The well in Thanet Lee Wood is shown on the Ordnance Survey map of 1893 but not on the first OS map of Towneley of 1848, nor on any earlier estate maps. On the OS map of 1912 it is marked as Well (covered). There is no mention of it in any of the Towneley family papers. Burnley Corporation bought Thanet Lee in August 1927 but did not open it as part of Towneley Park until 1930.
On 3 January 1932, the Burnley News published an article Interesting Find in Thanet Lee Woods reporting a Burnley Corporation employee discovering an old well. It was described as having “the appearance at the first glance of a cairn of stones, but on closer inspection it is a cunningly built affair, the stones being cleverly built together“. The article continued “A Burnley man now living in Cheltenham, who has seen the structure, says there is a similar one near Cheltenham, which is known as the Monks’ Bath.”
Within a few years, this “cunningly built affair” was in a state of collapse as described in an article by Ian Williamson in the Burnley Express on 3rd April 1955 under the title Mysteries Of Townley Park. By then it had been allowed to fall into a ruinous state. Here the ‘Monks’ Well’ was described as a rectangular corbelled hut, with a floor one foot below ground level, consisting of a rectangular stone trough, similar to a large horse trough. The use and age of this place was a mystery, though there appeared to have been little evidence for it being a “monks’ well”. It was very doubtful if the building was more than 200 years old. Was it a 19th century ‘folly’ built to amuse some little daughter of the then master of Townley?
The structure then became overgrown and mostly forgotten about until the site was cleaned up by the Blackburn College Archaeological Group in August 2003. They made carefully measurements that show the well, rather than being a folly built for amusement, was a well-constructed structure whose purpose was to provide a water reservoir for use during drought.The group suggests that the well was constructed in several stages and it is likely the corbelled hut described in the 1932 newspaper article was added much later. The “cunningly built” cairn of stones recorded in 1932 could have been devised by Blackadder’s Baldric. The stones appear too clean to have been there for long. They fell down within a few years, probably not because of vandalism but due to the weather. In winter, rain water between the stones freeze and pushes the stones apart when the ice starts to melt.
The construction of Monk’s Well
Behind the stone trough, the Blackburn group found a large capstone that covered a cistern. This cistern collects water from a surface spring and channels it into the trough.
There is no evidence to date the well but there are records showing the site was part of two fields belonging to Hecklehurst Farm until 1790. At that time, Charles Townley (1737-1805) turned the Hole House brook away from Broad Ing so that it flowed through what then became Thanet Lee. He planted large numbers of trees in and around Thanet Lee and needed to water the trees during any summer droughts. His diary entry for 11 August 1801records “opened a hole 4 foot 10 inch deep in Broad Ing half way between oak clumps and haha, all springs being low at this long drought and this hole soon filled with 10 inch deep of water“. Ponds were an alternative to wells when watering was needed for tree plantation and there were several fish ponds at Towneley at the end of the 18th century.
Edward Lovat (1773-1841), was land agent at Towneley from 1803 and continued to plant trees at Towneley for more than 30 years after the death of Charles Townley. He is another possible candidate as the builder of the covered well in Thanet Lee. At this time it was commonplace for people to create water storage systems at the site of surface springs and there are many reference to surface springs in Towneley records. Some Towneley maps in the first half of the 19th century record a pond called Lovat’s Pond on what is now Woodgrove.
There are two possible reasons for the well being covered. First it would reduce evaporation during hot weather, second it would avoid the standing water being covered in green algae. This photograph of the trough in May 2004 shows what happens to stagnant water in sunlight.