In William Addison’s (1951) standard work on the history and development of Spa Wells, he told us that “the spas began as holy wells”; yet in spite of him listing the Wigglesworth Spa in his work, such “holiness” wasn’t a feature found here and, sadly, we have no written records that tell of any. But that doesn’t mean to say it had no sense of importance or animistic sacrality to local people. The earliest written record we have of this Sulphur Well is to be seen on the stone-work at the top of the small well-house, where the year “1666” was carved, marking the year when the structure was built under the directions of a local rich dood. But earlier knowledge of these healing waters would have been passed to the land-owner by local people, as indicated in Thomas Short’s (1765) words where he told that “it has been used time out of mind.”
Mr Short (1724) makes mention of this Sulphur Well in his gigantic early work, but only in its similarity in both taste and smell to the Sulphur Well at Harrogate and letting us know that, “I have tried carefully” the waters of the two sites. We had to wait another forty years before he gave us a more detailed account of the medicinal properties here. He wrote,
“Now come we to a sulphur water of a very peculiar nature, such as I never met with or heard of in England besides, and deserves to be much more strictly examined and enquired into, viz. Wigglefworth Spaw, near Settle, in the parish of Long-Preston. It has been used time out of mind, and more formerly than at present, because it is little known; rains and drought affect it not. Country people drink four or five pints of it in a morning to vomit them, and six or seven pints to purge them. The water is very black, smells strong of sulphur, has a very small stream, but stagnates not, bubbles not, but springs up; it is always covered with a white scum, (and) dies all in its course white. It rises out of a great stone soil, near much lime-stone, at the foot of a hill. It tastes salt, yet curdles not soap, and boils with milk. A phial glass, one third part full of it, well corked, and tied down with a bladder, and set in the cold water to be evaporated; when the water began to boil, it was taken out and poured a little of it on solution of silver, which turned black and curdled. The phial was corked again, and set half an hour longer in the boiling water, it still turned solution of silver black. It was corked a third time, and set half an hour longer in the boiling water, then tried, but was not so black as before, and caused little curdling. This last stood all night, next day its precipitation was blackish; the water was clear above. This is the only blackish sulphur water I have met with (as Rippon is a greenish yellow) and retains its sulphur the longest, from its contained oil.”
Consistent with other writers of his time, Mr Short then wrote at length on how the Wigglesworth waters reacted to various chemical tests, many of which were done in order to indicate the veracity, or otherwise, of any medical qualities. He also made comparative studies between this and the sulphur wells at Harrogate and elsewhere, and concluded that the Wigglesworth Spa would successfully deal with the following ailments or conditions:
“Sloth, idleness, too violent slavish exercise or labour, too great affluence, or plenty of nourishing rich high foods, spices, forced meats, acrid, stimulant and aromatic viands; the earthy viscid dregs of fermented liquors, or the parching, drying, shriveling spirits of wine, sugar, fruits, grain, or fermented liquors, as well as poverty and unwholesome diet, irregular hours, etc, are the parents of many diseases, whose cure lies in relieving oppressed nature from the unwieldy load (brought upon her by indolence, gratifying the vitiated taste, intemperance and debaucheries) by cleansing and rousing the vessels, restoring the juices to a healthy state; rectifying and establishing the secretions and excretions of the body, and restoring vigour and activity to the fibres, vessels and solids. To the above causes of diseases, we may add pride, luxury, sensuality, inverting the natural course of time, turning day to night, and night to day. These give birth to many chronic diseases, as well as acute, from acidities, crudities, viscidities in the stomach, communicated thence to the bowels, and so to the whole habit; hence are vitiated juices, great obstructions, and a long train of diseases affecting sundry parts of the body, and therein the whole nervous system, with hypo, hysterics, melancholy, costiveness, or looseness, suppression of natural necessary discharges, etc., which require thinning, relaxing, resolving, opening, or invigorating remedies.”
For about two centuries this well had a very favourable reputation. It’s therefore slightly curious as to why the great spa-writer, A.B. Granville, in his visit to this part of Ribblesdale to seek out some of the medicinal springs in the 1830s (including a petrifying well), made no mention of our Sulphur Well. Whether this down to his patronizing attitude towards local people isn’t known, but it certainly wouldn’t have helped him in Yorkshire! One might suggest it was due to the fact that the spa had fallen into disuse, but this wasn’t the case as, subsequent to Granville’s visit, the local writer William Howson (1850) later told that,
“In the woody dingle to the north of the village is a sulphurous spring, protected by a neat and antique stone canopy bearing the date 1666, and the initials of Sir Richard Sherburne and Isabella his wife, a daughter of John Ingleby of Lawkland Hall. Of this well, Dr (John) Murray the well-known analytical chemist says, ” It is a most valuable and unusually strong sulphuretted water, and as far as I have examined mineral waters, second to none.” From his analysis and that of Dr. Garnett it appears that a gallon of the water contains seventeen cubic inches of sulphuretted hydrogen, four of azote, and a small portion of carbonic acid, sulphate of magnesia in the proportion of seventy five grains to a gallon, a considerable quantity of muriate of soda, and a minute proportion of carbonate of lime.”
(The aforementioned Dr Garnett was a renowned 18th century authority on medicinal wells in Yorkshire, best known for his works on the spa wells of Halifax (1791) and Harrogate (1791, 1792), along with some in Scotland.)
Messrs Short (1765) and Howson (1850) mentioned other medicinal springs very close by, including the Chalybeate Well in the field immediately north on the other side of the stream.
Addison, William, English Spas, Batsford: London 1951.
Brown, G.H., Walks, Drives and Excursions around Settle, Craven Printing: Settle 1880.
In Thomas Short’s (1765) description of the once-renowned Wigglesworth Sulphur Well, he mentioned briefly that there were “some (other) chalybeates near it.” Thankfully 85 years later, with the aid of William Howson (1850) who gave us a marginally better description, we were able to locate the whereabouts of one of them! From the Sulphur Well, this one could be found,
“two hundred yards above, on the other side of the rivulet there is a chalybeate spring, but (it was) of no unusual strength.”
In fact it’s a little closer to being 300 yards than 200—but that’s a minor issue in the grand scheme of things! The place in question was marked on the 1852 OS-map, marked simply as a “Well.” …This iron-bearing spring would have been a good pick-me-up and, as with all such wells of this nature, fortifies the blood and the immune system. Mr Howson also told us that “ferrugineous springs, stronger than this, are of frequent occurrence in the neighbourhood,” echoing Short’s earlier remark. Sadly, it seems that all trace of this Well has disappeared.
The historian William Addison (1951), in his history on the subject, told how “the spas began as holy wells”; and although no direct accounts are left of early dedications here, the remnants of Mayday traditions tell us there were more archaic goings-on before the waters were taken by the aristocrats. Once it had been designated as a spa, the waters were covered and a typical Spa House constructed over them. From hereon, for more than a century, the waters were accessible only to those with money who wished their ailments to be treated.
Between the end of the 18th to the end of the 19th century, the Horley Green Spa was a very prominent ingredient in the history of Calderdale. A chalybeate or iron-bearing spring, its waters were directed into a large underground cistern covered by metal. Thomas Garnett (1790) was the first to write about it, telling us:
“The Horley Green water is quite pellucid—sparkles when poured out of one glass into another—and has a sharp, aluminous, styptic taste, not unlike ink. The taste is not unpleasant when the water is taken from the springhead and drank immediately.”
He went on to espouse the waters to be good in healing bone and rheumatic diseases, giving many first-hand accounts from people in Yorkshire and beyond who used the waters here with apparent success, including one case of curing diabetes! Its reputation was later reinforced in a book by William Alexander (1840), who told us how,
“I unhesitatingly affirm that the Horley Green Spa possesses a very strong claim to be regarded as a powerful tonic and chalybeate.”
By the time those words were written, it had already gained a considerable reputation and many were those who’d received treatment.
A years after Alexander, the roving doctor A.B. Granville (1841) visited Horley Green—who described it as “a renowned steel-water Spa”. But at the same time he reported how its popularity had started to decline. But, via one Mr West, he did leave us with a greater chemical analysis of the Horley Green waters in an attempt, once more, to certify and prove its curative properties. Their results found the waters to possess, in varying quantities, lime, magnesia, silica, iron oxide, sulphur and silica—all of which further attributed the science of its medicinal actions. A number of case histories of the people cured here can be found in the works of Granville, Garnett and Alexander.
The well-house that stood here eventually fell into disuse. When it was eventually restored as someone’s home in the the late 20th century, the disused spring was found beneath the foundations, filled with stones.
Horley Green’s spa well came about as a result of local people visiting the site around Beltane, probably for centuries before the aristocrats and early pharmacists took their hand to the place. But once the spa became renowned, people could only gather here “on the first Sundays in the month of May,” with Sunday being that legendary ‘day of the lord’ crap, to which the people would abide to save them from prosecution. It is obvious though that it had been used as a place of magick thanks to the snippets of lore which have found their way into local history books. We read how, at 6am, people gathered here, to such an extent that the roads were completely crowded. Those who arrived first were given bags of nuts: an archaic traditional motif found at many pre-christian wells in Britain. Occultists and ritual magickians amongst you will note the time when folk frequented the well, at 6am: the time when many nature-spirits are invoked for full effects. We find this time echoed in the ritual gatherings at Lady or St. Anne’s Well in Morley, just a few miles to the east.
Addison, William, English Spas, Batsford: London 1951.
Alderson, Frederick, The Inland Resorts and Spas of Britain, David & Charles: Newton Abbot 1973.
From East Morton village, take the moorland road, east, and up the steep hill. Where the road just about levels out there’s a right turn, plus (more importantly!) a trackway on your left which leads onto the moor. Walk up this track for ⅔-mile until you get to the point where the moorland footpath splits, with one bending downhill to an old building, whilst the other smaller footpath continues on the flat to the north. Go up here for 400 yards then walk off-path, right, for about about 150 yards. But beware – it’s boggy as fuck!
Archaeology & History
On this featureless southern-side of Rombalds Moor, all but lost and hidden in the scraggle of rashies, a very boggy spring emerges somewhere hereabouts. I say hereabouts, as the ground beneath you (if you can call it that!) is but a shallow swamp and its actual source is almost impossible to locate. If you want to find the exact spot yourself, be prepared to put up with that familiar stench of bog-water that assaults our senses when we walk through this sort of terrain. Few are those who do, I have found… But somewhere here, amidst this bog—and still shown on the OS-maps—is the opening of what is alternatively called Redman’s or Richmond’s Spa. We don’t know exactly when it acquired its status as a spa-well, but the 18th century Halifax doctor, Thomas Garnett—who wrote the early work on the Horley Green Spa—appears to be the first person to describe it. Garnett (1790) said how the place:
“was first mentioned to me by Mr W. Maud, surgeon, in Bradford, who went with me to see it. It is situated on Romalds-moor, about two or three miles from Bingley, and goes by the name of Redmire-spaw. The access to it is by no means good; the ground about it being very spongy and soft. On the bottom and sides of the channel is deposited an ochrey matter, of a very fine, bright, yellow colour; and which I believe is used, by the country people in the neighbourhood, to paint their houses. It sparkles when poured into a glass and has a taste very like the Tewit-well at High-Harrogate; which water it very much resembles in all its properties, and seems to be about the same strength… This water seems to hold a quantity of iron dissolved by means of fixed air. Its taste is very pleasant; it is said to act very powerfully as a diuretic, when drank in considerable quantity, and may prove a useful remedy, in cases where good effects may be expected from chalybeates in very small doses; the fixed air, and even the pure water itself may be useful in some cases. It is, however, necessary to drink it at the well, for it seems to lose its iron and fixed air very soon.”
I’ve drank this water, and believe me!—it doesn’t quite taste as pleasant as Mr Garnett espouses! Its alright I s’ppose—but drinking water from a bog isn’t necessarily a good idea. That aside, I find it intriguing to hear so much lore about such a little-known spring; and it is obvious that the reputation Garnett describes about this spa came almost entirely from the local people, who would have been visiting this site for countless centuries and who would know well its repute. Below the source of the well the land is known as Spa Flat, and slightly further away Spa Foot, where annual gatherings were once held at certain times of the year to celebrate the flowing of the waters. Such social annual gatherings suggests that the waters here were known about before it acquired its status as a spa—which would make sense. The remoteness of this water source to attract wealthy visitors (a prime function of Spa Wells) wouldn’t succeed and even when Garnett visited the place, he said how he had to travel a long distance to get here.
The origin of its name was pondered by the great Harry Speight (1898) who wondered if it derived from the ancient and knightly Redman family of Harewood, whose lands reached over here. But he was unsure and it was merely a thought. As an iron-bearing spring (a chalybeate) you’d think it might derive from being simply a red mire or bog (much like the Red Mire Well at Hebden Bridge), but its variant titles of apparent surnames casts doubt on this simple solution.
No one visits the place anymore. Of the countless times I’ve wandered the moors, rare have been the times when I’ve seen folk anywhere near this old spring. It is still coloured with the same virtues that Garnett described in the 18th century: the yellowish deposits, the boggy ground, much of which reaches to the truly dodgy Yellow Bog a short distance north and which should be completed avoided by ramblers after heavy rains (try it if y’ don’t believe me—but you’ve been warned!).
Once to be seen flowing on the south-side of the Pow Burn below Airth Castle, all traces of this once sacred site has fallen prey to the usual advance of the so-called ‘civilized’. In literary terms, the site was first described in church records from 1657—as Ladieswell—and the accounts we have of the place from then are most revealing in describing the traditional use of the place by local people. It was a sacred site, obviously, chastised by the madness of the christian regime of the period, in their attempt to destroy indigenous customs and societal norms. William Hone (1837) gave an extended account of what some people were up to here in his Everyday Book:
“In 1657, a mob of parishioners were summoned to the session, for believing in the powers of the well of Airth, a village about six miles north of Falkirk, on the banks of the Forth, and the whole were sentenced to be publicly rebuked for the sin. –
“”Feb. 3, 1757, Session convenit. Compeared Bessie Thomson, who declairit scho went to the well at Airth, and that schoe left money thairat, and after the can was fillat with water, they keepit it from touching the ground till they cam horm.”
“”Ffebruary 24. — Compeired Robert Fuird who declared he went to the well of Airth, and spoke nothing als he went, and that Margrat Walker went with him, and schoe said ye beleif about the well, and left money and ane napkin at the well, and all was done at her injunction.”
“”Compeared Bessie Thomson declarit schoe fetch it horn water from the said well and luit it not touch the ground in homcoming, spoke not as sha went, said the beleif at it, left money and ane nap-kin thair; and all was done at Margrat Walker’s command.”
“”Compeired Margrat Walker who denyit yat scho was at yat well befoir and yat scho gave any directions ”
“”March 10. Compeared Margrat Forsyth being demand it if scho went to the well of Airth, to fetch water thairfrom, spok not by ye waye, luit it not touch ye ground in homcoming? if scho said ye belief? left money and ane napkin at it? Answered affirmatively in every poynt, and yat Nans Brugh directit yem, and yat they had bread at ye well, with them, and yat Nans Burg said shoe wald not be affrayit to goe to yat well at midnight hir alon.”
“”Compeired Nans Burg, denyit yat ever scho had bein at yat well befoir.”
“”Compeired Robert Squir confest he went to yat well at Airth, fetchit hom water untouching ye ground, left money and said ye beleif at it.”
“”March 17. Compeired Robert Cochran, declairit, he went to the well at Airth and ane other well, bot did neither say ye beleif, nor leave money.”
“”Compeired Grissal Hutchin, declairit scho commandit the lasses yat went to yat well, say ye beleif, but dischargit hir dochter.”
“”March 21. Compeired Robert Ffuird who declairit yat Margrat Walker went to ye well of Airth to fetch water to Robert Cowie, and when schoe com thair, scho laid down money in Gods name, and ane napkin in Robert Cowie’s name.”
“”Compeired Jonet Robison who declairit yat when scho was seik, Jean Mathieson com to hir and told hir, that the water of the well of Airth was guid for seik people, and yat the said Jean hir guid sister desyrit hir fetch sum of it to hir guid man as he was seik, bot sho durst never tell him.”
“”These people were all 44 publicly admonishit for superstitious carriage.””
The practices continued. In 1723, a Mr Johnstoun of Kirkland, writing about the parish of Airth, also told of the reputation of the well, saying,
“Upon the south side of the Pow of Airth, upon its very edge, is a spaw well famous in old times for severall cures, and at this day severalls gets good by it, either by drinking or bathing. Its commonly called by the name of Ladies well. Its about two pair of butts below Abbytown bridge.”
The fact that he told us it was “good for bathing” suggests a pool was adjacent, or at least the tiny tributary between it and the Pow Burn gave room for bathing and had a curative reputation. (there are many pools in the Scottish mountains with this repute – some are still used to this day!)
It was then described by Robert Ure in the first Statistical Account of 1792, where he told how the people were still using the waters, despite the crazy early attempts to stop them. “There is a Well, near Abbeytown Bridge,” he told,
“called Lady-Well, which is thought to be medicinal. Numbers have used it, and still use it as such. It is supposed to have obtained that name, from the holy water, in the time of Popery, being taken from it, to supply the abbacy, or Catholic Church, then at Airth.”
Lady Well on 1865 map
But we know that its origins as a celebrated well pre-date any christian overlay. People were reported visiting the site from as far away as Edinburgh, such was its repute!
Much later when the Ordnance Survey lads came here, showing it on their first map of Airth, they made their own notes of the place, saying briefly,
“A small well close to the Pow Burn – it is supposed to have derived its name from the Custom of dedicating wells to the Virgin Mary – so Common prior to the Reformation. It is not a mineral well.”
Ugly plastic pipe is all that remains
But its demise was coming. In the wake of the christian Industrialists and their myth, subsuming the necessary integral sacrality of the Earth, the waters of the well were eventually covered. When the Royal Commission (1963) lads gave the site their attention in October 1954, they reported that “no structural remains” of any form could be seen here, and in recent years all trace of the well has vanished completely. When we visited the site a few months ago, perhaps the very last remnant of it was a small plastic pipe sticking out of the muddy bankside, dripping dirty water into the equally dirty Pow Burn.
It would be good if local people could at least put a plaque hereby to remind people of the history and heritage that was once so integral to the way they lived their lives.
Bennett, Paul, Ancient and Holy Wells of Stirling, TNA 2018.
The old well-house is accessed easily. From the main road of Henderson Street (or A9), that runs through the town, as you approach the main shopping area, go up Alexander Drive, then immediately turn right up Well Road. 100 yards up, take your first right again along Kenilworth Road and then first right up Mine Road. 100 yards or so along here, as you reach the tennis courts on your right, a small crumbly-tumbly building is to your left, just by the car-park to the hotel, with some old trees hiding its presence. You can’t get into it and the waters therein sound to have fallen silent.
Archaeology & History
In 1761, the great writer Daniel Defoe in his Tour across Britain, found himself visiting a healing spring under the western reaches of the Ochils:
“Airthrey Well, two miles north of Stirling, flows from a mountain, where is a copper mine, with some mixture of gold; the water is very cold, and being tinctured with the minerals it flows through, is of use against outward distempers.”
Airthrey Wellhouse in ruins
Perhaps the earliest literary description of this site, the Bridge of Allan that we see today was little more than a stretch of old abodes, reaching into woodland above the crystal clear river and burns, chiming with countless fauna and that rich chorus of colours that pre-date the Industrialist’s ‘progress’. The old hamlet was said by Robert Chambers (1827) to be “a confusion of straw-roofed cottages and rich massy trees; possessed of a bridge and a mill, together with kail-yards, bee-skeps, colleys, callants, and old inns.” But all of this was about to change.
In the old woods on the northwest slopes above the hamlet was indeed an old copper mine as Defoe described, and housed therein were a number of mineral springs–six of them according to the early reports of Forrest (1831) and Thomson. (1827) They were obviously “known to the country people,” said Thomson, and had been “used by them as an occasional remedy for more than forty years”; although in Forrest’s very detailed account of these wells, he told how
“one of the old miners, an intelligent man and an enthusiastic admirer of the medicinal virtues of these waters, informs me, that they have been known for at least one hundred years.”
This comment was echoed a few years later when Charles Roger (1853) wrote his extensive book on the village.
It was in the 1790s when the mineral waters were channeled out of the mines for the first time, and Mr Forrest told that they were collected lower down the slope,
“in a wooden trough, for the use of the miners, and of the country people, some of whom used it as an aperient, whilst others, deeming the water impregnated with common salt merely, employed it for culinary purposes. …It was…much used as a medicine by the country people of the neighbourhood who attended regularly every Sunday morning to partake of it.”
Airthrey waters channeled along the long trough (Robert Mitchell 1831)
The fact that Sunday mornings was when people came here tell us that the Church had something to do with the timing; strongly implying that the wells possessed earlier indigenous traditions—probably similar to those practiced at the Christ’s Well, the Chapel Well and countless others across the country. But written records on this are silent.
The main history of the Airthrey Springs is of them becoming famous Spa Wells and, much like Harrogate in Yorkshire, were responsible for the very growth of Bridge of Allan itself. Oddly enough, this came about a few years after the copper mines were closed in 1807. This wouldn’t have stopped some of the local people still getting into them and drinking the waters when needed—but the written records simply tell that, for a few years at least, their reputation faded. Around the same time in the village of Dunblane, just a few miles to the north, another Spa Well had been discovered and it was attracting quite a lot of those rich wealthy types—bringing fame and money to the area. As a result of this, the medicinal virtues of the Airthrey Springs were revived thanks to the attention of the local lord, a Mr Robert Abercromby, who thought that Bridge of Allan could gain a reputation of his own. And so in the winter of 1821-22, Abercromby procured the research chemist Thomas Thompson to analyse the medicinal waters at Airthrey and have them compared with the ones at Dunblane. He was in luck! Not only were they medicinal, they were incredibly medicinal!
Dr Thomson then wrote a series of articles in various academic journals in the early 19th century—each espousing, not just the health-giving property of the Airthrey waters, but lengthy chemical analyses outlining the active constituents. To his considerable surprise he found that the Airthrey waters were as good as any of the great spa towns in England at Harrogate, Buxton, Bath and Leamington. Their virtues were so good that Mr Forrest (1831) doubted any of the Spa Wells in England were as beneficial as the waters here! R.M. Fergusson (1905) echoed this sentiment in his massive work on the adjacent parish of Logie, calling the Airthrey springs “the Queen of Scottish Spas”!—and these accolades prevailed long after Dr Thomson’s analyses. He wrote:
“At Airthrey there are six springs containing, all of them, the same saline constituents, but differing a good deal in their relative strengths. I analyzed two of these during the winter of 1821-22, and the other four during the autumn of 1827.”
He found that, in varying degrees, the main constituents were salt, muriate of lime, sulphate of lime and muriate of magnesia. At that time, in medical circles, these ingredients were beauties! As Mr Logie (1905) said:
“This mineral water has been for long distinguished as a specific for derangements of the stomach and liver, and skin and chest diseases, rheumatism, gout, sciatica, and nerve affections…”
Thomson’s initial findings were much to the liking of Mr Abercromby; for hereafter, he realised, all and sundry who could read and travel to the country spas in England and beyond, would visit Bridge of Allan and bring with it great trade. So Abercromby quickly,
“caused the water of the two Springs analysed by Dr. Thomson, one of which was characterised by its strength, the other by its comparative weakness, to be carefully collected and conveyed apart in earthen pipes, to two stone troughs placed in a convenient situation, from which it was raised by two well-constructed forcing pumps. Over these pumps a commodious house was erected.
In 1822, several thousand copies of Dr. Thomson’s analyses were circulated; and the water acquired immediate celebrity. Invalids from all parts of the country, but especially from Glasgow and its vicinity, resorted to Airthrey. Every house, in fact, in its neighbourhood, however mean and incommodious, was occupied by strangers; and so great was the popularity of the new springs that even in 1823 they threatened to supersede all the other same springs of Scotland.”
The success of these medicinal waters created the town itself and, unlike many other spa wells, this one continued to be used until the end of the 1950s. Its demise came when, in one financial year, only two people came to “take the cure,” as it was called.
Side wall of ruined wellhouse
If you visit the well-house nowadays, it’s in rather poor condition and will be of little interest unless you’re a devout architectural fanatic. It’s thought to be the earliest surviving building associated with this spa town, said by Mr Roger (1853) to have been built in 1821. Shown on the first OS-map of the area, adjacent buildings were constructed to accommodate the overflow of people who came here. And in the woodlands above, if you look around halfway up the slopes, an old trough has water running into it just by the side of a path. This, say some local folk, is the trickling remains of the medicinal waters, still used occasionally by some people…
Durie, Alastair J., “Bridge of Allan: Queen of the Scottish Spas,” in Forth Naturalist & Historian, volume 16, 1993.
Erskine, John, Guide to Bridge of Allan, Observer Press: Stirling: 1901.
Fergusson, R. Menzies, Logie: A Parish History – 2 volumes, Alexander Gardner: Paisley 1905.
Forrest, W.H., Report, Chemical and Medical, of the Airthrey Mineral Springs, John Hewit: Stirling 1831.
Somewhere hiding away above the north-side of the River Devon, just above the Vicar’s Bridge, a little-known healing well came into being following industrial workings in the glen in 1831 by a local iron-working company. The waters were strongly chalybeate, or iron-bearing—and as the fad amongst the wealthy was, at the time, a love of Spa Wells, this mineral spring was broadcast as a competitor of the Harrogate and Bath Spas. But it failed pretty fast, sadly.
Bottles of the water were marketed and sold as ‘Dollar Mineral Water’ in many of the large cities, but sales weren’t too good. Johnston & Tullis (2003) pointed out how the waters would have been coloured like brandy; and despite it being good for anaemia, a good tonic, and favourable in treating cuts and bruises, the mineral spring was no longer of any value as a business, dying a quick death. Local people still kept using the waters, but in recent years the spring appears to have died too.
Johnston, Tom & Tullis, Ramsay (eds.), Muckhart, Clackmannanshire: An Illustrated History of the Parish, MGAS 2003.
So you’re in Edinburgh. Get to the west-end of Princes Street (nearest the castle), and where there’s the curious mess of 6 roads nearly skewing into each other, head down Queensferry Street for 450 yards until, just before you go over the bridge, walk down Bells Brae on your left, then turn right down Miller Row to the river where you’ll see the sign pointing the way! alongside the river, past St George’s Well for another coupla hundred yards until you reach the large Romanesque domed building right by the riverside on your left. Steps take you down to it.
Archaeology & History
When J. Taylor (1790) wrote his singular book on St Bernard’s Well, this sacred site could be seen in landscape that was described as “a wild, romantic, and very pleasant appearance.” How things change! Although the waters of Leith below which the well arises give the region, still, that air of romanticism that Taylor described, on either side of the waters the stone buildings of the Industrialists have grown, denouncing Nature. But to be honest, it’s still a fine place, considering it’s near the middle of a city!
In the shrubs and small trees on the slopes just above the architectural edifice that now covers St Bernard’s Well, after rainy days you can see several small springs of water running down the slope and onto the modern path. In earlier centuries there were six of these springs next to each other which ran a short distance down the slope and converged into two, which then ran into a small stone trough. Local people used these fresh waters, not only for basic needs, but for medicinal purposes too.
It seems that the earliest mention of what Stuart Harris (1996) called “this fancy name” of St. Bernard’s Well appeared in an article in The Scots Magazine of September 1760. It clearly shows how the Scottish Freemasons played their part in bringing the waters of this healing well to the fore:
“A mineral well has lately been discovered between the village and the Water of Leith and Stockbridge, about half a mile north of Edinburgh, which is said to be equal in quality to any of the most famous in Britain. To preserve the well from the injury of the weather, and prevent its being overflowed by the Water of Leith, on the banks of which it is situated, a stone covering is to be erected over it. The foundation-stone of this building was laid September 15th (by a deputation from the Earl of Leven, the present Grand Master of Scotland), by Alexander Drummond, brother of Provost Drummond, lately British Consul at Aleppo, and Provincial Grand Master of all the Lodges in Asia and in Europe, out of Britain, holding of the Grand Lodge of Scotland. He was attended by many of the brethren, in their proper clothing and insignia, preceded by a band of music, and the ceremony was performed in the presence of a great number of spectators. It is called St. Bernard’s Well.”
The following year, the poet James Wilson Claudero wrote a poem about the laying of the foundation stone at the well, in which the medicinal virtues of the waters were described. A section of the poem is as follows:
“When heaven propitious to grant his desire
To the utmost extent his heart could require,
For the health of the poor sent this sanative well,
A blessing to all that around it do dwell;
This water so healthful near Edinburgh doth rise
Which not only Bath but Moffat outvies.
Most diseases of nature it quickly doth cure.
“It cleans the intestines and appetite gives
While morbific matter it quite away drives.
Its amazing effects can not be denied,
And drugs are quite useless where it is applied,
So what doctors can’t cure is done by this spring
Preserved till this year of great Drummond’s reign.”
A few years later in 1786, the construction we see today which now covers the medicinal waters, began to be built. The ‘fashion’ of the rich and wealthy acquiring healing wells used by local people was in vogue at the time and the place became frequented by the usual snooty class of doods who played their social gatherings here. The Scots Magazine gave a brief resumé of what unfolded—intriguingly at Beltane (perhaps the day when its waters were of greatest repute, as is the case at the majority of sacred wells), telling:
“On the 1st of May, the foundation-stone of the mineral well of St Bernard’s, in the vicinity of Edinburgh, was laid in the presence of several gentlemen of the neighbourhood. A plate of metal was sunk into the stone, with the following inscription:
Erected For the benefit of the public at the sole expense of Francis Garden, Esq. of Troop A.D. 1789 Alexander Nasmith, Architect, John Wilson, Builder.
This building is erected in the most picturesque spot in the neighbourhood of Edinburgh, and when finished, from the elegance of the plan, and the excellent quality of the materials, will long be an ornament to the city, and prove a lasting monument of the refined taste, liberality, and public spirit of the honourable founder.”
As the reputation of the place spread amongst those who could read and had money, so the day-to-day habits of local people, who kept drinking the waters and collecting them for domestic use, became increasingly frowned upon. Some rich doods bought the land and, thereafter, local people were only allowed to use the well at certain times and in certain ways. I kid you not! This is a familiar tale at a lot of city sites. After the construction of the Romanesque building that still covers the well (based on an ancient temple at Tivoli, Italy, with a statue on top of the goddess of Health, Hygeia) which, to this day, hides the waters inside behind lock and key, the land-owner Lord Gardenstone appointed and paid a ‘keeper of the well’. The ‘keeper—George Murdoch of Stockbridge —had a series of rules to abide by, for which he got paid a tidy sum. Gardenstone wrote to him:
“George — From long experience I entertain a very favourable opinion of your honesty and decent manners. I, therefore, am resolved to make a trial of your capacity to perform properly the duties of a trust which is of a public nature, and requires good temper, patience, and discretion.
“I hereby authorise and appoint you to be Keeper of St Bernard’s Well during pleasure, and you are to observe punctually the following directions and rules, or such other regulations as may be found more expedient and may be hereafter prescribed:
“I. You are to furnish proper glasses and cups for drinking the water.
“II. During the proper season you are to attend the well, at least from six till nine, every morning. During the above period none shall have access to drink or use the water but those who shall pay at the moderate rates subjoined.
“III. Such as choose to subscribe for the season, from the 1st of May to the 1st of October, shall pay down, before they begin to drink, at least five shillings sterling.
“IV. Persons who do not choose to subscribe, but choose at their pleasure to drink the water any time of the morning period, occasionally, shall pay before they begin to drink every morning — for grown persons each one penny, and for children each one halfpenny; or at the rate of sixpence and threepence per week respectively.
“V. For water drawn from the well to be used at a distance, in bottles or other vessels in the mornings, payment must be made at the rate of one halfpenny for every Scots pint.
“VI. No person shall be allowed, on any pretence, to bathe their limbs or sores at, or in sight of, the well during the morning period.
“VII. All persons who are either unable or unwilling to pay as above, shall have free access to the use of the waters from ten to one every forenoon; and those who have once paid may return and use the waters at any time of the day.
“VIII. The keeper shall attend from five to seven o’clock in the afternoon for the service of all who have paid; and after seven for all without distinction.
“IX. Upon a proper certificate from any regular physician, surgeon, or apothecary of Edinburgh, the keeper shall supply poor persons with water at any time prescribed.
“X. The proper and customary method of drinking at mineral waters is, that persons after drinking a glass or cup of water retire immediately and walk about, or take other exercise for an interval of at least five minutes, both as a benefit to themselves, and to make way for other water drinkers. A contrary practice prevails at St Bernard’s, and sometimes a crowd of people continue at the well till they have drunk their quota. Hereafter every person must retire as above, and the keeper must require them to do so, this regulation being very necessary.
“XI. Another irregularity, prejudicial to the credit and use of the waters, has prevailed and must also be corrected, which is that quantities of the water are carried to distant parts in open vessels. All mineral waters should be transported in well- corked bottles or other close vessels. The keeper must strictly adhere to this regulation, and suffer no water to be carried off in open vessels.
“Hints and observations for the better regulation and public use of those waters will be thankfully received by the proprietor.
“Some accounts of the virtues of this mineral water, and of certain remarkable cures performed by the proper use of it, will soon be published by a medical gentleman of character and experience.
“N.B. — The effects of this water when used in making either tea or punch are remarkably agreeable.
This must have caused some friction amongst locals, and no doubt given Mr Murdoch problems at times, as he would be denying the people who were born and bred here access to their drinking and medicinal spring. And so a missive was written on July 4, 1810, which instructed the keeper “to supply the poor with water gratis each day from eleven to twelve o’ clock noon.” Sensible…..
By now, the properties and reputation of the waters were widespread among the elitists and money-addicts. St Bernard’s Well was being compared with the famous healing waters of Bath, Harrogate, Strathpeffer and more. Its cause was encouraged by a series of scientific reports that showed a variety of health-giving minerals in good quantities; and many cases of ‘cures’ were reported by those who drank here. When the local doctor, J. Taylor (1790) opened his treatise on this very issue, he began,
“In the course of my practice, having occasion to visit most of the families in Stockbridge, especially of the poorer sort, I was informed that St Bernard’s Well had been of great benefit to people that resorted to it for various complaints…”
Many more cases were to follow. It was the chemical constituents in St. Bernard’s waters that did the trick—although most modern folk would squirm at the very look and whiff of them, as Taylor reported how “the peculiar odour of this water is somewhat nauseous”! That’s because they are primarily sulphurous in nature, along with good traces of iron, magnesia and salts. I’ve drank such waters at some of Yorkshire chalybeates and found them damn invigorating – but most folk won’t touch them with a barge-pole! (chlorinated flouridated tap-water seems most folk’s preference these days) Dr Taylor told how St. Bernard’s Well was very good at,
“assisting digestion in the stomach and first passages … cleansing the glandular system, and carrying their noxious contents by their respective emunctories out of the habit, without pain or fatigue; on the contrary, the patient feels himself lightsome and cheerful, and by degrees an increase to his general health, strength and spirits. The waters of St. Bernard’s Well operates for the most part as a strong diuretic. If drunk in a large quantity it becomes gently laxative, and powerfully promotes insensible perspiration. It likewise has a wonderfully exhilarating influence on the faculties of the mind.”
He thereafter cited a number of cases of people with various ailments whose illnesses were cured by these waters. I recommend a perusal of his work and the other references below for specifics on such matters. The writings on this one sacred site are plentiful indeed, and the bibliographic references are but a morsel of works that describe it.
Local tradition ascribed the discovery of the medicinal waters here by three local boys from Heriot, years before the legendary St. Bernard got in on the act; and, despite the wishes of many, St. Bernard of Clairvaux was not in any way related to the legendary Nursie of Blackadder fame (can anyone find a short link so as to educate the unenlightened on this matter?). His hagiography (biography of a saint) tells that his saint’s day was August 20, and his symbols were: a white dog, a chained demon and beehives. Whether any of these symbols related to any indigenous myths at the site is difficult to say.
Mr Cumberland Hill (1887) told the story of how this spring acquired its christian title:
“There is an ancient oral tradition in the district (we read of it also in an old book when we were young) that St Bernard visited Scotland. There are different ways of telling the legend, but the following appears to be the general version. St Bernard, while preaching the second crusade in France and Germany, was advised to go to Scotland as a country rich in faith and fighting men. He was disappointed with his reception at court. In grief, aggravated by ill-health, he withdrew and lived in a cave in the neighbourhood of the spring. There certainly was a cave of considerable dimensions in the steep cliffs to the westward. Its entrance was covered up by the building of the wall that bounds the back of Randolph Crescent, but when it formed part of Lord Moray’s grounds we, and the other boys of Stockbridge, knew that cave well. The saint’s attention was attracted by the number of birds that resorted to the spring. He drank of its healing waters, and, soothed by the sound of the river and the beauty of the scenery — the valley, still very beautiful, must then have been surpassingly fair — his health and serenity of mind returned. He called the inhabitants of the district to the spring, revealed to them its virtues, and, after bestowing upon the people his blessing, he returned to his place of public duty. Christendom concurs that this was the blessing of a good man. He was canonised by the Roman Catholic Church, but as canonisation is growing to be an invidious distinction, we quote Luther’s opinion: “If there ever lived on the earth a God-fearing and holy monk, it was St Bernard of Clairvaux.” We give the tradition as a tradition, not as history, though it is as credible and certainly more creditable than many of the legends of the saints.”
The exact location of this site remains a mystery. Addison (1951) mentions it as being “close to the Blake Hall Road” where a drinking fountain was erected, but notes that this was not the original site of the spring. It was obviously a medicinal spring of some renown to the local people, before it was appropriated by the wealthy to turn it into a ‘spa well’. In doing so, it brought the attention of those curious lords and ladies, along with King James himself, adorning themselves in usual view as important people, and playing the part in social gatherings, as folks did at those spa wells. But the fad didn’t last long and the spa never really caught on. One account tells how it was a dangerous place for the rich and wealthy to visit! Locals can and do get pissed-off if you steal their basic water supplies!
The primary description of the site is that afforded by Christy & Thresh (1910) in their excellent survey of Essex waters. With no mention of the unimportant local people (!), they told how it was “first discovered” in the early 17th century:
“John Chamberlain, the news-letter writer, writing from London to Sir Dudley Carleton, on 23 August 1619, says:
“‘…We have great noise here of a new Spaa, or spring of that nature, found lately about Wansted; and much running there is to yt dayly, both by Lords and Ladies and other great companie, so that they have almost drawne yt drie alredy; and, yf yt should hold on, yt wold put downe the waters at Tunbridge; wch, for these three or foure yeares, have ben much frequented, specially this summer, by many great persons; insomuch that they wch have seene both say that yt [i.e., Tunbridge] is not inferior to the Spaa [in Belgium] for goode companie, numbers of people, and other appurtenances.”
“We have been quite unable to ascertain anything as to the part of Wanstead parish in which this spring was situated. In all probability, it was quite a small spring. One may infer as much from Chamberlain’s statement that, within a short time of its discovery, the company resorting to it had “almost drawn it dry.” If such was the case, the spring was, no doubt, soon deserted and ultimately forgotten.
“Mr. Walter Crouch, F.Z.S., of Wanstead, whose knowledge of the history of the parish is unequalled, writes us : —
“I have always had the idea that this Mineral Spring was not at the Park end of our parish, which abuts on Bush wood and Wanstead Flats, but in the vicinity of Snaresbrook and on the road which leads to Walthamstow; but it is possible that it was in the grounds of ‘ The Grove ‘ (now cut up and built over). The spring is not marked on Kip’s View (1710), nor on Rocque’s large Map (1735), nor on Rocque’s still larger map of a few years later.”
“Under the guidance of Mr. W. Ping, F.C.S., of Wanstead, Mr. Christy has visited two springs at Snaresbrook — namely, that known as the ‘Birch Well’, in the Forest, near the Eagle Pond, and a spring in the grounds of ‘The Hermitage’; but neither of these is credited locally with being a mineral spring and neither has any appearance of being such. Since then, Mr. Ping has written us as follows: “I have spoken with the oldest inhabitant of Wanstead, a Mr. Merryman, whose knowledge, both local and national, is remarkable and accurate. He tells me that the only Mineral Spring he ever heard of in Wanstead was in the grass bordering the roadside nearly opposite the house, in the Blake Hall Road, formerly occupied by Lord Mayor Figgis, and now by Sir John Bethell, M.P. This spring he remembers well. Its water was chalybeate and left considerable reddish deposit. People came and drank it to give them an appetite. They used to kneel down and drink it from their hands, and also took it away in bottles. Others used to bathe their ankles in it to make them strong. Mr. Merryman adds that, about 1870, drainage operations deprived the spring of its water. The fountain, which has since been put up near its site, supplies waterworks water only.” Mr. Ping adds that, recently when deeper drainage operations were in progress at the spot, water of a very markedly ferruginous character was encountered. This is no evidence that this spring was identical with that which came into prominence in 1619, but very likely it was.
“Mr. Dalton expresses the opinion that, if either surmise as to the position is correct, seeing that the comparison with the Tunbridge Wells chalybeate water was sound, the well in question probably yielded a ferruginous water from the Glacial (?) gravels of the Snaresbrook plateau at their contact with the pyritous London Clay.”
Addison, William, English Spas, Batsford: London 1951.
Christy, Miller & Thresh, May, A History of the Mineral Waters and Medicinal Springs of the County of Essex, Essex Field Club: Stratford & London 1910.
Hembry, Phyllis, The English Spa 1560-1815, Athlone Press: London 1990.
Birley Spa is now open for special events and the first Saturday in the summer months; however it is best to check that the site is open as it is open by volunteers. It can be viewed from the outside when closed and can be reached off the A1635 take Occupation Lane then Birley Spa Lane on the left and once passing a school on the left there is a lane going into the woods on the left by a side, down here is the Spa. There is some parking.
Archaeology and history
Our first record is when it was established as seven baths by Earl Manners. A work by Platt (undated but around 1930s) contains much of the information and it is from this work I have taken most of the notes. The earliest establishment of the spa is thought to be in the early 1700s being built by a Quaker named Sutcliffe. The spa then consisted of a square stone building with a cold bath within with a bolt fixed on the inner side to ensure privacy. This structure appeared to exist until 1793 when the bath was ruined and filled with stones. In 1843, the Earl Manvers who owned the Manor developed this spa for a larger and more upmarket clientele. An administrative committee was appointed and even a Bath Charity was started so that poor people could benefit and take the waters. Unfortunately the baths did not make profit and by 1895 only one plunge bath remained; the Hotel apparently ceased to function as such about 1878. It is believed that Earl Manvers removed the marble from the warm bath for his own use. The site then went into a slow decline. In the 1920s and 30s a children’s pleasure ground was established but the grounds were closed in 1939, due to the prohibition of assemblies of crowds, introduced as a safety factor in case of air raids. The buildings and grounds were allowed to decay and become very dilapidated. Since the building of the Hackenthorpe Housing Estate in the 1950s Sheffield Corporation have become owners of the property.
Fortunately unlike other sites, the bath house still exists, probably as a consequence of the first floor being used as community centre. The cold bath was derelict and rubbish strewn, but a splendid restoration has been undertaken. The bath house can be found in a small wooded dell in the housing estate. Despite predations by vandals on the house, the interior reveals an impressive oval stone lined cold bath with steps into the water either side. To the other side are a small collection of artifacts and the history of the site. There is also the store room where coal was stored for the warm bath which no longer exists.
Very little folklore is recorded other than the belief that the site has an ancient origin, the spring being located along Neolithic trade routes and indeed implements have been found in the vicinity. Some authorities have noted that there was a Roman bath here supported by the proximity to the Rykneid way. There is however no direct archaeological evidence to support this theory and it may have been spread around by the proprietors to support the quality of the water; and the Leeds chemist West analysed the waters stating that they were beneficial for those suffering from constipation.
Platts, T. L., The History of Birley Spa
Parish, R. B., (2010) Holy wells and healing springs of Derbyshire.