Ask anyone to name one thing about Wantage and they will tell you it was the birth place of King Alfred. When I visited the town in the 1990s I had read of a King Alfred’s Well and naturally was keen to find out more. John Murray’s 1923 A Handbook for Travellers in Berks, Bucks, and Oxfordshire:
“1/4 m. W. of the town, at the Mead, are King Alfred’s Bath and Well ; the latter a basin of clear water, in a pretty dingle, formed by a number of small petrifying springs.”
I was not the first one to visit it of course and it appears to be a popular site for school parties if this account is an example this account in the St Mary’s, Longworth, Parish Magazine, 1910:
“August 1910 On Saturday, June 25, the Sunday School children, to the number of nineteen, were taken by the Rev. T. H. Trott a little outing to Wantage. They were met at the end of their journey by Mr. A. A. Herring, who after kindly giving them some refreshments at the Temperance Hotel, took them round the town to see the principal objects of interest, such as the Parish Church, the Victoria Picture Gallery, King Alfred’s Well and King Alfred’s Bath.”
It had clearly become one of the places to see in the town and doubtless and opportunity to stress the history of King Alfred. The biggest recognition of the site’s history was for the 1000th celebration of his birth. The Freemason’s Quarterly Journal recording:
“THE ALFRED JUBILEE A grand jubilee in honour of the one thousandth anniversary of the birth of King Alfred who according to antiquarian calculation was born in 849 was celebrated at Wantage on the October 1849 The town was decorated for the occasion the shops and business except in the hotels which were crowded generally Many visitors thronged into the place and at one o clock a was formed to King Alfred’s Well about a quarter of a mile the town and supposed to be the site of the ancient stronghold of Saxon kings.”
The Gentleman’s Magazine records that year that a speech on the:
“history and traditions of King Alfred The Rev CL Richmond from America made an eloquent speech to the concourse outside After this a procession was made to King Alfred’s Well about a quarter of a mile from the town and supposed to be at the site of the Anglo Saxon palace.”
Some people still hold firmly to the idea that the palace stood on the ground now occupied by ” The Mead’ (the property of Lord Wantage).
In the 1901 Wantage past and present the author, Agnes Gibbons adds more to the rationale stating that:
“traces of Alfred’s palace are still believed to remain in the High Garden, where there is a close still bearing the name of ” Court Close,” and ” Pallett’s More ” which has been supposed to be a corruption of Palace More.”
However, they continue to claim that:
“Their chief reason for this belief is the fact that there is near the Mead a brick “bath” or ” well ” which has for some time been called King Alfred’s Bath.”
So it appears a cart before the horse situation perhaps!
King Alfred or just Alfred’s?
It would appear that those who had made their pilgrimage to the site were possibly at best mistaken or at most deluded about the history of the site. This is stressed by Gibbons again who claims
“It is, however, extremely doubtful if the bricks which compose the bath are one hundred years old, so that no value can be attached to this argument. “
Wantage Now and Then informs us of the true origin of the well:
“It is said that in reality the ” bath ” was dug out and bricked in, by one Alfred Hazel, a former owner of the Mead (possibly for sheep dipping) and was then called ” Alfred Hazel’s Bath.’”
One can see it this became ” Alfred’s Bath,” and then ” King Alfred’s Bath.” Although how this could be forgotten in less than 100 years seems odd! The author continues:
“The bricks have a suspicious resemblance to those which were made at Challow, early last century, of green sand, many of which are still to be found in the town.”
An odd piece of folklore commonly encountered elsewhere with supposed ghostly appearance on its anniversary, is that the pond nearby which appears to have been the bath with the spring nearby being the well, was a coach. The author continues:
“The pond which is close to the bath, is said to have beneath its muddy surface an old coach, said to be the one formerly used by Mr. Chas. Price (he was Lord Mayor of London in 1802, and his family lived in Wantage) on his journeys to and from the metropolis. It was highly gilded, and minus wheels, and was at one time used as a bathing machine, by men who bathed in the pond. supposed to be the King’s bath or cellar! Both references to Alfred are equally mythical supposed to be the King’s bath or cellar! Both references to Alfred are equally mythical.”
So what was claimed and is still claimed to be his well and bath was Victorian construct possibly and a sheep wash at that. But how could its construction be forgotten about!
When I visited the site it was overgrown and a muddy morass. I could not easily trace any spring but subsequently it has been improved and tidied up to make it easier to visit.
What is interesting that what was formed as dam to clean fleeces and cloth may have also had linked with baptisms, Alfred Hazel was a Baptist. In the late 19th century Lord Wantage VC bought the area and had it landscaped as a fern garden and it may have been around this time that the story of King Alfred became consolidated as perhaps he adopted it as a sort of folly although this would not explain the visit in 1849 unless they didn’t go to this well and there is another King Alfred Well lost in Wantage. Of course there are examples of Lady Wells being repaired by the Lady of the manor! This could be the same the springs are noted a petrifying and so it is possible that they were noted but whether it was Alfred or not is unclear. It is also confusing what was the well and what was the bath – was the bath Alfred Hazels but the springs had been called after King Alfred before that!
In 1921 a descendant, Arthur Thomas Lloyd, presented the area to the town of Wantage and such it has been ever since landscaped and improved more recently. Whatever its history the site with its improved flow is a delightfully refreshing place to visit.