On and off I have been surveying the holy wells of East and West Sussex which is an area which does not appear to have collected much academic interest. Thanks to myself and James Rattue Kent is now covered more than satisfactorily, ditto Rattue’s Surrey and now Dorset, Hampshire and Sussex in a way await further exploration. Thus it is possible that new and interesting holy wells maybe found in these counties, ones missed by Jeremy Harte’s 2008 magnus opus English Holy wells
Battle is such a place. It is a place I have visited many times and thought there should be a holy well there and indeed there was. However, the Wishing, Holy or Dr Graye’s Well is described by one source Her Grace the Duchess of Cleveland’s account of the History of Battle Abbey as:
“a square opening five or six feet wide, enclosed by a massive stone wall nearly seven feet high; a flight of steps led up to it on either side, and at each angle was what he called a vase, or receptacle for flowers and votive offerings. The spring was conveyed to the other side of the church wall.”
It was located:
“On the north side of the Cloister Garth stood the Holy Well, from which some writers have derived the name of Senlac, given to this place by Ordericus Vitalis. It is mentioned in Queen Elizabeth’s time, as a place held sacred by recusants’ :-whither many, especially women, resort, like a young pilgrimage, and call it Dr. Graye’s well.’
Did this have an older history? The author suggests that its water gave Battle its old name of Senlac – possibly – but there is no evidence as such- and the origin of that name has itself been debated. What is more likely perhaps is that the spring provided the domestic water supply of the Abbey and later converted post Reformation as suggested above as a holy well needed to meet Catholic recusant use.
Who was Dr Graye?
The author continues to explain that Dr Grey was a priest, the Dowager Viscountess Montague’s chaplain, a zealous Roman Catholic, who resided at the Abbey in Elizabethan times. He was imprisoned by Sir Francis Walsingham. He appears a likely person to concoct a holy well out of an available spring.
What happened to the well?
The author continues to record that:
“ It was afterwards known as the Wishing Well, and was unfortunately destroyed in the course of Sir Godfrey Webster’s alterations, in 1814….and now furnishes the drinking water of the household; it is remarkably sweet and pure, and we appreciated it for its own sake long before we were made aware that it was the charmed water of the old Holy Well.”
And so it disappeared into obscurity after perhaps a brief period of fame – a holy well of the Catholic faith in hiding and as such of great interest.
The real sacred well of Battle?
However, another claimant to have an association with the Battle of Senlac is still to be found. King Harold’s Well is enclosed in a circular well can be found in the front garden of Three Virgins Lane.
Local tradition records that the spring was drunk by King Harold before the Battle of Hastings. Whether it is originally a Saxon well is unknown it certainly does not look it. It is perhaps not the most attractive site but at least something remains to remind us of the days of King Harold.
Down a lane away from the village in quiet solitude is St Ethelbert’s church at Marden. It is a church associated with a saintly legend and a location of particular interest for anyone concerned in water lore; for two pieces of local legend are recorded both with familiar motifs. Perhaps the most familiar one is associated with the strange find in a carpeted room to the left of the entrance. Here sadly dry is St. Ethelbert’s Well. The earliest record is John Duncombe 1804 Collections for a History of Herefordshire
“At the west end of the nave, defended by circular stonework, is a well about ten inches in diameter, about four feet below the pavement of the church, aspring supposed to arise from the spot in which the body of Ethelbert was first interred…. This spring is said to have been held in great veneration from the circumstance of the water retaining its purity, when overflowed by the stream of the Lugg, however muddy or impure.”
Charles Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of Holy Wells also records:
“MARDEN: ST. ETHELBERT’S WELL. THERE is a well in the church of Marden, Herefordshire. It is near the west end of the nave, defended by circular stone-work, about ten inches in diameter, and enclosing a spring, supposed to arise from the spot in which the body of King Ethelbert was first interred, and is called St. Ethelbert’s Well (Notes and Queries, 3 S., viii. 235).”
Jonathan Sant in his 1994 The Healing Wells of Herefordshire notes:
“Formerly to be seen at the west end of the nave, St. Ethelbert’s Well has recently been swallowed up by an extended vestry where it can now be seen incongruously surrounded by carpeted floor. The octagonal stone well-top is apparently late Victorian but the square top within the shaft below is doubtless older. Needless to say, the table which has been built over it is very modern and prevents small children from falling down the well”
The well is much as Sant describes although there have been recent talks of an improvement to make a more appropriate structure although that could possibly ruin this strange well. He records water in it as well, it was dry when I examined it in April of this year.
What is particularly strange is that once the wooden lid is removed this is a deep shaft well. Very few holy wells are such deep shafts, the majority being shallow springheads. Perhaps this suggests that this could as Sant suggests provide pure water even when the river was in flood. Its depth may also suggest a great age indicating how the ground level has risen as the years have built up more sediment. The church guide suggests it had a healing tradition but I am unable to find their source, similarly they claim the well and church were a place of pilgrim, likely but again no written evidence. Current pilgrims have thrown coins in the well as can be seen.
The legend of St Ethelbert’ or Æthelberht’s Well
Overlooking the village of Marden are the scant remains of Sutton Walls now a tree covered hillfort. Here local tradition record was the royal vill or sort of temporary villa of the great Offa of Mercia the scene of the saint’s murder.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle he was captured whilst visiting his bride to be Ælfthyth. Richard of Cirencester records that Offa’s queen Cynethryth convinced Offa that Æthelberht should be killed, although there is no evidence why. Although it was likely political as Æthelberht was King of the Angles and Mercia had domination over East Anglia and would be keen to stop any possible claimant under control.
One legend tells that he sat upon a chair with no seat a trap door of sorts, the whole being covered by a cloth and that he fell down the hole, a deep pit, his head being removed to ensure that he was dead. Another tells how he was smothered in his bed clothes. All accounts record his beheading, but some say that this was done in Offa’s presence. The body being hastily buried with the head beside the river below.
Discovery of the body and formation of the well
The legend is told in a panel upon the 2008 shrine to the saint in Hereford Cathedral but it is absent in the first version of the story which is restricted to the shaft of light subsequent tellings have mentioned the spring.
Issues with the legend
Considering the well head’s location and the church’s remote location it is more than likely that the church was placed here because of the well. However, does this make the well date from St. Ethelbert? Although, one would not miss to pour water upon the county’s famed legend, there are concerns that it might.
Hagiographers will notice that the religious features his martyrdom closely resemble that associated with the legend of St. Kenelm. This is best summarised by Edith Rickert’s 1905 article The Old English Offa Saga. II in Modern Philology Vol. 2, No. 3:
“At this point, however, mention must be made of another legend, that of St. Kenelm, which shows a curious relationship to the story of Ethelbert. The resemblances are these: a) Each saint, by the ambition and malice of a wicked kinswoman, was treacherously lured to his death and beheaded.’ b) The murderess in each case perished miserably by super natural intervention.2 c) Each saint had divine foreknowledge of his death in a dream or vision in which a beautiful tree was cut down and he himself was turned into a bird and flew up a column of light to heaven.”
Overall it suggests perhaps that the St. Ethelbert legend was a transfer from St. Kenelm (or vica versa) but if it was a concoction why? The other legend that of the Mermaid may give us a suggestion why….but we can discuss this in a future post.
Cambridgeshire is not a county readily associated with holy wells, however my research for volume VIII in my series suggests that there are a number of little known sites. Frustratingly, there a number of attractive and curious streams in the county, especially in the chalk regions, but their names tell nothing – often being called simply – the spring head or numerically named such as Nine springs. One such Springhead has given us a bit more to go on, its alternative names – Robin Hood Dip or bizarrely Giant’s Grave are far more tantalising.
A peacefully evocative site sandwiched between two rather busy roads. A delightful place in spring when its surrounding cherry trees are rich in blossom. Very little is written down about the spring head except that in modern terms it was used as a water source for the village and as a laundry! However it is surrounding landscape and legends which perhaps provide a clue.
Who is the giant?
All that is known is that the giant was buried at the site and that he is thought to be Gogmagog, the name also applied to nearby hills. One of these hills, Wandlebury, is a hill fort to which a considerable amount of confused history, mystery and legend has been attached. What is interesting is that when folklorists collected stories of the giant (or giants as it really is Gog and Magog traditionally) it was noted that they were buried nearby but not where. This is along with a golden chariot at Fleam Dyke.
It is worth recording the legends of this hill fort. They were recorded as early as 1219 by One Gervase of Tilbury:
“Osbert, a bold and powerful baron, visited a noble family in the vicinity of Wandelbury, in the bishopric of Ely. Among other stories related in the social circle of his friends, who, according to custom, amused each other by repeating ancient tales and traditions, he was informed, that if any knight, unattended, entered an adjacent plain by moonlight, and challenged an adversary to appear, he would be immediately encountered by a spirit in the form of a knight. Osbert resolved to make the experiment, and set out, attended by a single squire, whom he ordered to remain without the limits of the plain, which was surrounded by an ancient entrenchment. On repeating the challenge, he was instantly assailed by an adversary, whom he quickly unhorsed, and seized the reins of his steed. During this operation, his ghostly opponent sprung up, and, darting his spear, like a javelin, at Osbert, wounded him in the thigh. Osbert returned in triumph with the horse, which he committed to the care of his servants. The horse was of a sable colour, as well as his whole accoutrements, and apparently of great beauty and vigour. He remained with his keeper till cockcrowing, when, with eyes flashing fire, he reared, spurned the ground, and vanished. On disarming himself, Osbert perceived that he was wounded, and that one of his steel boots was full of blood. Gervase adds, that as long as he lived, the scar of his wound opened afresh on the anniversary of the eve on which he encountered the spirit.”
Of course the Knight and the Giant may be unconnected entities. I shall return to the Knight in a moment, but the giant in more recent times has created more legends. In 1955 archaeologist TC Lethbridge intrigued by reports by various 17th and 18th century antiquarians. The first of these, John Layer (1586–1640) wrote that he thought on the hill was a hill figure on the hill was believed with the work of Cambridge undergraduates being cut with ‘within the trench of Wandlebury Camp’ as does William Cole (1714–82) noting the ‘the figure of a giant carved on the turf at Wandlebury’) and Dr Dale recording it ‘cut on the turf in middle camp’ in the 1720s. Bishop Joseph Hall:
“A Giant called All Paunch, who was of an incredible Height of Body, not like him whose Picture the Schollers of Cambridge goe to see at Hogmagog Hills, but rather like him that ought the two Aple Teeth which were digged out of a well in Cambridge, that were little less than a man’s head. When I was a boy, about 1724, I remember my father or mother as it happened I went with one or other of them to Cambridge……always used to stop and show me and my brother and sisters the figure of the giant carved on the Turf; concerning whom there were then many traditions, now worn away. What became of the two said teeth I never hear.”
Lethbridge using rather unusual archaeological methods apparently revealed this figure, or as it turned out figures and although his work was criticised, traces of his giants remain and his theories have relevance to Cherry Hinton’s spring head. Does the name of the camp remember Wandle, an ancient God or Woden, a deity often associated with water?
Or does as the Cherry Hinton Chronicle of 1854 records in 1854 the discovery of Iron Age burials unearthed locally on Lime Kiln Hill whose the skeletons were unusually tall gave rise to the legend!?
The Footprint stone
Across the road from the spring head at the Robin Hood and Little John Inn is a curious stone. Rather unceremoniously placed by the car park the large round stone looks like a glacial erratic and clearly left there or placed there at some time. But why? A closer inspection reveals it to be hollowed out and the hollow is like a footprint or more like a shoe, around a size 11 as it fits my shoe well!
Carved foot print stones are widespread, often associated with prehistoric burial chambers as far afield as the Calderstone at Liverpool to a burial chamber Petit-Mont Arzon in Brittany, France. The Romans too carved such footprint stones inscribing them with pro itu et reditu, translating as‘for the journey and return’, the tradition would be to place one’s feet before and then after the journey as a good luck. Footprint stone and wells are not infrequently met. There are two in Kent for example, St Mildred’s or St. Augustine’s stone near Sandwich (now lost) and the Devil’s footprint at Newington once associated with a barrow (now lost). So there might be some precedence?
Does the Knight story have relevance here? Does the stone record an ancient ritual of kinship, that knight with his challenge record? There are Celtic and Pictish traditions of kingship or installation stones. These would work in the equivalent way as placing crowns on a King, by placing their feet in the holes would mean they had taken over the tribe and such places survive on the Isle of Man and Scotland (for more information refer to Janet Bord’s Footprints in Stone (2004)
Of course the hollow could have a much simpler explanation. It could have been made as a socket for a cross. However, here we have another interesting possibility, such holed stones called bulluans are associated with holy wells, and although none exist in Cambridgeshire it is tantalising that this could have been one.
Robin Hood in Cambridgeshire?
The alternative name, Robin Hood Dip is one which creates the most curiosity. There is no record of the folk hero in Cambridge, as far as I am aware, and this is well beyond Sherwood Forest! Taking to one side the possibility that it’s a site which achieves its name from story-telling about the folk hero’s exploits, explaining its name appears at first difficult. However, folklorists will have another explanation. Robin Hood is a commonly met name for an elemental, a fairy folk or spirit and what is more interesting he is often associated with springs and water places. See this article for more of an overview. Why is this name associated with springs? I have made various suggestions. Firstly, the associated with a sprite may discourage use – i.e a warning off children and secondly it may record an earlier cult presence. Perhaps the Giant and Robin Hood are the same folk memory of a deity which was celebrated at this spring. The name Thirs interesting is also associated with springs and water holes and this is Saxon word meaning possibly ‘giant’!
The Roman connection may also give support to this idea. It is known that the river Rhee, arising at Ashwell was associated with Roman shrines and a deity called Seunna. Was Granta a Roman deity? Is there an unwritten story which connects Granta and Woden which would explain the grave?
Piecing it all together
So what do all these different facets bring to the site at Cherry Hinton? The legend of Wandlebury is rather lacking of any location for a grave and its fairly obvious perhaps that the name is derived from the large grave shape size of the springhead. But does this remember a folk memory of it being dug? Or does it remember the presence of large bodies in prehistoric graves? The interesting point is that the island is called the grave according to local tradition. Did this mark a barrow?
Nearby on the Fulbourne Road were found three Bronze Age ring-ditches and Neolithic flint artefacts and Early Bronze Age pottery were found in the locality suggesting a long period of history. As well the Iron Age material earlier. It is very likely they settled here for the water supply and it is very likely it was culted.
What of the stone? Is it coincidentally located near the springhead or does it remember practices at the well? Is it a Kingship stone, a receptacle for healing water or a simple cross base?
There appears to be a considerable amount of unknown history to this simple, but picturesque, spring head and whilst we must always be wary of neo-pagan exaggerations, it does seem plausible that this is a long lost sacred spring. Sacred to the Saxons, Sacred to the Romans and perhaps long before this!
Read more of Cambridgeshire water lore in
Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Cambridgeshire.
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.
Pinner is classic suburbs. Lovely well kept houses, neat lawns, tidy hedges but as John Betjemen’s quote suggests some relics of past times remains……in this case on the junction of Waxwell Road and Uxbridge Road. The Waxwell (TQ 118 905) is such a surprising substantial well site that it is surprising it is so little known. Researching our holy and healing well heritage in London and Middlesex is generally a disheartening experience. Many wells have been lost forever, even their locations cannot be effectively traced or else enclosed away. The Wax well is an exception, although it has not completely escaped the perils of urbanisation, it remains remarkably unchanged from the last century as comparison with today and the postcard testifies.
Watching or Waecca?
The name is interesting, it is the only one I am aware of. A plaque by the Harrow Heritage Trust reads:
“Wax Well Name was first recorded in 1274 as ‘Wakeswell’ Thought to mean ‘Waecc’s’ Spring. Until mid-19th century the well was the most important source of water in Pinner village and reputed to have healing properties.”
The name is either from a personal name or Anglo-Saxon Woecce whichmeans ‘to guard’ perhaps suggesting that the water was important or associated with a ritual. However, the site is close to Grime’s Dyke which was the boundary of Mercia so the guard may relate to use by people associated with that site.
Staying in Pinner forever?
A tradition that anyone who drunk of the well would stay in Pinner forever, this being a tradition often associated from Anglo-Saxon sites, such as Keldwell in Lincolnshire and Bywell in Northumberland, both Saxon sounding wells so there appears to be a significant relationship. Pinner residents clearly protective of who lives in the area, they have perhaps prevented people from testing this out for no water can be found there!
Yet it was a very reliable water source especially in dry periods when people would travel from miles around to collect it. The healing properties of the water ranged from the being good for eyes to unusually reviving people at the point of death! Sadly, since 1870, the site has been sealed up and the site is now dry and deep in leaves. The well consists of a large red brick domed structure set into the bank and earth covered. The water arose under an arch in a semi circular basin set into base of the chamber with three steps reaching the water.
‘and immediately a spring burst forth under a rock, which they lifted up, and the whole company drank healthfully before moving on. The spring runs into the river to this day’.
High above the picturesque village of Winchcombe is a substantial conduit house. This conduit house with its heavy stone pitched rood of local stone and substantial door contains a four foot wide, two foot deep well fed by a spring associated with most of the country’s most interesting saint. In a text called Vita Sancti Kenelmi, written it is believed by Goscelin of Saint-Bertin, in the 11th century the story of the saint is told. It relates that King Kenulf, King of Mercia and founder of Wincombe Abbey (in 789 A.D) had an heir Kenelm. His half sister Quenride was jealous of her brother and being ambitious murdered him and had his body hidden in Clent, North Worcestershire ( and now on the outskirts of the West Midlands Metropolitan area ). His death was seen as a great scandal and soon the dead revealed itself and when the body was found, and a white dove sent the message to the Pope:
“In Clent in cowback Kenelm King’s bairn lieth under a thorn bereft of his head.”
The Clent monks removed this body, a miraculous spring arising in the process, and carried it to Winchombe. Where the funeral cortège rested miraculous springs arose. Of these springs, only the two remain, that at Clent and the one under discussion here, the last resting place. The monks of Wincombe claimed this body and established a pilgrimage place, the spring being part of this pilgrimage. The Annals of Wincombe, related in the South East Legendary c1280, translated below reads:
“These men towards Winchombe the Holy body bear,
Before they could it thither bring, very weary they were,
So they came to a wood a little east of the town,
And rested, though they were so near, upon a high down,
Athirst they were for weariness, so sore there was no end,
For St Kenelm’s love they bade our Lord some drink send,
A cold well and clear, there sprung from the down,
That still is there, clear and cold, a mile from the town,
Well fair, it is now covered with stone as is right,
And I counsel each man thereof to drink, that cometh there truly,
The Monks, since, of Winchombe have built there beside,
A fair Chapel of St Kenelm, that man seek wide.”
In Caxton’s 15th century Golden Legend it states:
‘for heat and labour they were nigh dead for thirst, and anon they prayed to God, and to this holy saint to be their comfort. And then the abbot pight his cross into the earth, and forthwith sprang up there a fair well, whereof they drank and refreshed them much’.
The site, as St Kenwolphs Well, first appears on the map in 1777 on Taylor’s Gloucestershire map but Walters (1928) in his work on Ancient springs of Gloucestershire, states that the well house or conduit house was enclosed by Lord Chandos (of Sudeley Castle in the valley below) in the reign of Elizabeth I dating from around 1572. It is possible that the conduit house replaced a previous well house and it is thought to have been a chapel nearby which was still standing in 1830 when it was either demolished or converted into a cottage. The later seems possible as a Perpendicular window is to be found in the rear of a Victorian cottage nearby but I did not find it.
To return to the conduit house, a figure of the saint was placed over the door, crowned and seated, with sword and sceptre. It bears the date 819 A.D. and the name St Kenelmus, but was erected in 1887. The inscriptions within these walls are as follows :
East wall :
“THIS WELL DATING FROM THE ANGLO-SAXON TIMES, ANNO DOMINI 819, MARKS THE SPOT WHERE THE BODY OF KENELM, ‘ KING AND MARTYR ‘ RESTED ON THE WAY TO INTERMENT IN THE ABBEY OF WINCHOMBE.
A CHURCH WAS ERECTED IN THE IMMEDIATE VICINITY FOR PILGRIMS ATTRACTED HITHER BY THE WONDERFUL POWERS OF THE WATERS. ALL THAT NOW REMAINS OF THIS EDIFICE ( DEMOLISHED ANNO DOMINI 1830 ) IS A WINDOW INSERTED IN THE ADJOINING FARM HOUSE.
IN THE REIGN OF QUEEN ELIZABETH LORD CHANDOS OF SUDELY ENSHRINED THE HOLY WELL BY ERECTION OF THIS CONDUIT HOUSE, PROBABLY TO COMEMORATE ONE OF THAT QUEEN’S VISIT TO THE CASTLE.
IN THIS JUBILEE YEAR OF THE REIGN OF QUEEN VICTORIA, JUNE 20TH, ANNO DOMINI 1887, THE SCULPTURE-FIGURE OF ST KENELM WAS ADDED EXTERNALLY AND THESE THREE LEGENDARY TABLETS PLACED THEREON.
“OH TRAVELLER, STAY THY WEARY FEET,
DRINK OF THIS WATER, PURE AND SWEET,
IT FLOWS FOR RICH AND POOR THE SAME,
THEN GO THY WAY, REMEMBERING STILL,
THE WAYSIDE WELL BENEATH THE HILL,
THE CUP OF WATER IN HIS NAME.”
“IN LOVING MEMORY OF THE THREE BROTHERS JOHN, WILLIAM AND THE REVD. BENJAMIN DENT, AND OF THEIR NEPHEW, JOHN COUCHIER DENT, WATER FROM THIS ABUNDANT AND EVER FLOWING STREAM WAS CONVEYED AS A FREE GIFT TO THE INHABITANTS OF WINCHOMBE BY EMMA, WIDOW OF THE ABOVE JOHN COUCHIER DENT. JUNE 20TH, 1887”
“LET THEY FOUNTAIN BE DISPERSED ABROAD,
AND RIVERS OF WATERS IN THE STREETS. ” PROV. V. 16”
On a pleasant summer’s day it makes a delightful goal to the pilgrim, although sadly the well itself is now inaccessible…it is currently locked.
A visit to Conisbrough, noted for its Norman castle should include a visitor to its holy wells. That is holy wells, as the town can claim two sites! Although according to the Conisborough website there appears to be a denial of this.
That which is called the Holywell or rather Holywell spring is found at the edge of Holywell road and the A630 Sheffield Road. It is a spring which appears to arise further up the hill in an area now covered in scrub and inaccessible. However, a very copious spring erupts at the base of the hill and as such has been the subject of various complaints. Despite this it remains and fills a large semi-circular pool surrounded by low walling. The spring was noted for its healthy waters and was used for brewing beer by Nicholsons Bros Brewery and one assumes some of the stone work dates from this. Little else is recorded of the site
Nearer the castle, and although dry it is more substantial is another site variously called the Town well or Well of St Francis. This is as Innocent (1914) describes it as:
“Covered by a curious little building very medieval-looking with ita chamfered plinth and steeply slanted roof”
Who the St Francis is, is unclear but Alport ( 1898) records the local tradition which states that he was a local holy man and probably not a true saint and it is interesting that a number of churches are dedicated to a St. Francis in Yorkshire. Interestingly, though the date of creation of the well is recorded and quite late compared to other local saints perhaps. It is said that in 1320 -1321 the village was suffering from a particularly terrible drought and this St. Francis, said to be an old and wise man was sought for his advice. He suggested that the local people cut a willow tree from Willow Vale and then as the people sang psalms and hymns he lead them through the church and priory grounds to the site of the well. At the spot St Francis then struck is and not only did a spring arise and followed for the next 582 years (for its sadly dry now) but the tree took root.
Sadly this tree has either died or was dug up but the well continued under the name of the Town well up until the early 1900s when mains water arrived. It is possible that the legend suggests the holy man may have been, in fact, Clark (1986) believes the story recalls a Pagan priest and that the legend was a legacy of Conisbrough’s pre-Christian past; certainly the reference to a willow indicates a water diviner.
The other area in Conisbrough where St Francis the older man is said to have done a similar ritual and found water is at a place called The Holy Well Spring of St Francis. In 2003 this holy well was restored by historian Bernard Pearson with the aid of Community service and a special service was held at St Peter’s church attended by the High Sheriff of South Yorkshire who than processed to the site, erroneously as it happens in a re-enactment that was associated with the town well. Indeed a plaque at the site makes this error clear.
Allport, C.H., (1898) History of Conisborough
Clark, S., (1986) The Holy well of Conisborough Source Old Series 5.
Innocent, C.F (1914-18) Conisborough and its castle Trans of Hunter Archeaology Society.
on the re-dedication of the well.
The outside of the spa building. The left from the car-park, the right showing the two storeys
Back in September I re-visited the delightfully surprising Birley Spa. This is a rare spa building survival which was once in Derbyshire, but now firmly in the suburban edges of Sheffield.
An old origin?
Our first record is when it was established as seven baths by Earl Manners. However, it may have an ancient origin, the spring is located along Neolithic trade routes and indeed implements have been found in the vicinity. Some authorities have noted that there was a Roman bath here supported by the proximity to the Rykneid way. There is however no direct archaeological evidence to support this theory and it may have been spread around by the proprietors to support the quality of the water. A work by T. L. Platts (1976) contains much of the information and it is from this work I have taken most of the notes. The earliest establishment of the spa is thought to be in the early 1700s being built by a Quaker named Sutcliffe. The spa then consisted of a square stone building with a cold bath within with a bolt fixed on the inner side to ensure privacy. This structure appeared to exist until 1793 when the bath was ruined and filled with stones.
A spa reborn
In 1843, the Earl Manvers who owned the Manor developed this spa for a larger and more upmarket clientele. A Leeds chemist West analysed the waters stating that they were beneficial for those suffering from constipation. An administrative committee was appointed and even a Bath Charity was started so that poor people could benefit and take the waters.
A spa in decline
Unfortunately the baths did not make profit and by 1895 only one plunge bath remained; the Hotel apparently ceased to function as such about 1878. It is believed that Earl Manvers removed the marble from the warm bath for his own use. The site then went into a slow decline. In the 1920s and 30s a children’s pleasure ground was established but the grounds were closed in 1939, due to the prohibition of assemblies of crowds, introduced as a safety factor in case of air raids. The buildings and grounds were allowed to decay and become very dilapidated. Since the building of the Hackenthorpe Housing Estate in the 1950s Sheffield Corporation have become owners of the property.
The museum room (old warming room) and the coal room
A re-born again!
Fortunately unlike other sites, the bath house still exists, probably as a consequence of the first floor being used as community centre. The cold bath was derelict and rubbish strewn, but a splendid restoration has been undertaken. The bath house can be found in a small wooded dell in the housing estate. Despite predations by vandals on the house, the interior reveals an impressive oval stone lined cold bath with steps into the water either side. To the other side are a small collection of artefacts and the history of the site. There is also the store room where coal was stored for the warm bath which no longer exists.
Birley Spa is now open for special events and the first Saturday in the summer months; however it is best to check that the site is open as it is open by volunteers. It can be viewed from the outside when closed and can be reached off the A1635 take Occupation Lane then Birley Spa Lane on the left and once passing a school on the left there is a lane going into the woods on the left by a side, down here is the Spa. There is some parking.
Revised from Holy wells and healing springs of Derbyshire.
Copyright Pixyled publications
The following is taken from Holy wells and healing springs of Essex (This blog includes reference sites not included in the original text and will be described in a further volume of the works as an appendix)
In regards to healing springs, Essex has been better served, in regards the study of mineral waters and particularly notable surveys are Allen (1699/1710), and more recently Christy and Thresh (1910). Both have touched upon holy wells but this was certainly not in an exhaustive manner. Cowell (2000) updates much of this work but again only touches upon holy wells. This work attempts to catalogue and update these previous works, with the aim of providing the definitive accurate guide to both mineral spas, holy wells and water bodies with associated folklore in the county.
In approximate terms there are probably many thousands of holy wells across the country. Although there appear to be areas or counties with high concentrations, this is probably because the others have as yet been adequately studied. Only three works have attempted to give a countrywide survey of sites (Hope (1893), Bords (1985), Rattue (1995) and Bord (2008)). (and subsequently Harte (2008)) Perhaps an accurate survey of all sites would result in an average distribution across the country; topographical features allowing, which would show that all counties have a similar distribution.
Despite some attention for specific sites and counties, the holy well has been largely ignored by the historical and archaeological establishment, leaving the field open to antiquarians and enthusiasts. Consequently, much mythology has developed around them, and very few have been professionally excavated, particularly in East Anglia. Hence, a general lack in archaeological interest in such sites, claims for ancient origins is difficult to make.
I have adopted Francis Jones’s (1954) category system for wells. The main body of the text covers Class A (saint’s names, those named after God, Trinity, Easter etc), B (associated with chapels and churches), C ( those with healing traditions which in this case includes spas and mineral springs) and some E (miscellaneous with folklore) sites The second part includes a list of named ancient wells with explanatory notes (mostly Class D i.e. those named after secular persons but possibly also holy wells and E). Hopefully once the volumes are completed and using similar documents for other counties this fuller picture will be achieved.
There does not appear to be any holy wells which can claim this pre-Christian heritage via written record, although there are wells called Roman spring (Earl’s Colne), Chesterwell (castle well) (Great Horkesley) and Dengewell (Danishwell) (Great Oakley) and possibly Herwell (Army well) (Little Bardfield) and totwell (from O.E toot for meeting place or look out) (Birchanger), which suggest great age but there is no evidence of these being healing or holy. There is a Puck well (Waltham Holy Cross) recorded suggesting a site associated with O.E pwca for goblin. Records of ghosts, often used by folklorists to indicate either pagan or Christian traditions are scant in the county, with St. Oysth’s well (St Oysths) and Charlotte’s Well (Birchanger) being the only examples.
Certainly, compared to other counties per square mile, Essex is low on numbers of holy wells. Why is this? It seems likely that there may be many more sites but poorly recorded. Others may be recorded in names which do not suggest holy or healing immediately. There are for example many sites called hog well in the county, whose name may derive from halig Old English (O.E) for healing. However, other sites said to be holy wells, such as the number of Chadwells (9) in the county, reveal themselves to be more likely to be derived from Caldwell irrespective of local folklore. Most common are Lady well (9), followed by Holy wells (4), Cedd (2) (brother of Chad),and two named after God, although this could be derived from a personal name. All the other sites have one dedication(in some case one off dedications suggesting local cults (or loss of knowledge)): St. Edmund, St Thomas, St Anne, St Germain, and local saints St. Oysth and St. Botolph.
Taking only holy wells (and I have been generous to include some sites likely to be) Essex has a density of 0.3 wells per square mile. Taking into consideration all noted, healing and holy wells, this density becomes 0.6 of a well per square mile. This suggests that holy wells and healing springs are in low numbers across the county.
The reason for the low numbers of holy wells may be explained by the larger amount of mineral springs noted in the county. Across the country many of the old holy wells were re-discovered as mineral springs and established as spas. As noted Essex is fortunate for its mineral spring history is well recorded. However, in no examples given by either Allen or Trinder is it noted that the site had previously been a holy well. Certainly, it is hinted at with such sites as Brentwood, Havering Well, Woodford and Felstead, (all with some pre-Reformation past) but nothing is explicitly stated. This may indicate the strength of anti-Catholic feeling in the authors or the Essex people. Was the impact of Protestantism and non-conformism that great? This would explain the paucity of holy wells for such a large county, particularly to the eastern side. By comparison there are a large number of mineral springs. Perhaps we can consider these all as past holy wells?……….
To learn more about the healing and holy water history of the county read Holy Wells and healing springs of Essex