Holy Well, Holwell, Hertfordshire

Holy Well (lost):  OS Grid Reference – TL 16 33

Archaeology & History

The exact location of this site seems to have been lost.  One possible candidate is on the south-side of the village where remains of a large moat exists, meaning that there was a good water supply here to maintain its existence.  But this is pure guesswork on my part.  The well was mentioned briefly in R.C. Hope’s (1893) classic book where he told us:

“There was a holy well or spring in the village of Holwell, on the borders of Bedford and Hertfordshire; unfortunately both history and site have been forgotten by the villagers at Holywell.”

The site was mentioned as far back as 1086 CE in the Domesday Book as ‘Holewelle’.  The place-name authorities Gover, Mawer & Stenton (1938) tell us this derives from a “spring in the hollow” and not a holy well as subsequent writers profess.  The only thing that could perhaps fortify the ‘holy’ element is that in some instances early citations of holy wells are written as holi- wells, which this may have been.  As all historians know, early spellings of sites are far from accurate.

References:

  1. Gover, J.E.B., Mawer, Allen & Stenton, F.M., The Place-Names of Hertfordshire, Cambridge University Press 1938.
  2. Hope, Robert Charles, Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England, Elliott Stock: London 1893.
  3. Smith, A.H., English Place-Name Elements – volume 1, Cambridge University Press 1956.

© Paul BennettThe Northern Antiquarian

 

loading map - please wait...

  51.983358, -0.312310 Holy Well

Water End Maypole, North Mymms, Hatfield, Hertfordshire

Maypole (removed):  OS Grid Reference – TL 2296 0410

Getting Here

On the east side of Warrengate Road, approached from Welham Green via Dixons Hill Road, or from Brookmans Park via Bradmore Lane.

Archaeology & History

o khy 01170

A 1920 photograph of the Public House. The Maypole was believed to have been in the garden grounds to the rear.

The exact position of the pole is not marked on the 1896 25″ OS map, as it is probable that it had been removed by the middle of the nineteenth century (like the majority of the permanent Hertfordshire maypoles), but local belief in the 1950s and 60s was that it had been in the garden of the Old Maypole (originally known as ‘The Maypole’) public house, which adjoined the smithy in Warrengate Road, Water End.  The public house is stated to have been built around 1520, with later additions, but is now a private house.

The population of Water End and nearby Welham Green was predominantly employed in agriculture, domestic service and straw plaiting, but the area’s proximity to London probably speeded the demise of the ancient traditions like maypole dancing .

Maypole North Mymms

The 1896 OS 25″ map, showing the garden ground to the rear of the public house

Doris Jones-Baker writes: “The old Hertfordshire maypoles, on May Day decorated with ribbons and a bunch of spring flowers at the top, were described as being ‘as high as the mast of a vessel of a hundred tons, painted often in a diagonal or spiral pattern from bottom to top in yellow and black, or often in vertical stripes of red, white and blue’”

Interestingly, the rear of the public house garden adjoins the Swallow Holes, a geological feature where the intermittent flowing waters of the Mimmshall Brook disappear into the chalk in as many as 15 sink holes. Hertfordshire has an ancient tradition of ‘woe-waters’ related to the local geology, where the flowing or not of a stream or spring was seen to herald ‘sorrow to come’. From personal memory the Mimmshall Brook is normally a dry stream bed which can in winter suddenly turn into a raging torrent, flooding the land behind The Old Maypole. Any tradition of it having been a woe-water has though been lost. But it is just possible that long ago the coming of May Day was also seen to herald the end of flooding of the Mimmshall Brook and may explain the siting of the pole.

The last year that people danced is not recorded, but the local maypole tradition continued; this writer remembers ribbon dancing as a very small child to a fiddle accompaniment around a maypole erected at the nearby, but long demolished Waterend C.E. Primary School, which closed in 1960.

Folklore

As well as Maypole dancing, Hertfordshire had a rich tradition of May day ritual and song, which despite the county’s proximity to London, survived long enough for some of it to be recorded for posterity. While there does not seem to be any ritual recorded for North Mymms, the following was recorded at nearby Hatfield. “On may morning, dressed in white and holding bunches of Hawthorn or, in late seasons, blackthorn blossoms the children sang door to door a local version of the May song, which began:

‘A bunch of May I bring unto you
And at your door I stand,
Come pull out your purse,
You’ll be none the worse
And give the poor Mayers some money….’”

References:

  1. North Mymms Local History Society, North Mymms Pictures From The Past, Welham Green, 2002
  2. Jones-Baker, Doris, The Folklore of Hertfordshire, B.T.Batsford, London, 1977
  3.  Kingsford, Peter, North Mymms People in Victorian Times, Brookmans Park, Hertfordshire, Privately Published, 1986

© Paul T. Hornby 2016 The Northern Antiquarian 

North Mymms maypole

loading map - please wait...

North Mymms maypole 51.722200, -0.221181 North Mymms maypole

St. Alban’s Well, St. Albans, Hertfordshire

Holy Well:  OS Grid Reference – TL 146 066

Also Known as:

  1. Holy Well of St. Albans

Archaeology & History

The ancient and once sacred water source was described in local place-names such as Holywell strete and Holywellbrugge from the 13th Century onwards; yet despite it being at the heart of one of the cradles of the English church, there are only scant accounts of the legendary well down the centuries.  The most detailed essay on this site was written by Tony Haynes (1986) in the specialist holy well journal, Source, more than 20 years ago.  Haynes tells as much as it known of the site, saying:

“Late in the seventeenth century, when John Churchill, future Duke of Marlborough, pulled down his wife’s house and built a new mansion in the middle of Holywell Hill, thus creating a major diversion, the Holy Well was a feature of his terraced gardens.  Maps of the period show the site of the well to be a focal point of his lawns.

“In 1815, Shaw’s guide to the town states, ‘The holy-well is still held in some esteem for its purity and salubrious qualities’.  The Duke’s residence later became the property of the Earl Spencers. It eventually fell into ruin and was demolished in 1837, and the original route of Holywell Hill was restored, no doubt much to the relief of contemporary coach and wagon drivers. After this time, the grounds were left to decay.  Ten years later little remained of the gardens but a fishpond and the Duke’s ‘canal’ marking the original course of the River Ver.

“Of the Holy Well, in his History of St Albans published in 1893, Charles Ashdowne laments that: “It is now remembered only as a muddy depression, sheltered by the remains of a dilapidated wall and a mournful specimen of blackthorn.”  Eventually the land was acquired by the St Albans School for Boys as a playing field.  “The exigencies of athleticism necessitated the ground being levelled and turfed over,” Ashdown continues, “and it is much regretted that there is nothing to mark the site of what was essentially one of the most ancient of English Holy Wells.”

“This is confirmed by a Miss Lightfoot of Holywell Hill. In 1960, when she was 85, she wrote in a letter to Hertfordshire Countryside magazine:  ‘I remember the well quite well, for as a child I often went round it. It was surrounded by a fence, inside was a tree, water and weeds – not very inviting.’

“The ‘Old boys’ of St Albans School recall, about fifty years ago, there being a concrete slab at one end of their football pitch which they knew as the site of the well. Their playing field fell into disuse in the 1960’s, but the exact site of the well was lost long before this.”

Naff all is visible here nowadays, apart from some concrete square bitta brickwork that betrays any sense whatsoever of a once sacred site.  Very disappointing indeed…..

Folklore

As with a great many British holy wells, this all-but-forgotten site was named after one of the early christian martyrs — in this case from as early as the late 3rd century AD.  A number of early folklore texts describe St. Albans story, with Vernon Brelsford (1958) telling:

“Tradition states that on his way to execution he walked up a neighbouring hill where he prayed for water to quench his thirst, whereupon a fountain of water sprang up under his feet.  Here he was beheaded on June 23, AD 303.”

This date indicates the site probably replaced an earlier, heathen midsummer solstice custom at, or near this spot.  Another tale tells that when St. Alban had been executed, the saint’s head rolled down the hill and into the waters of the well below.  Mr Haynes (1986) described other early folklore which seems to relate to St. Alban’s Well, telling:

“An early reference to the well can be found in the writings of Brompton who lived in the time of Richard II. He recorded that the father of King Arthur, a British Prince, was severely wounded in the battles with the Saxons:

‘A long time he lay confined to his bed until at length he was cured by resorting to a well or spring not far distant from the city. at that time reputed to be salubrious; and for that reason, and for the cures thereby performed, esteemed holy; and blessed in a peculiar manner with the flavour of Heaven.’

“Two devout sisters built a shelter near the well. They served the weary pilgrims who trudged up the steep hill towards Alban’s shrine in the abbey, by dipping, or ‘sopping’ their bread in the holy water and offering it to the thirsty travellers.  Hence was founded Sopwell Priory, nearby.”

References:

  1. Brelsford, Vernon, Superstitious Survivals, Centaur Press: London 1958.
  2. Gover, J.E.B., et al, The Place-Names of Hertfordshire, Cambridge University Press 1938.
  3. Haynes, Tony, “Well-Wishing in St. Albans,” in Source, no.6, 1986.
  4. Hope, R.C., The Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England, Elliot Stock: London 1893.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

St Albans Well

loading map - please wait...

St Albans Well 51.746849, -0.340744 St Albans Well