|Waterloo Helmet and Battersea Shield|
|St Guron's Well, Bodmin|
In Wales, the astonishingly scenic valley road between Rhayader and Pontarfynach/ Devil's Bridge is replete with waterfalls, rising from springs high in the hills to cascade down into the meandering River Elan. A cluster of settlements in mid-Powys - Llandrindod, Llanwrtyd and Llangammarch - all carry the suffix 'Wells', thanks to the dripdrip of chalybeate metallic aqua.
Elsewhere, the goddess Sulis holds sway over the thermal waters of Bath, where the Romans equated her with their own deity Minerva. Further along the road to London, in the depths of Wiltshire, her name echoes in Silbury Hill and the nearby Swallowhead Spring. In Somerset, the legendary Red and White springs of Glastonbury attract visitors from all over the world.
And what of my home region? Can any traces of these old wells and springs be found in the dour, over-developed, industrialised lowlands of South Essex?
They can indeed, if an explorer makes a little effort, and my Eldest and I recently managed to seek out four of them in a single afternoon.
Chadwell St Mary
We started at a town fairly local to us, the presence of its now-defunct well right there in its name. The name Chadwell is believed to be an Old English variation on 'Cold Well', and the St Mary suffix differentiates the town from the Romford suburb of Chadwell Heath, which boasts its own well (unvisited on this occasion!).
Alas, the town displays a lack of fanfare regarding the artifact after which it was named. Near a busy roundabout, by a new Academy, stands a rather forlorn, rusting, obsolete waterpump, with not even a small plaque to explain its previous relevance to the community.
|The Chadwell © Charlie McManus|
We hop into the car before anyone can nick it, and head northwest to a relatively overlooked village.
A small community, mostly straggling along the B186, has managed to hide its church around the back. A church has existed here since at least 1075, when the manor was owned by Westminster Abbey, but most of the present building is the result of a mid-Victorian restoration.
At the rear of the churchyard, on the southern boundary, a small gate opens onto a small flight of steps that leads to St Cedd's Well. Now THIS is more like it!
|St Cedd's Well © Charlie McManus|
|St Cedd's Well and Baptismal Channel ©Charlie McManus|
|Heron on the pond ©Charlie McManus|
Cedd was born c.620, and was a monk originally out of Lindisfarne in Northumberland. He travelled south to convert the Middle Angles to Christianity, then east to convert Essex. He founded churches at Tilbury and Bradwell, his successes seeing him eventually being promoted to Bishop of London and Abbot of Lastingham in Northumberland. He was a major participant in the important Synod of Whitby, and died at Lastingham during a plague outbreak in 664, succeeded by his brother Ceadda. Considering his evangelising activities in this very region, perhaps it's no great stretch of the imagination to accept the possibility that Cedd converted and baptised the East Saxons at this spot.
We head north, to the charming village of Sandon, just off the A12 a short distance from Chelmsford. A spring was noted here on the earliest Ordnance Survey maps, but since then has disappeared from the charts and, until fairly recently, was considered lost.
The village pub, The Crown, provides refreshment before we continue our quest. To the rear of the Sandon School playing fields can be found an unmade road called - and here's a bit of a giveaway - Ladywell Lane, address of a local lawn tennis club. Apparently, a pair of wells once existed on around the club's premises, but of these no modern trace remains.
We stroll past the tennis club to the end of this very rural track, which terminates at a fine building called Ladywell House. Our perambulation continues along a public footpath, with a field on our left and a small wood, locally named Bluebell Wood, on our right. Finding a gap in the foliage, we enter the Wood.
A couple of meandering paths, presumably created by dogwalkers, snakes through the undergrowth. In little time at all, we notice a narrow stream traversing the wood, and trace it back to its source. We have found the damp, dark, mossy spot that was once the Lady Well, the springhead now flowing through a pipe.
|The Lady Well, Sandon © Charlie McManus|
A local legend claims that the Lady Well is so named because a woman was drowned here in antiquity; however, this seems physically unlikely. It is more probable that it was named for Our Lady, the Virgin Mary, a fairly common attribution for wells and springs.
Travelling back from Sandon in the direction of home, we enter the village of Runwell, situated on the very edge of our home borough, and the home of possibly the most mysterious of our four sites for today - the Running Well.
The earliest reference to the settlement, as 'Runewelle', is found in a document of the year 939 called the Cartularium Saxonicum, although the Well itself does not appear in a historical document until 1768, when the antiquarian Philip Morant wrote in his History Of The County Of Essex that the name of the village 'undoubtedly received its name from some considerable Running Well in the parish.'
The occult writer Andrew Collins investigated the Running Well in the 1980's, and uncovered evidence that the Well was once devoted to the Blessed Virgin Mary and, around the year 1600, had a small chapel in a neighbouring field; thus giving rise to the possibility that it was a place of pilgrimage for recusant Catholics. No trace of a chapel exists today, but Collins remarked on a rectangular 'kink' in the field that may have been its site.
Flint tools from the Mesolithic to the Neolithic have been found in the vicinity, and pottery from the Iron Age and Roman periods. The Running Well sits at the highest point in the parish yet, nowadays, is tricky to find.
It sits in a dense copse at the southwest corner of the paddock area behind the Running Well Equestrian Centre, in the countryside between Runwell and Rettendon. We achieved access by following a public footpath directly to the east of the Centre, then partaking of a little light trespassing along its boundaries.
We had to bend double to enter the thicket, and found ourselves sliding down into a small, dark dell. And there it was, sitting there patiently waiting for our arrival. Once again, the source of a village name, in a remote and hidden location.
|The Running Well ©Charlie McManus|
Mission accomplished. Eldest and I have discovered, in a single afternoon, four sites of historic interest in our local area, and most of these sites are as mysterious and historic as any found in the West Country. Back to the car, and we drive south through Wickford on our way home, my incredulous glance falling across a field to our left as a heron suddenly takes flight.
A week later, we found ourselves in Fowlmere, a wetland Nature Reserve in Cambridgeshire which, apart from circling hobbies, purring turtle doves and swooping marsh harriers, also has ponds which quite visibly have springs bubbling up inside them.
Perhaps Sulis is blessing our travels after all.