Monthly Archives: December 2016
Guest blog post: Holy Wells and Healing Springs of North Wales: Ffynnon Elian, Llanelian… the ‘Cursing’ well? by Jane Beckerman
A great pleasure to have an account of North Wales most infamous well from the person who restored this once lost site, Jane Beckerman. We met briefly last year at last month’s holy well site Ffynonn Sara with Janet Bord and Tristan Grey Hulse and she has kindly provided this account, extracted from her forthcoming book on its history a great way to end our twelve months of North Welsh wells…
Near the small village of Llanelian in North Wales, lies one of the most important holy wells not just in Wales, but the British Isles. She looks very different now but two hundred and fifty years ago, beside the small, old road leading from Colwyn Bay to Llanelian Church, there was a large square wall surrounding an inner well with a lockable door, a fountain, pathways and even a bathing pool. From her untraceable beginnings to the middle of the 19th century, thousands of people visited the well and the nearby church, in order that their wishes might be granted by Saint Elian.
Ffynnon Elian (The holy well of St. Elian) has a long history, but from the beginning of the 18th century to half-way through the 19th, she was both famous and feared for her power to grant destructive wishes, or to ‘curse’. Known far and wide as the ‘Cursing Well’ and reaching the height of her notoriety in the early years of the 19th century, Ffynnon Elian was thought of as the place where it was possible to put a terrifying and successful curse on your enemies. The flood of sensational writing about the well, beginning in the 1780s tells us that people lived in fear and died of fright if they thought, or were told, that they had been ‘put in the well’. Only one of the writers, who visited the well during the period of her greatest notoriety challenged the idea that a holy well would have been used in so overwhelmingly poisonous and destructive a way. This fearsome reputation has continued and until recently has never been challenged.
Recent research shows that the ‘power’ of Ffynnon Elian was a fascinating and complex phenomenon and that the well was used essentially to undo supposed ill-wishing. The power of the well that endured was her reputation for curing the ‘curses’ of everyday life, for exposing wrong-doing and returning property to its rightful owner.
The ‘curses’ of life in North Wales during the years of the Napoleonic Wars, when the ‘cursing’ reputation became established, were many. Enclosure acts took away areas of common land for grazing a few animals and growing small amounts of food; the war with France took men, and their wages, away from homes and families; the weather between 1795 and 1816 was so poor that harvests were ruined or insufficient. Corn prices soared, riots ensued. Industrialisation brought new employment opportunities to North Wales, but new dangers with it. Improved farming methods and machinery brought some relief through better harvests, but there were fewer jobs available and staple crops like oats and barley were being neglected in favour of the ‘new’ crops, potatoes and wheat; less reliable in the uncertain weather of North Wales, and less nourishing.
A report prepared for Thomas Pennant in around 1775, in preparation for his Tours of Wales, contains the account given above of the way Ffynnon Elian looked at that time and also the first account of well’s powers to redress wrong doing. A woman at the beginning of the eighteenth century visited the well with a friend, to find out who had stolen her coverlet, and to ask that the item be returned to her. The two women had come to Ffynnon Elian from Llandegla, 40 miles away, past several other holy wells and places of healing. After visiting the well they both knelt before the altar in the church at Llanelian, a few hundred yards away, to ask for Saint Elian’s blessing. After praying, the petitioner waited outside the church, while her friend was unable to rise from her knees. St Elian refused to let her rise until she had confessed to the theft of the coverlet. Ffynnon Elian at that time was thought of as literally a ‘fountain’ of truth and justice that was not available elsewhere.
Thomas Pennant, a wealthy landowner, and a JP as well as a travel writer, promoted the myth of Ffynnon Elian as a place of malignant ‘cursing’ and wrote that he himself had been threatened. Further reading tells us that he had been astonished to find that other wealthy landowners were not bringing thieves to court because they were scared of being ‘put in the well’ (‘cursed’ at Ffynnon Elian). He reports his dismay that people were ‘stealing turneps’ with no threat of redress. It is difficult to be wholly sympathetic when one realises the circumstances in which people were stealing cattle food, almost certainly to eat themselves. And it points to another way Ffynnon Elian was used; as a way of redressing the very unequal social balance of the time.
Ffynnon Elian helped those who believed themselves or family members to have been ‘cursed’, or wronged, down on their luck, or ill. Depositions from a court case in 1818 described exactly why they went to the well. The depositions also describe what actually happened there. The ancient practice of transformation through water, traceable in Wales to pre-Roman society, and certainly used by the Romans in Wales in the shape of ‘cursing tablets’, impelled people to seek guidance, help and healing, in the absence of other agency, through the intercession of St Elian. A recent article in this blog talks about ‘cursing tablets’. Ffynnon Elian stands near to one of the Roman roads running towards Anglesey. Ritual at the well revealed at the 1818 court case shows that comparison can usefully be made with Roman custom at holy wells.
Ffynnon Elian, like all living things, changed her shape, her looks and her customs over the centuries. Her last, and best-known guardian, Jac Ffynnon Elian, only stopped offering his services in the 1850s. The continuing ‘magic’ of Ffynnon Elian was the deep belief she inspired in her power to transform lives. Jac Ffynnon Elian wrote that a man could be cured by the strength of his own beliefs, or he could suffer because of them. The history of this extraordinary well is testimony to his words.
A complete history of Ffynnon Elian is in preparation
“+In This Place/ Paulinus the bishop/ Baptized/ Three Thousand Northumbrians/ Easter DCXXVII+”
So reads the inscription at one of the country’s most famous and picturesque holy wells…but what is the truth?
The most beautiful fountain….
Taking the lane up from between the houses and the side of the farm, climbing over and stile and into a pastoral landscape, ancient oaks lie to the left and a small babbling brook, moving away at great speed as we follow this the enclosure of the well is ahead of us. Here laying in this peaceful enclosure
Whose well is it?
Three names appear to be attributed to the well – Lady, St Ninian and St Paulinus. Which is the correct one? Certainly the later was current in John Warburton in his 1715 History of Northumberland describes it as:
“Paulinus’ Well, a very beautiful fountain in a square figure, length 42 feet and 21 foot in breadth; wall’d about with a curious stone resembling porfire, paved in the bottome and incompos’d with a grove of trees and at each corner thereof the foundation of a small [illegible]. Out of the well floweth a stream of water very cold, and clear as christall, and if cleaned out would be a most comodious cold bath and perhaps effect several cures without a marvell. At the east end lyeth a stone 3 foot in length and 2 in breadth called the holy stone, said to be the same whereon the forementioned bishop kneeled at his baptising of the heathen English; and was formerly held in great veneration by the gentry of the Roman Catholick religion who oft-times come here on pilgrimage.”
This association with St. Paulinus is easily explained. Although Bede descrived the conversion of 3000 this was misread by John Leland as Sancte Petre (holy stone )but it was Sancti Petri – St Peter’s Minster, York…an easy mistake but one which then enters as fact into Camden’s Britannia and consolidated over and over again! This was further endorsed by as William Chatto (1935) notes:
“a stone figure, intended for Paulinus, which was brought from Alnwick in 1780.”
The name Lady’s Well is also easily explained there was a Benedictine priory of Holystone which was dedicated to the Virgin in the 13th century and either their name was transferred to or else they renamed it. It was probably the former as the a signboard was first seen by a William Chatto seen in 1835 is the first to call it ‘the Lady’s Well’ and it appears on such on the 1866 OS. Hall (1880) calls it ‘St Ninian’s Well’. By the time of Butler (1901–2) all three names were in use, as he says that:
‘the beautiful well at Holystone, known to us as “The Lady’s Well”, described… as“The Well of St Paulinus”, was formerly “St Ninian’s Well”’
When visited by Dixon (1903) it was:
“a spring of beautiful water in a grove of fir trees a little north of the village. The well is a quadrangular basin within a neatly kept enclosure; the key of the gate can be obtained at the Salmon Inn… A stone statue of an ecclesiastic, originally brought from Alnwick castle, formerly stood in the centre of the well, but a few years ago this was removed and placed at the west end of the pool, and a cross of stone bearing the following inscription substituted: “+In This Place/ Paulinus the bishop/ Baptized/ Three Thousand Northumbrians/ Easter DCXXVII+”’.
A sizeable hoard
Hall (1880) notes that:
“At the bottom, visible through the pellucid water, Dr Embeton informs me he has formerly noticed many pins lying.”
Binnall and Dodds (1942–6) found it:
“now a wishing well, into which crooked pins or occasionally pence or halfpence are thrown.”
No pins can be seen in its waters although they would be hidden by the leaves and perhaps the sign which notes:
“don’t damage (sic) the water as it’s the village water supply”
However, beside the saint’s statue laying at his foot is a small hoard of modern coins and so perhaps starts a modern tradition. One wonders what happens to the money? National Trust? Church or local landowner?
All in all despite its duplicity with names and dubious origins sitting in the arbour of trees and peering into that clean beautiful water in this remote location you are divorced from the modern world and its modern problems…and if for that reason only Holystone’s special spring is worthy of a top ten for anyone.
A holy well?
Brighton has two noted sites, although the second strictly speaking should not be on the website and the first is rather confused. The most famed being that of St. Anne’s Well. Its waters were noted as Clifford Musgrave in his 1970 Life in Brighton, From the Earliest Times to the Present notes:
“The waters of the well had some reputation for promoting fruitfulness, local shepherds having observed the remarkable fecundity of the sheep that drank from it, but Dr .Relhan was somewhat sceptical about it having a similar effect with human beings.”
The site is recorded in having a long history, but there does not appear to be any substantial history. As Musgrave (1970) again notes:
“A chalybeate spring known as St Anne’s Well, at the Wick, half a mile west of St. Nicholas’s Church, and now in Hove. Dr Russell is said to have made this primitive little spa more impressive and convenient by having the spring ‘enclosed within a bason.’”
However, this may be a back derived story to support its latter existence as Spa, certainly it was operating in the 1700s but it was until the 1760s that improvements were made and by 1800 a pump room was built over it and a pump house was constructed at the top of the hill in the park. The pump room was improved by a Reverend Thomas Scutt adding a colonnade.
At first the spa was popular a ‘Mrs. Fitzherbert’ visiting in 1830 wrote that:
“….the waters have wonderfully improved my health and strength.”
Indeed a favourable 1882 review in the Brighton Gazette wrote it was:
“one of the finest springs in Europe”.
Sadly, despite these good reviews, the attraction of the sea and the spas distance from it was one of the factors which lead to its decline and closure. The pump house went through several uses and was finally demolished in 1935 as the spring had slowed down. A mock well head considered but finally a circular brick well was constructed upon a circular plinth. The spring or rather some water flows from it, it does not appear to be a chalybeate in nature.
A fake spa!
The other site was the German Spa. This was however, an artificial mineral water spa to capitalise on the fact that St. Ann’s was too far away but there was still a demand. Subsequently, a Frederick Struve, a research chemist from Saxony, invented a machine that reproduced the characteristics of natural mineral water using chemicals. Bizarrely at the Spa, it was claimed that the waters of Karlsbad, Kesselbrunnen in Bad Ems, Marienbad, Bad Pyrmont amongst other continental spas could be obtained. In 1825 Struve opened the pump room of his ‘German Spa’. A building was constructed, which the Brighton Gazette’s Fashionable Chronicle described as:
“The building consists of a large handsome room fifty or sixty feet in length, and of proportionate breadth and height. A fine flight of steps lead to the noble saloon, on which are placed Ionic columns, supporting a portico in the purest Grecian taste. On the side of the Saloon opposite the entrance runs a counter, behind which are ranged cocks that supply different kinds of waters.”
The enterprise was successful, and it had 333 subscribers in the first season, which ran from May to November, and after ten years even King William IV became a patron and such it was renamed Royal German Spa. However, by 1850 the pump room was closed by mineral water was still being made on site from water extracted from a 150 foot well. The company in 1963 moved to a larger building and the spa building became derelict and was largely demolished in the mid-1970s but the neo-classical colonnade of the spa building survives.