St. Ann’s Well itself was a much-loved site. In the 17th and 18th centuries it was about a mile from the town limits, which helped the water stay clean. Writing in 1641, a local historian described it:
This Well is all Summer long much frequented, and there are but few fair Days between March and October, in which some Company or other of the Town….use not to fetch a walk to this Well, either to dine or sup, or both…. and when any of the Town have their Friends come to them, they have given them no welcome, unless they entertain them at this Well.
By the 18th century, the spring was protected by a hut with stone walls and a tiled roof. Though it was officially named after a nearby chapel dedicated to St. Ann, the well was also known as Robin Hood’s Well. The Public House next to the well had its own attractions for fans of the famous outlaw: “Robin Hood’s Chair,” a battered wicker chair that visitors could sit in, along with a hat and a bow that the owners of the Public House “affirm[ed] to have been the famous Robber’s Property.”
Though St. Ann’s Well was a well-loved attraction, the stream from it became more and more polluted with sewage as the city grew. Records show that the city had maintained the Beck’s channel as far back as the 15th century, hiring laborers at three pennies a day to clean out the refuse that collected in the ditch. After nearly four centuries of maintaining it this way, it was roofed over for the first time sometime between 1833 and 1872. But heavy rain could cause the small ditch to back up and flood the road next to it, and the undrained sewage exacerbated the repeated outbreaks of cholera in the 19th century.
In 1872, a Sewerage Board was created to deal with the sanitation issues plaguing the city. “As various sewers in the area were at that time discharging their contents direct into these rivers and other water-courses,” explained one of Nottingham’s city engineers, “the necessity for the formation of the Board will be readily understood.” Among their tasks was to build a new, larger culvert for the Beck.
It was this 19th century culvert through which we walked now. The engineers had done their job well. Though the final years of the 19th century were still plagued by terrible labor conditions and disease outbreaks throughout Northern England’s industrial towns, urban sewerage and water supply engineering like this tunnel were the foundation of a hugely important fifty-year decline in mortality rates, which had begun with the passage of England’s first Public Health Act in 1848. By effectively draining sewage from Nottingham, this tunnel we were in had, without any exaggeration, saved thousands of lives that would have otherwise been lost to water-borne diseases. Virtue outlives death, indeed.
We didn’t get all the way to the original St. Ann’s Well. The tunnel shrank until we had to walk in a crouch, and then shrank more until we had to crawl. I think we were about a half-mile from the original source when we were forced to turn around.
Looking at surface maps and tracing our route, we found that we had walked and waded for about two miles through the tunnel. Originally the entire stream hadn’t been over a mile and a half long, but re-routing the outfall to the Trent when the Leen was diverted had almost doubled the length of the Beck Burn.
We came out of the tunnel in the middle of Nottingham, through a rusty hatchway in the sidewalk between a busy roadway and a church that had been (accidentally) constructed over the culvert tunnel in the late 1890s. Somehow the church architects had forgotten about the Beck Burn’s tunnel (even though the Beck Burn’s nearness was the reason, in 1833, that the church had purchased the site as an additional graveyard for Cholera victims). An emergency system of iron braces—essentially a cage around the tunnel—was laid into the ground to support the weight of the stone church over the stream’s culvert.
I thought the Church’s construction stood as a good example of why it’s important for a city to remember what lies beneath the surface. But as we crawled out of the ground, wet and dirty as we emerged next to a busy road, the utterly baffled looks we got from the people who saw us suggested that few, if any, knew they were passing over one of the once-pellucid streams that had nurtured the town in its very earliest days.