diamond geezer

 Thursday, August 18, 2005

Reviewing the Fleet
Bagnigge Wells


North of the City (above the stinkiest smelliest sewage-ridden waters) the Fleet was long known as the River of Wells. Close to what is now King's Cross Thameslink station there was St Chad's Well, an ancient spring once of great importance (until the Midland Railway came along and removed all trace). Further down there was Black Mary's Hole, another mineral spring of some repute (until it was shamelessly converted into a cesspool). But when late 18th century gentlefolk fancied a grand afternoon out, they headed instead to the elegant charm of Bagnigge Wells.
"Come, come, Miss Priscy, make it up, and we will lovers be:
And we will go to Bagnigge Wells, and there we'll have some tea.
And there you'll see the ladybirds all on the stinging-nettles
And there you'll see the waterworks and shining copper kettles.
Oh la! Oh dear! Oh dash my vig, how funny."
(18th century song)
It's said that Charles II's mistress Nell Gwynne once lived in the big country house at Bagnigge Wells but it was not until 1757, when two mineral springs were rediscovered in the gardens, that the house was opened to the public. Water from the two wells was piped to a double pump installed in a central domed colonnade. The well closest to the house had clear iron-rich waters, while the other was thought to possess cathartic properties.
"Hight Bagnigge; where, from our Forefathers hid,
Long have two Springs in dull stagnation slept;
But taught at length by subtle art to flow,
They rise, forth from Oblivion's bed they rise,
And manifest their Virtues to Mankind."
(Bagnigge Wells by W Woty, 1760)
Visitors paid threepence for the privilege of taking the waters from the pump, or else retired to the Long Room to drink their fill at eightpence per gallon. For the next forty years an afternoon at Bagnigge tea gardens was considered the height of good taste. The middle classes flocked here in droves to sip tea, or to attend one of the many concerts, or just to stroll around the ornamental gardens on the curved banks of the River Fleet.
"Thy arbours, Bagnigge, and the gay alcove,
Where the frail Nymphs in am'rous dalliance rove;
Where prentic'd Youths enjoy the Sunday feast,
And City Matrons boast their Sabbath's rest
Where unfledged Templars first as fops parade,
And new made Ensigns sport their first cockade."
(Churchill, 1779)
But it was not to last. Bagnigge slowly gained a reputation for 'loose women and boys whose morals are depraved' and its popularity declined. In 1813 the proprietors went bankrupt, forcing them to sell off much of the gardens to stay afloat, until eventually the spa was knocked down to be replaced by a tavern. The wells became overgrown, the waters impure, and in the 1860s the coming of the Metropolitan underground railway finally wiped away the lot.
"Will you go to Bagnigge Wells, Bonnet builder, O!
Where the Fleet-ditch fragrant smells, Bonnet builder, O!
Where the fishes used to swim, So nice and sleek and trim,
But the pond's now covered in, Bonnet builder, O!"
(popular song, 1839)
Only one trace of Bagnigge Wells remains today - a white stone plaque topped by a carved head (pictured) set into the wall of number 63 King's Cross Road. This plaque once stood on Bagnigge House, was later transferred to the pump room at Bagnigge Spa and now looks out over a bus stop. Former owner Nell is still commemorated across the road in a stepped alleyway named Gwynne Place, her grand house replaced by a nasty characterless Travelodge. On the site of the riverside gardens now stand the modern (and very ordinary) council blocks of Wells Square and Fleet Square. And you won't catch the middle classes around here any more - they're all too busy sipping Evian and building water features in their own gardens instead.
Following the Fleet: King's Cross station, Pentonville Road, King's Cross Thameslink, St Chad's Place, King's Cross Road, Cubitt Street, Pakenham Street, Phoenix Place

www.flickr.com: Fleet Central - St Pancras, King's Cross
All my Fleet posts on one page


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