Monday, 11 May 2015

Lyon's Holt well revealed

A railway station clean-up last year revealed a relatively unsung piece of Exeter local history. At St James Park station, Exeter, if you look to the left from the Exeter-bound train, you can see by the platform 1 access steps a little brick building marking the site of one of Exeter's most important ancient wells.



The Avocet Line Rail Users Group put up a quite low-key announcement poster in September 2014 ...
St James Park
Station Manager Melanie Harvey has arranged for St James Park to have a professional trim to remove brambles, long grass and buddleia.  This has lightened up the waiting shelter on platform 1 and revealed a brick structure by the steps. This was built in 1859 when the railway was built to cover one of Exeter's ancient wells. The station is in Well Street, named after the large number of wells nearby.
- What's new - September 2014, Avocet Line Rail Users Group
... which I think underplays the importance of what turns out to be a very interesting Exeter historical site.

First, a brief rundown on historical context. Exeter is built on the brow of a hill to the east of the River Exe, and it's well known on the local history circuit that it got its water supply largely from springs and wells on the slightly higher ground to the east and north-east, outside the then city walls. The supply was copious, feeding the 'Great Conduit', a massive and ornate public fountain at the top of Exeter High Street. The Great Conduit was demolished in the 1770s, and its supply locations have largely been buried under 19th century development, but evidence remains in the form of 'Underground Passages' near Exeter Cathedral - part of the former aqueduct system - and place names such as St Sidwell's and Well Street.

National Library of Scotland Map Images
Low-resolution screenshot for non-commercial illustration purposes
Click here for high-res comparison images
The location of interest here is directly to the west of the present St James Park football stadium: a place known successively as Headwell Mead (or Hedwell / Mede), and subsequently Lyon's Holt, Lion's Holt, and now St James Park.

Headwell Mead was pasture outside the city, and pretty obviously the original well-head is now a 'virtual location' now up in thin air at the level of the original terrain before the railway route was cut. Apparently it was a little stone well-house with some kind of syphon system; the Underground Passages display has a model "based on one situated at Headwell Mead".

According to Exeter Memories, Lions/Lyons Holt appears on maps from 1795 and is named after the landowner EP Lyon, who checks out in regional street accounts:
In Pester-Field stands DEVONSHIRE-PLACE, with an eligible entrance from Lyon’s Holt, leading round to St. Sidwell’s. Ascending the hill ... On the left, Waterloo Cottage, built by Mr. John Cooke, in honor of that victory. And a recently erected mansion, with plantations, of E. P. Lyon, Esq.
- page 83, The Exeter Itinerary and General Directory, June 1828
Various asides: "Pester-Field" is a location name of some significance: various accounts refer this to the establishment of pest house - a quarantine centre - in St Sidwell's during the 1665-1666 plague ("A pest-house was built at Lion's Holt, St. Sidwell's, and every precaution then known was adopted" - p.356, Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 1897. Exeter Itinerary and General Directory also mentions a Pester-House Field and a Pester Road - page 24). "E. P. Lyon, Esq." is either Edmund Pusey Lyon of the former Staplake House, near Starcross, or his son of the same name; and John Cooke (aka "Captain" John Cooke) is the Exeter saddler, pamphleteer and vigorous general Character described in some detail in Sabine Baring-Gould's 1908 Devonshire Characters and Strange Events (see Wikisource, as well as another account - pages 591ff - in William Hone's 1827 The Table Book).

The spring or well at Lyon's Holt was of massive significance to Exeter's water supply, as described in 1882 account:
Near Exeter the Lyons Holt spring issues at 126 feet above sea-level, yielding towards the town supply 47,000 gallons daily of very pure water, which is extensively used for drinking-fountains.
- Eighth Report of the Committee 1882 ... On the circulation of underground water, pp.213ff, Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1883 (Internet Archive reportofbritisha83brit).
This was the case even after major revision of the landscape in the 1800s, when the new London and South Western Railway cut right through its location during its construction in 1857-1859. A small brick structure was built over it - the 1880-1890 OS County Series map marks it as "Temple" - and this is the structure now visible at the St James Park station. There wasn't actually a stop until 1906, first called Lion's Holt Halt; its final name dates from 1946:
Halt Renamed.
The name of Lion's Holt Halt, near Exeter Central Station, has been changed to St. James' Park Halt, as a compliment to Exeter City Football Club, whose supporters  give to it some moments of crowded activity when "The City" are playing at home.
- page 257, Southern Railway Magazine, Volumes 24-25, 1946
Well building now exposed at platform 1, St James Park station, Exeter

There's an account of this little structure in a 1925 Devon & Cornwall Notes & Queries:
… Well Lane, which runs out to Lion’s Holta region, now intersected by the L.S.W. Railway, which abounds in wells and springs including one enclosed in a quasi "Gothic" brick structure, which I was told belonged to the Dean and Chapter, and cistern near by it which I understood was the property of the Corporation, both in the slope of the South platform of the “Halt.” On the opposite bank of the cutting, but some distance to eastward, is the well-known St. Anne's Well. The way from the corner of Well Lane across the Railway-bridge is continuous, to northward, with the street named Devonshire Place, and here, on the west side, opposite “Head Well Villa” I was assured was the site of the old “Head Well.”
    That there was, in early times, a “Head Well” distinct from "St. Sidwell's Well " is proved by an extract in the Calendar of Patent Rolls of 1282 (p. 33)* — " Commission of Oyer and Terminer to try persons who broke into the houses of John de Exon, Cerk, at Wonford, Seynte Sedefunte and Hevedwell, Co. Devon. This, I may add, is the earliest documentary instance of the Saint's English name that I remember to have met with.
- page 21, [note on] St. Sidwell [authorial credit unfindable], Devon & Cornwall Notes & Queries, Volume 13, 1925
There's one problem: I don't think anyone's still 100% sure what well this was. Writing this post has been instructive in how inconclusive historical research can be, when locations are obscured and names have gone through a succession of changes. In the case of the wells around the site of St James Park station, even scholarly books and papers vary in their identification.

Firstly, there's the issue of St Anne's Well on the other side of the line (see the "W" at the NLS map image), and how it has on occasion been conflated with others. Robert Charles Hope's The legendary lore of the holy wells of England: including rivers, lakes, fountains and springs (Internet Archive legendaryloreofh00hope) gets the locations hopelessly confused.
On the spot where St. Sidwella is reputed to have been martyred is the well dedicated in her honour; it is situated on the left-hand of the Exeter side of the tunnel leaving the city, at a place called Lion's Holt.
OK ... so far he's talking about St Anne's Well, sited near the entrance to the Blackboy railway tunnel as you leave Exeter. But ...
The locality of the spring agrees very well with this, as it is situated in what is now called Well Lane. Some time hence people may wonder why this street is so called, as the well is not now to be seen; it has been destroyed, and the site is occupied by a house which has been built over it. The well, however, is distinctly marked on Rogers' map of Exeter, dated 1744, as "Sidwell's Well." — Trans, and Reports Dev. Ass., xii. 449.
Yes, it is distinctly marked - about a quarter of a mile away near the junction of the present York Road and Well Street, as you can see from the Wikimedia Commons image of Roque's Map of Exeter 1744. The mapmaker wasn't called "Rogers" either. I think we can write off Robert Charles Hope as a reliable antiquarian source. Nevertheless, he's not alone in suggesting that the probably mythical St Sativola met her martyrdom hereabouts:
May 21. St. Sidwell's.— "F. S." will find account of St. Sativola or Sidwell in the Rev. Dr. Oliver's Monasticon Dioecesis Exoniensia, and in most of the numerious works which treat of the history of Exeter. See also p. 450 of the last volume of the Transactions of the Devonshire Association where Mr. Parfitt quotes an account of the saint from an Anglican Calendar and another from Bishop Grandison's Legenda Sanctorum, the latter being as follows : — " St. Sidwella was the eldest of four devout sisters, daughters of Benna, a noble Briton residing in Exeter. On his death, her cruel and covetous step-mother, envious of the fortune of St. Sidwella, who inherited considerable property in the eastern suburbs of the city, engaged one of her servants, a reaper or a mower, to become her assassin, which he did, whilst she was occupied in her devotions, near the well in Hedwell Mede, at a little distance from the parish church which bears her name." Headwell Meadow was intersected by a deep cutting of the London and South Western Railway, and what is left of it is being rapidly built over.
- page 37, The Western Antiquary, June 1881
Then there's the "Captain Cook's Well" (referring to the previously mentioned John Cooke) whose location isn't clear. This account, however, correctly locates St Anne's Well.
There is another well, or rather was, for it has been bricked up, to the great inconvenience and discomfort of the people living in the vicinity; for this was much used by them, and considered very good. This well, or spring, has been known for a great many years past as Captain Cook's, for the reason that this Exeter celebrity lived in the house adjoining it; the proper name is, I believe, St. Sidwella's, or Sativola's, well. I introduce this well for this reason: In 1862, during the visit of the Archaeological Association Congress, held at Exeter, the late Mr. W. Dawson exhibited a model of what he called St. Sid’s Well. The model was really that of St. Anne's, and Mr. Dawson, in explanation of his model, went to show how this fine water supply had been destroyed by the cutting of the South Western Railway, which did certainly cut right into the spring, but did not destroy it. The spring can now be seen, covered up, on the Exeter side of the mouth of the tunnel on the left hand side as you leave Exeter, at what is known as Lion's Holt. To supply the conduits in Exeter, the authorities directed that a water ram should be erected on the opposite bank of the railway, so as to give, as far as possible, a supply to the conduits the same as before the line was cut.
- E Parfitt, On the Boring for Water and the Sinking of two Wells in Exeter. Trans. Devon. Assoc. vol. xii, pp. 448–449, 1880
There were others. Shortt's 1852 Collectanea Curiosa Antiqua Dunmonia; Or, An Essay on Some Druidical Remains in Devon, and Also on Its Noble Ancient Camps and Circumvallations (page 69) mentions a well found in 1836 Pester Lane (now Union Road) - though Shortt's work is an example of the flakey Druid-obsessed antiquarianism of the era before scientific archaeology, and his identification of the well as Roman isn't now viewed as credible.

Much older accounts aren't much help when all we have are Latin identifications, and it's anyone's guess whether the "fontem capitalem Sancte Satiuole" is the "Head Well".
I have already shown, in two articles (D. & C.N. & Q., XIII, p. 18, par. 22 ; p. 104, par. 109), the positions of the wells in St. Sidwell's Fee, and it seems clear that the Fons Sativolæ, or St. Sidwell's Well, was between Nos. 2 and 5, Well Street, near the corner of York Road. Having a round top (as shown in one of Hooker's plats), it was known in the neighbourhood, within living memory, as the "Beehive".
    Well Street, representing the old Headwell Lane, runs on to Lion's Holt Halt, where it crosses the railway bridge and is continued by Devonshire Place ascending to Union Road. The site of the Fons Capitalis, or Head Well, was at the foot of Devonshire Place, opposite Headwell Terrace and Headwell Vale. In a deed of 1420 a "field next Hedwille" is stated to be bounded on the south by "the lake or deep" … (defective). This probably meant the Longbrook, along whose bed now lies the railway line.
    The description in 1269 (Exeter Corporation Deed, No. 47) of a way leading toward the “fontem capitalem Sancte Satiuole" is ambiguous. It might mean the Head Well in St. Sidwell's Parish, but the term "head" might, I suppose, be used relatively to any particular conduit for which it was the source, and so might possibly refer,  sometimes, to the "Sidwell" (as it is marked on one map) or any other well.
- Ethel Lega-Weekes, St. Sidwell and her Fee, Devon & Cornwall Notes & Queries, Volume 17, page 256.
St Sativola, Sidwell Street relief
On balance, the consensus of accounts seem to be that the "Head Well" was at a location that's now at street level at the foot of Devonshire Place, just north of the railway, and that the one at St James Park station may indeed be the one whose former well-house above marked the site of the murder of Sativola.

As I said, it's an interesting story. I've only ever seen this "Gothic" brick structure from the Exeter train at brief stops on the way into Exeter Central. There doesn't seem to be much more to see of it, but as it's only a short ride from Topsham, I might go for a closer look next time I'm at a loose end.

- Ray

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