2016 is a 1000 years since the death of St. Walstan. Now he may not be a very familiar saint and one that you may not think is readily associated with holy wells, however he is. Furthermore, he is unusually associated with three holy wells, in an area not always readily associated with such sites- East Anglia – which in itself is a rare occurrence. Not only that, however, unlike other multiple applications these wells are said to have a direct connection with the saint’s life and death.
Who is St. Walstan?
St Walstan was according to most accounts an Anglo-Saxon prince, the son of Blida and Benedict. Most accounts place his birth at Bawburgh (more of this place later) and his life appeared restricted to the west of Norwich. Despite being a royal he forsook the crown and all its privileges to become a simple farm labourer, giving whatever wealth he had to help the poor. After his death a localised cult developed, which grew and grew and in a way outlived the Reformation, as a saint for farmers and animals.
Three holy wells
In 2016 I decided to seek each of these wells and follow as close as possible the journey that St. Walstan is said to have made which resulted in these springs – Taverham, Costesssey and Bawburgh. Sadly, Taverham’s St. Walstan’s Well is lost…but that does not stop me looking for it!
The search for Taverham’s well
This first spring arose at the place of his death. The saint was said to have had a vision of angels and died soon after, a local priest wishing to wash his body searched in vain for water. Interestingly, his Latin Life fails to mention it but the History of St Walstan records according to Father Husenbeth (1859) its author:
“There lacked liquor to God they did pray, a well in that place sprang verment.”
As stated the exact location of this well has been a matter of conjecture. Let me look at each suggestion
Suggestion one: ‘Walstanhans’ plantation
This is said to be copse below the church and thus close to the crossing, now presumably the bridge. Credence is also given to the fact that in 1859 it was sated that a well still existed there. This location was perhaps synonymous with that named in 17th century terriers as Walstan Wong. They place it at TG 1630 1410, north the church along Nightingale drive. The area is urbanised so no evidence can be found there.
Suggestion two: Walsingham Plantation
However, it is interesting to note that on the current OS there is a Walsingham Plantation, are these the same and has consonantal drift over the centuries? There is no well or spring now marked here and presumably any one would have been lost when the area was afforested. Support to this being a location is perhaps that there is another Walstan wood noted in the nearby parish of Ringland. Are they connected?
Suggestion three: Spring Wood
Sounds convincing and especially now this wood is not far from the village sign which shows the saint with his scythe. The wood that exists is probably much smaller than the original one and the name suggestions that derives from the spring of St. Walstan’s Well. However, I surveyed the site and I believe I can quickly dismiss it as a site as a possibility. All the trees appear to be the same age and there is no ancient forest indicator species. Why is this important? This would suggest that the ‘spring’ is from the 18th century term for an afforested area not a water source.
Suggestion four: Breck Farm
I stated my search near the farm said to be built upon the farm where St. Walstan died, that is Breck Farm. Norgate (1969) in his A history of Taverham refers to in an old lease book as:
“..laying between Langwongs Furlong on the part of the south and the land of Mary Branthwayt north, and abutting a way leading from Taverham to Crostwick.”
This would make it approximate to Breck Farm, which is believed to be near the site of Walstan’s Nagla farm, where he died, although no exact location has been determined. Whilst there a survey of the area does reveal a small water source forming a relatively deep brook channel, a field distance from the farm and beside a footpath at TG 168 150. The water could equally be a field drain, however the oval depression is too overgrown to reveal anything.
Interestingly, Carol Twinch in her 2015 St. Walstan the third search informs us that carvings of figures in clerical dress knealing before a female figure, presumably the Virgin Mary have been found in the nearby Attlebridge/Morton on the Hill area. In 1813 the head of a processional cross was found ‘on the Walsingham Way, by Attebridge. A hermitage and possibly chapel are said to have existed at Attelbridge.
To my mind this seemed the most plausible site, but perhaps one day an old map will appear which will settle the matter. From this spring, St. Walstan’s body would be ceremonially carried by two white oxen to his final resting place. After considering the sites and resting a moment at Taverham’s typical round tower church of St, Edmund, I crossed the Wensum river like St Walstan did and one my way to the second spring.
From the forthcoming Holy Wells and healing springs of Norfolk
For more information on St. Walstan refer to Carol Twinch’s excellent triology of works 1995 In Search of St. Walstan, 2011 Saint with the silver shoes and 2015 St Walstan the Third Search