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HIGH WYCOMBE'S LOST HOLY WELLS

 

by Clive Harper

LOCAL interest was stimulated by a mention in the Wycombe & South Bucks Star newspaper in 1985 by : "There is...a record of a holy well existing in High Wycombe in the eleventh century but where it was, how it was worshipped and if it was connected with St Wulstan is uncertain. Perhaps a reader can tell us if there is a link with Holywell Mead besides Bassetsbury Manor".

We know there was a holy well at High Wycombe for, as the Buckinghamshire section of the Victoria County History of the Counties and England puts it "...nearly a century after St Wulfstan's death St Hugh of Avalon, Bishop of Lincoln, put a stop to well worship at High Wycombe". From the lives of SS Wulfstan and Hugh this action can be dated to the end of the twelfth century. The location of the holy well is less certain.

 What used to be called holy wells were in fact often springs, but no obvious site is to be found today on Holywell Mead. Also a number of springs/ancient wells have been found in other parts of Wycombe, some of which have been proposed as being the holy well. When the evidence is examined there is a very strong case of the holy well having been on Holywell Mead. However brief notes on the different possible locations are given below.

 Malmers Well:- The name Malmers Well appears to have been applied to an earth work rather than a well as such. John Parker in his Early History and Antiquities of Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, 1878, refers to the manuscripts of a Dr Willis who visited Wycombe at the beginning of the 18th Century. He writes: "Above the church about four furlongs distant is a Celtic or British fortification called Mawtrim's or Manuck's Well, afterwards called Malmer's Well, about 300 yards form the Castle Hill, lying on the north side; it is round with entrances on the north and south sides and is bounded on the east and partly on the north by the ancient British road called Crendon Lane."

 A pit was however found in this area:

 "In the year 1863, an excavation was made in Wycombe Cemetery which forms part of Malmers Well...a pit was discovered, which may be described as a nearly circular chamber, 7 feet deep, 8 feet in diameter at the top and slightly tapering to a diameter of 6 feet at the bottom. These limits were well defined, the chalk having been sharply cut away all round and at the bottom. These limits were well defined, the chalk having been sharply cut away all round and at the bottom." The pit contained what was thought to be the remains of a cremation and it seems unlikely that the holy well was in the Malmers Well area."

 Castle Well:- Parker describes "The ancient well on the lawn, in front of the present house (Castle House) was no doubt an appurtenance to the castle". There is nothing to suggest that this was the holy well.

 Bowden Lane Springs:- Two springs are clearly visible in the pond, now divided by a railway bridge, at the bottom of Bowden Lane. It has been suggested that the construction of the railway bridge in the 19th century destroyed the old watercress beds which may have been the remains of the holy well and its stream.

 Priory Wells:- There seem to have been two ancient wells found in the vicinity of The Priory, the building on the corner in the vicinity of The Priory, the building on the corner of Castle Street and Priory Road. The building used to be called Wellysbourne House, but this name apparently came from the Wellysbourne Family whose residence it once was. Parker relates how "...in the garden in front of the house in AllHallows Lane (now called Castle Street), on the west was discovered a Roman well." This well would now be under the pavement in front of The Compleat Cookshop. In a letter to the Wycombe and South Bucks Star dated 3rd February, 1984, a correspondent describes another well: "I think the holy well was in the centre of High Wycombe and not on Holywell Mead as you infer...the well, I think could have been called Holy, was in the old Priory in Priory Road. In 1968 to 1971, I was working at the top of Thame House office block of the Miles Druce company when the Priory Road shopping area was being developed. Halfway up Priory Road on the right hand side was prefabricated building used, I think by Charrington Fuels. This was being demolished and the ground cleared when there was a great disturbance and a bulldozer or dumper truck almost went into a mammoth well unearthed in the old Priory Grounds...within a short time, less than a week, it had been buried again without trace and now lies under the floor of one of the Priory Road shops."

 St Mary's Well:- Another Star correspondent, writing in the issue of 27th January 1984, opined: "As far as I know this (the holy well) was a shrine to the Virgin Mary, a place of pilgrimage, where pilgrims came to drink the waters which apparently had healing powers. This shrine was said to be in the area of St Mary's Street, Paul's Row, and Lily's Walk. Lily's Walk takes its name from the lady with the lily and you may be aware that many statues to this day depict the Virgin Mary holding a bunch of white lilies." A correspondent to magazine Buckinghamshire Interest in 1955 suggested another derivation for Lily's Walk, that it was a rebus based on the name of someone called Lily who had been associated with Wycombe Abbey School. "Another interesting point is that the well water in parts of High Wycombe has ammonia in it. If this was the case in the Middle Ages it may account for the healing powers of the water at that time." There was a chapel to St Mary in he location described, although the exact site is uncertain. L J Ashford's High Wycombe (1960) makes no mention of a well being associated with the chapel. A published analysis of Wycombe well water does not confirm the presence of ammonia.

 The Round Basin:- E J Payne, writing in the 19th century, in his Building of Wycombe Church etc" says: "I have no doubt that the powerful spring which rises at the east end of the Rye, close to the Roman Villa, is the one alluded to. It was called Holy Well through the Middle Ages, and the adjoining meadow is still called Halliwell Mead." The spring was shown as one of the markers of the municipal boundary on R K Dawson's 1832 Plan of High Wycombe in The Report upon the Proposed Municipal Boundary of the Borough of Chepping Wycombe. This suggests that the spring was of some historical importance. The reason why recent researchers could not find the spring is explained by a letter published in 1955:-
I expect many of your readers will regret, as I do, the passing of yet another of Wycombe's remaining antiquities known as the Round Basin. They may remember the spring in the middle of the Rye at the bottom of Holliwell Mead from which it fed the watercress beds flowing past Bassetsbury Manor into Marsh Green onwards. According to tradition, in early ages this was a holy well, the scene of constant pilgrimages probably connected with St Wulstan until about 1100 when owing to abuses which had arised they were forbidden, I believe by Hugh of Lincoln in whose diocese the town then was. This was centuries ago, but the Mead the spring have remained known as Holywell, Hollwell or Holliwell to this day. Nearby on one side of the well is the site of a Roman fortress and on another the Roman Villa (now under excavation). Years ago I urged that the well...might have been laid out in remembrance of one of those spots of ancient Wycombe of interest to visitors and the Burgesses, but now both..have been filled in by the Corporation to add to the playing fields.

strange wycombeStrange Wycombe, detailing legends and folklore of Wycombe in Buckinghamshire, has been out of print for some time but a few copies of the 1991 edition are still available. See Strange Wycombe page for more details.