Monthly Archives: May 2016

Holy Wells and Healing Springs of North Wales: St Beuno’s Well, Clynnog Fawr

Compared to Tremeirchion the provenance for St. Beuno’s Well at the fascinating Clynnog Fawr is much better. After following King Cadwallon from Holywell to Caernarvon, he was offered land here by his cousin Gwyyddaint after a falling out with the King! It is said that this was his final resting place, where he built his last cell, a chapel said to have been located at the site of the church. Thus in the seventh century a monastery was established which was destroyed in a 10th century Viking raid. Nothing is left from this period the present Chapel and church dating from the sixteenth century but excavations within have revealed earlier buildings.St Beuno's Well, church and chapel Clynnog Fawr (69)

A substantial well

St Beuno’s Well is of a style commonly met – a quite substantial well. The spring arises to fill a large rectangular bath surrounded by stone seats. The whole enclosure being walled around and raised above the roadway presumably to prevent animals reaching it and soiling it. Although the main road now thankfully bypasses the village and the well, the roadway was and still is, the pilgrim route down the Lleyn peninsular to the sacred isle of Bardsey beyond (a fact emphasised by the presence of a stamp collection for pilgrims)

A healing well

Here we come across a more confirmed usage of the well. This was mainly for children suffering from epilepsy and rickets for also conversely was linked to curing impotency. Scrapings from the pillars in the church were mixed with the water to cure sore eyes. An even more fascinating the tradition was that the bather would then visit St. Beuno’s chapel and laid on a bed of rushes upon a stone called Beuno’s tomb. A good night’s sleep procured a cure. I was denied even an attempt at this as the Chapel a unique side chapel reached by a small walkway was locked! However, I am not sure how good my cure would be as the stone itself was only a fragment of its original being removed in 1856. The practice itself was still being undertaken long after the reformation as accounted for by Thomas Pennant:

“and I myself once saw on it (the tomb) a feather bed on which a poor paralytic from Merioneddshire had lain the whole night after undergoing the same ceremony.”

St Beuno's Well, church and chapel Clynnog Fawr (66)

A pagan tradition?

What has been related so far is strongly suggestive of some long lost pre-Christian tradition. Indeed today by the door is a large sarsen stone possibly part as perhaps Beuno’s stone, of a megalithic monument. What is even more curious is the tradition of St Beuno’s cattle. These were cattle with ear markings which were slaughtered and offered to the saint to ensure well-being of the stock. This was later replaced by monetary offerings based on the sale of livestock and the chest, Beuno’s cyff, remains within the church. The money being used for the poor. The ‘sacrifice’ of stock is clearly very resonant of pre-Christian practises and perhaps the area was dedicated to a deity visited for such wishes.

St Beuno's Well, church and chapel Clynnog Fawr (2) St Beuno's Well, church and chapel Clynnog Fawr (26)

Guest blog post: Holy Wells of Cumbria a personal journey by Father John Musthers

Very honoured this month to have a guest blog article by Father John Musthers, author of a new book on Cumbrian holy wells – a poorly studied area – his book will be reviewed here Below is a brief biography

After a full life of Christian service, Fr John moved to Keswick, from the south coast, with his wife Jenny in 2007. They immediately found enough people to start an Orthodox parish and he was ordained priest in 2008. The parish serves the whole of Cumbria and beyond and was granted the use of Braithwaite Methodist Church in 2009. There is an Orthodox liturgy in English every Sunday at 10.30 followed by food and time together for much of the afternoon. We welcome young families and children. The parish is thriving and is becoming known for its energy, warmth, and welcome. Fr John is a keen observer of the continuity between the early church in the British Isles and coming of Orthodoxy to Britain again in recent times. His passion is the traditon of lived holiness down the ages. He has written a book about the saints and their relevance today. He has extensively explored ancient Christian sites in the UK and Ireland. His latest interest has been the Holy Wels of North Cumbria.

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My introduction to holy wells came about in Ireland. I had some free time over there so I went to look for holy sites. This was a jaw dropping experience to find much of Ireland’s rich heritage of monasteries, churches, holy wells and more. With my wife we journeyed all over, in time visiting most of Ireland twice. Ireland is reputed to have had 3000 wells. We saw many big ones, little ones, nice ones, and spooky ones. My favourite is at Kyle in Co Tipperary. It is well off the beaten track. You have to negotiate a bull, water that bubbles, trees with clouties, and under the trees many crosses from a mysterious unknown monastery.

Back home in Cumbria we started to notice wells until it got to the point where we knew of at least 70 – many more than earlier tallies. So we felt people ought to know. We have published ‘Springs of Living Water’, in paperback and hardback. The hardback came out expensive, but I believe it to be a gem.

St Helen’s, Great Asby, is the well with the best flow of water. St Michael’s, Arthuret, is a big well and a very old one. St Andrews, Kirkandrewes, (on the front cover) has outlived its church but still makes a pretty flow of water by the footpath down past the churchyard. The most popular of wells is lkely to be that at Caldbeck on the riverbank behind the church.

I always like to find those difficult to discover: St Michael’s, once of Addingham, now in Lazonby, has to be another favourite with loads of atmosphere underneath trees, rather like Powdonnet well in Morland; St Catherines in a remote spot near Boot in Eskdale; the well at Staffield is little known, hidden away in the middle of a very very large field. In this category also must come the well in the bottom of Schawk quarry which had a history going back to Roman times. Many places have lost their wells and are known only by name: but there is one almost perfect well – Grange Hall in Great Asby with its canopy still in place.

What’s it all about? We don’t get very far without facing the deeper questions. Where do they come from? What are they for? Where do we come in the scale of history? It is a wise man who does not jump in too quickly to answer these questions. But here are some thoughts and reflections.

Human beings have to drink and wash from time to time. Our ancestors valued wells, streams and rivers because of this practical need of water. But such is the ‘magic’ of water they, like us, reflected on the matter and noticed how some wells had something more: a sense of mystery, a sense of awe, a sense of the ‘holy’. We need not doubt this for we can feel it too. In this context the leaving of a gift is a natural thing to do. We all have our explanations. We do not have to be condescending. We only need to sit at Castlerigg Stone Circle in Keswick to realise this magnificent piece of work is a testimony to man’s consumng search for the spiritual, the divine, for ‘God’.

Kneeling by the pool of water at Kyle we become aware of the bubbles coming up through the limestone. Instantly comes to mind the cripple at the Pool of Siloam who, when the pool was disturbed, could get no one to take him to the water. Here was a connection across 2000 years, between an event in Jerusalem to a moment in Kyle, of revelation, of meaning, of healing, if you believe it. Could not the Celt have made the same connection?

Would he not believe he had found a greater salvation?


St Michael’s Well Copyright John Musthers

Just up the road from our house is Crosthwaite parish church. Here, in a likely tale told by an Englishman called Bede, about the itinerant bishop St Kentigern (I prefer the more intimate name of Mungo, ‘my dear one’) who placed his cross in a clearing and began to speak. From all accounts (as shown in the contemporary Life of St Cuthbert) there were many in those days who were thirsty. They went down into the pool, or stream or river and were baptised. Seek out the old British churches, of which there are several in north Cumbria, and look for the water. I guarantee you will find it.

Arthuret after clean

Arthurlet Holy Well copyright J.Musthers

The water was blessed, the water was used again and again. The faithful built little churches by the spot or even over it. They remembered the day when the Saint had visited them. They remembered the name of Christ and the name of the Trinity, though in some places it didn’t catch on and people went on in their old convictions. The Christian felt connected to the saint even when, as they believed, he went from them and was alive with Christ in heaven; and they found he still prayed for them.

Christ, the Church, the saints, the wells and baptism were the foundation of a new culture. Holy Wells flourished and abounded. If we go anywhere in Wales or Cornwall we will be astonished by their number. The large wall map on my wall of Cumbria tells the same story.

10 Grange Hall

Grange Hall Holy Well copyright J.Musther

As we all know they came under attack, many were destroyed, left to neglect. For a long time people remembered the old places. They still went on the Saints days to trade their wares, to enjoy the entertainments and went home grateful for another ‘holi-day’ temporarily lifting the heavy burden of life long ago.

Some wells got a new lease of life by the Spas when the cultured ‘took the waters’. Cumbria has many of them. Now people go to them for a nice weekend, and the well is, if anything, just a curiosity.

Our church in Braithwaite has started to bless the waters again; and new believers plunge into the cold waters of the beck. We have a large container of blessed water inside the church for use on local saints days, of St Bega, St Mungo, St Cuthbert and St Herbert. We also bless our homes with the water.

In effect, we have made a new holy well!

It can be purchased now follow the link

Springs of Living Waters

A Northamptonshire field trip – the holy and ancient wells of Boughton

Grotto Well Boughton (10)

Boughton is a curious place, a place of desolation and decline…it’s ancient parish church lies ruined, now a distance from its settlement, its famed fair forgotten, its great Hall gone and its estate overgrown and little visited. It is a settlement which is associated with a number of noted ancient wells –two of which can be visited and one as yet mysteriously untraceable.

The easier to find is that at the ruined church of St John’s. Called St John’s Well it lies in its shadow creating a picturesque scene of forlornness. Despite a supposed medieval origin, the church is first recorded in the 13th century, its first mention is by Baker (1822–30) in his History of Northamptonshire:

“St John the Baptist, whose name is appended both to the church and the spring in the church yard.”

In William Whellan’s 1849 History of Northamptonshire states:

St John’s spring which rises from the east bank of the church yard formerly furnished the element for the holy rite of baptism, but now supplies the water for culinary purposes at the fair’”

This fair was what the settlement was famed for. Being a three-day chartered event being established in 1351. It was focused around the feast of St John the Baptist suggesting it was based on the patronal festival of the now ruined church. Nothing is left of the fair, its last vestige, the Shepherd’s Race turf maze cut on a triangular piece of church overlooked by the church, survived to the first world war when practice trenches were cut across it, obliterating in once and for all, although some accounts suggest it survived until 1946.

Holy Well and St John's church ruins Boughton (24) Holy Well and St John's church ruins Boughton (32)

Beeby Thompson (1913–14) in his Peculiarities of Water and wells describes it as:

“enclosed on all sides but one by stone local sandstone apparently like the main portion of the church the opening to the east being approximately one yard square. The covering slab had on it a cross fleury.”

This covering slab I have never been able to find, perhaps the earth has built up too much since, yet it was pleasing to see that on a recent visit the site had even improved since my first in the 1980s, when the nettles and bramble were virtually enclosed upon it and the church. This was certainly the experience of Mark Valentine who in his 1985 Holy Wells of Northamptonshire noted:

“When I last visited this site, the Spring trickled into a ditch which was chocked up with abandoned refuse. With a little imagination, this spot could be the scene of a wayside park, with appropriate displays to recall its past glories. As it is, it remains tumbledown and forlorn.”

Perhaps they heeded his word? Now the grass it kept short and the water flows quite freely the outflow protected by a curb of stones. While it is not exactly a country park, there are information boards and it is more cared for. Yet despite the tidy up there’s still a rather otherworldy feel when one peers inside the chamber and the place does have an unquiet feeling – perhaps because of the ghost of Captain Slash! (but that is another story)

Holy Well and St John's church ruins Boughton (12)


Even more otherworldly is the Grotto Well or Petrifying Spring, a spring which arises within a simple Grade II listed Grotto in the estate of Boughton Hall. Although grotto is perhaps a rather too enticing name for what is basically a limestone rubble hemisphere beneath an earth mound and consisting of unadorned stone walls. The whole structure interestingly seems devoid of cement or mortar. It was constructed by William Wentworth, the second Earl of Stratford around 1770. The spring itself being the supply for his artificial lake which lay at the bottom of the valley.

However he could have improved upon an earlier structure for a local A local legend tells that when Charles I was imprisoned at nearby Holdenby House in 1647 he visited the spring. He is said to have bathed in it and used the grotto as a changing room. This suggests that there was a structure predating the 1770s one ascribed to it. Indeed this association may have started when the King was sent a skull said to have been petrified in the waters of the well. The Northamptonshire Mercury of 25th August 1810 records:

“At Boughton is a spring, conceived to turn wood into stone. The truth is that it doth encrust anything with stone. I’ve seen a skull bought thence to Sydney Sussex College in Cambridge, candied over with stone…The skull was sent for by King Charles the First to satisfy his curiosity and again returned to the college.” 

Although it was indeed loaned to Charles I and according to a letter written by the college to the author Simon Scott to The Follies of Boughton Park it still survives. It is housed in a wooden box dated 1627. However before head cult theorists get too excited the origins of the skull are dubious. The skull of what appears to be a child’s, are Cretian not Northamptonshire! Was it a hoax to support a project to advertise the well or a simple mistake. Is it the correct skull? Is the association with Charles correct or is it a confusion with the bathing legend. All in all it is a confused story.

Grotto Well Boughton (6)

Charles Kimbell in 1946 in the Boughton Parish magazine wrote that:

“The spring cascaded into a gloomy pond whose waters were black through layers of decomposing leafage…about 50 years ago my father made a water pit under the archway and piped the stream out of the little wood and down the valley. And so the petrifying spring was incorporated into the village xx system without apparently any ill effects on consumers.”

Our third and final peculiar water source, to quote Beeby’s phrase, was the Marvel-Sick. The account by topographer John Morton (1712) Natural history of Northamptonshire recording:

“THIS spring is in Boughton Field, near Brampton Bridge, near the Kingsthorpe Road; it is of great note with the common people. It never runs but in mighty gluts of wet, and whenever it does so, it is thought ominous by the country people, who consider these breakings out of the spring to foretell dearth, the death of some great person, or very troublesome times.”

This is a common folk motif based on geology, a woe water, the name sick referring to an old English word for stream still current in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire place names. Where was this stream? It is impossible to say with any certainty however Brampton Bridge to the west can still be found and the road which crosses it does go to Kingsthorpe. No spring is marked on the map but there area does have a number of streams. Is this one? Of course in a way this a spring we don’t want to find, warn as it does of war…another word of warning should you go looking for Boughton’s surviving springs don’t go in high summer…as your journey to find the grotto well will involve a considerable fight against the undergrowth.