“Clearing in a Wood.”


Riffley, Refflet(e): in spite of the first form, which suggests the O. E. leah, “clearing in a wood” as in many place-names ending in –ley, the true old form of the modern Reffley Wood must have been Refflete.  I suggest  the first part is a variant of the Scand, rift “cleft” and the second is the well-evidenced place name term lete……from Norfolk Archaeology, Or, Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to the Antiquities of the County of Norfolk, Volume 24. 1932 page 151.m a paragraph. Click here to add your own

This is the story of the chalybeate Reffley Spring, that originally was situated in a “clearing in a wood” as suggested by the origin of its name, just outside of Lynn, in what used to be known as ‘The Manor of Gaywode’

, ithe north west of Norfolk.

Although, Reffley Spring was at one time, the most popular of the springs in the local area, it never managed to attain to the reputation of some of the  more notable springs and wells in this country, being regarded as more a ‘place of  healthy relaxation and enjoyment,’ by the people of Lynn.


William Richards in his History of Lynn, wrote in 1812…..


Several springs of mineral water, of the chalybeate kind, are to be found in the   neighbour- hood of Lynn,  on the eastern side; of which one is at Riffley, and another on Gaywood common, both within two miles of the town.  

There is another beyond Setchey, on the Downham road. There are others in East Winch parish, one of which is much more strongly impregnated than any of the rest, and might, perhaps, be ranked, in point of medicinal virtue, with some of those springs that have acquired so much celebrity as to become places of considerable resort.  This spring is said to be strongly impregnated with what chymists and mineralogists call sulphate of iron. From The History of Lynn: civil, ecclestical, political, commercial…. 1812 by William Richards.


M Manning researched the history of the spas and springs in Norfolk for "The County Archeological Society" in 1993.  From her introduction to:


 Taking the Waters in Norfolk


Veneration for springs and wells dates back to prehistoric times, perhaps because all human settlements must be near water and the provision of a constant supply is an essential for life. Wells were venerated in Pagan and Roman times and later pagan holy wells were imbued with a Christian ambience.


In Britain, after the Reformation, holy wells continued to be venerated by local communities, despite their official denigration. In the sixteenth century physicians noted that not all water was alive and that medicinal value could be attributed, not to holiness, but to mineral content.


The word ‘spa’ seems to have come from ‘espa’, old Walloon for fountain. In 1326 a health resort was founded at a chalybeate spring . The town became to be known as ‘Spa’.  In Harrogate some two hundred years later a chalybeate spring was called ‘the Spaw’ or ‘Spor’.


Although a spring is named a spa or spaw, it may have been just a little site where water of medicinal value emerged.  In Norfolk only a handful of such sites were developed, and few Norfolk spas reached national recognition, but they were patronised by the local communities, both gentry and common people.


Many such sites and their buildings, in Norfolk, have disappeared under the pressure of modern development and farming and by the drying-up of the water sources for the first time in their long history. This drying up may be attributed to a continuing period of drought accentuated by the use of underground water reserves to supply a rapidly growing population and for use in irrigation.


Geologically, the commonest springs in Norfolk, rise from the junction of permeable beds with impermeable beds beneath, rising at any level or on a hill or slope.adapted from Taking The Waters in Norfolk M Manning pps 135-7 in Norfolk Industrial Archeology Society vol 5 no.3 1993.



…..Reffley Spring is one of a number of springs which issued at a line roughly parallel to the east coast of the Wash, emerging at a spring line where sands and gravels overlay boulder clay.

A further attempt to create a spa was made at Gaywood Spring in 1824, on the Bagge estate, sited on the opposite side of the valley from Reffley. This survived about thirty years and seems to have been relatively unsuccessful, little factual information remaining.

A spa spring flourished briefly at Tottenhill, another spring-line site, in the nineteenth century. No records of this site have been found, other than scanty references in directories……from the Journal of the Norfolk Industrial Archeology Society vol 5 no. 3 1993 page 150.




Reference to the spa at Gaywood Spring, is, however, to be found in a “Notice of Sale” of “The Gaywood and Mintlyn Estate” together with the “Manor of Gaywood,” in July 1843, which includes a description of the Gaywood spring:


  ...but in a beautiful Grove, with delightful Walks and Lawns, and planted with stately timber, a profusion of shrubs, evergreens, rhododendrons, and other exotics, a Chalybeate Spring, has long been celebrated for its medicinal properties, and an Ornamental Cottage erected for the reception of visitors, and there can be no doubt that this spring may be rendered available for the purposes of pecuniary advantages. An inexhaustible (sand) Pit of the first quality also contributes an augmentation to the revenue above stated.   From The Norfolk Chronicle and Norwich Gazette Saturday July 15th 1843(3 postings).


However delightful, the Gaywood Spring evidently was, it could not have been made into a going concern, and the Reffley Spring, although the more natural and undeveloped of the two, was more successful.


The traditional view,  which explains the attraction of Springs, is that of ‘Ancient Spring Lore,’ wherein there are echoes in the story of  the Reffley spring, and which appeared in a Lichfield Mercury, article in August 1933:


“Healing Springs and Sacred Wells – the Oldest Known form of Cure: In the earliest days of man Springs and Wells were held to be sacred and were often dedicated to the shrine of a God or a Goddess. In this there was much of the poetry of the grateful traveller whose parched lips tasted nectar in the cool gushing Spring and were attuned to praise the gift.  But there was often a profounder reason.  The drinkers at the well sometimes found themselves cured of their diseases; long experience proved that these Springs possessed a mysterious virtue.  Indeed of all cures for disease this cure of water drinking is the oldest and best attested…….[it was] the hard headed Romans [who] had discovered the healing virtue of many a Spring and Well in England and Wales. From the Lichfield Mercury Friday 11th August 1933. n.b. Reffley Spring was also referred to, as ‘the sacred grove’, together with illusions to Roman mythology vis, “Venus and Bacchus, gods of the place,” in early newspaper reports, (see later chapters). 



The origin of the expression, ‘the sacred grove’ was suggested by ‘Genius Loci’ in the Middlesex Chronicle in September 1897:


….in [that] forest were, here and there, circular clearings or glades, which were sacred spots dedicated to the worship of nature as personified by the Sun.  such a sacred spot was called by the ancient Romans a lucus, which means literally, a bright spot. But as these solar spots were always surrounded by groves, the word lucus came to mean grove, and the associated clearing was forgotten altogether.  But a grove suggests light and darkness……..from the Vanishing Landmarks series by Genius Loci  Middlesex Chronicle Saturday 11th September 1897.



The image above depicts "light and shade" in a small clearing illuminated by the sun, though not a "sacred spot" in Springwood, now adjacent to the small patch of woodland which contains Reffley Spring, which at one time were part of the then much larger Reffley wood.


Sadly, Reffley Spring is today, but a ‘ruined shadow’ of its former self, now a reminder perhaps, of how ‘progress obliterates past glories’.  For…. all that remains of the Reffley Wood, that people in the 18th and early part of the 19th century, would have been so familiar with; are the small Spring Wood, and the even smaller now derelict piece of private woodland, its large trees almost completely smothered in Ivy, opposite, in which the spring, only flowing intermittently these days, is situated. Further away there is what now remains of the larger, now managed, Reffley Wood.


But, back in the 18th century, Reffley Wood was much more extensive, and although isolated was, even so, still relatively easily accessible to the people of Lynn, for the majority of whom their only option was on foot, as described by a writer at that time:


In Reffley Wood in this parifh, there is a fine fpring of Chaylebeat water, which upon being taken into a bafon, has a black and dirty colour, but on mixing it with fpirits, comes quite clear, and is of a pleafant flavour.  From the Norfolk Tour 5th edn.1795.


Looking at early maps, one can more readily appreciate the extent of the then larger Reffley Wood, situated, on the old map below, between South Wootton and Bawsey.   Getting from Lynn to Reffley then, would be the equivalent of travelling from Lynn to Sandringham today. So, one could say, that for Lynn folk today,  the Sandringham estate offers similar amenities as then did Reffley, as they both fulfil, in many ways, the same recreational function.


This early map outlines Reffley Wood (centre of map between  South Wootton and  Bawsey)

From Fadens map of Norfolk 1797. Reffley spring was at this time still situated within the large Reffley wood. (n.b. The wood actually extended through the area on the map where ‘Reefley Wood’ is written.)


Taking a closer look at the map (above), following the lane past Carnish Field Ho.(the name of the earlier farm at Reffley) and into the wood, there appears to be a clearing indicated with two structures marked – the then recently built Temple and spring perhaps? as highlighted in the section of the map (below).

The two dots (highlighted) in the Wood could possibly denote structures in the ‘clearing’ the Temple and the Spring.(above)


The two dots (highlighted) in the Wood could possibly denote structures in the ‘clearing’ the Temple and the Spring.(above)

Reffley Wood does not appear to have

Reffley Wood does not appear to have been used for habitation, prior to the development from the 1960’s of the Reffley, and the other estates surrounding what is now left of Reffley wood. However, the remains of one Early Bronze Age Barrow, and pottery shards were found in the 1930’s, as this report, from the time explained:


King’s Lynn Barrow – A further addition to the collection of British antiquities consists of the finds made by Mr. I.J.Thatcher and Mr. P.L.K.Schwabe while excavating a round barrow at Riffley Wood near King’s Lynn.  No remains were found in the grave pit itself, but the whole of the surface level under the barrow was covered in pottery fragments representing hundreds of vessels.  It seems clear that this was not a habitation site, but that either the whole of the earth from the floor of the dead man’s hut was brought and laid round his grave, or, perhaps more probably, that the funeral ceremony involved a great scattering of pot-shards.  Other similar cases are known.  The shards were of beaker pottery of the Early Bronze Age about 1800 B.C.

  In the top of this barrow there were nine or ten later cremation urn burials of the Middle Bronze Age.  With the most important of them was found a segmented bead and a ring pendant of bluish-green faience, belonging to a class of ornament found in Bronze Age burials both in Britain and on the Continent. They agree in all respects with examples found in Egypt at Tel-el-Amarna and dating from about 1400 B.C.  It is believed that they were disseminated by trade across Europe just as amber from the Baltic found its way to the Aegean at the same period.  The bead and ring from King’s Lynn have been scientifically examined by Dr.J.F.S.Stone who reports that they are certainly of this class. From the Gloucester Citizen Monday 12th December 1938.