Could the Birch Well be the Wanstead Well?
Tucked away on Leyton Flats in a Birch Wood near to the boundary fence of Snaresbrook Crown Court and near the Eagle Pond, is an enigmatic spring, called the Birch Well.
Enigmatic because there must be more we should know about the site. The spring arises in a substantial stone-lined oval well head around 1.5 metres long, one of the most substantial of any well in Essex.
The lost Wanstead Spring?
Discovered early in the Seventeenth Century, the Wanstead Spring was a potential spa. A John Chamberlain, the news-letter writer, writing from London to Sir Dudley Carleton, on August 1619, stated:
“ We have great noise here of a new Spa, or spring of that nature, found lately about Wansted; and much running there is to yt dayly, both by Lords and Ladies and other great companie, so that they have almost drawne yt drie alredy; and, yf yt should hold on, yt wold put downe the waters at Tunbridge; wch, for these three or foure yeares, have ben much frequented, specially this summer, by many great persons; insomuch that they wch have seene both say that yt [i.e., Tunbridge] is not inferior to the Spaa [in Belgium] for goode companie, numbers of people, and other appurtenances.”
Thresh and Christy (1913) in their seminal Medicinal Wells of Essex note significantly:
“We have been quite unable to ascertain anything as to the part of Wanstead parish in which this spring was situated. In all probability, it was quite a small spring. One may infer as much from Chamberlain’s statement that, within a short time of its discovery, the company resorting to it had ‘almost drawn it dry.’ If such was the case, the spring was, no doubt, soon deserted and ultimately forgotten.”
Both accounts appear to suggest that any significant spring in the Wanstead area could vie for the said well. The Birch Well has good provenance, particularly as it is a chalybeate, that is iron rich spring, a common feature of the early medicinal springs, and indeed Chamberlain by comparing to Tunbridge, possibly the best-known chalybeate well, is underling it is.
Further evidence is given by a correspondent, a Mr. Walter Crouch, F.Z.S., of Wanstead, who writes to Thresh and Miller. They state that the correspondent’s knowledge of the history of the parish is unequalled. He stated:
“I have always had the idea that this Mineral Spring was not at the Park end of our parish, which abuts ou Bushwood and Wanstead Flats, but in the vicinity of Snaresbrook and on the road which leads to Walthamstow; but it is possible that it was in the grounds of ‘The Grove’ (now cut up and built over).The spring is not marked on Kip’s View (1710), nor on Rocque’s large Map (1735), nor on Rocque’s still larger map of a few years later.”
Thresh and Christy (1913) took the suggestion of Snaresbrook and visited the Birch Well but was not 100% convinced. However, it is difficult on the paucity of evidence to be anyway near 100%!
Winifred Eastment in her 1946 Wanstead through the ages gives no indication that the spa spring and the Birch well are one and the same but does emphasis that it was one of the most important public wells of Wanstead and indeed people from beyond the parish payed a penny for three buckets or 1.6d for a buttful! Although it is clear it was only used for drinking water. More curiously a local tradition tells how at least one person drowned at the well before the stone surround was established. Before this the site was more open, described as an open gravel pit with wooden steps, much like some of the earlier spas are indeed described.
So, is the Birch Well Wanstead Spa? I think it is highly probable. The site is clearly important by its position by the boundary, noted by a small boundary stone by the well. However, the chalybeate water produced by the spring head is perhaps the most suggestive.
Japan is a spiritual place. One of many sacred places. The majority of these being associated with the Shinto faith. Water is protected by the Suijin, a type of kami or Shinto spirit. These creatures were believed to be either serpents, eels or kappa . Women in the Shinto society were thought to be able commune with the Suijin and across Japan there are a number of sacred springs.
One important Shinto site is Mount Fuji which is doted with shrines or Akagami. In the grounds of the main one, Fujisan Hongu Sengen Taisha is a the sacred water of Mt Fuji said to have considerable healing properties. At the Goshado Shrine is the Sugatami-no Ido, or the Well of Full-Length Mirror, which is supposed to reflect the person’s remaining days who looks into the well. If no reflection is seen the person will die in three years!
A feature of the temples are the purification pools, or Mitarashi-no Ike, or ‘Holy Washing Pond’ Local legend states that at the one on Mount Hakusan that it is still haunted by mountain spirits and that it was formed in a single night, and through the years it has never run dry, even when the region was struck by droughts. At the Kashima Shrine, it is said that whether tall or short, the pond will have the same depth!
Japan’s other main religion is Buddhism and this too has it sacred water sources. The Daishi-do temple is set into the cliff of the Goishizan mountain. Dedicated to Shingon Buddhist founder Kobo Daishi. It is here that a spring can be found. Local legend tells us that Kobo Daishi formed it by hitting the ground with his staff. Beside the spring is a figure of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, a Buddhist Bodhisattva, an enlightened figure. What is interesting is that the area of Dounzan is especially sacred during the Summer Solstice because an image of Kannon appears on the rock said to caused by the light.
Of course Japan is particularly famed for its Onsen or Hot Springs, which are distributed widely across the country
Wellingborough as its name suggests is related to wells and the town celebrates five main wells and there is a mosaic recording the wells in the town centre. However, which five wells appears to be a matter of contention. However most cases appear to record the Red well, Whyte well, Stan well, Buck well and Lady well to be the specific wells. There are however many more wells/springs noted in other surveys however not all of them (as indeed the list above) below the main text of this volume. These are, Ancient well, London Well, Whitchurch well, Harrowden Well, Burymoor well, Hemming well, Hartwell, Monk’s well, Wichus well, Rising Sun well, Hollywell, St. John’s well and Cross well of which the last six have significance.
The most famed spring here is the Red Well being noted in a number of works and was the closest the county appears to have developed a spa in competition with Astrop. Allen (1699) in his work on Mineral springs of England records that:
“This water weigh d at the Spring eighteen grains lighter than common water in a quantity of about twelve ounces with a few drops of Tincture of Logwood gave a black with Syrup of Violets a deep green with Syrup of Cloves blackish with Galls a violet.”
Fuller (1662) in his Worthies records that the the town was called Wellingborough from a sovereign well therein which was of ancient origin, lost and rediscovered in the 1600s. Cole (1837) in his The History and Antiquities of Wellingborough in the County of Northampton noted that:
“THE RED WELL spring rises in a field from the town and centuries of highly stated that in the Queen resided in of drinking By residing it is the advantage of the times of the purpose of watering places in rooms. This chalybeate spring rises in a field about half a mile north west from the town and was in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries of very great celebrity and esteemed highly efficacious in various disorders It is stated that in the year 1628 King Charles I and his Queen resided in tents a whole season for the benefit of drinking the water pure at its source By residing it is conceived is here meant having the advantage of the tent as a place of resort at the times of drinking the water and to answer the purpose of those convenient erections used at watering places in the present day called pump rooms.”
John Morton (1712) in his Natural History of Northamptonshire records that:
“ From King’s Cliff I went to Wellingborough to make like observations upon the Medicinal Water there This on July 29 1703. The Medicinal Spring which is called the Red Well is about half a mile distant the town on the north west side of it almost at the of a hill in an open field. What the strata the water through consists of is hard to be discovered. But some parts of the hill above the spring there are strata a reddish sort of stone with iron like veins in it underneath a bed of clay. In the extreme hard frost 1683 it so far from being frozen that it ran more briskly ever. When or by whom it was first apply’d to upon a medicinal account I cannot learn Certain it is that a hundred ago it was very famous Mr Drayton a co temporary with Sir Philip Sidney supposes that the town was so called from its wells and we of none that ever was considerable thereabouts but And by the observations of Mr John Goodyer an Botanist who mentions it by the name of Red it appears to have been a water of some note in the year 1626 about which time a tradition they have there it was honoured with of King Charles the First and of his Queen who the benefit of these waters were pleased to reside whole season in tents that were erected if we may credit common fame on the side of the hill above where it is likely Sir Theodore Mayern Physician who in his writings recommends water did then attend them Dr Merret in his Nat Brit has also mentioned it. He places with the purging waters of England from which may observe it has been formerly of far greater fame than now it is not that the virtues of it are at all impaired but the true occasions seem to be the mismanagement of the water in the course of drinking &c Mr Morton then devotes several folio pages of his work to Observations and Trials I have made of it myself In addition to the recommendation of these waters by Sir Theodore Mayerne Physician to King Charles I and that of Dr Merret may be included the subjoined description of But Master Camden doth marr their mart avouching the ancient name thereof Wellingborough However thirty years since a water herein grew very famous insomuch that Queen Mary lay many weeks thereat. What benefit her Majesty received by the Spring here I know not this I know that the spring received benefit from her Majesty and the town got credit and profit thereby. But it seems all waters of this kind have though far from the sea their ebbing and flowing I mean in esteem. It was then full tide with Wellingborough Well which ever since hath abated and now I believe is at low water in its reputation.”
Over the years Cole (1837) informs us of the improvements down to the well from the Old Town Books:
“1640 Paid to Thomas Payne for timber for repair of Red well and for carriage thereof 2 19 0 Paid to Mead of Harrowden for more timber and carriage of ditto 0 13 0 Paid to Henry Batley for work and stone and cost to repair Red well 5 0 0 Paid to William Batley for timber work at Red well 1 10 0.”
He states that:
“From the above enumeration of items it seems that considerable pains and expense were bestowed upon the Red well in order to render it commodious and worthy of public patronage.”
Clearly considering the patronage of the well it was hoped that the well would allow the town to be developed into a spa and although Cole (1837) notes:
“During the reign of King Charles I there was a great influx of the nobility to drink the water and even so late as the middle of the last century the inhabitants of the neighbourhood continued to resort to the Spring.”
The English civil war prevented such a venture. Despite this in the 1800s there was some consideration of developing the site. Cole (1837) again notes of:
“Two Correspondents whose communications appeared in The Northampton Mercury under the signatures of Antiquarius and Anonymous in the year 1811 used their endeavours to re establish the celebrity of this Spring but their exertions have hitherto unfortunately proved ineffectual Their communications however demand a place in this history TO THE PRINTERS OF THE NORTHAMPTON MERCURY Sirs Some time ago I was perusing Walpole’s British Traveller and among other accounts read the following of the town of Wellingborough in this county being formerly much celebrated for its mineral springs Wellingborough is a large populous town situated on a rising ground and supposed to have received its name from the great number of springs that rise in its neighbourhood. It was formerly celebrated on account of its medicinal waters which were esteemed efficacious in various disorders and Queen Henrietta wife of Charles the First resided here some weeks for the benefit of her health her physicians having prescribed the waters as for her constitution. And it is further said that there is a chalybeate well about half a mile northward of the town. As these waters were then said to possess such singular virtues it is presumed they still retain them It is sincerely to be wished that some of the intelligent gentlemen resident there would analyse the waters in order that their virtues might be fully ascertained and that the afflicted might know where to apply for relief. Probably it would remunerate the present proprietor of the chalybeate well to erect a house bath and other accommodations on the spot that the benefit might become general. Besides the town is well calculated for the reception of visitants of every class having several capital inns in it and a plentiful weekly market lam Sirs Your humble Servant. Antiquarius August 20th 1811”
The correspondent replied:
“TO THE PRINTERS OF THE NORTHAMPTON MERCURY Sirs As I read your Correspondent’s account of the Red wells at Wellingborough in your paper of Aug 24 I anticipated an answer to his wish that some gentleman resident there would analyse the waters. Recent cases however can be produced wherein the waters have been useful and from an accurate analysis of the water and a comparison of it with that of Tunbridge and other Chalybeates it proves to be possessed of considerable virtues. Examined with the proper chemical re agents this water appears to differ from Tunbridge water in no respect except that of containing chiefly chalk carbonate of lime which being held in solution by the fixed air is deposited on boiling and also by mere exposure also it may contain more gas which gives it a more sparkling appearance than Tunbridge and Islington waters the deposition of this matter forms a calcareous crust intermixed with the ochre on the sides and bottom of the basin into which the water flows the other contents of the water are iron fixed air and a small quantity of purging salts. The best mode of taking the water is to begin early in the morning with a dose of half a pint then to walk or take exercise for an hour and after that to take a pint and to repeat the dose a third time an hour or two before dinner this plan should be continued for six weeks or two months and if the complaints are not removed after two or three months interval a second course should be gone through in the same manner. Its effects are to quicken the pulse produce a general glow immediately after being drank and to prove gently aperient more so than most chalybeates the continued use of the water increases the appetite exhilarates the spirits improves the strength and braces the whole system the water very frequently purges briskly at first but after a long use produces a costive habit of body when this is the case aperient medicines should be occasionally taken. The diseases in which the use of the Red well water promises to be of most service are indigestion with its various symptoms debility and pallid countenance listlessness and aversion to every kind of exercise so frequent among the young and particularly those of a delicate habit and are more speedily and certainly removed by a course of these waters than by any other means. Of stomach complaints flatulency an uncertain and capricious appetite heartburn and all the symptoms attendant upon irregular and incomplete digestion are such as point out the great use of this class of waters There is no occasion for any preparation to the use of the water unless the stomach is judged to be foul and then a single emetic may precede its use. It is sincerely hoped that some gentlemen will give such other information as will direct the afflicted where to apply relief and stimulate the increasing number of attendants to observe what salutary effects are produced l am Sirs Yours most respectfully Anonymous Oct 26th 1811.”
However, the correspondence was to no avail and Cole (1837) referring to the correspondence laments and suggests:
“If at this juncture a handsome pump room had been erected embellished in front we will say by an enriched colonnade of pillars surmounted by a dome and the contiguous grounds laid out in walks in a tasteful manner in order to blend utility with comfort and pleasure an attraction would have been presented to entice company to Wellingborough Red Well but I was going to observe I fear the time is gone by perhaps not so for if the proprietor would allow the water to be conducted by pipes into a pleasant part of the town some good might yet accrue to Wellingborough from this once famed spring. It is a circumstance much to be lamented that a chalybeate spring containing such alleged virtues should be now unnoticed and no benefit derived from its sanative qualities which might be the case to individuals resident here if not to the interests of the town itself if only some means were resorted to in order to revive its ancient fame for even the towns people to whom it is now freely open do not avail themselves of its advantages an effort is wanting to make even those on the spot try at this day its healing effects. Nor is this denominated the Red well the only spring of the same nature in the lordship as from the ochrey dye and similar chalybeate flavour of another near White delves the like virtues in degree it is likely would be derived.”
The well was not lost it fell into relative obscurity. According to Cole (1837) the Red Well:
“about forty years ago was a large stone watering trough which was used by the attendants upon horses previous to the inclosure as a place at which to refresh their animals. It was sufficiently large to admit twenty horses to drink together. The water was made to pass through a sculptured head and came pouring out with considerable force at the mouth.”
J and M. Palmer in their History of Wellingborough (1972) note:
“In 1823 a water mill was built not far from the Red Well and was, appropriately called Red Well Mill. It appears on a local map of 1825. The stream that fed the mill rises between Appleby Lodge and Park Farm, just south of Sywell Road. It meanders its way to pass under Hardwick Road, it then emerges at a point that was in the grounds of Hatton Hall Park and feeds a pond there. Skirting the Red Well spring, and joined by another small stream it became the millrace, by the making of a dam, and passed under the Kettering Road.”
In the Northampton Chronicle and Echo photo shows it was a substantial brick structure in the early 20th century possibly constructed for the mill’s convenience. This structure would appear to have been slowly lost as by the mid-20th century the site consisted of two troughs surrounded by broken slabs one of which one had fallen into one of the two chambers. However in 2011, Wellingborough Council with Glamis Grove Volunteers placed stone edgings over the foundations but a rather unsightly galvanised metal grid installed over it, presumably to prevent vandalism but it also presents access and a decent photo. The later is solved by the water running from the side into a stream. A sign informing passers by of the history of the Red Well has also be installed and so now this well will hopefully remain remembered!
In the last post, we discussed the well dedicated to St, Ethelbert, in this post I shall introduce the other curious piece of local waterlore, the tale of the bell and the mermaid. Ella Mary Leather in her 1912 Folklore of Herefordshire. She relates in a story communicated by a Mr Galliers, of King Pyon and completed from other oral versions:
“In former times Marden church stood close to the river, and by some mischance one of the bells was allowed to fall into it, it was immediately sized by a mermaid who carried it to the bottom and held it there so fast that any number of horses could move it.”
She continues to state how the bell could be recovered:
“The people of the parish were told how to recover it, by wise men, according to some; others say the bell itself gave directions from the bottom of the river. A team of twelve white Free Martins heifers was to be obtained and attached to the bell with yokes of the sacred yew tree and bands of wittern or in some versions, the drivers’ goads were to be of witty or wittern mountain ash.”
Here interestingly is related a common folklore motif. The recovery by a set number of oxen, often unblemished of pattern in some way, the number twelve being a significant folklore number of course. Also interesting is the mention of yew and wittern – or mountain ash. Mountain Ash was an important plant often used in May time as adornment on houses and was held against witchcraft. Indeed, Aubrey noted
“They used when I was a boy to make pinnes for the yoakes of their oxen of them believing it had virtue to preserve them from being fore spoke. As they call it and they used the plant one by their dwelling house believing it to preserve them from witches and Evil Eyes.”
The next stage again is often told at other locations when treasure needs to be uncovered:
“The bell was to be drawn out in perfect silence it was successfully raised to the edge of the river with the mermaid inside fast asleep. In the excitement a driver, forgetting that silence was all important called out
“In spite of the Devils in hell, now well land Marden’s great bell”
This woke the mermaid, who darted back into the river, taking the bell with her ringing.”
The Mermaid replying:
“If it has not been for your wittern bands or witty goads and your yew tree lin, I’d have you twelve free martins in.”
This of course appears to indicate the power of the sacred foliage used which prevented the full effort of the mermaid.
“So Marden folks have never had their bell back from the bottom of the river to this day, and sometimes it may still be heard ringing, echoing the bells of the church. It does in a deep clear pool.”
A common story
Now this is as I have said a common folk motif. A similar story is recorded at the Callow Pit, Southwold in Norfolk about not speaking. Here an iron chest filled with gold said to lay at the bottom of the pit. Many years ago, two adventurous men determined to retrieve it. Having placed a platform of ladders across the pit they were success to insert a staff into the ring in the lid of the chest, and bore it up from the water. They then placed the staff on their shoulders and prepared to bar their trophy off. As they did so one of them exclaimed: ‘We’ve got it safe, and the devil himself can’t get it from us.’ Instantly a cloud of sulphurous steam arose and a black hand from the pool and latched onto the chest. A terrible struggle ensued and after much exhaustion, their treasure sank back down into the murky depths. All the men retained was the ring.
A closer version is told at Newington Kent, associated with the Libbet Well, the legend blames the church wardens, who decided to sell thechurch’s great bell to pay for the repair of the others. So as not to be seen they did it at night, but the Devil appeared and threw it in the well. At first they had great success at raising the bell to the surface, but the rope broke, they tried again and failed. A local witch arrived, and told them that the only way it could be raised was by drawing it up by four pure white oxen. This was done, and it was almost raised to the surface until, a local urchin, who was passing, shouted out at the top of his voice, ‘Look at the black spot behind that bull’s ear’. The rope instantly broke, and the bell was lost forever!
Rediscovery of the bell!
Now these other legends are just that legends and usually such a story ends, but this one has a postscript. Leather (1912) further records:
“In 1848 in cleaning out a pond in Marden, an ancient bronze bell was discovered . It lay at a depth of eighteen feet, beneath the accumulated mud and rubbish of centuries. The bel, which is now in the Hereford museum is rectangular in shape the plates are riveted together on each side. The clapper is lost , but there remains the loop inside from which it was suspended.”
Now of course what is unknown here is what came first, the bell’s discovery or the legend. The bell’s rediscovery would be vindication for such a legend but as Leather is the first to record it, it could be that the legend was constructed around the bell. However, I feel less sceptical about it considering how complex the legend is.
Let us first consider the bell. Leather herself introduces the idea that these were bells that the sexton or clerk took to the houses of the deceased on the day of the funeral. However, they originated as portable bells often associated with saints, indeed one in Glascwm a bell called Bangu was said to have belonged to St David,. Ireland, Scotland and Wales. In his work Wirt Sykes 1880 British Goblins it is noted that:
“Clergy were more afraid of swearing falsely by them than the gospels, because of some hidden and miraculous power with which they were gifted, and by the vengeance of the Saint to who, they were particular pleasing; their despisers and transgressors were severely punished…. Have in all probability hidden long ago by reformers on account of the superstitious beliefs attached to them.”
Now it seems likely that the bell was perhaps used to warn off the mermaid (whatever that might be) as a way of Christianizing the site and removing any pagan imaginary. Does the story recall the battle between the pre-Christian world and the Christian world? The message being in this remote region that paganism still has its grip despite the church!
What was the mermaid?
It might seem unusual to hear about a freshwater Mermaid, certainly one so far from the sea. However, she is not alone. There are mermaids in the Peak District, Lancashire and elsewhere – indeed there are more freshwater ones than sea water in England. Why? It is probable that these are folk memories of water deities which are converted to otherworldly creatures. In the case of Marden’s slightly sympathetically, in other mermaid stories she steals people and drowns them.
Was the mermaid the deity which was originally associated with St Ethelbert’s Well? It is possible although there is a long gap between a likely Celtic deity and Saxon Christian conversion, although it is possible that a Saxon deity like Nerthus could be the origin. That is of course if St Ethelbert is the original saintly dedication. His legend is so generic as stated in the earlier post, he could have easily replaced or been mistaken for a local pre-Saxon saint. Certainly Leather suggests the bell has an association with the saint:
“The Marden bell was perhaps associated with St Ethelbert ; the pond in which it was found is near the church which stands on the spot on which the body was first buried before its removal to Hereford. “
Such a bell is not a Saxon type but it is not without reason that the style continued into the Saxon period, especially in boarder country. Alternatively, the bell may be an indication of the existence of the pre-Saxon saint I muted. Certainly the discovery of the bell in a pond may indicate the true location of the village’s holy well and not the dry pit that survives in the church. Whatever the truth it is an interesting and little known story and one would welcome observations by readers.
Leicestershire is sadly not renowned for its holy and healing wells, this is despite two works, Bob Trubshaw’s seminal 1990 Holy Wells of Leicestershire and Rutland and James Rattue’s 1993 work on An Inventory of Ancient, Holy and Healing Wells in Leicestershire in LAHS. The majority of wells in the former are either lost or dubious wells, i.e not necessarily holy! One curious exception was the Sister’s Well at Hoton or Prestwold. Trubshaw (1990) records:
“Sisters’ Well (also known as Jacob’s Well) is on the perimeter of the disused airfield. A simple stone structure with steps down and wooden doors stood until World War II but the flow has now been culverted.”
Structurally this sounded like one of the more structure of the county’s holy wells and its loss was a considerable one. Another reason why this site was of interest is due to a local legend:
“A legend associated with this well tells how, during a three-month long drought, a sixteenth century maiden lady called Gertrude Lacey dreamed three times in one night of finding a stream by sticking a pilgrim’s staff from the Holy Land in a specific place. It was located in Langdale Field, and known as Spring Close after Enclosure. A pilgrim’s staff was dug up and, with the help of her sister Grace, she went off to the location. When the staff was stuck in the ground a supply of water was created which ‘has never run dry’. A double effigy in Prestwold church reputedly depicts these two sisters.
It is a common holy well origin motif and is found across the country and even overseas. However, rarely is it associated with secular figures which either emphasises the importance of the sisters or is a story transferred from a lost saint tradition. An interesting well who I thought only remembrance was the farm across from its location Shepherd’s Well farm.
It seemed clear that this was a lost site and then searching on the web for references to well in preparation of my Leicestershire holy wells I was amazed to come across this from Bob Trubshaw:
“In March 2015 the ‘solar farm’ on Wymeswold airfield was being extended. I received an email from Alexander Haddington to say that a friend of his had noticed that an old well had been uncovered to the north of the perimeter track. He thought the photographs his friend had taken ‘would be of interest’. ‘Yes, very much so!’ was the gist of my reply.”
I was similarly very keen to examine the site and photograph it for the book. I contacted the owners of the Solar farm and via a series of emails was welcomed to the site.
The landscape is perhaps the strangest to find a holy well. In a sea of solar cells, panels which spread across the relics of the airbase like a waves on the sea, enclosed in a wooden fence is the well. We removed a cone and some coverings and I peered inside.
The first thing that could be noticed was a series of steps into some deep murky water. The steps nearly reached the top of the concrete lid suggesting there may have been one on which the current covering rested on. The water arose from under an arch which was a right angles to the step and peering in there old stone work could be seen. .
The arch was a strong stone one upon which could be read slightly in the light ‘HL 1851’, did this refer to the Holy Land as the legend suggested? In the article for the Wold’s Historian, a Joan Shaw did some research for Bob Trubshaw and noted:
“The date and initials intrigued us and I was looking through the 1851 census last night to try and identify HL. As soon as I found the name Henry Lacey I was fairly satisfied that it was the Lacey family who had either found the well or, assuming it is older, had built the approach to it.
We looked at a map of the estate, the field appears to belong to the Packe Estate (or did) but the Lacey family owned land close by so it would be likely that they rented it and had perhaps rented it for many generations.”
The name Lacey being that of the two sisters showing that the family were keen to continue their beneficence. Either side of the arch was a piece of metal sticking out of the brickwork, which would appear to have been placed there to attach a metal or wooden set of doors on their as can be seen currently on a number of wells as shown below. Perhaps this would prevent the water being contaminated. These doors of course would not prevent it today as the water table has risen here compared to other places.
The site is remarkably well preserved and the landowners are keen to preserve it. I suggested that the whole concrete roof could be fully removed to allow a complete restoration and this may happen in the future. Whatever happens it is great to see this most interesting of Leicestershire holy wells being restored and rising from the ground like the origin spring – it holds out hope for similar rediscoveries perhaps.
The best recorded holy well in the Cambridgeshire is that of St. Audry’s Well (TL 540 801). It is noted in the 12th century that a spring arose at the place where the saint was first buried
St Audry or rather Ethelreda or Æthelthryth was an Anglo Saxon saint who was a 7th century East Anglian princess, one of four saintly daughters of Anna, queen of Northumbria and Abbess of Ely. Interestingly she was born at Exning in Suffolk where a well is also associated with her. She died and was buried at Ely and it is recorded by Bede that when her body was disinterred her body was uncorrupt as such her powers and clothes were said to have special powers. She was reburied in the Cathedral and her shrine remained until the reformation. She is best known for the term tawdry for rubbish, a term which derived from the poor quality clothing sold at fairs on her feast days.
In the 12th century it is reported that:
“If any sick people take a drink from this spring, or have been sprinkled with its water, it is reported that they subsequently recover their original vigour…. in account of her merits, are acquainted with remedies and assiduous in curing the sick”.
It is noted that the monks made the spring site into a pit like cistern so that they could collect some of their water. Several miracles are associated with the well. One tells how a blind woman washing her face and eyes became able to see, how a man travelled from Northamptonshire to be healed and found the door locked. He was apparently barred entrance and was told that there was no bucket at the well and nothing to collect it with. He did not take no as an answer and so barged his way in where he found the well overflowing into the courtyard and thus cupped some water into his hands. He evoked the saint’s name and as he did so begin to recover. Another story tells how a woman fell into the well after accidently being pushed in by a crowd at the well. She was apparently left in the water for two hours and was found still alive by the monks.
The established site of the well is at Barton Farm to the east of the Cathedral. The site is shown on a Moore’s map of the fens dated in 1684 shown as St. Aldreth’s Well. According to Hippisley-Coxe in his 1973 Haunted Britain this site still survived as a muddy pool in a clump of elms near Barton Farm. The spring fills a small tree lined pool on the edge of the grounds of Ely’s Cathedral School, which has absorbed Barton Farm, and the Golf course. There does not appear to be any evidence of fabric but at some point, some brickwork has been used to create a channel to allow the water to flow way showing that the spring is still active.
Conversely the metrical Life and Miracles of St Æthelthryth by Gregory of Ely, c.1120 states that ‘the holy precinct of the church includes a spring’, but does not identify this as a holy well; the original grave of St Audrey lay:
“somewhere in the vicinity of the former Bishop’s Palace, the area close to the Fountain Inn, and the present St Mary’s Church, where the water-table is high.”
This was where:
“…where the people of the neighbourhood do now resort to drink the waters of it, it being a sort of mineral water”.
This suggests two things, one that it was an arrangement like current St. Withburga’s well at East Dereham and that it was nearer the Cathedral. Indeed I was shown by Mr Hart of Ely School a possible alternative site, a small duck pond in the grounds of the Bishop’s Palace. This however although might be a more likely sight indeed it lay across from the school’s old chapel and in the shadow of the Bishop’s Palace.
Details in Holy Wells and healing springs of Cambridgeshire and the Isle of the Ely.
In early May I had the pleasure to present my interim findings of my study into votive offerings at holy and healing wells at the #rituallitter workshop at the University of Hertfordshire (more in a future post hopefully). My presentation particularly focused on rag wells, or as has erroneously been applied nationwide, clootie wells (see this post). This lend me to exploring the custom in the wider geographical context and as I am monthly recording holy and healing wells globally, this month I decided to detail three rag or loque wells (strictly sources a loque) in France. However, a map below will show the distribution of the wells across the county that I am aware of so far.
Research indicated as a custom this is just as vibrant as it is in Britain although in most cases the visitors adhere more often to rags, but as can be seen personal items can also be left
Interestingly the custom is most frequently encounter in the Nord Pas de Calais region and into Belgium. (It is also interesting to focus on holy wells not in Brittany as well) Furthermore, it is an activity associated not only with springs but calvaries, chapels and trees as well – none of which are associated with a springhead.
However typical site is that of St Latuin’s Well, at Clerey Belfonds near Seez. A site which is associated with an evangelizing saint, the envoy of Pope Boniface I who is said to have built an oratory at the spring. He was famed to for converting pagans by healing the death and blind. The curative reputation of the spring harks from curing the blindness of a local widow he stayed with when he arrived there.
At the well, pilgrims would pray first to the saint and then wash at the springhead, hoping to cure skin diseases, fevers, scabies and eye aches. Indeed even the plague was thought to be cured. The site was so popular in the nineteenth and twentieth century that it prompted the expansion of the town. The legend of how the spring, a red chalybeate spring arose is told in Charles Corlet’s Legendes de Basse-Normandie d’Edouard.
“Saint Latuin or Lin passes to be the first apostle of the Orne, It is attributed the foundation of the cathedral of Sees. Saint Latuin, on arriving at Sees, took refuge in a poor woman, a widow whose daughter had been blind for many years. The saint restored the sight to the unhappy woman, and then, preaching in public the word of God, performed many miracles of healing. Satan, annoyed at the beneficial action of the saint, aroused against him Fatisie, who wished to take revenge on the saint who had refused his advances. Fatisie intimated to Latuin, on penalty of death, to cease to preach in Christ’s favor. The saint paid no attention to these threats, but his disciples advised him to retire for some time. What he did in the forest of Clairay. There he set up his oratory near a fountain. His tranquility was short-lived, for Fatisie sent murderers to him with the mission of killing him and bringing back his tongue. At the approach of the saint, the murderers prostrated themselves and converted to the Christian faith. As they were to account for their mission, they consulted the saint in order to know the best way to deceive Fatisie. Latuin advised them to kill their dog, to take away their heart, and to defile their clothes with the blood of the animal. Fatia soon died of a fatal death. But the waters of the spring were tinged with blood. Latuin returned to Sées. He often went to his hermitage. It was in this place that death took him peacefully and he still worked miracles.””
Today the spring fills a large square stone basin beneath a statue of the saint dressed in Bishop robes holding a crozier and those coming to cure complaints have tied rags to the top of the metal fence surrounding it. The spring and its church are now the location for an annual pilgrimage. This year on http://www.ville-sees.fr/dimanche-24-juin-pelerinage-saint-latuin/ website it recorded:
“25 years ago, the association “Les amis de Saint Latuin” was created to offer the pilgrims of Saint Latuin the annual animation of the pilgrimage and to ensure the restoration and maintenance of the church of Cléray , Its cemetery and its fountain. On Sunday 24 June: 7.45 am: laudes at the cathedral, 8 am: departure of the march towards the church of Cléray (7.5 km), 10.45 am: gathering at the Cléray fountain, procession followed by the Mass chaired by Bishop Habert. “
In La Croupte, is a spring dedicated to St Martin, with its 15th century chapel. Near here is a statue of the saint festooned with ribbons and different socks, particularly baby socks, close to the springhead. Why are there socks? The spring is said to help children suffering from rickets and hence helping children to walk.
After praying and lighting a candle the clothes or socks are attached nearby. It is recorded that other saints are prayed to according to the healing required as it too cures skin and eye problems. The springhead fills a square basin surrounded by a metal fence upon which the votives are attached.
The final spring is that associated with a sacred landscape of Pre D’Auge, Calvados I Basse Normandie. Indeed it is unclear in this case whether the tree is more sacred than the spring head. Both are named after Saint Meen’s. This is a site which associates with a ragged oak which generations upon generations have attached rags to. The oak itself being called the Oak of Saint Meen, thought to be over a 1000 years old although it is now hollow and in the hollow is a small wooden statue of the saint (it is said that the original remains in a local castle). Indeed, there was concern about the condition of the oak and that in 2009 its final branch was removed and all that is left is the oak. However, the owners of the land concerned that the tradition would disappear ensured that two other oaks can replace it should the time come, one being planted in 1920 and the other in the 2000s. The hulk of the original tree has not prevented the pilgrims attaching rags which range from strips through to handkerchiefs to whole clothes. The spring is said to cure skin complaints and like at other springs, the cloth is first immersed into the spring and applied to the skin, before being left.
The rationale behind the springs use is related to the Saint, who was Breton monk who travelled these areas converting the pagans, who would appear to dislike rudeness and selfishness. It is reported that when on a journey to Rouen, thirsty he rested in the village. Seeing two young girls he asked them if he could drink, one said she would help but other complained about the scarcity of water and refused. As a result, he caused the spring to burst forth to thank the helpful one saying to the less than generous one:
“You will be covered with pustules and you will be obliged to come and wash yourself there praying to ask for your cure which will remind you of your lack of charity.”
A good reason to justify a rag well not doubt!
Our Lady’s Well (SO 814 173) is certainly one of most interesting and picturesquely placed Holy well in Gloucestershire and one of the best near the city of Gloucester, overlooking as it does over the Severn valley. The spring itself issuing from the sand/bunter pebble stratum, probably of glacial origin, and fills the well house overflowing to fed a large stone trough replacing the previous structure.
Traditionally it is believed that the well was built by the Canons of St Mary’s Priory, of Llanthony in the 14th Century ( the ruins of which are presently being restored and can be visited ). However, another tradition asserts that the dedication of this well is that of St Anne, rather than St Mary which we shall explore later. The water of the well was associated with medicinal virtues and cured any ailment bathed within its waters. Indeed as Walters notes it may well have been a place of pilgrimage. Another tradition is that it is referred to as Lady’s Wash house being were the ancient ladies washed!!
An engraving of Our Lady’s Well is given by Maclean 1888–9 who describes it as
“a small cell or chapel erected over a well… The plan is nearly a square of 7 feet, on a wider basement. The east and west ends are gabled; in the latter is an ogee door, and a narrow ogee window of one light. On the east end is some sculpture, which seems to have been a rood. The covered roof is of stone, and the ridge is finished with a rib. The whole is of good ashlar masonry. This little building stands on the side of rather an abrupt slope, overlooking the valley of the Severn. A fine thorn tree which overhangs it adds much to its picturesque beauty.”
The well-house is probably of early fourteenth-century date and made of oolite limestone. The pitched roof, is comprised of large slabs of this stone, of which rebates have been cut to ensure overlap and keep watertight. The north and south sides are plain, however the of the east side are the worn remains of a sculptured carving. Remains of steps are visible on the north and south sides of the structure.
In Maclean’s time this was built in, but afterwards it was opened, being blocked for a time by an iron door
A curious discoverer
Roy Palmer in his 1994 Folklore of Gloucestershire describes a legend that the Virgin herself discovered the spring. On her way to visit Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury, her boat was washed up near here by the Severn Bore and climbing the steep slope from the Severn and found the spring. However he is the first to record this most curious of legends!
Who is the carving?
The sculpture on the east side has been variously interpreted. The virgin addressed by kneeling figures was Ashworth (1890) xxx suggestion. Bazeley and Richardson (1921–3) xxx :
“the central figure is a woman, probably St. Anne, standing between her daughter St Mary and an angel or perhaps her husband Joachim.”
They say that ‘Mr Hurry of Hempsted Court mentioned a tradition of two children being drowned in this well while bathing’, and the carvings may have been popularly supposed to commemorate this. It has also been suggested that the site was of pre-christian importance and was derived from Wan, the pagan god of fire, later becoming St Ann although the lateness of her cult, which is 14th century suggests not.
Holy Well or Wash House?
The well lay on land belonging to Llanthony Priory as a water supply and the well was thus a conduit. Its alternative name was called Our Lady’s Washhouse and Ashworth (1890) notes that many who washed in the waters were relieved of their infirmities and that this was the reason it was called Lady Well or Lady’s Wash House. Another notes that it was where as Walters (1923) notes:
“it was a place where ancient ladies washed”
They would find it difficult to wash from now as it has been dry. However, the well is still easily found by taking the road to Hempstead before Gloucester and after the roundabout. Take this road and then turn into the road of the church. Park here enter the graveyard and follow to the other end where there is a gate. Enter this follow the path between the hedges and into the field and the well will be quite self-evident.http://www.megalithic.co.uk/a558/a312/gallery/England/Gloucestershire/lady_well_hempsted.jpg
Hidden deep in the woods on St. Anne’s Hill is the mysterious St Ann’s or Nun’s well…mysterious for many reasons, least of all its difficulty in finding (although read at the end of a sure-fire way to find it)
St Ann’s well or Catholic folly?
Although the first account of the well is by John Aubrey in his 1718 Surrey he describes it as:
“Westwards of this Town, on a steep Hill, stood St Anne’s Chapel, where, in the Time of the Abbots, was Mass said every Morning… Near the Top of the Hill is a fine clear Spring, dress’d with squar’d Stone.”
Manning and Bray in their 1809 History and Antiquities of Surrey similarly do not name it only stating it was:
“a spring, lined on the sides with hewn stone”
It is only in S.C. Hall’s 1853 Chertsey and neighbourhood that the name appears. It is also curious that the the current structure does not resemble that shown in Hall’s work either more in keeping with Aubrey’s description. It is probable that as the site was gaining a more religious name that it was getting a new structure. This is probably to do with the then owners of the hill, Lord and Lady Holland, who had converted to Roman Catholicism which would explain the improvements in 1850s and its associated with the saint and closer affinity to the chapel. This lending it to the idea of being a sort of romanticised folly.
The chapel itself is first mentioned in 1402 as the capella Sancte Anne is recorded although a chapel was licensed in 1334, but in 1440 St Anne’s hill was still the “hill of St Anne… otherwise called Eldebury Hill.” when a fair was granted which continues today although not unbroken as the Blackcherrry Fair in the town. The chapel is associated with an Abbey which was founded by St Erkenwald in 666 and such the cradle of Christianity in Surrey but it is a big jump to assume the well dates from then. This chapel remains on the hill, the guide in the car park refers to a mound near the house but the nearby mysterious Reservoir cottage incorporated most. However, it is improbable that a considerable amount of water would have been left untapped. The area was a hill fort whose exact history is unclear due to the predations over the centuries, but a Bronze Age date has been suggested.
A Topographical History of Surrey by Edward Brayley and Edward Mantell (1850) state
“and up to within recent years the country folk round about have been used to fetch away water from it, in the belief that it has virtues as an eye lotion. It has a strong taste of iron; would that be good for the eyes?”
Manning and Bray in their 1809 History and Antiquities of Surrey were stating that the waters were:
“not now used for any medicinal purpose. It rarely freezes when other springs do”.
Yet Hall (1853) under the name Nun’s Well states that:
“even now, the peasants believe that its waters are a cure for diseases of the eyes.”
Looking at its dirty murky waters today one would suggest it might cause as many eye problems as it cures!
Ghostly goings on!
Long in his 2002 Haunted Pubs of Surrey records the legends associated with the hill. It is possible that the nun’s well name may derive from a legend of a murder of a nun at St Ann’s convent who was buried in a sandpit. The veracity of this story and even the location of a convent is unclear. The well, it is said being the resort of the nun:
“whose deep begging signs can be heard on certain nights…on such a day, this place reeks of remorse, suffering or sorrow.”
On a spring evening with no one around one could quite imagine such ghostly cries.
A prehistoric landscape
In A Topographical History of Surrey by Brayley and Mantell (1850) it notes:
“Another curiosity is the so-called Devil’s Stone, or Treasure Stone. Aubrey calls this “a conglobation of gravel and sand,” and says that the inhabitants know it as “the Devil’s Stone, and believe it cannot be mov’d, and that treasure is hid underneath.” There have been many searchers after the treasure. One of them once dug down ten feet or more, hoping to come to the base of the huge mass, but his task grew unkinder as he got deeper, and he gave it up. He might well do so, for what is pretty certain is that he was trying to dig up St. Anne’s Hill. All over the face of the hill there are masses of this hard pebbly sandstone cropping up, though they are not so noticeable as the so-called Devil’s Stone because they are flat and occasionally crumbling, and have not had their sides laid bare by energetic treasure-seekers.”
Such stones are often found in conjunction with stones and the treasure may suggest the giving of votive offerings. The combination of a healing spring, an ancient stone and as the name of the hill might suggest a sacred tree is something of considerable interest to those interesting in sacred landscapes and suggests a possible old cult hereabouts. The existence of a ghostly nun may also be significant, there are near identical legends at Canwell and Newington Kent and, the later associated with another Devil’s stone. Do they remember old pagan deities, water spirits who lived by the spring? But this is the only evidence, the old writers are silent on anything more! My musing are just that musings!
The well today is indeed a substantial is ruined structure. It resembles an ice well in structure, its plan being a key shape with a rectangular basin and a dome over the source, although this is difficult to locate. Much of the dome has been weathered and ruined by the ages and being built into the earthen back this has preserved it. The brick work is a curious mix of redbrick, iron slag, cobbles and some older possible reused squared medieval stone work.
Another healing spring?
In their A Topographical History of Surrey by Brayley and Mantell (1850) again:
“Another Spring, once highly reputed for its medicinal virtues, rises on the north-east side of the hill, in the wood or coppice called Monk’s Grove, which gives name to the seat inhabited by the Right Hon. Lady Montfort. This spring, according to Aubrey, had been long covered up and lost; but was again found and re-opened two or three years before he wrote. The water is now received into a bason about twelve feet square, lined with tiles. “
James Rattue in his indispensable 2008 Holy wells of Surrey found this site stating that it resembled in part the Nun’s well and was clearly part of the landscapers attempt to improve the area. It was a dry circle of brickwork and filled with leaves. He describes it as being on the flat part of the hill. However with his instructions, OS reference and old maps showing a spring I failed to find it – although I did find another spring overgrown in the rhododendrons.
However, despite this author and others claims I did find the Nun’s well easy and here the fail-safe way to find it. Don’t go through the car park and continue along the road, passing the second car parking area in the dingle and then as the lane drops just past a house on the right there is a signposted public footpath. Take this and continue until passing a crossroads of another public footpath just past a hedge in the field on the left. As you past this and before the path you are on drops into a series of wooden steps there is a path to the right where the Nun’s well can be seen – simple! Good luck!
Outside the town of Mogenstrup is one of the most famed holy wells of Denmark. A holy well dedicated to a saint whose following spread across the Danish world, a saint still remembered from Orkney’s to Denmark – St Magnus or Mogens, a Danish Royal Martyr. Local traditions believes that the well was a pagan sacrifice site taken over by the early church and dedicated to the saint. When this re-dedication was done is unclear but it was certainly since 1292 as the area around has been called Magnus torp since.
The best time to visit the well was Midsummer by the sick and weak. There were certain ceremonies which had to be adhered to, which ensure the water’s best powers were bestowed, such as the giving of swords, jewellery or even animals. When the church was established they encouraged the giving of money into a box , a block and hence called block money, in the church. This paid for the church, the poor and those who had to guard the spring. It is said that its waters were particularly officious at midnight and that pilgrims were so keen to take its waters that fights would occur. On is recorded between two women in 1670 from Næstved in 1670 who fought to reach the spring first and the fight resulted in a law suit of the 1st July 1670.
Another tradition to ensure that the water was effective was that the applicant should approach the well in silence. Thus, they must not greet people once they had been to the spring, avoid again meeting anyone on a return visit. Of course you could collect water for someone else but it must not be sampled on the journey back or else its power would be lost. It was also thought that the water flowed greatest and was more efficacious at midnight and bowing three times against the sun was also recommended.
The water could be used for internal diseases including cancer, insanity and mental illnesses, or external one which require the area being rubbed. In the donation of money it is said that odd money was needed for external diseases but also rags were would be used where the affected area would be rubbed or tied to and then left at the site. There are accounts of those suffering from arthritis donating their crutches to the church as firewood! Unlike British clouts it is said that the clothes were buried as local people would steal them or burn. Local accounts tell sometimes people came had their sight restored or even their life by virtue of the saint!
The Reformation here too had an impact and in 1536 there are records of the clergy trying to prevent people access the site. However, over a hundred years later, accounts of 1681-86 record that the weak and crippled were still visiting the spring donating 3-5 shillings. There were said to be several thousand at midsummer.
A turnpike was established in 1824 through the woods, the outflow was channelled into a fountain with a lion’s head which itself was restored by 1862 by the owner of a local brewery obviously tapping the water. However, the move was to have a negative impact on the supposed powers of the spring and numbers of visitors dropped.
The holy well still survives arising in a circular basin whose overfull continues to the lion’s head, however the vast concourse of pilgrims have long gone.