Australia House in London has twelfth century drinkable water from an ancient holy well, scientists say after carrying out laboratory tests. Australia House, a Grade II listed building, is Australia’s first diplomatic mission, as well as the longest continuously-occupied diplomatic mission in Britain. It is located in the Strand, central London.
The Holy Well is a spring below the basement of Australia House, where the Australian High Commission has its offices. It is believed to be approximately 900 years old. You can only get to it through a manhole cover in a restricted area.
Lisa Millar, who works at the London bureau of ABC Online, was escorted to the spring by the Australian High Commissioner to Britain, Alexander Downer, a former Liberal Party politician who was Foreign Minister of Australia.
The Holy Well Aldwych is located below the basement of Australia House. (Image: David Furlong)
Well was used for ceremonial purposes
Mr. Downer said:
“These wells were of great significance, particularly back in the middle ages. They were used for ceremonial purposes and plays were performed around the well. And as a result of that, this part of London evolved as an area where theatres were built.”
Whether the staff at the building where people go for travel advice and visas might bring you a glass of fresh, ancient water to drink while you wait in the queue, however, is doubtful.
According to Mr. Downer, the spring’s water came from the River Fleet, the largest of London’s subterranean rivers, which today is covered by roads.
London is believed to have more than twenty such wells – the one below Australia House is the easiest to get to. The famous Sadler’s Wells Theatre is named after one of these wells.
David Furlong, a researcher, said the first mention we know of regarding the spring was in the late 1100s by a medieval monk, William FitzStephen (ca 1174-1183).
Australia House was used as the setting for Gringotts Bank, where Harry Potter’s fortune was kept safely by his parents, as well as the home to the Philosophers Stone.
According to David Furlong, the monk wrote:
“There are also in the northern suburbs of London springs of high quality, with water that is sweet, wholesome, clear, and “whose runnels ripple amid pebbles bright”. Among which Holywell, Clerkenwell and St. Clement’s Well have a particular reputation; they receive throngs of visitors and are especially frequented by students and young men of the city, who head out on summer evenings to take the [country?] air. Truly, a good city – if it has a good lord.”
The building was constructed one hundred years ago, during the First World War. Much of the material used in its construction was shipped over from Australia.
The building is made with Portland stone on a base of Australian trachyte (an igneous volcanic rock). The marbles include the dark and light Caleula from New South Wales, dove-coloured Buchan marble from Victoria, and white Angaston marble from South Australia.
The flooring timbers and joinery include timber varieties from every Australian state.
The grand interior of the building was used as the setting of Gringotts Wizarding Bank in the movie Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The building is also believed to have been used as a backdrop in the movie Wonder Woman, which is set for release next year.
The River Fleet
In Roman times, the River Fleet was a major waterway, with its estuary believed to contain the world’s oldest tidal mill.
It was still a substantial body of water in Anglo-Saxon times, when it joined the River Thames through a marshy tidal basin more than 100 metres wide at the mouth of the Fleet Valley.
Several wells were built along its bank, including the one below Australia House, St Bride’s Well and Bagnigge Well.
In the 13th century it was called the River of Wells – the wells were reputed to have healing qualities.
Australian public servant drank from well
Regarding the water in the well below Australia House, Mr. Downer said “Someone has drunk the water and there’s no record of them not surviving.”
Duncan Howitt, an Australian public official, said he was the one who drank water from the well seven years ago. A colleague from the Canadian High Commission, who was interested in the history of the spring, encouraged him to drink it.
Mr. Howitt said:
“We all came down, there was about five of us, and as part of our hospitality for hosting them we drank a cup of the water. It was fresh and clear. Better than tap water.”
Video – Opening Australia House (1918)
This is a video of a British Pathé report on the opening of Australia House in London in 1918. It starts with coaches lining up beside the grand building. A procession of priests and others walk under the awning. Australian troops are lined up in the street and King George V and some officers approach.