and theologian Desiderius Erasmus visited in 1511, writing in his ‘Colloquy on Pilgrimage’:
“Before the chapel is a shed, under which are two wells full to the brink; the water is wonderfully cold, and efficacious in curing pains in the head & stomach. They affirm that the spring suddenly burst from the earth at the command of the most holy Virgin”.
The wishing wells
These are circular wells and a square stone bath can be found near an isolated remnant of Norman archway in the priory ruins, in the grounds of a house called Walsingham Abbey. The wells are most noted nowadays for being wishing wells. If you remain totally silent within about 10 feet of the water, you should kneel first at one well, then at the other, and make a wish as you drink – but tell no-one what you wish for. Committing one error in the ritual is said to be fatal.
Another version mentions a stone between the wells on which one must kneel with their right knee bare, then put one hand in each well up to the wrist, and drink as much of the water as you can hold in your palms. Provided your wishes are never spoken aloud, they will be fulfilled within the year. On my visit I was keen to try it out…but found the wells covered by metal grills.
More on Norfolk’s holy wells in the forthcoming Holy Wells and healing springs of Norfolk coming in 2017.
Behind some swings hidden in a wood just outside of Kings Lynn can be found the remains of the Reffley Spring (TF 655 222) now sadly a fairly insignificant site, but one with perhaps a unique history in catalogue of healing wells. This was because it was associated with an unusual secret society called the Sons of Reffley. These were secret Royalist sympathisers, especially the local family the Folkes, established in 1650, a dangerous activity as they were established in Cromwell’s commonwealth. The reasons for its establishment was a direct challenge to the Cromwellian edict forbidding gatherings of 30 people or more – hence like a modern day rebellion against the Criminal Justice Bill’s banning of raves – they kept their membership at 30.
Privotal to this community was this spring, it took its name from it. The spring was a chalybeate one, one which of course could have been exploited for medicinal purposes. Whether it had any significant before hand is unclear, but it appears to have developed a quasi-religious significance in the group. Water from this spring was used to make a punch of which each member of the “Reffley Brethren” had to partake at the yearly meetings
Despite the collapse of the Commonwealth – the Reffley Brethren- as they became known continued. Although perhaps their role moved from political to social, perhaps representing a fraternal group, akin to a gentlemen’s club or Frat society of the US. Such that On 24 June 1756, to celebrate the building of a substantial basin for their spring and erection of an obelisk in its centre, the theme “Bacchus and Venus, the gods of this place”
The event was presented as part of Thomas Arne’s Reffley Spring cantata, a musical piece, akin to an opera but more like a pageant, where the tenor soloist acted as a High Priest, who standing in the centre wearing a crown of Ivy, Myrtle and Roses mimed the parts of Venus and Bacchus. This was recorded as follows with the Priest stating:
- Here all advance to, and encircle the Spring.
- From a charger, brim full of excellent Punch (a Liquor for which this Chalybeate Water is Celebrated) a Goblet is filled, and handed to the High Priest.
- Here a quantity of Loaf Sugar is thrown into the bason [sic], which the Water flows into.
- Whilst the Symphony is playing, the High Priest gives the most Beautiful Toast in the Universe, Venus, which goes round, and the Air is sung.
- From the charger a copious Bowl is filled, and delivered to the High Priest, as before.
- Here a Bottle of Brandy is poured into the bason.
- Again, while the Symphony is playing, the High Priest gives the Toast most pleasing to those “Who, impotent of thought, puff away Care”. Bacchus goes round.
- A Lemon is squeezed into the Bason.
- Here the Bowl is again replenished, and given to the High Priest.
- Venus and Bacchus, the Deities of Reffley United, constitute the Toast that goes round, previous to the Song.
Thomas Arne’s cantata, Reffley Spring. In 2014 the Lynn Festival even performed Arne’s Reffley Spring.
Dates appear confused for some reports state that in 1711 the temple was built others in either 1750 or 1789. The later is the date suggested by Manning in her 1995 Taking the Waters in Norfolk. Clearly this was to provide a more private and dry location for their meetings, which generally ate a beef joint, saddle of mutton and lobster salad. The meal ended with the smoking of a secret tobacco blend in their clay pipes. Evidence of these frivolities can be seen in an oil canvas from c1800 which shows an octagonal brick built temple with a conical roof. This may be linked to the 1818 great festival established there to celebrate the baronet as MP for Lynn (when three commemorative punch bowls were also produced.) There difference in the appearance of the temple in the painting and that shown in photos.
This is explained by an enlargement being done in 1832, with the addition of a kitchen on the back. The structure now being more trapezoid in appearance. A postcard from the early 20th century shows the site enclosed in low picket fencing and in an open setting. Two substantial sphinxes, the family was keen Egyptologists, guarded the temple and a small outhouse, looking like a coal shed can be seen.
Manning suggests that after the Restoration the Brethren may have disappeared only to be revived as a drinking club, a popular 19th century activity. This would fit in with accounts such as a letter from 1774 recorded also by Manning states:
“Reffley has long been a place of resort for Lynn People (even the fair sex) for its being agreeable – not so much for its salubrious water but for a walk and purer air, despite the distance and lack of accommodation (not even a seat)”
Furthermore, Manning draws reference to Whit Sunday skipping at Reffley perhaps suggesting a religious significance which may predate the Brethren and the colonisation of the area after the Brethren disappeared. However, this letter suggests that the writer, a Mr. Richardson was attempting to improve the place as a spa without the landowner, Sir Martin Browne Folkes’s permision. He understandably wanted to retain the site for the groups clandestine meetings! Evidence for these meetings was in 2013 found via an archaeological excavation such as those clay pipes beloved of their meeting, as well as porcelain and interesting an American coin, perhaps indicating the distance and influence some members had. More significantly perhaps prehistoric flint flakes and Roman Samian ware, and evidence of Anglo-Saxon settlement were found in the Reffley area suggesting perhaps a long history for the spring’s usage.
Sadly, what frolics and fantasies enacted by the Brethren around the spring are a far gone. Despite the survival of the group to the present day, much reduced but equally secretive, the site is now ruined. This is despite an apparent thousand pounds being paid on repairs in the 1970s. Apparently, the last celebration at the location was on 22nd June 1978, where a ‘wench’ was employed to serve water from the spring and a feast took place. This marked the 200th anniversary of the donation of a stone table.
They would find it difficult to celebrate there today – the temple was vandalised in the late 70s and 80s – now is a pile of moss covered bricks. The springhead fortunately is still quite substantial stone made structure being c2.9 metres diameter by 0.4 metres deep. It has lost its altar stone with the inscription Presented by a Friend 1778 and is unable now to hold water and the Obelisk despite its warning, a curse, stating ‘Whosoever shall remove this or bid its removal, let him die the last of his race’ a curse which did not distract the vandals, it was removed in the 1990s with the sphinxes to a secret location. The woods have now closed over it.
What is left can still be easily found in Spring Wood which is now in the middle of a housing estate in the Lynn suburb of South Wootton, formerly Reffley. There’s ample parking opposite and it is easily found following the tracks…perhaps one day something could be restored, but for the moment only the ghosts of parties past cavort around this once thriving spring head. It lays forlorn and forgotten…a shadow of its more vibrant past.
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….