The exterior of the well house is clearly visible from the New Walk and the design of the (locked) gates allows the gloomy interior to be viewed if desired.
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Pikeing Well (York) is a Grade II listed well house on the site of 'a remarkably fine spring of clear water'. The water was said to have 'medicinal properties'.
In 1749, the City of York Corporation proposed a plan to enclose a natural spring known as Pikeing Well. The spring was located beside the southern section of the 'New Walk' (a popular riverside promenade) and 'taking the waters' had become a fashionable activity for affluent and influential citizens.
In July 1752, the Corporation set aside the sum of £88, 13s to cover the cost of designing and constructing "an hansom fountain at Pikeing Well". Records suggest that the chosen design was submitted by John Carr (a young journeyman mason, who later became one of Yorkshire's best-known architects) and that the building work had been completed by December 1756.
In 1760, the Corporation recorded an agreement to pay William Wood the sum of 2 guineas per annum for opening / closing the well and for keeping it clear.
In 1818, William Hargrove described the well house with the following words:
"On the edge of the further division of the [New] Walk, is an erection, built at the city's expense, by the late alderman Carr, in 1756, in imitation of a ruin. It is called 'The Well House;' there being within it a remarkably fine spring of clear water. The door is frequently opened, by a man appointed to take care of it; the water is drunk by many persons, and is also much used as an eye water. An open receiver, in front of the Well-House, is visited every morning for those purposes, when the well is not open."
Source: Hargrove, William: "History and description of the ancient City of York; comprising all the most interesting information, already published in Drake's Eboracum; enriched with much entirely new matter, from other authentic sources, and illustrated with a neat plan of the City, and many elegant engravings.", published and sold by Wm. Alexander, Castlegate, York, 1818, page 526.
In a later version of this book (published in 1848), Hargrove wrote:
"A short distance beyond the [Blue Bridge] is a fine spring of water, over which an edifice is erected called 'The Well House.' The water is said to possess medicinal properties. It is always accessible to the public, and is drank by many; it is also used as an eye water."
Source: W. & J. Hargrove: "A new guide for strangers and residents in the City of York: being a brief description of its venerable antiquities, splendid cathedral, and other public buildings." (York, 1844)
These bold claims undoubtedly tempted many contemporary visitors to sample the water. However, for reasons that will soon become clear, modern-day visitors should NOT follow their example.
The well house was rebuilt during the summer of 1858, to plans submitted by Thomas Pickersgill (the City Architect and a member of the architectural practice founded by John Carr). The cost of the rebuilding work was estimated at £32 and the resulting structure is broadly what can be seen today (see Images 1 and 2 below).
After the First World War, the fashion for consuming (and bathing in) 'curative waters' declined rapidly and this significantly reduced the popularity of spas, wells etc. throughout England. The popularity of Pikeing Well would certainly have declined as a result of these social changes. However, the final blow came in 1929, when the Ministry of Health declared that the well's water was unfit for human consumption. Apparently, someone had worked-out that the water in the well originated as rainwater falling onto the ridge of slightly higher ground between the southern boundary of the city and Fulford village. For centuries, this area of land had been predominantly rural, so the groundwater would have been relatively unpolluted. However, by the early twentieth century, the air through which the rain fell had become heavily polluted, while the land had been engulfed by urban sprawl. As a consequence, the rainwater seeping into the ground carried with it a disgusting (and toxic) cocktail of animal waste (from the streets and cavalry barracks), untreated sewage (from the terraced housing) and other pollutants derived from both the air and the land surface. This alone would have been sufficient grounds for the Ministry to declare the water unfit for drinking, However, some of the rainwater also percolated through the grounds of (and the burials within) the southern extension to York Cemetery, adding yet more noxious and toxic substances to the water emanating from the spring.
For the rest of the twentieth century, the well house lay abandoned and unloved. The interior gradually filled-up with a mixture of silt (deposited by flood waters from the adjacent River Ouse) and human detritus. Despite this, the structure was listed (Grade II) on June 14th, 1954.
In 1999, the York Archaeological Trust conducted an investigatory archaeological evaluation of the site, then published a detailed report of its findings. The most interesting details have been summarised in this article, but the full report is available online (see the 'External Links' section below for details).
In 2002, the well house was completely cleared of all remaining debris, the walls and floor were scrubbed and the interior of the structure was recorded by the York Archaeological Trust.
The well house and environs were renovated in 2012 and the project was one of ten 'winners' in the 2012 York Design Awards.
The crescent-shaped 'open receiver' well (mentioned by Hargrove in his 1818 publication) is no longer visible on the surface. However, remains of it were found below ground during the 1999 archaeological evaluation of the site.
This article has drawn extensively on the desktop research and archaeological evaluation carried out by the York Archaeological Trust in 1999 and the Trust's follow-up report of 2002 (see external links below).