Holy Wells and Healing Springs of North Wales: Guest Blog post St Gwenfaen’s Well, Anglesey by Ian Taylor of wellhopper.wordpress.com
This month I celebrate 5 years blogging about holy wells and healing springs. So this month to celebrate…I am having a break (!) all the posts this month are guest blogs
Our first guest blog is from a fellow Holy Well Blogger – Ian Taylor with his excellent exploration of holy wells of North Wales. This month he offers a guide to a lesser well known well on the island of Anglesey.
This is coast-trod, the end of known territory. A chance to lift feet but not land them in the place intended. Squall forces eyes back against their brain-lock. The wind whinnies and runs off, dragging trees forward, bounding over gorse. Four choughs chase a peregrine – stiff meet and St Gwenfaen’s church holds a flat palm shape to the wind a warning
Holy Island, Ynys Cybi, lies at the north western corner of Anglesey, separated from the main island by a narrow strait crossed by two bridges. Its name refers back to the religious settlement founded here in the sixth century by St Cybi, the town of Holyhead too still bears his name in its Welsh form, Caergybi.
This was journey’s end for Cybi. A life spent wandering following a pilgrimage to Jerusalem which finally saw him settling on the Llyn peninsula, where he is remembered in the old parish name of Llangybi, the site of a popular well that also bears his name; before being given land by King Maelgwn Gwynedd here on Anglesey where he established his great monastery.
St Peulan features in most medieval accounts of the life of St Cybi, being identified as one of the ten disciples who followed Cybi from his original home in Cornwall, through South Wales and into Ireland before finally arriving in North Wales, a medieval manuscript identifies him as one of the twelve “sailors” who formed Cybi’s family.
It is through Peulan that the story of Gwenfaen as a saint enters the record. A late version of the Bonedd y Saint (ref. Bartrum) identifies Paul Hen from Mannaw, the place name suggesting that he was from the Strathclyde area of Scotland, as being the father of two sons Peulan and Gwyngenau and of a daughter Gwenfaen who were all amongst those who followed Cybi to Anglesey. Although Peulan is identified as one of Cybi’s primary companions, Gwyngenau and Gwenfaen appear more as bit players in the story, suggesting later additions. It is probably noteworthy however that, in addition to Gwenfaen, each of these sons too have had churches dedicated to them and named communities on Holy Island at Llanbeulan and the, now extinct, Capel Gwyngenau.
The implied connection between the three is strengthened by the dates recorded for their feast days. Cybi’s is celebrated on November 5th, Peulan on November 1st or 2nd and Gwenfaen on November 4th or 5th. Although any festival date for Gwyngeneu is not known.
Gwenfaen benefits from a much more colourful legend than her brothers.. It would appear that it is initially a localised, possibly later story, since it isn’t picked up by the lives of the saints stories. We are told that her cell was attacked; some accounts tell us by Druids, others by Vikings, neither would be possible at the time Gwenfaen lived. She fled to the sea, jumped from the cliffs, climbing onto a natural stone column. As the sea rose around her she was in danger of drowning until two angels descended and carried her up to heaven.
The female Welsh saints appear regularly to have led perilous lives; in many cases their sanctity being derived from their ability to preserve their honour against all odds. However the story may retain some memory of the Viking raids of the 9th and 10th centuries, which had a devastating effect on religious and secular communities on Anglesey.
Rhoscolyn, a small scattered community, is towards the southern end of Holy Island close to the air force base at Valley. It centres on its church which is dedicated to St Gwenfaen, a late Victorian reconstruction on the site of an earlier church, destroyed by fire,. The community previously carried her name, having been known as Llanwenfaen, although for several centuries now it has been Rhoscolyn, the column on the moor, in reference to a large Roman stone in the area.
Gwenfaen’s well (Ffynnon Wenfaen) lies on the cliff tops some 1000 yards to the south east of the church. To find it one follows the path running just to to the east of the church towards the coast between several scattered houses, predominantly holiday lets today, as far as the lookout station, and then turning to the right and following the cliff path downwards.
The well is set in a hollow in the landscape and very easily missed even when following the path which runs close by. It is however a complex dry stone built structure in three separate parts. Steps lead down to a smallish paved antechamber with four triangular seats set into the corners. Beyond this a second area contains the small oblong bath, which could have been used for bathing. Water flows out from the structure into another stone lined exterior pool, with steps down to the water on two sides, before being channelled away to a pond down the hillside. There is no indication that any of the sections have ever been roofed.
There is a belief that Gwenfaen’s own cell was situated close to the site of the well, although no evidence for this can be seen or has been found. The site of her original church is probably closer to the existing one, as with the later buildings; Angharad Llwyd notes that:
“The burying ground of the original establishment is still distinguishable by the number of bones that are found whenever the spade or plough are used in that spot.”
Cathrall writing a detailed parish by parish history of Wales in 1828 fails to mention the well. He is admittedly very scathing about traditional customs and beliefs, however he does make mention of six other Anglesey wells, suggesting that Gwenfaen’s may have been of less significance at the time. Neither does it merit a mention in Pennant’s Tour of Wales (1810) or Angharad Llwyd’s History of Anglesey (1833), although she appears to draw mainly on the two former authors for much of her information. From this we might assume that while it may have had some local use, it did not feature on the main antiquarian tourist trail in the 19th century.
Is two quartz stones
And a wish for healing
The well has a reputation for alleviation of depression and for general mental problems. The primary written source for this would appear to be a poem, The Sacred Well of Gwenfaen, Rhoscolyn, written by poet and historian Lewis Morris during the 18th century. His knowledge of the spring and local traditions could not be questioned, he was born on Anglesey and his first wife was from Rhoscolyn. Baring-Gould and Fisher (1907) refer to the text and imply from it that the well may have been used for divination, a common practice at Anglesey wells, though no indication of the form this took is provided.
I haven’t managed to track down a complete copy of the poem; however the Grufydd’s quote the following short section in their book,
“Full oft have I repaired to drink that spring waters which cure diseases of the soul as well as the body and which always prove the only remedy for want of sense.”
Morris seems to be the earliest written source for the tradition of offering two white or quartz pebbles as an offering to Gwenfaen when seeking a cure. This is widely reported today, and one often finds small collections of white stones within the well. We find quartz pebbles as a not uncommon offering at wells across North Wales. In the early medieval period they were said to be associated with water and healing and are recorded as having been offered well into the eighteenth century. At one of the very few Welsh wells subjected to an archaeological excavation, albeit in the 1930s (St Tegla’s Well, Llandegla, Denbighshire) a layer of white stones was found, suggesting a regular practice at this site. (Edwards, 1994) Although such stones do not feature in what is now the widely known complex ritual supposedly practised at that well for the cure of scrofula.
The offering of white pebbles is also explored by Janet Bord (2006), who notes the practice occurring not only in Wales but also in Ireland and the Isle of Man and suggests that it is almost certainly a custom of some antiquity since similar stones have been found within burial mounds and at very early Christian sites.
There has been a suggestion that the white stones and the dedication might be interlinked. It is possible to translate Gwen faen, (or Gwyn faen) as white stone, thus the well might really be called “white stone well” and the history of St Gwenfaen may have been constructed in response to the name. This is not completely unknown in North Wales. On the other hand the white stones might be left in honour the saint’s name. Either might be possible, though since the name Gwenfaen, does enter the record relatively early I suspect the former is unlikely and, given the more widespread use of white pebbles, the latter may be unnecessary.
In a region where every second spring appeared to offer a ready cure for warts or rheumatism, a well that provided relief for the depressed is certainly different. Morris clearly believed in its restorative powers for the mind, writing
Tis thou and thou alone that I invoke to lead my pen
Then grant me that me that small boon
That wit and gentle sense my glow in every line
In such proportion as I’ve drunk thy waters.
Maybe it does have an impact, or maybe it is just the exhilarating walk along windblown cliff tops, towards the end of known territory, to reach it, but certainly a visit to St Gwenfaen’s well rarely fails to lift the spirits.
Ffynnon Wenfaen, Rhoscolyn, Ynys Mon. SH25947534
Clear (for ffynnon Wenfaen) by Suzanne Iuppa. Well Spring, Gwendraeth Press, 2015. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Sacred Well of Gwenfaen, Rhoscolyn by Lewis Morris.
Baring-Gould S and J Fisher (1907) The Lives of the British Saints, London
Bartrum. Peter (1993) A Welsh Classical Dictionary. National Library of Wales.
Bord Janet (2006) Cures and Curses. Heart of Albion
Cathrall. William (1828) The History of North Wales
Edwards.Nancy(1994) Holy Wells in Wales and Early Christian Archaeology. Source, New Series Issue 1.
Grufydd. Eirlys and Ken (1999) Ffynhonnau Cymru, Wesg Carreg Gwalch, Llanrwst.
Llwyd, Angharad (1833) A History of the Island of Mona.,Rhuthun.
Pennant. Thomas (1810) A Tour In Wales
Posted on October 19, 2016, in Anglesey, Folklore, Saints, Well hunting and tagged antiquarian, archeology, Christian, folklore, healing, healing wells, Holy Well, Holy well blog, Holy wells blog, Holy wells healing springs Spas folklore local history antiquarian, Local history, Saints. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.