Category Archives: Hermits
“O for a beaker full of the warm South Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene, With beaded bubbles winking at the brim, And purple-stained mouth; That I might drink, and leave the world unseen, And with thee fade away into the forest dim”
John Keats Ode to a Nightingale
Sacred springs were an integral part of Greek Mythology. Perhaps the most famous were the springs said to have arisen on Mount Helicon. Here overlooking the Valley of the Muses was a spring formed by the hoof of the Horse Pegasus (a theme which has transferred to Ann Boleyn’s Well in Carshalton). It is said that he hit the rock with such force that the spring arose as a result. This was called Hippocrene or Horse’s fountain. Being associated with the muses, (those providing poetical inspiration) drinking its water was supposed to induce that poetic inspiration. The poet Hesiod in his work, Theogeny refers to the spring in the late 7th century BC:
|“From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing,
Who hold the great and holy mount of Helicon,
And dance on soft feet about the deep-blue spring
And the altar of the almighty son of Cronos, and,
When they have washed their tender bodies in Permessus
Or in the Horse’s Spring or Olmeius,
Make their fair, lovely dances upon highest Helicon
And move with vigorous feet.”
Callimachus in his 3rd century BC Aitia follows in Hesiod’s footsteps and in the work, Tiresias finds the spring and Athena bathing with it and is blinded as a result. However, as a compensation he gains the ability to prophesize.
The Hippocrene spring is identified as a spring which still flows on the mountainside arising in a stone hollow. Also on the mountain was the spring where Narcissisus looked upon his own beauty but its location appears to have been lost.
Perhaps the second most famed spring is that found at the sacred landscape of Delphi. It too was thought to provide poetic inspiration. The Roman saw this as the location where Apollo killed the Python who guarded over the spring. This was the Castalian Spring. Pausanias stated that its name was derived from a local lady called Castalia, a daughter of the river Achelous
Interesting the site may have been a sanctuary associated to a local hero who vanquished the Persions, called Autonous according to Greek writer Herodotus which may have been a precursor to its association with Apollo .
However its greatest importance was to provide preparation for those visiting the famed Delphic Oracle. Here the priests would cleanse themselves before invoking the oracle, sprinkling it over the temple, and pilgrims according to Euripides Ion would prepare according to their background. For many just a wash of their hair would be enough, but murderers would have to completely cleansed! Pausanias Guide to Greece stated that the water had a delicious taste!
The spring was said to have arisen from two rocks called the Pheriads becoming a stream called Papaddia and joining the river Pleistos below Delphi. In the grounds of the ruined Delphi the Greek and Roman fountains fed by the springs survive. Water is delivered by s small aqueduct to the Greek fountain emptying through lion-headed spouts into a marble-line basin, nine by three metres, surrounded by benches. It dates from the 6th Century BCE. Interestingly, the Roman fountain from the 1st BC is found higher up from the original spring. It has niches carved into the rocks for the giving of votive offerings and it is interesting that it was later converted into a church of St. John the Baptist. Water reached the fountain by an aqueduct and seven bronze spouts on the fountain.
Interestingly, it is claimed in the English translation of Pausanias’s Guide to Greece by Peter Levi that the water was still bottled and secretly supplied for its magical healing properties!
Hot springs can be found across Greece, historically one of the most famed was the Thermopylae, hot sulphur springs. These were thought to be the Hot Gates and as such the entrance to Hades. The site was first associated with the cult of Demeter but later Greek myths associate him with Heracles. Here it is said to have jumped in of wash of the poison from the Hydra which had attached to his cloak. This is why the spring became hot and sulphurous. The springs still arise but no structure exists around them.
In Southwestern Greece is the Kaiafas Thermal Spring which have unlike the above been developed into a spa town. Arising in a natural cave at the foot of Mount Laphithas, historically, here the Angrides, cave dwelling nymphs were found and people would pray at the waters hoping to be relieved of leprosy, which the nymphs could cure. The waters which have a temperature around 340C are rich in sulphur compounds and are thought to be good for musculosketal diseases. In 1907 a spa facility was established outside the mouth of the cave which still provides healing support today.
Greece is a country whose ancient wells continue to provide spiritual and physical healing into the modern age.
In early May I had the pleasure to present my interim findings of my study into votive offerings at holy and healing wells at the #rituallitter workshop at the University of Hertfordshire (more in a future post hopefully). My presentation particularly focused on rag wells, or as has erroneously been applied nationwide, clootie wells (see this post). This lend me to exploring the custom in the wider geographical context and as I am monthly recording holy and healing wells globally, this month I decided to detail three rag or loque wells (strictly sources a loque) in France. However, a map below will show the distribution of the wells across the county that I am aware of so far.
Research indicated as a custom this is just as vibrant as it is in Britain although in most cases the visitors adhere more often to rags, but as can be seen personal items can also be left
Interestingly the custom is most frequently encounter in the Nord Pas de Calais region and into Belgium. (It is also interesting to focus on holy wells not in Brittany as well) Furthermore, it is an activity associated not only with springs but calvaries, chapels and trees as well – none of which are associated with a springhead.
However typical site is that of St Latuin’s Well, at Clerey Belfonds near Seez. A site which is associated with an evangelizing saint, the envoy of Pope Boniface I who is said to have built an oratory at the spring. He was famed to for converting pagans by healing the death and blind. The curative reputation of the spring harks from curing the blindness of a local widow he stayed with when he arrived there.
At the well, pilgrims would pray first to the saint and then wash at the springhead, hoping to cure skin diseases, fevers, scabies and eye aches. Indeed even the plague was thought to be cured. The site was so popular in the nineteenth and twentieth century that it prompted the expansion of the town. The legend of how the spring, a red chalybeate spring arose is told in Charles Corlet’s Legendes de Basse-Normandie d’Edouard.
“Saint Latuin or Lin passes to be the first apostle of the Orne, It is attributed the foundation of the cathedral of Sees. Saint Latuin, on arriving at Sees, took refuge in a poor woman, a widow whose daughter had been blind for many years. The saint restored the sight to the unhappy woman, and then, preaching in public the word of God, performed many miracles of healing. Satan, annoyed at the beneficial action of the saint, aroused against him Fatisie, who wished to take revenge on the saint who had refused his advances. Fatisie intimated to Latuin, on penalty of death, to cease to preach in Christ’s favor. The saint paid no attention to these threats, but his disciples advised him to retire for some time. What he did in the forest of Clairay. There he set up his oratory near a fountain. His tranquility was short-lived, for Fatisie sent murderers to him with the mission of killing him and bringing back his tongue. At the approach of the saint, the murderers prostrated themselves and converted to the Christian faith. As they were to account for their mission, they consulted the saint in order to know the best way to deceive Fatisie. Latuin advised them to kill their dog, to take away their heart, and to defile their clothes with the blood of the animal. Fatia soon died of a fatal death. But the waters of the spring were tinged with blood. Latuin returned to Sées. He often went to his hermitage. It was in this place that death took him peacefully and he still worked miracles.””
Today the spring fills a large square stone basin beneath a statue of the saint dressed in Bishop robes holding a crozier and those coming to cure complaints have tied rags to the top of the metal fence surrounding it. The spring and its church are now the location for an annual pilgrimage. This year on http://www.ville-sees.fr/dimanche-24-juin-pelerinage-saint-latuin/ website it recorded:
“25 years ago, the association “Les amis de Saint Latuin” was created to offer the pilgrims of Saint Latuin the annual animation of the pilgrimage and to ensure the restoration and maintenance of the church of Cléray , Its cemetery and its fountain. On Sunday 24 June: 7.45 am: laudes at the cathedral, 8 am: departure of the march towards the church of Cléray (7.5 km), 10.45 am: gathering at the Cléray fountain, procession followed by the Mass chaired by Bishop Habert. “
In La Croupte, is a spring dedicated to St Martin, with its 15th century chapel. Near here is a statue of the saint festooned with ribbons and different socks, particularly baby socks, close to the springhead. Why are there socks? The spring is said to help children suffering from rickets and hence helping children to walk.
After praying and lighting a candle the clothes or socks are attached nearby. It is recorded that other saints are prayed to according to the healing required as it too cures skin and eye problems. The springhead fills a square basin surrounded by a metal fence upon which the votives are attached.
The final spring is that associated with a sacred landscape of Pre D’Auge, Calvados I Basse Normandie. Indeed it is unclear in this case whether the tree is more sacred than the spring head. Both are named after Saint Meen’s. This is a site which associates with a ragged oak which generations upon generations have attached rags to. The oak itself being called the Oak of Saint Meen, thought to be over a 1000 years old although it is now hollow and in the hollow is a small wooden statue of the saint (it is said that the original remains in a local castle). Indeed, there was concern about the condition of the oak and that in 2009 its final branch was removed and all that is left is the oak. However, the owners of the land concerned that the tradition would disappear ensured that two other oaks can replace it should the time come, one being planted in 1920 and the other in the 2000s. The hulk of the original tree has not prevented the pilgrims attaching rags which range from strips through to handkerchiefs to whole clothes. The spring is said to cure skin complaints and like at other springs, the cloth is first immersed into the spring and applied to the skin, before being left.
The rationale behind the springs use is related to the Saint, who was Breton monk who travelled these areas converting the pagans, who would appear to dislike rudeness and selfishness. It is reported that when on a journey to Rouen, thirsty he rested in the village. Seeing two young girls he asked them if he could drink, one said she would help but other complained about the scarcity of water and refused. As a result, he caused the spring to burst forth to thank the helpful one saying to the less than generous one:
“You will be covered with pustules and you will be obliged to come and wash yourself there praying to ask for your cure which will remind you of your lack of charity.”
A good reason to justify a rag well not doubt!
Outside the town of Mogenstrup is one of the most famed holy wells of Denmark. A holy well dedicated to a saint whose following spread across the Danish world, a saint still remembered from Orkney’s to Denmark – St Magnus or Mogens, a Danish Royal Martyr. Local traditions believes that the well was a pagan sacrifice site taken over by the early church and dedicated to the saint. When this re-dedication was done is unclear but it was certainly since 1292 as the area around has been called Magnus torp since.
The best time to visit the well was Midsummer by the sick and weak. There were certain ceremonies which had to be adhered to, which ensure the water’s best powers were bestowed, such as the giving of swords, jewellery or even animals. When the church was established they encouraged the giving of money into a box , a block and hence called block money, in the church. This paid for the church, the poor and those who had to guard the spring. It is said that its waters were particularly officious at midnight and that pilgrims were so keen to take its waters that fights would occur. On is recorded between two women in 1670 from Næstved in 1670 who fought to reach the spring first and the fight resulted in a law suit of the 1st July 1670.
Another tradition to ensure that the water was effective was that the applicant should approach the well in silence. Thus, they must not greet people once they had been to the spring, avoid again meeting anyone on a return visit. Of course you could collect water for someone else but it must not be sampled on the journey back or else its power would be lost. It was also thought that the water flowed greatest and was more efficacious at midnight and bowing three times against the sun was also recommended.
The water could be used for internal diseases including cancer, insanity and mental illnesses, or external one which require the area being rubbed. In the donation of money it is said that odd money was needed for external diseases but also rags were would be used where the affected area would be rubbed or tied to and then left at the site. There are accounts of those suffering from arthritis donating their crutches to the church as firewood! Unlike British clouts it is said that the clothes were buried as local people would steal them or burn. Local accounts tell sometimes people came had their sight restored or even their life by virtue of the saint!
The Reformation here too had an impact and in 1536 there are records of the clergy trying to prevent people access the site. However, over a hundred years later, accounts of 1681-86 record that the weak and crippled were still visiting the spring donating 3-5 shillings. There were said to be several thousand at midsummer.
A turnpike was established in 1824 through the woods, the outflow was channelled into a fountain with a lion’s head which itself was restored by 1862 by the owner of a local brewery obviously tapping the water. However, the move was to have a negative impact on the supposed powers of the spring and numbers of visitors dropped.
The holy well still survives arising in a circular basin whose overfull continues to the lion’s head, however the vast concourse of pilgrims have long gone.
“+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.
St Trillo’s Well has been on my personal must visits for some time. It is not only a unique site being a chapel enclosing a holy well – a rare survival – its location tucked under a seaside road, a juxtaposition between the seaside houses and the promenade and the sea makes it one of the most unusually situated. It is everyone’s classic view of an ancient chapel, privately arranged and simply adorned and whilst it may not be as old as first assumed it does have its own unique charm.
I was particularly concerned that it may be open. Being a chapel I am always wary that like churches – urban areas and access do not often work. Yet parking above it, now almost hidden by shrubs and the hill itself, the path led to the railed enclosure which was open and walking around I pushed the old wooden door, it yielded and I was in. As soon as one enters, one is overcome with a feeling of peace. Whatever frivolities gone on outside feel an eon away. As a chapel it is very unusual, being claimed with its room for six chairs, to be the smallest church in Britain. This is no folly but a functional place of worship for the congregation which meet for communion on Friday mornings and those more intermittent visitors who leave votives and prayers. For perhaps uniquely again for a British well, the saint’s intercessions are still asked for via its well.
Many years ago historians thought that the chapel dated from the early medieval, even from the 6th century times of the saint. However, whilst it is very likely that the present structure is built upon this original hermitage it is much more recent. Generally it is thought to date from the 1500s. Francis Jones in his 1954 Holy Wells of Wales notes:
“In the Denbighshire parish of Iscoed, a certain Angharad verch [daughter of] David, examined in 1590 before Roger Puleston of Llay, the local Justice of the Peace …resolutely refused to conform “by reason of her conscience.” In answer to further questions concerning her marriage, she declared that the ceremony had taken place last harvest time at a place called Llandrillo Chapel near the sea side in Creuddyn whilst she was on a pilgrimage to St. Drillo’s [sic] well.”
Such a visit suggests a pre-Reformation importance to the site especially as the date, in Harvest, suggests a regular pilgrimage as this was a popular time to go. Thomas Pennant visited the site in the late 1700s and described it as:
“… saw close to the shore the singular little building called St Trillo’s Church. It is oblong, has a window on each side and at the end; a small door; and a vaulted roof paved with round stones instead of being slated. Within is a well. The whole building is surrounded with a stone wall.”
Clearly what is seen present despite in its ancient appearance is Victorian in nature for in 1892, a letter in Archaeologia Cambrensis by folklorist and cleric Elias Owen (author of Welsh Folk-Lore) described it as :
“I was sorry to find that the vaulted roof had fallen in, that the well inside the chapel was covered over with the debris from the roof, and that the whole structure and its surroundings presented a ruinated and uncared for aspect.”
This concern was headed and in around 1898 two buttresses were erected to support the seaward side, a cross was inserted into the gable and more importantly a new roof. A stone altar was inserted over the well and stain glasses of Saints Trillo and Elian installed. An account by the Royal Commissioners who visited in 1912 happily describe a better condition, being described as:
“A small building, internally eleven feet nine inches by six feet three inches, standing on the sea shore within reach of the highest spring tides, and sheltering a small spring of clear water which traditionally represents the well of the patron saint of the parish. The building is roughly vaulted, and, according to earlier accounts, the vaulting was effected in the primitive manner of the earliest Christian oratories … It is, however, doubtful if the chapel is not far more modern than it is assumed to be.”
It has remained well looked after ever since, being adopted by the church of Wales who have a rather intimate Eucharist ever Friday at 8 am during the summer.
The Holy well
The first thing to notice is that the well is central to the chapel’s function being positioned in the centre beneath the altar. It is covered by a metal grill and two wooden slats. Upon removal two steps appear, suggesting perhaps that the water was easier lower or else individuals entered it for baptism. Indeed, baptism appears to be the only recorded function for its waters. The water is clear and arises at the foot of the hill being channelled into the well chamber by pipes. It is clear that it was the spring which caused the saint to establish a hermitage here.
Of the well the first post Reformation reference to its powers is made by Evans (1802) who briefly notes
“St. Trillo’s Chapel: inside is a well, formerly much esteemed for the sanative virtues of its waters; it was supposed to have been the constant residence of the saint.”
But despite this and such postulations by Colt Hoare, who visited the well one July in 1801 noted it was:
“once probably held in high veneration for its miraculous qualities.”
But stated nothing more. Interesting there are no ‘modern’ traditions of the well and it would appear it has become a largely supplementary feature to the chapel’s powers via the intercession of St. Trillo.
Who was St. Trillo?
St Trillo who is shown with fellow local saint St Elian, in two small stained glass windows in the chapel, was the brother of two other saints, Tegai and Llechid and was a monk of Bardsey Island before settling here. He is also saint to have been involved with the Diocese of Bangor Diocese. However, like many 7th century saints little is really known.
Located as it does seems an unusual place for a holy well perhaps but as Francis Thompson (2008) in his Early Hermit sites and Well Chapels states its location is not that unusual. Indeed, along with cliff races, islands and valleys, it was another ideal location for a hermit to reside. Furthermore, it was a very fortunate place to be, the sea would provide a harvest and even today the rock pools are full of winkles, mussels and edible seaweed. The survival of a medieval fish trap a few yards from the chapel is also significant and may have been the occupants attempt to provide a more substantial harvest by trapping fish. Not only would such a location provide a bumper food supply, fishermen may have provided money in thanksgiving or offerings for a profitable and safe fishing.
This giving of thanks or asking for the saint to intercede with God is still very much an important role for the chapel. On the altar are a range of curious items, votive gifts of thanks and on a board petitions are regularly attached. Tristan Grey Hulse in his 1995 A Modern Votive deposit at a North Welsh Holy Well for Folklore, Volume 106 recorded the range of requests. The author notes:
“Thus the sudden and spontaneous development of a new religious cult practice at the chapel is a fact of some importance, likely to be of interest to students in a variety of disciplines. I have visited Capel Trillo many times over the past fifteen years, but beyond noticing the odd coin thrown into the holy well, I had never seen the chapel otherwise than described above. But paying a first visit in 1994, on 21 April, I encountered a significant change. There were more flowers than usual, in pots on the window-ledges as well as on the altar. There was a crude but exuberant and colourful painting of St Trillo standing by his well propped against the altar; and the altar-table itself had scraps of paper scattered across it. Each of these contained a handwritten prayer or request for prayer. There were seventeen in all. Intrigued by this unexpected development, I copied the texts.”
Doing further research, he noted:
“The present custom apparently began in the summer of 1992. Arriving as usual one Friday morning to celebrate the Eucharist, the vicar of Llandrillo, Canon E. Glyn Price, found a single piece of paper impaled on a nail sticking out from the wall of the chapel, containing a hand-written prayer. Touched by its contents, he left it there; and the following Friday found that it had been joined by several others. The vicar placed them all on the altar. Since then, the practice has continued uninterruptedly, without any encouragement (or-perhaps significantly discouragement) on the part of the parish clergy.
Now, at any one time there is an average of perhaps thirty votive notes on the altar. Each ex-voto is left for three or four weeks before being removed and reverently destroyed by fire. Originally Canon Price read out each invocation in the course of the weekly Eucharist at the chapel, but eventually the growing numbers rendered this impracticable, and they are now commemorated collectively. The chapel cult has also expanded somewhat, in that offerings of flowers are now left anonymously; and the “folk-art” depiction of St Trillo arrived in the same manner.”
In Hulse’s article he notes that the principal petition was regarding health (19). Interestingly to those prayers which are addressed, these according to Hulse’s survey was overwhelmingly to God (17) compared to the saint (8), although a number were ambiguous in their dedications.
The ailments ranged from Insomnia to Cancer, through eye problems, stress, a physical disability or else concerned the well-being of the family whether through reconciliation of its members, improvement of the quality of life or overcoming bereavement, the commonest perhaps reflecting more the age of the votive despositer. One even requested help to learn Welsh! The majority were women.
These votives still cover the altar as can be seen and between the two visits I made they had clearly changed. Now official notelets are produced and pinned to the board beside the altar, these two changed between the visits. Indeed, sitting for just over an hour a steady stream of ‘pilgrims’ can be seen many just curious, others did appear to leave something..so it pleasing to see this most romantic of well chapels still functioning in 21st century Britain.
If you visit only one holy well after reading this blog – make it this one. Easy found and reached (and signed) either by walking along the promenade or driving Marine Parade to Trillo Avenue, Why? For its peace, for its uniqueness, for its feel of the ancient, a connection to the time of hermit saints – or for the fact you can visit this, have an ice cream, do rock pooling and see the oldest puppet show in Britain…what’s not to like!?
If holy wells had a token head, a site which makes the non-enthusiast an enthusiast, it would be St Cybi’s Well. Why? Firstly, it is well signposted, secondly it is well looked after, thirdly it is well written about – why all of these? This is because St. Cybi’s Well is a rare thing amongst holy wells – a site looked after and managed by a heritage organisation – CADW. Now although this may make you think that means it is sanitised and over populated…nothing can be further from the truth. Despite its CADW guardianship this is still a remote site, one still needs to traverse footpaths, cross muddy fields and still possibly get lost. This still is not an ‘exit through the gift shop’ site – there are no facilities at all in fact. It remains an eerie isolated place. I have been there a number of times and even at the height of summer it is still has the feeling of a special place however many people are there. Its walls echo a time long gone and it is captivating in its ruination.
What greets the visitor is quite unlike other holy wells in many ways, for these are the remains of a commercial enterprise – a house which served a guardian, a bath, well and even a latrine – fortunately down river – useful but often missing today from most holy well sites! The house itself is thought not be that old dating from around 1750, but were thought to have been built by the then landowner a Mr. Price to capitalise on the known properties of the well.
Who was Cybi?
A Cornish man descended from it is thought a Roman military leader of minor King and his mother was thought to be the first cousin to St. David. A much travelled man said to have be taught religious studies in France and travelled even to Jerusalem and Rome. When he returned to Cornwall becoming the leader of a failed uprising which forced him to travel northwards, first to South Wales and then to Ireland. He was not received well in Ireland being involved in territory squabbles and ended on the Lleyn Peninsula settling and founding the church of Llangybi. The spring is said to have arisen in a classic fashion for holy wells, him striking the ground with his staff and the spring arising!
A catalogue of cures and a sacred eel!
The well here appeared to cure one of the widest range of ailments from warts, scrofula, scurvy, lameness to even blindness, one 18th century account telling of how a man blind for 30 years bathed his eyes for over three weeks in the well’s water and was cured. It was also used to love predictions. This was done by using a handkerchief. It would be floated on the water and somehow would tell who their love would be. For those unable to get the cure on site, water was often placed in bottles or casks. Jones (1954) in his Holy Wells of Wales even tells of smugglers being challenged by exercise men claimed the casks contained not spirits but holy well from this well!
A specific ritual arose for its use involving patients having to bathe in the water once or twice a day for seven to ten days, then sleep in a room in the adjoining cottage where they would be given the well’s water mixed with an equal volume of sea water. If the patient became warm in their bed then the treatment had worked. Offerings were left at the church being placed in a box called Cyff Gybi and crutches were found around the well; left by the cured.
Whilst I was at the well, I slipped and ended up falling into it – not enough to get too wet but enough to hopefully awaken its famed resident – it still remained. This was a large eel. It was claimed that if the patient stoop bared legged in the water the eel would effect a cure by wrapping around their legs. No eel appeared. Apparently it was removed some time ago and it was said the spring water’s powers was lost!
Certainly, what has not been lost is the magic of this site. Even on a day when the rain is torrential, there is still a mysterious and tranquil air to this site. Worth a restful moment on any day.
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.
Compared to Tremeirchion the provenance for St. Beuno’s Well at the fascinating Clynnog Fawr is much better. After following King Cadwallon from Holywell to Caernarvon, he was offered land here by his cousin Gwyyddaint after a falling out with the King! It is said that this was his final resting place, where he built his last cell, a chapel said to have been located at the site of the church. Thus in the seventh century a monastery was established which was destroyed in a 10th century Viking raid. Nothing is left from this period the present Chapel and church dating from the sixteenth century but excavations within have revealed earlier buildings.
A substantial well
St Beuno’s Well is of a style commonly met – a quite substantial well. The spring arises to fill a large rectangular bath surrounded by stone seats. The whole enclosure being walled around and raised above the roadway presumably to prevent animals reaching it and soiling it. Although the main road now thankfully bypasses the village and the well, the roadway was and still is, the pilgrim route down the Lleyn peninsular to the sacred isle of Bardsey beyond (a fact emphasised by the presence of a stamp collection for pilgrims)
A healing well
Here we come across a more confirmed usage of the well. This was mainly for children suffering from epilepsy and rickets for also conversely was linked to curing impotency. Scrapings from the pillars in the church were mixed with the water to cure sore eyes. An even more fascinating the tradition was that the bather would then visit St. Beuno’s chapel and laid on a bed of rushes upon a stone called Beuno’s tomb. A good night’s sleep procured a cure. I was denied even an attempt at this as the Chapel a unique side chapel reached by a small walkway was locked! However, I am not sure how good my cure would be as the stone itself was only a fragment of its original being removed in 1856. The practice itself was still being undertaken long after the reformation as accounted for by Thomas Pennant:
“and I myself once saw on it (the tomb) a feather bed on which a poor paralytic from Merioneddshire had lain the whole night after undergoing the same ceremony.”
A pagan tradition?
What has been related so far is strongly suggestive of some long lost pre-Christian tradition. Indeed today by the door is a large sarsen stone possibly part as perhaps Beuno’s stone, of a megalithic monument. What is even more curious is the tradition of St Beuno’s cattle. These were cattle with ear markings which were slaughtered and offered to the saint to ensure well-being of the stock. This was later replaced by monetary offerings based on the sale of livestock and the chest, Beuno’s cyff, remains within the church. The money being used for the poor. The ‘sacrifice’ of stock is clearly very resonant of pre-Christian practises and perhaps the area was dedicated to a deity visited for such wishes.
Very honoured this month to have a guest blog article by Father John Musthers, author of a new book on Cumbrian holy wells – a poorly studied area – his book will be reviewed here https://insearchofholywellsandhealingsprings.wordpress.com/book-reviews/. Below is a brief biography
After a full life of Christian service, Fr John moved to Keswick, from the south coast, with his wife Jenny in 2007. They immediately found enough people to start an Orthodox parish and he was ordained priest in 2008. The parish serves the whole of Cumbria and beyond and was granted the use of Braithwaite Methodist Church in 2009. There is an Orthodox liturgy in English every Sunday at 10.30 followed by food and time together for much of the afternoon. We welcome young families and children. The parish is thriving and is becoming known for its energy, warmth, and welcome. Fr John is a keen observer of the continuity between the early church in the British Isles and coming of Orthodoxy to Britain again in recent times. His passion is the traditon of lived holiness down the ages. He has written a book about the saints and their relevance today. He has extensively explored ancient Christian sites in the UK and Ireland. His latest interest has been the Holy Wels of North Cumbria.
My introduction to holy wells came about in Ireland. I had some free time over there so I went to look for holy sites. This was a jaw dropping experience to find much of Ireland’s rich heritage of monasteries, churches, holy wells and more. With my wife we journeyed all over, in time visiting most of Ireland twice. Ireland is reputed to have had 3000 wells. We saw many big ones, little ones, nice ones, and spooky ones. My favourite is at Kyle in Co Tipperary. It is well off the beaten track. You have to negotiate a bull, water that bubbles, trees with clouties, and under the trees many crosses from a mysterious unknown monastery.
Back home in Cumbria we started to notice wells until it got to the point where we knew of at least 70 – many more than earlier tallies. So we felt people ought to know. We have published ‘Springs of Living Water’, in paperback and hardback. The hardback came out expensive, but I believe it to be a gem.
St Helen’s, Great Asby, is the well with the best flow of water. St Michael’s, Arthuret, is a big well and a very old one. St Andrews, Kirkandrewes, (on the front cover) has outlived its church but still makes a pretty flow of water by the footpath down past the churchyard. The most popular of wells is lkely to be that at Caldbeck on the riverbank behind the church.
I always like to find those difficult to discover: St Michael’s, once of Addingham, now in Lazonby, has to be another favourite with loads of atmosphere underneath trees, rather like Powdonnet well in Morland; St Catherines in a remote spot near Boot in Eskdale; the well at Staffield is little known, hidden away in the middle of a very very large field. In this category also must come the well in the bottom of Schawk quarry which had a history going back to Roman times. Many places have lost their wells and are known only by name: but there is one almost perfect well – Grange Hall in Great Asby with its canopy still in place.
What’s it all about? We don’t get very far without facing the deeper questions. Where do they come from? What are they for? Where do we come in the scale of history? It is a wise man who does not jump in too quickly to answer these questions. But here are some thoughts and reflections.
Human beings have to drink and wash from time to time. Our ancestors valued wells, streams and rivers because of this practical need of water. But such is the ‘magic’ of water they, like us, reflected on the matter and noticed how some wells had something more: a sense of mystery, a sense of awe, a sense of the ‘holy’. We need not doubt this for we can feel it too. In this context the leaving of a gift is a natural thing to do. We all have our explanations. We do not have to be condescending. We only need to sit at Castlerigg Stone Circle in Keswick to realise this magnificent piece of work is a testimony to man’s consumng search for the spiritual, the divine, for ‘God’.
Kneeling by the pool of water at Kyle we become aware of the bubbles coming up through the limestone. Instantly comes to mind the cripple at the Pool of Siloam who, when the pool was disturbed, could get no one to take him to the water. Here was a connection across 2000 years, between an event in Jerusalem to a moment in Kyle, of revelation, of meaning, of healing, if you believe it. Could not the Celt have made the same connection?
Would he not believe he had found a greater salvation?
Just up the road from our house is Crosthwaite parish church. Here, in a likely tale told by an Englishman called Bede, about the itinerant bishop St Kentigern (I prefer the more intimate name of Mungo, ‘my dear one’) who placed his cross in a clearing and began to speak. From all accounts (as shown in the contemporary Life of St Cuthbert) there were many in those days who were thirsty. They went down into the pool, or stream or river and were baptised. Seek out the old British churches, of which there are several in north Cumbria, and look for the water. I guarantee you will find it.
The water was blessed, the water was used again and again. The faithful built little churches by the spot or even over it. They remembered the day when the Saint had visited them. They remembered the name of Christ and the name of the Trinity, though in some places it didn’t catch on and people went on in their old convictions. The Christian felt connected to the saint even when, as they believed, he went from them and was alive with Christ in heaven; and they found he still prayed for them.
Christ, the Church, the saints, the wells and baptism were the foundation of a new culture. Holy Wells flourished and abounded. If we go anywhere in Wales or Cornwall we will be astonished by their number. The large wall map on my wall of Cumbria tells the same story.
As we all know they came under attack, many were destroyed, left to neglect. For a long time people remembered the old places. They still went on the Saints days to trade their wares, to enjoy the entertainments and went home grateful for another ‘holi-day’ temporarily lifting the heavy burden of life long ago.
Some wells got a new lease of life by the Spas when the cultured ‘took the waters’. Cumbria has many of them. Now people go to them for a nice weekend, and the well is, if anything, just a curiosity.
Our church in Braithwaite has started to bless the waters again; and new believers plunge into the cold waters of the beck. We have a large container of blessed water inside the church for use on local saints days, of St Bega, St Mungo, St Cuthbert and St Herbert. We also bless our homes with the water.
In effect, we have made a new holy well!
It can be purchased now follow the link
Springs of Living Waters
This year the monthly theme is wells of North Wales. This is a region rich in holy and healing springs – so much that it would take many years to discover or rather re-discover them all – as has done my fellow holy well researcher over at Wellhopper.com – please visit and follow his blog its excellent!
This month, I am covering a fairly well known site named after a well-known Welsh saint, indeed he is the patron saint of North Wales. It’s also an opportunity to highlight a remarkable site which readers will be interested in knowing can be holidayed at!
The well lies on the outskirts of the village of Tremeirchion and is dedicated to the famed Welsh saint – St Beuno – a name we have already heard mention in the legend of St Winifred at Holy Well and we shall meet again. Overlooking this much reported and unique well are St. Beuno’s Huts.
Who was St Beuno?
St. Beuno was a 7th century abbot, being based in Clynnog Fawr, and confessor who was born in Powys from a royal dynasty said to have descended from Vortigern one of the last Kings of Britain. He was a missionary across North Wales, having 11 churches named after him – one being in Somerset. A number of miracles, particularly concerning raising the dead, such as St. Winifred are attributed to him. It is said to have died in 640 on the seventh day of Easter.
Unlike other sites in this region there is no direct evidence of the saint having resided or even visiting at the spring. Moreover the village is on a pilgrim route to Holy Well and like similar pilgrim routes, such as the pilgrim’s way to Canterbury, springs dedicated to the saint who was the main pilgrim focus, in that case St. Thomas. Yet Winifred should be the dedication in that case however I theorize that Holywell celebrated both saints and indeed, albeit overgrown, there is a St. Beuno’s Well in that town. I am also of the belief that well changed fluxed over time, adopting new names as the saints popularity waxed and waned and the names changed like franchises. It is probable also that a local hermit adopted the name of the saint, much as Popes do today, a point I shall return to later.
The well, a substantial one, lies tantalising just off a small road in a private garden. Fortunately, although the internet is rife with rumours of new owners being restrictive and unapproachable, I found the owner, Mr. Chris Marsh completely the opposite – in fact I don’t think he could be any more welcoming if he tried! It is worth noting that the sign which was once associated with the sign in which a correspondent to Megalithic portal saw as a sign…was removed because it was broken and has yet to be fixed! The owners were more than happy, but I would advise ringing or emailing first. The contact details can be gained from below’s link to their holiday lets.
The well consists of a brick lined tank covering 18 feet by 10 feet with a sandy bottom, although this appears to cover a constructed one. The depth was around two feet. Its clear water bubbles up arising it appears from under the present St. Beuno Cottage. Interestingly, there appear to be steps on one side which led to nowhere and it is possible that the house footings have changed over the time and that perhaps the house itself was originally a room for changing to bath in the well. Was this an early spa, using the name of a saint to justify its existence as seen elsewhere? It is a theory I shall visit in a moment.
The well chamber is surrounded by a rough wall which has a doorway and a pump. Both of which probably date from an 1800 period of restoration. However the two most remarkable features are those involved with drainage. The most photographed is a supposed stone head embedded within the wall which apparently would flow into a chamber reached by stone steps. Much has also been written of this monument in support of the head cult and holy well theory. Some have seen it as a pagan god, others as St. Winifred. Yet I think we can largely discredit these theories straight away as it is clearly not just a head but a torso and head, the arms held in benediction. I believe any link with a head cult is further dismissed by closer inspection. The origin of the piece is clearly a gargoyle possibly moved here in that 19th century restoration to give the rather mundane structure some rustic antiquarian charm. It may have come from a nearby church restoration or from the ruins of a nearby monastery. It is no more evidence for a head cult than any other gargoyle, grotesque or boss seen in churches across Christendom! Furthermore it has failed to work for many years – and the owner was told that any photo that shows water running through it has been faked by throwing buckets of water through it from the other side! I was resisted the temptation.
The other feature is more strange and as far as I aware unique. The other side of the wall from the head is a large plug hole – the plug of which is attracted to a chain – which can be pulled out to empty the well! I was informed that although the bath took possibly 24 hours to fill – it could be emptied in just under an hour – a fact demonstrated to me.
What was it?
Theory one – a medieval bath
How old is the well structure? Much of it appears to be only a few hundred years old by the nature of the stone work and the concretion makes it difficult to judge. This recent date would explain the lack of any recorded history – the well was too insignificant to be recorded. It is also worth noting that the original house dates from a post-Reformation 1560 so was unlikely to be capitalising of its holy credentials. In 1897 it was suggested that the site was medieval but was this antiquarian fancy. I would hazard to suggest the presence of Jesuit College founded in the 1840 may have had a role in either naming or cementing the saint especially as no pre 1800 date for the site can be found. It is worth noting that both antiquarians Dr. Johnson and Thomas Pennant visited the Parish church but did not mention the well.
Below emptying the well
Theory two – a spa bath
There is more evidence for the development of the site, probably in the 18th century as either a private plunge pool or even a spa. These are quite common, and there is a nearby stately home, but it does not appear to been linked to the well site. There is certainly circumstantial evidence for its development as a spa and this would explain its later appearance, wells as far afield as in London, Nottinghamshire and Sussex appear to have adopted saintly dedications to justify their importance. Selling healing waters would be more successful if a pre-Reformation association could be advertised. Especially as it is evident that its waters had no apparent qualities! It is interesting to record that H Morton Stanley, noted African adventurer who lived in the 1820s stated it had:
“no virtues beyond purity and sweetness.”
The day I visited I was informed that a local nun regularly visits the well to pray and collect water for the poor, although the owner questioned the quality of the water. However, the lack of reportage from Pennant and Johnson suggests it was not used as a spa.
Theory three – a reservoir for drinking water
It appears more likely that the structure was made as a source of permanent water for the local farm. This cannot of course be disputed as most holy wells are used for this purpose at some time, however this does not negate against an ancient origin only an old origin for the current structure. Perhaps this explains the gargoyle outflow provided to give villagers access to the water for whatever reason.
Evidence for an ancient origin.
As the well chamber emptied I was shown the cave up above the well in the hill side. A large entrance which opened up into a series of larger chambers. Within this have been found some fascinating finds – remains of cave bears, hyenas and a lion. However more significantly the cave was 35,000 years ago the last refuge in Northern Europe of the Neanderthal Man.
This cave is a remarkable site and illustrates more than anything else the continuation of use which frustrating lies undocumented at many holy well sites. It would have been the combination of a suitable shelter and fresh water which brought these early people to settle here and whilst they may not have seen any religious significance to the water – we can only postulate they did.
What is even more intriguing is the likelihood that this was also a hermit’s cave. There is no archaeological evidence of this, yet it is difficult to deny that it is more than probable.
So what can we conclude? Is it a holy well? To many people today it is seen as a typical holy well – indeed like many typical ones I could add it has little historical evidence. But does that really matter? I feel that whatever its’ true origins it is likely to be an ancient site.
Indeed it seemed more than fitting that Chris Marsh had decided to establish these unique St. Beuno’s Huts, a far more all mod cons and modern take on the religious hermit – although you could take your partner and children too! So if you are a real holy well enthusiast who is looking for somewhere unique to stay I couldn’t recommend the uniqueness and hospitality of St. Beuno’s Huts, a chance to commune with this unique landscape.