Discovering Southwell with Albus

Beginnings in Endings: Wells and Wonderful Fruit

Yesterday’s walk was the last in the series that Albus and I have been doing as we have walked the landscape Discovering the Southwell that you, the community, have shared with us as being special to you. Throughout mine and Albus’s exploration of this varied and special landscape what struck me is that it is truly a land of water and bounteous orchards. Interwoven through its physicality and history and its present are the dual strands of water and fruitfulness. Entwined with spirituality, water, the apple and the Minster are literally the symbols of the town, appearing on the Diocese blazon, the town council logo and the school crest. And of course, it is in the name ….

Albus geting ready to Discover the origins of Southwell

For our final perambulation Albus and I went back to the source, to the eponymous well or wells on which Southwell is founded, and traced the story of the apple that has spread its roots deep and wide throughout the areas past and present and onto its future. From what I had been told and read I knew it would be in part a walk looking for ghosts, the merest whispers left of stories, built over, lost and forgotten. A search for absence.

We began our search at the Minster itself. Three wells are depicted on the Diocesian blazon. The very foundation of the church in Southwell is linked to these wells but their exact identification and whereabouts are uncertain. As discovered on our previous walks there are many springs and wells in the area. Paulinus is reputed to have baptised converts in the waters of a spring that welled up here in the early 7th century. The waters were considered holy with healing properties thereafter and the Anglo-Saxon church and settlement was founded and the town named. In all likelihood the importance of the wells here and their possible spiritual significance stretches back further to have some baring on the Roman settlement of the site.

Armed with information from a gazetteer of holy wells and springs in Nottinghamshire by R.B.Parish Albus and I visited again the beautiful Education garden next to the ruin of the Archbisphop’s palace. Parish claims this is the most likely site of the original South Well. Indeed, it is to the south of the minster and its proximity to the church does seem more likely than the more distant site of the ‘official’ plaque on the edge of the town that we visited afterwards. A well in this vicinity was known in the 18th and 19th century as the ‘Lord’s Well’. Though other sources claim the well on the Southside to be the Lady Well.

A rectangular structure in the ground just south of the ruined palace walls is said by Parish to be the site of this wellhead. It has a decorative wall built on one side with an arch and a stone head placed in the centre. To all intents and purposes, it looked simply like a garden feature. The rectangle filled in with cobbles. When Parish visited it formed a small pond feature. Nobody I asked could shed any like onto its origins. In 2017 in the Minster magazine Southwell Leaves, Bishop Paul recounts how he and his wife uncovered a deep well under a rockery in the gardens of the Bisphop’s Manor garden which lies adjacent to this site and wonders if this might be the original South Well. Perhaps both point to the general vicinity of the Well as obviously the original well spring would not have been a built well but a naturally occurring spring. The word ‘well’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for a spring, ‘wella’. Subsequent works to ease access to the waters could explain both features.

Is this the Southwell? or maybe the Lord's Well? or the Lady Well? or no well at all?

The Minster Education garden and the ruins of the Archbishop's Palace. The 'well' can be seen just to the left in this photo.

As said earlier there are three wells on the Southwell crest and there at least two other sites in the Minsters precincts, these been according to Parish, the Holy Well and the Lady Well.

Entering the Minster Albus and I received the same fantastically warm welcome as we had previously. We had an enjoyable time talking to several of the Minster guides and visitors about Discovering Southwell, our walks, the mapping project and our search for the wells. Albus loved the attention and got lots of cuddles and gave one or two licks in return.

The Pilgrim's Chapel in the North Transept is built over one of the original holy wells.

The Pilgrim’s chapel found off the North transept was built over one of the original pools used for outdoor baptisms and continued to be used as a baptistry until later moved to the font in the west end of the Minster. Nobody I spoke to inside the Mister could shed much more light on what wells were where and their original names. Many sources point this being the site of the Holy Well. Which for me would seem the likeliest candidate for the original eponymous Well of Paulinus fame. Though perhaps it is even more likely that it was never just a singular well that was important but the several pooling up from a common watersource in this small area. The fact that more than one pool was used for baptisms would also back this up. Parish notes another well outside and immediately under the walls of the Quire on the northside. Though he calls this the Lady Well, it seems likely to me that this was just part of the same pool that the pilgrims chapel was built over and that was bisected during 13th century rebuilding of the east end of the Minster. Perhaps the site of Lady’s Well been the one in the gardens. 

Opposite the entrance to the Pilgrims chapel is a door lintel or tympanum which was likely used in the original Saxon Minster and is a probably a reused 10th century grave-slab. On the wall of the Quire a large section of Roman painted wall plaster depicting a cupid, is displayed. This is though thought to have come from a bath house. Excavations in 1959 uncovered what appeared to be a large ‘bath’ South-East of the Minster, now filled in. Subsequent excavations on the extensive and substantial 1st to 4th century remains and the ensuing constant filling of the excavated grounds with crystal clear waters has led to speculation that the Roman site may possibly have had a religious function associated with the waters. If so, this would take the idea of sacred waters at Southwell back into pre-Christian times. The appropriation of pre-Christian British sacred sites by both Romans and later the Christian church is well documented throughout the Britain and elsewhere (as at Wells Catherdral for example). There are mentions of other old wells around the Minster; as been in the gardens of the Residence and another covered over in 1915 under a vestry. In 1764, one unfortunate clergyman is even supposed to have drowned in one here.

Anglo-saxon door lintel in North Transept

Painted plaster from a Roman 'bath house' displayed in the south aisle of the Quire

tessera floor underneath the Minster's 'bread-pews'; thought to be Roman tiles reused in the Anglo-Saxon minster

From here Albus and I walked along Church Street, passing by again, Mary Ann Brailsford’s house, home of the Bramley Apple tree. In a comparatively scant 200 years, this much newer Southwell story has wound its roots throughout Southwell. Back in the Minster there is a window commemorating the famous apple and in the Minsters education garden there is a tree grown from a cutting of the original mother tree. The same local geology that creates the conditions for the many wells is in part responsible of for the relative importance of orchards in this part of Nottinghamshire and so for the advent of the Bramley and its subsequent success. The happy combination of Red Marl, a type of lime-rich mudstone, and easy access to good transport routes and markets have meant that fruit growing in the Southwell area has been important for far longer than the Bramley’s rise to prominence. On these walks that I have been doing for this project, I have encountered several of the old traditional orchards still to be found around the area. Traditionally under-grazed by livestock from sheep, cattle and chickens, as at Halloughton, they add to the quintessentially historic English character of the landscape. This low intensity woodland pasture form of land management also creates incredibly biodiverse rich habitats. Traditional orchards are now designated Priority Habitat under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

The cottage that is home to the Bramley Apple (see Walk1)

Is this the site of the original South Well?

We continued across Potwell Dyke and along Easthorpe, the counterpart to Westhopre. Though Easthorpe is now thoroughly subsumed into Southwell proper. Turning right onto Fiskerton Road we followed the lane around to the junction with Crink Lane.

Here stands the stone marker for the original South Well which it states is nearby. Down a dip behind it is a dry hollow that may indicate a water course. However, as mentioned earlier it makes more sense for the well of Paulinus to be located nearer to where the church was founded. Though there is another holy well attributed healing power’s at Westhorpe, St Catherine’s Well, which is even further out so who knows?

The dry stream bed near the South Well monument

The site of the South Well monument visible on the left of the picture on the corner of Crink Lane and Fiskerton Road. Old cottages facing.

A Robin friend made when having a cup of tea at the Southwell Garden Centre.

The quest for wells over for now, we carried on up Fiskerton Road in search of the Merryweather Heritage Orchards. Planted in 2004 it consists of varieties of fruit trees grown by the Merryweather and Sons at that time when they ceased to trade. The Merryweather’s of course being the descendants of the Henry Merryweather who aged just 17 years, in 1856, discovered the merits of the fine apple growing on the tree at 73 Church Street and obtained the rights to take cuttings. The trees he developed have grown to become a worldwide favourite and now account for 97% of all culinary apples grown in the UK. I love that this story is based on young people innovations and entrepreneurship. Both Mary and Henry were young when they played their parts in this story. We could all do with reminding sometimes that young people can do amazing things. The commercial fruit growing history of the area has been bound to this special apple ever since and is still evidenced at the Starkey’s Norwood Estate.

Southwell is compact, and like all other parts of it, as soon as you leave the houses you are reminded of the rural character of the surrounding landscape with rolling fields and pastures only minutes from the town centre. There are great views across the Trent valley to the left as you walk up the hill here towards Brinkley. Staythorpe power station about 6km away was clearly visible.

Unfortunately, Albus and I couldn’t find the heritage orchard this time. Though having spoken to a resident later I think we were just a field away from it. It is on private land, down a public bridleway to the right just as you reach Brinkley. We had looked down here but evidently not far enough.

A timeless feel: horse riders on Fiskerton Road

We retraced our steps towards Southwell then turned right to continue through Easthorpe in the direction of the Workhouse. Just before the Workhouse grounds we reached the River Greet and took the footpath to the left that runs along side it and entered the Southwell Community Orchard. The orchard was established in 2008 by the town council. Individuals, families and community groups came forward to sponsor the purchase of trees which were planted during a community planting day involving over 200 residents.

Southwell Community Orchard along side the River Greet

'Mmmm I love apples'

The surrounding area is maintained as a flower meadow to encourage wildlife and the fruit is freely available for local people to collect. Obviously there are several of the famous Bramley but there are 12 other varieties of apple to pick as well.

This fantastic conscious initiative has created a brilliant habitat that is both beneficial for nature and people too, offering a space for sharing knowledge and skills, a beautiful green space for relaxation and enjoyment and fantastic free healthy fruit. You can pick up a leaflet at the tourist information centre in town that has a map of which trees are planted where so you can pick your variety. What’s not to love? We meandered the winding paths through the tall vetches and yarrow, clouds of thistle down glowing in the sun.


Clouds of thistle down in the Community Orchard meadows

Field Scabious is a brilliant food source for hoverflies and butterflies

Kidney Vetch (yellow) and Tufted Vetch (purple) clamber through and between the apple trees

Yarrow grows in abundance in the orchard

A damson, glistening with sugars, on the edge of the orchard. Possibly a Merryweaather Damson, created by the same family that developed the Bramley

The riverside walk took us along the bank of the bubblingly little River Greet. Signalling the turning of the year from late summer into autumn, more of natures bounty was everywhere with blackberries, elderberries and hawthorn starting to ripen. Wild cherries were already striped of their fruit by avian residents.

More wild and free food to harvest.

Elder, lime and willow created deep green shade and dappled shadows on the water. A buzzard could be heard mewing over the gentle susurration of leaves.


Ripening Alder cones

The River Greet

Couldwell's Mill on Station Road

The pathway links Easthorpe with Station Road at the starting point of the Southwell Trail, next to Cauldwells Mill from where the River wends its way towards Maythorne Mill.

Here we left its banks and headed left up Station Road towards the town centre again. Passing by the old maltings cottages on Lower Kirklington Road. Evidence of the historic busy economy of hop growing, maltings, brewers and inns in the town.

The old maltings

Burgage Green

Evidence of the historic busy economy of hop growing, maltings, brewers and inns in the town. Crossing the Burgage Green, a remanant of the medieval manor, you can still glimpse what life was like here during the 18th and 19th centuries when annual fairs and horse races where held on the green. Common grazing and herbage rights were rented out and bestowed on householders around the green, the last cattle grazing here into the 1970’s.

Gate to House of Correction

Southwell Town Council offices on the Burgage

Burgage Manor

Amongst it’s notable residence are the young Lord Byron who was living at Burgage Manor when he published his first poems. Two of which, To Julia and To a Lady referred Julia Leacroft, who lived across the Burgage in the house opposite and with whom he had a locally scandalous brief romance.

Plaque on the wall of Burgage Manor

Plaque commorating that Burgage Manor was also a military hospital during WWI

King Street

Walking back down along King Street the medieval bones of the town are reflected in the layout. A jumble of periods jostle together in the character of the buildings and the little alleyways that lead to Yards of small houses and shops. One last notable well is sited here, lying hidden now in the bar of the Sir Admiral Rodney pub.


Small alley ways lead to 'Yards' where independent businesses can be found

The Admiral Rodney public house. Another ancient well is underneath its floor,

Blue plaque commemorating the numerous local town innsm on the wall of the Admiral Rodney Inn

Turning right up Queen Street Albus and I headed back out towards the outskirts of Southwell once more. Whispers of Southwell’s history in the place names and buildings that we pass. The Ropewalk marking the site of the old rope works that stretched from here almost to the Lower Kirklington Road. Tollgate Cottage denoting that travellers were charged to pass along here once.

The street name is all that remains of a vanished rope making industry

Tollgate Cottage

We were searching for the site of the original Merryweather Nursery, where the careful grafting and nurturing work was done to bring the Bramley apple to the world. We reached the new housing estate that edge the town here reaching up to the Norwood Estate and its orchards that we had visited in walk 5. At Humberstone Road we turned into the estate as instructed watched out for signs of 150 year old orchards.

On a small green in the centre of the housing there was a blue plaque in front of a young Bramley apple tree stating that this was the site of the Merryweather Nursery. There were no ancient apple trees, no Merryweather Damsons or Southwell Strawberries remaining here. Momentarily my heart sank in disappointment at what was lost.

A young Bramley tree in the Bramley Wildlife Garden

.But then I read the information board naming this the Bramley Wildlife Garden. It was planted to encourage wildlife, particularly bats, and also play and pleasure. Children’s voices drifted over from the play area to one side, insects buzzed lazily around this open green space. Cordoned young apple trees of various varieties, including the Bramley, line the pathways. Fruit swelling on their young stems waiting for children and families to freely harvest in the coming autumn months and future years. The story hadn’t ended at all. Our histories and heritage are living things, and they must grow and evolve with us. With care they anchor and connect us to the past, gifting us resonance and meaning on which to grow now and move into the future. The Bramley story continues here and in numerous other ways throughout the town’s life, and will continue to bring pleasure and sweetness to the next generation of Southwellians.  

The new Bramley Wildlife Garden takes the Bramley story forward in to new futures of Southwell families

Cordoned apple trees line the paths of the garden

On our last walk we had searched for the beginnings of the Southwell story. Water runs through this landscape in its river, dumbles and wells, shaping not only the land it self but the story of the town and its people from the start. Likewise, the story of a very particular fruit grew along with the seed that a young girl planted. Connecting back to the importance of orchards both historically and symbolically and taking firm root in the towns succeeding 200 years and still on through its present and into its future connecting the community still.

Many of the sites we visited yesterday were on the surface sites of absence, of things no longer there or that couldn’t be seen. But stories are living things that evolve through time. The importance of these particular strands in the story of Southwell and its people is such that there is presence in this absence that adds richness and meaning to its still unfolding tale.

This project of walking the landscape as part of mapping the places that people have told Discovering Southwell are special to them for all sorts of reasons has all been about making connections, to landscape, to nature and to each other. Through sharing stories of what we know, care about and cherish we forge these connections. We get to know each other, ourselves and our Place and make new stories. This way strong open mindful communities are made in which we all belong. This is what Discovering Southwell is all about.