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An ancient Celtic sacred spring? Medieval Holy Well? Folly? The mystery of Mother Ludham’s Cave

Image Copyright BabelStone. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic Licence. What’s in a name?

One of the most curious holy wells is that which arises in a site called Mother Ludham’s Cave. The Ludham part of the name is interesting. Early accounts describe a Ludewell, Ludwell or Luddwell. The name is a curious one! A theory is proposed by John Aubrey who tells us that a King of the Saxon, called Lud came here to wash his wounds after a battle nearby.  Another alternative view is that it derives from the Celtic God, Lud. He was said to be associated with healing and a number of wells may be named after him across the country from Lincolnshire to Derbyshire. A less romantic answer is that it comes from the same stem in which loud comes from. This is the view purported by the sign at the site describing it as a bubbling spring. Some authorities believe that the spring was originally called Ludewell, Ludwell or Luddwell and St. Mary’s Well are one in the same. However, this is not clear in The Waverley Annals, 1216 where it is clear there is a difference. It notes how the spring called Ludwell, which had supplied Waverley Abbey, failed and that a Brother Symon dug for fresh water and brought it together at a newly created spring;

“he collected a reliable spring of running water, by his enterprise, as it had not existed naturally… The spring is called St Mary’s well”.

Now what does this mean? Did he dig a well at the Ludwell site or find another? Is the spring arising from the cave the holy well or the original Ludwell. The problem with answering that question lies in the lack of any structural evidence at the site.  However, the name St Mary’s Well only appears on the 1874 Ordnance survey map.

The legend of Mother Ludham

A local legend tells of a local white witch or the fairies who would lend anything to anyone who would require it, especially the peasants, borrowing pots and pans, as long as they said: ‘Mother Ludham, lend me….. And I shall return it in two days.’ However once she lent out a large cauldron, and never had it returned. Consequently she vowed never to lend another item, and moved away, and was never seen again. In another version the Devil stole it after being refused. He took off an in his leaps created the Devil’s Jumps nearby and dropped the kettle at Kettlebury! However, the Cauldron, thought to be a medieval one used to brew beer can still be found in Frensham Church. Another version, states that the local people did not return it.

Loss of goose!

Another local legend remarked upon at a number of holy wells, is that geese and ducks were lost in the cave and appeared several days latter rather worn out and featherless in Guildford, some eight miles away! The earliest reference to this story being 1787 and was published in Frances Grose’s fifth volume of The Antiquities of England and Wales.

Inside the cave

Folly or natural?

The cave itself is interesting. Hewins (1961) in an article for the Journal of the Wessex Cave Club, the Moor Park Sandstone cave, describes it as being large for around 20 feet and then narrows but its passable for around 150ft to which the chamber narrows and is a foot or so high. The source of its formation largely being the stream, never known to dry, which flows through it. It is the larger of two caves nearby, the smallest named after a Victorian ‘hermit’ called Father Foot is nearby but lacks water.  The name is significant does it rather remember the local monks or rather a hermit who lived here and administered people visiting the spring or looked after the supply for the abbey? Theses monks are thought to have possibly enlarged the caves but that seems unlikely. Why enlarge it and not protect it? Most orders who took control of wells made it very clear that they owned the water by enclosing their spring into conduit houses. Although trench work reported in 1985 by Jarrett in an article again in the Wessex Cave club journal called Mother Ludham Cave recorded brickwork remains and mounds which appeared to be part of a formal garden and possibly cascades and reservoir rather than a conduit. Certainly, the evidence is in favour of much of the structure being of a grotto nature, an engraving from 1785 shows a natural cave with a paled fence around.  This would appear to be the work of Sir William Temple who owned the land. A report by William Cobbett in his famed Rural Rides visiting in 1825 is interesting suggesting the presence of some infrastructure presumably as part of a folly such as iron cups, flooring seats and basins. It is said that whilst Temple’s secretary, famed author Jonathan Swift, wrote ‘The Tale of a Tub’ whilst resting in it. Cobbett sadly notes the decline which would be concurrent with decline in follies at this period, noting:

 “Here I showed Richard “Mother Ludlum’s Hole”; but, alas! It is not the enchanting place that I knew it, nor that which Grose describes in his Antiquities! The semicircular paling is gone; the basins to catch the never-ceasing little stream are gone; the iron cups, fastened by chains, for people to drink out of, are gone; the pavement all broken to pieces; the seats, for people to sit on, on both sides of the cave, torn up, and gone; the stream that ran down a clean paved channel, now making a dirty gutter; and the ground opposite, which was a grove, chiefly of laurels, intersected by closely-mowed grass walks, now become a poor ragged-looking alder-coppice.”

However, Manning and Bray (1804–14) do not suggest any evidence of artificial structure in their account:

“there is a copious discharge of a pure, transparent water, issuing from the foot of a hill, and in the bed of a natural grot formed in the sandy rock… From this spring the several offices of Waverley Abbey, near half a mile distant, were supplied.”

Evidence of  an ironstone arched entrance suggests a much later development than this and may have done during Victoria’s reign, post Cobbett to prevent its collapse. In the early 1990s years of neglect was evident inside which could be traversed within, although roof fails suggest it could not be entered with safety. Recently, there has been some concerted effort to preserve the site and a splendid metal gate has been affixed to it as well as an information board and the site certainly looks better than it did in the 1990s when I visited.

For more information check out James Rattue’s Holy Wells of Surrey http://www.amazon.co.uk/Holy-Wells-Surrey-James-Rattue/dp/0954463331

A Well for June: St John the Baptist’s Well, Bisley

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June is associated with John the Baptist and off Clews Lane, Bisley is an ancient well, dedicated to that saint. It was possibility used by pilgrims on their way to Canterbury from Winchester. Legend records that the Benedictine Abbey of Chertsey monks once taking the waters felt that it was so refreshing as to establish a shrine here, upon which the church was built around 1283. Aubrey’s (1673) Perambulation of Surrey noted:

“near the church is a spring called St John the Baptist’s Well. The dedication made by curious to try it with galls, which turns it to a purple colour. It is colder than other water in summer but warmer in winter.”

Parker (1909) in his Highways and byways of Surrey stated:

Aubrey says that the dedication of the well made him curious to try it with oak galls, which turned the water purple. Why should the name have impelled him to this particular curiosity? Aubrey was always testing wells with oak-galls, presumably for iron.”

Parker (1909) continues:

“…the water of which was once used for all the Christenings. It is not easily found, and local harvesters could tell me nothing about it; but I discovered it near a farm house a few hundred yards south west of the churchyard.

Mr Baker (1985) in his Holy Wells and Magical Waters of Surrey records that his wife’s Grandmother was baptised here in the spring in 1876. Her mother would send her down to collect the water ‘to wash babies in’. It continued to be used for baptism until 1900.

Visiting in the 1990s, it was pleasing to see the site still survived but in a sorry state, surrounded by an ugly brick and concrete structure. This was erected by the land owner a Mr. H. P. Lawson. He drunk a cupful of water every day and lived to 90!

Debby Thompson’s notes in Restoration of historic Bisley Well that in 2002 the parishioners of nearby St John the Baptist Church successfully applied for listed building consent to Surrey Heath Borough Council to restore it of the well. A Mr. Ray Spradbery oversaw its restoration noting that:

“The well is fed by a natural spring and flows at the same rate winter and summer and never dries up…The water flows into a small ditch and then into a larger ditch.”

He noted that when:

“we began clearing the undergrowth from the small ditch we found paving all around the well, which had hidden beneath a foot of water because the ditch was blocked.  The well currently stands nearly two feet high and the stonework is perfectly circular. It has a depth of about 12 feet and is thought to have been covered for safety reasons.”

What was constructed is a considerable improvement. The stonework has been cleared and the water arises in a circular chamber fitted with a grill in the centre. The chalybeate red water flows from a pipe into a small circular basin and thence into a channel and flows into a brook.

The site is easily found along the footpath overshadowed by a prominent old oak. Its location away from the village suggests a very ancient origin. Interesting Mr Spradbery believed that the:

“The well was named St John the Baptist Holy Well because people were baptised in the water.”

However, it is more likely it took its name from the church.

still a broken hard drive!

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