Down from the Piskies – Pelynt’s Nun’s Well, Cornwall

When I first became enchanted with holy wells in the 1980s it was the old engraving of this well which enchanted me the most but it took a few years to get to see it. The mysterious building overshadowed with by a venerable tree. Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary lore of holy wells put it succinctly:

“Its position was, until very lately, to be discovered by the oak and bramble which grew upon its roof. It is entered by a doorway with a stone lintel, and overshadowed by an oak. The front of the well is of a pointed form, and has a rude entrance about 4 feet high, and is spanned above by a single flat stone, which leads into a grotto, with an arched roof The walls on the interior are draped with the luxuriant fronds of spleen-wort) hart’s tongue, and a rich undercovering of liverwort. “

A pin well

Hope (1893) states that:

“In the basin of the well may be found a great number of pins, thrown in by those who have visited it out of curiosity, or to avail themselves of the virtues of its waters. A writer, anxious to know what meaning the peasantry attach to this strange custom, on asking a man at work near the spot, was told that it was done “to get the goodwill of the Piskies,” who after the tribute of a pin not only ceased to mislead them, but rendered fortunate the operations of husbandry.”

When I last visited in the 1990s I could see no pins but the chamber was full of tea candles suggesting regular visitation. The most noticeable feature is its delightfully intricate basin, possibly the most ornate in situ for any British holy well, so much one wonders where it came from. QuillerCouch notes:

At the farther end of the floor is a round granite basin with a deeply moulded brim, ornamented lower and all round its circumference with a series of rings, each enclosing a Greek cross or ball. The water must be supplied from an opening at the back; for none runs into it from the rim, and yet it is always full. If emptied, it soon fills again.”

It may have been from a chapel nearby:

“The well, and a small chapel above it, the remains of which are some indistinct mounds, and a vallum, artificially made, on the north and south sides (occasionally the plough turns some shaped stones and roofing slates), were dedicated to St. Nonnet, or St. Nun, a holy woman said to be the mother of St. David, and the daughter of a Cornish chief. She is also said to have lived and died at Altarnun.”

A warning to the sacrilegious

Perhaps the most fascinating legend associated with the well is about its rather ornate basin. Hope (1893) states that:

“An old farmer (so runs the legend) once set his eyes upon the granite basin and coveted it, for it was no wrong in his eyes to convert the holy font to the base uses of a Pigsty and accordingly he drove his oxen and wain to the gateway above for the purpose of removing it. Taking his beasts to the entrance of the well, he essayed to drag the trough from its ancient bed. For a long time it resisted the efforts of the oxen, but at length they succeeded in starting it, and dragged it slowly up the hillside to where the wain was standing. Here, however, it burst away from the chains which held it, and, rolling back again to the well, made a sharp turn and regained its old positions, where it has remained ever since. Nor will anyone again attempt its removal, seeing that the farmer, who was previously well-to-do in the world, never prospered from that day forward. Some people say, indeed, that retribution overtook him on the spot, the oxen falling dead, and the owner being struck lame and speechless.”

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Hope continues to paint a picture which continues to inflict our holy wells:

“Though the superstitious hinds had spared the well, time and storms of winter had been slowly ruining it. The oak which grew upon its roof had, by its roots, dislodged several stones of the arch, and, swaying about in the wind, had shaken down a large mass of masonry in the interior, and the greater part of the front. On its ruinous condition being made known to the Trelawny family (on whose property it is situated), they ordered the restoration, and the walls were replaced after the original plan.”

And as such it was restored.

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St Nonna’s or Piskie?

Hope (1893) notes that:

“The people of the neighbourhood knew the well by the names St. Ninnie’s, St. Nun’s, and Piskies’ Well. It is probable that the latter is, after all, the older name, and that the guardianship of the spring was usurped at a later period by the saint whose name it occasionally bears. The water was doubtless used for sacramental purposes; yet its mystic properties, if they were ever supposed to be dispensed by the saint, have been again transferred, in the popular belief, to the Piskies.”

Now Piskies are the Cornish version of Pixies and interestingly I noticed the high concentration of midges- were they the Piskies I wonder? Quiller Couch continues:

“Dr. O’Connor tells us that in some parts of Ireland there is a belief that by some of their ceremonies at the patterns, or pilgrimages to wells, the daoini maethe {i.e., fairies) were propitiated. In the basin of St. Nun’s may be found a great number of pins, thrown in by those who avail themselves of the curative qualities of its water, or consult it for intimations of the future. I was curious to know what meaning the. unlettered peasantry attached to this strange but common custom ; and on asking an old man at work near, was told that it was done to get the good-will of the piskies,’ who after the tribute of a pin ceased to mislead them, gave them good health, and made fortunate the operations of husbandry.— T. Q. C.”

Quiller-Couch’s and my visits 100 years apart

This well when visited in July, 1891, was in a very fair state of preservation, though not now used for any particular purpose. A thorn and a nut tree overshadow it, and ivy creeps from between the masonry. Ferns and mosses grow luxuriantly in the interior, where the trough still stands into which were cast pins in former days ; but the surrounding ground was in such a marshy state to make it impossible to approach near enough to examine any carving which may be on it. A woman, on directing us to the spot, smilingly spoke of having visited the well for the purpose of divination in her younger days ; an old man, who stood by, remarked that no one he had ever heard of knew when or why the well was built there, — but that was very possible, — he had heard that people had attempted to move it, with no success.”

My visit in July 1991 found it an enchanting place, obviously the scale shocked me at first as I expected it to be bigger based on the sketch in Hope. The tree which had been overshadowing it was gone and that lost some of the atmosphere. But it still was an enchanting place, especially creeping inside where that old basin remained and there was a feeling of being with the piskies..

Thanks for Carol Ellis for the 2017 photos!

About pixyledpublications

Currently researching calendar customs and folklore of Nottinghamshire

Posted on July 19, 2018, in Cornwall and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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