Rebecca’s Well on Crazies Hill
by Michael Bayley
Up until the birth of the Oxford Movement of the church of England, the parson preached on Sundays, married, baptized and buried his parishioners, collected his tithes and passed on his dues to his superiors, and presided over the village feast, and generally assisted the Lord of the Manor in matters spiritual.
Men were born to their station, and minded their own business, and so in general the people of the hills between Henley and Cookham south of the Thames were left free from ecclesiastical interference and largely ignorant of Christianity and what went on in the rest of England, well into the mid-19th century.
Then a new sort of missionary and pastoral curate was appointed to Wargrave (Berks.) just as one had been to Cookham Dean some 40 years earlier, and he walked up the hill out of Wargrave, and as far as he was concerned he walked a thousand years back in history as he climbed Crazies Hill (4796 1806).
The people of Crazies Hill had little neat cottages, but of course no lighting except oil lamps and penny dips or candles; no drainage or refuse collection but the annual removal of the midden; and no water except that from the muddy pool and the spring in the woods known as Rebra’s Well (4799 1806). The Reverend Grenville Phillimore was shocked and he was determined to help these poor villagers even though he was poor himself. By his own efforts and publicity he raised enough funds to have a proper basin fitted to the spring in 1870 so that the water would not be sullied by the mud. And then, because the villagers seemed to treat their spring as a thing to be worshipped in itself, he had a cross erected there to claim it for his religion, and at the same time decided that Rebra must be a run-down form of the Biblical name Rebecca, for she was chosen to be Isaac’s wife when she went to the well to draw water. He added a text, and a verse from Chaucer for good measure, and to crown his work his parishioners raised a further £25 to build the brick building about the spring. Because of his charitable work, many people called the spring ‘Phillimore’s Spring’. The reverend gentleman himself insisted on Rebecca’s Well, but the local people who drew their water there and lived at Crazies Hill still called it ‘Rebra’s Well’. And so they should, for it never was Rebecca’s Well, except in the imagination of the good curate. It was just ‘REB, BAR YAGH WY LLE’ in the old-fashioned way of speaking that was just going out of current use in the Chilterns and Windsor forest at this time. There might still have been some old lady there in the village, who had never left it, even to go to church down in Wargrave, who could have told anyone interested that the name meant ‘The healthy water place, hard by the top of the Hill’. And so it remains to this day; dilapidated but still there
And were the people of the hill ever really crazy? Never! The name comes from the well again, the only source of clean drinking water on the hill until modern times. It was CRAY-WY-ZEATH hill, that is the hill of ‘the fresh clean waterof the waterless place’
Michael Bayley is an architect and a talented draftsman. The article printed here is excerpted from Mr Bayley’s unpublished study of all the ‘Holy, Healing and Ancient Wells in the Thames Valley’ (publishers, please note!), which is also the subject of his beautiful illustrated map. For Rebecca’s Well, Mr Bayley tells us that his information was taken ‘from Stephen Derby’s Chapters in the history of Cookham c. 1909 & possibly from the Victoria County History. I think it has been retold in the recent Book of Wargrave some of which came from Herbert Reid’s 1885 History of Wargrave‘ (in litt. 15 Aug. 1994). It is to be noted that Mr Bayley’s etymologies of Berkshire place-names are controversial (at total variance, for instance, with the published findings of the English Place-Name Society), being based on his conviction that some variant of the ‘Celtic’ group of languages remained in partial use in rural areas until the late-19th century. His speculations are presented in two booklets, Celtic Place Names and Celtic Language Survival.
Text & Illustration © Michael Bayley (1994)
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