Useful Information

Location: Brixham.
Nutwell Court on the northern side of Milton Street (B3205). Between a Western Power Distribution Depot and a private house named Monkswell.
(50.383987, -3.5246634)
Open: closed.
Fee: closed.
Classification: KarstKarst Spring KarstIntermittent Spring
Light: n/a
Guided tours: self guided
Photography: allowed
Accessibility: no
Bibliography: John D. Mather (2013): The History and Hydrogeology of Laywell, a Celebrated Ebb and Flow Spring at Brixham, Devon Report & Transactions of the Devonshire Association. 145: 133–154. pdf
Octavian Blewitt (1832): The panorama of Torquay, descriptive and historical sketch of the district comprised between the Dart and Teign, London, Simpkin and Marshall, and Cockrem, Torquay, 1832, p 144. pdf
Address: Laywell, Nutwell Court, off Milton Street (B3205), Brixham.
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
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1693 visited by Dr William Oliver.
1700 visited by Cox.
1731–1732 visited by Reverend Joseph Atwell, Fellow of the Royal Society.
25-SEP-1750 visited by Dr Richard Pococke (*1704–1765).
1751 visited by lecturer and scientific instrument maker Benjamin Martin (*1705–1782).
1792 visited by the Reverend John Swete (*1752–1821).


Reciprocating Spring Laywell by the Reverend John Swete, 1792. Public Domain.
Interacting reservoirs and syphons, proposed by Joseph Atwell (1732) to explain the workings of the Laywell spring. Public Domain.

Laywell or Lay-Well is an important and famous intermittent spring located in the middle of Brixham, and unfortunately lost. In July 1693, Dr William Oliver (1658–1716), a Cornishman and physician in the Royal Navy, went ashore at Brixham in South Devon to stretch his legs. He walked into the countryside because he had heard about a famous well, which ebbed and flowed in a cycle lasting about two minutes, the water level rose and fell 12.7 cm. He described his visit in a letter to the politician and writer, Walter Moyle (1672–1721), who repeated it at the the Royal Society, which finally published the report in the Philosophical Transactions in 1693. But there were questions about this riddle, and finally Oliver returned to th spring in September with a watch. So he made accurate measurements of the well and its cycle, but it had changed. Now it was only 1 minute long, but it was followed by a sort of pause at the lowest point for two to three minutes. He counted 16 cycles in an hour but was told by locals that sometimes this increased to 20 cycles an hour. Another new detail were bubbles ascending from the bottom of the well, but only during rising water level.

At that time the spring measured about 1.5 x 1.5 m and was about 15 cm deep. It was located outside Brixham, about 1.6 km from the harbour, near Laywell House. It was also called Lady Well, although it was actually a spring, not a well. The spring water was normal drinking water and was used by the locals as such. It rose 12 cm, then overflowed over a broad stone, so it was not clear how high it could rise otherwise. It joined other small streams, before discharging into the sea at Brixham.

Springs close to the shore are often connected underground to the sea, and so the water in the spring rises and falls with the tides. A famous example was Sandford’s Well at Newton, near Porthcawl in South Wales. It was mentioned by William Camden in his Britannia. The spring was much closer to the sea, only a little above sea level, and the fluctuations were synchronous to the tide, although they lagged behind y by about three hours. So it was actually clear that this ebb and flow had nothing to do with the tides.

The well was visited numerous times, and some visitors made detailed observations. But when the well stopped ebbing and flowing in the 19th century, there had no long term observations been made. The behaviour was different at most visit. Sometimes there were two-minute cycles or four-minute cycles, then the spring ceased to ebb and flow for hours. During the high yield sometimes other little springs outside the basin started to flow. In 1733 a visitor spent a period of 14 hours by the spring. For eight hours, it ebbed and flowed 11 times an hour, sometimes it ceased, once for a period of 21 minutes and once for about an hour.

The chief objects of interest around the town are the Laywell, King William's Stone, Ash Hole, and Berryhead. Laywell is a celebrated reciprocating' spring in Upper Brixham, situated at the foot of a ridge of hills, immediately below the lawn of Laywell House, the residence of Mrs. Admiral Pierrepoint. This natural curiosity has been so frequently described, particularly in the Philosophical Transactions, vols. 17 and 36, that it is useless to enter largely on the subject here. The basin is smaller than it is usually represented : there are other springs outside the well which are subject to the same changes as the principal one ; of which they are probably the branches. The well admeasures about six feet by four. The ebbings and flowings are extremely irregular, and often disappoint the visitor, who frequently exhausts his patience before the spring begins to play. The phenomena are of course explained on the principle of the syphon.
Octavian Blewitt (1832): The panorama of Torquay, descriptive and historical sketch of the district comprised between the Dart and Teign, London, Simpkin and Marshall, and Cockrem, Torquay, 1832, p 144. pdf

The spring became a part of the growing drinking water system of the town and was still used in the 20th century. But in 1992 the risk of contamination presented by a spring source in a built-up area and the relatively low yield resulted in the closure of the spring. The spring can still be found to the rear of Nutwell Court on the northern side of Milton Street (B3205), between a Western Power Distribution Depot and a private house named Monkswell. But it is located on private land and not open to the public, only a few signs remain. This is actually the second site at Brixham, which is not accessible to the public. We listed it nevertheless because of its great historic importance and its geological uniqueness.