Holy Well, Longthorpe, Peterborough, Northamptonshire

Holy Well:  OS Grid-Reference – TL 1678 9815

Also known as:

  1. St. Cloud’s Well

Getting Here

From Thorpe Green, Longthorpe, then take the Larklands road.  Once a copse of trees appears at the front near a T-junction, the well can be accessed to the side of this wood.

Archaeology & History

The well was enclosed in grounds belonging to St John family, an estate laid out in a style similar to the pleasure gardens of Vauxhall. Within these grounds was an 18th century summerhouse, which has now vanished. A distillery was established here by a Doctor Skirmshire, who lived at Longthorpe, for making ‘considerable quantities of lavender and peppermint, cultivated in adjacent fields..’ (Arrowsmith n.d.).

Sadly, there appear to be no ancient records which justify ascribing an ancient date to the Holy Well complex. Indeed, it would appear to be contemporary with the summerhouse. Perhaps it was built to provide a folly-hermitage to support the legend? It is said that the summerhouse was demolished in the mid-ninteenth century because of the disorderly proceedings undertaken in it by visitors from Peterborough! According to Thompson (1913), the dressed stone was used for the kitchen floor of the nearby Manor House.

Thompson gives a plan of the well along with an accurate description, which luckily does not differ from the sight which greets the visitor today (although there is now an ugly metal gate on the structure):

‘The subterranean chambers constitute a medley of design and structure; they are not caves, although now underground, but were apparently first built….

The walls and domed roofs consist of undressed stone. The passage from the pool runs in a direction of N 60 W, and is some six feet long. The entrance being two feet four inches wide by five feet high. The first chamber or antechamber is mostly to the left and nearly at right angles to the passage; it is approximately ten feet by eight feet. In this there is a window high up, evidently a more recent introduction, for the frame is of dressed stone, and the rough stone roof cuts across it, so that external appearance rather than internal use would appear to have been the dominating factor in its design. On the opposite wall of the window is a doorway, and at one time evidently a door, for one stone jamb of dressed stone is left. This doorway opens into the very irregular second or main chamber, roughly twenty feet long, by fifteen feet wide near the widest part. Immediately within the doorway is a well, with dressed stone curb, of three feet internal diameter, and exactly above, in the roof is another smaller circular opening lined with dressed stone as though arranged to draw water from the well from the mound above without going into the chamber, but this is not now open. The well is now choked with stones, but the water used to overflow from the well and run down the passage way to the pool outside, it now flows out oat a lower level leaving the passage way dry. Immediately on the right, after entering the large chamber is am opening leading to a third chamber, smaller, crudely oval, but an indescribable shape, approximately eight to nine feet one way by twelve feet another.

Comparing Thompson’s description and the photograph, one can note a few differences, the main one being that the site in general has become noticeably overgrown. The wall which appears to run along one side has become overgrown and derelict, the pool overgrown, and rubbish-strewn. Within the structure, the curbed well has gone and now one can see the water bubbling from the rock.

Folklore

One side of this is the opening, now blocked up, to a supposed underground passage to Peterborough Cathedral, by which the monks of the Abbey of Burgh, were said to come and bathe in the pool….

To the left of this large chamber, on entering the latter, is a recess some fifteen feet wide and nine feet deep, with a floor consisting essentially of two steps, both apparently of ‘live’ rock, i.e. rock in situ; the upper step being the wider and more like a dais. There is a rather small opening high up on the outer wall of this recess, some five feet from the dais, and is about seventeen inches wide by twenty two feet high, but goes four feet or more in the thickness of the wall or mound without providing an external opening.’

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe site’s greatest fame stems from the tunnel mentioned above by Thompson, which is said to run from the Holy Well to the Abbey at Peterborough. A blocked-up doorway in the third chamber is described as the entrance to this tunnel, although one can imagine that the nature of the whole edifice would lend to such a belief. Certainly records show that the Abbey was supplied by a conduit at the Infirmary end of the Chapel of St Lawrence. However, it is more likely that this took its waters from the St Leonard’s Well at Spital, whose water also filled the Boroughbury Pools and Swan’s Pool.

Yet records show that the Abbey was interested in the site. During Abbot Godfreys tenure, in 1130s the following document states:

Amos ejus viii inclusat porceum Burgi Sumptus iiij I lb: xv sol. Item feat fossutum salveunium inter Thorpe fen et le Dom Sumptus xx sol‘.

Anon 1904-6

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This enclosure cost four pounds and fifteen shillings. Under Abbot Gyerge another document notes the extent of this land (Halywelle), of four acres, three rood and twenty pearches, which until the building of the estate remained the same (Anon 1904-1906). Yet neither of these documents explicitly refers to the laying of a conduit.

The only possible justification for this belief came in November 6th 1964, when workmen, excavating to set up telephone kiosks beside the old Guildhall on Cathedral square, unearthed an underground passage. This continued for twenty five feet under church street, and ran parallel to land belonging to the Almoner’s Garden that was exchanged in the 1194-1200 agreement between the Abbot and the Vicar of Burgh and Longthorpe.  Unfortunately, the underground passage turned out to be some kind of eighteenth century fire precautions.

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Much of the site’s folklore and history derives from a story entitled The Knight of the Red Cross, a story based in the twelfth century, in Richard I’s reign. There is some confusion about the place where this work is published. Thompson (1913)  in his Peculiarities of water and wells states that it is contained within a work called Wild flowers gathered: original pieces in prose and rhyme, printed by J. S. Clarke, with no author or date; whereas  Arrowsmith (n.d) states it comes from a similarly titled, A list of wild flowers found in the neighbourhood of Peterborough, by F. A. Paley. Arrowsmith further notes that the work is advertised on the back of the same author’s Notes on twenty Parish churches round Peterborough, published in 1859. Unfortunately, I have been unable to trace either of these to confirm which is the right source. How much the story is based on any ancient account is unclear. It may be ‘faction’ or fiction, a problem of course with many sites. The applicable parts are produced below as Thompson (1913) notes:

“There is a beautiful spot, called Holywell, in the neighbourhood of Peterborough, well known, and much frequented by the inhabitants. The road lies through a pleasant park, where stands an ancient edifice belonging to the Fitzwilliam family, called Thorpe Hall… After passing the front of this mansion, turn to the left, by the stables and outer buildings will lead, through a white gate, to a small green field from whence this picturesque little spot is seen, with its ivy clad walls, and its dark cypress and yew trees, casting their gloomy shadows around. Passing some broken steps which form the entrance, a shady path conducts to a modern niche, supported by two pilasters, over a slab pavement to a stone basin about six feet in depth and thirty in circumference. This is constantly supplied with clear water, running from the mouth of a subterraneous passage which connects Holywell with the cathedral of Peterborough. An artificial mound of earth is thrown up above this cavity, which is covered with creepers, ground-ivy and a few wild flowers.

Contiguous to the basin are some small fish ponds, partially shaded by beautiful trees; and the green rushes which grow at their bank form undisturbed retreat in which the moor-hen builds her solitary nest. A little further on is a piece of an old pillar, which is gracefully overhung with a wreath of ivy… An old wall surrounding Holywell on two sides, in which traces of windows and doorways are still discernible, is the last feature we shall mention.”

Arrowsmith (n.d) states that these pools have been called ‘Monk’s Stew Ponds’ or ‘Paradise Ponds’, although Arrowsmith considers that the long distance from the Abbey makes it unlikely, as the Abbey was close to good fishing waters  He continues, ‘The waters of this well were formerly in high repute, and were much frequented by those who came on pilgrimages’

Its waters, according to Thompson (1913), are said to be slightly ferruginous, though he detected no sign of it, and nor did I. It was also thought to be efficacious for gout, rheumatism, skin diseases, and good for eyes.

It was believed that a Hermit, called St Cloud, lived at the site. Thompson (1913) continues, quoting J. S. Clarke, that he was ‘of great celebrity, whose pious councils and paternosters were generally in request amongst all pilgrims who visited the spot.’

Some authorities, such as Arrowsmith, have identified this hermit as St Botolph, who is said to have lived within a mile of his chapel during its construction on the Thorpe Avenue site. He is associated with other wells, such as that at Hadstock, Essex, so it is not impossible.

References:

  1. Anonymous, “Holywell,” in Fenland Notes and Queries6, pp.22-4, 1904-6
  2. Arrowsmith, A. L., Longthorpe and its Environs: Microcosm of a Village, privately published: no date.
  3. Bord, J. and C., Sacred Waters, Granada: London 1985.
  4. Thompson, B., “The Peculiarities of Water and Wells,” in Journal of Northants Natural History Society and Field Club18(135), 1913.

Extracted and edited from the original post – Holy & Healing Wells

© R.B. Parish, The Northern Antiquarian

Holy Well

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Holy Well 52.568632, -0.278231 Holy Well

Robin Hood & Little John, Castor, Northamptonshire

‘Standing Stones’:  OS Grid Reference — TL 1395 9839

Also Known as:

  1. St. Edmund’s Stones

Archaeology & History

1885 OS-map of the site

1885 OS-map of the site

A curious and intriguing site with as many questions about its nature as there is its folklore.  Moved around by the irritating parliamentarians from Huntingdonshire, to Northants to Cambridge nowadays, one wonders where those fools will place it next!  Listed by a number of archaeologists as prehistoric standing stones, it seems pretty obvious from photos and the descriptions of many amateur students that—unless some original monoliths have been reworked a few centuries back—the narrative given by local historian W.H.B. Saunders (1888) outlines their more probable origin and history.  That’s not to say that the stones aren’t old—just not that olde…. Mr Saunders reasoned that they were dug and transported from more than 5 miles northwest of their present spot, telling that:

“Nothing can rob the stones of their undoubted antiquity.  The Barnack quarries have been exhausted for the last 600 years at least.  It is evident therefore, that the stones were placed in their present position at a time when the Barnack quarries were being worked.  That would be in the days of Robin Hood, and also when the Abbey of St. Edmund’s Bury, built of Barnack stone, was being erected.”

His words make sense when you look at the stature of the monoliths in question.  They’re cut and squared to the edges, with Robin Hood being the taller of the two stones, about 30 feet southwest of the Little John stone.  They have been written about quite extensively by historians down the centuries, from William Camden onwards.  One early account of the stones was written by Symon Gunton (1686) who told:

“I find in the charter of King Edward the confessor…that the abbot of Ramsey should give to the abbot and convent of Peterburgh 4000 eeles in the time of Lent, and in consideration thereof the abbot of Peterburgh should give to the abbot of Ramsey as much freestone from his pitts in Bernack, and as much ragstone from his pitts in Peterburgh as he should need.

“Nor did the abbot of Peterburgh from these pits furnish only that but other abbies also, as that of St. Edmunds-Bury: in memory whereof there are two long stones yet standing upon a balk in Castor-field, near unto Gunwade ferry; which erroneous tradition hath given out to be draughts of arrows from Alwalton church-yard thither; the one of Robin Hood, and the other of Little John; but the truth is, they were set up for witnesses, that the carriages of stone from Bernack to Gunwade-ferry, to be conveyed to S. Edmunds-Bury, might pass that way without paying toll; and in some old terriars they are called St. Edmund’s stones.  These stones are nicked in their tops after the manner of arrows, probably enough in memory of S. Edmund, who was shot to death with arrows by the Danes.  The balk they stand upon is still call’d St Edmund’s Balk.  They are supposed to be the petrify’d arrows of those two famous archers.”

Thom's sketch showing his midwinter alignment

Thom’s sketch showing his midwinter alignment

These traditions have subsequently been copied by all local historians.  So it is something of a curiosity to find our archaeologists—from Clarke (1960) and F.M. Pryor (1972) to Aubrey Burl (1993)—to cite these as prehistoric monoliths.  My suspicions as to their reasons relates to the folklore of the stones which are echoed at many truly prehistoric places like the Devil’s Arrows, etc.  The nature of the tale is an aboriginal creation myth, relating to the formation of sites as understood in animistic mythic structures.  But this archaeological misunderstanding brought the more scientific mathematical mind of Alexander Thom (1990:1) here in the 1980s where coincidence showed a common astronomical alignment.  Thom wrote:

“Clearly visible from the site, at an azimuth of 229°.22 is the lowest point of a low saddle on the horizon.  The col, Fig.1 (above), subtends an arc of about 0°.67 of azimuth, observed minimum altitude 0°.21.  For an estimated temperature of 44°F, correction for refraction at sunset is about 0°.54, and for solar and semi-diameter and parallax of respectively 0°.27 and 0°.002, the ‘observed’ declination is found to be -23°.92, which indicates a date of about 1860 BC.

“No presently obvious horizon marker was evident upon inspection of the open fields forming the horizon, but this does not mean that a foresight was never erected.  Without the evidence of a foresight it cannot be claimed that the two stones were placed for accurate calendrical reasons, but undoubtedly they indicate by themselves the winter solstice.”

The folklore may indicate the possibility that these two medieval standing stones replaced earlier ones, but no remains of such relics exist today.

References:

  1. Burl, Aubrey, From Carnac to Callanish, Yale University Press 1993.
  2. Clarke, R. Rainbird, East Anglia: Ancient Peoples and Places, Thames & Hudson: London 1960.
  3. Gover, J.E.B., Mawer, A. & Stenton, F.M., The Place-Names of Northamptonshire, Cambridge University Press 1975.
  4. Grinsell, Leslie V., Folklore of Prehistoric Sites in Britain, David & Charles: London 1976.
  5. Gunton, Symon, The History of the Church of Peterburgh, Richard Chiswell: London 1686.
  6. Mee, Arthur, Bedfordshire and Huntingdonshire, Hodder & Stoughton: London 1973.
  7. Morton, John, The Natural History of Northampton-shire; with Some Account of the Antiquities – 2 volumes, R. Knaplock: London 1712.
  8. Pryor, F.M., Prehistoric Man in the Nene Valley, Nene Valley Research: Peterborough 1972.
  9. Saunders, W.H.B., Legends and Traditions of Huntingdonshire, Simpkin Marshall: London 1888.
  10. Serjeantson, R.M. (ed.), The Victoria County History of Northamptonshire – volume 2, London 1906.
  11. Thom, Alexander, Thom, A.S. & Burl, Aubrey, Stone Rows and Standing Stones – volume 1, BAR: Oxford 1990.
  12. Thom, A.S., “A Solstitial Site near Peterborough,” in Journal of the History of Astronomy, 11, 1980.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

Robin Hood & Little John

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Robin Hood & Little John 52.571442, -0.319993 Robin Hood & Little John

Oliver Cromwell’s Hill, Eye, Cambridgeshire

Tumulus (destroyed):  OS Grid Reference – TF 232 018

Archaeology & History

Very little was known about this now lost burial mound.  It was one of several nearby but, thankfully, the local historian and archaeologist E. Thurnam Leeds (who once lived at the nearby Eyebury Farm) sent a letter to the Society of Antiquaries in London, describing some pottery and other remains that he’d found there:

“The small pot of a late Bronze Age type and the other sherds exhibited were found in a tumulus known as Oliver Cromwell’s Hill, at Eyebury, near Peterborough.  As only a portion of the tumulus has been examined as yet, it is proposed to defer a full account of the excavations until further progres has been made.  The tumulus is of the round type, about 40 yards in diameter and 5 feet high at the centre.  On three sides traces of a ditch were met with, containing soil which had evidently been burnt.  Close to the gravel in the centre of the tumulus there were two distinct layers of charcoal, and in two places apparently remains of hearths.  The small pot was found only 1½ feet down on the south-eastern side of the mound, 39 feet from the centre.  In the centre itself at various depths were found sherds, some of Bronze Age forms; but a pice of a rimmed vase found at a depth of 3 feet 6 inches, about 6 inches above the first charcoal layer, appears to be of Roman date, in which case the centre of the tumulus must have been disturbed in those times, though the charcoal floors were never pierced.  Bones of various animals, including sheep, pig, dog and hare, and a large flint flake were also found.”

As far as I’m aware, no further detailed examinations took place at this curiously-named hillock, whose folktale I’ve yet to read.

References:

  1. Leeds, E.T., ‘Letter,’ in Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries, 22:1, 1910.

© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian

 

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  52.600419, -0.181570 Oliver Cromwell\'s Hill