Barnet’s historic physic well now sad and forlorn...
Barnet Physic Well
Is Barnet in danger of losing another historic link with the past? The well house protecting the town’s famous physic well is looking decidedly the worse for wear. Masonry is falling away, one of the walls is disfigured by graffiti and there is not even a sign or notice to say that this is the well that was visited twice by the celebrated diarist Samuel Pepys. The danger is that, unless Barnet Council can be encouraged to maintain the upkeep of the well house, and perhaps help discover an innovative use for the building, it may suffer the same fate as Barnet’s historic workhouse which was demolished in 2002 and made way
of what in the 17th century was Barnet Common, stretching south from Wood Street to Dollis Valley, is now housing estates and it is hard to imagine how the well must have looked in Pepys’ day, when it was a fashionable place to “take the waters”.
The well originated from a chalybeate spring and the effects of the water were to make the drinker urinate, which was thought at the time to help restore the body’s humours. For a time Barnet Water was sold in London, in competition with Tunbridge Water and Epsom Water, and Barnet nearly became a spa town .But now the only clues to the existence of the well House, which tucked away on a small green in the middle of a housing estate, are the names of the surrounding roads: Well House lane leads to well road (and Well House Approach) (and continues in a circle formed by Pepys Cresent.
The physic well has had a chequered history and so has the well house itself. Once the significance of the original chalybeate spring was appreciated, the parish had a well house built on Barnet Common in 1656, and later appointed a well keeper. Such was the popularity of Barnet Water that the well was soon being visited by “ladies and gentlemen from London on a daily basis”. Sometimes there were up to thirty carriages to take people to and from the well.
Pepys rode from London “to see the wells” in 1664. He had a meal at the Red Lion and continued on “half a mile off; and there I drunk three glasses and went and walked, and came back and drunk two more. The woman would have had me drunk three more; but I could not, my belly being full – but this wrought me very well; and so we rode home . . . and my waters working at least seven or eight times upon the road, which pleased me well.”
On a second visit in August 1667, he arrived at the well at about seven o’clock in the morning and said: “Many people were a drinking.” From there he went into Barnet and took tea and cakes.
By the 1690s custom had declined to such an extent that people helped themselves and Daniel Defoe wrote of the well, formerly in great demand, having become “almost forgotten”
In 1808 the well was rebuilt with a subterranean arched chamber and Barnet Water returned to popularity, helped by the writings of a doctor from Arkley called William Trinder. But again the well’s popularity did not last, and the building was demolished in 1840 (although the good doctor’s name lives on as Trinder Road close by. On being rediscovered in the 1920s, the well was restored and in 1937 the well house that exists today was erected in Well House Approach.