DIPPING WELLS: The Ancient Springs of the Valley of the Sandbrook: a vignette


DIPPING WELLS  –  Julian Lea-Jones

The Ancient Springs of the Valley
of the Sandbrook: a vignette
by Julian Lea-JonesOn a pilgrimage route

Early accounts of Bristol’s history tell of the bridle path leading pilgrims and travellers from the St Augustinian Monastery, just outside the town of Bristol, to the Monastery College at Westbury-on-Trym.

A path led from St Augustine Abbey across the slopes of Brandon Hill, crowned by the Chapel dedicated to St Brendan, down into the steep sided valley of the Sandbrook, which it crossed before rising through the equally steep slopes of Clifton Wood.

Passing through the Manor of Clifton the traveller would have at last reached the plateau of the Downs, high above the river Avon, even high enough for the traveller to see a gleam, where the river joined the distant Severn Sea. From there the path continued off the far side of the plateau down to Westbury.

Our interest in this journey lies in the first part of that traveller’s ancient journey – the bridle path that spiralled around the hill of St Brandon, before leading down the steep sided valley, where the silver rill of the Sandbrook flowed down the creek on the bank of the Avon.

Through the millennia, before travellers embarked on the next part of their journey, the steep climb to Clifton, they had been able to break their journey amongst the picturesque openings and glades and refresh themselves at the springs gushing from the rocks on either side of the path.

In those ancient times it is likely that due to the Sandbrook’s relative seclusion the site of these springs were known only to Clifton’s manorial tenants and travellers or pilgrims passing between the monastic houses. Although it is also likely that in those early days, sailors would have come to the small creek to refill their water barrels from the sparkling stream before setting off once more on their voyages of exploration. Centuries later Admiral Lord Nelson was reputed to insist on always having a supply of ‘Bristol Water’ on board for his personal use.

The establishment of a Jewish population

This sylvan scene was probably unchanged until shortly after the Norman Conquest, when Geoffrey of Coutances and St Lô, chose Bristol as his west-country power-base, by building Motte and Bailey castle on the site of Bristol’s Saxon fortifications. Geoffrey’s undertaking, later rebuilt by Robert Earl of Gloucester and destined to become one of the largest Castles in their new Kingdom known as ‘The Flower of English Keeps’, required financing. To help with this the Norman conquerors bought with them their own Jewish financiers. Thus it was that in about 1100, Bristol became home to a small but gradually increasing group of Jews who established themselves in the area just outside the walls between Broad and Small streets.

In accordance with their religion and customs the Jews needed a secluded hillside for a separate cemetery together with two sources of water, one for the washing of their dead and the other for their purification rituals. The spring and chamber for preparing the dead for burial needed to be close to the cemetery and was known as the ‘Tahara’ – members of the ‘Chevra Kahdisha’ from within their community carried out preparation of the dead.

The ‘Mishnah‘, a first or second century compilation of Jewish practice set out the requirements and operation of the ‘Mikveh’ – their purification bath. A Mikveh could utilise either still or flowing water, however the rules for construction and use were different, and thus the distinction had to be clearly marked.

Although we do not know who first drew the attention of the Bristol Jews to this site and directed their footsteps to the valley of the Sandbrook, we can imagine their pleasure at finding such an ideal location. A secluded hillside away from the busy town and the eyes of the townspeople, but a little more than a mile from their new Jewry. Directly opposite their proposed cemetery an unadopted spring gushed forth from a crevice in the rocks which could probably be enlarged to form a Tahara – a washing chamber for the dead.

Following the path alongside the sandy brook down the valley they came down to a point where the water from the springs beside the slope of the path to Clifton flowed down into the Sandbrook. Noticing that another of these springs also emerged from a small chamber in the rock and flowed into the main brook they realised that this would also be suitable for a Mikveh. This was because the water from this spring flowed downhill before joining the main brook and would not therefore be contaminated by the water from the Tahara. They therefore decided to use this for their Mikveh, but because their small community predominately comprised businessmen and not artisans they probably enlisted the help of local stonemasons to enlarge the natural spring chamber to meet the requirements of a Mikveh.

After completing the work on the spring the final addition would have been a notice ‘SACHOLIM‘, advising their brethren that it was a Mikveh with flowing water and to use it in accordance with the appropriate rules. Fortunately for posterity the important word was deeply carved into the massive lintel stone above the Mikveh chamber, where it remains today undiminished by the passage of time.

People have often asked if the spring occupied a significant place in Bristol’s pre-history. The answer is probably not, for the following reasons:

  • The Jewish community would not have appropriated springs already identified as Christian Holy Wells.
  • In accordance with Pope Gregory’s letter to St Augustine, all Pagan places of worship or veneration were not to be destroyed but were to be kept and overlaid by the Christian faith. A probable example of the conversion of a Holy Place to Christianity is that at nearby healing well dedicated to St Anne’s at Brislington on the other side of Bristol. This site also had a famous chapel built there to receive the pilgrims. Even nearer to hand, in 1174 William Earl of Gloucester gave the summit of Brandon Hill, to the Priory of St James. On this summit, called Mutton Tump, they dedicated a chapel to St Brendan, a chapel which may or may not have been a conversion from an earlier Pagan site. In 1480 William Worcester in his description of Bristol recounted that the community of the Priory of St James said that the hill ‘…resembled that of Calvary at Jerusalem’.

With two possible examples of local sites converted to Christian use, one within sight of both the Augustinian Abbey and the Sandbrook, it is unlikely that this spring running into that same brook would have been overlooked by the church authorities if it had a Pagan significance. This supposition is supported by the fact that the first named references to the Mikveh Spring that have been found refer to it as the ‘Jacob’s Well’.

However, when the Jewish community adopted the spring that we now know as the ‘Jacob’s Well’ for their own use, it is likely that the other spring, the ‘Garden Spring’ on the opposite side of the same path would continue to be used by travellers. There the situation would probably have remained if it hadn’t been for the expulsion of the Jews in 1290, after which the spring water once more ran free down to the river Avon.

The departure of the Jews coincided with the Augustinian Abbey needing ever more water, both for their monastic establishment, and for their secular neighbours. They followed the example of the Carmelite Friars, who in 1267 decided to have water piped to the friary from their springs on the opposite side of Brandon Hill. (a full account of which was published in Temple Local History Group’s book, An Account of St John’s – [one of] Bristol’s Medieval Water System[s]). Thus it was that the Dean and Chapter of the Abbey were allowed to take a pipe from the springs of the Sandbrook across the slopes of Brandon hill to their abbey precincts. An idea of the flow from these springs can be gained from reference to a Lead Blowing Mill at Woodwell Lake on the Sandbrook. This reference was contained in the account of the first major perambulation of the bounds of Bristol in 1373. The perambulation was to define the boundaries, and confirm the placing of stones and markers in support of the Royal Charter signed at Woodstock on the eighth of August 1373 granting Bristol county status.


Editor’s Note

In the above article, local author and historian Julian Lea-Jones has drawn on the work of the Temple Local History Group which from 1985 to 2001 researched the whole of this historic area. Readers wanting more information, or bibliographic sources for the information detailed within it, are referred to the full report (Lea-Jones 1999), available from the author himself or from Bristol Record Office at the archive number BRO41252.

Lea-Jones, J. (1999). Historical account of the area known as ‘Jacob’s Wells, Clifton, Bristol, England: from twelfth century to modern times. Bristol: J. Lea-Jones. ISBN 0-951-00689-4.

We are also delighted to be able to report that after a great deal of hard campaigning and research by the Temple Local History Group, the Jacob’s Well complex has been scheduled as an ancient monument and is therefore protected. Please see the news section for further details.


For more information contact:

Julian Lea-Jones,
33 Springfield Grove,
Bristol BS6 7XE.
Tel: 0117 942 1760
Email: julianleajones@blueyonder.co.uk


On a pilgrimage  route

The establishment of a Jewish population

Editor’s Note


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Written by Rich Pederick
Created November 1, MMII

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