Behind some swings hidden in a wood just outside of Kings Lynn can be found the remains of the Reffley Spring (TF 655 222) now sadly a fairly insignificant site, but one with perhaps a unique history in catalogue of healing wells. This was because it was associated with an unusual secret society called the Sons of Reffley. These were secret Royalist sympathisers, especially the local family the Folkes, established in 1650, a dangerous activity as they were established in Cromwell’s commonwealth. The reasons for its establishment was a direct challenge to the Cromwellian edict forbidding gatherings of 30 people or more – hence like a modern day rebellion against the Criminal Justice Bill’s banning of raves – they kept their membership at 30.
Privotal to this community was this spring, it took its name from it. The spring was a chalybeate one, one which of course could have been exploited for medicinal purposes. Whether it had any significant before hand is unclear, but it appears to have developed a quasi-religious significance in the group. Water from this spring was used to make a punch of which each member of the “Reffley Brethren” had to partake at the yearly meetings
Despite the collapse of the Commonwealth – the Reffley Brethren- as they became known continued. Although perhaps their role moved from political to social, perhaps representing a fraternal group, akin to a gentlemen’s club or Frat society of the US. Such that On 24 June 1756, to celebrate the building of a substantial basin for their spring and erection of an obelisk in its centre, the theme “Bacchus and Venus, the gods of this place”
The event was presented as part of Thomas Arne’s Reffley Spring cantata, a musical piece, akin to an opera but more like a pageant, where the tenor soloist acted as a High Priest, who standing in the centre wearing a crown of Ivy, Myrtle and Roses mimed the parts of Venus and Bacchus. This was recorded as follows with the Priest stating:
- Here all advance to, and encircle the Spring.
- From a charger, brim full of excellent Punch (a Liquor for which this Chalybeate Water is Celebrated) a Goblet is filled, and handed to the High Priest.
- Here a quantity of Loaf Sugar is thrown into the bason [sic], which the Water flows into.
- Whilst the Symphony is playing, the High Priest gives the most Beautiful Toast in the Universe, Venus, which goes round, and the Air is sung.
- From the charger a copious Bowl is filled, and delivered to the High Priest, as before.
- Here a Bottle of Brandy is poured into the bason.
- Again, while the Symphony is playing, the High Priest gives the Toast most pleasing to those “Who, impotent of thought, puff away Care”. Bacchus goes round.
- A Lemon is squeezed into the Bason.
- Here the Bowl is again replenished, and given to the High Priest.
- Venus and Bacchus, the Deities of Reffley United, constitute the Toast that goes round, previous to the Song.
Thomas Arne’s cantata, Reffley Spring. In 2014 the Lynn Festival even performed Arne’s Reffley Spring.
Dates appear confused for some reports state that in 1711 the temple was built others in either 1750 or 1789. The later is the date suggested by Manning in her 1995 Taking the Waters in Norfolk. Clearly this was to provide a more private and dry location for their meetings, which generally ate a beef joint, saddle of mutton and lobster salad. The meal ended with the smoking of a secret tobacco blend in their clay pipes. Evidence of these frivolities can be seen in an oil canvas from c1800 which shows an octagonal brick built temple with a conical roof. This may be linked to the 1818 great festival established there to celebrate the baronet as MP for Lynn (when three commemorative punch bowls were also produced.) There difference in the appearance of the temple in the painting and that shown in photos.
This is explained by an enlargement being done in 1832, with the addition of a kitchen on the back. The structure now being more trapezoid in appearance. A postcard from the early 20th century shows the site enclosed in low picket fencing and in an open setting. Two substantial sphinxes, the family was keen Egyptologists, guarded the temple and a small outhouse, looking like a coal shed can be seen.
Manning suggests that after the Restoration the Brethren may have disappeared only to be revived as a drinking club, a popular 19th century activity. This would fit in with accounts such as a letter from 1774 recorded also by Manning states:
“Reffley has long been a place of resort for Lynn People (even the fair sex) for its being agreeable – not so much for its salubrious water but for a walk and purer air, despite the distance and lack of accommodation (not even a seat)”
Furthermore, Manning draws reference to Whit Sunday skipping at Reffley perhaps suggesting a religious significance which may predate the Brethren and the colonisation of the area after the Brethren disappeared. However, this letter suggests that the writer, a Mr. Richardson was attempting to improve the place as a spa without the landowner, Sir Martin Browne Folkes’s permision. He understandably wanted to retain the site for the groups clandestine meetings! Evidence for these meetings was in 2013 found via an archaeological excavation such as those clay pipes beloved of their meeting, as well as porcelain and interesting an American coin, perhaps indicating the distance and influence some members had. More significantly perhaps prehistoric flint flakes and Roman Samian ware, and evidence of Anglo-Saxon settlement were found in the Reffley area suggesting perhaps a long history for the spring’s usage.
Sadly, what frolics and fantasies enacted by the Brethren around the spring are a far gone. Despite the survival of the group to the present day, much reduced but equally secretive, the site is now ruined. This is despite an apparent thousand pounds being paid on repairs in the 1970s. Apparently, the last celebration at the location was on 22nd June 1978, where a ‘wench’ was employed to serve water from the spring and a feast took place. This marked the 200th anniversary of the donation of a stone table.
They would find it difficult to celebrate there today – the temple was vandalised in the late 70s and 80s – now is a pile of moss covered bricks. The springhead fortunately is still quite substantial stone made structure being c2.9 metres diameter by 0.4 metres deep. It has lost its altar stone with the inscription Presented by a Friend 1778 and is unable now to hold water and the Obelisk despite its warning, a curse, stating ‘Whosoever shall remove this or bid its removal, let him die the last of his race’ a curse which did not distract the vandals, it was removed in the 1990s with the sphinxes to a secret location. The woods have now closed over it.
What is left can still be easily found in Spring Wood which is now in the middle of a housing estate in the Lynn suburb of South Wootton, formerly Reffley. There’s ample parking opposite and it is easily found following the tracks…perhaps one day something could be restored, but for the moment only the ghosts of parties past cavort around this once thriving spring head. It lays forlorn and forgotten…a shadow of its more vibrant past.
This is information is edited from the book Holy wells and healing springs of Nottinghamshire
Morrell’s (1988) work on Nottinghamshire holy wells was one of the first non-Celtic volumes on the subject (ie not Cornwall, Wales or Scotland) in the later half of the 20th century. At first I was reluctant to research the area thinking the work had already been done, but no I discovered double the number of sites. Nottinghamshire can claim record of 94 related sites (including some dubious sites and possible repetition) over 834 square miles. This would give a density of 8.8 square miles per well. This would compare with Leicestershire 9.9 wells per square mile (Rattue (1990) perhaps controversially removing those probably not healing or holy from this survey on this basis the concentration increases to 6.5 square miles per well in Nottinghamshire compared to 6.1 in Rattue’s survey (Full details on Derbyshire, Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire being not available when this survey was completed.)
I have included within this survey wells associated with the term holy, saint’s names or religious institutions. (Often springs associated with churches can be added to this list, but one must be cautious as such arrangements can be coincidental. Wardie (2003) notes 12 such sites on his map, but none are explained. )To this are added those with healing traditions e.g. noted mineral, chalybeate and spa waters and those with folklore associations; petrifying, ebbing and flowing or possible pagan deity names.
In general there is little folklore associated with water in the county. Thurgarton had a boggart which lived in the dumble (the source of whose booming voice was found to be a bittern), The Clifton family (at Clifton) had their harbinger fish, appearing at times of death (which was a sturgeon), Girton’s bottomless Horsepool and the Aegir, the most famed feature of the Trent, a tidal wave named after a Norse god. Interestingly, Nottingham appears to have few wells explicitly associated with rituals or folk customs unlike neighbouring Derbyshire or even Lincolnshire. There are only four rag wells, all in Nottingham and although well dressing has taken place in the county, this is a modern invention.
The nature of this work, indeed all volumes, is thus to describe the sites under the respective parishes giving historical details and present conditions (with directions if the sites can be accessed). 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).
In regards to those of category D, archaeologically speaking, many wells may have had an ancient pre-historic origin. Some in the county may have been Romano-British shrines, such as Kingshaugh and Newton. Similarly, it has been argued that sites named Hart’s Well and a number of wells with prefixes possibly deriving from Here O.E for ‘army’ are probably associated with tribal totems particularly of Danish use (although Morrell (1988) does note that Harwell is near the Roman road to Segontium), as is a site called Norsput. Sadly, it should be stressed that the general lack in archaeological interest in such sites, such claims cannot be ascertained.
The range of dedications is much more limited than surrounding counties, particularly Yorkshire, most being called simply Holy wells (10 confirmed sites, 20 possible sites), and those with names are restricted to presumably foreign or biblical saints: St. Mary (or rather Lady Wells) (9 with an extra 3 possible), (not including Orange’s (1840) Lady’s Bath as a possible origin of Lady Bay and a possible Lady Well at Egmanton, said by the Reverend Levy to have been associated with the vision of Our Lady to a local women at the edge of Ladywood. However, correspondence to long time residents in the parish has not revealed knowledge of the site nor has the Nottinghamshire record office. Interestingly, the suggested site does have oil wells which may suggest that the vision was due to a Willo the wisp!), St. Ann’s Well (2), St. Helen (1/2), St. Catherine’s (2) and St. John (2). With a possible St. Lawrence dedication, Jacob Well, Lord’s Well and others hidden in place name changes, to add to the list. There does not appear to be any local dedications or native saints. Class A wells thus totalling a confirmed 38 (unconfirmed total of 48). Of Class B there are four associated with crosses, but none with churches. There are thirteen Spas or mineral springs and 18 with varied names but healing traditions (Class C), 9 (Class D) and 5 (Class E) although there are a number in the inventory.
Harte (2008) argues that many holy well sites; in particular St. Catherine’s Well are spurious modern sites, due to the lack of earlier evidence. However, one must be careful here as absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; much of what we know of medieval England could be considered fragmentary due to the purges of documents during the Reformation and Commonwealth. Where it may be necessary to err on the safe side it is just as probable (if unlikely) that a site remains unknown to antiquarians or past historians until recent times retained in generations of local knowledge. (Indeed as many communities lose this tradition it is more important to record sites).
The reasons for this are unclear, but it maybe the affect of the Reformation and like in other counties can we assume many of these old holy wells were re-discovered as mineral springs and established as spas? Harte (2008) argues against this convincingly, but there are at least two sites which may have existed previously as holy wells; Clarborough and Westthorpe, Southwell. Although one could argue that these may have had a back developed origin as details are scant.
Another possible example is Retford’s Spa, although its pre-Spa history may be confusion with St. John’s Well at Clarborough. Nottinghamshire does not appear to have developed a major spa like neighbouring Derbyshire, or even Lincolnshire. Spa names are applied to eight sites. Interesting, it would appear that using spa was a local word meaning medicinal waters however parochial in nature. Indeed, the term was apparently still being used in the early 20th century in Langold. (One must be careful as there is a Spa Lane in Sutton in Ashfield but this is close to Leamington Street so is unlikely to preserve a site name.) There are others which are mineral waters having apparently never being formally named but appear to have been exploited…….
To learn more about the healing and holy water history of the county read Holy wells and healing springs of Nottinghamshire