Monthly Archives: August 2022
In search of rag wells: The Old Wife’s Well, Stape Yorkshire
The Old Wife’s Well has been on my to visit list for quite a time. The well is not the easiest to find situated on afforested woodland on the edge of moorland. High above Pickering, but only a few miles, it seems to be 100s of years away. A snapshot of an older tradition. The spring arises in a rather simple square well chamber which is fairly non-descript bar the engraving on the top which is most interesting. The carving reads:
This has been translated as ‘Well of the spirits’; Fonten – meaning spring and Nattie meaning spirit. Is this the Old Wife one wonders? Old Wife is found in a number of sites across Yorkshire: Old Wife’s Hill at Cundall, Old Wife’s Howe at Ravenscar, Old Wife’s Stones at Danby and Old Wife’s Neck which are standing stones on John Cross Rigg. Locally there is Wade’s causeway a long pavemented road which travels romantically across the desolate moorland. Wade was a local giant who is said to have built the causeway, which has been in the past said to be a Roman road, although opinion has changed over time. However, the wife in question is probably not a wife in the modern meaning but from the middle English word Wif which simply means ‘women’ which of course has survived in the term ‘midwife’ Thus the Old Wife simply means Old Women. Now this could refer to an old women who lived by the well, perhaps a local seer. Yet there is another explanation it could well remember the Cailleach, the old woman or hag, a deity of the Celtic population. Dr Anne Ross in her 1960 Pagan Celtic Britain described her as:
“At once mother, warrior, hag, virgin, conveyor of fertility, of strong sexual appetite which led to her seeking mates amongst mankind equally with the gods, giver of prosperity to the land, protectoress of the flocks and herds.”
Certainly the Old Wife’s Well is situated in an ancient landscape being close to a Mesolithic flint mine which was still active in the Bronze age and it is likely that the population used the spring. Of course one most sometimes be wary of wells with inscriptions suggesting ancient gods which may suggest classically aware landowners.
This notwithstanding, the site is powerfully evocative laying in an opening in the afforested woodland surrounded by low laying mist. It certainly is a much visited site by local people who connect with it spiritually and has within the last 30 years become a rag well.
The most common are traditional ribbons some of which are of cotton and should rot. They are attached to the trees and to the wooden enclosure of the well.
Some of the rags are clearly decaying and covered with algae and moss, suggesting they have been there for sometime.
There are also dream catchers
A cat collar perhaps a votive to wish for the return of a lost cat?
There are some more personal items as well like a glass teddy bear, perhaps linked to a loss of child?
An evocative site hopefully it will not get too over-adorned with rags and objects and retains its mystery!
Holy, healing and ritual waters of Catalonia: Caldes de Malavela
If you are in Barcelona or anywhere in the Costa Brava or Dorado and are looking for a curious place off the beaten track which has that real Catalonian feel and have an interest in healing springs Caldes de Malavela is a must. It is a town which has been attracting seekers of healing waters since the Roman times and is still a major spa town with waters rich in in sodium chloride and sodium bicarbonate and are thermal arising at around 60°C,
In the middle of the 1st century B.C., the Roman settled in the area and constructed the baths. Being located close to the Via Augusta and many would have stopped here for the hot water and thus a Roman town developed. It was in 1897-1902 that archaeologists revealed the remains of the baths. The complex was a simple one, being composed of a central pool surrounded by rooms given over to curative treatments. It was believed to be a simple building, lacking any detail and had a ten metre rectangular swimming pool with changing rooms and massage rooms.. The water itself was delivered to the baths via an aqueduct from Ànimes hill although there is no sign of water in the site now one can see how it flowed. through.
“Sacred water spring The central room in the east wing is one of the most important spaces in the thermae due to the presence, in Roman times, of the thermal water spring that was the raison d’étre of the site. The water emerged from the lower part of the east wall, at the north end, from where it was channelled diagonally into a small square regulator controlling the flow into the pipe that supplied the natatio. The curative and therapeutic properties of the water made this room a sacellum (small sacred space). On the north wall, we can still see the remains of a small altar flanked by two affixed pilasters, which must have housed one or several images of healing divinities. These most likely included Apollo, whose cult has been documented in Caldes from inscriptions found in the locality. A bench on the south wall provided seating for visiting devotees. Furthermore, this was the only room in the whole thermae enclosure where the walls were stuccoed and decorated with polychrome paintings. Later on, but still in the Roman era, several alterations were made to this room; these mainly consisted of walling up the three accesses from the ambulacrum, and adding a small piscina or water deposit in its interior. The altar was no longer used. The spring and the regulator, however, continued to operate as before. In the medieval period, all these structures were “buried” under two new small pools. The water supply now emerged from a different point located one metre higher on the same wall; the pools were drained through a hole in the south wall leading to the adjacent room, which gradually became covered in calcareous concretion.
By the end of the 4th Century the site being developed as a castle and then converted into a hospital for the poor.
A lost pagan cult?
What’s in a name? Caldes translates in Catalan as hot mineral spring. This enables non-Catalan speakers to identify spas in the area. The general agreed name of the Roman site was thus Aquae Calidae although some have called it Aquis Voconis. Its modern name Caldes de Malavella is interesting. This second part of the name – “de Malavella” – comes from a local legend, of a local “bad old woman” who lived in the now-ruined castle just outside town. Thus “Malavella” in Catalan comes from two words: mala (bad) and vella (old woman). Thus “The Thermal Springs of the Old evil one”! The story dates back to 1057 which may suggest it has an ancient pagan origin? Was it an attempt for the Christians to demonise the focus of a local cult. Quite often of course, springs are associated with female deities, and it is interesting to consider the Scottish tradition which one assumes descends from the Celtic tradition where there is of course the Old Hag or Cailleachan. This might at first be irrelevant but is worth considering that this region was settled by the Celts too in 1000 – 300 BC in two migratory waves: 900 BC and 700 – 600 BC. It seems likely that this does such record a Celtic or even Roman tradition. Mind you if the intention was to demonise the deity has not really worked as the Evil Old one is everywhere and whilst I was there I was privileged to see a parade of Giants, where she featured prominently.
Taking the waters today
All around the town can be found three natural hot mineral-medicinal fountains: La Mina or Raig d’en Mel, Sant Narcís and Bullidors. In some cases such as La Mina these waters were utilised for safareigs or municipal cloth washing areas and indeed I was informed at the museum that people still use them although generally it was around the 1960s that they generally fell out of favour. However, the Font Raig d’en Mel arises at the base of a large wall of rubble and feeds quite modern looking washing areas.
Around the town there are other springheads/wells- Font de Bullidors of the kettles and Font des Saint Narcis. Both well preserved in a modern setting, although the former is dry. Both lie close to the baths so presumably their source. The later well appears to be a holy well named after the patron saint of Girona. On the subject of holy wells, there is also an unnamed and unheralded well under the church, which surely is something significant but not mentioned in the town maps or guides. There is also the modernist font of Font de la Vac and associated music room and conduit.
The use of the water for medicinal purposes it appears that this did not start to happen until 19th. Three spring sites were tapped: El Puig de Sant Grau (utilising four springs), El Puig de les Ànimes (three springs), and El Puig de les Moleres (two springs). Spas were developing elsewhere and what with its close proximity and easy reaching from Barcelona, it was perfectly situated for the wealthy to visit and those expensive villas and chalets were constructed. The springs themselves were enclosed within splendid spa buildings which provided then and now various hydrothermal therapies and treatments.
In the 1800s, the water was bottled commercially with three brands coming from the town: San Narciso (since 1870), Vichy Catalan (1891) and Agua Malavella, formed by a merger of two companies after the Spanish Civil War and later acquired by Vichy Catalan in 1985. Of the spa the first of these modern spa was built in 1840 and is called Balneari Prats. Here one enters an archway boldly exclaiming the name and there is a large pool and to the side a small white19th century building which is the spring house. Here the spring flows from a wall mounted spring head and can be sampled
Then in 1898, Vichy Catalan was established. This is a far more august and spectacular building done in a classic Spanish art nuovo style, much of the building is private treatment rooms but there is also a chapel. The spring arises in a wall mounted spring head surrounded by an ankh shaped surround. The water appears more iron rich from this spring.
The town is a delightful one full of interest and their spa heritage is well looked after and describe I cannot recommend it enough.
Ffynnon Fair, Llanfair-is-gaer and Ffynnon Ddeiniol, Bangor, Gwynedd by Howard Huws Source New Series No 4 Summer 1995
Readers of Source will need no reminding of the numerous holy wells lost or destroyed through neglect and vandalism. Others, still extant, have become obscure and do not appear in lists such as Francis Jones’ Holy Wells of Wales or Myrddin Fardd’s Llén Gwerin Sir Gaernarfon, l However a familiarity with sources of local history may reveal such sites of interest. This was the case with two holy wells at or near Bangor which I have been able to locate with but a little effort, and some help.
The first is Ffynnon Fair (St Mary’s Well), in the parish of Llan-fair-is-gaer near Bangor. The old parish church stands on the shore of the Menai Straits, a short mile west of Y Felinheli. This spot was formerly an important crossing point, served by a ferry.2 The well of Ffynnon Fair is about 500 yards south-east of the church, where a noticeable scarp marks a geological fault of some severity. The O.S. Grid reference is SH 5053 6564.
Until very recently a road ran from the church directly past the well and thence up the slope towards higher ground. This would have linked the ferry to the old Roman road from Chester to Caernarfon. Continuing southwards, the track would have passed through Eryri LSnowdonial to Beddgelert, and towards Cardigan Bay and South Wales.3 Beddgelert Priory owned land in Llanfair-is-gaer and in the Anglesey parish of Llanidan directly opposite. Beddgelert Priory was similarly dedicated to the Mother of God, and had a Ffynnon Fair.4 I do not know the date of Llanfair- is-gaer’s foundation, but as Llanfair yn Arfon it was known to the fourteenth-century compilers of the Triads of the Isle of Britain in connection with the myth of Henwen the sow.5 The first written mention of the well which I have seen is a reference to ‘Cae Uwchyffordd alias Cae Ffynnon Fair’ in a Llanfair Hall Estate deed dated 1458 and now at the National Library in Aberystwyth (Llanfair Estate D2).6 The name appears subsequently in other estate documents, but not in any well-list that I know of, and not in the Royal Commission Inventory.
My attention was drawn to it by a chance reference in a papur bro (community newspaper) to Allt Ffynnon Fair as the name of the above- mentioned scarp. Subsequent enquiries established that the well is locally known, being noted for its cold, clear water, available at all seasons. This preservation of the well’s name amongst Llanfair’s inhabitants since before the Reformation reflects the tenacity of local oral tradition, and the importance of a dependable water supply.
Had the site come to my attention two years ago, I could have reported concerning the water’s potability. However those planning and constructing the Felinheli By-pass have since seen fit to incorporate the well in the road’s surface water drainage scheme. The well is now enclosed in a concrete sump, and access denied by a heavy iron grid. The water rises and falls according to rainfall, but for the most part looks stagnant and unappealing. Even where it is accessible, there are no means of determining what part of the sump’s content is spring water, and what part roadwork runoff.
Nearby ground tends to become waterlogged after rain, and investigation proved that a layer of stony clay, probably glacial, lies about a foot below the surface. Any hole dug quickly fills with water, but this is probably soil runoff rather than an upwelling. To strike the water table, one would probably have to dig several feet through the clay: so any question of restoration remains speculative. The site of the well is easily accessible from the road, but the nearby field is private property and permission should be sought at Crug Farm before venturing there.
This well is (or was) situated about a mile and a half west of the centre of Bangor, behind the suburb of Glanadda. There is no mystery concerning its general location, old Ordnance maps naming the area as Cae Ffynnon Deiniol St Deiniol’s Well Field). Francis Jones refers but vaguely to wells near Bangor.8 The name Deiniol or Daniel appears in several place names at or near Bangor, as would be expected. There is Perllan Cae Daniel, Porth Daniel, Gwely Deiniol and Cae Ffynnon Ddeiniol.9 The well site stands at the northern end of what was a wooded ravine, in rough ground. The ravine is referred to in documents by various names, including Nant Gwtherin, Nant y Fferam Nant Uffern, Nant Offeirin and Nan yr Offeren, i.e. the Ravine of the Liturgy (10) The latter version appears in Garmon Jones’ toponomical notes of 1951 11 as being favoured by the the inhabitant of nearby Nant Farm, who said that he had ‘a letter from London’ so addressed. If correct, it would certainly be interesting in the present context: but Welsh toponomy is bedevilled by ill-informed speculations concerning the ‘true meaning’ of place-names. Any of these versions, or none of them, could be the ‘correct’ one. Nowadays the area is simply known as Nant. Somewhat behind this ravine are three fields called ‘Llan’ (i.e. enclosure or church), where another aged informant interviewed 1951 said there was ‘a very old rum .12 There are very many wells in the Bangor area, but why this one should be specifically linked with St Deiniol, I cannot tell; no legend or tradition has survived. As with Ffynnon Fair above, the site is very near to a road linking the Menai shore at Y B011h (the present George Hostel site, and an important crossing point) to the old Roman Road. It was much used by drovers.13 The first written reference to Cae Ffynnon Ddeiniol of which I know is in an episcopal rental of 1647.14 The land was church property, specifically that of the bishop of Bangor, and remained so until the middle of the last century. It appears to have been regarded as inalienable, and was only sold off when mid-nineteenth century legislation enabled church land to be so disposed of. In any case, such poor ground would appeal little to the rapacious.
The upper part of the ravine, noted as being part of Cae Ffynnon Ddeiniol, was sold to the enterprising James Smyth Scott in 1843 and a reservoir was built there to provide Bangor with a dependable water supply. This was expanded in 1845, but then abandoned as inadequate. A brewery was established at the lower and of the field by c. 1867,15 utilizing water from either the research
By that time the land-hungry Penrhyn Estate was showing interest, and maps then drawn up are to be found at the National Library (Church in Wales, B/Maps/II) and the archives at University College Bangor.16 The latter is particularly interesting as showing two wells as small rectangles, possibly indicating that they were stone-lined. One at O.S. Grid Reference SH 5743 7101 is in the middle of the area named Cae Ffynnon Daniel. The other is shown in an adjacent field (at O.S. 5752 7103), named Cae Ffynnon. The Penrhyn Estate acquired the land in two purchases in 1871 and 1872. Worrall’s trade directory of c.1880 contains an advertisement for a soft drinks manufactory which replaced the brewery. The advert makes specific mention of the renowned health-giving properties of St Deiniol’s Well: and hyperbole apart, may indicate the proprietor’s awareness of a local tradition concerning the water’s healing powers.
A tradition now lost, alas. The manufactory closed by the middle of this century, but the name ‘Cae Ginger Beer’ has stuck to the field. The ravine was used as a dump until about 1965, and is largely filled The land, having been owned by Bangor City Council and Arfon Borough Council, now belongs to the Lowry family of nearby Hendrewen Farm. With their permission I visited the site following rain in November.I almost immediately came across a slate-lined structure half buried and mud-chocked of which I had high hopes. But a little digging revealed it to be a conduit, not a well, and probably intended to convey water to the brewery, It contained a few shards of glazed nineteenth-century pottery, and the remains of a glass bottle. It was also obvious that the site had changed much since the last century: field boundaries have altered, and a quarry which would have provided a useful point of reference with the old maps has been filled and has disappeared under scrub. Dirty water flows strongly across the field from the ravine/dump, and then disappears down an old concrete drain sited roughly where I had imagined one of the wells, i.e. the one in the middle of the 1872 map, to be.17
The well may have suffered the same fate as Ffynnon Fair, and have been incorporated into some past drainage improvement scheme. But further study of the available maps leads me to suspect that I may have been ten or twenty yards out in my guess of where the spring should be, and that a rather unappealing area of muddy scrub may prove rewarding. Another visit during slightly drier weather may therefore be in order.
As for the second well, the landowner tells me that it was filled in only about two years ago. It was walled, with steps and a grating, with a public right of access to it. It fed the same stream as the other above-mentioned. It could be as viable a candidate for the title of ‘Ffynnon Ddeiniol’ as the other, given that it was obviously a maintained structure sufficiently important to be specifically mentioned in land deeds, and given that the boundaries of Cae Ffynnon Ddeiniol may have changed and shrunk over the years. At present therefore I cannot say which of the two wells is Ffynnon Ddeiniol; but the information gleaned so far is sufficient fuel for further research. I shall inform readers of any progress.18
- BMSS z: Bangor Manuscripts collection, University College of North Wales, Bangor.
- CV Carter-Vincent manuscripts collection, UCNW, Bangor.
- Jones, Francis. The Holy Wells of Wales. Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1954
- Jones, John (Myrddin Fardd). Llén Gwerin Sir Gaernarfon.Caemarfon, Swyddfa ‘Cymru’, 1908.
- Davies, H.R. The Conway and Menai Ferries.pp. 69-71. Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1942.
- Margary, I.D. Roman Roads of Britain. 3rd ed. London, John Barker, 1973. Map p. 316; course of road described, p. 351. It may not be too fanciful to suspect that a branch of this road may have run from Caeathro across the Afon Saint at Pontrug and on towards this important crossing point at Llanfair-is-gaer. This would spare the traveller a needless detour via the fort at Segontium (Caernarfon).
- Davies, H.R., op. cit. p. 70.
- Hughes, H. , and North, H.L. The Old Churches of Snowdonia. pp. 200, 227. Bangor, Jarvis and Foster, 1924.
- Beddgelert Priory’ s reputed impoftance to travellers to and from Ireland would underline the signifiance of the Llanfair ferry over the Menai Strait. This had to be crossed before reaching Anglesey ports of embarkation. If Llanfair church is a late dedication, it may have been so founded and sited for three reasons. Firstly, as an act of piety. Secondly, as a place of prayer and thanksgiving at a potentially hazardous ferry crossing. Thirdly, to confirm the prior of Beddgelert’s economic and territorial ties with lands on both sides of the Straits hereabouts.
- Triad 26: ‘Three Powerful Swineherds of the Island of Britain: Drystan son of Tallwch…And Pryderi son of Pwyll…And Coll son of Collfrei,qy, who guarded Henwen, the sow of Dallwyr Dallben, who…went to the Black Stone in Llanfair in Arfon, and there she brought forth a kitten; and Coll son of Collfrewy threw that kitten into the Menai. And she was afterwards Palug’s Cat’ – Bromwich, Rachel, Trioedd Ynys Prydein:The Welsh Triads, 2nd ed., Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1978, pp. 45-6.