Sunday, 29 May 2016

Another Trip To The Well

We live in a nation defined by water. It surrounds our Isles, has historically helped us to repel invaders ( not always successfully!), encouraged us to create ships that forged an Empire. It rises in the Winter to wreak flood havoc on various parts of the country. It was venerated by the ancient pre-Roman tribes, who cast votive offerings into its depths - artifacts such as the Battersea Shield and the Waterloo Helmet, dredged from the murk of the Thames. The custom of throwing coins into wells originates from these older rituals.

Waterloo Helmet and Battersea Shield

Wells and springs, venerated for millenia, abound across the nation, many of them adopted as relevant to the rise of Christianity, and named after various saints. In the Celtic Fringe areas, they are particularly thick on the ground. I have stumbled across them in Cornwall, where a traveller never seems to be far from a watering hole named after a local holy man. St Guron's Well stands outside the great church at Bodmin, one of many water sources in the town. St Piran's Well guards the beginning of the track that leads to St Nectan's Glen at Trethevy, and the Madron Well down in West Penwith is always thick with clouties. The small village of St Breward, high on the Moor, boasts of two Holy Wells on its fringes.

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
Despite the presence of reed warblers in the nearby scrub and a heron prowling the Academy's pond, any possible charm of this spot is destroyed by the perpetual roar of traffic and the antisocial activities of fly tippers. However, this is only the first of four that we have earmarked for this trip and we have high hopes that, as D:Ream once sang, things can only get better.

We hop into the car before anyone can nick it, and head northwest to a relatively overlooked village.

North Ockendon

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
The lovingly maintained well sits in a picturesque spot, overlooking a pond which is the remnant of a manorial moat. Its waterpump remains in fine working order and is used to water the plants that surround the wellhouse. A baptismal channel runs from the well to the pond which, curiously, contains the second heron of the day. Unless we're being followed.

St Cedd's Well and Baptismal Channel ©Charlie McManus

Heron on the pond ©Charlie McManus

The dedication of the church is to St Mary Magdalene, biblical figure and unseen star of 'The DaVinci Code'. So who was St Cedd?

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
An overgrown flight of concrete steps lead down the bank to the Well, and a concrete sink tank adjoins it. These were installed by a local farmer in the 1920's, although a handrail accompanying the steps has long since rotted away. Standing on the platform, gazing into the dark water, it is strange to imagine that this remote, overgrown, virtually forgotten spot may once have been a site of secret pilgrimage.

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.


  1. I really enjoyed this article - thoughtfully written with just the right amount of historical information to wet the appetite. I don't know your neck of the woods at all, being a Gloucestershire/Warwickshire inhabitant but I've been well hunting in Cornwall since 2000 and am now steward to several Cotswold springs.

  2. Thanks Sarah. I try to strike a balance between education and entertainment with articles like these - happy that you enjoyed it!