Category Archives: Flintshire
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
“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.
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.
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?
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!”
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.
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.