Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Studies in Toponymy at St Agnes' Well by London Archaeologist

A car park on a roundabout - that has to be your first thought: why? Who needs to park in the middle there? And then where do they go? When there's nowhere to go?

That had been my question, long been my question, seeing the circulation around it as I passed almost daily, nobody there, just the cars, marooned.

As I sped round, always too busy to investigate, the question had always simply put itself, then receded with the vision to be forgotten till I returned.

Things having changed now, though, the question began pressing itself more firmly on my mind, less distractions brushing it aside. Not only did it press itself on me with new force: I also had, now, time to seek out an answer.

Before arriving at the island, I had taken the trouble to do a little early research on the net. The Open Guide to London suggests, correctly, that someone ought to do some research into the issue, which, as I agreed, I set out to do, first on the web. Most references were to a location in Vancouver, the relation to the London one likely to be very tenuous indeed, but, rooting through a forest of ephemera, I came eventually upon the following on A Megalithic Portal. It's worth quoting at some length.

'This is a delightful find: an ancient conical well house often swamped by tall horsetails and covered in fernery and herbs, which lends a rustic and mysterious feel to the site.

Removing the surrounding vegetation will reveal more of this little six foot high conical stone structure. It resembles many such sites encountered in Cornwall, and one can agree with Horne (1923) author of a book of Somerset Holy wells, who describes it as "the most beautiful of the Holy wells of Somerset".

Its water is accessed via an arched doorway on the west side, believed by Horne (1923) to show clearly its Perpendicular origins (although there is no written evidence). Once opening the small wooden door, one can see that a large volume of clear shallow water. According to Horne (1923) the water rises from the centre and flows under the step to an underground channel some distance to emerge as a large pool : obviously for livestock. A pipe leads out of the well indicating that it is directly tanked for farm use.

Horne (1923) suggests that the dedication may have been inspired by a lady of the manor of the name of Agnes Cheney, who married the local squire, Edward Stowel. The well was once visited by lovers, usually on St Agnes' Eve to find their futures.

It is a bit difficult to find look for a small iron gate set in the side of the road to Cothelstone Hill. Cross a stream and turning right the well will be clearly seen, if probably immersed in foliage.'

Although a description of a Somerset homonym, the research seemed good and authentic, and at first I believed it likely to furnish applications here in London. However, I suspect that it may have been compromised by over reliance on a single source, as its origin in the name of a local individual would seem to beg the question of why the same name should be used elsewhere.

At the time, then, I believed that the trail died out there, and I'd quit the web research, preferring to make my own reccy on foot. However, if I quoted the entry in depth, it is because, retrospectively, I believe it may harbour other relevances.

My own preferred means of transport is the pushbike - silent, clean, almost free, leaving the slightest trace possible, neither entirely with the cars, nor quite with the pedestrians, you are amongst the street life in a way that's not true of the car, and yet, unlike on foot, at a slight remove.

I had only before sped round the edge, where the cars, in waves with the lights, lap more thinly, a certain amount constantly spilling out at the exits. To advance round further into the torrent towards the centre of the well was harder than I had imagined, where, as the gravitational force of habit grew stronger at the centre, drivers expected me least.

As I neared the parking area, feeling something wrong in my wheel, and turning to see what approached in the lane to my right, where the island lay, I attempted to meet the impassive gaze I encountered there. In his hand was a wheel, guiding several tons of steel between me and the safety of the car park area at the centre. The squashy sluggishness grew under my feet. If I didn't act, the puncture it betokened would worsen, and my already diminishing control would only deteriorate still further. Leaning, then, suddenly over, turning the wheel, throwing every miserable scrap of power I could find onto my right leg, down onto the foot, I flung the bicycle madly over, saw briefly a flash of confusion illuminate the impassive gaze, heard a screech and horn, felt a skid, the tyre at last completely flat, and found myself sprawled on the tarmac of the island, somehow almost unhurt, the bicycle now beside me where I lay.

My first task on arriving on the island was to fix the inner tube. In fact, I am in the habit of having always with me in my cycle bag not only a camera and notebook, but also a puncture repair kit. To my extreme annoyance, however, I must at some point have taken out the tyre levers and forgotten to return them to their place. The traffic around me would not ease even with nightfall. If I was ever to be safe to leave, then, I surmised, I would have to find some long, thin object hard enough to replace it.

Glancing over the island, I quickly confirmed what I had expected: no one there, the rustle of bushes the only indigenous sound, itself barely perceptible above the tides of traffic. My first thought, whether intelligent I never did find out, was to seek in the bushes for something - for some reason the image came to me of an unwanted teaspoon, fork, knife - flung from a passing car.

Pushing into the underbrush, though, and studying the ground, I was soon distracted. A pit raised slightly to where it finished in a glass cover had me naturally looking down. There a liquid light mistily washed by the sun made me think back to the purpose of my search. Here, then, was the well. Distracted from my hunt for the lever, raising my camera, I focused as well as I could given conditions, and pressed the shutter control. To my amazement, just as I did, something passed rapidly through the viewfinder, the misty trail of limy green-blue water in its wake. Looking at the image as it formed on the camera screen, there, indeed, was the blur.

Magnification of the image revealed what I had hardly dared hope: there did appear, in fact, to be life on the island, the well, a light well, dry. Perhaps it was some sort of worker down there whose tools I might borrow. As I peered to see what might emerge, though, several more figures passed, of all ages, dressed in all kinds of clothes, of both sexes, of whatever gate, all apparently busy. There was, in fact, an almost constant, though intermittent flow, all passing about down there, unperturbed by the environment, evincing as great a resignation to it as only the force of the greatest habit could create. These people appeared to live here.

As the glass cover was firmly fixed, and, what is more, this would hardly have been the most discreet place to attempt to enter the world of these people, I decided to reconnoitre the island first in search of a more convenient entrance to the area below before attempting the glass.

Sure enough, nearby was a skylight the people obviously use for air and some sort of contact with the elements, and I found myself peering into a world whose strangeness now found itself still more pronounced for its familiarity. That those who lived there shared habits almost exactly reproducing our own, with no visible contact with the street, the world outside. In a pit. On a roundabout.

Turning from the skylight and surveying further I soon found a door, unlocked and open as though I had been expected.

Beneath street level, I further confirmed that St Agnes' Well did indeed prove to boast many of the amenities available in London proper. A bookshop, newsagents', hairdresser's, various cafés, a full-blown restaurant and even a key cutter's, a mobile phone unblocking service, clothes shops and florist's together ensured that the inhabitants could keep themselves in life's essentials while maintaining a neat appearance and despite being entirely cut off. Indeed, the presence of live music, the bookshop, suggested that there, as elsewhere, a life of essentials was not considered enough. 

Whether the people there missed the world outside and were attempting to reproduce it in model or were somehow perhaps even mocking it, there was no indication.

The easy course would have been for me to leave these people from the Well, making my way to the street by a course other than that by which I had entered. I would then have been able to convince myself, no doubt, that the place I had encountered was an illusion resulting in some way from changes in the ground level, from the light, etymological deposits in the name, or perhaps even the mode of discovery. But the easy way is rarely the honest or the true, and, after a coffee and a bun which, within reasonable limitations, tasted much the same as anywhere else, and having secured the kind loan of a pair of teaspoons, I returned by the way that I'd come, refreshed, certainly, but staggered to see that, so near the more ordinary space of London, where people go about what, in all honesty, must be agreed to be very similar activities one to another over a very broad space indeed, should be this other kind of life led in this other kind of place, as though entirely undiscovered, as though reproducing it in restriction.



  1. well, the first picture reminds me of hopper.
    good "story".

  2. Thanks. It didn't feel good at the time, given the dangers, but retrospectively...