The Homewell, Havant, Hampshire

by John Pile


     From earliest times the history and fortunes of Havant have been closely related to its many springs and streams. Some twenty springs rise within the old parish of Havant in the space of two-thirds of a mile, along the narrow spring-line formed by the junction of the impervious Reading clay and the chalk strata which surface here. The source of the water is very deep-seated. It emerges crystal clear and at a constant temperature of 51 F. [1]

 Location of Homewell     The place-name Havant is derived from the Old English form Hamanfunta, first recorded in 935 A.D., meaning 'Hama's. spring'. Funta is a corruption of Latin fontana, 'a fountain', and Margaret Gelling argues that this element probably came into Old English direct from Latin and therefore implies continuity of occupation from Roman to Saxon times where it occurs. [2]

     'Hama's spring' is almost certainly the Homewell, a spring which rises in the centre of the town, 40 yards south of St Faith's churchyard. The earliest documentary reference to the Homewell occurs in 1301, when it is Hamwelle. Although there is no direct evidence that the Homewell was a 'holy well', its close proximity to the parish church suggests that its waters may have been used for liturgical purposes, and it is likely that they were believed to possess curative properties.

     Another spring in the same system, which rises three-quarters of a mile west of the Homewell in Bedhampton, is known as St Chad's Well. In 1801 this well was said to be 'justly celebrated for its pleasant taste and useful qualities'. [3] The same authority says of the Havant springs, 'some of these springs partake of medicinal qualities, in a garden adjoining the mill pond there is a chalybeate spring, which turns to a dark purple colour upon infusing galls into it.'

     The origins of Havant are obscure, but it is fairly certain that it owes its existence to developments initiated in the early years of the Roman occupation. Havant lies on the Roman road from Chichester (Noviomagus) to Bitterne (Clausentum) half-way between Chichester and the Roman settlement and road junction at Wickham.

     It is significant that Havant lies at the intersection of two major alignments of this road laid out in the first century A.D., and it is likely that the Homewell spring formed the objective of these alignments. It is also possible that a road station was set up here, attracting subsequent occupation for which there is plentiful archaeological evidence, from the second century or earlier until the fourth century.

     At some later date, possibly during the third century, a north to south local road was made to serve the potteries which had started production at this time in the Rowlands Castle area, and to form a link with Langstone Harbour and Hayling Island. The crossroads attracted further occupation, and by the third and fourth centuries a small market had probably formed dealing in pottery, salt, oysters and local farm produce. [4][5]

     Havant disappears from the archaeological record after the fourth century, but reappears in the historical record six hundred years later in 935, when it is granted by king Athelstan to his minister Wihtgar. The bounds attached to this grant show that the Roman road to Chichester was still in use, as it is today. With the place-name evidence already cited, we may be reasonably confident that there was continuity of occupation throughout the long period of the 'Dark Ages', although it is unlikely that we shall ever know the form this took. [6]

     The site of St Faith's church and its immediately surrounding area, including the Homewell, has yielded scattered evidence of occupation in the Roman period. It is always assumed that the Chichester to Bitterne road deviated from its alignments on the east and west sides of the town in order to follow the approximate course of the present East and West Streets, but this is only conjecture. It is equally possible that the original alignments continued and formed an angle west of the church, in which case the line of the road would have passed beneath the south side of the church. Indeed, the present road may be the result of a re-routing of the Roman road in the early middle ages in order to skirt the churchyard.

     C.J. Longcroft, writing in the mid-nineteenth century recorded the discovery in 1832 of 'a solid concrete of Roman brick and cement' beneath the tower of the church. [7] Two Roman coins were found between the foundations of the Medieval church and the Roman remains, one of circa 140 A.D. and the other of 384-388 A.D.

     A site a few yards to the west of the churchyard disclosed a Roman well containing some fragments of second century pottery; and a Roman occupation layer adjacent to the Homewell included oyster shells and pottery sherds. The overall nature of the occupation can only be guessed at. The sites that have yielded Roman material so far suggest a settlement of timber-framed, rather than masonry, structures strung out along the east-west road, with the hint of a more substantial building on the site of the church.

     It is possible, although there is no direct evidence to support the idea, that the Saxon or Medieval church was built on its present site because there was a tradition of religious activity related to the Homewell. [8] The earliest fabric of the existing church is twelfth century although Roman tile is incorporated in its walls. In an intriguing passage C.J. Longcroft says that the churchyard '...like Dereham and other ancient sites, has a well to the east of the chancel. There was usually in the early ages a fountain near the principal entrance where the people used to wash themselves before they entered the sacred edifice. It was termed Cantharus Phiala, and by modern writers Leontarium. One is found adjoining the churchyard of Havant, still called Homewell, a corruption of Hamwell, signifying the well of the town.' [7]

     A well was found close to the east end of the church during recent work to replace the sewers in South Street and this may be the one referred to by Longcroft. [8]

     On the scanty evidence available it may be permissible to advance the tentative suggestion that there was a late Roman Christian church, perhaps with a baptistery, on the site of St Faith's, which in turn may have superceded an earlier pagan shrine associated with the spring. [9][10] There may have been some continuity of use or at least reverence for the site throughout the sub-Roman period, eventually resulting in its choice for the Medieval church or its immediate predecessor. The Homewell or the well inside the churchyard would probably have provided water for liturgical uses throughout the middle ages until fairly recent times.

 


References

 

1. Thomson, D.H., (1925); Physiographical Conditions Affecting the Portsmouth Water Supply.
2. Gelling, M., (1978); Signposts to the Past, London.
3. ?, (c.1801); The Hampshire Repository, vol. 2.
4. Hughes, M., (1976); The Small Towns of Hampshire.
5. Soffe, Q., & Johnston, D., (1974); Route 421 and other Roman Roads in South Hampshire. in 'Rescue Archaeology in Hampshire', 1974 vol. 2.
6. Cunliffe, B., (1973); The Regni.
7. Longcroft, C.J., (1857); Hundred of Bosmere.
8. Pers. comm. of Miss B. Marshall, Bosmere Hundred Society.
9. Rodwell, W., (1981); The Archaeology of the English Church.
10. Thomas, C., (1981); Christianity in Roman Britain to A.D. 500.

 

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Text & Illustrations John Pile (1986)

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