Category Archives: Folklore
Down a lane away from the village in quiet solitude is St Ethelbert’s church at Marden. It is a church associated with a saintly legend and a location of particular interest for anyone concerned in water lore; for two pieces of local legend are recorded both with familiar motifs. Perhaps the most familiar one is associated with the strange find in a carpeted room to the left of the entrance. Here sadly dry is St. Ethelbert’s Well. The earliest record is John Duncombe 1804 Collections for a History of Herefordshire
“At the west end of the nave, defended by circular stonework, is a well about ten inches in diameter, about four feet below the pavement of the church, aspring supposed to arise from the spot in which the body of Ethelbert was first interred…. This spring is said to have been held in great veneration from the circumstance of the water retaining its purity, when overflowed by the stream of the Lugg, however muddy or impure.”
Charles Hope (1893) in his Legendary Lore of Holy Wells also records:
“MARDEN: ST. ETHELBERT’S WELL. THERE is a well in the church of Marden, Herefordshire. It is near the west end of the nave, defended by circular stone-work, about ten inches in diameter, and enclosing a spring, supposed to arise from the spot in which the body of King Ethelbert was first interred, and is called St. Ethelbert’s Well (Notes and Queries, 3 S., viii. 235).”
Jonathan Sant in his 1994 The Healing Wells of Herefordshire notes:
“Formerly to be seen at the west end of the nave, St. Ethelbert’s Well has recently been swallowed up by an extended vestry where it can now be seen incongruously surrounded by carpeted floor. The octagonal stone well-top is apparently late Victorian but the square top within the shaft below is doubtless older. Needless to say, the table which has been built over it is very modern and prevents small children from falling down the well”
The well is much as Sant describes although there have been recent talks of an improvement to make a more appropriate structure although that could possibly ruin this strange well. He records water in it as well, it was dry when I examined it in April of this year.
What is particularly strange is that once the wooden lid is removed this is a deep shaft well. Very few holy wells are such deep shafts, the majority being shallow springheads. Perhaps this suggests that this could as Sant suggests provide pure water even when the river was in flood. Its depth may also suggest a great age indicating how the ground level has risen as the years have built up more sediment. The church guide suggests it had a healing tradition but I am unable to find their source, similarly they claim the well and church were a place of pilgrim, likely but again no written evidence. Current pilgrims have thrown coins in the well as can be seen.
The legend of St Ethelbert’ or Æthelberht’s Well
Overlooking the village of Marden are the scant remains of Sutton Walls now a tree covered hillfort. Here local tradition record was the royal vill or sort of temporary villa of the great Offa of Mercia the scene of the saint’s murder.
According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle he was captured whilst visiting his bride to be Ælfthyth. Richard of Cirencester records that Offa’s queen Cynethryth convinced Offa that Æthelberht should be killed, although there is no evidence why. Although it was likely political as Æthelberht was King of the Angles and Mercia had domination over East Anglia and would be keen to stop any possible claimant under control.
One legend tells that he sat upon a chair with no seat a trap door of sorts, the whole being covered by a cloth and that he fell down the hole, a deep pit, his head being removed to ensure that he was dead. Another tells how he was smothered in his bed clothes. All accounts record his beheading, but some say that this was done in Offa’s presence. The body being hastily buried with the head beside the river below.
Discovery of the body and formation of the well
The legend is told in a panel upon the 2008 shrine to the saint in Hereford Cathedral but it is absent in the first version of the story which is restricted to the shaft of light subsequent tellings have mentioned the spring.
Issues with the legend
Considering the well head’s location and the church’s remote location it is more than likely that the church was placed here because of the well. However, does this make the well date from St. Ethelbert? Although, one would not miss to pour water upon the county’s famed legend, there are concerns that it might.
Hagiographers will notice that the religious features his martyrdom closely resemble that associated with the legend of St. Kenelm. This is best summarised by Edith Rickert’s 1905 article The Old English Offa Saga. II in Modern Philology Vol. 2, No. 3:
“At this point, however, mention must be made of another legend, that of St. Kenelm, which shows a curious relationship to the story of Ethelbert. The resemblances are these: a) Each saint, by the ambition and malice of a wicked kinswoman, was treacherously lured to his death and beheaded.’ b) The murderess in each case perished miserably by super natural intervention.2 c) Each saint had divine foreknowledge of his death in a dream or vision in which a beautiful tree was cut down and he himself was turned into a bird and flew up a column of light to heaven.”
Overall it suggests perhaps that the St. Ethelbert legend was a transfer from St. Kenelm (or vica versa) but if it was a concoction why? The other legend that of the Mermaid may give us a suggestion why….but we can discuss this in a future post.
“Just over the boundary, in the parish of Wilcote, is an old well of beautiful clear water, surrounded by a wall, with stone steps going down to it. It is called the Lady’s Well, and on Palm Sunday the girls go there and take bottles with Spanish juice (liquorice), fill the bottles, walk round the well”
Violet Mason, SCRAPS OF ENGLISH FOLKLORE, XIX. Oxfordshire Folklore, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Dec. 31, 1929), pp. 374-384
My first visit to the Lady or Lady’s Well at Fincote was on a misty cold December walking down from the village I was struck by the old gnarled elms which lined the way to the well and the feel of an ancient processional route to it. Back then in the 90s I was unaware of the folk customs associated with it as hinted above.
The well itself is a small affair enclosed as stated above in a high wall. The gate was locked and so sadly I could not access the water directly. However, it followed from beneath the wall and nearby was what appeared to be a trough or perhaps even a bath half sunk into the ground. It is known that the water was used by Wilcote Grange for water and filled a series of ponds nearby now gone. Interestingly there is a Bridewell Farm nearby so was the well originally dedicated to St. Bridget or the pagan Bride? What the well lacks in structure is made up by its association with the curious custom noted above which existed until recently and may still do locally. On the Finstock Local History website it is recorded:
“Mrs. Ivy Pratley, describes the making of the Spanish Water. “On the Saturday evening before Palm Sunday, we children would crush humbug sweets and white peppermints together and to this we would add some pieces of chopped liquorice stick, the mixture was then added to a bottle of water and we would sit around the room shaking the bottles until it had dissolved”.
The correspondent notes that:
“This bottle of liquid was drunk the following day while walking to Ladywell. They also carried with them, in a paper bag, some of the dry mixture, which was mixed with water from the well to drink on the way home. Early on Sunday afternoon the walkers would set off, one group using the footpath by the Plough Inn and another group near the top of High Street using the path to the left of the road about 50 yards east of Gadding Well. The groups then merged to follow the path through Wilcote Field Longcut or the Longcut as it was known locally. Most of the girls were given a new straw hat for the occasion and these were filled with primroses and voilets on the way through Sumteths Copse. They then crossed the field to the front of Wilcote Manor and followed a route past St. Peter’s Church to the Ash Avenue which leads directly to Ladywell.”
The custom was still current when Violet Mason in 1929 recorded it but little beknown to her it was soon to disappear. The Finstock Local History society record that it died out at the outbreak of war in 1939. However, Janet Bord in her excellent Holy Wells in Britain a guide (2008) received correspondence which suggests later. She notes:
“The one-time vicar of Wilcote, J.C.S Nias, informed me that when he first went there in 1956, ‘numerous members of county families used to go to that well in Palm Sunday with jam jars containing crushed peppermint and (I believe) liquorish.”
Interesting the vicar then goes on to suggest what might have been the original reason for the Spanish water:
“they pour water from the well on to this mixture which, they believed, would then be a specific for certain ailments during the following year.”
Another correspondent noted:
“Local historian Margaret Rogers noted in a letter to me in 1984 that ‘local people do not any longer visit it on Palm Sunday’ she added; Occasionally one elderly lady visits it, but way back in 1934 there used of a substantial number of people going down on lam Sunday to make liquorice water.”
Bord’s correspondent may give another reason for the custom’s demise:
“Quite a few elderly members of the village remember with indignation that they did not get Sunday school stamps for going down there.”
Now that’s a way to kill a custom off! Perhaps some people still make their private pilgrimage but whatever there is something otherworldly about the Lady Well. It’s a recommended walk.
Lying in a public park in a small town in Cheshire is a curiously named holy well. My first attempt to find the site in the 1990s was unsuccessful but it is reassuring that a return in 2014 not only found the park it lies in being much improved but now there were signposts to the well.
The Synagogue Well is perhaps uniquely named in the country a point I shall refer to later. Charles Hope in his 1893 “notes:
“The Synagogue Well, evidently one of great antiquity, and, before an attempt was made to improve it, of most picturesque appearance, is in the grounds of Park Place, Frodsham, late belonging to Joseph Stubs, Esq.”
Hope’s claim that it was of great antiquity however does not appear to easy to substantiate. However it certainly attracted antiquarian interest, William Beaumont in his 1888 An Account of the Ancient Town of Frodsham in Cheshire records in comparison to a similar site in the county:
“Such a fount there is at Frodsham, called ‘The Synagogue Well,’ which sends forth waters as copious and as limpid as that once frequented by Numa. It seems as if such a fount was necessary near an ancient castle; for as this fount rises close to the site of Frodsham Castle, so at the foot of Beeston Castle there is a similar spring. They both spring from the living rock, and both have a large square stone basin to receive the surplus water as it flows away.”
A poet’s romantic origin
In an unusual feature for a holy well, the site was immortalized in a poem which records:
“THE SYNAGOGUE WELL
The Roman, in his toilsome march, Disdainful viewed this humble spot, And thought not of Egeria’s fount And Numa’s grot.
No altar crowned the margin green, No dedication marked the stone; The warrior quaffed the living stream And hasten’d on.
Then was upreared the Norman keep, Where from the vale the uplands swell But, unobserved, in crystal jets The waters fell.
In conquering Edward’s reign of pride, Gay streamed his flag from Frodsham’s tower, But saw no step approach the wild And sylvan bower ;
Till once, when Mersey’s silvery tides Were reddening with the beams of morn, There stood beside the fountain clear A man forlorn;
And, as his weary limbs he lav’d In its cool waters, you might trace That he was of the wand’ring tribe Of Israel’s race.
With pious care, to guard the spring, A masonry compact he made, And all around its glistening verge Fresh flowers he laid.
“God of my fathers!” he exclaimed, Beheld of old in Horeb’s mount, Who gav’st my sires Bethesda’s pool And Siloa’s fount,
Whose welcome streams, as erst of yore, To Judah’s pilgrims never fail, Tho’ exil’d far from Jordan’s banks And Kedron’s Vale
Grant that when yonder frowning walls, With tower and keep are crush’d and gone; The stones the Hebrew raised may last, And from his Well the strengthening spring May still flow on! “
A Jewish Mikveh, consonantal drift or folly bath?
Despite the poet’s assertion that “he was of the wand’ring tribe, Of Israel’s race.” and that: “The stones the Hebrew raised may last” relics of Britain’s Jewish heritage are scant and any site associated with them historically is of course of great interest and importance. But is Frodsham Castle’s an example? Such baths have been uncovered which were originally ritual baths called Mikveh or Mikvah was this site one? It might be convenient to associate the site with a Jewish community attached to Frodsham Castle. However, there no evidence of a community ever being located there or in the more likely medieval Chester.
So where does the name come from? Beaumont (1888) records that:
“Some have suggested that Saint Agnes was its’ patron, and that thence it won its name.”
This belief is recorded on the current sign beside the well but the name itself is problematic. The majority of St. Agnes dedications appear to associated with late or spurious holy wells such as St. Agnes at Cothelstone where legends of love-lorn visits are linked – all Victorian romantic stuff. The clue to the origin of the well is again recorded by Beumont who states:
“The basin of that at Horsley is called a bath, and, as might be expected, the Synagogue well was also called, for once there was a curate at Frodsham who was an inveterate bather, and he resorted thither every morning and bathed in the well even when it was frozen over, and he had to break the ice before he could have his invigorating bath. But he was of a swimming family, and his father, Sir Lancelot Shadwell, Master of the Rolls, might often be seen leading his seven sons in a swim down the Thames.”
This suggests that the site was probably a plunge pool or cold bath folly. Indeed the steps down in one corner suggest this and the sandstone fabric does not look old enough to be anything of antiquity. Perhaps one of the bathers was Jewish at some point and a local joke developed? Unlikely.
Another option may be that the chamber was the water supply for the castle or great houses. Similar basins exist associated with castles such as Wollaton Hall’s, coincidentally called the Admiral’s Bath due a local resident bathing in it, despite it being a water supply at the time!
Perhaps now the site is no longer being used a receptacle for garden waste, more research may be done to reveal the details.
Search Staffordshire Past website and the photo below can be found St. Edith’s Well. The picture shows something which composes of a well chamber enclosed in a wicker fence having a thatched rectangular roof placed upon it. This structure was supposedly designed and built in the 1950s and indeed field investigators for the Department of Environment in 1958 noted:
“St Edith’s Well is a rectangular water-filled stone basin, 2.1 m by 1.5 m, apparently recently restored; a flight of steps descends into the water. It is covered by a modern openwork timber structure with a thatched roof. Coins are still thrown into this well and several were seen on the bottom.”
Tim Cockin in his 1992 article One country man to another in The Countryman records that the well house was built and thatched by a Tommy Brayne, the landlord of the village pub, in about 1950, with the encouragement of the people at the manor house. Today this is not the case. The site is well-known enough to find a place in Janet and Colin Bord’s seminal 1985 work Sacred Waters where they record:
“As it is on private land, permission to visit it should be sort by the nearby farm. The rectangular stone basin is covered by a thatched timber structure. The well was visited for eye problems and the King’s Evil, and visitors still throw coins into the water.”
Armed with this book during a visit in the 1990s, I did indeed visit the nearby farm and was greeted by a ‘why would you want to visit that then’ response. However, I was granted access and directed across the fields. Nearby farm was clearly in relative terms! Despite the author’s note what I found was a well in a very sorry state.
Much of the superstructure from the photo had gone. Sadly, it was a rather dilapidated well structure, consisting of what was clearly, although I probably didn’t realise at the time, that fallen wooden structure laying over a brick-lined rectangular pool where steps into the structure could just be traced. It was still there but was not perhaps as spectacular as I expected.
The well is first mentioned in 1696 by Francis Plot in his History of Staffordshire he notes:
“many other waters…performe unaccountable Cures…the water of… St Ediths well… in the parish of Church Eyton.”
The well has some curious local traditions. One stating that the waters did not cause rusting. One I had not heard of before and possible being unique. As stated by the Bords it was good for eyes and the Kings Evil. The Victorian County History records a local legend notes that near this well was the site originally chosen for the church but that, but the stones brought there by mule-back by day were removed to the present site by night. This parish church was dedicated to St Edith by the nuns of Polesworth Abbey after it had been granted to them in about 1170, although whether this because a local St. Edith, rather than that associated with Kemsing Kent, or not is unclear. Interestingly according to Cockin (1992) records that the Bishop of Chester visited the well to bless it, and its water was used for baptisms by the family at the manor house.
Save St Edith’s Spring
The problem being clearly as I found in the 1990s this is not the best positioned holy well. In the middle of a field, several fields in from the road with no clear route to it and no holy well. I can more than understand the farmer not wanting hoards of curious onlookers crossing fields to have a look. However, that does not explain or justify the deplorable state of the well. According to Tim Prevett on Megalithic portal it has been allowed to fall derelict since the late 1980s despite pleas from the local Parish council and the site is slowly perhaps being forgotten. He states:
“Speaking to the church warden and flower arranger at St Edith’s they said the well had been largely been forgotten by the village, and were unsure in what condition it would be found. Also, permission needs to be gained to visit, I think from a bungalow just next to the canal side nearest the well, having left Church Eaton”
Speed forward another 20 years or so I have learnt things have not improved. The local concerns were sadly true; thanks to some locals I was provided with the opportunity of an update, although I note it is away from footpaths and on private land so I am not recommending you trespass. Much of the wood has been cleared, although some sections remain, but it is long beyond repair. The well chamber is still full of water, albeit sluggish and algae covered. Steps could be seen however. We must be thankful that its fabric remains but surely some compromise can be reached to save this notable Staffordshire well.
For more information on Staffordshire’s holy wells look out for
Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Staffordshire – forthcoming
Surrey is not the first county associated with holy wells, although James Rattue’s 2008 Holy Wells of Surrey makes it clear there are a number. Visions of the Virgin Mary are! So when we have a holy well and a vision of the Virgin Mary seen together it is an interesting site – but how old and genuine as a holy well is it? Especially curious as Rattue notes it appears in most surveys of holy wells.
Easily found following the sign from the church yard towards the river the well is certainly very picturesque, if a little muddy to get to. The well is unusual in being enclosed in two brick built chambers each covered by a metal lid. The water does not look particularly refreshing being rather stagnant and full of leaves. Over the well is an ornate wooden and tiled cover. A.J.A. Hollins in his 1933 A History of Dunsfold compiled from various sources gives an account of its repair and what was there beforehand:
“Until 1933 it consisted of two brick lined cisterns of uncertain date with wooden lids in a very poor state of repair. Now by the efforts of the Dunsfold Amateur Dramatic Society there has been erected over it a shelter or shrine of old oak with a shingled roof, and on one side of it is an exquisitely carved figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Holy Child.”
Hollins’ (1933) gives some further details:
“The Holy Well lies on the bank of the river below the church and is approached by a short lane. The water which is singularly pure and cold even in the height of summer, is derived from two streams which have their origin somewhere in the hill on which the rectory stands. These unite just above the Well. From one of them at one time the water supply to the rectory was obtained, a one pony power circular pump being employed. With the advent of Company’s water this has long been derelict.”
A real holy well?
A. Judges (1901) in his Some West Surrey villages is also clear of its ancient origin and perhaps suggests a monastic association:
“As to one tradition connected with the spot, however, there can be no doubt. The well between the church and the river was for generations considered a holy well. Even to this day it is credited with medicinal properties, and people come for the water as a cure for sore eyes. The Rector, the Rev. W. H. Winn, favours the theory that it was on account of this well that the church was built on its present site, some little distance from the centre of the village. Water is scarce in the Weald, and this is the only spring-well rising to the surface of the ground which Mr. Winn knows of in the whole country. It never runs dry, and rises within 4 or 5 feet of the river, with which, however, it has no connection, except in the way of overflow. I ought, perhaps, to add here that the orchard near the mill was known as the Abbot’s Garden, and an old house on it, removed in late years, is supposed to have been connected with the church or some old monastery.”
Similarly, Hollins (1933) is unequivocal:
“Isn’t it significant, bearing in mind what has been said about the places usually chosen by the early peoples for their settlements, that the church is built near the river (which becomes the Arun before flowing into the sea at Littlehampton) practically beside the Holy Well, on one Roman road and very near another? As regards the well, its fame has spread down to modern times, and there is very little doubt but that it was sacred from the very earliest times….. it would form the site of a shrine for primitive worship in heathen days, and when the Christian era began, the builders of the first church would place it, as church builders frequently did, on an already sacred site, and merely substituted their ideas for those already existing. All the oldest churches in this country built on heathen sites have wells in or near them, for the Ancient Britons and their successors needed water for purification rites. The Well under Christianity would naturally have the patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and this in turn would give the name to the Church.”
The usual claims, heathen worship, possibly Roman adoption by the early church, a theme we will return too in a moment.
Doubt was creeping in to Hollins’ (1933) work:
“The actual history of the Well is obscure. What can be stated is that from the very earliest times it was a sacred spot….There is a strong tradition that the Blessed Virgin has appeared at the Well, and one old belief is that she is always in residence in Dunsfold. The Well was an ideal spot for heathen worship, and when the Christian era began, the worship of St Mary at the Well would naturally follow, and thus give a lead to the church. But the Well was here first. By the very nature of its water, it can be said for certain that its use must have occasioned what no doubt would have seemed miraculous cures in the days when medicine was little understood.…..The shrine was dedicated by the Bishop of Guildford on Sept. 29th 1933.”
James Rattue (2008) hits the nail it on the head:
“This ought to be a clear-cut case of a holy well linked to a church, and, given its location, probably a comparatively late dedication like the Mary Wells we find in the Kentish Weald. But perhaps it’s even later than that. On the 1897 O.S map it appears merely as a tank, not even a well.”
Most holy wells are marked on old O.S maps if not present today, even those which have been missed off are still springs or wells, not tanks. A tank suggests a modern structure, a purely functional one, one established for farming not faith. Of course, not being mentioned on the map does not 100% go against it being a holy well but it does not give further support. Was it just a local mineral spring established in the age of spas? Hollins’s (1933) notes:
“Possessing notable qualities for the cure of diseases of the eyes – this has recently been confirmed by analysis.”
Hollins’s (1933) gives further details on its properties and its analysis:
“The water is very strongly impregnated with chlorine, a fact only recently discovered, when a noted Harley Street eye specialist took the matter up from a scientific point of view, and this is extremely interesting confirmation of the fact that the water has always been held to be marvellous for eye diseases.”
Indeed, the earliest reference to the site by Lewis Andre in his 1897 Dunsfold Church in the Surrey Arch Collections states simply:
“in the vale south of the church, there is a well, which is said to have been resorted to until recently for medicinal purposes.”
Although a mineral spring is very likely after all, Surrey had a large number of these and many were of nationwide fame. Maybe we shall never know.
Yet Hollins’s (1933) notes
“There are other holy wells in England — and in Surrey — but an old book in Cambridge University Library specifically mentions Dunsfold as being one of four in England.”
Have we all missed something? Neither Rattue, Harte or I have ever located this book which mentions specifically Dunsfold. If it could be found the authenticity of the well would not be in question.
A site of modern pilgrimage
Hollins (1933) notes that:
“Even in modern times it has been a place of pilgrimage, especially by Roman Catholics, and there is indication that this has always been the case. Roman Catholics have been heard to say that one day they will get the church back into their fold. Its dedication to St Mary and the presence of the Well are, of course, the reason for this. From London too even in recent times have pilgrimages been made.”
Whether these pilgrimages occur is unclear
Visions of the Virgin Mary
Judges (1901) notes that:
“A statement has been made that Dunsfold Church is a special object of pilgrimage by Roman Catholics. One ought, perhaps, to say in passing that the sole warrant for this assertion is the fact that the church is visited several times every year by parties of Roman priests from the seminary at Wonersh, and that on one occasion, some little time since, a numerous band of visitors came from London, the explanation being their belief that the ‘ Blessed Virgin Mary was always in residence at Dunsfold.”
Always in residence, a curious statement but delve deeper and it appears it refer to as Rattue places it ‘vague oral traditions’ of the Virgin Mary appearing in the vicinity, as referred to in the Guidebook. The Surrey Advertiser of the 14th October 1933 states she appeared to those who sought the spring’s water. England is not renowned for recorded visions of the Virgin, and indeed the only one appears to be the most famous, Walsingham, if we do not include the discredited Our Lady of Surbiton which begun in the 1980s.
Of course, new age pagans may suggest that some visions record a pre-Christian tradition of a pagan water deity. Certainly this is an ancient location with an old 1500-year-old yew which may have been the original focal point explaining the remote location of the church. So the site may have been pagan and this may be true, but the details are very vague when concerning the well. More likely is that this was a local attempt to create their own ‘Walsingham’ at a time when the Catholic church was beginning to re-establish itself more firmly in the region, after all an Anglo-Catholic movement had re-established itself in 1921 under Father Alfred Hope Pattern. The most famous healing spring associated with a vision of the BVM is of course Lourdes and it is tempting to make a connection. Did the local St John’s Seminary want to establish a local Lourdes? Did they need a well for their ablutions and a local story, possibly from ‘modern’ mystics visiting the area or completely concocted to justify giving the well the association with the Virgin?
In conclusion, I think it is easy to agree with Jeremy Harte (2008) in his English Holy who believes that:
“The cult at the well has the flavour of 1930s Anglo-Catholicism, and seems to have been created then.”
Good for them I suppose you could say and similarly ask does it really does not matter that its provenance for it is difficult to find such a delightful sacred spring?
Guest blog post: Holy Wells and Healing Springs of North Wales: Ffynnon Elian, Llanelian… the ‘Cursing’ well? by Jane Beckerman
A great pleasure to have an account of North Wales most infamous well from the person who restored this once lost site, Jane Beckerman. We met briefly last year at last month’s holy well site Ffynonn Sara with Janet Bord and Tristan Grey Hulse and she has kindly provided this account, extracted from her forthcoming book on its history a great way to end our twelve months of North Welsh wells…
Near the small village of Llanelian in North Wales, lies one of the most important holy wells not just in Wales, but the British Isles. She looks very different now but two hundred and fifty years ago, beside the small, old road leading from Colwyn Bay to Llanelian Church, there was a large square wall surrounding an inner well with a lockable door, a fountain, pathways and even a bathing pool. From her untraceable beginnings to the middle of the 19th century, thousands of people visited the well and the nearby church, in order that their wishes might be granted by Saint Elian.
Ffynnon Elian (The holy well of St. Elian) has a long history, but from the beginning of the 18th century to half-way through the 19th, she was both famous and feared for her power to grant destructive wishes, or to ‘curse’. Known far and wide as the ‘Cursing Well’ and reaching the height of her notoriety in the early years of the 19th century, Ffynnon Elian was thought of as the place where it was possible to put a terrifying and successful curse on your enemies. The flood of sensational writing about the well, beginning in the 1780s tells us that people lived in fear and died of fright if they thought, or were told, that they had been ‘put in the well’. Only one of the writers, who visited the well during the period of her greatest notoriety challenged the idea that a holy well would have been used in so overwhelmingly poisonous and destructive a way. This fearsome reputation has continued and until recently has never been challenged.
Recent research shows that the ‘power’ of Ffynnon Elian was a fascinating and complex phenomenon and that the well was used essentially to undo supposed ill-wishing. The power of the well that endured was her reputation for curing the ‘curses’ of everyday life, for exposing wrong-doing and returning property to its rightful owner.
The ‘curses’ of life in North Wales during the years of the Napoleonic Wars, when the ‘cursing’ reputation became established, were many. Enclosure acts took away areas of common land for grazing a few animals and growing small amounts of food; the war with France took men, and their wages, away from homes and families; the weather between 1795 and 1816 was so poor that harvests were ruined or insufficient. Corn prices soared, riots ensued. Industrialisation brought new employment opportunities to North Wales, but new dangers with it. Improved farming methods and machinery brought some relief through better harvests, but there were fewer jobs available and staple crops like oats and barley were being neglected in favour of the ‘new’ crops, potatoes and wheat; less reliable in the uncertain weather of North Wales, and less nourishing.
A report prepared for Thomas Pennant in around 1775, in preparation for his Tours of Wales, contains the account given above of the way Ffynnon Elian looked at that time and also the first account of well’s powers to redress wrong doing. A woman at the beginning of the eighteenth century visited the well with a friend, to find out who had stolen her coverlet, and to ask that the item be returned to her. The two women had come to Ffynnon Elian from Llandegla, 40 miles away, past several other holy wells and places of healing. After visiting the well they both knelt before the altar in the church at Llanelian, a few hundred yards away, to ask for Saint Elian’s blessing. After praying, the petitioner waited outside the church, while her friend was unable to rise from her knees. St Elian refused to let her rise until she had confessed to the theft of the coverlet. Ffynnon Elian at that time was thought of as literally a ‘fountain’ of truth and justice that was not available elsewhere.
Thomas Pennant, a wealthy landowner, and a JP as well as a travel writer, promoted the myth of Ffynnon Elian as a place of malignant ‘cursing’ and wrote that he himself had been threatened. Further reading tells us that he had been astonished to find that other wealthy landowners were not bringing thieves to court because they were scared of being ‘put in the well’ (‘cursed’ at Ffynnon Elian). He reports his dismay that people were ‘stealing turneps’ with no threat of redress. It is difficult to be wholly sympathetic when one realises the circumstances in which people were stealing cattle food, almost certainly to eat themselves. And it points to another way Ffynnon Elian was used; as a way of redressing the very unequal social balance of the time.
Ffynnon Elian helped those who believed themselves or family members to have been ‘cursed’, or wronged, down on their luck, or ill. Depositions from a court case in 1818 described exactly why they went to the well. The depositions also describe what actually happened there. The ancient practice of transformation through water, traceable in Wales to pre-Roman society, and certainly used by the Romans in Wales in the shape of ‘cursing tablets’, impelled people to seek guidance, help and healing, in the absence of other agency, through the intercession of St Elian. A recent article in this blog talks about ‘cursing tablets’. Ffynnon Elian stands near to one of the Roman roads running towards Anglesey. Ritual at the well revealed at the 1818 court case shows that comparison can usefully be made with Roman custom at holy wells.
Ffynnon Elian, like all living things, changed her shape, her looks and her customs over the centuries. Her last, and best-known guardian, Jac Ffynnon Elian, only stopped offering his services in the 1850s. The continuing ‘magic’ of Ffynnon Elian was the deep belief she inspired in her power to transform lives. Jac Ffynnon Elian wrote that a man could be cured by the strength of his own beliefs, or he could suffer because of them. The history of this extraordinary well is testimony to his words.
A complete history of Ffynnon Elian is in preparation
“+In This Place/ Paulinus the bishop/ Baptized/ Three Thousand Northumbrians/ Easter DCXXVII+”
So reads the inscription at one of the country’s most famous and picturesque holy wells…but what is the truth?
The most beautiful fountain….
Taking the lane up from between the houses and the side of the farm, climbing over and stile and into a pastoral landscape, ancient oaks lie to the left and a small babbling brook, moving away at great speed as we follow this the enclosure of the well is ahead of us. Here laying in this peaceful enclosure
Whose well is it?
Three names appear to be attributed to the well – Lady, St Ninian and St Paulinus. Which is the correct one? Certainly the later was current in John Warburton in his 1715 History of Northumberland describes it as:
“Paulinus’ Well, a very beautiful fountain in a square figure, length 42 feet and 21 foot in breadth; wall’d about with a curious stone resembling porfire, paved in the bottome and incompos’d with a grove of trees and at each corner thereof the foundation of a small [illegible]. Out of the well floweth a stream of water very cold, and clear as christall, and if cleaned out would be a most comodious cold bath and perhaps effect several cures without a marvell. At the east end lyeth a stone 3 foot in length and 2 in breadth called the holy stone, said to be the same whereon the forementioned bishop kneeled at his baptising of the heathen English; and was formerly held in great veneration by the gentry of the Roman Catholick religion who oft-times come here on pilgrimage.”
This association with St. Paulinus is easily explained. Although Bede descrived the conversion of 3000 this was misread by John Leland as Sancte Petre (holy stone )but it was Sancti Petri – St Peter’s Minster, York…an easy mistake but one which then enters as fact into Camden’s Britannia and consolidated over and over again! This was further endorsed by as William Chatto (1935) notes:
“a stone figure, intended for Paulinus, which was brought from Alnwick in 1780.”
The name Lady’s Well is also easily explained there was a Benedictine priory of Holystone which was dedicated to the Virgin in the 13th century and either their name was transferred to or else they renamed it. It was probably the former as the a signboard was first seen by a William Chatto seen in 1835 is the first to call it ‘the Lady’s Well’ and it appears on such on the 1866 OS. Hall (1880) calls it ‘St Ninian’s Well’. By the time of Butler (1901–2) all three names were in use, as he says that:
‘the beautiful well at Holystone, known to us as “The Lady’s Well”, described… as“The Well of St Paulinus”, was formerly “St Ninian’s Well”’
When visited by Dixon (1903) it was:
“a spring of beautiful water in a grove of fir trees a little north of the village. The well is a quadrangular basin within a neatly kept enclosure; the key of the gate can be obtained at the Salmon Inn… A stone statue of an ecclesiastic, originally brought from Alnwick castle, formerly stood in the centre of the well, but a few years ago this was removed and placed at the west end of the pool, and a cross of stone bearing the following inscription substituted: “+In This Place/ Paulinus the bishop/ Baptized/ Three Thousand Northumbrians/ Easter DCXXVII+”’.
A sizeable hoard
Hall (1880) notes that:
“At the bottom, visible through the pellucid water, Dr Embeton informs me he has formerly noticed many pins lying.”
Binnall and Dodds (1942–6) found it:
“now a wishing well, into which crooked pins or occasionally pence or halfpence are thrown.”
No pins can be seen in its waters although they would be hidden by the leaves and perhaps the sign which notes:
“don’t damage (sic) the water as it’s the village water supply”
However, beside the saint’s statue laying at his foot is a small hoard of modern coins and so perhaps starts a modern tradition. One wonders what happens to the money? National Trust? Church or local landowner?
All in all despite its duplicity with names and dubious origins sitting in the arbour of trees and peering into that clean beautiful water in this remote location you are divorced from the modern world and its modern problems…and if for that reason only Holystone’s special spring is worthy of a top ten for anyone.
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.
Holy Wells and Healing Springs of North Wales: Guest Blog post St Gwenfaen’s Well, Anglesey by Ian Taylor of wellhopper.wordpress.com
This month I celebrate 5 years blogging about holy wells and healing springs. So this month to celebrate…I am having a break (!) all the posts this month are guest blogs
Our first guest blog is from a fellow Holy Well Blogger – Ian Taylor with his excellent exploration of holy wells of North Wales. This month he offers a guide to a lesser well known well on the island of Anglesey.
This is coast-trod, the end of known territory. A chance to lift feet but not land them in the place intended. Squall forces eyes back against their brain-lock. The wind whinnies and runs off, dragging trees forward, bounding over gorse. Four choughs chase a peregrine – stiff meet and St Gwenfaen’s church holds a flat palm shape to the wind a warning
Holy Island, Ynys Cybi, lies at the north western corner of Anglesey, separated from the main island by a narrow strait crossed by two bridges. Its name refers back to the religious settlement founded here in the sixth century by St Cybi, the town of Holyhead too still bears his name in its Welsh form, Caergybi.
This was journey’s end for Cybi. A life spent wandering following a pilgrimage to Jerusalem which finally saw him settling on the Llyn peninsula, where he is remembered in the old parish name of Llangybi, the site of a popular well that also bears his name; before being given land by King Maelgwn Gwynedd here on Anglesey where he established his great monastery.
St Peulan features in most medieval accounts of the life of St Cybi, being identified as one of the ten disciples who followed Cybi from his original home in Cornwall, through South Wales and into Ireland before finally arriving in North Wales, a medieval manuscript identifies him as one of the twelve “sailors” who formed Cybi’s family.
It is through Peulan that the story of Gwenfaen as a saint enters the record. A late version of the Bonedd y Saint (ref. Bartrum) identifies Paul Hen from Mannaw, the place name suggesting that he was from the Strathclyde area of Scotland, as being the father of two sons Peulan and Gwyngenau and of a daughter Gwenfaen who were all amongst those who followed Cybi to Anglesey. Although Peulan is identified as one of Cybi’s primary companions, Gwyngenau and Gwenfaen appear more as bit players in the story, suggesting later additions. It is probably noteworthy however that, in addition to Gwenfaen, each of these sons too have had churches dedicated to them and named communities on Holy Island at Llanbeulan and the, now extinct, Capel Gwyngenau.
The implied connection between the three is strengthened by the dates recorded for their feast days. Cybi’s is celebrated on November 5th, Peulan on November 1st or 2nd and Gwenfaen on November 4th or 5th. Although any festival date for Gwyngeneu is not known.
Gwenfaen benefits from a much more colourful legend than her brothers.. It would appear that it is initially a localised, possibly later story, since it isn’t picked up by the lives of the saints stories. We are told that her cell was attacked; some accounts tell us by Druids, others by Vikings, neither would be possible at the time Gwenfaen lived. She fled to the sea, jumped from the cliffs, climbing onto a natural stone column. As the sea rose around her she was in danger of drowning until two angels descended and carried her up to heaven.
The female Welsh saints appear regularly to have led perilous lives; in many cases their sanctity being derived from their ability to preserve their honour against all odds. However the story may retain some memory of the Viking raids of the 9th and 10th centuries, which had a devastating effect on religious and secular communities on Anglesey.
Rhoscolyn, a small scattered community, is towards the southern end of Holy Island close to the air force base at Valley. It centres on its church which is dedicated to St Gwenfaen, a late Victorian reconstruction on the site of an earlier church, destroyed by fire,. The community previously carried her name, having been known as Llanwenfaen, although for several centuries now it has been Rhoscolyn, the column on the moor, in reference to a large Roman stone in the area.
Gwenfaen’s well (Ffynnon Wenfaen) lies on the cliff tops some 1000 yards to the south east of the church. To find it one follows the path running just to to the east of the church towards the coast between several scattered houses, predominantly holiday lets today, as far as the lookout station, and then turning to the right and following the cliff path downwards.
The well is set in a hollow in the landscape and very easily missed even when following the path which runs close by. It is however a complex dry stone built structure in three separate parts. Steps lead down to a smallish paved antechamber with four triangular seats set into the corners. Beyond this a second area contains the small oblong bath, which could have been used for bathing. Water flows out from the structure into another stone lined exterior pool, with steps down to the water on two sides, before being channelled away to a pond down the hillside. There is no indication that any of the sections have ever been roofed.
There is a belief that Gwenfaen’s own cell was situated close to the site of the well, although no evidence for this can be seen or has been found. The site of her original church is probably closer to the existing one, as with the later buildings; Angharad Llwyd notes that:
“The burying ground of the original establishment is still distinguishable by the number of bones that are found whenever the spade or plough are used in that spot.”
Cathrall writing a detailed parish by parish history of Wales in 1828 fails to mention the well. He is admittedly very scathing about traditional customs and beliefs, however he does make mention of six other Anglesey wells, suggesting that Gwenfaen’s may have been of less significance at the time. Neither does it merit a mention in Pennant’s Tour of Wales (1810) or Angharad Llwyd’s History of Anglesey (1833), although she appears to draw mainly on the two former authors for much of her information. From this we might assume that while it may have had some local use, it did not feature on the main antiquarian tourist trail in the 19th century.
Is two quartz stones
And a wish for healing
The well has a reputation for alleviation of depression and for general mental problems. The primary written source for this would appear to be a poem, The Sacred Well of Gwenfaen, Rhoscolyn, written by poet and historian Lewis Morris during the 18th century. His knowledge of the spring and local traditions could not be questioned, he was born on Anglesey and his first wife was from Rhoscolyn. Baring-Gould and Fisher (1907) refer to the text and imply from it that the well may have been used for divination, a common practice at Anglesey wells, though no indication of the form this took is provided.
I haven’t managed to track down a complete copy of the poem; however the Grufydd’s quote the following short section in their book,
“Full oft have I repaired to drink that spring waters which cure diseases of the soul as well as the body and which always prove the only remedy for want of sense.”
Morris seems to be the earliest written source for the tradition of offering two white or quartz pebbles as an offering to Gwenfaen when seeking a cure. This is widely reported today, and one often finds small collections of white stones within the well. We find quartz pebbles as a not uncommon offering at wells across North Wales. In the early medieval period they were said to be associated with water and healing and are recorded as having been offered well into the eighteenth century. At one of the very few Welsh wells subjected to an archaeological excavation, albeit in the 1930s (St Tegla’s Well, Llandegla, Denbighshire) a layer of white stones was found, suggesting a regular practice at this site. (Edwards, 1994) Although such stones do not feature in what is now the widely known complex ritual supposedly practised at that well for the cure of scrofula.
The offering of white pebbles is also explored by Janet Bord (2006), who notes the practice occurring not only in Wales but also in Ireland and the Isle of Man and suggests that it is almost certainly a custom of some antiquity since similar stones have been found within burial mounds and at very early Christian sites.
There has been a suggestion that the white stones and the dedication might be interlinked. It is possible to translate Gwen faen, (or Gwyn faen) as white stone, thus the well might really be called “white stone well” and the history of St Gwenfaen may have been constructed in response to the name. This is not completely unknown in North Wales. On the other hand the white stones might be left in honour the saint’s name. Either might be possible, though since the name Gwenfaen, does enter the record relatively early I suspect the former is unlikely and, given the more widespread use of white pebbles, the latter may be unnecessary.
In a region where every second spring appeared to offer a ready cure for warts or rheumatism, a well that provided relief for the depressed is certainly different. Morris clearly believed in its restorative powers for the mind, writing
Tis thou and thou alone that I invoke to lead my pen
Then grant me that me that small boon
That wit and gentle sense my glow in every line
In such proportion as I’ve drunk thy waters.
Maybe it does have an impact, or maybe it is just the exhilarating walk along windblown cliff tops, towards the end of known territory, to reach it, but certainly a visit to St Gwenfaen’s well rarely fails to lift the spirits.
Ffynnon Wenfaen, Rhoscolyn, Ynys Mon. SH25947534
Clear (for ffynnon Wenfaen) by Suzanne Iuppa. Well Spring, Gwendraeth Press, 2015. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The Sacred Well of Gwenfaen, Rhoscolyn by Lewis Morris.
Baring-Gould S and J Fisher (1907) The Lives of the British Saints, London
Bartrum. Peter (1993) A Welsh Classical Dictionary. National Library of Wales.
Bord Janet (2006) Cures and Curses. Heart of Albion
Cathrall. William (1828) The History of North Wales
Edwards.Nancy(1994) Holy Wells in Wales and Early Christian Archaeology. Source, New Series Issue 1.
Grufydd. Eirlys and Ken (1999) Ffynhonnau Cymru, Wesg Carreg Gwalch, Llanrwst.
Llwyd, Angharad (1833) A History of the Island of Mona.,Rhuthun.
Pennant. Thomas (1810) A Tour In Wales
Guest blog post: Walking Between Worlds – a Secret Little Book of Devon’s Ancient and Holy Wells by Alex Atherton
This month I celebrate 5 years blogging about holy wells and healing springs. So this month to celebrate…I am having a break (!) all the posts this month are guest blogs. The third post is from Devon artist Alex Atherton, who has recently authored a delightful book which takes Devon’s beautiful wells weaving her artistic magic to draw the reader in. In this guest blog she explains how she became entranced by holy wells!
Often forgotten, occasionally neglected and mostly overlooked by visitors and locals alike, Devon’s beautiful and magical ancient and holy wells are worth just as much attention as those in other counties that are perhaps more well known. Indeed, many people are surprised to learn that Devon has such a rich and diverse well heritage, even though they may live close to and walk past local examples every day of their lives. And before I embarked on this project, I was one of these people – unaware that I regularly drove past at least two examples on the lanes around my home on Dartmoor, like Druids Well near Chagford (see drawing).
The inspiration for this project came initially from an encounter with an ancient spring at Lydford whilst working on another art project early in 2015. Little did I realise at the time that this chance discovery would be the start of an enchanting journey that took me to some of the most remote, beautiful and hidden corners of Devon in search of its ancient and holy wells.
As an artist living on Dartmoor, I normally paint landscapes in oils that capture the many moods of the moor. But my growing curiosity about Devon’s wells presented me with an exciting new challenge, and provided an opportunity for me to explore the world of pen drawing. Initially, I saw these drawings very much as a personal project, but as I continued on my journey of discovery, and produced more and more drawings, the idea of publishing a ‘secret little book’ started to take shape.
With a copy of Terry Faull’s ‘Secrets of the Hidden Source’ in one hand and my sketchbook in the other, I travelled the length and breadth of the county on a personal pilgrimage, descending through dark, narrow paths in shaded woodlands, scrambling down steep paths alongside coastal cliffs, carefully negotiating boggy fields and quietly searching the back lanes of peaceful villages.
Many of the wells are associated with local legends. When the Devil arrived in Widecombe one day, so the story goes, the locals gave him water to drink from Saxon’s Well, just outside the village centre. The water burned as he swallowed and with his wrath he brought down the church steeple. When Joseph of Arimathea tapped the ground near the Exmoor coast with his staff, water sprang up from the earth – and today an imposing 19th century structure marks the site deep in the oak woodland.
Others were highly regarded in the past for their healing properties. The three distinct troughs at Leechwell in Totnes may offer you relief from skin problems, snake bites and disorders of the spirit, if you know which is which of course!
It was hard not to be moved by some of the structures that I came across and their setting. For example, Fice’s Well is a wonderful structure, but its stark location on the bleak moor left me with a feeling of loneliness and a sense of regret leaving it behind.
Sometimes I would find a hidden jewel where I least expected it. This was particularly true of Cathedral Well at St James Park railway station, Exeter. When I visited the area late on a winter Sunday afternoon, there was a remarkable peace despite its urban address, helped by the quiet and nostalgic railway-side allotments opposite the sadly bricked-up well building.
It seemed on occasion that some wells just did not want me to find them! The first time I travelled to see the haunting Eyewell on the coast path at Morte Point I was defeated by failing light as the sun set; the second time I was turned away by gale-force winds and lashing rain. Only on the third attempt did I manage to reach this enigmatic and moss-drenched well!
I have cherry-picked 40 of the most enchanting little structures for the book and I hope these captivating places entrance readers as they have entranced me, and that the illustrations will inspire others to seek out the county’s well heritage so that they too might discover what it is like to walk between worlds…
Further details about the book and how to obtain it can be found on my website at http://www.alexatherton.co.uk.