Gumfreston Wells by Gina Silverman Source New Series No 3 Spring 1995

Background information

The 12th century church of St Lawrence, Gumfreston (Pembrokeshire/Dyfed) lies off the road to Tenby to Sageston. In its churchyard three springs rise to form a stream that flows out through a ‘bridge’ in the churchyard wall. Although well-known and historically recorded in the past, Gumfreston Wells had become a local ‘secret’ that was in danger of being forgotten as the generations moved on.

It was in 1992 that my husband Trevor and I walked down the quiet lane to find the ancient church nestling in the woods and fields around it. It seemed an odd place to build a church, halfway down a hill, with no nearby houses. We knew nothing then, of course, about the history of Gumfreston. Walking through the churchyard gate was like walking into another time, into an almost awesome sense of peace, and for us, welcome. I really surprised myself by thinking ‘This is a place of healing’.

Sometimes people or places reach out to us, and so our journey with Gumfreston began. We had come from London to live in West Wales after Trevor had been made redundant a year before. Sp we had to,e tp bosoy the church and explore the churchyards. We found the wells, very overgrown with plant life, the stream choked with leaves and debris. Then for the first time we met someone once connected with the church, the then warden, Ken Handicott, who with a tiny but devoted congregation was struggling to keep the church going. It was Ken who first told us about the healing qualities of the wells, upon which he felt he had drawn personally. Sixteen years before, he had suffered a stroke and been partially paralysed on one side. With immense determination and often daily visits to the well, into which he dipped his paralysed arm, he regained his mobility, and went on to serve as a lay-reader and warden to Gumfreston. By this time the workload was heavy for him, and although we live in Manorbier over 5 miles away, we knew this was to be our church, and that we had the time and energy to give to this place we loved too.

That summer we were wading happily through the stream clearing the surplus greenery and nettles, discovering the beautiful stone structures of two of the wells in which the springs were rising, and the water trickled from another well was buried under natural debris. We began researching the history of the Gumfreston wells and discovered that they were listed in Holy Wells of Wales by Francis Jones (Cardiff 1954 p211) as pilgrimage healing wells. What had begun as  a play’ was becoming more serious now. Trevor became warden (mainly because nobody else wanted the job!) and we began looking up references to Gumfreston in every local library, and talking to local people, especially the elderly. Tenby Museum had old prints that showed Gumfreston had been a quay on the River Ritec which had carried boats from Tenby to St Florence before the river estuary became silted up and the railway embankment was built. 

In our small congregation we found a real sense of fellowship and purpose to maintain Gumfreston church and wells as a place of worship and a continuing ‘sanctuary’ for modern-day ‘pilgrims’/ Over the last couple of years we have become aware of the large numbers of visitors passing through Gumfreston many who return year after year, and are using the well water. We believe there have always been pilgrims coming here, and have begun to work for them. The church lost its keys years ago and is always open, so we invite people to come in and enjoy the peace of Gumfreston. We leave books in which visitors can write their thoughts and if they wish their prayers, which we join with our prayers on Sunday. There is usually a colourful display of the history of the Gumfreston Wells. The weather had been so damp recently, that I am currently making a new one which gives us a chance to add new information. We have no resident priests but are with the Rectorial Parish of Tenbyand fortunately receive encouragement and understanding from our Rector. I would like to mention here the unsung heroine of Gumfreston, Mrs Sheila Askew, whose devotion to the church and wells, hard work, and loving patience with us and the visitors has kept us going.

The History of Gumfreston Wells

The present history is based on a mixture of known and recorded facts, on-going surmise and research by fellow-enthusiasts at St Nicholas’ Church,Pennally, Brother Gildas on Caldey Island.and the interest and advice of David Austin, Head of Archaeology at Lampeter University College. He is in charge of the dig at Carew and as we are in his ‘catchment’ area within the new few years, he has offered to try and uncover the third well.

The three springs rising in such close proximity could have had a strong mystical significance for the early Celts who considered the number three to be connected with divinity. Springs and bodies of water were favourite places for worship, being associated with divine and healing powers. 

At the time of the peregrini (‘pilgrims’), the travelling ‘saints’ of Celtic Christianity, a holy man or woman probably used the wells, maybe settling there. They may have been buried there and a small chapel built. The well water could have been consecrated and used in baptism. Gumfreston was then on the river estuary that faced Caldey Island, a spiritual centre and monastery, and on ancient routes that led from the ridgeway and St Florence by water and land. The whole of West Wales was  a lively centre of Celtic Christianity, St Teilo being our local saint, born at Pennally and Gumfreston. 

There is evidence of relic-keeping in our church and an ambulatory for ‘private processions’ which is most unusual in such a small church. Possibilities are coming to light of monastic settlement between the churches of Gumfreston, Pennally and Manorbier. Certainly in the Celtic Church organisation these churches would have been under the control of a ‘mother’ church, a much larger Christian centre.

When the Normans invaded Wales in the 11th century they changed both social and church structures but the holy sites and practices remained if firmly established. Our present church of St Lawrence would have replaced earlier buildings, and the original saint’s name,but the atmosphere of the holy sanctuary and peace remained for the pilgrims wo are recorded as still coming to the wells for healing of mind and body.

The Holy Wells of Wales (p.90) records visits to Gumfreston Wells on Easter Day to drop bent pins into the water. This was called ‘throwing Lent away’ The last record of this was in the 17th century before the rector of Gumfreston was removed by the Puritan authorities.

In the ‘Age of reason’ the well waters were scientifically analysed, first by Dr Davis, a physician to William IV, who found their medicinal qualities, rich in iron to be ‘as good as the wells of Tunbridge’ Visitors to Tenby Spa would ‘take the waters’ at Gumfreston or pay local children to walk out collect bottled water from the wells. In the same century Dr Golding Bird, Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Professor of Therapeutics to Guy’s Hospital’ also reported on the waters (see below)

We intend to have the water analysed ourselves before we recommend it for drinking, although there are locals who drink them regularly . We are told that they make a good companion to whisky! Obviously there seem to be medicinal qualities in the water for our bodies, and there is a local tradition of using, one of the wells for eye ailments; but the account of the well dressing that follows is more concerned with the healing of our ‘souls’ and releasing our intuitive ‘creativity’ 

Well-dressing at Gumfreston

Why we did it

Gumfreston had been used in recent years as a setting for a floral display during the week of the Tenby Arts Festival. This year (1994), the team that did the display were busy elsewhere. I didn’t want to lose our participation in the Arts festival and was glad of the chance it gave us to be something for ourselves. I offered to do a small historical display on Wels holy wells and a iide yur of Gumfreston church and wells. Well dressing came into my mind as an artistic way of combining flowers and history that certainly attracted the festival committee – who weren’t sure what it was but it sounded different.!

All good practical reasons: but of course in hindsight I realise there was a much deeper person going on in my choice of well-dressing. For a while I had privately included the wells in all our Christian festivals by slipping quietly down to the watedz. Taking small tokens such as flowers, saying brief prayers and blessings, and ‘telling’ the wells what was being celebrated in the church. I wast sure why I was doing this but it felt ‘right’. At this point maybe I should explain that I am a Third Order Francisican and as such can get away with being somewhat ‘odd!’ but nevertheless my mind was needing to understand what was going on with all this intuitive activity. In researching what joly and healing wells had meant to generations before me. And would I hope to generations after me. I found the answers I needed for myself and which I could share with others.

How we did it

In my research, I had read of three instances of well-dressing in Wales (Jones pp 89, 91-2), so I knew it had been done; using garlands of mountain ash in one case (Priest’s well, Narbesh, Glamorgan), and in others at New Year, box (at Llanisen, Glamorgan), and mistletoe (at Diserth, Radnor).

Theoretically, I knew quite a bit about the more formalised art at Derbyshire well-dressing and toyed with the idea of using a similar technique on a small scale.

It was a quiet walk that it all began to take shape in my mind. This was Wales, not Derbyshire. I had been thinking of formal teaching, of constructing to a pre-planned end. Now I realised jay was mot to be the way at all. My whole approach became simpler. Researching for my historical display had made me realise that each well in Wales had its own history, its own associations with people and the uses it had been put to, so surely a well-dressing should reflect that.

I also realised that each well would have it own environment, of structure, flora, etc., and that flora available would vary with the reason of the well dressing. It seemed important to use what was growing around us, and to search for any plants of special significance. 

This approach to well-dressing was becoming personal to the people involved, their personalities responding to the ‘personality’  of the wells. It was also going to involve getting in touch with the ‘natural’ around us.

This approach to well-dressing was becoming personal to the people involved, their personalities  responding to the ‘personality’ of the wells. It was also going to involve getting in touch with the ‘natural’ around us.

So the Gumfreston workshops on well-dressing became a hands-on experience for those involved. The best place to ‘dress’ seemed to be the stone surrounds of the wells. In preparation I gathered large bunches of wild grass and barley, holly, laurel and other plants from the churchyard. There was an abundance of rosehips and blackberry sprays up the lane. Wild hydrangea and ferns and red sprays of berries, ivy and wild fuchsia. It’s amazing the variety of plant-life around us!

The day before the first workshop I made my own well-dressing so that I could get the feel of it. E could choose whether to work directly onto the wells, or use a container to place on them. I sat the total peace of Gumfreston in the autumn sun and would ferns around the edges of a wire frame I’d put together. A cross of wildflowers formed the centre of  ‘dressing’ to account for me the holiness and healing qualities of the wells. Other plants filled the gaps. It’s said that ‘love covers a multiple of sins’: plants certainly cover a multiple of mistakes!

We had small groups, mainly local people, for the actual ;dressing’. Some had expected just to watch the ‘experts’. I had so little to offer them really, just the actual materials and the invitation to ‘respond’ to the wells and use their own creativity. And each person seemed to enjoy it so much! We were so fortunate with the weather that week, the wells were at their most charming. All the ‘dressings’ were different, but by the time we finished there was a sense of personal satisfaction and the relaxation that working intuitively rings. Gumfreston’s Harvest festival was on the following Sunday, so the wells were dressed for that.

We will be well-dressing again at Gumfreston (by popular request) on 15 April 1995, Easter Saturday. Anyone who would like to join in with us will be very welcome. We should be there all afternoon, from midday onwards, as we will have a lot to do in the church as well. In addition, the church and churchyard are always open and visitors are warmly welcomed. Easter Sunday morning service is at 10 am. 

I feel that well-dressing is here to stay at Gumfreston. We still have a lot to learn and will always be happy to hear from anyone who has ideas and information to share.  

Dr Golding Bird’s Report

“In consequence of the shallowness of the basin, this water is apt to vary in composition after heavy rains, from its undergoing dilution; this however applies nearly exclusively to the solid ingredients as the evolution of carbonic acid gas from the subjacent strata is so considerable that the water is, under all circumstances, saturated with the gas, so as to sparkle vividly in a glass, and undergo violent ebullution when laced on the air-pump and very slightly exhausted. 

The water is remarkable for its singular purity, the quantity of the saline ingredients being exceedingly small. An imperial gallon contains but five grains of lime, part of which exists as carbonate, and is held in solution by an excess of carbonic acid. The exceeding minute quantity of sulphuric acid is remarkable, less being present than in the purist river water. The quantity of oxide of iron is about 2.4 grains of iron. 

The Gumfreston water is, however, one of the purest hitherto noticed, and owes its medical properties to the iron, and the larges quantity of the carbonic acid it contains. This extreme freedom from saline ingredients, the presence of which constitutes the hardiness of water would render this water of great value to those patients who cannot bear the ordinary chalybeate water. 

The Gumfreston water resembles that of Malvern in its purity, and of Tunbridge Wells in the quantity of iron it contains, exceeding all other chalybeate waters in Great Britain in the large quantity of Carbonic acid held in solution.

In cases of chlorosis, and other forms of deficiency of red blood in the system, this water would be invaluable.”

(Quoted in Samuel C. Hall and Anna M. Hall, The Book of South Wales, the Wye, and the Coast, first pub. London 1861 republished EP Pub Ltd 1977. Gumfreston is described pp 442-7, illustration of the well p446)

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Currently researching calendar customs and folklore of Nottinghamshire

Posted on April 19, 2022, in Pembrokeshire, Well dressing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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