Monthly Archives: June 2016
At this site alone one can see how vital the holy well was for the community and how much wealth it could generate. Indeed, the name a quite difficult to pronounce Llanrhaeadr-yng-Nghinmeirch is related to the well or rather the waterfall it produces beside the church (Llan).
Before visiting the well, I recommend a visit to the church. A grand and imposing edifice with a splendid roof and its chief treasure – its Jesse Window – why? This is because it was said to have been paid for from offerings from the well. Fortunately, it was removed and was buried at the time of the Commonwealth and thus was preserved.
From behind the church an archway leads over a stream and through a woodland towards this mighty of all Welsh holy wells. The route has been considerably improved with fine brick arches, giving an idea of the grandeur of this site. Once there it does not disappoint being a large bath structure. A considerably flow of water arises here clear and clean from two springs one possibly called Fynnon Fair. Indeed, the 16th century Leland antiquarian noted it was:
“a mighty spring that maketh a brook running scant a mile”
The water fills a large bath stone lined bath, said to have a marble bottom and under an archway tumbling to form the stream. The water appears to be petrifying forming interesting smooth incrustations to the north-west of the bath and entering the pool.
The well had a long history of use. It had become established along the Medieval pilgrim route to Holywell and was said to have cured a number of ills. Unlike other sites its fame and attendance continued well beyond the Reformation. Francis Jones (1955) in his Holy Wells of Wales that in the 16th century an unnamed bard defends the saint and his well stating he reveres Dyfnog’s effigy, accepts his miracles, praises his miracle-working well and gives grace to all nations and cures all ills – dumbmess, deafness, y frech wenwynig. later Edward Lhuyd 1698 Parochialia records its survival of use:
“a bath, much frequented, the water heals scabs, itches etc, some say that it would cure the pox.”
A hermit’s penance!
St. Dyfnog was a hermit who is said to have lived by the spring in the 6th century. It is also claimed that the spring gained its healing properties from a regular penance the saint would do in the water. He is said to have worn a hair shirt being belted by an iron chain. Very little is known beyond this.
Two wells for the price of one
The considerable flow which in times of heavy rainfall is often a threat to the fabric of the well, in particular the remains of the arches through which the water tumbles and falls. One of the reasons for this is that as Lhuyd in 1698 records there are actually two wells. Unsurprisingly, the one above the main spring is called Ffynnon Fair (St. Mary’s Well) which flows forming some curious calcified hummocks suggesting it has petrifying properties.
Holy well or folly?
The most impressive feature of the well is the very large rectangular bath (xxx ) A structure which is far more representative of a cold plunge bath than a holy well. Together with accounts of its marble lining and surrounding statues this was clearly developed foremost as a folly it would seem presumable for Llanrhaeadr Hall.
Alternatively these were improvements to help visitors as Browne Willis in the early 18th century records:
“the famous well of St Dyfnog, much resorted to, and on that account provided with all convenience of rooms etc, for bathing, built around it.”
All sadly gone, although the remains of the walls of these may be traced nearby. However, despite the forlorn appearance of this well it is one of the few sites where this is active restoration, although the blog has not been updated since 2013, a visit in 2015 suggestions the plan to restore is still very much on the books, with plans for a £300,000 religious tourist attraction, environmental and education facility – the well now has a separate visitors book in the church! So please donate if you can to this most impressive and evocative of Welsh wells.
2016 is a 1000 years since the death of St. Walstan. Now he may not be a very familiar saint and one that you may not think is readily associated with holy wells, however he is. Furthermore, he is unusually associated with three holy wells, in an area not always readily associated with such sites- East Anglia – which in itself is a rare occurrence. Not only that, however, unlike other multiple applications these wells are said to have a direct connection with the saint’s life and death.
Who is St. Walstan?
St Walstan was according to most accounts an Anglo-Saxon prince, the son of Blida and Benedict. Most accounts place his birth at Bawburgh (more of this place later) and his life appeared restricted to the west of Norwich. Despite being a royal he forsook the crown and all its privileges to become a simple farm labourer, giving whatever wealth he had to help the poor. After his death a localised cult developed, which grew and grew and in a way outlived the Reformation, as a saint for farmers and animals.
Three holy wells
In 2016 I decided to seek each of these wells and follow as close as possible the journey that St. Walstan is said to have made which resulted in these springs – Taverham, Costesssey and Bawburgh. Sadly, Taverham’s St. Walstan’s Well is lost…but that does not stop me looking for it!
The search for Taverham’s well
This first spring arose at the place of his death. The saint was said to have had a vision of angels and died soon after, a local priest wishing to wash his body searched in vain for water. Interestingly, his Latin Life fails to mention it but the History of St Walstan records according to Father Husenbeth (1859) its author:
“There lacked liquor to God they did pray, a well in that place sprang verment.”
As stated the exact location of this well has been a matter of conjecture. Let me look at each suggestion
Suggestion one: ‘Walstanhans’ plantation
This is said to be copse below the church and thus close to the crossing, now presumably the bridge. Credence is also given to the fact that in 1859 it was sated that a well still existed there. This location was perhaps synonymous with that named in 17th century terriers as Walstan Wong. They place it at TG 1630 1410, north the church along Nightingale drive. The area is urbanised so no evidence can be found there.
Suggestion two: Walsingham Plantation
However, it is interesting to note that on the current OS there is a Walsingham Plantation, are these the same and has consonantal drift over the centuries? There is no well or spring now marked here and presumably any one would have been lost when the area was afforested. Support to this being a location is perhaps that there is another Walstan wood noted in the nearby parish of Ringland. Are they connected?
Suggestion three: Spring Wood
Sounds convincing and especially now this wood is not far from the village sign which shows the saint with his scythe. The wood that exists is probably much smaller than the original one and the name suggestions that derives from the spring of St. Walstan’s Well. However, I surveyed the site and I believe I can quickly dismiss it as a site as a possibility. All the trees appear to be the same age and there is no ancient forest indicator species. Why is this important? This would suggest that the ‘spring’ is from the 18th century term for an afforested area not a water source.
Suggestion four: Breck Farm
I stated my search near the farm said to be built upon the farm where St. Walstan died, that is Breck Farm. Norgate (1969) in his A history of Taverham refers to in an old lease book as:
“..laying between Langwongs Furlong on the part of the south and the land of Mary Branthwayt north, and abutting a way leading from Taverham to Crostwick.”
This would make it approximate to Breck Farm, which is believed to be near the site of Walstan’s Nagla farm, where he died, although no exact location has been determined. Whilst there a survey of the area does reveal a small water source forming a relatively deep brook channel, a field distance from the farm and beside a footpath at TG 168 150. The water could equally be a field drain, however the oval depression is too overgrown to reveal anything.
Interestingly, Carol Twinch in her 2015 St. Walstan the third search informs us that carvings of figures in clerical dress knealing before a female figure, presumably the Virgin Mary have been found in the nearby Attlebridge/Morton on the Hill area. In 1813 the head of a processional cross was found ‘on the Walsingham Way, by Attebridge. A hermitage and possibly chapel are said to have existed at Attelbridge.
To my mind this seemed the most plausible site, but perhaps one day an old map will appear which will settle the matter. From this spring, St. Walstan’s body would be ceremonially carried by two white oxen to his final resting place. After considering the sites and resting a moment at Taverham’s typical round tower church of St, Edmund, I crossed the Wensum river like St Walstan did and one my way to the second spring.
From the forthcoming Holy Wells and healing springs of Norfolk
For more information on St. Walstan refer to Carol Twinch’s excellent triology of works 1995 In Search of St. Walstan, 2011 Saint with the silver shoes and 2015 St Walstan the Third Search
A recent revisit to a holy well in Yorkshire prompted me to write this piece. About 10 years ago I started doing a survey of holy wells of East Riding and subsequently wrote this post. One of the wells was St. Helen’s Well, South Cave, then a simple wellhead surrounded by old stones with a channel meandering to a lake below. A bit overgrown and hidden but quite naturalistic. I retuned this year to see that the well had changed to a wishing well! As you may well gather I visit a lot of holy well and healing well sites, and the degree of condition varies – some are boggy holes, and may have always been so, others are medieval marvels and remain so, others remain unrestored at least since the last time and some have recently seen the hand of a restoring. And here lies an issue. A problem. Don’t get me wrong as a historian a restored well is a preserved well. However there a number of ‘restorations’ which boarder on architectural, some might say spiritual, vandalism and it’s important to get it right. So here are my top ten tips to restoring a well properly. Some helpful tips
1. Do your research. Many sites have recorded histories and some even have descriptions or old prints and photos, in most cases try to aim to imitate these. Ask local history groups or knowledgeable local people. Ask the church, if a holy well. And of course make sure you’ve included the land owner. Any research of course will allow you to do a sign and a sign always suggests to me a place well thought of and look after.
2. Ask around for advice professional can be found here http://www.scwater.co.uk/wells.html but there are groups who have restored holy wells such as http://stdyfnogswell.blogspot.co.uk/ and http://wellobsessed.com/st-agnes-holy-well-cothelstone, local archaeological groups are also worth contacting.
3. Look at the surrounding landscape. Does what you design fit in or sympathetic? Some designs would stick out like a sore thumb others look more naturally suitable. Of course the original builders of these wells probably didn’t consider this but somehow many appear to fit in or rather we have got used to them perhaps. However, often Okcum’s razor should prevail, but of course this is why we often find the wishing well structures and that’s what I’d like to avoid.
4. Practicalities -water flow. This can be the most problematic. Ever tried building a wall in a pond? You need to find the source first and then temporarily conduit away. Again these might help http://www.scwater.co.uk/wells.html
5. Reuse, reuse, reuse, if possible use original fabric it might be lying around, if not use similar from a reclaim yard. A good example was the Holy Well at Kings Newton. It will look more in keeping and maybe cheaper. New materials may of course be longer lasting which is why understandably many restorations are done with new materials and sometimes they may not be the option, St. John’s Well Bisley, Surrey was very sympathetically repaired in my opinion – although it’s previous manifestation was atrocious!
6. Consider usage. Just because no one in the village uses the water does not mean it’s not used. For centuries travellers used springs and presumably still do. Don’t lock away the water without thinking about providing access having an outflow pipe for sampling the water. Again look at St. John’s Well Bisley, Surrey. Even if it’s not used a flow of water from a springhead, this is something there should be, it can feel a bit sterile without one.
7. Have the water tested – advice on http://www.wellowner.org/water-quality/water-testing/- Always a good idea, although many people ignore the signage
8. Apply for funds. Where to look? These perhaps http://heritagehelp.org.uk/conserving/funding-advice1, http://www.theheritagealliance.org.uk/fundingdirectory/main/fundinghome.php or https://www.historicengland.org.uk/services-skills/grants/other-grants/ Some good advice here as well https://www.historicengland.org.uk/services-skills/grants/tips/
9. Once you’ve done – or perhaps whilst you are and before -publicise – local press generally are interested, but of course there’s a whole cyber world out there interested – Facebook and of course bloggers like me.
10. Have an opening event. You may wish to involve the church and do a rededication or blessing, always best to involve if it’s a holy well you are restoring. Maybe think about introducing some sort community event, a well dressing perhaps, get local children, morris men (and women) and local history groups there. Make a big thing of it. That will also increase press coverage. Make a sign to it, information board, it might all add money but it increases it’s importance.
Whatever you do please feel free to contact me on this blog and the links on the side such as the appropriate Facebook sites…Good luck!