Up One Level Holy Wells and Magical Waters of Surrey

Holy Wells and Magical Waters of Surrey

by Rowland G. M. Baker

     A well-known authority has said 'Our sense of continuity with the beliefs of the ancient Britons is never stronger than when we stand by one of the holy wells which are to be found near many churches. The saint whose name the well now bears was almost certainly first associated with it in the role of a sentinel, to defend Christianity against the stealthy persistence of the old nature worship' [1].

     Water is one of the prime necessities of life, and to early man the sight of a spring of crystal liquid bubbling out of the ground, or gushing from some crevice in the rock, must have appeared nothing short of miraculous. Surely it had been placed there by the gods for man's particular refreshment; even to be the very dwelling place of the deity himself; in any case a domain of great sanctity, a place where the sick could be brought to be healed by the magical curative properties of the sacred waters. Shrines were erected around these springs, where the great water spirit was worshipped, and placated by the offering of abundant sacrifice.

     The Christian missionaries, when first they came to this country, would never be so foolish or reckless as to destroy entirely the aura which surrounded these ancient retreats. Wells which had built up a great reputation and had been dedicated to the honour of a pagan divinity were re-consecrated to the protection of a Christian saint. A canon, issued by Archbishop Anselm after the Westminster Council of 1102, ordered that no one should attribute reverence or sanctity to a fountain without the authority of a bishop.

     Surrey, with the filtering effect of its sandy and chalky soils, possesses a number of limpid wells and streams, to which history and legend ascribe great reverence and astounding remedial properties.

     Not far from the little parish church at Bisley, for instance, is a spring, now sadly neglected, but which was once the 'Holy Well of St. John the Baptist'. For many centuries this well was highly recommended for the medicinal powers of its waters. There is a legend in the locality which reports that Bisley church owes its foundation to the presence of this spring; the monks from the great Benedictine Abbey of Chertsey, after receiving refreshing comfort from drinking the water, built a shrine close by as a thanksgiving, and out of this the present church has grown [2].

     Not so very long ago the local people affirmed that the water of the well was sanctified, and would have their children baptised with no other. The present writer's wife's grandmother, who was born at Bisley in 1876, was christened with this water, and said that folks thought it to be 'holy'. Her mother used to send her down to the spring with a bottle to get water 'to wash the babies in'. It continued to be used for baptisms up to about the year 1900.

     At one time the well was protected by a wooden cover, but this was replaced by a brick and cement surround, out of which the water now gushes. It maintains a steady annual temperature, and so appears cold in summer and warm in winter, and it has a high concentration of iron. The late Mr H. P. Lawson, who owned the field in which the spring is situated, and who erected the present surround, is reported to have drunk a cupful of the water every day - and he lived to his 90th year [3].

      On St. Anne's Hill, near Chertsey, by the ruins of an ancient chapel dedicated to that saint, stands what Aubrey [4] described as 'a fine clear spring', which is known as St. Anne's Well, or The Nun's Well. The water is seldom frozen even in the deepest winter, and was considered by the locals to be wonderfully effective as a lotion for the cure of diseases of the eye [5].

     The ability to cure sore eyes was, in fact, attributed to a number of Surrey springs and wells. One was at the foot of St. Catherine's Hill, close to where the old trackway known as the Pilgrim's Way crosses the River Wey [6]. Around 1894 companies of school-children used to take bottles into which sugar or treacle had been put, to fill them from the spring, and drink [7].

      At the bottom of Gimcrack Hill, Leatherhead, beside the entrance to Thorncroft Manor, a stream of beautifully clear water, which was another noted eye-curer, discharges into the River Mole. Similar properties were attributed to a spring which breaks out from a peaty bank by the side of the road running downhill from Hook Heath at Woking, and from which, so the legend says, King George III used to send for supplies of water whenever he was in residence at Windsor [8].

     A lane leading down from the church at Dunsfold brings one to the holy well of St. Mary the Virgin, over which the local people have erected an elaborate oak canopy. Designed by W. D. Caroe, the canopy was funded by the Dunsfold Amateur Dramatic Society, and dedicated by the Bishop of Guildford in October 1933 [9]. Its waters were also alleged to be beneficial for eye ailments. Tradition has it that the Blessed Virgin has disclosed herself at times to those who sought relief at the well [10]. In fact, its proximity may well provide the explanation of the church's erection on this site, nearly a mile away from the body of the village.

Dunsfold - holy well
Fig. 1. Dunsfold, the Holy Well of St. Mary the Virgin.

     The water from a well called 'Bon-spring' at Witley was supposed to be effective not only as an eye lotion, but if taken internally, as a cure for ulcers. The antiquity of this well may be evidenced by the numbers of archaeological finds which have been made in the immediate vicinity [11].

     At the foot of Tilburstow Hill near to where Godstone railway station now stands, there used to be an old ale-house which was called The Iron Pear Tree. It received this name because of a pear tree which grew in the garden and which every year bore a prolific crop of fruit but all of which were so hard and unfit for eating that they were called 'iron pears'.

     This house was bought by a man named Bonwick, who suffered extremely with the gout, and who, it appears, decided to brew his own beer on the premises. As the nearest well was some way off and necessitated a considerable amount of carrying of water, he resolved to sink a well in his own garden, which he did, and brewed a quantity of beer from the water. The beer, however, had such an unpleasant taste that none of his customers would drink it. Bonwick, having all the liquor left on his hands, was faced with the problem of pouring it all away or drinking it himself. As the beverage did not taste unpalatable to him, he decided to drink it all, and after some time of so doing, lo and behold, found himself cured of the gout.

     After that the reputation of the well-water swiftly spread over a wide area, and eventually reached London. A jockey called Prentice, who had married the widow of the owner, was largely responsible for sending great quantities to London, where it was sold at the rate of 6d. a quart, for the treatment of gout and constipation, in the cure of which complaints it was thought to be most efficacious.

     After some years the fame of the water declined and for a long time the well lay neglected, until about the year 1784, when a man who 'had had the gout every year since the age of 12' heard of the miraculous cures which were claimed to have been formerly accomplished and decided to try it for himself. He had the well re-opened, and drank the water. In a short time he was cured of the malady. This restoration immediately began to be talked about, and the reputation of the well again became firmly established. Its new owner erected a small 'pump-room' over it. The enterprise was short-lived, however, for less than thirty years later it was reported to be 'little used' [12].

     In the Haslemere Educational Museum is a stone-ware bowl, about 14 inches high and 10 inches in diameter, which is inscribed 'IRON PEARTREE WATER NEAR GODSTONE, SURREY'. Over the inscription are two oval panels, one of which is decorated with a representation of a man hobbling lamely on a pair of crutches and bears the words: 'OH THE GOUT'; the other depicts the same man holding a cup in his hand from which he has apparently been drinking and is now walking energetically, this panel is entitled: 'DRINK AND BE WELL' [13]. It seems probable that this bowl was used at the well during the 18th century.

     A well near Dorking, called Meg's Well or Mag's Well, was deemed equally effective in the relief of rheumatism, scurvy, dermatitis, leprosy, scabs, itch, and scrofula; and if drunk, as both an emetic and a laxative [14]. Aubrey states that 'The reason why it is called Mag-well, was because a poor Wench, whose name was Meg, that was troubled with the Itch, and lived hereabout, first cured herself with washing' [15]. A more credible explanation, however, is that its name is a corruption of St. Margaret, to whom doubtless it was originally consecrated.

     The spotlessly clear pools and springs which form naturally where water is allowed to percolate through the soil have always suggested to the minds of men a pervasion of purity, a subtle air of maidenly virtue. This in former times frequently led to these wells being dedicated to the various virgin saints. St. Margaret, the patron saint of women; St. Mary the Virgin, and St. Anne, her mother; these were all very popular tutelary saints for springs.

     Besides those wells and springs already mentioned as being dedicated to these saints, St. Margaret was the patroness of a spring at Coldharbour on Lingfield Common, the stone stoup of which is now incorporated into St. Peter's Cross at Lingfield [16]; and probably also of Lady Margaret's Well at Carshalton.

     Carshalton has another, and perhaps more famous, well. This still stands near the old churchyard, where Church Hill joins the High Street, now walled and railed in. It is known either as Queen Anne's Well or Anne Boleyn's Well, although it is almost certain that it was originally named for St. Anne. Tradition, however, has it that one day Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, is second wife, were on their way on horseback from the palace of Nonesuch to visit Sir Nicholas Carew at Beddington Park, when on this spot the queen's horse suddenly pranced up and struck its hoof into the ground, causing a spring to spurt forth where none had been before. To perpetuate the memory of this event the villagers erected a stone around it, and christened it after their royal visitor with the name it carries to this day. They also chained a bowl to it, in order that weary travellers could assuage their thirst with the cool refreshing water [17].

Boleyn's Well, Carshalton
Fig. 2. Carshalton, Anne Boleyn's Well.

     At one time a local, but not very accomplished, poet wrote a ditty extolling its virtues [18]:

'There is a well at Carshalton,
A neater one never was seen;
And there's not a maid of Carshalton,
But has heard of the well of Boleyn.

It stands near the rustic churchyard,
Not far from the village green;
And the villagers show with rustic pride,
The quaint old well of Boleyn.'

     This association of pure clear water with unsullied virginity often found expression in delightful legends and stories, which were woven to explain to credulous minds the unadulterated limpidity of the water.

     The A25 road from Dorking to Reigate passes through the village of Buckland, and although nowadays the scene appears as a never ceasing procession of motor vehicles, earlier in this century it was a rather pleasant but lonely lane. It was crossed in one of its most secluded parts by a rivulet of extraordinarily beautiful transparent water, by the side of which lay a stone. The two, stream and stone, formed the basis of a very charming legend, the origin of which is not known, but probably goes back a very long time.

     'Once upon a time', the legend (like all good legends) begins, 'a lovely blue-eyed girl whose father was a substantial yeoman in the neighbourhood, was wooed and won by the subtle arts of the opulent owner of the mansion house of Buckland. In the silence of the evening the lane was their accustomed walk - the scene of her devoted love and his deceitful vows. Here he swore eternal fidelity; and the gentle unsuspecting maid heard his earnest protestations with all the confiding affection of the female heart in its native simplicity, and confessed the power of his eloquence while her soul was absorbed in tenderness. At such a moment as this, how often has the guileless mind of youth been led astray from the path of virtue! It was now for the first time the wily seducer cautiously communicated to the yeoman's daughter the real nature of his designs. The lovely moon was the witness of his perfidy and of her distress. She heard the avowal in tremulous silence - but her deadly paleness, and her expressive look of mingled reproach and terror - while still on her fair countenance the lineaments of tenderness lingered - created alarm even in the mind of the villain; and he hastily endeavoured to recall the fatal declaration; but it was too late - the stricken deer was already too deeply wounded - she sprang from his agitated grasp, and with a sigh of agony her pure spirit escaped - she fell dead at his feet! When the wretch beheld the work of his iniquity, he was seized with distraction - and, drawing a dagger from his bosom, he plunged it into his own false heart, and lay stretched by the side of the lovely blossom he had so basely destroyed. On the morrow the traveller through the lane passed over a beautiful little stream, the emblem of innocence - and saw a dark stone, the appropriate symbol of hardened wickedness, with drops of blood trickling from its heart into the bosom of that pure limpid stream. From that day the little stream has lived in its untainted purity, and the stone has still continued its sacrifice of blood [19].

     In the 18th century the lord of the manor is said to have removed the stone to the manor house, where for many years 'it oozed forth its crimson drops' [20].

     This same theme has grown up comparatively recently around the lake called Shirebourne Pond or more famously The Silent Pool, near Albury. Mainly through the publicity given to it by Martin Tupper in his romance Stephan Langton.

     In this pool, the story recalls, a beautiful peasant maiden, just budding into womanhood, used daily to take a bathe in the deep clear water, isolated in the depth of a thicket of box trees, which almost arch above its peaceful waters. One morning the girl arriving at the spot divested herself of her simple garments and proceeded, as was her usual custom, to take her bathe, accompanied, as she thought only by the silver trout which abound in the lake. This unfortunate day, however, prying eyes watched the unsuspecting maiden as she dipped in the waters, and before long she heard the sound of crushing in the undergrowth; before she could reach her clothes a stranger on horseback appeared and drove his mount to where the quivering maiden stood in the water. Further and further into the middle of the lake the guileless girl retreated, to hide her unclothed body from the stranger's gaze, and further into the pool the horseman drove, until the girl could go no further; before her lay a precipitous descent of some twenty feet or more. She could not swim. Therefore she had quickly to make a decision. To stay where she was meant that the callous pursuer must reach her and drag her to the bank. With one last unavailing shout for assistance the poor distracted lass hurled herself into oblivion in the tranquil depths of the pool, the stranger, seeing his prey escape him, turned his horse around and galloped away. 'The unrippled surface is all smooth once more; and you may see the trout shoaling among the still green weeds around that naked raven-haired Sabrina'.

     This was not enough for Tupper, he had to make the pursuer into King John, and let the girl's brother try to rescue her and to suffer the same fate as his sister in the attempt [21].

     A tale of somewhat similar character attaches to a small lake on the Fetcham side of Leatherhead, which, being fed by several springs bubbling through the chalk, is extremely clear and placid. After Eric Parker visited the scene in Edwardian times, he wrote: 'There is a strong spell of magic over all that strange pool. Some naiad Circe combs her hair far below the weeds, and has bewitched the wild fowl and the green cold water' [22]. This lake is now used as a source of supply by the local water authority.

     In this age the phenomenon of crystal springs and transparent pools which form in many parts of the county can be accounted for in a more mundane fashion by natural laws. Yet one can still stroll by the calm serenity of a little mere, or watch pure spring water issuing from a quiet hillside, and be enmeshed in an ambience of mystic beauty, accompanied only by romantic thoughts of untainted chastity.




1. M.D. Anderson, History and Imagery in British Churches (1971), p. 14.
2. J. Cater, Bisley Bits; or Records of a Surrey Corner (1892), pp. 50-51.
3. information per Mrs Cooper of Clews Farm, Bisley.
4. John Aubrey, Natural History and Antiquities of Surrey (1719), vol. 3, p. 185.
5. Mrs. S.C. Hall, Chertsey and its Neighbourhood (1853), p. 14.
6. F.C. Elliston-Erwood, The Pilgrim's Road, 2nd edition (1923), p. 116.
7. Folk-Lore, vol. 64, (June 1953), p. 350.
8. Ibid.
9. Surrey Advertiser, (7th October 1933).
10. Ibid., (14th October 1933).
11. G.A. Cooke, Topographical and Statistical Description of the County of Surrey (1817), p. 85.
12. O. Manning and W. Bray, History and Antiquities of the County of Surrey (1809), vol. 2, p. 322.
13. Surrey Archaeological Collections, vol. 42 (1934), p. 138.
14. J. and S. Russell, The History of Guildford (1801), p. 301.;
J.S. Bright, A History of Dorking and the Neighbouring Parishes (1884), p. 327.
15. J. Aubrey, Op. cit., vol. 5, p. 163.
16. A.B. Hayward and S. Hazell, A History of Lingfield (1933), p. 35.
17. G.B. Brightling, History and Antiquities of Carshalton (1827), p. 49.
18. E. Walford, Greater London (1895), vol. 2, p. 201.
19. The Gentleman's Magazine (1827), vol. 2, pp. 483-486.
20. Ibid.
21. Martin Tupper, Stephan Langton; or the Days of King John (first published 1858).
22. Eric Parker, Highways and Byways of Surrey (1908), p. 280.


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