WEIRD NORFOLK: A magical spring in West Norfolk that made hangover-free drinking to excess a doddle, a secret society and a terrible curse
PUBLISHED: 18:00 25 July 2020
Do you need a cure for “…colic…melancholy…the clammy humours of the body” or an “over-moist brain”? Head for Reffley Spring near King’s Lynn.
It is Norfolk’s lost Temple, a place where a secret brethren once met by a mineral spring which was dedicated to the God of wine and the Goddess of Love. When it was discovered in 1756, the iron-rich mineral spring in the King’s Lynn suburb of South Wootton in the former hamlet of Reffley, was honoured with its own temple and obelisk. And when both were vandalised and later demolished, those who inflicted the fatal blows had to contend with a terrible curse that damned them for eternity.
According to the encyclopaedic website run by Andy Clapham (www.reffleyspring.co.uk) Reffley was once a popular spring visited by people from all over West Norfolk but never gained the popularity of other such springs in England. There were two other similar springs in the area, on Gaywood Common and in Setchey near Downham Market. In the Norfolk Chronicle and Norwich Gazette of July 1843, it reads: “…in a beautiful Grove, with delightful Walks and Lawns, and planted with stately timber, a profusion of shrubs, evergreens, rhododendrons, and other exotics, a Chalybeate Spring, has long been celebrated for its medicinal properties…” Such springs were often dedicated to a God or Goddess and it was believed that the water had magical, healing properties. It was also believed that spring water made drinking heavily possible without the usual repercussions.
Early in the 17th century, iron-rich chalybeate water was said to have health-giving properties - Dudley North, 3rd Baron North, discovered the chalybeate spring at Tunbridge Wells in 1606. His eldest son’s physician said the waters could cure: “…the colic, the melancholy, and the vapours; it made the lean fat, the fat lean; it killed flat worms in the belly, loosened the clammy humours of the body, and dried the over-moist brain.” In the late 1700s, people would meet at the spring to drink tea and pass the afternoon and an ornamental cottage was built for visitors, along with an obelisk.
The Subscribers to Reffley Spring were a group of gentlemen who held meetings at the Georgian cottage: their number was strictly limited to 30, supposedly based on the Cromwellian edict which banned the assembly of more than 30 men. It is believed the group was descended from an earlier society formed in 1650, the year after the execution of King Charles I, and that over the years the group’s role moved from political to social. A gentleman’s club, of sorts. The men would drink a secret punch made from spring water, meet, eat a beef joint, saddle of mutton and a lobster salad and then smoke a secret blend of tobacco in the clay pipes that members were all presented with.
An oil painting from 1800 shows an octagonal temple with a conical roof, although this building was enlarged in 1832 when a kitchen was added to the back. Two sphinxes guarded the temple and along with the obelisk, brought a flavour of the Valley of the Kings to this secluded spot in the west of the county. By the first half of the 19th century, the spring had started to lose its place in high society as the railways came and carried people away from the west. But the Reffley Brethren still came.
In an article in the Eastern Daily Press of September 22 1936, an article was written about the Brethren and their temple, “…many are the folk who have questioned the secrets of the Latin-inscribed obelisk and the mysterious, locked and shuttered little building which unexpectedly comes to view,” it read.
“Once a year, at least, there enters its doors a group of jovial men, the privileged brethren of this society.
“Each July, and sometimes again in autumn, they come to this spot to breathe the old-world atmosphere of their temple feast and drink their punch of unknown recipe.”
The number of “sons” in the secret society was limited to 30 and membership was closely-monitored by the group’s head. In 1936, that head was the Rev Sir Frances ffolkes who ensured that the temple was never entered by any of the “sons” unless they had drunk from the spring and then downed two glasses of spring water punch. The punch was, at that time, made to a recipe known only to the honorary brewer, a position held by a Mr D’Oyly-Watkins and the secretary, Mr Cawson, also known as “Father Reffley”, a position which involved ensuring the society’s customs were observed. Cawson took over the position of secretary from a Mr Robinson Cruso, a King’s Lynn auctioneer who provided, it was claimed, the inspiration for Daniel Defoe’s famous story of shipwrecks and adventure.
An inscription on a column which rose 20ft above the Reffley spring in front of the temple noted that it replaced an older column and that the spring beneath it had been consecrated on June 24 1756. In Latin, on one side of the obelisk read: “We dedicate this sacred fountain of happiness, these waters of joy to Bacchus and Venus, and the gods of this place.” On another: “Whoever upholds this column or gives order that it be upheld may he live longer than anyone else in his generation” and also “if you wish to relinquish your load of care, go to whatever place is full of pleasure. Let this be your labour. Let this be your care. Let us all go, both little and big, if we wish that Venus and Bacchus shall love us.” The secret brew was taken from ancient china pots from willow-patterned punch bowls and a series of toasts were read – although membership was strictly limited, the odd exception was made for visitors: King George V lunched at the temple before his accession. Women were only allowed “…in the form of servants or sphinxes”.
Sadly, by the late 1970s, the temple had fallen victim to vandalism and, in the Lynn News and Advertiser in August 1979, came this report which quoted landowner and Reffley Brethren president the Hon George Dawnay: “The people of Reffley are all totally disinterested in the temple and the grounds around it. I can’t help thinking something could have been done to prevent this damage. “It really is beyond repair and you can’t tell me that the people of Reffley don’t know what is happening. It’s always had a certain amount of vandalism, but now they’ve really set about it with crowbars.” On June 23 1978, a few days after Midsummer’s night eve, the last traditional public celebration was held at Reffley Spring: an “anniversary binge” as the EDP put it.
The inscription on the obelisk had been translated to mean something very different by 1978: “ Whosoever shall remove this or bid its removal, let him die the last of his race.” Frightened at the thought of a curse, the Reffley estate residents’ association agreed a peppercorn rent of 10p a year to the Brethren to lease the site as guardians and on the 200th anniversary of the gift of the society’s stone picnic table, they met. There was feasting, music-making, magic acts and fancy dress competitions: they ate rabbit and gravy pie, red cabbage salads, Norfolk hot potatoes, gooseberry tansy and “very good wigs, the most delightful things for tea”. Wigs, or Wiggs, are little cakes made with ale yeast, butter and eggs and flavoured with caraway seeds and were normally eaten with ale and cheese.
In a piece which appeared in the Lynn News in 1985, Mr Dawnay expanded on the magical properties of the Reffley springwater: “The spring had certain properties which appeared to take some of the alcoholic effect out of the brandy. I think we got through half a bottle of brandy each, but over a long period. “…People talk very fluently and constantly, but they are perfectly capable of carrying on normal behaviour…No-one ever needed assistance to get home. I have never in any way felt embarrassed after an evening. And you have no hangover the next day.” Despite the Brethren’s best efforts, within a decade, the temple had been pulled down, the obelisk demolished and the sphinxes removed to a secret location: the spring dried out and all that remains today is the remains of a spa basin.
Today, the site of the temple and the basin is in private woodland and is overgrown – perhaps the spring remains dry, perhaps it will one day flow again. Either way, Weird Norfolk would love to hear from any of the Reffley Brethren (who we believe still meet) to find out more about their magical punch and are nobly prepared to try some, in the spirit of research, of course.
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