Monthly Archives: July 2022
400TH POST! The sacred springs and holy wells of the St David’s Peninsula Part One (part one) by Julie Trier Source New Series No 4 Summer 1995
To introduce my commentary on the holy wells of St Davids in Pembrokeshire (one of the three counties presently constitionlly Dyfed), I would like to highlight a passage from Francis Jones’ now well-known guide, The Holy Wells of Wales:
“There are in the district twelve holy wells, seven of which are concentrated in the immediate vicinity of St Davids, as also are most of the cromlechau. It is probable that some of these wells were there in pre-Christian days. In St David’s time, a powerful pagan family lived there. Yet it was here in the heart of the pagan camp that the missionaries settled and it was here that Dewi St David) built his church, and twelve chapels were erected in the same district. It is possible that in this remote headland, with its rugged cairns looking westward over the waves towards the setting sun, lay the sacred mysteries of our ancient pagan stock.” (Jones 1992, 25-6).
Here is an evocative acknowledgement of the roots of our holy wells, inextricably linked with the ancient cultures. It has moved me to attempt a brief history of the early peoples of this region, suggesting their relationship with water sources in terms ‘sacred mysteries of their religious beliefs and customs (Jones’).
Some reference to contemporary evidence from other areas is used, to present this apparently ‘remote headland’ and its possible water cults within a broader historical, archaeological and religious context. This will lead into the Christian era when wells took on a new status and, in many cases, their present names. Most of the prescribed ‘twelve’ will be detailed along the way, although of those visited and recorded by Major Jones, a few have unfortunately all but disappeared.
In the beginning…
To live on the St David’s peninsula is to be ever aware of the presence of water, bounded as we are by the Irish Sea to the north, west, and south. Rainfall is plentiful, creating a landscape which flows with springs, streams, and a modest river, all microcosmic echoes of the last Ice Age melt-down that carved out the valleys and ‘cwms’ 12,000 years ago.
From about 8000 BC, as the climate warmed, the Mesolithic cave-dwellers of southern Pembrokeshire began to live in open settlements on the low-lying forested and marshy land beside the shores. Much of this land was later submerged beneath the sea (tree stumps are occasionally revealed during unusual surface-shifts at local beaches) as the water level finally rose, around 5500 BC (Miles 1978, 37; Worsley 1989, 13-14). Two thousand years later, the western sea-routes became established by Neolithic colonists originally from the Near East, who arrived in their skin-covered craft by way of Atlantic Europe, bringing with them their knowledge of farming (Bowen 1972, 26, 36). Their communities were probably sited close to the abundant natural springs, life-sustaining sources of water which would have been cherished for their practical uses; and doubtless reverenced as shrines. As they lived in close contact with the natural world, these people must have appreciated the earth’s creative, nurturing, and regenerative qualities, and felt awe at its destructive potential. Water issuing from unknown depths below the ground would suggest renewal and continuity of life after death It is natural, therefore, to find many of their burial chambers – erected to commemorate prominent or prosperous families – positioned near to sacred springs. It is interesting to note that a number of traditions exist linking both well and tomb with healing ceremonies (Jones 1992, 14-17,101). Dowser Guy Underwood believed these tombs also marked ‘blind springs of exceptional importance’. He considered such sites to be ‘the esoteric “centre” of the Old Religion as well as being the actual centre of its monuments’ (Underwood 1974, 92, 39). It has also been suggested that these cromlechs or dolmens, their huge earth mounds once concealing inner chambers of stone tripod and capstone, would have stood prominently upon the landscape, acting as territorial markers (Hills 1986, 50; John 1994, 13). Many wells were also used to mark boundaries (Bord 1985, 74; Jones 1992, 55-7). Two possible local examples of well, cromlech, and boundary complexes are worth noting here,
Ffynnon Penarthur (‘Penarthur Well’: SM 751265), ‘which stood at the end of the land of Arthur Li.e. the pen – ‘head’, or ‘end’ – of Arthur), was a boundary mark of a manor at St Davids’ (Jones 1992, 5). The ‘land of Arthur’ (probably just a local chieftain, although an Arthurian legend exists in this area: Jones & Jones 1982, 123), would appear to extend from the spring westwards for two miles, to the edge of the peninsula, where a cromlech named Coetan Arthur Arthur’s Quoit’) can be seen against the sky-line on St Davids Head. The easterly boundary at ‘Arthur’s End’ (as it was actually shown on some maps), marked by the well, would seem to be naturally formed by a stream which flows through marshy ground to join the River Alun as it meanders along the valley towards St Davids, half a mile away. It is possible that a second boundary, extending into fields as a footpath (on 25″ O.S. map, 1908), intersects the first at the well-site. This may be ‘the boundary of a manor at St Davids’. It is stated that this holy well ‘had an ancient cromlech nearby which was destroyed’ (Sharkey 1994, 51). Fifteen years ago, a visiting archaeologist told the then owner of Penarthur farm that a large stone in an adjacent field appeared to be the capstone of a cromlech. This stone had been removed and the present farmer did not know its whereabouts.
A recent inspection of the well-site revealed a large flat stone of the capstone type serving as a wayside foot-bridge, in the verge opposite the spring. Today there is nothing to see of the original well-structure except for a few moss-covered boulders around a modern concrete water-tank. A hollow indentation in a large boulder – ‘a common feature of holy wells’ – had been observed previously (Sharkey 1994, 51). A small hut next to the spring houses the machinery that pumps the water uphill to Penarthur farm, a quarter-mile distant. As with so many once-sacred springs, the identity of Ffynnon Penarthur has almost been effaced. However, it was once of undoubted importance, as three ornamented stones are believed to have stood around it, placed there in the early Christian era. One of these, the inscribed ‘Gurmarc’ stone, with its unusual Alpha and Omega symbols (Laws 1888, 76, 77; Dark 1992, 19, 20; James 1981 -illustration Pl. 5) had been serving as a farm gatepost in 1856. The other two were found in hedge banks. By 1886 all had been rescued and placed in St Davids cathedral (Arch. Camb. 1856, 50-1; ib. 1886, 43-5). Together with a further cross- marked stone from the Penarthur area, they are now to be seen in the new lapidarium in St Mary’s Hall, in St Davids. The three stones are of particular interest as the complex interlacing of their designs is specifically Irish, an influence which recurs constantly in this area.
At Naw Ffynnon (‘Nine Wells ‘), two miles east of St Davids (SM 788240), another example of the well/crornlech/boundary combination can be observed. Destroyed in the last century, the cromlech stood in a field above a now ivy-covered roadside well, one of the original nine (Jones 1992, 26). A few yards away, across the main road, and spanning a rushing stream, stands an old inscribed stone indicating the boundary between St Davids and Whitchurch parishes. As the name suggests, water is the predominating feature of this area. The English antiquarian Browne Willis, using material supplied by a local correspondent (James 1981, 182), reported: ‘not far from a Place called Llandridian (Druid’s Church) there are nine Wells within five or six paces of one another’. (Willis 1716, 66. Willis’ etymology is incorrect here. Tridian is a personal name, and doubtless recalls an otherwise completely forgotten saint: in the parish of St Nicholas, ten miles north of St Davids, there is a further Llandridian, and a well called Ffynnon Dridian -Wade-Evans 1910, 28-9.) And the gentleman historian Richard Fenton, who was born in St Davids, in his Historical Tour through Pembrokeshire written a century later, remarks: ‘Part of the road is constantly irrigated with water issuing out of that conflux of springs called ‘ ‘The Nine Wells’ ” (Fenton 1903, 76),
Although from these descriptions it would appear that all nine wells were almost amalgamated, at least four individual springs and wells are identifiable, scattered around a slightly wider area, and are known locally as members of the Nine Wells. The most accessible representative of the group stands, as mentioned, on the wide verge beside the road at the entrance to the track leading to the coast. Its stone structure is camouflaged with ivy, and its frontal retaining slab has been deeply indented by the constant friction of buckets, indicating its heavy use by the local community within living memory.
Close to this well is a modern dwelling, formerly a pump house which was built over one of the conflux of springs at the turn of the last century in order to take water to St Davids. In the 1930s the other springs in the immediate vicinity were incorporated into a large underground tank, to boost this supply. The colourful folklore of Nine Wells, as collected locally by Jones, indicates the interest in this site both in pagan and Christian times
By these wells stood a cromlech which was destroyed in the last century, and where a mound still exists. The tradition states – that in pagan times twelve maidens each under twelve years of age were burnt alive as a sacrifice on the stone altar there; that in Catholic times mass was celebrated at the wells, priests dipped their rosaries there, and water was carried thence to St David’s Cathedral to wash the sepulchre (the shrine of David?); that sick pilgrims came from Tregroes via Dwrhyd by Llwybir Pererindod (the ‘Pilgrims’ Path’ I (the path and the name are lost) to bathe at Nine Wells, and were then conveyed in a cart to Non’s Well where the cure was completed, and were finally carried to the Cathedral where they were blessed by a priest (Jones 1992, 26).
The ‘altar’ was evidently the cromlech. In Wales, cromlechs were regularly termed altar, allor, because of their suggestive shape. Their earthen mounds would possibly have eroded by Iron Age times, revealing the altar-shaped structures, which may then have been associated with druidic sacrificial rites – if not in actuality, then in the imaginations of later generations. Hence the legend at Nine Wells (and possibly the ‘Druid’s Church’ of Willis’ report). The ‘pilgrims’ path’ from Tregroes (Whitchurch) to Nine Wells made a slight detour from the main southern pilgrims’ route across Wales and the St Davids peninsula, which passed through Whitchurch and on directly westwards to the shrine of St David.
( Though no other information has survived locally to substantiate this, the reference to the ‘pilgrims’ path’, and the consecutive visiting of the various sacred sites of the St Davids parish culminating in a visit to the cathedral, suggests perhaps that it was once the custom to visit all the ‘twelve’ chapels and wells of the region in a single ’round’ a common enough practice at specifically sacred pilgrimage sites throughout the Celtic lands. It is known from other shrines in Wales (at Holyhead, Anglesey, the custom continued into the eighteenth century) and is still a regular feature of pilgrimage in Ireland – note from editor)
The Neolithic engineers who were apparently supported by the farming communities to construct the chambered tombs, were also responsible for the first stone circles. These were refined by the incoming Bronze Age or Beaker Folk, around 2000BC, who also set up isolated standing stones (megaliths, or menhirs). These, like the cromlechs, are often found close revered to springs, or: with their long axes pointing to water courses 1992, (Jones 15-18, 10, Arch. Camb., 1989, 21). A local example of such a well and stone circle connection (St Non’s) will be described in Part Two.
The arrangements of stones could be used in conjunction with the heavens as almanacs to predict auspicious moments in the farming year (Worsley 1987, 2, 3, 38-9). Did they also play a part in utilising or controlling currents within the earth, and emanations from the water below ground? Electrical engineer and dowser Bill Lewis found that underground streams radiate outward from the centre of stone circles, passing directly beneath the gaps between the stones. The movement of underground water creates a small static electric field, intensified where such streams cross, An electrical field produced in this way also concentrates neutron (or natural) radiation (Hitching 1976, 119, 121-3; Gordon 1989, 48, 52). This is verified and developed by Roger Coghill, researcher and author of Electropollurion, who suggests that ‘since the telectricall current produced by the underground movement of water forms a continually changing magnetic field around itself, it constitutes a chronic disturbance of the environment’. Through case studies, he concludes that subterranean aquifers, particularly where streams cross at different levels, may detrimentally affect the health of life on the surface (Coghill 1990, 117, 64).
However it is also interesting to note that electro-magnetic fields (E.M.Fs) are used in modern medicine, as they appear to stimulate body tissue to heal faster; but that, if experienced at the wrong frequency, as indicated above they can be damaging. The early scientists, probably recognising these energies through observation and divination, could then have judged them helpful or harmful. If this learned group – perhaps constituted as a priesthood – could be seen to manipulate the forces of nature, they would have been in a powerful position; but their authority would ultimately have rested upon the maintenance of the prosperity of the land and its people.
Fundamental to this would have been the preservation of a fresh water supply, and in particular, the springs. These not only afforded vital refreshment, but had ‘magical’ (? mineral) properties which might promote health; and their constant outpouring would have symbolised fecundity and well-being, which might have been regarded as the favours of a mother-goddess. Such a female deity was likely at that time to have embraced all aspects of existence, including death (her images were buried in tombs with the dead: Green 1993, 72-3) and, naturally, water, the ‘quickening’ element of life. In the Neolithic era specific water worship is less distinct in Britain than in other ancient civilisations, such as those of Egypt and Greece. However, Aubrey Burl in his The Stone Circles of the British Isles has remarked upon the above-noted connection between stone circles and water sources, suggesting ‘the importance of water in the ceremonies that took place in the rings’ (Bord 1985, 2-4). Rites of passage such as birth, betrothal or death, and rituals to induce healing and divination, may have been celebrated at these sanctuaries. Remnants of these appear to have persisted through the ages, as folk memories and customs may reflect (Jones 1992, 15-16, 101).
The worship of water deities became more apparent in the Bronze Age. As metallurgy flourished, cult objects and votive offerings were fashioned in the new metal. Although no evidence has been found to date from this era at spring-sites in Wales (possibly due to lack of excavation), the veneration of springs at that time appears to have been widespread, propitiatory gifts in bronze having been found in Denmark, Switzerland, France, and Italy (Jones 1992, 96). Unnamed supernatural powers associated with water and the sun were worshipped, as shown by artefacts depicting aquatic birds and sun-symbols (for example, ducks with sun-wheels) in Central Europe (Green 1993, 138, 147-8). At a late-Bronze Age settlement at Lichterfelde, Germany, well-offerings of rows of small vessels layered with grass may indicate a request for water in times of drought (Green 1993, 139). A well, 100 deep, containing wooden buckets, ropes, utensils and amber beads possibly a ritual deposit – was discovered at Wilsford near Stonehenge (Bord 1985, 4). This shaft dates from the time of the completion of Stonehenge, c. 1300 BC, when the ‘blue stones’ from the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire were rearranged in the way they are seen today (Green 1993, 145; Atkinson 1959, 17; Worsley 1987, 6, 32-5). The route that was established between the famous ‘temple’ in Wiltshire and the source of the esteemed spotted dolerite of the Preselis was significant in the Bronze Age for another reason, which also concerns St Davids. Merchant-smiths from as far away as Greece and Minoan Crete followed this road all the way to the Wicklow mountains in Ireland, where they traded their bronze, amber, and jet for Irish gold; a metal with which they delighted to decorate jewellery, weapons, and objects for use in solar worship (Worsley 1987, 52, 86; Bowen 1972, 43, 46, 48-9; Glob 1973, 101, 113, 115, 123-5). St Davids, at the closest corner of Britain to Ireland, stood at the end of this land route (‘the Golden Way’) across Wales, Porth Mawr (Whitesands Beach) being the embarkation point for the traders’ sea crossing. It is possible that some of our holy wells close to the shore once received offerings in bronze adorned with ship symbols, tokens greatly favoured at that period as protective prayers for dangerous voyages by sea (Glob 1973, 148).
Part two with references next month
Being a noted aged town Stamford claims its fair share of ancient wells. A number of wells appear to share dedications with a nearby church and so it is unclear whether the names were obtained as a consequence of their proximity, all have been lost.. A map of the town by John Speed, 1611 features ‘S. Peter’s Well and S. Maryes Well. Butcher’ 1647 Survey and Antiquitie of the Towne of Stamford however is the main source who notes three wells: St. George’s Well, St. Clement’s Well and All Hallowes Well. There is a St. John’s Well associated with St. John’s Church.
More is noted of St. Thomas’s Well, of which Francis Peck in his 1727 History of Stanford repeats a story, originally told to him by his father, about Samuel Wallace, a crippled shoemaker of Stamford. Wallace was instructed on how to cure his sickness by a strange old man who mysteriously came and went on Whitsunday 1659, and who refused an offer of food, saying:
‘that he almost never drank anything but water, and that the water he drank was sometimes the water of St. Thomas’s well. That well, said my father, was the well you know in such a place. I heard him describe the place, but being then very young, can only remember it was somewhere without Stanford on the east, not far from the Uffington road. I have since enquired of several persons, but they can none of them tell of any such well’.
A church in Stamford was dedicated to St Thomas. There are springs found at TF 054 072, TF 054 072 and TF 058 071 along the footpath and disused Welland canal so one of these could be the likely contender.
Stamford’s Spa or Iron Well (TF 018 060) is a delightful and little known survival, so named because of its chalybeate waters. It was according to Thompson (1914) an open spring until 1864 when the Mayor of Stamford covered it with its present structure which is grade II listed. This is a circular stone onion shaped cupola about four feet high and sixteen feet round, which has on it the inscription ‘John Paradise Esquire Mayor 1864.’
Beeby Thompson’s 1914 Peculiarities of springs and wells of Northamptonshire notes that the spring was beneficial for skin diseases and eye problems and people used to fetch water to use in their houses, but today appears little regarded. Mrs Gutch and Mabel Peacock, Examples of printed folklore concerning Lincolnshire, Folklore Society, County Folklore Vol V, 1908 state:
“Tradition recounts that a religious house inhabited by pious women once stood near this holy well, and that its waters then had the power of restoring sight to the blind. It is still a wishing well. You wish, and drop a pin into it.”
It is curious that they call it a holy well so it maybe they are describing one of the former sites especially as it is called the Spa on old maps. Interestingly, Bath house can be found not far from the Iron Well with its name painted on the front wall. Built in 1923 it is Gothic building of two storeys with two pinnacles and central carved pinnacles and gothic glazed windows in chamfered reveals. Although now a private residence it apparently still retains its baths apparently, but I was unable to ascertain this. Incidentally there is another Bath house in Burleigh Park although this is strictly speaking in Northamptonshire and beyond this volume. Burleigh Park also boasted a chalybeate spring or Spa. Thomas Short’s 1734 Short The Natural Experimental, and Medicinal History of the Mineral Waters of Derbyshire, Lincolnshire, and Yorkshire, only makes passing note of it stating that it was a ‘product of iron stone’ and Thompson (1914) found no one in the locale who could verify a location and maybe it is linked to the above.
Various references in the 14th century note a Sevenwells which is perhaps significant. It was granted to the nuns of St. Michael but details are not forthcoming where it was.
Many years ago a friend of mine claimed his mother had discovered the location of the Muswell and she had become a bit of an expert on it. I remember her claiming that it was in a cupboard which at the time I thought was odd although I did not challenge her and forgot about it until now. In truth there still appears to be some confusion over the titular well of this well-known, London area- Muswell The name of this well has been confused, the most obvious is the secular Mossy well, which has been interpreted as Moses Well or St. Mary’s Well. Harte in his 2008 English holy wells suggests that the site is synonymous with St. Mary’s Well at Willesden. However, John Norden’s Speculum Britanniae of 1593. He wrote:
‘at Muswell Hill, called also Pinnersnall Hill, there was a chapel sometime bearing the name of Our Lady of Muswell where now Alderman Rowe hath erected a proper house. The place taketh the name of the well and the hill, Muswell Hill, for there is on the hill a spring of fair water which is within the compass of the house. There was sometime an image of the Lady of Muswell, whereunto was a continual resort in the way of pilgrimage, growing as is fabulously reported in regard of a great cure which was performed by this water upon a certain King of Scots who being strangely diseased was by some divine intelligence advised to take the water of the well in England called Muswell, which after long scrutation and inquisition, this well was found and performed the cure…’
John Aubrey in his Miscellanies, 1696, states that:
‘the water of this well is drunk for some distemper still’.
Indeed it is probable that two wells are under discussion. Stanley Foord’s 1910 Springs, Streams and Spas of London records that:
“in regard of a great cure which was performed by this water, upon a king of Scots, who being strangely diseased, was by some devine intelligence, advised to take the water of a Well in England, called Muswell, which after long scrutation, and inquisition, this Well was found and performed the cure”.
The king believed to Robert the Bruce (the Bruces held land nearby) but Malcolm has also been mentioned, and the illness was thought to be leprosy. Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary Lore of Holy Wells calls it St Lazarus’ Well, although he is the only source. The author adds that it was ‘situated behind the Alexandra Palace’. Today a private house (no 10 Muswell road) stands on the ‘presumed’ site halfway along the road. Indeed, Muswell road is located just west of Alexandra Park and the famous Alexandra Palace. However there
is also a neglected well in front of a house in Muswell Avenue which has been identified by
one website Earth Stars. Alternatively, another website, https://www.londonslostrivers.com/muswell-stream.html, states emphatically:
“The present day Muswell Road, N10 is the location of the “Mossy Well” where the well still exists but is capped beneath a private house.”
The Hornsey Historical society, https://hornseyhistorical.org.uk/pins-or-muswell-hill/ state:
“The well survived until 1898 and a plaque on No. 40 Muswell Road marks the spot.”
To put a plaque up suggests pretty much certainty and indeed the site does correspond to marks on the first series OS.
The confusion is probably explained as Curls in his 2010 Spas, Wells and pleasure gardens of London notes that there were two holy wells in the area see Tottenham. These were described as being in good preservation at the end of the nineteenth century according to T. K. Cromwell (1823) History and description of the Parish of Clerkenwell. One well was described as producing hard, pellucid and hard water, the other was like rainwater. It is stated that in the mid-1800s, contrary to Cromwell, the landowners of one had sealed one well, prompting a civil action to preserve access for local people. The local people won in the case of 1862 and the Alexander Park Company had to provide a pump. Yet by 1880s the pump had begun to cease to function and the wells were only supplied by surface waters which was polluted. Around this time it was lost, this would appear to be the same site as St Dunstan’s Well. In 2016 workers digging Muswell Hill Broadway revealed a circular 30m deep well, which English Heritage are planning to investigate. Its location is unlikely to be the titular site but it is not impossible