I am (slowly) working through researching the Holy and healing wells of the county of Bedfordshire, a county which has never been covered in considerable detail in the topic, although Elliot Steele’s 1922 Bygone water supplies of Bedfordshire is a very good start.
Many years ago in the 1980s when I first got into the subject enlightened and enthused with Sacred Waters I aimed to try and find holy wells locally to where I lived and Bedford was a possible place. I had read brief record of a holy well associated with a medieval bridge in Bromham on the outskirts. However, I could find no more information that this but I did locate the bridge, but the OS map did not reveal a well or spring.
Stopping at one side of the bridge I was amazed to see a small gate, with 18 steps which went down to an arched well head beneath the bridge. This was a rare survival, a Holy Well that arose at the base of a medieval bridge was possibly unique despite a number being recorded in old documents. Sadly, the modernisation of these bridges over time had meant this wells were either filled in or replaced by pumps. However, here it survived.
Why was the well here? The bridge is first mentioned in 1224 when parish records show that 4 shillings was spent on repairs During the 14th and 15th Centuries a toll was collected from anyone crossing. The bridge also included a Chantry Chapel dedicated to St Mary and St Katherine and this was probably associated with the well. It is recorded that it was constructed for the ‘safety of travellers who were in danger from thieves’. The chapel survived until the Reformation in the sixteenth century which spared the well. However the question is was the well there before the chapel or did it capitalise on the popularity of the spring. . The well itself is little recorded but was frequented by those seeking cures although more recently was used as a water supply for the village. The current bridge, now 26 arches, was built in 1813 and unlike other rebuilds respected the spring which was there. The Bromham walk guide notes that the steps and stone arch were built when the road was widened in 1902. It records that:
“As late as the 1950s the well was easily accessed and often photographed but today it’s overgrown and easy to miss! Although at first glance there’s not much to see, its a good example of how a small feature in the landscape can tell a bigger story of the history and geography of our landscapes.”
The site on the drive to Bromham mill is long overdue a tidy up and repairing as can be seen by the photos taken in the 1980s and in 2018.
Two mineral springs are recorded in the parish one near Webb Lane and another in Grange Lane the later having a stone-arched head and formerly had steps from the road; its water had a depth of seven feet. Steele (1922) notes that it is now enclosed on private land and I have been unable to locate whether it has survived.
What has survived is the Grove spring. arises in a small wood bearing its name. It is enclosed in a stone arch and fills a channel. Until 2005 the well was ruined and was restored. It is to be said have had curative properties and was cleared in 1872/8 by Lord Hampden for healing fresh wounds.
It is said that the water was once much sought after for its purity and was fetched with ‘bucket and yoke’ by the villagers. Tradition has it that the water of Grove Spring in Bromham Park has healing powers for sore eyes and sprains. It was derelict for a number of years and was restored appearing similar to that shown in Steele Elliott’s photo as can be seen in the 2018. Each year in September in a festival associated with the church candles are lit around the well which is one of the days access through the wood to it is allowed.
In celebration of the stirling work done by the London Springs, wells and water ways Facebook group and the Fellowship of the Springs I’d thought I would explore Hampstead. Extracted and revised from Holy Wells and Healing springs of Middlesex
In the Georgian period Hampstead was one of the playgrounds of a growing London Its clean air and open spaces was a major draw for the London society and a major addition was its waters, although compared to others their life was short.
Hampstead Wells a chalybeate water compared to Tunbridge Wells. Its water was bottled and sent to an Apothecary at the Eagle and Child in Fleet Street, although as Stanley Foord (1910) in his work Springs, Streams, and Spas of London notes the expense and difficulty of transport meant that this attempt of exploiting the spring was not very successful. The water was extracted from the head spring or pond, called Bath Pond. This was a rectangular piece of water 40 feet wide and 20 feet deep, but filled in the 1880s.
Despite the lack of success, in 1701 John Duffield erected buildings to exploit the mineral spring, which were later on the east side of Wells Walk. Finally an Assembly Room and the Pump room were established on Well Walk. Springs, Streams, and Spas of London notes that:
“The Assembly or Ball Room, built by Duffield, was of large dimensions, measuring 36 feet by 90 feet, of which a length of 30 feet seems to have been divided by a partition from the other, and known as the Pump Room; the two rooms being thus under one roof, and situated near where the entrance to Gainsborough Gardens now is.”
Furthermore, the Green Man tavern (renamed Wells tavern in 1849-50), a Chapel called Sion Chapel and gardens and bowling green were established. On the site of the Pump Room is a new red-brick house called Wellside, built in 1892, according was established. A number of medical experts gave evidence towards the springs’ efficacy. A Dr. Gibbons states that it was ‘not inferior to any of our chalybeate springs, and coming very near to Pyrmont in quality’ and he himself took the waters until his death in 1725. Dr. Soame a noted 18th century physician published a book ‘Hampstead Wells, or Directions for drinking the Waters’, calling the spring “the Inexhaustible Fountain of Health’ yet the wells were in decline. Finally, in 1802, an analysis of the water was made by Royal college of Surgeons member, John Bliss who wrote in Medical Review and Magazine (Vol. VI.) that the water:
“have been found very beneficial in chronic diseases, &c., and where there is general debility of the system.”
In 1804 Thomas Goodwin, a local surgeon discovered another medicinal spring, called New Spa at the south-east extremity of the Heath, near Pond Street describing his findings in ‘An Account of the Neutral Saline Waters recently discovered at Hampstead’. Stating the water had sulphate of magnesia, that the waters were like that of Cheltenham’s saline spa. Its exact location according to Foord (1910) is unclear but he believes it is where Hampstead Heath Train Station now stands, although Mr. Goodwin marks it farther north.
The Long Room, 90 feet by 36 feet wide, with 30 feet used as a pump-room, was converted in 1725 into a chapel being called Well Walk Chapel and being used until 1861-62, when the Rifle Volunteers (3rd Middlesex), hired the chapel for a drill hall, and during the refit basins and pipes were found in the north end being where visitors to the Spa, were supplied with water. Analyses of the Hampstead chalybeate water have been made over the years, Soame in 1734 describes it as having a taste of vitriol of iron and Monro (1770) a Treatise on Mineral Spring states it is a transient Chalybeate lighter than New River water that had been boiled, but heavier than distilled water. By 1870, water from Well Walks spring and that from the fountain on Well mark, on the west side near no 17, noted it was a chalybeate spring mixed with surface water, possibly because the original source was diverted. In around 1885 the public basin on the east side of Well Walk was removed and a new stone drinking fountain was placed by the Wells Charity on the opposite side. In Foord’s time the water could still be drunk, although a sign was on the structure warning against this. Although C.A. White (1910) Sweet Hampstead and its associations noted that in the 1850s:
“it was quite common for working men from Camden and Kentish Towns, and places much farther off, to make a Sunday morning’s pilgrimage to Hampstead to drink the water, and carry home bottles of it as a specific for hepatic complaints and as a tonic and eye-wash.”
Sadly the well is now dry and despite an attempt to connect to the mains no water is accessible at the well.
The only surviving chalybeate spring in Hampstead is Goddison’s Fountain found can be found by following the path downhill from the east side of Kenwood House outside of the house grounds. The fountain is found on the left just as a pond appears on the right. The present structure was built in 1929 as a monument to Henry Goddison who was one of the main campaigners involved in saving the Heath and Kenwood estate for the public. There is no evidence that the spring was exploited before this but it was likely. It certainly is now and it is common to see walkers slake their first there and others collect water in demijohns.
At Kenwood House there is a brick and domed Bath House, it is easily found at the steps leading to the café. This was erected in the early 18th Century, it is believed by the Mansfield family, when they bought the house in 1754. Records show that they ordered marble fittings, purple tiles and oyster shells to decorate the niches. They probably bathed weekly or monthly. A sign on the inside of the door reads:
“The Cold Bath – The Cold Bath is fed by a natural spring of chalybeate water. It was built in the early 18th century when cold plunge bathing became fashionable and was considered a healthy pursuit. The Bath was neglected for many years, and had filed up with silt by the 1980s, when excavation work started. The marble linings had been stripped out and the sides were caving in. Enough evidence was found in excavation to reconstruct the marble lined bath. The dome was restored, and the walls re-plastered. The painted finish is speculative, based on the decorative schemes popular around 1800.”
It is designed as a plunge pool, being ovoid in shape with steps descending into the water at either side of the doorway. It resembles the structure, albeit smaller, of Birley Spa, near Sheffield (see Holy Wells and Healing springs of Derbyshire). The interior walls follow the ovoid shape and have three narrow niches set into the plaster work presumable arranged for statues. The bath water is supplied by a very copious chalybeate spring and is currently very full, but where this drains to is unclear. The site was derelict restored in the 1990s with the bath being full of debris.
Finally it is worth noting that there is a modern house called ‘Lady Well’ it may record a lost holy well but there is no evidence by a modern house name.
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!
A search for fresh water
When landowner Mr S. H. Godson was looking for a better supply of water in , he exposed a brine mineral water which although not good for drinking could have potential. Then Dr. A. B. Granville took an interest. In 1837 he had written a book on The Spas in Germany which aroused much interest and in 1839/1840 he undertook a tour of England and in the Midlands section he toured Buxton, Matlock, Woodhall, Spa, Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Tenbury, Malvern, Leamington, Cheltenham etc. He wrote of the waters describing the effect on them on his digestive system:
“Immediately upon swallowing half a tumbler of Tenbury water, a disturbance, or rather a commotion, is set up in the abdomen, which, upon a repetition of the same quantity of the fluid, after a proper interval, will be found in most cases to end in a way desirable in the circumstances.”
Visiting the site 1839 Grenville advised on modifications to the well structure in which would prevent contamination from other springs and prevent dilution of the mineral properties. His analysis suggested it contained Iodine and as such would have healing properties. To be successful, Grenville suggested that to be successful the town needed:
“baths pump rooms and a promenades, lodging houses, walks roads and other accommodation in order to constitute a Spa of the first class.”
There was a problem with such an enterprise, Godson’s land at The Court could not be expanded as there was local opposition. Grenville however was so keen it seeing the site developed that his son, an architect, was sent but this was to no available Mr. Price of the adjacent Crown Inn decided that one well was not enough to supply the amount of bottled water needed. He commenced sinking a well on his premises and on August 24th 1840 at a depth of 42ft he reached the mineral water layer. This opposition was soon bought out by Septimus Godson. They and the small red brick bath house was constructed in 1840, and by March 1841 they published the rules and regulations for using the well, the Court ground were used for promenading after drinking or bathing often listening to a band. Then by 1850 a London surgeon was in residence running the Spa and two wells were now available. However, financial difficulties made the site close albeit temporarily in 1855, but the coming of the railway revitalised it. Local businessmen developed the ‘Tenbury Wells Improvement Company’ in December of 1860 and built the present pump room on the meadow by the Swan Hotel. In A Mr. James Cranston of Birmingham in 1862 was behind the design of new Spa, consisting of 2 halls with a Pump Room including a recess with a fountain. The Spa. An octagonal tower was built containing the well and pumps. the whole were surrounded by pleasure grounds. The building costing approximately £1000.
Taking a 99 year lease on the site, the Tenbury Wells Improvement Company asked Mr Thomas Morris, well sinker, to remove the whole of the bricks, curls and ironwork from the old mineral well by the Swan Inn and used at the new site. However, the Crow’s well was cleaned and established as a reservoir. The Well was 58ft from the surface and produced mineral water at the rate of 20 gallons hour. The smell was said to be something like when a gun was discharged.
The Tenbury History website state:
“He got the idea for the design of the Spa from some greenhouses he was designing at Holmer, near Hereford. In 1862 he published a book about a newly patented design for Horticulural Buildings and he used this principle for The Tenbury Spa replacing glass panels with those of sheet steel, It was erected on a pre-fabricated principle being one of the first in the country. The wrought iron plates and cast iron clips with foliated ends were made in Birmingham and erected on site. The building was described as being ‘Chinese Gothic’. The roof was painted in French Grey with rolls between being deeper and bluer in shade. The Spa was supposed to attract the ‘Middle to Working Class’.”
On May 1st 1883 the baths opened for the summer season, they consisted of six hot baths cost 9/- ( 45p) and six cold baths 5/- (25p). It was suggested by the 1916 Medical Times that after the first world war, convalescent soldiers should go to Tenbury Wells and by 1913 the name of Tenbury Wells had stuck becoming official later. Ironically the Pump rooms were about to decline. During the war it was used for bathing evacuees but this was the last time it was used for any bathing albeit not medicinal. Despite plans as late as 1931 the wells were filled in in 1939.
Slowly the building fell into decline, becoming a brewery, a tea room and Women’s institute but by 1978 it was in serious decline and decay. Kathleen Denbign in her A hundred British Spas wrote in 1981
“In such a bad state of decay that it was bolted and barred and threatened with demolition – though not without protest from local residents.”
It was purchased by the Leominster District Council in 1986 but that did not halt the decline. Repairs were finally done in 1998/9 with funds from English Heritage, Advantage West Midlands, the European Regional Development Fund, Malvern Hills and Leominster District Councils and Teme Rural Challenge. The Tenbury wells history website note the problems with the repair:
“The major problem that the architects responsible for the repair had to deal with was a major sag of one of the portal frames over the conservatory glass. It appears to have been due to bad design. Each roof structure now has a steel member going down to a concrete block cast at foundation level.
There was also a big problem with regalvanising the wrought iron sheets. After being regalvanised they buckled and would not fit the structure. This was solved by sending the sheets to specialist car body firm in the Medway who were used to dealing with very thin steel. Another big problem was to ensure that the roof was watertight. The roof was an extremely complicated shape, there were valleys and areas of flat roof and all sorts of unusual angles between one part of the building and another. It never was watertight originally, but hopefully, all the problems have now been solved.
All the wrought iron sheets now have spaces between them to try and stop any rust problems recurring and it has been fully insulated. A lot of the brick work was only 1/2 brick thick and so would always have been rather wobbly. This has all been straightened, but still keeping the exterior as it was built in 1862.
With insulation, damp barriers and other weatherproofing measures means that it is now up to modern building standards and hopefully now as an office and tiny museum one can now peer into the well, see its ornate foundation, baths and read all about it. It was probably originally designed for a life of only 25 years, but has lasted 137 years.
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.
Compared to Essex and Norfolk the study of mineral springs and their associated phenomena have been less covered in the Suffolk. Unlike Essex, there does appear to be a paucity. A consequence of poor research or geology?
Like adjoining counties, Suffolk does have some springs which are simply described as mineral springs, such as Elmsett’s Dropping Well which issued out of limestone rock, and producing fibrous crystallizations was said to possess ‘healing virtue for certain complaints’. Halesworth was unnamed but said to be good for eyes and that at Cranmore Green, was so hard it has been blamed for causing arthritis. None of these springs had a history of organised exploitation. As far as I have discovered only one spring was recorded as being chalybeate, that once at Claire priory. The tendency to have iron bearing water is however very common in Essex by comparision.
It does not appear until 1700, that a serious attempt was undertaken to develop a spa. This was at Bungay which was described by spa promoter John Kelly as:
:” …amply supplied with excellent water from numerous springs, some of which we said to possess medicinal properties. ”
The first site to be developed was a chalybeate spring in the grounds of Bigod’s castle. However, Bungay’s first attempt to develop proper facilities, John Kelly’s bathhouse lay over the border in Norfolk in the village of Earsham. Writing a promotion pamphlet ‘An Essay on Hot and Cold Bathing’ he said of the town and spa facilities,:
“Those lovely hills, which incircle the flowery plain, are variegated with all that can ravish the astonished sight. They arise from the winding mazes of the river Waveney, enriched with the utmost variety the watry element is capable of producing. Upon the neck of this peninsula, the castle and town of Bungay, (now startled at its approaching grandeur,) is situated on a pleasing ascent to view the pride of nature on the other side, which the goddesses have chose for their earthly paradise; where the sun, at its first appearance, makes a kindly visit to a steep and fertile vineyard, richly stored with the choicest plants from Burgundy, Champaigne, Provence, and whatever the East can furnish us with. Near the bottom of this is placed the grotto, or bath itself, beautified on one side with oziers, groves, and meadows; on the other with gardens, fruits, shady walks, and all the decorations of a rural innocence. The building is designedly plain and neat; because the least attempt of artful magnificence would, by alluring the eyes of strangers, deprive them of those profuse pleasures which nature has already provided. As to the bathing, there is a mixture of all that England, Paris, or Rome could ever boast of:—no one is refused a kind reception: honour and generosity reigns throughout the whole; the trophies of the poor invite the rich, and their more dazzling assemblies compel the former.”
Sadly the scheme was not fruitful despite the platitudes and no evidence can be found of the town’s spa heritage today.
Seaside towns which appealed to the healthy idea of sea bathing as well attempted to develop spa springs to varying successes. At Lowerstoft one was to be found at the Sparrow Nest, however it was to Ipswich that the greatest attempt appears to have been made. An advert in 1720s records:
“IPSWICH SPAW WATERS
Experimentally found to be good in the gravel of the kidneys, obstructions in the liver, spleen &c. Hectic fevers, the scurvy, violent vomiting, lost appetite, the jaundice, King’s-Evil, salt and hot humours in blood, pains in stomach, frequent spitting of blood, or bleeding at the nose, diarrhoea or blood fluxes. Sold at two pence per flask or quart, or each time of drinking what you will in the morning. By me, JONATHAN ELMER, living on St Margaret’s Green, Ipswich.”
“Ipswich Journal ”The Ipswich Spaw Waters is now opened by Mrs Martha Coward, and Attendance will be given every Morning at the Bath on St Margaret’s Green, from 6 to 9 at One Penny per Morning, and Two Pence for each Falk carried off.”
Around about the 1810s, reports are made of the discovery of a brick arched spring in St. George’s Lane whose water had such a foul taste it was thought to be medicinal. To ensure it was tested by three local doctors who analysis suggested it was equal to Bath. A M.D of Bury St Edmunds favourably also compares them to the German Spas as well as common comparison Tunbridge Wells. Furthermore, in Clarke’s 1830 History of Ipswich records another near the Shears Pub which was never known to freeze and analysis in London suggested its content of Iron sulphate, Iron carbonate and Sulphurated hydrogen could be utilised.
Sadly despite a promising start and some suitable extraneous facilities, the town’s urban growth and remoteness compared to other sites meant its spa aspirations disappeared and nothing remains. This means that Felixstowe has the only surviving mineral spring in the county. The Dripping Well, located in the Spa Gardens were described by the Felixstow Town guide that that its waters were good for ‘depression, nervous prostration and over-work’ and they resembled those the waters of Baden-Baden. A Spa Pavillion was built and still exists and used a theatre facility. One can still parade around the Pulmanite gardens around where the Dripping Well exist, as does the pump tap in the Pavillion, although taking the water is not encouraged.
When as lads in our clogs and our smocks we did go,
When the bright month of May did appear;
With bottles and Spanish, over Heathershelf Scout…
Then we’ve raced down the wood to the mineral spring,
Filled our bottles, and then felt as proud as a king.”
As quoted in Three Lovely Vales, in Biographies, Sketches & Rhymes by the Calder Valley Poets, ed. Sam Mellor Halifax, 1916 May Day or more precisely May Eve was often when the waters of local holy wells and springs were seen as particularly powerful in their properties. A custom linked to this was Spaw Sunday, the first Sunday in May, which was clearly a clever way to both legitimise a ‘pagan’ tradition by placing it on a Sunday and allow people not to miss work! The tradition appears to be a wholly northern custom restricted and mainly Yorkshire and Lancashire. I have found no record of it being undertaken in any counties abutting although similar customs such as sugar cupping occur in Derbyshire and far away in Oxfordshire. In Yorkshire, it now as far as I am aware only undertaken in three locations, two of which is in the Calder Vale and the other at Gunthwaite near Penistone. All the wells often appear to have one thing in common, sulphur waters, as noted in an account in a newspaper describing Gunthwaite Spa:
“Most of the pilgrims brought bottles or cups with them. They ‘supped’ the water, made faces, and filled with their bottles for friends. One old lady, after handing a cope to her daughters, asked what they thought of it. One expressively described the water as muck; and another said it tasted of rotten eggs.”
The smell of sulphur is most notable at perhaps the most famous of the three is that of Cragg Vale, which had a history at least 300 years old. The earliest reference dates from 1789 in Watson’s History of Halifax Parish, and even then the custom was to adorn the wells with boughs and flowers. According to an excellent article in the Northern Earth Journal by John Billingsley the custom is recorded from the late 19th and early 20th century in the Hebden Bridge Times. In particular he notes an account which recorded that 500 visited on May 6, 1906 and went to hear the Hebden Bridge Band playing at the White House Inn a few miles away. In the Telegraph and Argus of 7th May 1909 there was the following report on Spa Sunday:
“’Spa’ Sunday, specially favoured in point of weather, was as popular as ever on the hills surrounding the town. The Hebden Bridge Brass Band were out early, and discoursed music on the Erringden hillside. Blackstone Edge and Cragg Vale were as usual visited by hundreds of people.”
Sam Hellowell’s History of Cragg Vale (1959) records in 1913:
“It being a nice day the crowd during the afternoon was a very large one, being many hundreds in excess of last year’s and the scene was of an animated character. Testing the pungent water was much more generally observed than formerly. The scene, however, contrasted very favourably compared with the very rough and rowdy conduct of generations gone by. The local branch of the Independent Labour Party was represented with speakers. The Hebden Bridge Brass Band was also present, as was the Steep Lane Mission Band.”
The Cragg Vale Spaw Sunday died out in the 1940s probably during the War. A revival in 1987 was short lived. In the book, Martyrs, maypoles and Mayhem Quentin Cooper and Paul Sullivan (1994) report:
“the celebrations were revived briefly in 1987, and the well in Cragg Vale near Hebden Bridge was decorated with flowers and branches. Several Morris teams turned up, everyone took a gulp of the liquorice infused water, and a great time was had by all. In 1988 however, the first Sunday in May suffered appalling weather: the booked Morris teams cried off, and the tradition was dead before the morning was out. It remained dormant ever since.”
Consequently, the Spa spring itself became effectively lost falling like many sites in ruin and becoming forgotten out of site and mind. This was until 2009 when the site was cleared, cleaned and new steps provided with a landscaped surrounding. Then on the first May in Sunday, 1st May 2010, it was again revived. Fortunately, nothing appears to have affected the custom since its revival in 2011. The present revival consists of a procession to the spring from presently the Hinchcliffe Arms Inn with the Rippondale sword dancers and resident clergy. The spa is then blessed and water sprinkled and drunk with liquorice and cakes served.
At the same time a revival of Spaw Sunday has occurred in Midgley, the other side of Mytholmroyd. The origins of this custom is unclear, one of the organisers suggested an observance of it occurred in the 1970s and possibly 80s, but they were unaware whether this was a survival or revival. This custom consists of the dressing of the well and springheads of the small hamlet with banners and a wide range of flowers, objects and artwork. In the morning there was a perambulation around there were poems and recitations are consisted. At the end the assembled mass visit the community centre to partake in local delicacy dock pudding is served.
Also in the Calder Valley was Luddenham Dean Spa. This became a very popular event attracting brass bands, the temperance society, preachers and the speeches from the Independent Labour Party, it appeared to have declined at the second world war. Another well, was at Horley Green, Halifax, which according to Heginbottom (1988) in an article called Early Christian Sites in Calderdale, in Halifax Antiquarian Society Transactions notes that thousands people would visit it in the mid-19th century. The other side of the valley at Haworth, local people from that town, Oxenhope, Stanbury and other locales attended near Leeshaw Reservoir where a Spa Beak. According to a work by Martha Heaton’s (2006) quoted by Paul Bennett on Northern Antiquarian, the day consisted of:
“..sitting round the well, they sang songs, some bringing their musical instruments to accompany the singing. Children brought bottles with hard spanish in the bottom filling the bottle with water from the well, shaking it until all the spanish or liquorice had been dissolved. This mixture was known as ‘Poppa Lol’ and would be kept for weeks after a little sugar had been added, then it was used sparingly as medicine. The custom seems to have died out when Bradford Corporation took over the water and made Leeshaw Compensation Reservoir in 1875….It was a great day for many people, the Keighley News of May 1867 mentioned it, the report of local news reads thus: ‘A large assembly met on Spa Sunday on the moors about two miles from Haworth, and a party of musicians from Denholme performed sacred music.”
As far as I can ascertain, the furthest north Spaw Sunday site, but called Spo Sunday, was that of that of Spo well near Rochdale, Lancashire according to Taylor (2005) was also drunk with liquorice and shaken. Although, according Rowling (1976) in her Folklore of Lake District, the custom was undertaken during the first Sunday of May but appears never to have been called Spaw Sunday, being called ‘Shaking Bottle Sunday’ this may be due to the distribution of the term spa as term. Rowling records that liquorice was drunk with the water at Tolly or Keld Well, Greystoke up and until 1903. It was undertaken until the First World War, with water at Eden Lady Caves, near Great Salkeld. Indeed, a song was sung ‘The first is may is shaking day’ was sung with games undertaken on the day. Other ‘Shaking Sundays were on other days in May or Palm Sunday. It appears that the name Spaw or Spa Sunday was largely restricted to Yorkshire’s west Riding. The oldest surviving event is that of Gunthwaite in Yorkshire in the Pennines. Here the main part of the event is the attendance of the Thurstone Brass Band, who has played since the 1970s at the event. A newspaper report from 1904 recorded by Rob Wilson (1990) in his Holy Wells and Spas of South Yorkshire notes:
“It has a spring of water in which people of the district have wonderful faith. They look upon it as a sort of cure-all. But if you are to be cured you must drink of the waters on one special day in the year-the first Sunday in May. On other days the spring is just water. But on the first Sunday in May it becomes miraculously charged with all kinds of powers and properties, and people flock to it from far and near. The spa consisted of a little recess in a wall came a common rusty iron pipe, out of which the mysterious fluid was gently trickling. Below the pipe the little pool, in which pilgrims had to stand and stoop to get the precious First-of-May flavour, was muddy and objectionable looking. There was nothing tempting about the appearance of the place. But the worse the look, possibly the better the result. The cup, provided by a thoughtful Rural District Council, was chained to the wall, but was all battered and worn, dirty and shorn of everything that makes a drinking vessel attractive. All the pilgrims except myself, seemed to know the cup, and came prepared with drinking vessels of their own..the wall and pipe had not been there long. Formerly the water was obtained from the spring as it came out of the ground by the little stream among the rushes and rough undergrowth bordering the road. But the first of May water got mixed with the other water in the stream and lost its value. So it had been piped to the wall. An old gentleman did not approve of such radical changes; and did not think the water so good now that it came through a pipe as it was formerly.”
The account suggests that the attendees could get rowdy, returning to his old gentlemen the author writes:
“Then his mind carried him back long years to the time when there used to be great rejoicing on the first Sunday of May. ‘There used to be a band out here, and brave going-on, sure enough’ said the old gentleman, with a faraway look, as though he could see before him the crowd and dancing and the revels that disturbed the quietude of Gunthwaite Spa on the first Sunday in May years ago. The band was done away with a good many years ago, he said regrettably, because the people began to get too rowdy…
The spectre of alcohol, the opposite of the temperance movement’s stance at Cragg, was raised:
“Some of the young men however gulped the water down in big quantities. But they highly diluted it. They had come out armed with flasks of spirit, and horns, in which they mixed whisky and water. The two together seemed to make a highly attractive beverage; but such proceeding spoilt the charm of the mystery of the place. They degraded the water to a very commonplace level. Having partaken of the water, people sat about the banks to watch the other tasters, and to enjoy the faces they made. I was assured that some people were at the water early in the morning; long before breakfast.”
Rob Wilson (1990), notes that the band had returned and ‘little had changed in the 90 years or so since the account was written’. Today, the band plays from 2 onwards at the reservoir whilst refreshments of another kind, cakes, are available nearby. Hopefully these surviving traditions will continue and blossom and others will be resurrected.
An account of Spaw Sunday 2013 posted on traditionalcustomsandceremonies.wordpress.com at the end of the month.
Many thanks to John Billingsley of Northern Earth for his help and the warm welcome of the people of Cragg Vale and Midgley and http://megalithix.wordpress.com/2009/02/24/haworth-moor-spas
Oxfordshire is not a county synonymous with holy or healing wells, but a number still survive in the county. A good gazetteer was produced by fellow enthusiast James Rattue in Oxenensia.
St. Margaret’s Well, Binsey
This is perhaps the most famous of the county’s holy wells. Its waters despite the dedication being association with the local saint and patron of Oxford, St. Frideswide, the reason being that the saint prayed to St. Margaret for her sight to be restored and the spring arose, the event occurring in either the late 6th or early 7th century. Her shrine became an important site, but her well was regularly frequented in the medieval period. It is said pilgrims would first visit the saint’s shrine in Oxford and then went on to visit the well which was enclosed in a stone well house. The water was thought to be so valuable for curing infertility as well as eye complaints that it was sold at a guinea a quart. One of the well’s most famed pilgrims being Henry VIIIth who came with Katherine of Aragon in hope of fertility luck! Hope (1893) in his The Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England notes:
“Over St. Margaret’s Well was a covering of stone, and thereon on the front the picture of St. Margaret (or perhaps St. Frideswyde), pulled down by Alderman Sayre, of Oxon, a little before the late war, 1639.”
For many years the well lay overgrown and forgotten. Hope (1893) notes:
“The well is now in better condition. When I visited it on 25th October, 1887, the churchyard was tidily fenced and very neatly kept. At the well a descent of some five steps brought one to an arched vault, beneath which, in the centre of the flooring, was a round basin containing the water of the well, the surface of the water being about six feet below the level of the ground. On the wall above the arch was this inscription:
‘S. MARGARET’S WELL. S. Margaretae fontem, precibus S. Frideswidæ (ut fertur) concessum, nquinatum diu obrutumque in usum revocavit T. J. Prout, Aed. Xti alumnus, Vicarius, A. S. MDCCCLXXIV.’
This structure seen by Hope was erected by 1874 when the Reverend Prout and happily it remains much as described. The antiquarian also notes that:
“At the time of the restoration of this well, an Oxford wit, having regard to its proximity to the church, suggested for an inscription: Ariston men hydor, When you open your pew-door, This may comfort supply, Should the sermon be dry”
More famously is the involvement of Reverend Dodsgson, or Lewis Carroll, who suggested that the inscription should read ‘leave well alone’, and that he based the treacle well in Alice in Wonderland on this site. Fortunately, progress has left this ancient spring well alone and it continues despite the busy A34 nearby flows peacefully on.
Holy Well, Tadmarton
Not so this ancient spring. For here on the golf course, in a small copse, is all that remains of a possibly quite significant site. Any actual structure is difficult to trace as a number of pipes draw its chalybeate water off for domestic use. Roman coins were found in the location suggesting that the spring was well known in those days.
Fair Rosamund’s Well, Woodstock
Here is another famed well, named after the lover of King Henry II, Rosamund Clifford. Despite the local legend which recalls she was poisoned by Eleanor, Henry’s queen, in reality she retired to Godstow Nunnery dying around 1176. Interestingly, her tomb became a shrine and as such the spring may have become a holy well, indeed water, called Rosamund’s water, was sold suggesting it may have had a sanctity. It is significant perhaps that there is another Rosamund’s well, in Shropshire. The age of the present structure is difficult to date but it is unlikely to date from either the 12th century or from the last incarnation of the old royal palace before the building itself was torn down by Vanburgh in the landscaping of the modern Blenheim. A sketch in the Bodleian Library by John Aubrey refers to Three Baths in Trayne, the first of which is perhaps the Rosamund’s well It appears likely that the large virtually swimming pool sized well was constructed when the park was landscaped in the 1700s. Although the name Rosamund being only traceable to the 16th century, the well itself is certainly very old and the name Everswell, possibly from its reputation that it never dries, is recorded in the locale.
One of the most unusually sited on Nottinghamshire’s holy wells record in Holy Wells and healing springs of Nottinghamshire is St. John’s Well at Welham. I have touched upon this site in my first post on unusual holy well locations and thought it was worth examining in detail.
The well itself is undoubtedly an ancient one. The Domesday Book refers to Wellun, this changed to Wellum by 1166 and by the 16th century had become Wellom but in Chapman and Andres map of Notts in1775 was shown as Welham. None of these sources call it St John’s Well and it is not so named until 1710, either as a re-dedication, once the Reformation zealouts had died down, or perhaps coined by John Hutchinson to give the bath so back story to explain its healing waters. It is shown on Chapman’s map of Nottinghamshire (1774) as ‘Well House’. Piercy (1828) gives the greatest information and states that the hamlet of Welham was named after St. John’s Well whose waters contained magnesium and gypsum and was:
“good for rheumatics and scorbutic diseases. Its waters formed into a large bath, and remained entire during the early part of the 18th century, it was famous for many cures, but latterly it has lost much of its celebrity.John Hutchinson, Esq. erected a cottage adjoining, and enclosed the bath, to preserve it from injury. Here was, until lately, a feast, or fair, held annually on St. John‟s day, to which the neighbouring villagers resorted to enjoy such rural sports or games as fancy might dictate. Cold baths like this were formerly regarded with superstitious reverence, being supposed to possess a sovereign remedy for agues such as rheumatism.”
What is interesting about this account is the reference of games and a fair suggesting that if the well itself did not have such a dedication, the saint was celebrated in the locale. This may indicate that indeed the well was so dedicated or that Hutchinson chose this name because of the local fair. Without further information we shall never know.
By 1832 White’s Directory notes that it had lost much of its former celebrity. A Robert Walker was a bath keeper at the Well house and may well have been the last one as it appears the well soon fell into terminal decline and I can find nothing is noted of it until 1938. At this time it is noted that its water was still used to provide several cottages in the village. An article written in 1957 states the bathhouse disappeared stating the coming of the railway encouraged people to move away to find more effective spas around the 1830s. It goes on to note that the actual spring location was lost. This I thought was to be the situation, but local investigations not only showed the house to be still existence but the bath still remained! Records show that the estate, was bought by an Arthur Robert Garland of Welham Hall from the deceased estate of John Henry Hutchinson of Clarborough Hall acres117.3.16 along with Well House Cottage and garden for the sum of £3200 on in 1910. He then sold the cottage and garden to Fred Anderson on 1910 for £130. This was subsequently bought by the late Mr Eric Durham on 1955, later to be purchased by the current owner, Mr Whelan, in 1975.The site is still called Well House. Which although it had been added onto in the last century, its core fabric remains as John Hutchinson built it. The large house being the well keeper’s abode with the side building, now a modern kitchen was the bath house.
Arriving at the house, I was at first shown the site by Mr. Whelan the spring which filled the bath which was diverted to the side of the house, the spring itself arising close to the footpath behind the house. A man-hole cover in the drive way revealed that the spring flows at a fast rate, several gallons per minute. He notes that it had a very high mineral content, soaking through the gypsum in Clarborough hills. He stressed it is drinkable, in small quantities, due to its high magnesium and sulphate (like Andrews Liver Salts). It is quite chalky to taste flat but is very pleasant to drink if aerated. However he did not recommend long term drinking was probably not good for one’s health.
In he kitchen, a small trap door can be removed and beneath the remains of the bath is revealed. This appears to as Mee (1938) describes; a stone basin twelve feet square with a flight of steps entering the water. I scrambled down into this bath and found it presently to have two stone steps which enter the bath, although bricks built upon these suggest that there may have been more.
Remarkably the bath still remains enclosing an area fifteen feet by twelve feet, and despite the water being diverted, was full to over a two foot of water. The present kitchen is supported by four brick pillars but this does not appear to have damaged the fabric of the bath which is in fine condition, being made of good quality neat squared stonework. A pipe is found four feet high or so in the wall and a line around it made by the presence of water indicates that the water was of a considerable depth supporting the fact that it was large enough to be a hazard, explaining how Thomas Heald, Vicar of Babworth drowned in it on the 18th June 1759. Mr. Whelan informs me that although the house is not a listed building previous owners had sensibly preserved the bath. Around 30 years ago he was often showing local school children, but it appears now to forgotten. So there it remains a curious relic preserved in its most unusual place.
It must be noted that due to its location, under a private kitchen, that the site is not readily viewable so please don’t turn up unannounced. More details in the book see http://www.amazon.co.uk/Holy-Wells-Healing-Springs-Nottinghamshire/dp/0956044220 or contact this blogger
Today, 12th February is the birthday in 1809 of Charles Darwin, an unusual point to make reference to perhaps on a site noting mainly holy wells, but he does have a link to the topic. For in 1859 he visited the White Wells in Ilkley. Set high above the picturesque small town, the small white cafe and plunge bath was first built in 1690, but considering the proximity of ancient remains around may have an earlier origin. The spring, the main source of the Town Brook, was further enlarged and improved in 1780 by a William Middleton consisting a plunge bath now surrounded by railings with steps going down. The bath was a rather brave move for any pilgrim, the long and rough walk across moorland, I visited in the summer and it was freezing, the plunge within the ice cold waters. Some visitors would have drunk from a fountain to the rear or taken a shower or douche in another bath room, now converted to the cafe.
The water Darwin took had no mineral within it and it seems ironic perhaps that its curative properties were derived from either its immense cold or faith, something Darwin perhaps was beginning to lose for his traditional Christian upbringing.
Darwin visited the White Wells in the autumn of 1859, an important date for him for it was the year he published his most famous work, Origin of Species and indeed it is suggested that he travelled to this then rather remote town to escape the unwanted publicity which was published later that year in November. However, he is also said to have been very ill during all of 1859, whilst he was finishing up the final draft of ‘Origin of Species’ and had originally planned to visit in July but delays in finishing the book meant it was not until 2 October, once John Murray Publishers were sent that he went. First he stayed at Ilkley Wells House, a homeopathic establishment run by Dr. Edmund’s until the 17 October they took lodgings in North House, Wells Terrace House, indeed he was still staying here when the book was published. From here, he wrote to his friend William:
“On Monday they all come from Barlaston to the above address & I leave the Establishment. The House is at the foot of a rocky, turfy rather steep half-mountain. It would be nice with fine weather; but now looks dismal. There are nice excursions & fine walks for those that can walk. The Water Cure has done me much good; but I fell down on Sunday morning & sprained my ankle, and have not been able to walk since & this has greatly interfered with the treatment…”
Clearly little has changed today as the walk is equally a rocky one especially on the way down! The they he referred to were his family and at the time he was. The so-called ‘Water Cure’ was thought to draw blood away from the internal organs and provide relief but as well as his sprained ankle, he also got boils on his legs and found the experience rather depressing it appears. Interestingly, two days before the publication of that book Emma, his wife and children left and he himself moved back to Wells House leaving finally in the 7th December to Kent.