Monthly Archives: October 2018
This month sees insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.com is 7 a good birthday for sacred spring researchers – look it up@! Also it becomes the platform to host the Source and Living Spring Archive. The Source Archive consists of articles written in the mid 1980s and early 1990s for the Source Journal a short-lived but very influential attempt to bring together research on the topic. with Living Spring an even shorter lived but important online attempt to do the same. The original journal (divided into new and old series) was influenced by the burgeoning earth mysteries movement on the late 70s and early 80s and one of the most prominent exponents was Janet Bord. As is commonly said Janet needs no introduction amongst anyone interested in the space between archaeology and folklore. Janet work in the holy well field includes the Curses and Cures, Holy wells in Britain and the seminal Sacred Waters – a copy of which I myself purchased back in a Truro bookstore in 1985. A purchase which was very influential and lead to the birth of my fascination and research into the area. So it is with great honour that I introduce the first of a Source inspired articles (the next three from similarly influential James Rattue, Mark Valentine the original founder and Tristan Gray-Hulse editor of the new Series)
Anyone who regularly visits holy wells must be aware of how they can differ in appearance and atmosphere. We all know the delight of finding a hidden spring bubbling into a clear pool, tucked away in a forgotten corner of the landscape; and probably we can also all remember wells that are unloved and derelict. Those can often have a charm of their own too, perhaps being in an evocative place, or with enough remaining to suggest what the place was once like. Sadly there are also wells that are in awful locations, and perhaps have also been badly restored; but luckily I can’t remember too many that come into this last category. One that does is St Tewdrig’s Well at Mathern in Monmouthshire (ST52279116), just to the south-west of Chepstow and distressingly close to the M48 motorway. It’s a shame that the well has been so insensitively and over-thoroughly restored, because the area around the church and well has an interesting history.
St Tewdrig was a king and martyr, probably born in the late 6th century. He handed over his kingdom to his son Meurig and lived as a hermit – until an angel appeared to him advising him to go and help Meurig who was in danger of being overrun by his enemies. Despite also being told by the angel that he would die, Tewdrig went to help his son, and the enemies fled on seeing the two men and their army standing on the bank of the River Wye at Tintern. Unfortunately Tewdrig was stuck by a lance thrown by a fleeing soldier, and mortally wounded. He was taken in a cart pulled by stags to a meadow near the River Severn, where a spring began to flow, and there he died and was buried. The place was given the name Merthyr Tewdrig (now Mathern) and a church was built over his grave. The name confirms that this is a genuinely ancient tradition, a ‘merthyr’ being an early Christian martyr’s burial place.
In the early 17th century, Francis Godwin, Bishop of Llandaff, gave orders that a coffin found beneath the church floor was to be repaired, as it was thought to be Tewdrig’s: ‘I discovered his bones, not in the smallest degree changed, though after a period of a thousand years, the skull retained the aperture of a large wound, which appeared as if it had been recently inflicted.’ On his orders, the coffin was reburied in the chancel and a stone tablet put on the wall above, telling the story of St Tewdrig and his death. In 1881 the coffin was rediscovered when repairs were being carried out, and in 1946 an old lady told author Fred Hando that the vicar had taken her into the church when she was a child and showed her a big hole that had been dug in the chancel, and ‘in a stone coffin, she saw the remains of King Tewdrig, with the hole made by the spear-point still visible in his skull.’
The well named for St Tewdrig is to be seen beside the lane just north of Mathern church, immediately south of the motorway. There seems to be no record as to what it looked like before being restored by the Monmouth District Council in 1977. Although they are to be thanked for ensuring the well wasn’t lost, it’s a pity that they decided on this earnest municipal restoration that is completely lacking in atmosphere. With its steep steps leading down between walls to the well below, it puts one in mind of a drinking water well, rather than a place where a saintly king died over a thousand years ago. But… it is impossible to be absolutely sure if this really was the spring which flowed where he died, because I have found no mention of it before 1847, at which time it was called Ffynnon Gor Teyrn. This name may possibly derive from the Welsh word cateyrn, meaning a ‘battle-king’, and is all the evidence we currently have that might confirm this as the saint’s well. But it is very close to the church, and all the evidence we have does suggest that this is indeed St Tewdrig’s well.
Those who are well versed in the subject of holy wells will be aware of James Rattue’s contribution to the subject. His county guides for Kent, Buckinghamshire and Surrey set a high benchmark for such research – including my own – and his magnus opus – The Living Stream: holy wells in historical context (1995) is as it states in one of the intros to his work on the Living Stream ‘the most detailed and rigorous historical study of holy wells yet published in book format’. He was one of the main contributors to both the first or Old Series and New Series as well as the Living Spring Journal.
The establishment of the old Source magazine in 1985 coincided providentially with my own discovery that there were such things as holy wells. At the distance of over thirty years I can’t now remember quite how I found out about it: I have a memory that I made contact with Mark Valentine about his monograph on Northamptonshire wells and he told me the magazine was about to emerge. What I do remember clearly is the excitement the first edition brought as it plopped through the letterbox, an experience repeated with every one of its eight successors spread over the following few years. There were never enough! And the very first article in that initial, blue-covered, number was Jeremy Harte’s survey of holy wells in my native Dorset. Could it be any better?
Before Source my only guide to the sacred springs of my own county (and pretty much everywhere else) was, for all its shortcomings, RC Hope’s Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England. Bournemouth Central Library had a copy and as I turned its pages during one school summer holiday trying not to crumble the edges too much, I wondered how long it had been since anyone looked at it. Hope only lists six wells in Dorset, and of those, one site, the springs near Shaftesbury which were the subject of the annual Byzant ceremony, aren’t really holy wells of any description, while another, the supposed holy spring at Abbotsbury, doesn’t exist at all. Jeremy’s article in Source 1, however, introduced me to the fact that there were lots and lots of these places.
I wanted to visit them, but it would take years before I managed to chase them down, and by then I would realise that even Jeremy’s list was inadequate and that there were over a hundred named springs (if not holy wells, exactly) in Dorset alone. The probable Holy Well of East Stoke I have only just visited, thirty-five years later; I now know that the time I spent uncovering the featureless spring I thought was the well in 1987 or so, sinking in bog over the top of my wellingtons and snagging my jumper on barbed wire, was wasted apart from using up some calories. I couldn’t have visited the Holy Well of Hazelbury Bryan: that was only dug out of the Dorset mud to celebrate the Millennium fifteen years after Jeremy wrote about it.
My own contributions to Source first appeared in issue 5. Most of them were more detailed accounts of wells that Jeremy had mentioned, with the exception of St Andrew’s Well at Bradpole just north of Bridport, and the format of my pieces was heavily influenced by the way John Meyrick had laid out A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Wells of Cornwall a little before, meticulously listing the date a site was visited and its map reference. That was all very well, but later on I began to deface the surface of holy well research, already far from pristine, with a variety of unwonted speculations. My article in Source 6 included ‘All Saints’ Well Hordle’ in Hampshire, presumed to be holy on the grounds of its proximity to an ancient church, a fact which at least I had the grace to admit. Issue 7 described ‘All Saints’ Well Thorney Hill’, a well in the grounds of a chapel I generously described as ‘no more than 250 years old’ (in fact it dates to 1906). It’s a nice feature but no one has ever treated it as a holy well of any kind. There was more wishful thinking in issue 8 when I wrote about ‘St Andrew’s Well Corton Denham’ in Somerset, another spring I’d given a sacred identity due to its being near a church. All these speculations resulted from me adopting completely uncritically the idea that pre-Reformation Christians had, wittingly or not, sited their places of worship on previously sacred locations which preserved an ancient awareness of the mystical power of the earth. I hope nobody now uses my descriptions of these ‘holy wells’ as evidence that they ever existed, at least not without heavy caveats!
By the time Source re-emerged in 1994 under the editorship of Tristan Gray-Hulse it was as sceptical about these ideas as I had become. I now knew far more about the field of holy wells and therefore that it was beyond the scope of any small journal to list every one that might be found in a given area, and as if in sympathy, the new Source didn’t try to do this. Instead it concentrated on focused studies of particular sites or motifs that could illustrate wider themes. Tristan must have solicited a contribution from me before the first edition appeared as it carried a piece I’d written about the Holy Well of Frome, created by a Victorian Anglo-Catholic clergyman; it was followed by a short article on the folly-wells of Stourhead and one speculating on the origin of some wells dedicated to St Swithun in a Yorkshire dialect word meaning something completely different. These were all elements in the history of holy wells in which I’d become increasingly interested as I’d discovered that their story was much more complicated than I originally thought. No longer were holy wells merely taciturn, numinous features in the landscape: I understood more about them and how they had developed, their enormous diversity as well as the way they intersected with other features and historical themes.
It was something of a necessary loss of innocence, I suppose, and Source had followed me in this, until its final appearance in 1998. But in the same way that coming across a really nice well that I’ve never seen before (even through the accounts of someone else) brings a sense of excitement, and re-visiting one of my favourite sites to see what mood it might be in carries a thrill of anticipation – because the well is continually changing – I will always remember with greatest affection the arrival of that first issue of Source, all those years ago.
Mark Valentine was the founder and editor of the first or Old Series of Source. He went on to become an editor of over 40 books and writer of ghost or supernatural stories, and an essayist on book-collecting. numerous articles for Book and Magazine Collector, and his essays on book-collecting, minor writers and related subjects have been collected in Haunted By Books (2015) and A Country Still All Mystery (2017). His short stories have been published in a number of collections and in anthologies.
The inspiration for Source was a hand-duplicated A4 magazine called Wood & Water, edited from Swindon by Hilary Llewellyn-Williams and Tony Padfield, and dedicated to ancient springs and groves. I had found a copy on a visit to Glastonbury, along with a clutch of other fascinating publications, including Caerdroia, devoted to turf mazes (and still going), Pendragon, an Arthurian magazine, Sangraal, about the Mysteries of Britain, and a broadsheet Druid journal printed on deep gold-coloured paper.
The only holy wells I knew about before I found W&W were the Chalice Well at Glastonbury, which had a gentle quiet garden, and St Anne’s Well, Malvern, which had an octagonal cottage which was then a kite shop. I had no idea there were hundreds of other holy wells. But after reading W&W, I at once set about trying to find any holy wells in Northamptonshire, where I lived, and by following up clues in old history and folklore books I soon discovered some. They often had rather splendid names – Old Mother Redcap’s; Puck’s; Priest’s; the Drumming Well (which foretold danger to the nation) – and they were mostly fairly neglected. It felt exciting and mysterious looking into things nobody else seemed to know about, deep in lonely country, so naturally this encouraged me even more.
I was already involved in amateur publishing in various ways, contributing to a punk fanzine, Crash Smash Crack Ring, and a ghost stories journal, Dark Dreams, and editing a literary magazine, the incurable. So it seemed obvious that I should start writing about holy wells. I therefore self-published a booklet, The Holy Wells of Northamptonshire (1984), cataloguing all the references I could find, and reporting on my site visits. I also visited the better-known and slightly better-preserved wells in West Penwith, Cornwall, where I went on holiday, and wrote about some of these for Wood & Water.
After a while, Hilary and Tony decided to widen the magazine’s scope and it became a “radical ecopagan feminist” journal, still very much brimming with inspiration and featuring holy wells alongside these broader themes. (Hilary was later to become a respected published poet, whose work I followed, and highly recommend). However, I thought there might be space still for a magazine just about holy wells, and so I started Source. I asked a few friends for contributions and got similar sorts of antiquities and mysteries magazines to mention what I was up to. My first readers were from the earth mysteries scene because that’s where I was coming from, but soon others got to hear about it who had a background in folklore, saints’ legends, paganism, local history and so on: I tried to keep the magazine as open-minded as possible, including both factual and impressionistic material.
I was delighted and encouraged by the number of people who came forward to help out, providing articles, artwork, publicity, subscriptions. It really seemed as though there was a great network of researchers, custodians and well-wishers out there who had just been waiting for some focal point for all their work: I just needed to be the conduit. I was also cheered when I heard from quite a few people that Source had inspired them to look after their own local holy well. I was also still sufficiently impressionable to be astounded when I got subscriptions and warm words from famous people, as I thought of them, such as the New Age writers John Michell and Rupert Sheldrake and the pagan artist Monica Sjoo.
Though major work had already been done in some parts of the country (eg, Meyrick in Cornwall; Skyring-Walters in Gloucestershire; Francis Jones in Wales) I think we probably published the first surveys of some of the lesser-known counties and areas. It therefore seemed to me that the next step should be to publish full-scale books like those earlier surveys, but I could see it would be hard to edit Source and do this too. I was fortunate to find that a keen reader, Tristan Gray Hulse, was willing to take over the magazine and grstefully handed over. The first of the books I had in mind was, I am afraid, also the last: Yorkshire Holy Wells and Springs (1989) by Edna Whelan and Ian Taylor was a splendid account, informed by Ian’s determined field-work, and accompanied by Edna’s illustrations.
Although I’m not so active in holy wells research and preservation as I was then, I’m pleased to see the way in which these ancient and lovely sacred shrines still inspire deep interest and care. I’m very grateful to Ross for taking on and looking after the Source archive, and I hope it will continue to be of interest to many readers and well-wishers.
In 1994 after a period of absence Source was reborn under the helm of Tristan Gray Hulse and Roy Fry. Under their stewardship Source became more academically minded and in particular focused more on monograms of specific sites which were merticulously researched. Tristan himself due to his monastic background contributing some important pieces as well as questioning some long held folklore views in the subject such as head cults. After source went on to research and write a number of scholarly pieces on saint cults and holy wells including a piece on votive offerings at St Trillo’s well in the folklore journal as well as being involved with St Winifred’s well in Holywell. So it is with great pleasure and a great honour that his unpublished monogram on a north Welsh well – and how Welsh wells doyen Francis Jones could get it wrong – in my celebration of Source.
Immediately to the north of Plas Llandecwyn, on the side of an ancient lane leading uphill towards the church of St Tecwyn, Llandecwyn, Merioneth, a short distance away, is the holy well of St Tecwyn. It is still just as it was described 100 years ago by the Royal Commission Inspecting Officer.
Ffynnon Decwyn … The antiquary Edward Lhuyd, or a correspondent of his, writing about the year 1698, has the note “Fynnon Deckwyn by plas Ll. Deckwyn not far from ye church”.
Near Plas Llandecwyn is a spring which flows into a cavity about 3 feet at the front and 2 feet at the back by a breadth of 21 inches; the water stands in its rock cistern to a depth of 14 inches, and as there is a slight but steady overflow the water is kept sweet. There can be little doubt that this is the well noted by Lhuyd, but the name of Tecwyn is now not connected with it … Visited, 15 August, 1914 (An Inventory 1921, 82, § 214).
The name Ffynnon Decwyn is apparently now in common use for the well once more.
The Inspecting Officer continued his entry by noting
“a spot about 330 yards north-east of the church where is a hole about 21 inches square cut into the rock at the level of the road, water dripping within and overflowing the road”.
This unnamed well also survives much as described, though it is now covered with small rough slabs of stone, for protection. And a few yards south of the lych-gate is another spring, rising at the northern or upper end of what appears to have been a regularly rectangular tank, now choked with water-weeds. It is initially tempting to guess that one or other of these unnamed springs represents a further sacred well claimed for the parish, Ffynnon Fair, listed by Francis Jones in his The Holy Wells of Wales (1954).
Jones, citing Edward Lhwyd in reference, included the well in his list of Ffynhonnau Mair in Merioneth in his gazetteer of Welsh holy wells:
Ff. Fair … 2. ‘By ye Church’ in Llandecwyn parish – Lhuyd Par. ii. 105 (Jones 1954, 191).
However, it turns out that this well is no more than a “ghost”, created by Jones’ trusting but careless reading of Lhwyd in the at-this-point potentially confusing editing of the Parochialia texts by Rupert Morris. As the printed edition stands (Lhwyd Paroch., part 2, 1910), the entry for “Llandekwyn” runs from p. 103 to the foot of p. 106, and notices “Fynnon vair by ye Church” on p. 105 and “Fynnon Deckwyn by plas Ll Deckwyn not far from ye church” on p. 106. The Llandecwyn entry is immediately followed by that for “Mantwrog” (top of p. 107), which, as it stands, consists of only six lines.
But it is clear that a section of this arrangement (from p. 104 line 7 to p. 105 line 30, reproducing pp. 131-133 of the original Lhwyd ms as seen and edited by Morris) has been displaced in the original Lhwyd ms; this section all refers to Maentwrog parish, not to Llandecwyn, and must originally have followed and completed the now minimal Maentwrog entry (at the bottom of original ms p. 137) printed at the top of Lhwyd 1910, p. 107. This restores the original reading, a complete text, of the normal Parochialia format, for Maentwrog immediately following a complete text of familiar format for Llandecwyn (thus, originally: Llandecwyn, ms pp. 129-130, 136-137; Maentwrog, ms pp. foot of p. 137, 131-133).
This explains why the mentions of Ffynnon Decwyn and Ffynnon Fair are separated in the Morris printed text. It also means that “Fynnon vair by ye Church” was in Maentwrog parish, not in Llandecwyn; and that, therefore, there is no mention of a Ffynnon Fair in Llandecwyn parish. The Llandecwyn Ffynnon Fair is an inadvertent creation of Francis Jones, who then duplicates the well by separately noticing the Maentwrog well, from the Royal Commission Inventory for Merioneth:
Ff. Fair … 7. About 80 yards SE of Maentwrog church: it supplied the neighbouring houses – Anc. Mon. Mer. (Jones 1954, 191).
The Maentwrog well still survives, basically as per the Inventory:
Ffynnon Fair … This well is situated on sloping ground about 80 yards south-east of the church, and north of a terrace called Bron Fair. It is now enclosed in a square slate cistern, and [in 1914 still, but no longer] supplies the neighbouring houses (An Inventory 1921, 154, § 498).
Tristan Gray Hulse
25 April 2016
An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire. VI. County of Merioneth, London: HMSO, 1921
Jones, Francis, The Holy Wells of Wales, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1954
Lhwyd, Edward, Parochialia, being a summary of answers to “Parochial Queries in order to a Geographical Dictionary, etc., of Wales”, ed. Rupert H. Morris, part 2, London: The Cambrian Archaeological Association, 1910