Folly estates are often a good place to find substantial holy wells and sacred sites and to north-west of Stourhead Gardens splendid Stourhead Estate, a National Trust property, is a splendid example – St. Peter’s Pump. However, yet like many such sites, the origins and names are confusing to explain. The well head, unlike some sites, is very easy to find being a high medieval cross sitting slightly incongruously upon a rubble grotto where the spring, now dry, arose. A strange hotchpotch
The well, is one of supposedly six, giving the site the official name of Six Wells. The earliest reference, is before the folly was John Leland in the 16th century noted:
“ther of 6 fountaines or springes, whereof 3 be on the northe side of the parke harde withyn the pale.”
He also noted that Lord Stourton, a family name of great antiquity has six fountains on his coat of arms. Such sources of great rivers often attract folklore, although none appear surprisingly to be holy wells. The name Six Wells first appears in 1822.
King Alfred’s holy well?
The origin of the springs is said to owe itself to King Alfred the Great, the great Anglo-Saxon King. In her 1932 book, Moonraking a little book of Wiltshire stories, Edith Oliver tells us
“It is said, when tired from fighting with the Danes, King Alfred and his soldiers prayed for water, and up came six wells or springs. If the legend is true, if this is not a holy well, surely a heaven-sent one.”
Indeed, I have argued how royal wells were often seen as sacred and considering Alfred’s standing it seems likely these were. However, his name appears never to have been associated with the well. The king is remembered in a substantial folly tower not far from the springs, but his absence here is quite surprising?
Why St. Peter?
Where the name St. Peter’s Pump comes from is at first unclear. There is a record according to Gover, Mawer and Stenton’s 1939 Place Names of Wiltshire of a Peterswells in 1279 somewhere in Wiltshire, was it here? The name St. Peter is in itself rarely associated with British Holy Wells. To add to the confusion, the site is also called St. Agnes Pump, the reason being that it derives from the origin of the medieval cross which tops the grotto structure. The present structure was built by Henry Hoare in 1786.
The moving cross
The cross was originally a pump, which has six square posts with moulded cappings to six ogee- arched openings each with cherubs over each, then there are six niches with semi-circular heads above each containing a seated figure with hexagonal moulded pillar and narrower shaft to top. Interestingly a date 1768 is incised on east side of pillar. An odd date for a medieval cross said to be 14th century, so why?
The reason why the date of 1768 is incised on the pump is because it was moved. The pump head originally sat over St. Edith’s Well, in the City of Bristol. It once stood at the junction of Peter Street and Dolphin Street in Bristol for 300 years and provided water for the city. Then in a strange form of forward thinking beneficial vandalism, it was dismantled under an 1766 Act of Parliament, which looked to improve transport in Bristol and placed upon a purposely made grotto. The well itself was also moved. It may seem strange that I view this as beneficial, but the exact spot of the cross was hit by a bomb in the Second World War, which caused the nearby church to be ruined and would have destroyed the cross. The well according to Phil Quinn’s 1999 Holy wells of Bristol and Bath Region:
“Today both the old and new wells lie under the flagstones of Castle Park, the site of the old St. Edith’s Well being marked by a slab laid upside down and of a lighter colour than its neighbours.”
Quinn states that the Bristol well was called St Peter when it was repaired in the 15th century after the church nearby…the Peterswell in Wiltshire would appear to be a red herring! The name originating when in 1546 pumping mechanisms were established subsequently being recorded as Saynt Peter’s plumpe. So mystery solved.
Another reason for the 17th century date is to explain the difference between the original cross in Bristol and its appearance now. What is above the niches is 18th century as the top of the cross is lost. Was it broken in transit? Vandalised in the 18th century? Or too Catholic?
So all in all a curious hotchpotch of history, much like the structure itself.