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Why do we throw coins into wells and fountains and how is it connected with a Norfolk ruin?

PUBLISHED: 10:11 21 November 2019 | UPDATED: 10:35 21 November 2019

The remaining buildings of the Burnham Norton Friary, home to Carmelite friars. The gatehouse, left, and the only surviving part of the church, the west gable. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The remaining buildings of the Burnham Norton Friary, home to Carmelite friars. The gatehouse, left, and the only surviving part of the church, the west gable. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Archant

For centuries a holy well brought crowds and wealth to what is now a field opposite Burnham Market primary school writes Rowan Mantell

The remains of the holy well, or the wishing well, called Our Lady's Well, next to the Burnham Norton Friary.  Picture: DENISE BRADLEYThe remains of the holy well, or the wishing well, called Our Lady's Well, next to the Burnham Norton Friary. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Pure, clear water bubbles up into the glade near Burnham Market and spills out across pebbles, the trickle becoming a tiny, lively stream. This was a sacred site even before monks built their great church and cloisters nearby.

For centuries people believed the water emerging from beneath the earth here had holy healing powers and travelled to drink it, perhaps wash in it, make a wish or say a prayer. They left gifts and coins, first for the guardian spirits of the spring, later for the guardian monks.

The spring is still protected today, by the flinty ruins of Burnham Norton Friary, and by a carefully-placed rectangle of mossy stones.

Celtic tribes saw springs and wells as holy places to communicate with their gods, whisper wishes and drop offerings into the water.

The remaining buildings of the Burnham Norton Friary, home to Carmelite friars. The gatehouse, left, and the only surviving part of the church, the west gable. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYThe remaining buildings of the Burnham Norton Friary, home to Carmelite friars. The gatehouse, left, and the only surviving part of the church, the west gable. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Two thousand years later we still throw money into wishing wells and fountains. Around £2,000-worth of coins are trawled from the well in Norwich Castle keep each year and donated to the city museums. In Derbyshire wells are decorated with flowers and waterside trees are studded with coins.

Burnham Norton Friary was built almost 700 years ago beside a vanished road from Burnham Market to Walsingham. At Walsingham the holy well is still a site of international pilgrimage, but few pilgrims now find their way to Burnham Norton, where another spring rises. The spring itself is on private land but access to the ruined friary, now cared for by the Norfolk Archaeological Trust, is free.

The monks arrived here in the mid 13th century, the first Carmelite friars to settle in Norfolk, just a few years after war forced them to abandon their headquarters on Mount Carmel in Israel. These new Norfolk friars would have gone out into nearby communities, to preach and care for the poor and sick, and collect money to build their church, hospice and guesthouse complex. They were known as the Whitefriars because of their white cloaks.

By the 14th century Burnham Norton had an ornate gatehouse too, with a shrine chapel above the entrance arch.

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Pilgrims would have stopped here, perhaps en route to or from Walsingham, to rest, pray at the well, worship in the church and leave the friars a donation or gift.

Then, in the 1530s, almost every monastery, abbey and friary across the country was torn down as part of Henry VIII's war against the Pope. Two brave friars from Burnham Norton dared to criticise the destruction - and were convicted of treason. One was later pardoned. The other, John Peacock, suffered one of the most gruesome deaths of a bloodthirsty age, hanged drawn and quartered in King's Lynn.

Once the friars were gone of the buildings became part of Friary Cottage, which still stands, and buildings across the Burnham villages contain sculpted stones "quarried" from the ruins. The great church became a barn and the grand gatehouse part of a farm - but remains among the finest left in the country. The land was given to supporters of the king and at one time was held by a Norfolk branch of diarist Samuel Pepys' family. More recently German prisoners of war were held here during the First World War.

Despite the destruction of Burnham Norton Friary this is still well-churched land. Two fields to the west is ancient Burnham Norton church, two fields to the east, across the River Burn, is quirky, cross-shaped Burnham Overy church and two fields to the north is All Saints, Burnham Market. And, in the woods, within the ruined boundary walls where the highest of high tides once washed, water continues to seeps from a spring.

Belief in its magical qualities, its power to help wishes come true, became dangerous for a time, could lead to prison, torture and death. But the ancient site was still called "Our Lady's Well" on a late 19th century map, and now, as pilgrim routes are being rediscovered and restored, Burnham Norton Friary is well worth a pilgrimage.

Burnham Norton Friary site is managed by the Norfolk Archaeological Trust (NAT) for the Holkham Estate.

NAT is dedicated to protecting Norfolk's history and works with local communities to look after 10 sites across the county, and share them with everyone. Entry is free and the sites include Burgh Castle near Yarmouth, St Benet's Abbey near Ludham, Binham Priory, Bloodgate Hill Fort in South Creake, and Middleton Mount near King's Lynn.

It costs more than £50,000 a year to look after all 10 sites and NAT relies on the generosity of individuals and organisations for funding. To find out more about its work, and to become, volunteer, or donate, visit norfarchtrust.org.uk



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