The Writing in the Sand

The ancient spring….

Wells and springs are vital lifelines to people in countries across the world. Though wells aren’t immune from contamination like radon and can vector many bacteria & viruses following floods, by and large they represent a source of safe mineral water. Compared to bodies of standing water, they’re healthier and essential to growing human populations. Even if in our part of the world modern plumbing has replaced their need, it seems amazing that our knowledge of their whereabouts can vanish in such a short space of time.

In this case, it’s the title of the road in the photo that acts as the historical marker. This is Holywell Hill (pronounced “holly well”) in St Albans, Hertfordshire. The well in Holywell alludes to what was an actual well or wells in the area. The etymology is to be found in many British place names and what’s surprising is that in most cases, the location of the well completely slips the memory. To take nearby London as a heavily industrialised example, the wells of Sadlers Wells, Wells Street, Wells Mews and Wells Rise are gone and would require archaeology to rediscover them. The well of Clerkenwell Green has a written history spanning from 1174 to the 19th century yet it was lost! It was only rediscovered by accident by builders in 1924. 

The holy well….

Miraculous healing powers were attributed to wells in Europe and they’d often develop an association with a saint. The well of Holywell Hill has its token legend: Saint Alban’s head was lopped off by a Roman and after it stopped bouncing and came to rest, the well sprang up. Another version has the saint announcing his thirst before execution and the water duly erupting from the ground. In this sense the myth follows the trope of wells the world over – perhaps the most famous being Lourdes in France. 

These natural springs end up having two histories: firstly a usage dating back to prehistory and secondly a “re-beginning” to tie in with early religious yarns before archaeology can more accurately trace their past retrospectively. This is the first way in which the history of the well gets obscured – usurped by the story surrounding England’s first saint in the 3rd century. All the background leading up to that point was erased as Christianity appropriated the British landscape.

Holywell House….

About halfway up the hill on the right is a blue plaque marking the rough site of Holywell House. It was lived in and used as a base for one of Britain’s most political dynasties: the Churchills. The family tree includes Sir Winston Churchill. The Duke of Marlborough was a title passed down 8 times – our ex-prime minister was second cousin to the most recent. The members of the family – boasting many MPs – swing both left and right in British politics from the Torys to the Whigs and back.

Ancient roads are often betrayed by their irregular curves but this road’s an exception. The trajectory you see shooting up the hill towards the centre of St Albans was the end of a straight path right from where Marble Arch now stands in London. It was the route the horses took to get to the first major conurbation outside the capital. This well-worn vector was interrupted for around 200 years as it diverted on a leftward berth to accommodate the property’s extensive grounds. The family pile here in St Albans, like that of the well, has now been eviscerated and the road bulge with it.

At the time our well was incorporated into the orbit of that mansion; it was preserved as a water feature in the landscaped grounds. Both the house and the gardens of Holywell House were demolished in 1837. Part of the land became a playing field and either a rumour or the truth about the location was kept alive – the original holy well was in that sward that later formed part of a school playing turf where it was marked at one end by a stone.

De Tany Court….

In 1984, the land that harboured the well was owned jointly by property group Tower McCall and the St Albans Playing Field Trust and was about to be built over by a five storey hotel. A stand-off between the landowner, the council and some locals ensued and led to what could be called a case of guerrilla archaeology. A feature was dug up – a rubble-filled hole which was presented to the council as proof of the well who weren’t sympathetic as permission hadn’t been given for the dig – it was technically trespass. Museum authorities said the contents dated from 1897 but it was capping an earlier structure. The locals appealed instead to Archbishop Runcie who shared their concern about losing such a holy relic and an official and legal excavation was carried out by museum staff. Despite all this, that hole still only ended up getting “probably” status.

The plans for a hotel were shelved and housing was built instead. A new cul de sac – De Tany Court – has preserved what may or may not be the original well inside a small courtyard. It’s neatly bricked around and covered by a grill. I often go and visit if I’m ascending or descending that side of the Hill and detour to peer down it. I’ve seen it stuffed with branches and on another occasion covered by splayed-out magazines. More disturbingly, I once encountered several dismembered dolls as if they’d been thrown in as sacrifices. 

The pub….

When I moved to St Albans in 2011 there was a pub at the bottom of Holywell Hill called The Duke of Marlborough (it’s the yellow building in the first photo). For anoraks such as myself who take an interest in such things, I looked into who the name refers to. The Duke of Marlborough pub was built in 1825 and so was witness to the large house and grounds of its namesake. Twelve years later, both its eponym and the huge estate had gone. This was also the pub that locals plotted in prior to their guerrilla dig for the well on that quiet Sunday in June 1984. The pub closed in 2013. It was one of the few I never got to visit before it vanished. Like lots of ex-pubs in St Albans, it’s only the harpoon sticking out of its side that betrays its original function.


Time laps away history’s details like writing in the sand: We have an ancient water spring whose history got obscured by early Christian mythology. This spring in turn was lost and remembered only in the name of its adjacent hill – Holywell. The forgotten spring was incorporated into the grounds of Holywell House. The house and its grounds disappeared, so too their swell into Holywell Hill. The original owner was suspended in history and mid-air by the pub sign of The Duke of Marlborough. After 188 years, the sign was taken down and the building became a house.

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