“Water, water, see the water flow
Glancing, dancing, see the water flow
Oh wizard of changes, water, water, water
Dark or silvery mother of life
Water, water, holy mystery, heavens daughter
God made a song when the world was new
Waters laughter sings it is true
Oh, wizard of changes, teach me the lesson of flowing“1
I love water, the taste, the sound, the look, the movement, the feel; it makes me happy and living at the seashore gives me the chance to experience water every day of my life.
There is something special about water, life on earth cannot exist without it. Human life evolved from the tetrapods, who in turn evolved from fish, 400 million years ago, as they made their tentative steps onto land and the rest is history, as they say. Our relationship with water goes back to the beginning of time.
The human body consists of 60% water and according to various experts, the brain and heart are composed of 73% water, the lungs 83%, skin 64%, muscles and kidneys 79%, and even the bones are a watery 31%.
We are water, so it’s no wonder that the human race has obsessed over this element since time immemorial. All the major religions have water as a major element in their rituals:-
“Water not only gives us life, it is the origin of life. Since the dawn of human consciousness our relationship with water has been profound and enriching. The history of philosophy and the rites of ancient cultures and religions confirm it: in all of them, water is a symbol of life, of purification and hope, values that are a common denominator that unites us and that we should take into account much more.“2
Long before the Romans brought their water culture to Bath in Somerset, the Celtic Druids were worshipping water at countless holy wells throughout the British Isles. Then, in the Eighteenth century, a new fashion began to emerge, based on the healing properties of the water from naturally occurring mineral springs, containing all manner of salts, in varying degrees.
As a result, Spa Resorts grew up throughout Europe, where the well-off in society could come to take the waters. Some towns even had geothermal springs, where people could bathe to ease all sorts of conditions like arthritis and, so it was claimed, cure diseases such as leprosy, scurvy, jaundice, and even smallpox. Famous Spa resorts in England such as Harrogate, Buxton, Matlock and, of course, Bath flourished during the Eighteenth century.
Some of the waters had extra amounts of iron salts in the water, making the water a deep rusty red, and hence the name Chalybeate Springs. But for the origin of this unusual word, it is necessary to go back to antiquity.
“Chalybeate waters, also known as ferruginous waters, are mineral spring waters containing salts of iron.
The word “chalybeate” is derived from the Latin word for steel, Chalybs, which, in turn, is derived from the Chalybes, who were a people living in Anatolia over 2000 years ago and who were experts in iron working.“
A brief note on pronunciation, the Americans would say the word exactly as it looks, which ends up sounding rather boring and flat; I much prefer the official version pronounced kuh-LIHB-ee-uht which adds a feeling of mystery and exoticism to the word.
It so happens that the Sandstone found in the High Weald, is the ideal landscape for a profusion of Chalybeate Wells. Probably the most famous in the South East is Tunbridge Wells, where in the 18th Century, the Pantiles, and its chalybeate spring, attracted tourists wishing to partake of the waters and drink the red water.
Hastings had always had aspirations to be a spa town and, therefore, there was always a certain amount of jealousy in Hastings in respect of its near neighbour Tunbridge Wells. With this in mind, the founder of Alexandra Park, Robert Marnock, utilised a natural fast flowing spring, with the idea that it would encourage people to Hastings to take the waters. It appeared not to have worked and 140 years later the spring can still be found, looking rather sorry for itself, in the upper reaches of the park, spewing out a constant flow of rust red water.
There is a plaque, which states that the Chalybeate Spring was “originally in open farmland, Robert Marnock incorporated this feature into Alexandra Park in 1880. The underground spring supplies a steady flow of foul iron-rich water once drunk for its alleged health-giving properties.”
Having drunk from the well, I can attest to it being foul tasting, your mouth tastes as though you had been sucking on an iron bar for several hours and the unpleasantness lingers on for a not inconsiderable time. As to its health giving properties, I’m afraid I was unable to force enough of the stuff down, to form a reasoned scientific opinion.
Today, the spring can be found tucked away in the upper reaches of the park, rather neglected and unloved, a long way from the vision of Robert Marnock.
A few metres further on from the spring is an overgrown well that most people walk past without a second glance. However, on closer inspection, there is a half hidden plaque which states that “Peter McCabe, an Irish Physician based in Wellington Square was Mayor of Hastings 1838 and 1843, committed campaigner for clean water, he constructed both this spring and the East Hill public well the foot of the cliffs at Rock a Nore”
The well in Alexandra Park has, quite clearly, not been used for drinking purposes for a considerable period of time, but if you go to Rock a Nore, you’ll find the aforementioned rather shabby public well, still functioning to this day, sited under the Funicular Railway and dispensing water to thirsty souls.
As part of my research, I have also sampled this well and the water tastes totally unlike the rust water in Alexandra Park, and, to be honest, is rather bland and tasteless. I rather suspect that, at some point in its life, it may have been connected up to the mains water.
Also in Hastings Old Town, under the West Hill and below the ruins of the Hastings Castle built by William the Conquerer in 1067, sits the magnificent St. Mary in the Castle, a Neo-Palladian Church (now deconsecrated) built in 1828.
But this church, which is literally built into the cliff behind, hides a secret in its depths. In the vaults there is a spring which, in the early twentieth century, was converted to a full immersion baptism font. There is very little photographic evidence of the working font, but I have managed to source a photograph (courtesy of St. Mary in the Castle) and a vintage postcard, which gives some idea of the spring being utilised in its heyday.
Today, the spring appears to have dried up and is sited in a store room full of bar stock and is apparently a ghost of its former self, which made me feel rather sad, as this was once a healing spring in its truest sense.
I am on a mission to seek out the secret places in Hastings, hidden behind main roads and the urban landscape. Summerfields Nature Reserve is just one of those places sited behind Hastings Museum and it is an absolute joy, a 7.3 hectares area of semi-natural woodland and freshwater ponds. The nature reserve originally formed part of the the Summerfield’s Estate, the site of a great mansion, Bohemia House, built in 1824; the house is long gone, but the original Walled Garden remains and has been lovingly restored for use by the local community.
The estate was originally owned by a well known Hastings family, the Briscos, and a certain Wastel Brisco. In my previous article on Old St Helen’s church, I mentioned this unsavoury family and their links to the transatlantic slave trade, as follows:-
“Wastel owned large tracts of Bohemia including Bohemia House (also now sadly demolished) and the Summerfields Estate. However, the source of their wealth had a dark history and together with thousands of wealthy families in Georgian and Victorian Britain, the Brisco’s money had been made in the slave trade. When the slave trade was abolished in the 19th century, the slave owners were compensated with enormous sums by the British Government, which enabled these families to retain their great wealth. As for the freed slaves, they received not a penny for the abuse they had received.”
But I digress, as this article is about the healing properties of water and the secret that can be discovered on a walk around the Summerfield woods is a mock Roman Bath and Grotto, utilising an ancient spring in the sandstone, built by Brisco in the 1830s. On a recent visit, it had clearly seen better days and had been mainly fenced off, being declared unsafe by the local council. Like many unusual buildings and other places of historical interest in our town, the Roman bath has been sadly neglected and is in danger of being lost forever, instead of being restored as part of Hasting’s heritage for all to enjoy.
Gazing in through the prison-like bars, it appears that the spring has almost dried up, being reduced to nothing more than a trickle. It was a rather depressing end to what had been a pleasant afternoon in the woods.
There are further springs in St. Helen’s Woods, still to be explored and no doubt many more that I am unaware of in this unique sandstone landscape in the Hastings area.
But there is still a mystery which I have been pondering over while writing this article. With a preponderance of natural springs, why was Hastings unable to compete with the other major Spa Towns in the UK and become a major player. I think it was a question of both time and place. The peak of the Spa craze was during the Georgian Era and by the time Hastings got round to the idea, the Victorian age was well underway and interest in taking the waters was on the wane. Many other Spa towns also had the added advantage of warm geothermal springs, where people could bathe and socialise, a far more attractive proposition than just tasting some unattractive looking water.
Whatever the reason, Hastings continued as a normal seaside town and the springs are slowly fading in people’s consciousness. I hope this article will encourage people to seek out these places before they crumble and disappear for good.
1 Those of a certain age and esoteric (some might say weird) musical tastes will recognise the lyrics of ‘The Water Song’ by The Incredible String Band, a 1960s Psychedelic Folk band, whose unique music, poetry and mysticism had a profound impact on a sensitive young man.
2 Quotation from ‘Water, Symbol and Metaphor’ by the WeAreWater Foundation a non-profit organisation, set up in 2010 with the aim of contributing to the resolution of problems derived from the lack of water and sanitation in the world.
All photographs copyright John Bostock with the exception of the Roman Baths, which is in the public domain.