26 June, 2006


PHAEDRUS: I should like to know, Socrates, whether the place is not somewhere here at which Boreas is said to have carried off Orithyia from the banks of the Ilissus?

SOCRATES: Such is the tradition.

PHAEDRUS: And is this the exact spot? The little stream is delightfully clear and bright; I can fancy that there might be maidens playing near.
The making myth of a place is fundamental to us; it is, in fact, the making of place out of mere space. Ancient peoples gave meaning to their environment by investing it with signs and stories, and by orienting themselves around key natural monuments. A great deal is lost now; space has become dull, without shape, without significance. The myths and stories of London have become concreted over, and half-lost with the postwar renovations, with the estates, the chainstores, and with the scrabble for lebensraum.

Here, then, the second in a series of posts, a mythography of the city, the great palimpsest, and also a forging of new connections between its myriad symbols: an exegesis. Today I write about iron in the water. If you find it long, dear reader, read on nonetheless: it is a labour of love.


Iron was the worst of the metals for Plato, an emblem of the ignoble in man. But it has been widely celebrated and mythologised also; some philologists give the word an etymology of 'sky-metal'. Even by Homer's time iron was the most prized metal for its military uses; throughout history it has seen innumerable refinements, from cast iron to wrought iron, steel (an iron-carbon alloy), and in the late 19th century, stainless steel.

In the ancient world, a people of Asia Minor known as the Chalybes were famous for their skill at ironwork. Aeschylus calls the Chalybes ανημερος (savage), and according to Herodotus they were among the races conquered by Croesus of Lydia. Strabo, meanwhile, confuses the Chalybes with the Chaldaei (Babylonians), and this nutty site claims a Turkish etymology of the name as Kal-ýp, 'he who has remained (eternal)'. Their name became proverbial, as 'Toledo' would later. Euripides refers to 'Chalyb iron' [the Greek word for iron is σιδερος—and wack philologists will connect this to Latin sidera, following the 'sky-metal' origin of iron]; Vergil, following late Greek topoi in the Georgics, refers to the 'nudi Chalybes' as the providers of 'ferrum' (1.58). Milton in turn imitates Vergil; his Samson is so powerful as to make useless
the forgery
Of brazen shield and spear, the hammer'd Cuirass,
Chalybean temper'd steel, and frock of mail
Adamantean Proof
(Much later, Primo Levi refers implicitly to the Chalybes in a story ('Lead') from The Periodic Table (1975): 'they were crude folk and from their accounts it was hard to understand what metal they were referring to; also because not all spoke the same language and no one spoke mine, and there was a great confusion of terms. They said, for example, 'kalibe' and there was absolutely no way to figure out whether they meant iron, silver or bronze.')

With Milton passes the adjective into our language; or I should say, adjectives. For the OED lists not only 'Chalybean', but also 'chalybeous', the blue of case-hardened steel, and 'chalybeate', with which the significance of iron really becomes part of the language. King's American Dispensatory (1898) has this to say on chalybeate waters:
CHALYBEATE WATERS (Ferruginous Waters) contain iron (usually as a bicarbonate, occasionally as a sulphate) as their active principle, and in considerable proportion; they have a styptic taste, and become purplish-black with tannic or gallic acids. . . Chalybeate waters are divided into carbonated and sulphuretted; the former being brisk, sparkling, and acidulous, the latter containing hydrogen sulphide. To be of first quality these waters should contain considerable iron and but little of other mineral ingredients, and should be highly carbonated.
From the mid-17th century, such waters were considered highly salubrious, despite their nauseating taste. Thomas Sydenham, for instance, prescribed the waters for hysteria in 1693, and two centuries later Thomas Clouston prescribed them for neurosis. (This information from Jonathan Andrews, 'Letting Madness Range: Travel and Mental Disorder, c.1700-1900', in Wrigley and Revill, eds. Pathologies of Travel, online here; for further reading consult footnote 75.) Iron is indeed the stuff of life, bonding oxygen in the bloodstream; anaemia, the deficiency of iron in the body, causes pallor, fatigue, weakness, dyspnea, lack of appetite—a diminishment of life itself. It was an early-recognised condition, first called chlorosis, and treated with iron salts by the aforementioned Sydenham. Chalybeate wells are to be found all over the world: America (there exist towns of the name in Kentucky and Mississippi), Russia, Continental Europe, and Britain—countless early modern spas were founded on these sites, quackably advertising the restorative and vitalising power of the waters. By the 19th century, doubt had set in, although Victoria regularly drank at Tunbridge Wells. Samuel Hahnemann, propounding his own homoeopathic quackery, expressed scepticism about the waters in the Materia Medica Pura (1833):
It is mere charalatanry to call solutions of iron steel-drops, and chalybeate mineral waters steel-waters, steelbaths. By these expressions it is intended to convey the notion that they indubitably possess an absolute strengthening power in a high degree; for to steel is a metaphorical expression for to strengthen. But iron only becomes steel when its peculiar elasticity and hardness are developed. In its solution by acids the steel disappears; the solution then only contains a substratum of iron, and the oxyde (iron ochre) collected from chalybeate waters, when smelted, produces nothing but ordinary iron.

By Hahnemann's time the chalybeate well at Hampstead, London, was in decline. The well had been discovered at the end of the 17th century, and given over to the poor of Hampstead in 1698 by the newly-widowed Susanna Noel and her son, the Third Earl of Gainsborough. A stone, once a fountain, commemorates:

Drink Traveller and with Strength renewed
Let a kind Thought be given
To Her who has thy thirst subdued
Then render Thanks to Heaven

Hampstead water was hot property, as the Victoria County History volume on Middlesex makes clear:
In 1684 the Earl of Gainsborough received permission to pipe water from springs in his manor of Hampstead to the City and suburbs. The chalybeate spring given by his widow to the poor of Hampstead in 1698 was probably thought unsuitable for this purpose because of its salts. When, however, the mineral waters were exploited, the vestry retained control over the springhead north-west of the well and in 1700 ordered water from the springhead to be piped into the town, apparently to raise money to relieve the poor rate rather than to meet any scarcity of water.
The stone is to be found on Wells Walk, adjacent to Flask Walk. Simon Jenkins, in the Companion Guide to Outer London, explains the latter: 'This street takes its name from the flasks of well water which were bottled here to be sold in London 'at the Eagle and Child in Fleet Street every morning at 3 pence per flask; and conveyed to persons at their own homes for one penny per flask more. The flask to be returned daily'.' The quotation, irritatingly, is unattributed. These streets adjoin that part of the Heath known as the Vale of Health. As is so often the case, then, the local names record the history. But little else remains. According to Jenkins and others, the popularity of Hampstead Wells soon waned in favour of the less urbanised Bath and Tunbridge Wells; the pump room was converted into a chapel in 1732, with minimal revivals of interest later in the century. In contrast to this account, an 1868 gazetteer of Great Britain notes:
In various parts of the county are springs of mineral water, some of which have been in great repute for their medicinal properties, as Acton, Bagnigge and Sadler's Wells, Clerkenwell, Hampstead, Hoxton, Tottenham, and White Conduit House; but none of them are now much frequented, except perhaps Hampstead, which is strongly chalybeate.
Aside from the stone, two ornamental fountains can be found at the base of the hill: one at the bottom of the ravishing Fitzjohns Avenue, overlooking the statue of Freud outside the Tavistock Centre, and the other in South End Green, by the Royal Free Hospital. Health of the mind and the body. Both fountains are much later than the wells, but each conjures that magical image of waters bubbling up out of the ground, bringing life.

This fountain is built down the hill from the old site of the Shepherd's Well, commemorated on this plaque next to another fountain, now removed. The Victoria County History notes:
Belsize was supplied by tributaries of the Tyburn, one rising near Belsize House, which it supplied by way of a pond, another in Shepherd's Fields, northwest of Rosslyn House, where the public spring was conduited and known by 1829 as Shepherd's Well.
The present fountain was built in 1904, as its own plaque (with a lovely baroque-uncial typeface) explains. Both plaques, interestingly, like the inscription on the Wells Walk stone, emphasise that the waters are given over for the benefit of the public. We see here the tributary of bourgeois and aristocratic socialism that would flourish in the 19th century; the conviction that these medicinal waters are for the weal of all, not just for those with the means to pay. This is a legacy of Hampstead: the generosity of a classless earth, fertile and rejuvenating.

The second fountain is less secluded, in a hub of commerce and activity, frequently surrounded by drunks and drug-addicts fresh from the local A&E. It has recently been renovated, with hackneyed epigrams from classic authors newly lining the pavement; but the original neo-Gothic design remains, bearing the legend in handsome blackletter, 'Every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters'. These words are Isaiah 55.1, recalling also 12.3, 'Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.' Predictably, this language was associated by many exegetes with the imagery of St. John:
But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life. (4.14)

He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water. (7.38)
Adam Clarke follows Zimchi's [Kimchi's?] reading of Isaiah's waters as the Torah, necessary to the sustenance of mankind. But John's waters are quite different, not external but internal, the well of faith in the human soul, the illapse of the Spirit through the message of Christ—a characteristic shift between the Testaments. Had John lived in early modern Europe, perhaps he might have spoken of the chalybeate waters, the fortifying power of dissolved iron, flowing rivers of living water into the belly.


I once wrote a 20-page poem named Chalybea. The name, playing off so many related words, had so much resonance for me that a whole world seemed to spill out of it. It evokes the currents of a water deeper than all men, a spring or an ocean of thought, and the iron rising out of it, the iron in the blood, the iron of the steel of our new architectures, with water hardened into glass, and also the chalybeous blue of case-hardened steel, the blue of the deep, of piano notes, and of watch-springs, of the hidden mechanisms of time, stopped. I imagined a city with rivers of liquid glass, where a shortage of steel forces men to strip their clocks and watches for the springs, stilling the movement of time. The poem's protagonist, an admiral named Conrad, stages revolution from the sea against the city, but achieves nothing. Chalybea to me was an object of love, a face half effaced peering out from a wall, a goddess presiding over the iron and the waters of time, and of the unfinished act—'Her who has thy thirst subdued'.
In my yard there's a pool, I used to angle there
on warm nights. I thought the mirrored constellations
a plenum of iron fish, an angel felled for each failed wish.
Often I'd play harpsichord, or a glass Steinway, well-tuned,
always adagio. She'd lie cocooned in song, Chalybea.
This is why I am so fascinated by the forgotten springs of my birthplace; the iron in the waters is as the vitality of my lifeblood, and of my mind. Hampstead is a place where swimming-pools are converted into porch-steps, where small families cycle by and ring their bells in musicbox harmony. To walk now in these labyrinthine alleys, among the stately churches and relentlessly elegant terraces, under all the trees, on the pavements over the soil over the deep-coursing waters, one experiences the pleasure of a lost memory. It is still a homestead, even if its streams are long gone.


chris miller said...

Nice poem -- maybe you should post the rest of it for those of us who have childhood memories of iron flavored water.

For geological reasons unknown to me -- that's what came from pumps in many of the rural parks and campgrounds in southern Ohio -- so, for me, it's the flavor of extraordinary days and adventure.

Andrew W. said...

Beautiful, thoughtful essay. Brings the city to life in very unexpected ways.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, both. I'd rather not upload the whole poem, partly because of length; but if you would like to read it Chris, send me an email and I'll send it to you.

chris miller said...

I don't think I have your email address -- but here's mine:

I attended our neighborhood poetry society last winter -- and we certainly have some very clever, and humorous middle-aged women writing poetry here in Oak Park Illinois.

But I'd like something with a little more -- ummm --- bite ?

Anonymous said...

i live in one of hampstead's oldest houses & would really appreciate some help researching the well in our courtyard.

Anonymous said...

I hope that the taste of that heavy water will restore for you the sense of place that was lost by concreting over the mythic wells.

John Cowan said...

The deep well that provides process water (wash water, etc.) to my house on the mainland is mildly chalybeate and most definitely sulfuretted; run the tap for a while and the room fills up with fart.

Iron, though, is not the sky metal, but the sacred or holy one; its relatives are ira, the divine emotion of wrath; hieros, filled with the divine; oestrus, the monthly madness; and the Avestan demon of wrath, Aeshma-daiva, better known in the West as Asmodeus.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Got your Watkins handy, eh John? These are, I think, plausible but nonetheless conjectural.