‘A spot of faint interest…’
Jo Draper looks at the not always highly regarded Wishing Well at Upwey
Published in March ’12
Upwey Wishing Well is a lovely example of an ancient tradition developing very quickly to help the tourist trade. The countryside around Upwey has always been beautiful, with high downs above the picturesque old village. Extraordinarily, right in the middle of the village, a river emerges, at huge springs. Even today, it is difficult to believe that a fully-formed river just appears, and in the past it must have seemed miraculous. These springs are often called wells, which is very muddling.
As soon as there were visitors to Weymouth, they came to admire Upwey, which was a convenient distance (4 miles) for an excursion. George III visited, and many others from the 18th century onwards. It was possible to walk from Weymouth, although many came by carriage or on horse-back.
Frederick Treves remembered Upwey in the 1860s as ‘a spot of faint interest … there was no particular ground for assuming that a wish expressed at Upwey would have special advantages’. However, by 1906 he found at the spring ‘a seat placed under two ridiculous stone arches has been erected for the benefit of the tripper. For the benefit of the villager, on the other hand, the following ritual has been introduced, which has proved to be more lucrative than a mere gazing at the waters. The wisher receives a glass of the water from the custodian, he drinks it with appropriate giggling, empties the glass by throwing it over his left shoulder [makes a wish], and most important of all, makes an offering of money to the keeper of the well … it is a curious spectacle for the twentieth century’. Treves seems astonished that ‘Folk of all kinds go through this formula for attaining of supposed ends – old men and maidens, young men and children’.
Treves was a doctor, properly scientific and not likely to endorse this new ‘tradition’. He had known Upwey over the time it changed from a roadside spring (admittedly a very big one) into a magical well. Happily this development was so late that there are photographs of each phase. First the unaltered spring, very picturesque. Then the spring has a stone surround (indeed looking like a well) added and a rustic seat is built along the wall. About 1905 this seat was rebuilt in stone with gothicky arches, the version which survives today.
Seemingly, the earliest reference to wishing at Upwey is a melodramatic novel, Broken Bonds of 1874, but the author had either never been to Upwey or had misunderstood what he saw. The river was a ‘brawling shallow trout stream, deepening here and there, and notably at the base of this hill, where it has been artificially dammed into a cool delicious tank, known for miles around … as the “Wishing Well”’. Reducing the miraculous spring to an artificial tank does not suggest local knowledge. However ‘a saucy, ragged girl of fourteen emerged from an adjacent cottage, bearing a common tray, on which were a couple a small tumblers’. She told the visitors to ‘”Drain a bumper to the winning of what lies near your heart. Give me sixpence, Captain, and I’ll drink a glass myself, to wish that your wish may be granted”’. I think that he made all this up – the ceremony lacks the later throwing of water over the shoulder which added to the indignity, and is just a simple drinking and paying.
1900-1910 seems to have been the peak of Upwey’s popularity. A guidebook of 1904 (To Weymouth – The English Naples) says in bold type ‘everybody goes to Upwey, and everybody goes again at the first opportunity’. By 1906 there was a correspondence in the Dorset County Chronicle about the horrors of visitors in Dorset. An exile living in Bethnal Green, London wrote: ‘There is one aspect of this “popularising of Wessex” upon which I cannot keep silence. To me, and I take it most of my fellow exiles, the charm of Dorset is that it is Dorset, where we find Dorset manners, Dorset buildings, Dorset food, and Dorset speech. …I have no desire to see my foster-mother made hideous with jerry-built villas, nor disturbed by the “tanging” of the electric tram, or the hoot of the motor ‘bus. It is to escape all these that I fly to her soothing arms. Do not misjudge me; by all means let us welcome those who come to learn to and to love, who will give us their best; but keep, oh! keep far off the invasion of mere pleasure-seekers who will give us of their worst. It is the warning my own home that gives me that prompts this long letter. The Ridgway Downs folding over to leave a cup, and a narrow valley sheltering a church, from beneath which the river flows under the steep hillside whose hanging wood is the home of the rook – all this forms a scene to delight the heart of the most confirmed cynic; but Upwey on a summer and especially Sunday afternoons re-sounds not with the fall of water or the cry of the rook, but with the shouts of weary pleasure-seekers and the laughter of women whose merriment is wearier still – barbarians, attracted not by the scene, but the imperative necessity of “doing” the Wishing Well before returning to haunts which so generously hide them for the rest of the year.’
Oh dear – vulgar people are not wanted, only the better sort. Mere pleasure-seekers should stay away, as indeed he does. Quite why all these visitors are ‘weary’ and worse with weary merriment is unclear.
The guidebooks fail to mention one of the great (if seasonal) attractions of Upwey – strawberry teas. English’s Refreshment Rooms were right besides the spring from 1907, where there is still a café. Christopher’s Strawberry Garden was not quite so close, and was part of a market garden supplying Weymouth. Large ripe gooseberries were another attraction.
Upwey has a complicated history of railway stations. From 1871 there was a station on the Weymouth-Dorchester main line. When the Abbotsbury branch was built in 1885 this station was moved to the junction, and yet another Upwey station was built a little along the branch. In 1905 another station on the main line was built, named Wishing Well Halt. This one was closer to the well, but still nearly a hilly mile away. No wonder people preferred the coaches, and soon the char-a-bancs which took one straight to the well. Coaches had the extra excitement of travelling up part of the River Wey at Broadwey – always a surprise to passengers. The bed of the river was indeed used as a road and the high-wheeled coaches didn’t mind the foot of water.
Another tradition has been added to Upwey in recent years – well dressing. In the Derbyshire Peak District springs are adorned with huge pictures made from flowers, leaves and individual petals pressed into a clay base. This has a long history there, but not in Dorset. However, the back of the enclosed seat at Upwey offers a perfect setting for these ephemeral pictures which have been created there on May Day since 1989.
Upwey is typical of development for tourists in the Dorset countryside. Great natural beauty close to Weymouth attracted visitors from the 18th century, and then the marvel of the huge spring had a ‘tradition’ added. Cafes were established to feed and water the many visitors, and regular transport from Weymouth kept them coming.
Today the well survives much as it was in 1905, although no aproned villager appears to help the wisher. The entrance is now through the café which replaces English’s Refreshment Rooms, and there has been a superb garden created down the stream from the springs. Visit it, and maybe wish.
• Dorset Life would like to thank Valerie Dicker, George Wickham and the Dorset County Museum for their help in illustrating this piece.