Barnet’s historic physic well now sad and forlornWritten by Nick Jones Wednesday, 08 January 2014 13:43
Masonry is falling away, one of the walls is disfigured by graffiti and there is not even a sign or notice to say that this is the well that was visited twice by the celebrated diarist Samuel Pepys.
The danger is that, unless Barnet Council can be encouraged to maintain the upkeep of the well house, and perhaps help discover an innovative use for the building, it may suffer the same fate as Barnet’s historic workhouse which was demolished in 2002 and made way for what is now the site of the Barnet Hospital car park.
Much of what in the 17th century was Barnet Common, stretching south from Wood Street to Dollis Valley, is now housing estates and it is hard to imagine how the well must have looked in Pepys’ day, when it was a fashionable place to “take the waters”.
The well originated from a chalybeate spring and the effects of the water were to make the drinker urinate, which was thought at the time to help restore the body’s humours. For a time Barnet Water was sold in London, in competition with Tunbridge Water and Epsom Water, and Barnet nearly became a spa town.
But now the only clues to the existence of the well house, which is tucked away on a small green in the middle of a housing estate, are the names of the surrounding roads: Well House Lane leads to Well Road (and Well House Approach) and continues in a circle formed by Pepys Crescent.
The physic well has had a chequered history and so has the well house itself. Once the significance of the original chalybeate spring was appreciated, the parish had a well house built on Barnet Common in 1656, and later appointed a well keeper. Such was the popularity of Barnet Water that the well was soon being visited by “ladies and gentlemen from London on a daily basis”. Sometimes there were up to thirty carriages to take people to and from the well.
Pepys rode from London “to see the wells” in 1664. He had a meal at the Red Lion and continued on “half a mile off; and there I drunk three glasses and went and walked, and came back and drunk two more. The woman would have had me drunk three more; but I could not, my belly being full – but this wrought me very well; and so we rode home . . . and my waters working at least seven or eight times upon the road, which pleased me well.”
On a second visit in August 1667, he arrived at the well at about seven o’clock in the morning and said: “Many people were a drinking.” From there he went into Barnet and took tea and cakes.
By the 1690s custom had declined to such an extent that people helped themselves and Daniel Defoe wrote of the well, formerly in great demand, having become “almost forgotten”.
For a time Barnet Water was sold in London, in competition with Tunbridge Water and Epsom Water, and Barnet nearly became a spa town.
In 1808 the well was rebuilt with a subterranean arched chamber and Barnet Water returned to popularity, helped by the writings of a doctor from Arkley called William Trinder. But again the well’s popularity did not last, and the building was demolished in 1840 (although the good doctor’s name lives on as Trinder Road close by).
On being rediscovered in the 1920s, the well was restored and in 1937 the well house that exists today was erected in Well House Approach.
The well house is owned by Barnet Council and a key is kept at Barnet Museum. Dennis Bird of the Barnet Local History Society recalled his most recent visit: “Once inside you can look down the well and there is water in it, but it doesn’t look very clean.”
The last event he could remember involving the well-house was at Christmas 2011, when the church choir from The Stable in Salisbury Road held carol services outside. “There were carols on a couple of evenings . . . and hot drinks were served inside the well house.”
Perhaps it is time the Barnet Society, Barnet Museum and the History Society got together with other local groups and arranged for an open day at the well house.
The least we could do is ask Barnet Council to erect a sign or plaque that explains the significance of the building.
What do local residents think? Are there any other bright ideas for helping to protect and preserve one of Barnet’s hidden treasures?
Monday, 13 January 2014 13:48
posted by Margaret illiams
Barnet is missing a trick. At least give some publicity to the well for Barnet's residents, especially children who would find the history surrounding it fascinating by comparison to present day lives and water out of taps! We don't seem to have many tourist attractions and attracting visitors for this type of asset would also benefit the High Street businesses.
Monday, 13 January 2014 23:17
posted by Mr. Crabtree
Barnet's Old Physic Well must be saved from going into disrepair. Surely the Council can find some money to repair and restore it -- after all it is not a large building.
Certainly, some sort of informative plaque would benefit the community and visitors alike. Plenty of signs and information have recently been added to the Dollis Valley Green Walk and "London Loop" to assist visitors, so why should piece of heritage be neglected?
Friday, 17 January 2014 11:52
posted by Michael Franklin
I think the physic well is an important piece of Barnet history and would very much like to see it given some local prominence. I have no bright ideas as to what it might be used for but could we ask Barnet Council to get an architect to estimate what it would cost to renovate it and then make an application to the Lottery Fund?
Friday, 11 April 2014 19:44
posted by Patricia Hicks-Alliston
I have such fond memories of my childhood in the 1950's playing around the well as I lived opposite in a house in Well Road for 20 years . It had a tiled roof, the grass area had beautiful almond and cherry trees and a hawthorn hedge lined the pathway. Bushes surrounded the well and it was a child's haven. I guess with council cut backs it has been left in its current sorry state, a piece of history sadly neglected. I hope it is saved for future generations and perhaps restored to its former glory.
Thursday, 08 May 2014 21:41
posted by roz
I'm a playwright living in Barnet and would love to get involved in helping to raise awareness of the well.
Monday, 26 January 2015 15:11
posted by Brendan Sandiford
Until yesterday, Barnet was a name on the underground map to me. I had come from Surrey to pick up a car part I had bought on the internet. Passing by Well Approach I couldn't believe my eyes! It was as if the building I saw had been trapped in a time warp from Tudor times! I was surprised there was absolutely no information to indicate was it was (although the clue was in the surrounding road names) and I was sad to see the state of disrepair.
I now understand that it is an ancient well, and that the original building has been replaced at least twice. Nevertheless, the current once pretty building would justifiably merit repairs and upkeep, and the historical significance of the site preserved.
Come on Barnet council!
Tuesday, 13 October 2015 13:30
posted by Teresa Talbot
I was told today that Barnet Museum are having an open day at Barnet Well on Saturday 17 October 2015. Apparently, the Museum have opened it up to the public before, last year it was visited by quite a large number of people, it appears to be an annual opening.
Saturday, 20 February 2016 09:38
posted by R. B Parish
I have been trying to advertise this site since writing my book on Holy wells and healing springs of Hertfordshire. Such a site with associations with Pepys, Fiennes and even potentially the Battle of Barnet needs to be looked after better. Perhaps an online petition/crowd funding could help? I'd be interested in the next open day btw as I've never been in.
Saturday, 19 March 2016 21:51
posted by Tony McKenzie
Has anyone thought to contact the Council of British Druids? The Celtic/Druidic festival of Beltane, 1st of May, is approaching and "well dressing" happens at various locations throughout the UK at wells and springs.
Maybe it can become an annual venue for Druids/Bards (of which Pepys was one) and Ovates.
Im sure a fresh spring close to Hadley Wood would have been the site of many Druidic practices prior to the local parish taking over.
The council have a website: http://www.cobdo.org.uk
Tuesday, 05 April 2016 11:12
posted by Azizul Karim
I created a 3D photographic model of Barnet Physic Well- here https://skfb.ly/FFON
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