Category Archives: Flintshire

Guest blog post: Ffynnon Leinw – Holy Well or natural wonder by Tristan Gray Hulse (part two)

It is a pleasure to present Tristan Gray Hulse’s second part of his monograph on Ffynnon Leinw

On the Tuesday of Holy Week 1188 Giraldus and Archbishop Baldwin rode from Bangor to Rhuddlan Castle, where they were entertained for the night. On Wednesday Baldwin preached the Crusade in Rhuddlan, before saying Mass in St Asaph cathedral, after which his party rode on to spend the night at Basingwerk Abbey, near Holywell. On the Thursday they rode to Chester. At some point (Giraldus’ mention is made between his accounts of Tuesday evening and the events of Wednesday, so that he probably heard it at Rhuddlan on Tuesday night) they were told of a spring not far from Rhuddlan which ebbed and flowed twice daily with the tides, but which was also liable to rise and fall frequently throughout the day. Humphrey Llwyd identified Giraldus’ unnamed spring with an unnamed ebbing-and-flowing well in Cilcain parish; adding that the spring was observed to dry up at a certain time of the year. Llwyd’s identification of Giraldus’ spring with the Cilcain well was followed by David Powel, who named the latter as Ffynnon Leinw; and Camden followed Powel in locating an ebbing-and-flowing spring in the parish of Cilcain, without naming it. Richard Mostyn and, after him, Edward Lhwyd, suggested that Ffynnon Asa, in Cwm parish, as being closer to Rhuddlan, was a more plausible match for Giraldus’ spring; also noting that Ffynnon Leinw no longer ebbed and flowed.

Giraldus’ topographical notices in the Itinerarium were almost entirely anecdotal, apparently dependent upon the casual comments of his hosts; the hit-and-miss character of this kind of information-gathering can be assessed from the fact that, although he spent a night at Basingwerk, he has no account of St Winefride’s Well, Holywell, although its fame was by then long established in north-east Wales and the northern Marches – its absence is best explained by assuming that no-one happened to mention the Holywell well to Giraldus during his few brief hours at Basingwerk.

Ffynnon Leinw and Ffynnon Asa were not the only ebbing-and-flowing wells in Wales. Giraldus had mentioned another one in his Itinerarium Cambriae, at Dinefwr (I, 10: Giraldus 1908, 74). Francis Jones wrote that ebbing and flowing was “a claim common to many Welsh wells”. (Jones 1954, 53: Jones noticed the claim for a Ffynnon Fednant, in Caernarfonshire – ib. 154; Llandyfeisant Well, Carmarthenshire, i.e., the Dinefwr well – p. 171; Ff. Asa and Ff. Leinw, in Flintshire – 178, 180; Ff. Maen y Milgi, Llandrillo, in Merioneth – 193; two wells at Chepstow, Monmouthshire – 196; and St Non’s Well, at St Davids, Carncwn Well, at Newport, Ff. Lygaid, at St Davids, and Pencw Wells, at Goodwick, all in Pembrokeshire – 210, 212, 213, 216.) James Rattue (1995, 114) notes that such wells were reported in England, and were particularly attractive to antiquarian writers such as Camden; on p. 117 he quotes Camden quoting an ode by Sir John Stradling to an ebbing-and-flowing well at Newton, in Glamorganshire. (This is St John’s Well, Newton; Jones 1954, 183, listed the well, but missed the ebbing-and-flowing claim, and Stradling’s poem.)

Less than two miles from Rhuddlan, Ffynnon Asa is a plausible identification for Giraldus’ spring; Ffynnon Leinw, rather less so. But, given the sheer number of wells for which such claims were made, it cannot be certain that Giraldus’ spring should be identified with either Ffynnon Asa or Ffynnon Leinw. What is certain is that the ubiquity of Camden’s Britannia guaranteed that a well in Cilcain parish – more exactly identified by Powel with Ffynnon Leinw – was for centuries identified as being fed by an ebbing-and-flowing spring.

So far as I am aware, the claim of regular twice-daily ebbing and flowing has never been established for any of the many springs for which the claim has been made in the past. What is probably being witnessed by such claims is a common but irregular fluctuation in water levels created by sustained periods of more or less rainfall, observed casually, from time to time, by persons who noted different water levels each time they had cause to visit the well, and invoked the example of the universal regular tidal ebbing and flowing as an explanation of a local phenomenon. In certain instances it may be that one has to do with a periodic spring, dry for part of the year, but returning after prolonged rainfall; certainly this seems to be what Humphrey Llwyd was recording for the Cilcain well.

Flintshire is famous for its wells, which owe their existence to the Carboniferous Limestone that constitutes its central plain. This rock is porous and the water percolates it till it comes in contact with impermeable shale or clay, where it accumulates and finds its way again to the surface through some of the many fissures … Ffynnon Leinw, “the flowing well,” in Cilcain parish, was at one time an intermittent spring, flowing at regular intervals, owing to syphon action, but it has long lost this peculiarity (Edwards 1914, 25, 27).

This and related phenomena are common in the local limestone landscape. Numbers of the rivers and streams flowing through Cilcain parish run underground for some distance at certain times of the year; as the Parochialia noted:

All their rivulets dive. [It names the Alun, “underground abt 3 quarters of a mile” (it sinks at a place below Cilcain village called Hesp Alun, “the dry Alun”); the Fechlas, “underground hlf a mile it breaks forth at a place therefore call’d tarth y Dŵr” (Tardd y Dŵr, “eruption, or issue, of water”); and the Cain, “dives for hlf a mile more and so to Alen within the P’ish”.] They have severall other Rills that dive (Lhwyd 1909, 80-1).

(The overflow from Ffynnon Leinw drains into the Fechlas; Tardd y Dŵr is two-thirds of a mile west of the well: SJ 175 675. Tardd y Dŵr and Ffynnon Leinw are both in the former Cilcain township of Dolfechlas.) The places of their re-emergence would all exhibit greater or lesser volumes of water, depending on the rainfall. With regard to Ffynnon Leinw, more careful observation (as suggested by Richard Mostyn and Pennant) would have cleared up the popular suggestion of any twice-daily ebbing and flowing.

The suggestion here is that Ffynnon Leinw, before its final drying-up as a result of mining locally (cf. RCAHM 1912, 16; Davies 1959, 65 – if indeed it has really dried up; it would seem still to flow periodically: cf. Davis 2003, 71), was a periodic spring whose flow varied with the rainfall, and which often ceased to flow altogether during drier periods of the year. This idea is perhaps reinforced by the name of the well. The element leinw has caused placename scholars a number of problems (cf. e.g. Davies 1959, 65), but it may simply relate in some way to the verb llanw or llenwi, “to fill”, and to the masculine noun llanw, “influx”. (The ll > l is simply the regular lenition, following the feminine noun ffynnon, “well”; in just this way the personal names Mair and Mihangel mutate to give Ffynnon Fair and Ffynnon Fihangel. ) It is in this sense that Pennant understood the element, when he translated Ffynnon Leinw as “the flowing well”. Professor Hywel Wyn Owen has commented on the name:

The form leinw cannot be explained as a noun or adjective. Most Welsh speakers would know leinw from Psalms 84.6 ‘y glaw a leinw y llynnau’ [“the rain also filleth the pools” – AV]. That was in the old translation … The Psalms use leads me to suspect that the well was originally y ffynnon a leinw ‘the well which fills’. In time the relative pronoun was omitted leaving us with y ffynnon leinw > Ffynnon Leinw (pers. comm. to TGH, 14 December 2015).

The name would thus seem to reference the sudden filling of a well with the recommencement of a periodic spring after heavy rain. It would seem not to carry any inevitable sense of a regular ebbing and flowing like the sea’s tides, but only of flowing; though doubtless the secondary use of the noun llanw for “the flow of the tide” would facilitate any popular misinterpretation of such periodic springs as regularly ebbing and flowing.

References

Anon., Cambrian Traveller’s Guide, ed. 1, Stourport: George Nicholson, 1808; ed. 2, London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, & Brown, 1813

Anon., “The Parish of Mold”, 3 parts, The Cambro-Briton vol. 1, London: 1819, 136-43, 179-84, 298-300

Anon., “Extracts from a MS of Ancient Date, giving some Customs and Usages in North Wales”, Archaeologia Cambrensis 40 (1885) 150-6

Anon., “Obituary, The Rev. Elias Owen of Llan y Blodwel”, Archaeologia Cambrensis 56 (1901) 322-4

Browne, Sir Thomas, ed. Geoffrey Keynes, Selected Writings, London: Faber and Faber, 1970

Camden, William, ed., Anglica, Normannica, Hibernica, Cambrica, a veteribus scripta [&c], Frankfurt: 1603

Camden, William, Britannia; sive Florentissimorum Regnorum, Angliae, Scotiae, Hiberniae, & Insularum adiacentium ex intima antiquitate Chorographica descriptio, Frankfurt: Johann Bringer, 1616

Camden, William, rev. Edmund Gibson, Britannia: or a Chorographical Description of Great Britain and Ireland … Translated into English, with Additions and Improvements, second ed., vol. 2, London: Awnsham Churchill, 1722

Carlisle, Nicholas, A Topographical Dictionary of the Dominion of Wales, London: 1811

Cartwright, Jane, Feminine Sanctity and Spirituality in Medieval Wales, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2008

Cathrall, William, The History of North Wales [&c], vol. 2, Manchester: 1828

Cox, Phil, “The Lost Chapel of St Leonard”, 1970: accessed 10/12/2015 on the Caer Alyn Archaeological and Heritage website, http://caeralyn.org

Davies, Ellis, Flintshire Place-Names, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1959

Davis, Paul, Sacred Springs: In Search of the Holy Wells and Spas of Wales, Llanfoist: Blorenge Books, 2003

Duffy, Eamon, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England c.1400-c.1580, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992

Edwards, J,M., Flintshire (Cambridge County Geographies), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1914

Evans, J., The Beauties of England and Wales: or, Original Delineations, Topographical, Historical, and Descriptive, of each County, vol. 17 (North Wales), London: J. Harris [&c], 1812

Farmer, David Hugh, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, ed. 5, Oxford: University Press, 2003

Giraldus Cambrensis, tr. Richard Colt Hoare, The Itinerary through Wales and The Description of Wales, London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, 1908

Gray, Madeleine, Images of Piety: The iconography of traditional religion in late medieval Wales (BAR British Series 316), Oxford: Archaeopress, 2000

Gruffydd, Eirlys a Ken Lloyd, Ffynhonnau Cymru. Cyfrol 2: Ffynhonnau Caernarfon, Dinbych, Y Fflint a Môn, Llanrwst: Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 1999

Gruffydd, Ken Lloyd, “The Manor & Marcher Lordship of Mold during the Early Middle Ages, 1039-1247”, Ystrad Alun: Journal of the Mold Civic Society 1 (Christmas 2000) 3-21

Hooke, R[obert], Micrographia: or some Physiological Description of Minute Bodies made by magnifying glasses with observations and inquiries thereupon, London: James Allestry, 1667

Hooper, Richard, ed., The Complete Works of Michael Drayton, vols 1-3 (Poly-Olbion), London: John Russell Smith, 1876

Jacobus de Voragine, tr. William Granger Ryan, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, vol. 2, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1995

Jones, Francis, The Holy Wells of Wales, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1954

Jones, J. Colin, Gresford Village and Church: The history of a border settlement, Wrexham: J. Colin Jones, 1995

Lewis, Samuel, A Topographical Dictionary of Wales, ed. 3, vol. 1, London: S. Lewis and Co., 1848

Lloyd, John Edward, and R.T. Jenkins, eds, The Dictionary of Welsh Biography down to 1940, London: The Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion, 1959

Lloyd, Nesta, “The Correspondence of Edward Lhuyd and Richard Mostyn”, Flintshire Historical Society Publications 25 (1971-2) 31-61

Lhuyd, Humfredus, Commentarioli Britannicae Descriptionis Fragmentum, Cologne: Johann Birckman, 1572

Lhwyd, Edward, ed. Rupert H. Morris, Parochialia being a Summary of Answers to “Parochial Queries” [&c], part 1, London: The Cambrian Archaeological Association, 1909

Morris, John, ed./transl., Nennius: British History and The Welsh Annals, London and Chichester: Phillimore, 1980

Owen, Elias, 1899: “Ffynon Leinw, an Ebbing and Flowing Well”, chapter in The Holy Wells of North Wales, unpublished manuscript NLW 3290D

Pennant, Thomas, Tours in Wales, vol. 2, London: Wilkie and Robinson [&c], 1810

Powel, David, Pontici Virunnii Britannicae Historiae libri VI; Itinerarium Cambriae, Cambriae Descriptio; De Britannica Historia recte intelligenda Epistola, London: Henry Denham and Ralph Newbury, 1585

Rattue, James, The Living Stream: Holy Wells in Historical Context, Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1995

RCAHM 1912, 1914, 1925 = An Inventory of The Ancient Monuments of Wales and Monmouthshire. II. – County of Flint; IV. – County of Denbigh; and VII.- County of Pembroke, London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1912, 1914 and 1925

Rees, Eiluned, and Gwyn Walters, “The Dispersion of the Manuscripts of Edward Lhuyd”, The Welsh History Review 7, no. 2 (Dec. 1974) 148-78

Richter, Michael, Giraldus Cambrensis: The Growth of the Welsh Nation, rev. ed., Aberystwyth: The National Library of Wales, 1976

Schwyzer, Philip, ed., Humphrey Llwyd “The Breviary of Britain” with selections from “The History of Cambria”, London: Modern Humanities Research Association, 2011

Spalding, Ruth, The Improbable Puritan: A Life of Bulstrode Whitelocke, 1605-1675, London: Faber & Faber, 1975

Spalding, Ruth, ed., The Diary of Bulstrode Whitelocke, 1605-1675, Oxford: Oxford University Press/The British Academy, 1990

Speed, John, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain, London: 1611/12

Stephens, Meic, ed., The New Companion to the Literature of Wales, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1998

Walsham, Alexandra, The Reformation of the Landscape: Religion, Identity, and Memory in Early Modern Britain and Ireland, Oxford: University Press, 2011

Whitelocke, R.H., Memoirs, Biographical and Historical, of Bulstrode Whitelocke [&c], London: Routledge, Warne, and Routledge, 1860

[Williams, John] Ab Ithel, “Holy Wells”, Archaeologia Cambrensis 1 (1846) 50-4

Williams, Moses. Humfredi Llwyd, Armigeri, Britannicae Descriptionis Commentariolum [&c], London: William Bowyer, 1731

Wynne, Glenys, Cilcain, Mold: Cilcain W.I., 1944

 

Holy Wells and Healing Springs of North Wales: Fynnon Sara, Derwen

Possibly one of the easiest of North Wales’s holy wells located a few feet from the roadside down a cobbled path, all part of the local vicar’s attempt to landscape and preserve the site in the 1970s. A plaque on the wall tells us it is Ffynnon Sara. The well itself consists of a large stone lined bath like structure, 4.5 by 2.3 metres and fills to around a metre depth although when I visited it appeared only a few centimetres in depth, the water being reached by four steps in one corner.

Fynnon Sarah and Janet Bord (14)

Considerable cure

The well was once firmly on the pilgrim’s trail from Holywell to St Davids being marked on maps until the 17th century. A cottage was located nearby and may have been used by visitors. Peering into the duckweed covered sluggish water it is difficult to see how these waters had thought to have a wide range of powers. Amongst the usual claims of eczema and rheumatism, cancer was said to be cured here. Patients would bathe in the well and leave pins! Presumably those who bathed afterwards would be aware of this. Crutches were said to have been left in the cottage which existed on the site, said to have been lost in the 1860s. Now a sign proclaims unfit to drink!

Who’s well is it?

There has been some confusion over the origin of the name. Whilst the name could easily derive from the owner of the nearby lost cottage, possibly a family name, others have sought to associated with a saint. St Saeran, a sixth century saint has been suggested. He established a monastic settlement at Llanynys, eight or so miles from the site. However, there is no reason why they should be the original dedication. Indeed in the 17th century it was called Fynnon Pyllau Perl – pearl ponds – perhaps after pearl producing mussels in the water.

Strange coincidence

Upon visiting the well I was greeted with a delightful encounter. Peering into those murky waters was a lady who unbeknownst to her got me interested into holy wells in the first place. It was author Janet Bord. With her was fellow enthusiast, Tristan Grey Hulse (founder of the Source new series, author and St Winifred Wells companion) and a number of others. They had simply stopped there to have a quick look and were actually only visiting churches. I suppose after visiting so many wells it was bound to happen but it was a fitting finish to my North Wales Holy well pilgrimage.

Fynnon Sarah and Janet Bord (2)

Holy Wells and Healing springs of North Wales: St Mary’s Well, Rhuddlan

 

It is nice to easily find a holy well for once, for Rhuddlan’s St Mary’s Well lying as it does in the grounds of Bodrhyddan Hall, is easily seen by the side of the drive to the hall (the gardens of which are open Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and well worth exploring)

Pure folly or holy?

What greets us today is a typical folly building but does the well have any provenance before the current construction. The earliest reference is as Ffynnon Fair and is made by Lhuyd in 1699 however it does not appear on an estate map until 1730, although an engraving on the fabric of the well states emphatically 1612! Significantly neither of these dates are associated with any traditions and there appears to be no pre-Reformation reference.

The only hints of its importance are traditions of clandestine marriages at the well, although it is possible that this is a mixed up tradition with a more famous Ffynnon Fair at St Asaph. The other hint is found in the hall, where a possibly unique stone fish inserted in the flooring of the hall shows the boundary of the parishes and as you may have gathered regularly reading this blog many holy wells mark parish boundaries. Neither pieces are particularly emphatic!

The well itself is a delightful edifice consisting of an octagonal stone four metre well house and adjacent stone lined ‘bathing pool’. The well has arched entrance with cherub kerbstone. Inside the rather cramp well are seats around the inside and although access to the water is prevented by a metal grill. On the top of the well house is a carved pelican and a stylised fish (more similar to classical images of dolphin) pours its water into the cold bath which is surrounded by a stone ballastrade.

Keeping up with the Joneses?

One of the biggest issues with site is who built it. On the well house it is proclaimed that Inigo Jones was responsible. Jones was a noted architect and garden designer, so the building has the appearance of something he could have built, the date was when he was at the height of his fame so it is surprising nothing more official is recorded. Was this a local of the same name or the family adding the date and person at a later date to impress visitors? Certainly the building looks late 18th or early 19th century, probably being built when the house was restored then. Whatever, the well is part of a larger landscape including other wells, tree lined walkaways and now a summerhouse above a landscaped pool.

Its absence in 1730 but present on the 1756 one suggests not. Furthermore, Norman Tucker 1961’s Bodrhyddan and the families of Conwy, Shipley-Conwy and Rowley-Conwy states that the lettering is on the wrong period! Another possibility is that the architect may have been involved with designing the gardens and when the well was constructed later as the central piece the date of the garden design was recorded…but of course this does not explain who the well’s designer was!

Wishing well or healing well?

Today a sign, rather tacky to my mind (and I removed it to take photos) claims it is a wishing well. Visitors have certainly have paid attention to the sign as the well is full of coins. It is worth noting that although there is no curative history to the waters, anecdotally its powers could be significant. All the owners who have drunk from the well have lived to a considerable age, indeed the present owner is in his 100s I believe. Perhaps it might be worth bottling it!

Whatever its origin the well is a delightful one and certainly a change from muddy footpaths, negotiating brambles and nettles and getting completely pixy led…and there a nice garden and fascinating hall to see too.

For more information on North Wales Holy Wells follow wellhopper.wordpress.com

 

 

 

Holy Wells and Healing Springs of North Wales: St Dyfnog’s Well, Llanrhaeadr-yng-Nghinmeirch

Fynnon Dyfnog Llanheadr (18)

At this site alone one can see how vital the holy well was for the community and how much wealth it could generate. Indeed, the name a quite difficult to pronounce Llanrhaeadr-yng-Nghinmeirch is related to the well or rather the waterfall it produces beside the church (Llan).

Before visiting the well, I recommend a visit to the church. A grand and imposing edifice with a splendid roof and its chief treasure – its Jesse Window – why? This is because it was said to have been paid for from offerings from the well. Fortunately, it was removed and was buried at the time of the Commonwealth and thus was preserved.

From behind the church an archway leads over a stream and through a woodland towards this mighty of all Welsh holy wells. The route has been considerably improved with fine brick arches, giving an idea of the grandeur of this site. Once there it does not disappoint being a large bath structure. A considerably flow of water arises here clear and clean from two springs one possibly called Fynnon Fair. Indeed, the 16th century Leland antiquarian noted it was:

  “a mighty spring that maketh a brook running scant a mile” 

The water fills a large bath stone lined bath, said to have a marble bottom and under an archway tumbling to form the stream. The water appears to be petrifying forming interesting smooth incrustations to the north-west of the bath and entering the pool.

Curative waters

The well had a long history of use. It had become established along the Medieval pilgrim route to Holywell and was said to have cured a number of ills. Unlike other sites its fame and attendance continued well beyond the Reformation. Francis Jones (1955) in his Holy Wells of Wales that in the 16th century an unnamed bard defends the saint and his well stating he reveres Dyfnog’s effigy, accepts his miracles, praises his miracle-working well and gives grace to all nations and cures all ills – dumbmess, deafness, y frech wenwynig. later Edward Lhuyd 1698 Parochialia records its survival of use:

“a bath, much frequented, the water heals scabs, itches etc, some say that it would cure the pox.”

A hermit’s penance!

St. Dyfnog was a hermit who is said to have lived by the spring in the 6th century. It is also claimed that the spring gained its healing properties from a regular penance the saint would do in the water. He is said to have worn a hair shirt being belted by an iron chain. Very little is known beyond this.

Two wells for the price of one

The considerable flow which in times of heavy rainfall is often a threat to the fabric of the well, in particular the remains of the arches through which the water tumbles and falls. One of the reasons for this is that as Lhuyd in 1698 records there are actually two wells. Unsurprisingly, the one above the main spring is called Ffynnon Fair (St. Mary’s Well) which flows forming some curious calcified hummocks suggesting it has petrifying properties.

Holy well or folly?

The most impressive feature of the well is the very large rectangular bath (xxx ) A structure which is far more representative of a cold plunge bath than a holy well. Together with accounts of its marble lining and surrounding statues this was clearly developed foremost as a folly it would seem presumable for Llanrhaeadr Hall.

Alternatively these were improvements to help visitors as Browne Willis in the early 18th century records:

“the famous well of St Dyfnog, much resorted to, and on that account provided with all convenience of rooms etc, for bathing, built around it.”

All sadly gone, although the remains of the walls of these may be traced nearby. However, despite the forlorn appearance of this well it is one of the few sites where this is active restoration, although the blog has not been updated since 2013, a visit in 2015 suggestions the plan to restore is still very much on the books, with plans for a £300,000 religious tourist attraction, environmental and education facility – the well now has a separate visitors book in the church! So please donate if you can to this most impressive and evocative of Welsh wells.

Read more

https://wellhopper.wordpress.com/2011/06/15/st-dyfnog-llanrhaeadr/

St Dyfnog’s Well Restoration Project blog

Holy Wells and Healing Springs of North Wales: Ffynnon Fair, Cefn near St Asaph

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“This township is situated on the left bank of the river Elwy, and near that river is a beautiful and romantic dingle, in which is a fine spring, called Y Ffynnon Fair, discharging about 100 gallons of water per minute, and strongly impregnated with lime. It is enclosed in a richly-sculptured polygonal basin, which was formerly covered by a canopy supported by ornamental pillars, and was then much resorted to as a cold bath. Adjoining the well are the ruins of a cruciform chapel, in the decorated and later English styles, parts being overgrown with ivy. Prior to the Reformation, this was a chapel of ease to St. Asaph, and was served by one of the vicars to that church. ……”

Samuel Lewis A Topographical Dictionary of Wales 1849

Ffynnon Fair must rank as one of the most romantically atmospheric sites in the whole country. It has been a site which has graced many books on the subject – even one on English well traditions. It has been immortalized in poetry and its ruins do not disappoint. I have had this one site on my to do list for some time

On my way to the well, I came across an elderly gentlemen. He came towards me and I said have you been to the well. He relied, he could not find a way in…it could not be that difficult I thought and realising he looked rather crestfallen at not succeeding at his mission I turned him and around and thought I would help him. He was not best dressed for well hunting appearing to have sandals and socks which soon became sodden as we had to cross the small brook formed from the springhead. I asked him whether there was a reason for his visit. He said he was an artist and was planning to paint a number of holy wells using the water from the well – I took his name but to my regret I failed to remember it. At the well we soon found the old rusty gate, untied the loop and let ourselves in, closing it behind for fear of letting some livestock here.

Fynnon Fair Trefnant (19)

The site has a delightful restfulness and one could clearly see even as a ruin how this chapel could be a pilgrim site. The gentlemen asked me to fill his beaker and I obliged. He then produced a pen wrote the name of the well and date and duly vanished!

What we can see is a bit of an enigma. The well chapel is a star shaped structure around eight feet whose water flows in channel under the chapel. The well chapel is said to have been built in the 13th century which additions and rebuilding in the 1500s. What remains aside from the well is a chancel, a north and south transect under which the water flows, with some Perpendicular tracery in the windows and doorways. Paul Davis in his ‘Sacred Springs’ believed like St Winifred’s Well, the well chamber had elaborate vaulting over it, probably contained within a projecting wing creating a cruciform plan. He also believes the well could have been a hostel for pilgrims – all interesting theories but unsupported.

Fynnon Fair Trefnant (34)

Secret services

This was another site for clandestine practices. It is said up until 1640 marriages were performed here – probably Catholic ones. It seems likely that the place was a place of pilgrimage like St Winifred’s past the Reformation but if so how did it become so ruinous?

Cures

The water was quite cold on that particular August day, typical of waters associated with the cures its water claim to give for rheumatism and arthritis. There was also claimed to be a ‘sweet scented moss much esteemed by pilgrims’, that presumably once found at St. Winifred’s Well on which this well was on the pilgrim route to. Audrey Doughty in her book ‘Spas And Springs Of Wales’ suggests it was used for fertility and eye complaint, but I am unclear what her sources are. There appeared at some point possibly to develop the waters as a minor spa in the Victorian period as a small bath was excavated beside. However, by this time it was already becoming the picturesque ruin attracting poets and artists such Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89) Jesuit priest and poet and Felicia Hemans 1793-1835 who wrote Our Lady’s Well:

“FOUNT of the woods! thou art hid no more From heaven’s clear eye, as in time of yore. For the roof hath sunk from thy mossy walls, And the sun’s free glance on thy slumber falls; And the dim tree shadows across thee pass, As the boughs are swayed o’er thy silvery glass; And the reddening leaves to thy breast are blown, When the autumn wind hath a stormy tone; And thy bubbles rise to the flashing rain,— Bright fount! thou art nature’s own again!

Fount of the vale! thou art sought no more By the pilgrim’s foot, as in time of yore, When he came from afar, his beads to tell, And to chant his hymn at Our Lady’s Well. There is heard no Ave through thy bowers, Thou art gleaming lone midst thy water flowers! But the herd may drink from thy gushing wave, And there may the reaper his forehead lave, And the woodman seeks thee not in vain,— Bright fount! thou art nature’s own again!

Fount of the virgin’s ruined shrine! A voice that speaks of the past is thine! It mingles the tone of a thoughtful sigh With the notes that ring through the laughing sky; Midst the mirthful song of the summer bird, And the sound of the breeze, it will yet be heard!— Why is it that thus we may gaze on thee, To the brilliant sunshine sparkling free? ’T is that all on earth is of Time’s domain,— He hath made thee nature’s own again!

Fount of the chapel with ages gray! Thou art springing freshly amidst decay; Thy rites are closed and thy cross lies low, And the changeful hours breathe o’er thee now. Yet if at thine altar one holy thought In man’s deep spirit of old hath wrought; If peace to the mourner hath here been given, Or prayer from a chastened heart to Heaven,— Be the spot still hallowed while Time shall reign, Who hath made thee nature’s own again!”

Fynnon Fair Trefnant (31)

Chapel or folly?

Her work included a sketch which suggests that this ruin is not all what it seems. In particular her drawing shows the west wall of chapel only been a few feet high and no bell tower. More shocking is the lack of a star shaped basin. This has been used for well researchers to suggest a date and construction in line with that of Holywell’s St. Winifred’s Well. Was the site rebuilt in the Victorian period by the landowners as a quaint folly and a pretend St Winifred? Considering its time exposed to the elements it is remarkable well preserved! Indeed research has indicated despite the attempt to reconstruct via drawings a chapel akin to that of St Winifred excavations show that the well was never actually enclosed in the chapel. It was not thus a well chapel but a chapel beside the well! Water would thus run through the chapel in a manner similar to St Clether’s Well, Cornwall.

Fynnon Fair Trefnant (36)

But pretend or pilgrimage site…one verges towards the later of course, this is a delightful site which must be on anyone’s list of North Wale’s sacred springs.