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AQUAE ARNEMETIAE - The Chequered History of a Holy Well

By Kate Aimson

Published Beltane 2000

Buxton, Derbyshire was known to the Romans as Aquae Arnemetiae. The place name ‘Aquae' was used by the Romans for only one other town in Britain, Aquae Sulis, now known as Bath. The Romans named few other towns in Europe this way, the only ones I know of being: Aquae Sextiae (Aix-en-Provence), Aquae Gratianae (Aix-les-Bains), Aquae Solis (Vichy). These other five towns are very famous spas and Buxton seems to languish a bit in comparison. A site that was so important to the Romans has had its ups and downs since their time, and I wondered what times of fame it has known, and at what times has sacredness been attached to it.

Sites in Buxton have shown Mesolithic and Neolithic settlement, through to Bronze Age and Iron Age occupation. It would seem that the Romans arrived to find a sacred site attached to the main thermal spring. The Romans named it Aquae Arnemetiae, which has been translated as ‘The Waters of The Goddess of the Grove'. (The Latin for grove is ‘nemus'.) It seems to me that this means the Romans were recognising an already existing ‘Goddess of the Grove' in naming it thus. They presumably found a thermal spring, marshy ground and a grove of trees, and we do not know what form of building, if any.

The Romans built a bath at the thermal spring site. It is now under the west wing of The Crescent, and was described as ‘a leaden cistern' when The Crescent was built. An excavation of the main spring in 1974/5 uncovered a votive offering of many Roman coins. These coins ranged through the whole period of the Roman occupation of Britain. After the Roman period, Buxton remained a small village.

Place names in and around Buxton, and Anglo-Saxon finds in burial mound excavations suggest a continuing inhabitation of the area and probable use of the warm mineral waters. Buxton is not mentioned in the Domesday Book, presumably not been worthwhile in revenue terms. Later mediaeval records show the existence of a holy well at Buxton and the valuation taken for King Henry VIII in 1536 showed the Well to be worth 40 marks, a not inconsiderable sum. There was a chapel at the Holy Well, where the visitors or pilgrims would go to pray, give thanks and hang the crutches they no longer needed. Henry VII and Thomas Cromwell put a stop to this ‘idolatrous' behaviour by dissolving the chapel, and plundering its wealth. In 1538, Sir William Bassett of Langley had his orders and took away all the crutches and other relics, ordered the chapel to be locked and the wells and baths to be sealed. Henry seems to have succeeded in one of his aims, because from then on the sacred nature of the Well was diminished. No further church was built at the site, and there is no church in the immediate area of the Well. However the use of the Well and the Grove did continue.

In Elizabethan times, Buxton enjoyed considerable fame as a healing spa. Mary Queen of Scots visited to take the waters on several occasions whilst she was a prisoner under the care of the Earl of Shrewsbury, the husband of Bess of Hardwick. The Earl of Shrewsbury built the hall over the bath to provide accommodation. This is now known as The Old Hall, having been rebuilt in 1670. It is now an hotel. I have not yet found out what church there was in Buxton at this period. It may be the small local population was resisting Protestantism, as there were many Catholic plots and intrigues to free Mary, Queen of Scots in Derbyshire. Indeed this may be the reason Mary visited Buxton, as she was eventually stopped. Whatever her reasons for insisting on visiting the spa, she spread its fame. In 1572, a Dr Jones wrote the first medical book on Buxton waters entitled ‘The Benefit of the Auncient Bathes of Buckstones'. Dr Jones published a prayer to be said before taking the waters, which was very Christian. Was he pushing the Christian view against old ‘idolatrous' beliefs, or just expressing himself in the manner of his times. He certainly used the prayer to emphasise the physicians' God-given power.

From that time on, many others wrote on the curative value of the warm waters and from these accounts it can be seen that Buxton continued to be used as a spa through the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The old well chapel was not rebuilt, and disappeared. The Well became known as St. Anne's Well, and the slopes to the East, St. Anne's Cliff. (Coincidentally, one of the wells at Malvern Spa is called St. Anne's Well. Also, one of the wells, at Chapel-en-le-Frith, six miles from Buxton, was called Nanny's Well.) St. Anne's church was built in 1625. The interesting thing is that it is really nowhere near the Well. It is at the other side of the old part of Buxton. It is still standing at the top of Bath Road.

St. Anne's was sufficient for the small population. It has not been in continuous use as a church. During its history the church has been a school room, a mortuary and a barn. In plan it is certainly more like a chapel than a church. It has no tower or aisles and there are no structural divisions between the nave and chancel. The massive tie-beams are only seven feet from the floor, and the building is small and low.

In 1780 the fifth Duke of Devonshire, of Chatsworth House, decided to use the profits form his copper mines to develop Buxton as a spa in the style of Bath. As we have seen, Buxton's Roman credentials were comparable to Bath, bur Buxton did not have the desirable location or climate of that town. Most of the early building in Buxton is due to the fifth Duke of Devonshire. Perhaps if it were not for him, Buxton would remain a very small village. In 1780, the Duke had The Crescent designed. There was some debate about where The Crescent was to be built, and the Duke tried to buy other land for it. However he had to build on his own land, right at the thermal spring site. In order to do this he had to culvert the River Wye, pile the marshy ground, fell a fine grove of trees and move St Anne's Well. So to build the Crescent he destroyed all the elements of the sacred holy well. The chapel building had been destroyed by Henry VIII, but the Duke moved the public well to its present position and - is it possible? - cut down the trees which were the descendants of the pre-Roman sacred grove. The sacred site had survived for so long, only to be lost 200 years ago. The Well was now a wholly medical site, which it remained until the present day, now represented by The Devonshire Hospital. However, this will close shortly.

The town authorities are still today obliged to maintain a public pump under a directive from the Buxton Enclosure Act of 1772, which decrees that Buxton people must have access to the natural spring water. This too has been under threat as the multinational company which owns The Buxton Natural Mineral Water Company and the bottling rights wanted the free access to its bottled product shut down. At present, St Anne's Well is still available to all comers, and well used.

The Natural Baths building at the source of the thermal waters is now the Tourist Information Centre. The spring rises in this building. After the spa finished, the various baths were used as swimming baths (with one price for locals and one for foreigners), until the present swimming pool opened in 1973. The water in this pool is the natural spring water, but, of course, pumped full of chlorine. The Pump Room is now closed, but opens in the summer to house a shop. If you go in, go past the artwork and you will see the dispensing spring of the 1890s (no longer operating). The Hot Baths were the medical spa, and are now a shopping arcade. Some of the old equipment is preserved there. The Tonic Bath, at the bottom of Bath Road no longer exists. This was opened in 1793 as a private tonic bath (the water is chalybeate), and had no sacred context. It was where the modern bungalow stands, behind the “Burlington Road” street sign.

The wells have now been given a sacred context again, under the Christian church, in the form of Well Dressings. The Derbyshire style of well dressing is not recorded in Buxton before 1840. The first was for a water pump the Duke of Devonshire installed for the people of Buxton, in the market place. The first well dressings here were not Christian in nature. A picture of the market well dressing in 1880 shows a design based on the Cavendish family crest (The Dukes of Devonshire's family), and the well dressing is in praise of him, not God.

Perhaps though, there was some form of well dressing at the pre-Roman grove, and we have come full circle. This year is an important year for the well. In previous years three “wells” have been dressed: The Children's Well, The Market Place Well and St Anne's Well. The Children's Well and the Market Place Well are non-existent, the well dressing boards being placed at suitable sites (there is an ongoing debate about the least fake site for the Children's Well); and at St Anne's Well the water is turned off for the week of the Well Dressing. This has always seemed to me an hilarious example of Christian logic: we have a celebration of the living waters and turn off the water so we can do it nicely. However, this year the water is to be kept running while the Well Dressing is up. In the year 2000, the grove may be cut down, the chapel destroyed, the spring diverted to another site, the medical spa no more, but at least a well of living waters will be celebrated with a Well Dressing.


Buxton: A Pictorial History - Mike Langham & Colin Wells

Derbyshir - Cricht on Porteous