This is a steep alley between grand houses in Hampstead, and is notable for the medicinal well at the bottom of the slope.
The medicinal well is called the Chalybeate Well. However, that’s a general term applied to all iron-rich mineral waters, as the word chalybeate is derived from the Latin word for steel, chalybs, and in the 17th century, chalybeate water was said to have health-giving properties, and people promoted its qualities.
Tunbridge Wells was famous for its iron-rich waters, which is how the town became rich and patronised by royalty, but you can find chalybeate wells in many places, including Hampstead. Ironically, the high iron content in the water actually made it unsuitable for drinking, but they didn’t know that at the time.
This particular well in Hampstead exists because on the 20th December 1698, the Earl of Gainsborough and his guardian and mother, the Countess of Gainsborough, gave six acres of land in the region of the Chalybeate Well, to be used to help/benefit the poor of Hampstead.
Later, as the mineral water’s properties became better known, a Long Room was built near the well where people could take the waters, and those who couldn’t travel to Hampstead, they sold bottles of water for people to drink at home.
Increased popularity of other springs saw the Hampstead spring’s popularity decline in the middle of the 1880s, and the Long Room was demolished in 1882, leaving just the well behind.
It wasn’t until 1902 that doctors finally announced that drinking chalybeate water was harmful to health, doubtless to the annoyance of the Wells and Campden Charity Trustees who were selling the bottled water. The charity — a merger of the Wells Charity from the original land bequest in 1698, and the Campden Charity, set up in 1642 — still exists, with its main function being the “alleviation of poverty and the advancement of health in old Metropolitan Borough of Hampstead”.
These days, the grand history of the well is pretty much focused on just the remains of the water fountain and some local street names, and of course, Well Walk.
The alley links Well Walk on the lower south to Well Road on the north, slipping between rows of grand houses.
John Roque’s map around London from 1746 is suggestive that there was a house on the western side of the alley and fields on the east, but OS maps from the 1860s show houses on both sides and the alley fully defined as it is today.
At the top of the slope, three bollards mark the start of the alley, with three steps down — one per bollard perhaps, and then it’s a gentle slope all the way down to the water fountain at the bottom end.
One thing that struck me is the planting that lines the alley seems to my untrained horticultural eye to be of a higher quality than you find in most public places. What is also very noticeable at the moment is a half-fallen tree that partially blocks the alley. It seems to be a newish addition, though, and not a long-leaning tradition for the passage.
Down at the bottom is the famous drinking well.
On the alley side, a small drinking bowl sits beneath a very weather-worn coat of arms.
On the road side of the well, is a pink granite stone plaque with a message about the charity that donated the land, and a message “Drink Traveller and with Strenght renewed. Let a kind Thought be given To Her who has thy thirst subdued. Then render Thanks to Heaven”
The drinking fountain no longer works, which is both a pity for nostalgic reasons, although considering the iron content of the water, probably for the best.