Water Levels

by Max Woosnam 1988

Behind the Abbey at Malmesbury you can sit on the wall of the garden at the Old Bell Hotel. The ground drops steeply as the wall was once part of the defences of the Ancient Borough and the Abbey was built here because of the protection within these walls, as long ago as 700 AD. To get the full feeling of the history of this spot, you can look down at the river and the Abbey Mill some 50 ft below, and then look up to the roof of the Abbey some 80 ft above. From the West Tower, Eilmer a Monk of the Abbey made the first ever fully recorded flight on wings attached to his hands and feet. He flew for a furlong or 660 ft and broke his legs but lived to a ripe old age.

This is recorded by the most famous historian of the time, William of Malmesbury who worked in the Abbey about 40 years after Eilmer had died and whose works are in all the major Libraries in the World. William recorded that Eilmer had seen Halley’s Comet twice in his lifetime and that he had also flown from the top of a tower for a distance of a stadium and more. There is unfortunately no record of Eilmer’s books which must have been dispersed at the time of the dissolution. By a strange coincidence they may well have been available to Isaac Newton at Cambridge.

Sitting on the Wall at the end of the Old Bell garden you can feel the atmosphere of 1000 years ago. All the stones are the original stones and little has changed around the Abbey since the 13th Century. When I came to Malmesbury some 30 years ago I was immediately interested in the Eilmer legend and my researches were greatly helped by a lecture given by Professor Lynn White in New York in 1960, which confirmed the truth about Eilmer’s flight. The story is better known in North America than it is in England.

When the Royal Tournament at Earl’s Court in 1962 included a History of Flight tableaux, they portrayed someone in 1400 as the first flight. Needless to say when I told them about Eilmer they immediately came down and with the help of a cable over the top of the Abbey we re-enacted Eilmer’s flight and put his name once more into all the history books. I often depict Eilmer in Carnival events and sometimes sit on this wall much to the surprise of unsuspecting tourists.

From the wall you overlook the river, the Tetbury branch of the river Avon which flows to Chippenham, Bath and Bristol. The old Abbey Mill is below you. The car park upstream was a marshy mill pond and the wooden mill workings were still in place in the mill as late as 1963. The mill workings had been maintained by Ratcliffe and Sons of the foundry in Foundry Road, Westport, Malmesbury for over 100 years and they are now in the Museum. In the Middle Ages milling was a major source of income for European Monastic establishments, as they had a monopoly on milling confirmed by Royal Statute. After Tudor times many more mills came into operation.

Between the Abbey Mill and the wall of the Old Bell, there are some narrow terraced gardens, restored in the 19th Century, but by legend reputed to have been the Monks washing area for their ablutions. It would not have been surprising to have had running water in these gardens, as there appears to be a permanent water supply under the Abbey and surrounds and under the Old Bell, which was part of the Abbey buildings.

The Abbey House a little further along the walls, was the infirmary of the Abbey and is on the same level some 60 ft above the river. There was a dispute in 1200 AD concerning water between the soldiers of the Castle situated in the Old Bell grounds and the Monks of the Abbey. The Castle was a fortification of the Abbey by Roger, Bishop of Sarum, who supported King Stephen in the 1100s and was eventually pulled down under King John in 1210 AD. As the Monks had been there some 500 years before, the soldiers had to dig their own well, called the Castle Well, in the area behind the Old Bell and it was 60 ft deep before they found the water level.

The Castle Well is in the garden of Avon House a little further along Abbey Row. The position of the Abbey Well has not been located. It is known as a result of recent building works that there are a large number of storage vaults under all the buildings around the Market Cross and certainly on the west side of the Abbey near the new offices. These vaults are also under the Old Bell car park and as well have been the cause of frequent flooding in the Old Bell cellars in the old days.

There used to be a flagstone with an iron ring, in the centre of the old car park here, which in the last 15 years has been covered over, when this was lifted the water in the vaults could be seen. The water level agreed with the artificially high levels around the Abbey and with the continuous flowing water running into St. Aldhelm’s Spring situated across Abbey Row – Gloucester Street at No. 44 opposite the west end of the Abbey. This spring is reputed never to run dry and appears to be connected to an underground water supply. This can be confirmed by Mr S Clark a Water Board Engineer who was born in the cottage.

The Old Bell was called the Castle Inn at one time and later this name was transferred to the Weavers Arms at the end of Abbey Row in the Triangle. I purchased this Inn in 1960 from the Brewery and found that the Well there was 35 ft above water level, which confirms the underground water table contours. Why then was the water table some 60 ft higher under the Abbey and never seemed to dry up. Leyland in the 16th Century commented on the excellence of the Market Cross. He did not repeat an earlier source that the water for the Monks comes in an underground culvert from Tetbury some 100 ft higher. However it is quite likely that there was a special water source for the Abbey as most monastic foundations were sited on springs and these occur commonly in this area, fed from the Cotswolds at a higher level.

The Monastery at Tetbury, founded with the blessing of St Aldhelm of Malmesbury sometime after 700 AD by the Abbess Tetta, eventually had to be abandoned some 500 years later due to the springs drying up. The Monks went down to the Monastery in Woodchester. It would appear that there could be an artesian water supply under the Abbey, unless it could be shown that the water storage from the roof of the Abbey was kept in very large storage vaults, as was common on the important establishments of the period before piped water was available. However the water table never seems to lower even in the driest summers.

Perhaps also the Market Cross was not just a place to keep dry but also connected to the Abbey water supply. Towns folk could partake of the Holy water instead of going all the way down to the river and that is why they erected ‘a right fair and costely Peace of Worke’ as Leyland wrote in 1542 AD.

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