Soul Sister

Friend and well hunting expert Pixy Led described Nun’s Well at Cannock Wood as being, “…perhaps the most hidden of all the springs and wells I have investigated”, and it was only thanks to his post about the site on his brilliant Holy and Healing Wells blog that this well hunting amateur was able to locate it. Between Pixy’s and my visits, it appears the site has been tidied up considerably and this is my attempt to do the same historywise, purely to satisfy my own curiosity.  It’s much more appealing than sorting out the cupboard under the stairs. Or cleaning for the Queen.

nuns well board

Nun’s Well is a spring rising in a chamber cut from rock with a sixteenth century Tudor style brickwork arch. Legend has it that the well has healing powers, specifically for sore eyes, and takes its name from a nun who was murdered there. Centuries after she was pushed to her death, two farm labourers discovered her earthly remains in the sealed up well and her ghost materialised before them. As Pixy points out on his blog, however, two of the best known works on Staffordshire folklore don’t even mention the well let alone its resident spirit.  I have found a reference in Robert Garner’s 1844 Natural History of the County of Stafford, which also doesn’t mention the ghost story but does offer an alternative explanation of how the well got its name,

“To descend to more recent times we lately visited a spot where one of our early monastic institutions was placed, Redmore, from which the nuns were soon removed to Polesworth because the gay cavaliers riding that way to hunt on Cannock Chase spoiled their devotions. With some trouble we found the solitary quadrangular site not far from Gentleshaw in some low ground embosomed in a wood through which a brook flows now ochrey from the scoriae of an ancient smelting place above and here also is a well considered medicinal and still called the nun’s well”.

It’s still not an entirely satisfactory version of events though (although there’s something undeniably satisfying about seeing something described as being embosomed in a wood. Must be the logophile in me).

nunswell sign

There does appear to have to have been a monastic institution near to the well. Records show that in 1141, King Stephen granted land at Radmore or Red Moor to two hermits called Clement and Hervey and their companions. Frequent disturbances from passing foresters, rather than gay cavaliers, interrupted the quiet contemplations of Clement, Hervey and co, causing them to ask Empress Matilda if she could find them somewhere a bit quieter. It’s recorded that she agreed to this on the condition that their religious house be converted to the Cistercian order. It seems the hermits kept their part of the deal, and the retreat became a Cistercian abbey but according to the History of the County of Warwick, the foresters continued to cause problems. As soon as Henry II ascended the throne in 1154, the now Cistercian Monks petitioned him to transfer them to his manor at Stoneleigh. Henry did so and traces of the original abbey can still be found at Stoneleigh Abbey, now a grand country house.

Whether anything of the original abbey remains at Radmore is where things get really messy. Ordnance Survey maps of the area from the 1880s onwards show the site of a priory near to the well (see the 1949 map incorporated in Brownhills Bob’s post on Gentleshaw Reservoir here). According to Walsall place names expert and tricycle rider Duignan this is actually a muck up on behalf of the surveyors who, “… have mistaken furnace slag for ancient ruins (of the abbey)”.  What he found on the site was, “heaps of furnace slag, evidently of great antiquity, with 300-400 year old oak tress standing on and beside the slag”. It seems from the description of the site given by Historic England that that these could mark the site of a medieval bloomery or iron furnace. A medieval moated site also exists in the vicinity and there are suggestions that this is the site of a royal lodge established by Henry II shortly after the monks moved on to pastures quieter. As Staffordshire County Council’s Historic Environment Character Assessment report says, ‘the precise location of the abbey is unknown, but it is believe to have stood near Courtbank Coverts near Cannock Wood where a scheduled moated site and bloomery survive’.

nuns well fence

So, in the area we have a moated site, a hunting lodge, iron working and a short-lived abbey (somewhere) but how and where does the nun fit in to all this? Duignan suggests the name arose as the land was owned by the nunnery at Farewell. I read an interesting line in the History of the County of Stafford’s section on the Abbey at Radmore which says, ‘King Stephen granted Radmore, probably between 1135 and 1139, to Clement, Hervey, and their companions as the site for a hermitage…Bishop Roger de Clinton confirmed this grant and gave the hermits permission to follow any rule they wished and to receive and instruct any holy women who came to them after adopting a rule”. That suggests to me that there may have been holy women here at Radmoor…nuns? Hardly the most watertight of etymological explanations I know but then I don’t think Duignan’s is that convincing either. Is it? Although Nun’s Well is not technically a wishing well, please do feel free to throw in your two pence worth.

nunswell water

 

Sources:

G C Baugh, W L Cowie, J C Dickinson, Duggan A P, A K B Evans, R H Evans, Una C Hannam, P Heath, D A Johnston, Hilda Johnstone, Ann J Kettle, J L Kirby, R Mansfield and A Saltman, ‘Houses of Cistercian monks: The abbey of Radmore’, in A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 3, ed. M W Greenslade and R B Pugh (London, 1970), p. 225 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/staffs/vol3/p225 [accessed 4 March 2016].

https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1003750

‘Parishes: Stoneleigh’, in A History of the County of Warwick: Volume 6, Knightlow Hundred, ed. L F Salzman (London, 1951), pp. 229-240 http://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/warks/vol6/pp229-240 [accessed 7 February 2016].

http://cistercians.shef.ac.uk/abbeys/stoneleigh.php

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Waterfall

I’d heard from enigmatic Lichfield news satirist Five Spires Live that there was a waterfall near to the newly re-opened Horns Inn in Slitting Mill. When I read that there were also several boundary stones nearby, I raced from the hole I call home* to have a look.

I understand that the waterfall isn’t a natural force but the remnants of an industry reflected in the village’s name and in the surrounding waters. Horns Pool (sometimes known as Dutton’s Pool) behind the pub was a mill pond for what is thought to have been the first slitting mill in the Midlands, dating back to the 1620s. Iron arriving here from forges in North Staffordshire was split into rods using the power of water. Between 1694 and 1710, ironmongers from the Midlands brought around an average of 600 tons of iron rod each a year.  I wonder if any found its way to Burntwood where I found the nailers’ stones in the churchyard?

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Other than the pool, and the sluice gates along Rising Brook, no other traces of the mill are thought to remain. I understand that it was pulled down to make way for the South Staffordshire Waterworks electrically operated pumping station, built in 1932. There’s an interesting story about the demolition of the mill – the British Numismatic Society Journal notes that, “An uncertain number of coins, said in one report to date from the seventeenth century, and in another to be of both that and the following century were found ‘in the walls’ of the Old Mill House when it was pulled down to make way for a new pumping station for the South Staffs Waterworks Company. It is not absolutely certain that these constituted a hoard; they may have been a number of stray coins.”

According to the information board which appears alongside the brook (part of the Cannock Chase Heritage trail), there was also a cottage on the site.  The last inhabitants were Mary Sant and her husband, a blacksmith, who lived there until the cottage was demolished in the 1930s, around the same time that the pumping station was built.. The part of the brook which ran past their home became known as Sant’s Brook, and you can see a photograph of Mary outside the cottage here.

Pumping Station

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I’ve been reading for two hours now and information on exactly how many mills were along the brook seems a little hazy (to me at least!). Archaeological investigations continue to try and establish more information about the extent of the industry here. You can read about the latest discoveries made near to Horns Pool by the Stoke on Trent Museum Archaeology Society in May 2011 here.

Boundary Stones

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There are three boundary stones that I could see – a pair either side of the brook behind Horns Pool, and nearby, another on the path. Thought to date from the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century they are made from local stone. None of them have any kind of markings or lettering, and the pair on the brook are facing different ways. Together with the brook, they appear to mark a border of some sort but according to their listed building description don’t appear on any maps. Curious.

I’m even more curious about why a bridge over the stream as it flows towards Rugeley is called Father Cannock Bridge on maps. Where does this name come from?

Is this Father Cannock Bridge? Where does the name come from?

Is this Father Cannock Bridge? Where does the name come from?

Rising Brook Bridge

Whether this is Father Cannock bridge or not, its ornamental nature makes me wonder whether it’s a leftover relic from the days when this area was part of the Hagley Hall estate. Few traces of the estate remain today. I believe the hall itself was demolished in the 1980s. However, a little further downstream there is one remarkable feature which has survived and you’d never even know it was there, until you looked a little deeper…

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*It’s a bit messy as we’re having a carpet fitted.

Sources:

http://www.britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/en-431001-boundary-stone-at-grid-reference-sk-0271/osmap

https://lichfieldlore.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/cannockchasedistricthea-appendix3-rugeleyareaheczassessments.pdf

The British Numismatic Journal: Including the Proceedings of the British Numismatic Society, Volume 40

Masters and Men: In the West Midland Metalware Trades Before the Industrial Revolution by Marie B Rowlands