Thursday, 3 December 2009
Holywell Spring Water, Malvern
And Holywell water really does have a grand pedigree. Queens from Elizabeth I to Victoria drank it and, in 1558, Elizabeth is said to have granted a man with the entertaining name of John Hornyold the rights to the well. Commercial bottling at Holywell began in 1622, and Schweppes came in 1850 to put things on an industrial scale and bring Holywell water to the masses. The following year they pulled off a publicity coup by having hundreds of gallons of water from the spring pumped in a spectacular fountain at the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace.
So much for the glory days of Holywell.
It’s hard to imagine today that this woodland glade and the 1843 well house, said to be modelled on a spa building in Baden-Baden visited by the young Victoria, were once the hub of a major industrial enterprise. We are on winding Holywell Lane, away from Great Malvern itself and the other little towns with their famous wells and springs, at the very foot of the wooded slopes of the Malvern Hills. Yet photos in the new visitor’s centre at the well house show the carts and heavy horses, crates and bottles of what is proudly signed as The Holy Well Mineral Water Factory.
However, in the twentieth century, with the Schweppes bottling plant long transferred elsewhere in Malvern, there was a considerable decline. Twice in the last 40 years, bottling businesses at Holywell have gone bust; which must mean Mike is a man of faith.
Were there visions, miracles or a martyr associated with Holywell?
They look a little uncomfortable.
What about some cures then?
In May the Malvern Spa Association, which won the National Heritage Lottery Fund money that has helped revive Holywell, plus numerous other local projects, organised a blessing of the waters here by the Bishop of Dudley, the Rt Rev David Walker.
In his blessing he said: “We thank you that since time immemorial men and women have come here to take of the waters for restoration to health. We bless you for all those who have been cured by these waters.”
Mike won’t endorse such an idea. “We can’t make any health claims for the water,” he says.
Yet the well’s reputation for curing leprosy, eye disorders, ulcers, cancers and skin diseases dates back to the 12th century. There is talk of a St Oswald who is said to have revealed the medicinal powers of the well to a hermit in the hills. Monks supposedly wrapped cloths soaked in Holywell water around the diseased parts of patients. In the eighteenth century such wrapping was undertaken by Dr John Wall to treat ulcers and other skin conditions when he set up The Wells House, Malvern’s first water-treatment centre, a few hundreds yards up the lane from Holywell. In the 1840s Great Malvern became a hugely popular spa town where such hydrotherapy was widely practised. Dickens and Darwin both came to Malvern to, as it was known, ‘take the cure’.
Such claims were perhaps undermined when Dr Wall proclaimed: “Malvern Water is famous for containing just nothing at all.” He actually meant that the Precambrian rock it is filtered through left it incredibly pure.
Certainly it appears that Holywell’s reputation was very widely known in the early seventeenth century. Cora Weaver, co-author of Springs, Spouts, Fountains and Holy Wells of the Malvern Hills says: “I discovered in a parish register for Defford, which is to the south east of Malvern, a reference to a poor man – poor meaning sick – who had come from Leicester to take water at the Holy Well, but Holy had been crossed out and Malvern substituted. So whether there were two wells or whether the clergyman making the entry had second thoughts about describing it as such I don’t know. But for someone to come 70 miles means that the story of the healing powers of the well had spread very wide.
“But there was no ecclesiastical building close to Holywell, the nearest was a Benedictine monastery at Little Malvern, and that’s quite a way away.”
None of this diminishes the power and fascination of Holywell. I notice Mike and Rhys, in their literature, call themselves the custodians of the well: “We do see ourselves as custodians,” says Mike, “we have the privilege of taking this piece of heritage on to the next chapter and making sure it lasts.”
Not bad for someone who got into the water business by accident. Mike’s wife Marian was looking for a country cottage in 1999 and saw the one alongside the well house, which Rhys now lives in, was up for sale. When they spoke to the agent he ran through the details of the property and then said “and now the well…”
Mike says: “We thought he meant a hole in the back garden, but he told us there was a substantial additional building that had the well in it, but it was almost derelict. It would have put most people right off but he said ‘if you want a project…’” It turned out they did.
Once here, Mike found all sorts of people sidling up and saying: “Do you know how important this place is?” He soon learned. “One guy who had come up here to do some work told me later that he had had a wart on his finger, but that the day after he came here and touched the water it had cleared up.”
After leaving Mike and Rhys I visit a couple of other local wells. One, above Holywell, and among the sources that feed its 1,000 litre per hour flow, is called the Eye Well. The Victorians loved to visit such places and the well-graded paths that they created through the woods are still intact. Eye Well, reputed -- as you might expect -- to cure eye ailments, is actually eye-shaped: a rather weepy eye hole in the ground beneath a tree. Cora’s explanation for how it got its name might help explain the ‘miraculous’ effects attributed to Holywell water: “Lack of vitamin A and smoky rooms causes sore eyes, a prevalent problem during the Middle Ages.” Get out in the clean country air and the symptoms disappear.
It’s a pretty dank scramble down Tumuli Valley to get to it but, once there, I read: “This lonesome location is supposedly named after a mischievous character called Puck or Robin Goodfellow. Puck is immortalised in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In English folklore he is a fairy or hobgoblin. Using dancing lights he is reputed to mislead travellers and sometimes assumes an animal form. In ancient times, Robin Goodfellows were believed to be terrestrial devils capable of inciting disease and melancholy, driving the victim to despair, rage and fury. A cure was believed to exist in the Balneum Diaboli or Devil’s Bath, to purge the affected mind and body.
So, it seems that you could just as easily ascribe a cure to Devil’s Well as to Holywell. Perhaps there is nothing very holy about Holywell, but at least nobody is bottling Devil’s Water.