All’s well that ends well

Going underground to discover Barnet’s most underrated tourist attraction
By Elizabeth Atkin

The infamous Physic Well in Barnet (credit Elizabeth Atkin)
The infamous Physic Well in Barnet (credit Elizabeth Atkin)

Off the aptly-named Well Approach, stood in the grassy centre of a Chipping Barnet estate that would have once been Barnet Common, is the historic and somewhat mysterious ‘Physic Well’.

What it did back in the day isn’t much of a mystery at all. The well was actually a natural mineral spring – called a chalybeate spring – filled with iron salts. The water was renowned for its healing properties and, specifically, its ability to flush out the drinker (shall we say)!

Anyone feeling sick or feverish, suffering from stomach problems, or battling rheumatic conditions – or, erm, presumably feeling a bit constipated – would sip on the well’s water and promptly feel the urge to urinate post-drink. Quite frequently, too. And seemingly, it felt amazing? It can only be surmised that it worked to some degree, given that the water was once poured into bottles and sold on to people seeking out the ‘healing’ feeling, as well as impressing the many visitors who sought to take trips to the spring.

Perhaps the Physic Well’s most famous visitor was the diarist Samuel Pepys, who travelled from London in 1664 to see the well. He wrote that he drank “three glasses” and “came back and drunk two more”, adding: “My water working at least seven or eight times upon the road, which pleased me well.” He recorded another visit, three years later, in 1667.

Now, on to the mystery bit; when actually was ‘back in the day’? And who figured out the spring was even there? The spring itself dates hundreds of years, long before it was first recorded in the late 16th Century and enjoyed great popularity in the 17th Century. No-one knows who first found the spring. However, the well house surrounding it has been built and rebuilt three times. The first was in 1656 by the local parish, the second in 1808 as the well experienced another surge in popularity and, finally, the third in 1937 by Barnet Council. The design is notably inspired by the Tudor period.

Today, the Physic Well is looked after by the volunteers of Barnet Museum, who give interesting tours of the Grade 2-listed site. Inside and outside the 1937 well house, you’ll mostly be admiring how nicely the building’s been preserved – after falling into disrepair in the 1990s. Work undertaken by Barnet Museum, Barnet Council and Historic England in 2018 kept the building in-step with its original features, such as the timber in the ceiling, clay tiles on the roof and glass window panes.

Once you step down into the well itself, things are slightly unexpected. At least they are if you’re expecting it to be a ‘classic’ cylindrical well with a long drop to the bottom and a bucket to hike up with a rope. Reachable by a short, narrow and deep staircase, you’ll be led underground to a small, rectangular room, which surrounds two 17-inch-deep pools of greenish water. Look closely at the clay-dripped brick walls for iron salt crystals forming on the clay, and at the floor where you’ll see the water trickling along a small channel to the pool.

The Physic Well is open to the public on the third Saturday of every month, from 2pm to 4pm. It can be viewed from the outside at any time. To learn more about the well and about Barnet’s history, visit Barnet Museum at 31 Wood St, Barnet EN5 4BE.

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