The modern world is responsible for some curious contrasts. Go to any town centre or industrial area, and you’ll be caught up in the noise and bustle that characterises modern urban life. Walk or drive just a short distance from that same urban sprawl, however, and you might find something older, odder, and infinitely more mysterious. Past and present overlap, and sometimes clash painfully, but neither ever quite succeeds in driving the other out.
To the west of Brighton city centre, in a quiet residential area of Hove, is a park. There’s nothing unusual about that, of course: such places are, thankfully, a common feature of the British landscape, providing jaded town-dwellers with a vital link to the natural world. St Ann’s Well Gardens is, however, not quite your average local park.
Today, the gardens are known primarily for their Chalybeate (iron bearing) spring, now named St Ann’s Well. Natural springs have always occupied an important place in folklore, and St Ann’s Well is no exception. The site owes its name, apparently, to a Saxon lady, Annafrieda, the only daughter of the Thane of Prestetune. When her lover was killed, a spring rose from the earth where her tears had fallen. The area around the well might have been used as a place of worship for centuries, and the spring itself is supposedly the end point of a ley line.
This, so far, is much like the other fey, wistful folk tales that are common in Britain. There might be a darker side to St Ann’s Well, however. It has been suggested that the site is a “hellmouth“, or a gateway between our world and the spirit world. A witch is said to walk to St Ann’s Well at midnight, while other tales tell of demonic children with cat-like eyes. Why, even Old Nick himself is said to put in the occasional appearance! (Infuriatingly, I can’t seem to find a great deal of information on these supposed manifestations; but then real-life ghost stories, unlike their fictional counterparts, often lack a neatly tied-up plot.)
I visited St Ann’s Well Gardens on a bright spring day, when the sunshine alone would probably be enough to drive away any lingering spirits. At first sight it was much like any other British park: a small oasis of tranquillity in the midst of the suburban sprawl, filled with dog walkers and young mothers with children. There were some sports facilities and a café, but – at first – no sight of the spring.
It took me a while to find it. It was tucked away at the heart of the park, inside a small gated area, and shielded by a ring of trees. It was quieter than the rest of the park, darker. There was only one other person nearby: a homeless man (I presume), who had set up a tent near the spring and appeared to be camping out there. If the witch and demonic children do indeed roam the park after dark, they appeared not to have frightened him away, or perhaps he just had nerves of steel. (Note to self: there’s a story just begging to be written here.)
There was a slightly strange atmosphere around the spring, all the same: not frightening, but peculiarly still, and slightly otherworldly. It seemed like one of those places where the past intrudes into the present, or perhaps where “past” and “present” are relatively meaningless terms. I could imagine Annafrieda, our Saxon lady, choosing this as a place in which to mourn her lost lover. Whether there is any truth in this old story or not, the image of the spring rising up where her tears had fallen is a beautiful one, suggestive of both the lasting power of grief and the transformative nature of love.
I didn’t encounter any demonic children or witches, though, and I didn’t get sucked into another dimension by the hellmouth. On the whole, St Ann’s Well seemed far too peaceful and benign for that, although you might, admittedly, see a different side to it if you tried staying there after dark. (I should have asked the homeless guy about his experiences, perhaps.) I think visitors can probably go to the park without fear of any encounters with hideous supernatural forces. All the same, though, when you wander into the quieter parts of the gardens, away from the main paths, you might feel that something else is there, just out of sight…