Monthly Archives: August 2016

Holy Wells and Healing Springs of North Wales: St. Trillo’s Well and Chapel, Rhos-on-sea

St Trillo’s Well has been on my personal must visits for some time. It is not only a unique site being a chapel enclosing a holy well – a rare survival – its location tucked under a seaside road, a juxtaposition between the seaside houses and the promenade and the sea makes it one of the most unusually situated. It is everyone’s classic view of an ancient chapel, privately arranged and simply adorned and whilst it may not be as old as first assumed it does have its own unique charm.

I was particularly concerned that it may be open. Being a chapel I am always wary that like churches – urban areas and access do not often work. Yet parking above it, now almost hidden by shrubs and the hill itself, the path led to the railed enclosure which was open and walking around I pushed the old wooden door, it yielded and I was in.  As soon as one enters, one is overcome with a feeling of peace. Whatever frivolities gone on outside feel an eon away. As a chapel it is very unusual, being claimed with its room for six chairs, to be the smallest church in Britain. This is no folly but a functional place of worship for the congregation which meet for communion on Friday mornings and those more intermittent visitors who leave votives and prayers. For perhaps uniquely again for a British well, the saint’s intercessions are still asked for via its well.

St Trillo's Chapel and Well, Rhos on Sea (57)

How old?

Many years ago historians thought that the chapel dated from the early medieval, even from the 6th century times of the saint. However, whilst it is very likely that the present structure is built upon this original hermitage it is much more recent. Generally it is thought to date from the 1500s. Francis Jones in his 1954 Holy Wells of Wales notes:

In the Denbighshire parish of Iscoed, a certain Angharad verch [daughter of] David, examined in 1590 before Roger Puleston of Llay, the local Justice of the Peace …resolutely refused to conform “by reason of her conscience.” In answer to further questions concerning her marriage, she declared that the ceremony had taken place last harvest time at a place called Llandrillo Chapel near the sea side in Creuddyn whilst she was on a pilgrimage to St. Drillo’s [sic] well.”

Such a visit suggests a pre-Reformation importance to the site especially as the date, in Harvest, suggests a regular pilgrimage as this was a popular time to go. Thomas Pennant visited the site in the late 1700s and described it as:

“… saw close to the shore the singular little building called St Trillo’s Church. It is oblong, has a window on each side and at the end; a small door; and a vaulted roof paved with round stones instead of being slated. Within is a well. The whole building is surrounded with a stone wall.” 

Clearly what is seen present despite in its ancient appearance is Victorian in nature for in 1892, a letter in Archaeologia Cambrensis by folklorist and cleric Elias Owen (author of Welsh Folk-Lore) described it as :

“I was sorry to find that the vaulted roof had fallen in, that the well inside the chapel was covered over with the debris from the roof, and that the whole structure and its surroundings presented a ruinated and uncared for aspect.”  

This concern was headed and in around 1898 two buttresses were erected to support the seaward side, a cross was inserted into the gable and more importantly a new roof. A stone altar was inserted over the well and stain glasses of Saints Trillo and Elian installed. An account by the Royal Commissioners who visited in 1912 happily describe a better condition, being described as:

“A small building, internally eleven feet nine inches by six feet three inches, standing on the sea shore within reach of the highest spring tides, and sheltering a small spring of clear water which traditionally represents the well of the patron saint of the parish. The building is roughly vaulted, and, according to earlier accounts, the vaulting was effected in the primitive manner of the earliest Christian oratories … It is, however, doubtful if the chapel is not far more modern than it is assumed to be.”

It has remained well looked after ever since, being adopted by the church of Wales who have a rather intimate Eucharist ever Friday at 8 am during the summer.

St Trillo's Chapel and Well, Rhos on Sea (20)St Trillo's Chapel and Well, Rhos on Sea (17)

The Holy well

The first thing to notice is that the well is central to the chapel’s function being positioned in the centre beneath the altar. It is covered by a metal grill and two wooden slats. Upon removal two steps appear, suggesting perhaps that the water was easier lower or else individuals entered it for baptism. Indeed, baptism appears to be the only recorded function for its waters. The water is clear and arises at the foot of the hill being channelled into the well chamber by pipes. It is clear that it was the spring which caused the saint to establish a hermitage here.

Of the well the first post Reformation reference to its powers is made by Evans (1802) who briefly notes

“St. Trillo’s Chapel: inside is a well, formerly much esteemed for the sanative virtues of its waters; it was supposed to have been the constant residence of the saint.”

But despite this and such postulations by Colt Hoare, who visited the well one July in 1801 noted it was:

 “once probably held in high veneration for its miraculous qualities.”

But stated nothing more. Interesting there are no ‘modern’ traditions of the well and it would appear it has become a largely supplementary feature to the chapel’s powers via the intercession of St. Trillo.

Who was St. Trillo?

St Trillo who is shown with fellow local saint St Elian, in two small stained glass windows in the chapel, was the brother of two other saints, Tegai and Llechid and was a monk of Bardsey Island before settling here. He is also saint to have been involved with the Diocese of Bangor Diocese. However, like many 7th century saints little is really known.

St Trillo's Chapel and Well, Rhos on Sea (153)

Why here?

Located as it does seems an unusual place for a holy well perhaps but as Francis Thompson (2008) in his Early Hermit sites and Well Chapels states its location is not that unusual. Indeed, along with cliff races, islands and valleys, it was another ideal location for a hermit to reside. Furthermore, it was a very fortunate place to be, the sea would provide a harvest and even today the rock pools are full of winkles, mussels and edible seaweed. The survival of a medieval fish trap a few yards from the chapel is also significant and may have been the occupants attempt to provide a more substantial harvest by trapping fish. Not only would such a location provide a bumper food supply, fishermen may have provided money in thanksgiving or offerings for a profitable and safe fishing.

Votive offerings

This giving of thanks or asking for the saint to intercede with God is still very much an important role for the chapel. On the altar are a range of curious items, votive gifts of thanks and on a board petitions are regularly attached. Tristan Grey Hulse in his 1995 A Modern Votive deposit at a North Welsh Holy Well for Folklore, Volume 106 recorded the range of requests. The author notes:

“Thus the sudden and spontaneous development of a new religious cult practice at the chapel is a fact of some importance, likely to be of interest to students in a variety of disciplines. I have visited Capel Trillo many times over the past fifteen years, but beyond noticing the odd coin thrown into the holy well, I had never seen the chapel otherwise than described above. But paying a first visit in 1994, on 21 April, I encountered a significant change. There were more flowers than usual, in pots on the window-ledges as well as on the altar. There was a crude but exuberant and colourful painting of St Trillo standing by his well propped against the altar; and the altar-table itself had scraps of paper scattered across it. Each of these contained a handwritten prayer or request for prayer. There were seventeen in all. Intrigued by this unexpected development, I copied the texts.”

Doing further research, he noted:

“The present custom apparently began in the summer of 1992. Arriving as usual one Friday morning to celebrate the Eucharist, the vicar of Llandrillo, Canon E. Glyn Price, found a single piece of paper impaled on a nail sticking out from the wall of the chapel, containing a hand-written prayer. Touched by its contents, he left it there; and the following Friday found that it had been joined by several others. The vicar placed them all on the altar. Since then, the practice has continued uninterruptedly, without any encouragement (or-perhaps significantly discouragement) on the part of the parish clergy.

Now, at any one time there is an average of perhaps thirty votive notes on the altar. Each ex-voto is left for three or four weeks before being removed and reverently destroyed by fire. Originally Canon Price read out each invocation in the course of the weekly Eucharist at the chapel, but eventually the growing numbers rendered this impracticable, and they are now commemorated collectively. The chapel cult has also expanded somewhat, in that offerings of flowers are now left anonymously; and the “folk-art” depiction of St Trillo arrived in the same manner.”

In Hulse’s article he notes that the principal petition was regarding health (19). Interestingly to those prayers which are addressed, these according to Hulse’s survey was overwhelmingly to God (17) compared to the saint (8), although a number were ambiguous in their dedications.

St Trillo's Chapel and Well, Rhos on Sea (142)

The ailments ranged from Insomnia to Cancer, through eye problems, stress, a physical disability or else concerned the well-being of the family whether through reconciliation of its members, improvement of the quality of life or overcoming bereavement, the commonest perhaps reflecting more the age of the votive despositer. One even requested help to learn Welsh! The majority were women.

These votives still cover the altar as can be seen and between the two visits I made they had clearly changed. Now official notelets are produced and pinned to the board beside the altar, these two changed between the visits. Indeed, sitting for just over an hour a steady stream of ‘pilgrims’ can be seen many just curious, others did appear to leave it pleasing to see this most romantic of well chapels still functioning in 21st century Britain.

If you visit only one holy well after reading this blog – make it this one. Easy found and reached (and signed) either by walking along the promenade or driving Marine Parade to Trillo Avenue, Why? For its peace, for its uniqueness, for its feel of the ancient, a connection to the time of hermit saints – or for the fact you can visit this, have an ice cream, do rock pooling and see the oldest puppet show in Britain…what’s not to like!?

A tree, a bird and a holy well: Bisham’s curious Elizabeth’s Well

Elizabeth's Spring, Bisham

Laying on private farm land is one of the most curious holy wells in the country. A well associated with a curious 14th century legend. The earliest account is as a place name Holywellfette in 1534.  Compton (1979) in his work on Bisham Abbey records:

“A spring of water that rose from beneath a chalky hill in a field that for some time took on the name of Holy-well. The site, now being disfigured by the making of a road, is on the left at the foot of Bisham hill, coming from Maidenhead”

Rutherfurd’s 1935 A rationalised miracle in medieval England states:

The well had been associated with the curing of a man who bathed his eyes in the well. Nothing unusual there but the cult that developed obviously concerned the religious authorities. In short it records how in 1385 Bishop Erghum was attempting to prevent ‘pilgrims’ from Marlow and Wycombe visiting a well at Bisham. It is stated:

“to the Bishop of Lincoln urging him to take steps against those commiyting idolatory at the new well near Bustleham.”

What is more unusual is that it was associated with a tame bird who sat on a nest over the well and would not fly away, could be handed and placed offerings in its nest. According to the Bishop they were:

“blinded by the phantasy of diabolical deceit”

The report records in Latin as follows:

Et pro eo quod, ut dicitur, in eodemn fonte, iuxta quem in quodam arbore insuper nidificans quedam duis minibus hominum in nido suo tacta illorum, ut asseritur, non recessit, ymmo quia domestica et satis domita in nido reposita pacifice requievit, lippus quidam vir fantasticus, suos nuper lauans oculos defluentes estu feruido autumpnali* adustos et potu superfiuo plus solito humectantes, oculorum suorum lippitudines frigore aquatico naturaliter operante refrigescere senciebat, hoc nunc reputat pro miraculo multorum erronie credentium ceca lenitas scandalizans; unde modernis temporibus ad fontem eundem tanquam ad locum sanctissimum multi confluunt, et ibidem offerunt et adoran’t. Quorum quidam in nidum dicte auis, vile gizofilacium suis et pullorunm suorum stercoribus maculat-um, es iactant, et nephanda manu prophanas oblaciones turpissima deuotionte reponunt, in sancte matris ecclesie scandalum, fidei catholice preudicium, perniciosum exemplum plurimorum, ac ipsorum sic ut premittitur ydolatrantium grave periculum animarum.”

A rough translation meaning:

“And because, as stated in place, the spring, according to which, moreover, a bird makes its nest in a tree which men touched, as it is asserted, is not gone, but it is enough for domestic and tamed in the nest is laid to rest in peace,

His eyes just wash away the heat of battling autumn dour and drink more than usual superfluous humectants, his eyes rheumy cold the water naturally functioning cold feel, that counts for a miracle now believed by many erroneous blind leniency offending;

Hence, in these modern times to the same source, as many flock to the holy place, and there they must not show adoration. Some said the bird in the nest, which you provide nefarious profane offerings with ugly devotion. This is a scandal of our holy mother church scandal and disastrously prejudice the Catholic faith and is an example of many of them and so that the aforementioned idolatry a grave danger to souls.”

This profane and heathen devotion appears to be more about the bird’s nest and its bird who’s tameness was put down to the holiness of the place. A peculiar cult had thus developed. However, it was possible that the Bishop was wrong in viewing the bird as part of the cult. The leaving of money deposits in the nest was probably because it was a convenient and safe place rather than being ‘for the bird’.

The Bishop had informed them that the coldness of the water was responsible for the cure and the rural dean was ordered to fill in the well and tear up the tree. Excommunication was threatened against anyone who visited the site. This was apparently done, but it is clear at some point the well was uncovered. Presumably the bird flew away.

The cult of Elizabeth I

I have made the connection before between holy wells and Elizabeth I. It is evident that as the populace still needed holy wells, and the move to protestant ideology prevented this. However some wells appeared to have been rededicated to Elizabeth at the height of her cult and thereafter, perhaps allowing legitimate visits. The cult was short lived perhaps as scientific understanding allowed the development of spas. The earliest reference to the site is the John Nichol’s 1788 Progresses and public processions of Queen Elizabeth:

“In this Parish in the fields called the Moors is a well which still bears the name of Queen Elizabeth’s Well, and seems to be the only remembrance left of her frequent visits to the spot.”

In this case local legend states that when she stayed with the Hoby family of Bisham Abbey during her three day stay used the water to bath due to its traditions of healing. This traditions continued until recent as Compton (1979) notes:

 “Local belief in the healing properties of the spring, however, lingered on in the minds of those who, traditionally and by birth, were part of the district. Less than a lifetime ago there were people still living who claimed that application of the water (which broadens into a stream running at the base of Quarry Woods) had relieved some complaint of their eyes or bettered their vision. In 1905 the water, after being analysed, was said to owe any curative effect to suspended gases.”

In search of St Walstan and his holy wells Part three – Bawburgh

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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. Already I have tried to locate the first at Taverham’s and found the restored site at Costessey, now the easiest to find – that at the location of the saint’s shrine church, Bawburgh.

This is the third well of the saint in the English Life but the second in his Latin Life. In St Walstan Confessor, de sancto Walstanus confessore notes:

“The bulls went down from that place with the precious body towards the vill of Bawburgh. When they had come almost to the place where the body now lies buried they made another stop in a certain place, where the love of St. Walstan the divine piety made another spring of wonderful power against fevers and many other infirmities, which is still there today.”

The English Life adds:

“ye other ox staled; a well sprang anon next beyond ye parsonage”.

What is interesting is the use of the word, stalled which may be O.E for ‘come to a halt’ or with one l, staled meaning ‘urinated’! The later perhaps recording a more significant role for the white oxen.

The saint’s body was transferred through a special opening made in the north wall of the church and this arch can still be seen, now blocked up. His shrine was then established in the north transept of the Parish church of St Mary the Virgin, since then known as St Mary and St Walstan, as a separate chapel. The saint was canonised by the diocesan Bishop, who visited the site, with a large procession of priests, and hearing of his holiness:

“The bishop gave an ear and hearkened sore, And allowed him a Saint evermore.”

From this point on the well and especially the saint’s shrine was the goal of pilgrims, first from neighbouring villages, and then from Norwich (along Earlham Green Lane), and then after the news of its powers spread across England from farther afield. In particular farmers would bring their sick animals to the well to have them cured. In fact the well and shrine were so popular that a college of priests were established to control and administer the large numbers of pilgrims.

However, although it was apparently the shrine which was the goal, of the eleven medieval miracles associated with the saint, only two are associated with the holy well. One being that of Swanton’s son and the other of Sir Gregory Lovell. In the former, a man called Swanton had a lame son. Together they prayed to God and St Walston and bathed in the water from the Holy Well. The son recovered and ‘now goeth right up and his health hath’.

Nearby lost settlement of Algarsthorpe appears to have been given as a pitanciary to the Monks of Norwich as a result of the other miracle from the holy well. A Sir. Gregory Lovell who was cured of:

“Great sickness and great bone ache by water from St. Walstan’s Well”

According to the English Life of the saint:

“It happened by means of Walstan and God’s grace, To muse in mind upon a night, A mean make to holy Walstan in that case, For water to his well he sent as tyte, Therewith him washed and also dyte, And remedy readily should have anon, by the grace of God and holy Walston.”

Unfortunately as with most shrines the Reformation had a destructive effect, and the shrine was dismantled, its relics scattered over the fields and lost forever. Sadly his shrine lay in the north side of the church and was destroyed in the purges of Henry VIII and his relics burned. The removal of the chapel meant that the north side had no supporting side and hence a buttress had to be placed there!

Yet despite this wanton destruction, it appears St Walstan’s Well continued to be visited, and even through the Commonwealth period, superstitious farmers would visit the well collecting its healing waters for their sick animals. As Twinch (2015) astutely notes:

“The Bawburgh well is an integral part of the later medieval story but it assumed greater importance post-Reformation, after the tomb and chapel was demolished. The emphasis seems then to revert almost to the pre-1016 era of folk lore and water worship”

This has continued until recent years and even in recent times local farmers believe in its livestock curing properties. In 1928 the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological society during an excursion to Bawburgh were told by the Revd Gabriel Young of the story of a local farmer and churchwarden, who had recently died, called Mr. James Sparrow of Church Farm who had a sick mare. The mare was so inflicted with sores that he had to have her put down, at which point a farm boy asked if he could treat her with the well’s water. This is apparently he did and after 10 days of the treatment was cured. The farmer apparently put its powers down to chemical or vegetable substances, rather than miracles, although no chemical analysis has been able to identify these.

This revival in the importance of St Walstan’s Well can be traced back to the 1790s when an anonymous letter on the subject of wells and baths in the September of Gentlemen’s Magazine:

“My business has very lately obliged me to make a tour through this country, at all the market towns and even at every village I stopt at, I was informed of its wonderful efficacy in curing all disorders. The resort to this spring has been very great all this summer. I was assured by a person who was on the spot, that there were frequently 2000 people there at a time, particularly on Sunday mornings; and that the spring was frequently emptied, not so much by the quantity drank on the spot, as what was put into bottles, casks, and barrels, to be transported to the remotest parts of the county.”

As Twinch (1995) notes 2000 people is a lot to assemble around the well, and hence there is doubt in this description. However Husbenbeth (1859) wrote recording around the end of the 18th Century partly collaborating this:

“An old man died not long ago at Babur, who was known to the writer, and in his younger days kept an inn there, which was frequently by crowds of visitors to St Walstan’s Well.”

The Norwich Gazette noted that these crowds often resulted in trouble, and in 1763 it reported that: ‘much confusion ensued …..and many heads were broken in the scuffle.’

Its water was so pure that it was sold in the streets of Norwich. However religious pilgrims only begun to return en masse to the well in the 19th Century. This appeared to be the result of a number of miracles associated with the distribution of its water. The earliest recorded of these involved a Francis Bunn. In 1810 he had joining the militia, but was within five years discharged suffering from ‘incurable ulcers.’ Hearing St Walstan’s well in 1818 after moving to live at Costessey, he walked the three miles to the well to apply the water to his leg. Remarkably his wounds were healed and Husenbeth recorded that they continued to heal up to Bunn’s death in November 1856. The next miracle involved Sister St John Chrysostom, of the Hammersmith Convent. She fell ill in 1838, and was so close to death that the Mother Abbess suggested that she should seek a cure through the moss of St Walstan’s Well. However she disagreed and preferred to put her faith in the healing power of her medallion of the Virgin Mother. Incredibly it is said that as she held this medal to her stomach it was heard to say: ‘drink some water poured from the moss from St Walstan’s Well.’ Taking this as good advice she did so at once, and upon swallowing this moss exclaimed that she was cured!

In 1868, A Revd Benjamin Armstrong noted that one of his five Roman Catholic parishioners had taken some of the moss and:

“applying it to a bad sore overnight, she found it completely healed in the morning, leaving a scar, as from an old wound.”

An account in the Eastern Daily Press of 1913 dubbed it A Norfolk Lourdes and recorded the cure of a London Catholic who had been suffering from eye troubles for some time. It is reported that he saw a number of specialists and was told than the man was likely to loss his sight altogether. The apparently the man remembered the moss he had taken from the well the year before, applied it to his eye using the well’s water. The following day his eye sight was restored. The doctor pronounced him cured. He is said to be determined to join 300 other Catholics from congregations in Norwich, Costessey and Wymondham to give thanks.