The Whistlebitch Well, Utkinton, Cheshire
by Roy Fry & Tristan Gray Hulse
Utkinton is a smalll rural village in Cheshire, two miles to the north of Tarporley. It is conventional wisdom that such village comunities change slowly – that their present pace of life, their peace and quiet, are ‘just as they have always been’. Yet in the case of Utkinton, its contemporary slow pace is misleading. Nearly 400 years ago, for a short time Utkinton was as busy a place as any in England, attracting as many as 2000 people daily! But what brought them there?
The answer is found in a pamphlet published in London in 1600. It consists of a ‘Letter lately sent from a Cheshire man, to a Gentleman a deere friend of his’, written at Chester on 12 August 1600. The author’s name is given simply as G.W., and his pamphlet is entitled: ‘Newes out of Cheshire concerning the New found Well’. G.W. tells us that ‘one Iohn Greeneway of Vtkinton [there were still Greenways in Utkinton until a few years ago] an honest subsantiall countriman of good credit and well reputed, being about fiftie yeeres of age or somewhat more, was about the ende of March last past troubled with the Fittes’. Consulting ‘a learned Phisition’ of Chester, he was told ‘to get him home, keep him warme, use good diet, and… to find out some good pure spring water, to drinke of it, to bathe and washe himselfe with it’; after which, he would doubtless swiftly recover.
Luckily, Greeneway was ‘well acquainted with the Springs & al other commodities of the Forrest’ [Utkinton is on the southern edge of Delamere Forest, now represented by a separated portion called Primrose Hill]; and he soon located a ‘prettie purling fountaine’, where ‘by drinking, washing and accomplishing what he was commaunded, in verie shorte time hee was of his Ague throughly cured’.
The news spread quickly. Firstly ‘the neighbours neere vnto him hearing and finding the truth of this successe, began to resort to the Well’; and their own cures spread the report ever wider, until ‘it drew people in verie great numbers to repaire thither’. In proof of his assertions, G.W. describes about 40 of the cures, of people ‘both in Cheshire, Lancashire, Darbishire, Staffordshire, Shropshire, Flintshire, Denbighishire and others, from whence men, women and children hauing resorted hither in such abundance, there is not any but haue giuen ample testimonie’ of their being helped by the waters. To quote a single example:
‘One Robert Bradley, who came out of Darbishire the 24. of Iuly, being borne at Chappell in the Frith, was led hither blind, hath here recouered sight, and the fourth of August is gone home without leading.’
W.G. describes the well as ‘insensibly [imperceptibly] issuing from firme ground at the roote or foote of a shrubbie hull or hollin-tree’ [holly], the ‘Well or Cesterne being bordered with three or foure flagge stones’, and ‘almost foure square, conteyning South and North about 30. inches, West and East about 26. inches’. ‘The resorters thither hauing made some one or two slender weake dammes to stay the water, halfe a dozen yards or more beneathe the fountaine, there are by that meanes two small lakes or pooles, wherein poore people, when they are disposed, do bathe and wash themselues.’ A quaint but expressive illustration of the area around the well is given on the title page of the pamphlet.
The numerous visitors to the well must have brought sudden prosperity to the village, with so many people to let rooms to, or cater for; and proper provision was made to receive such an influx of the sick and curious. ‘The people as well of Cheshire, as all the bordering shires thereabouts, trauelling thither daily in greater and greater multitudes (even till they amounted by estimation to more than two thousand in a daie) Master Done [the Forester Royal, of Utkinton Hall – Delamere was a royal preserve] euen then at the first, although it were great disturbance to her Highnesse [Elizabeth I] Deere in the Forrest & occasion of much other inconvenience to the countrie, yet in regard of the notable comfort that sicke and diseased, and pleasure that heathfull and sound persons receiued by it; hath been contented to allow free accesse, and permitted all manner of meete prouision to be brought vnto it, with most carefull and Worshipfull foresight and heede, as well that no money nor fee should be exacted for the vse of the water which God had freelie bestowed on poore and rich, as also that there should be order and gouernment warilie taken ouer all such as resorted thither.’
But this offical recognition of the well was also the beginning of its end. The queen’s deer in the queen’s forest were seen to be under threat, and within three years Master Done had closed the forest to all comers. The ‘New found Well’, and with it the village of Utkinton, sank back into obscurity; and its chance to develop into a spa as notable and prosperous as Buxton, or Leamington, or Harrogate, was summarily denied, at the whim of the rich and selfish. Only G.W’s booklet remains to tell us of its moment of glory. (‘Newes out of Cheshire’ is one of the rarest of books. Only three copies are known to survive, in the British Library, the Bodleian, and the Liverpool City Library. It was reprinted in an edition of only 6 copies by Lilac Tree Press, Wallasey, in 1975. There is a copy of this edition in the Chester Reference Library.)
The name given to the well in 1600 seems to indicate that its healing properties were unknown until John Greeneway providentially found it to cure his ‘ague’. But was this the case? Certain pieces of information given by G.W. suggest it should really have been called the Re-found Well. He records that at the time local people reported that the spring had ‘beene of knowne, and notable vertue in the daies of…Queene Eadilflede [Ethelfleda of Mercia, who played a significant role in Cheshire history in the Saxon period], and vsed by her meanes and maintenance to the generall reliefe of people in those daies, but afterwards in the outrages and oppressions which the conquering Danes made in the Countrey, it was closed and stopped vp to preuent the benefite which the common rigorous enemie might haue receiued by it’. G.W. himself gave more credit to ‘some persons of no meane account’, who told him of ‘an auncient Well, within the precincts of Delamere, that many yeares past was esteemed of great vertue and efficacie, insomuch as the same being dedicated by the first christians which had vse thereof to holy Saint Stephen, the same still beareth name…of Saint Stephens Well’. This in fact might be the real clue to the well’s early history.
Though Utkinton can possibly be said to date back to Saxon times (Utkinton is held to mean the ‘ton or enclosure where Utta kept his kine, or cattle’, and the name is of Anglo-Saxon provenance), a direct connection with Ethelfleda would be difficult to demonstrate. But in the Middle Ages them were hundreds of holy wells, dedicated to various saints, scattered throughout the length and breadth of the British Isles. If – and there is now no surviving documentation to support the ‘if’, though there apparently was in G.W.’s time – Utkinton had a sacred and healing well, dedicated to St Stephen, nothing is more likely than that devotion to the saint, and pilgrimages thither to seek a cure at his well through his prayers, would have been discouraged or forbidden during the Reformation, as a ‘Popish superstition’. However, the local people would not easily forget the reputation of their holy well (the wells represented one of the very few kinds of health care available to the poor); and when times became less oppressive would begin to return to the well, ostensibly for their health, but just as possibly for devotional purposes, disguised as a visit to a spa. This pattern is observable at many other British holy wells. But John Greeneway’s amazing cure brought the well to prominence, and instead of quietly continuing to benefit the local community for another two centuries or so, as happened elsewhere, it became the focus of national attention. It may even be suggested that there was a religious element to this renewed visiting of the well, for G.W mentions ex votos left at the well by the cured, as is still found today at numerous Catholic pilgrimage shrines. He relates that ‘one Mister William Iohnes a gentleman of worth and good reputation, dwelling neere Wrixham [a known Catholic stonshold] in Denbighshire came very sicke and lame to this Well’, but after being cured ‘he left testimonie there vnder his hand-writing of the great benefit he receiued’, in token of which ‘he hath left his crouch [crutch] in the hollin there behind, this second of August 1600’. And he adds that ‘the same crouch with diuers others being there indeed reserued as oft as anie haue cause to leaue them’.
Whatever the exact reason, the excuse of damage to the queen’s forest was invoked, and the well was closed to the public: a dreadful shame, seeing that it was ‘found to bee profitable, not onely against Agues, which was the first virtue reuealed in it, but also against all manner of coldes, stoppings, grypings, gnawings, collicks, aches, ruptures & inward infirmities, and no lesse soueraigne against sores and outward anguishes, wounds, swellings, vlcers, festers, impostumes and hurts of the seuerall ioynts [joints] and members; besides that, it hath done no small number of straunge cures, against sorenes of eyes and eares, blindnesse, deafenesse, lamenesse, stifnesse of sinnewes, numbnesse, weakenesse and feeblenesse, all which I am able to auerre and proue, by vndeniable demonstration from the seuerall effects of infinite numbers of people, that haue giuen witnesse thereof in these three or foure moneths now last past.’ G.W. says that to many the water had ‘the tast of Licoris’; and himself confessed ‘that it is a water different from manie other Spring waters in taste, and the most pleasantest in drinking of anie that I haue euer tasted’ – a judgment borne out by the present writer’s own experiments!
The well still survives, but all local memory of its earlier names of St Stephen’s or the New found Well, have been lost. By 1813 at the latest, when it is shown on the Inclosure Survey ‘Plan of Delamere Forrest’, it had come to be called the Whistlebitch Well, the name it bears today. The exact meaning of this curious name is hard to discern (it does not seem, for instance, to be Cheshire dialect), but I was once told locally that it was so called because the water ‘whistled’ as it came out of the ground. Today the spring rises into a small locked brick-built structure, and is piped a few yards into a holding tank, from whence it is pumped to provide the water supply of Primrose Hill, a house in the wood, which was formerly a hunting lodge. The overflow forms a small stream running eastwards through the woods, though the conifers are turning its course into a swamp. There are no visible traces of the clay-built dams, or any indication of the site’s one-time importance; but the little overgrown gully in which the spring rises is a pleasant spot for a picnic.
To reach the Whistlebitch: From Utkinton post office, go up Chapel Hill, and turn left at the school into Tirley Lane. Follow this road to its end, at the T-junction. Opposite, a track leads into the wood. Where this track turns sharp right, ahead of you is an overgrown green lane, a fragment of the ancient road to the well. At its end, cross the intervening few yards of field, and the Whistlebitch will be seen below you, lost in the luxuriant undergrowth, its exact location only revealed by a dead tree and a ruined wire fence.
It is all a very far cry from the scene described by the pen of G.W., but still well worth an hour or so of anybody’s time, to trace to its source the story of a village’s vanished fame.
Text & Illustrations © Roy Fry & Tristan Gray Hulse (1994)
Designed & Maintained by Richard L. Pederick (© 1999) | Created 15/11/99