Astrop and its Spa

After the Civil War the discovery of a medicinal spring at Astrop heralded the start of an era of prosperity for the village. George Baker, published his History of Northamptonshire in parts between 1822 and 1830 it provided a complete and systematic history of the southern half of the county and described the rise and fall of the fortunes of our local spa. It flourished for over 100 years but was in decline by 1786.

In April 1664 Dr. Richard Lower, an eminent physician travelling with Dr. Willis to visit patients, discovered a medicinal spring at Eastthorp, commonly called Astrop, near King’s Sutton. His companion was as usual either asleep or in a sleepy condition, on horseback: but afterwards, imparting his discovery, they on their return made some experiments on it and being persuaded of its efficacy, recommended it in their practice. Soon after the water was enclosed in a well and upon the said commendations ’twas yearly frequents by all sorts of people.”

Another traveller, Aubrey, gave a different version of the discovery and attributed it solely to Dr. Willis:

About 1657, riding towards Brackley to a patient, his way led him through Astrop, where he observed the stones in the little rill were discoloured of a kind of Crocus Martis colour; thought he, this may be an indication of iron; he gets galls, and puts some of the powder into the water; and immediately it turned blackish; then said he, ‘Ile not send my patients now so far as Tunbridge,’ and so in a short time brought these waters into vogue, and hath enriched a poor obscure village.”

Celia Fiennes, travelling from Broughton in about 1690, wrote:

“I went to Astrop where is a Steele water much frequented by the Gentry, there is a fine Gravell Walke that is between two high cutt hedges where is a Roome for the Musick and a Roome for the Company besides the Private walkes.”

Anthony A Wood paid a visit to the well in 1694 and recorded in his diary:

Soon after, the water was enclosed in a well and upon the said commendations ’twas yearly, as to this time it is frequented by all sorts of people. July 10th. I went to Astrop Wells; took up my lodgings at Wm Upton’s at King’s Sutton near there unto; and continued there ’til the 15th of August. I2s. for my carriage backwards and forwards, and 5 pounds for my being there; 4s 6d. I gave for my lodgings per week.”

Thomas Short, writing in 1740, suggested it was a cure for most ills:

I found it a certain cure in all female Obstructions, and singularly good in the first, and beginning of the second stage of consumptions; seldom fail in the Jandice, or begining Dropsies, effectually restore a Constitution Shattered by hard Drinking, they are Sovereign in Rheumatic pains Stone and Gravel; and have restored several who have been melancholly or maniac.”

Dr Radcliffe, the famous physician from Oxford, was said to have patronised Astrop very warmly. In 1749 a new well was opened at King’s Sutton with great solemnity at which a breakfast was given by Anthony Keek of Leicestershire in gratitude for the benefit he had received. (This is the Bog Spring which can still be found in the meadow close by the railway station.)

While Astrop was at the height of its fame there was a public ball every Monday, cards, dancing and a variety of social events. Its popularity declined rapidly at the start of the 19th century and was soon overtaken by more fashionable rivals.

The original well in Astrop Park is now in very poor condition. A replica was built on the Charlton road following the purchase of the estate by Sir William Brown in 1865 and the closure of the public road through the park to Newbottle.

In Northamptonshire Notes and Queries (published in 1886) an article and poem refers to op “sinking for ever and for ever. Quoting:

There is reference to this flourishing time in the verses given here. Possibly the festivities connected with a Michaelmas goose at Astrop became too uproarious, and the abolition of the feast may have been necessary as a matter of decency and order.

On the abolition of an ancient and excellent Institution called the Goose Feast, at Astrop Wells, September 29, 1786:

With grateful Glee and Joy profuse.
Oft have I eat an Astrop Goose;
Such Geese indeed we might well brag on,
Fit for St. Micheal and the Dragon!
In ancient History we read,
The Predeccessors of thes Breed,
By cackling did avert the Doom,
And save the Capital of Rome;
Where were ye Cacklers of the Wells,
Ye brilliant Beaus, ye lovely Belles?
Why join’d you not in full Oration,
Against this impious Innovation;
Which alters Days, and Times and Seasons,
O’erturns old custom, ancient Reasons;
To follow still the changing Moon,
Will put the Country out of Tune,
And Astrop once esteem’d so clever,
Now sinks for ever and for ever!

It is of interest that none of the early writers link the name St. Rumbold with the Well. This appears to be no more than a convenient association with the legend adopted in later years.

The Bog Spring of King’s Sutton

The previous article about Astrop wells mentioned another well at King’s Sutton and this was opened in 1749. This is the Bog Spring and can be found in a field, just north of Wales Street, next to the railway. An eminent historian, Sir George Clark, suggested that this was the original St. Rumbold’s well, the name having been borrowed by those promoting Astrop in the 17th century.

A description by B. Thompson in 1914 shows little change:

This spring rises in a field near to the railway and it is still in use by the people around. At the present time the spring is enclosed by post and rails – wooded posts and iron rails about 24 yards around. The enclosure is polygonal with seven sides and a gateway. The water flows in a thin stream from a small lead pipe in a mound above the general ground level, but I understand there is no reservoir in the mound. The supply of water is maintained at all seasons, and the surplus water is carried away by a drain to the nearest ditch, near to the road.

As to the water, it is entirely different to the Astrop water, although comparatively near, and is probably derived from the lower beds of the Middle Lias instead of the Upper. It is not Chalybeate, ie it does not deposit iron on standing and does not go turbid on standing. It is saline water having a brackish taste, containing nearly four times as much solid matter to the gallon as the Astrop water; and according to Mr.Beesley contains a little Iodine.”

In the description Beesley’s analysis, made in 1850 is reported with the comment:

A sample of the water collected July 1913, shows that the water has not changed materially since 1850. for the solid residue dried at 115 C. amounted to 182 grains per gallon, and was chiefly composed of Chloride of sodium (common salt) and sulphate of Sodium (Glaubers salts), the latter being the substance which gives it its real medicinal properties.

This is not bog water, but apparently the spring rising in the low ground originally made a bog, hence the name Sutton Bog Spring.”

An analysis for Brackley Rural District Council in 1963 shows a similar composition and a letter from the Public Analyst states:

The dose of sodium sulphate when given medicinally is 15 to 120 grains, and a person drinking one and a half pints of this water would receive approximately the minimum dose of this salt. The water is therefore likely to have some aperient effect if consumed in any quantity or regular doses, and in many cases this could prove beneficial. Being saline the water will be good for satisfying thirst and useful in alleviating salt depletion. On the other hand it would be unsuitable for persons on a sodium restricted diet. In addition to its interesting mineral composition, the chemical results show the water to be of a high degree of organic purity.

St Rumbold’s Well – Medicinal or Holy Water

(From the King’s Sutton Times dated Jun 1993)

In about 1863 William Johnson, in his History of Banbury and its Neighbourhood, discussed the religious association of the well in the reigns of Henry II and Edward III, centuries before its discovery as a medicinal well based on its mineral content:

“At this period, great virtues were supposed to be inherent in chalybeat springs, to which were attributed not only the medicinal property of the waters, but also the reputed sanctity of some particular saint. Thus at Astrop, we have St. Rumbold’s Well – whoever St. Rumbold may have been – a spring bubbling up by the side of the highway, closely adjoining a gamekeepers house, and about midway between the mansions and village of King’s Sutton. In after times this well became famous as the resort of upper class invalids – a sort of rival to Tunbridge and Bath – until the paternity of an illegitimate child was attributed to a fashionable physician, whoever afterwards took umbrage to the waters and declared that they were valueless for the purposes of medicine.

“Then there was St. Stephen’s Well a short way westward from Banbury, and that of St. Botolph at the village of Farnborough – neither of which, it is true, was so popular as the Rumbold Saint; still both would have their devotees and pilgrims to their shrine. So numerous were these towards the close of the century at which we are now arrived , and so heavy were the exactions on the Churches patrimony in support of the helpless cripples who crowded thither in search of an exceedingly problematical cure, that Bishop Oliver Sutton, who had succeeded to the episcopate of Lincoln about 1280, found it necessary to exert the authority of his office and to prohibit the indigent from the practice of making ‘pilgrimages’ to the so-called holy wells.”

Thus Astrop Well fell into obscurity until its accidental rediscovery by Dr Lower and Dr Willis in 1664.

The Moving Tale of a Saint and his Spring

(From the King’s Sutton Times dated September 1997)

It blackened both teeth and stools, but the water of St. Rumbold’s Well in King’s Sutton was highly prized in the 18th century... Byron Rogers traces the source.

Astrop Wells in 1813, drawn by Thomas Rowlandson

Beyond the last house lies a place of importance and some danger, and if you blink you will miss it, for the road out of King’s Sutton to Brackley straightens at this point and motorists accelerate. They would need to brake sharply to see the little wall and the warning signs put up by Northamptonshire County Council.

One proclaims “County Heritage Site”, although there is nothing to say why. The council, however, is explicit on the dangers: “Caution, Access Bank May Be Slippery”. So you stare in wonder at the path beyond the wall which leads down to a neo-classical stone seat, quite ornate. Beside this, a simple pipe sticks out of the bank; the pipe drips and the water has stained the earth red. Above is another sign, “Water Unfit For Drinking, NCC”. It is one of the oddest little places ever.

But close your eyes. We are going back to a time before county councils told people what to do, long before county councils even were. This place is full of ghosts, and here they come... “Lord Lymington and the Hon Master Wallops, his three brothers, young Master Cartwright of Aynho and his tutor, the Rev Mr Parker, Sir Henry D’Anvers, the Rev Dr Grey and his wife, the Rev Dr Trimmell, Captain Thicknesse ...”

Not the Captain Thicknesse, the most quarrelsome man in the 18th century, of whom it was said he could sniff out an insult at 100 yards? The very same. But Thicknesse did not quarrel in the Northamptonshire village of King’s Sutton.

He drank the water dripping from that pipe, up to a gallon-and-a-half of it a day, which had the effect of turning stools black as jet. He would have had unlimited opportunity to admire this piece of conjuring, for the water was also a potent laxative. Captain Thicknesse had things other than insult on his mind in this lost spa.

Unlike their Continental counterparts. the spas of England are all shadows now (although Bath is applying for a grant from the Millennium Commission for an ambitious rebirth). But all still have their buildings, the pool and pump rooms agonised over by town councils who do not know what to do with them now that no one comes. “You should have been here 60 years ago,” an old man in Llandrindod Wells said, wistfully. “We had a lavatory every 10yards.”

But in King’s Sutton you have to tum detective to spot the footnotes to lost grandeur – a doorway here, a window there – until, that is, you come to the churchyard. Here the footnotes are massed, the gravestones of the 18th century, row upon ornate row, and so many of them there could have been little room to bury anyone there afterwards. Perhaps the water always was a bit dodgy.

The original spring is in a field in front of the big house on the outskirts of the village, fenced off against curious cattle. The main road came past this one but the squire had that moved, as squires could then and a depression in the field is all that is left of the old highway. A later squire had the pipe run out to the Brackley road.

And King’s Sutton forgot the periwigs and the crinolines who flocked here to cure the gout and fix the loose teeth, even though the water turned these black as well.

But the village had a fame 1,000 years before that, and I am indebted to the antiquarian Kemmis Buckley for his researches.

The spring is called St. Rumbold’s Well, after a 7th Century Saxon saint who was born here, crying out loudly at the moment of birth that he was a Christian. Dramatic place, King’s Sutton.

In the crowded first day of his life, which was also his last, Rumbold was baptised in a huge concave stone that no-one could lift, received Holy Communion and preached a sermon. Ho, ho, ho, I hear you say, except that in 1923 something rather odd turned up in the churchyard.

After replacing a fallen pinnacle on the spire, workmen were asked by the vicar to clear away a large earth mound outside the porch. This had been much loved by children, who played leapfrog on it. But when dug into, it revealed a huge concave stone that no-one could lift. Clearly of great age, it is now the church font and so big that a fully-grown man could be baptised in it. It was not only the young who were baptised in pagan England.

They were always finding things in King’s Sutton. A year earlier, in 1922, the holy water stoup had been retrieved from a nearby farmyard, and three centuries earlier there had been the most important find of all when Thomas Willis, a local doctor, rediscovered St. Rumbold’s Wells in 1667. It was said that he was asleep on his horse at the time. Dr Willis tested the water for iron and said: “I’ll not send my patients now as far as Tunbridge Wells.” Its fame spread so quickly that a year later a pamphlet was published listing 70 conditions this water could cure. “It penetrates through every occult passage where other medicines cannot come.”

And then everyone came, the doctors first. Dr. Radcliffe, later to have a hospital named after him in Oxford, initially praised the water, but then vilified it, as he was later to do with the water at Bath. Kemmis Buckley has found that the abrupt waning of enthusiasm for King’s Sutton may have something to do with the fact that the parish made Dr Radcliffe pay for an illegitimate child he had fathered during his visit. Potent stuff, the water.

Dr Radcliffe swore “he would put a toad in that well”, but his professional colleague, a Dr Short, purred: “If he did put a toad in, he either took it out again or the water converted it into one of the most restorative medicines in the country”.

It was Dr Short who suggested the dosage. A pint or two a day was no use, he wrote; to get the maximum benefit, it was necessary to drink six to 10 pints of it every day. That teeth and mouth were stained an indelible black was a small price to pay.

“Oh there were tea-rooms, a dance-hall, long gravel walks and, most important many conveniences for the drinkers to repair to when the waters operate.” Of all these, it is only the neo-classical stone seat which survives. Gone the tea-rooms and the ballrooms, gone all those fine, if blackened, lords and ladies.

Gone are the Prince and Princess of Wales, gone the Lord Chief Justice of England, also a Mr Thomas Thornton, who for half a life-time came every year, staying three months at a time for his health. That he had no need to worry is suggested by the fact that he industriously drank sea-water as well, and must have had the constitution of an ox.

Thornton wrote verses to a friend describing days which started at nine and consisted of walking up and down, of talking to friends and listening to brass bands until, shaking, it was evening, when the boozing and the dancing could start. These, of course, had to be flushed out of the system the next morning, day after day, week after week . They were mighty men in England 200 years ago.

But fashion changed. Other spas, such as Leamington, opened, and after the first decade of the 19th century a great silence, one writer noted, fell upon King’s Sutton. When, in 1914, Mr Thompson came, he said he could just about make out the ruins of the tea-room and the assembly hall, and sadly took the treasurements.

One picture of the golden years survives. (as above) The great Thomas Rowlandson came in 1813 when the crowds had thinned, but he was still able to show them walking up and down, up and down, in bonnet and tricorne hat. The ornate stone seat he painted survives, where the water still runs for the ghosts, which Northamptonshire County Council will not allow anyone else to try.

This article appeared in The Sunday Telegraph on 15th June 1997, and is reproduced with the kind permission of Byron Rogers, the author, and The Sunday Telegraph.

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