The ancient small Sussex town of Winchelsea possibly has more named well and springs than a town twice as large. Sadly most of the wells have been lost, some no more than boggy holes but at least one is still preserved and celebrated.
A map see here shows the extent of the springs available in the medieval period. Extant details are unclear but they were important as boundaries as the following recalls:
“bounds of the Liberty of Winchelsea as they were taken and enrolled the 7th day of May in the fourth year of the reign of Edward the Third AD 1330 were as under First go from the Cross without Newgate north along by the Town Ditch and so through the midst of Lewes Marsh to a ditch of the Manor of Icklesham leading to St Leonard’s Fleet till you come right against a well in Pook Lane called Vale Well and so east up by a little lane lying between Crooked Acre and Bell Morrice to the King’s High street and then north east through the lands of Thomas Alard to the street end and so to the ring of Stone Mill and so downe to Pipewell Cawsey’s end and so by the street at the right hand leading to the north and to Grind pepper Well 3 and then as the old Ferryway leadeth to the Channell and so over the Channell to a fleet called White Fleet and as the water leadith by the Hopad Marsh into Kettle Fleet and so taking in the whole roads of the Puddle and the Cambre along upon the Sea Coast where the Hermitage did stand until a man can see Beachy Head neare Bourne and from thence through the sea to a wall called Court Wall and so west to the Cross without Newgate aforesaid.”
An account of the wells are described in William Durrant Cooper’s 1850 History of Winchelsea:
“Water, so scarce at Rye, was amply supplied to this town from six open wells:——viz., PIPE WELL, situate near the Ferry, close by the entrance of the town by the former Rye road: ST. KATHERINE’s WELL, situate half way up the hill leading from Rye, and below Cook’s Green, the water of which is slightly chalybeate: the STRAND WELL, on the hanging of the hill (above the former tan yard) destroyed a few years since by the falling in of the cliff: the FRIAR’S WELL, now enclosed, situated in a ﬁeld recently called the Peartree or Wellﬁeld, to the east of the Gray Friars ; the NEW WELL on the outside of New Gate; and the VALE WELL, now called ST. LEONARD’S WELL, at the north-west of the town, under the old castle,—of whose waters the popular belief yet remains, that when once drunken the drinker never leaves Winchelsea, that is, that wherever he roams his heart is still there; each drinker realising Goldsmith’s lines,
In all my wand’rings round this world of care,
I still had hopes, my strong vexations past,
Here to return—and die at home at last.”
Of these wells the aforementioned Strand Well was lost when the cliff collapsed in 1840s. The Pipe well which gives its name to one of the medieval gates in the town appears also to have vanished but it may remain lost in undergrowth on the steep cliff face.
The most interesting is the Vale Well which was surrounded by land by Poklande, from O.E pwca for ‘goblin’ and by the time of the above survey Pook Lane. Often springs were associated with such elementals and as such may be remembrances of pre-Christian deities. Found at the north end of town, under the old castle, in the meadows underneath the north-western hillside just beyond the mound of the windmill is St Leonard’s Well just about hanging on. According to Walcott (1857):
‘of St Leonard’s Well at Winchelsea the good folks say that he who drinks will never rest till he returns to slake his thirst in its waters’.
Ford in Return to Yesterday in 1931
“In the face of the cliff that Winchelsea turns to Rye there is a spring forming a dip – St. Leonard’s Well or the Wishing Well. The saying is that once you have drunk of those dark waters you will never rest til you drink again. I have seen – indeed I have introduced them to it – Henry James, Stephen Crane and W. H. Hudson drink there from the hollows of their hands. So did Conrad. They are all dead now.”
There was a church of Iham just outside Winchelsea, dedicated to St Leonard; it fell into decay after 1484 and it is possible that the spring takes its name from the church rather than the saint directly. It was described in 1950s as:
‘fenced with barbed wire and noisome water almost covered by watercress and overhanging brambled’
It is now an indistinct boggy hole a few stones lie around and depending on the weather some flowing water.
Similarly, the Friar’s Well was once enclosed, being in a field called Peartree or Wellfield, to east of Greyfriars. It is a spring head of clear water arising from a small hole, surrounded by remains of metal sheeting and deposits of beach stones, suggesting a possible structure.
The oldest recorded well was Grindpepper Well or the Black Friar’s Well. This maybe the same as St. Katherine’s Well as marked on the map Currently, it is called Queen Elizabeth’s Well and it is the best known and best preserved, being found on Spring steps.. It is located on the hillside, a dry well enclosed in red brick arch with grating at front. Peering inside one can see about of foot of water. Its alternative name is presumably pre-Reformation dedication but why is it named after this saint? The church is St Thomas the Martyr. Perhaps it was originally to St Katherine.
Interestingly, the name survived into the 1760s as it is noted on a map of Winchelsea by Charles Stephens. Records show that it was taken by the Corporation and it allowed its waters to be piped to a Mr. Joseph David in 1877. However, where did the Royal dedication come from? have mentioned in my account of Queen Elizabeth’s Well in Rye that such springs were developed as part of a cult. But it only appears for the first time in 1900 when the St Leonard’s and Hastings Natural History society visited the town and visited the well, then it appears immortalised on a postcard and hence named ever since. The best of the town’s ancient waters and perhaps now the most mysterious!
As this April, we mark 90 years old Elizabeth II, I thought it is worth looking at a well associated with her famed same named ancestor, Queen Elizabeth I. She as we have seen has been associated with quite a number of wells and springs, so many to suggest that perhaps a cult was developed to capitalise on her. One of the most interesting is situated in a private garden of a house in Rye. Called the Queen’s Well or Queen Elizabeth’s Well it was one of the principal source of water for the extensive conduits of the town. It arises at the base of grey stone walling in a semi-circular hole. A keystone over well reads:
The origin of the name is said to have derived from the Queen’s visit in 1573 when she met Thomas Walsingham and the Jurats of the town. The story is recorded by William Holloway (1847) The History and Antiquities, of the Ancient, Town and Port of Rye, In The County of Sussex, Incidental Notices of the Cinque Ports, Compiled from Manuscripts and Original Authorities in his who records:
“in a northerly direction, beneath a high bank, once a wild and sequestered spot, and still overshadowed by some ancient oaks, rises a perennial spring of clear and sweet water, honoured with the high and royal appellation of ‘Queen Elizabeth’s Well,’ from the circumstance of her Majesty, in one of her progresses through the kingdom, having visited Rye, when she halted at this spot, either to drink of the water which flowed from this spring, or for the purpose of receiving the corporation of the town, when the mayor and jurats went in procession out of the town to receive her, clad in scarlet robes.
Whereupon the queen, as Jeake says, “from the noble entertainment she had, accompanied with the testimonies of love and loyalty, duty and reverence she received from the people, was pleased to call it ‘Rye Royal.’”
Adam’s. 1925 London noted that:
“The event was not recorded until 1588, when two stones were placed over the head of the spring, bearing the following inscription : “1588E.R.” (signifying Elizabeth Regina) ; and ” M. Gaymer, Maior” (Michael Gaymer, who was Mayor when the stones were put up). There is a traditionary report that the members of the Corporation went out of the town in procession, clad in scarlet robes, to-‘ receive and welcome Her Majesty, she probably halting for this purpose at the spring above mentioned, afterwards entering the town by the Postern Gate, which then faced the road leading to this spot.”
Interestingly Holloway (1847) notes:
“But though the year is thus distinctly inscribed on this stone as being 1588, yet Jeake sets down the date of the queen’s coming to Rye in 1573. How these dates are to be reconciled I know not, unless we conclude, which seems to be the case, that her Majesty came to Rye in 1573, while the event was not recorded until 1588.”
Lost traditions of the well?
Deacon (1911) in his Ancient Rye raises some interesting points. Why did Elizabeth process from the well? Was it recording a tradition that the Jurats of the town knew of?
Furthermore, the 1588 dedication is interesting. Why did it take so long from her 1564 visit till then to name the well? The answer is easier probably because in the euphoria of the Armada celebration many sites were probably dedicated to the Queen as a mark of solidarity.
It is interesting to note that the house, Mountsfield, beside the well was built upon land donated by Elizabeth and the owners allowed local people to use the land for festivals and I wonder whether this is significant. A point I will refer to in a moment. Lost healing well?
Another name for the well is Dodeswell, which derives from O.E dowde for a ‘plain woman, a scold or shrew’, presumably describing the women who gathered there! Moreover were these women local white witches one wonders who knew the powers of the well? In L. A. Vidler’s 1934 book ‘A New History of Rye’ states that the alternative name for the well was ‘Blekewell’ rather than ‘Brekewell’, so it probably does not refer to the bricked nature of the well, but from O.E bleke, referring to the ‘blay’ a freshwater fish. Alternatively it may refer to bleak meaning in medieval times pale or sickly, rather than its common usage today. Does this suggest the well was curative? Another piece of potential evidence is recorded in 1762, when an acre of Brickwell field was leased to for the building of an isolation house for smallpox victims. Is this still coincidence? Did Elizabeth stop because she knew of the healing waters? Another rather more prosaic alternative origin is from a local landower, there was a Thomas Blekewelle living in the town in 1459. Whether it was a holy well is unclear, it appears to have soon fallen out of domestic use in the 1800s as Holloway (1847) notes that:
“Queen Elizabeth’s Well is about four hundred and eighty yards from the foot of Conduit hill, where the Postern gate formerly stood. The well was always visible from the road which passes by it till the year 1843, when a wall was erected which excluded it from the public view.”
Deacon (1911) notes that in 1858, Mr Curteis, owner of Grove Cottage, where the well lies was asked by the Borough Treasurer to deposit a keys so that the public could see the well. I am not sure that such an arrangement exists today but I was lucky to find the owner in when I called and the well was in full flow overfilling the small semi-circular dip hole filling a small pool and then into a round brick built conduit house. Comparing with early photos the well has changed a bit. The wall remains the same, although the plaques may have moved, it is the square hatch at the basin covered by a wooden lid, which has markedly has gone, being filled with stonework to match the wall. This access appears to have been replaced by the dip well which does not appear to exist in the early photos. I have been unable to find out when it was done.
I am sure there is much to be learnt about this ancient Sussex well but holy, healing or just politically famous, the old Queen’s Well is at least a great memorial to a time of political and religious change.