Holy Well: OS Grid Reference — TQ 7510 9658
Also Known as:
- Running Well
It can be found by taking a road off the A132 (Wickford Road) which leads to Stock (directly opposite the Parish Church), continuing until you reach another minor road to Rettendon. A short way up this road it forks. Take the road to the right & continue until one reaches a minor drive to Poplars Farm (distinctive with its trees each side of the drive). Continue up here until one passes the house to a small piece of tarmac. Here a footpath continues directly in front, continue until one reaches on the left a gate. Enter through here, and head across the field towards a notable tree, and a gap in the hedge. To the left, follow the edge of the field, until one sees another opening into the well. The approach from the south is the only route worth considering as northerly access is blocked by a fence. It can be extremely muddy, so good footwear is advisable.
Archaeology & History
Philip Morant (1763-8) is the first to mention it, suggesting that the settlement is named:
“..from a considerable Running well in the Parish.”
Again, Chandler (1896)—noted in Collins (1986)—emphasises:
“a remarkable spring of water on Poplars Farm, which is always running and has never been known to fail.”
Despite this obvious assumption, Ekwall (1936) suggested that the prefix originates from O.E rune for ‘mystery’ or implying a well possessing a secret of some religious observance. This is suggestive of the strange legends and traditions involved with the site. Alternatively it could derive from hruna referring to the tree trunk—and it does arise in a copse. A roman road runs by here.
The only reference to a religious site appears to be in 1602 when the parish register records ‘Shrine of the Bl. Virgin of RunnyngeWelle’. However, stone remains found over the years around the well may support the idea of a well chapel; these remains were two pieces of limestone window mullion and a piece which appears to be part of a step as well as pieces of Kentish ragstone.
According to Bazille-Corbin (1940), Runwell is steeped in lore and legend. One must take these stories as possible antiquarian fancy as there does not appear to be any concrete evidence for them. Doubtless some of it is true, other bits not. He states that in the Sixth Century AD, Christian missionaries Lucus and Lucilus visited Essex and found a scene of paganism here, built a chapel, and rededicated the well to “Our Lady St Mary.” The floor of this chapel had a unique designed cross, with black flint and red strawberry stone, to show the teachings of the tenets of the Christian Faith.
To protect this and collect subsequent devotional gifts, a nunnery, of six members, was developed around the site. They tended to the shrine, well head and the statue of Our Lady, to which many miracles were attributed. Little evidence exists concerning this foundation, but it is believed to have been dissolved in the 16th Century. Locally it is said parts of the nunnery were incorporated into the nearby farm-house ‘The Poplars’. In the 1980s, Andrew Collins, searched for records of this local priory, but found none.
Another legend connected with the well accords that a young nun, Sister Lucy, after renouncing her vows, found the outside world not to her liking and returned in repentance, one snowy night, to the chapel for forgiveness. Yet, upon reaching the chapel steps, she slipped and fell into the icy waters of the well. (cf. The Single or St. Thomas’ Well at Ifield, Kent)
Her ghost is said to haunt the area, preserving perhaps the memories of these past water deities. This is enforced by the belief by some authorities that the well’s dedication indicates a Christianisation of the Iceni goddess Epona. This is supported by these horseshoe-shaped motifs, and that the approach to the well being haunted by a horse.
Andy Collins (1986) was informed that a concrete water tank was installed over the spring. This proved to be inaccurate, but the well was defined by a concrete chamber. Collins thought that this may be the remains of some adaptation for a spa bath, but no hard evidence was forthcoming regarding this.
It certainly had passed through considerable years of neglect, as noted by the Runwell Rector John Edward Bazille-Corbin (1942), who said it was “in much need of dredging and cleaning out.”
The photo shown in Collins’s (1986) work shows a concrete lined rectangular pond, defined by corrugated iron. He was thus responsible for its repair and clearing away the years of neglect, also revealing the concrete rectangular pond, which was reached by a series of steps from its north side. A flight of steps appear to enter the well itself from the front. The body of water is of considerable size and depth and one could easily immerse oneself in it. When I last visited here, the water appeared murky but a sample revealed (apart from the pond fauna) a remarkable clarity.
Within recent years the well appears to have attracted a ‘cult following’, clearly manifesting itself in two ways. One is a seasonal Boxing Day walk to the well started in 1975, which is still undertaken (see link, below). The other more traditionally is the attachment of rags or cloutties to the surrounding shrubbery. Such activity, although probably done by those ‘in the know’ rather than any continuation of any local tradition, is the only such example I have come across in East Anglia—although recent photographs fail to show this and it appears that the tree has been cut down where these have been placed and the area opened up.
- Bazille-Corbin, J. E., Runwell St. Mary: A farrago of History, Archaeology, Legend and Folk-lore, 1940.
- Collins, Andrew, “Devilish Mysteries at Runwell,” in Essex Countryside Vol. 33 no.431, p38-39, 1985.
- Collins, Andrew, The Running Well Mystery, 1986.
- Ekwall, Eilert, Studies in English Place and Personal Names, Lund 1931.
- Ekwall, Eilert, The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names, Oxford 1936.
- Morant, Philip, The History and Antiquities of the County of Essex – 3 volumes, London 1763-8 (reprinted by EP: Wakefield 1978).
- Parish, R.B., Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Essex, Pixy Led Publications 2008.
- Reaney, Paul, The Place-Names of Essex, Cambridge University Press 1935.
This site profile is an edited extract from the book Holy wells and healing springs of Essex
© R.B. Parish, The Northern Antiquarian