Weird Suffolk: Elmsett’s lost magic well 

Elmsett village sign. Picture: CHARLOTTE BOND

The village of Elmsett was once home to a dropping well. - Credit: CHARLOTTE BOND

It’s the curious case of the lost well of Elmsett, a magical spring which – like Mother Shipton’s Cave – had the power to turn objects to stone.  North of the village church is a stream and close by was a slope where a mineral spring once bubbled to the surface and was famed for its medicinal properties. It was also noted that it caused cystallisation of objects 

In the National Gazetteer of Great Britain and Ireland of 1868, Elmsett’s curious well was mentioned: “There is a dropping well in this parish, the water of which is said to possess a healing virtue for certain complaints.” The well came from limestone rock and produced “fibrous crystallisations”. 

View of fields at Elmsett.

Is the Elmsett dropping well hidden somewhere near these fields? - Credit: CHARLOTTE BOND

Mineral springs were used to treat a range of illnesses from kidney stones to scurvy, jaundice to “salt and hot humours in blood”, diarrhea and nose bleeds. In many cases, the foulness of the taste of fresh spring water would signify to those that drank it that it could be medicinal. 

In The Beauties of England and Wales (1801- 1815), a series of books written by various authors and describing the topography and local history of both countries, the well was mentioned in the 1813 edition: “Near the north side of the church stands the house, formerly the parsonage, now much decayed, but once surrounded by a moat. On the descent of the opposite hill is a dropping well, which deserves the inspection of the curious.” Elmsett’s Dropping Well was said to be “suphurous and possessing medicinal properties similar to Cheltenham Waters”. 

Cheltenham’s springs were ‘discovered in 1716 when landowner William Mason noticed that pigeons were gathering around gurgling water in a meadow to peck at salt deposits and mildly chalybeate (mineral waters that contain iron salts and taste of iron) water. 

Initially, the springs were open to all who wished to come and drink from them for health purposes but Mason quickly realised the money-making potential and built his own spa over the spring and began to charge people. After his death, son-in-law Captain Henry Skillicorne deepened the well, added a pump and built a small assembly room over the spring. 

The site was then leased to businessman Thomas Hughes, who began to ship bottled water across the country and began a subscription service for those wishing to visit. Those who drank at the well were told the water could help to cure gout, leg ulcers, bilious disorders, pimples and all manner of conditions. In 1788, King George III and his wife Queen Charlotte visited on the advice of his doctors and spent five weeks taking the water – of course it didn’t help - the King’s illness was too complex – but he did endorse the spring after which it became known as the Royal Well. 

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One of the most famous dropping wells is Mother Shipton’s Cave in North Yorkshire next to the River Nidd where the minerals in the water turn objects to stone. Operated as a tourist attraction since 1630, the well was first recorded in 1538 and is said to be where Mother Shipton, who was believed to be a prophetess, fortune-teller and mystic and an oracle, worked her magic. 

Mother Shipton's Petrifying or dropping well at Knaresborough in North Yorkshire.

Objects being turned to stone at Mother Shipton's petrifying or dropping well at Knaresborough in North Yorkshire. The well at Elmsett would have produced a similar effect. - Credit: Rob Farrow/geograph.org.uk

Mother Shipton predicted Doomsday horrors and disasters which would befall the Tudor reign including plagues, civil war and the Great Fire of London and made her morbid forecasts in prose. She is said to have been born as Ursula Southhell in a cave in the forests of Knaresborough and was associated with tragic events and dark magic, including her bewitchment of a well so that all it touched turned to stone. 

The only known spring that survives in Suffolk is the Dripping Well in Spa Gardens which sprang from the cliffs and was believed to have health-giving properties. There is no modern-day information regarding Elmsett’s magical lost well, but hope springs eternal that it may reappear one day to offer help to the needy. 

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