Category Archives: Pembrokeshire
One of south Wales’s most evocative and peaceful holy well is that of St Anthony’s Well in Llansteffan. One approaches the site by a path that leads from the castle site down to the beach.
Why St Anthony?
A fair few Welsh holy wells are dedicated to their local holy people but this one is dedicated to St Anthony. However, this still underlines its association with hermits as titular saint is St Anthony of Egypt who in around 251-356 AD was believed to be the first Christian hermit. Like modern day Catholics who take a saintly name at confirmation Celtic holy people would adopt names which had a spiritual significance. Thus locally this hermit was called Antwn; a Welsh form of Anthony who is said to have lived here in the sixth century. The plaque on the wall of the well records:
“Little St Anthony’s Well is barely large enough to get your hand inside for a drink of water. But you must wait patiently for the clear drops to seep from the mossy recess in the hillside.”
Chris J Thomas in his 2004 Sacred Welsh Wales describes it as cold and bland so it may not be worth the wait.
It is recorded that in 1811 existing stonework has been built around the natural spring in the form of a pointed arch with an offerings shelf at the back. A small recess above the shelf is where a statue of the saint was reputedly placed. Now there is an icon of the saint. Prayer flags festoon the area as well.
In more modern times the surrounding area has been rather heavily improved with extra retaining walls and a paved forecourt. It is now described as a Grade II listed site is describe as having a well chamber set within a triangular-headed recess into the southwest facing wall of the enclosure and above it are two stone shelves and a carved niche. Above it is a relief carving, presumably of Antwn, is on the rear wall of the enclosure
The shelf is full of cockle shells -and some other small votives and it is apparent that the tradition is alive and well. However, I am unaware of why they are doing so.
A hermit’s well
So this was a hermit’s well which suggests in the location there was a hermitage or at least a site of refuge. A suggested site is a cave further down the bay shaped similarly to the well arch – however there is no evidence.
Local tradition suggests that he used the water to baptise local people It is still a site of pilgrimage. Paul Davis 2003’s Sacred Springs: In Search of the Holy Wells and Spas of Wales notes that:
“frequented by lovesick travellers intent on casting a pin into the well to fulfil their hearts desires.”
Thomas (2004) notes:
“Pilgrims still visit this well for their own secret purposes, the most prevalent of which is for ‘wishing’. Romantic aspirations and reparations are what St Anthony’s Well is best at, apparently. You must be totally alone, offer a small white stone and wish very sincerely. There ae no known statistics regarding its success rate.”
It is not difficult to see why this site would not be in anyone’s top 10 of sites – the seaside location, its secretive enclosure and the sweeping gardens and sylvanian setting surrounding it mean it would be easy to spend a few hours in solitude listening to the dripping water and the sounds of the waves. A more peaceful place would be hard to find.
As a prelude to next year’s theme on votive offerings at holy and healing wells with a special focus on rag wells, for this abecedary entry W I have picked Wales and want to focus on rag wells in the country as an early prelude to my theme next year which is on rag or more often called cloottie wells.
The earliest confirmed reference is an English one of 1600 and evidence from Wales of their existence comes much later as nearly 300 years after the first accounts. What are we to make of this?
An account by Professor Rhys in Folklore for September, 1892 is the easiest reference and he is given the following information, said to be ‘lately sent to him by a friend, about a Glamorganshire holy well situated between Coychurch and Bridgeendd’ he notes.:—
“people suffering from any malady to dip a rag in the water, and bathe the affected part. The rag is then placed on a tree close to the well. When I passed it, about three years ago, there were hundreds of these shreds covering the tree, and some had evidently been placed there very recently.”
He was further informed that :
“People suffering from rheumatism. They bathe the part affected with water, and afterwards tie a piece of rag to the tree which overhangs the well. The rag is not put in the water at all, but is only put on the tree for luck. It is a stunted but very old tree, and is simply covered with rags.”
An interesting variant of the custom is recorded at Ffynnon Eilian (St. Elian’s Well), near Abergele in Denbighshire. Here Professor Rhys was informed by Mrs. Evans, the late wife of Canon Silvan Evans, who states that:
“some bushes near the well had once been covered with bits of rag left by those who frequented it. The rags used to be tied to the bushes by means of wool-not woollen yarn, but wool in its natural state. Corks with pins stuck in them were floating in the well when Mrs. Evans visited it, though the rags had apparently disappeared from the bushes.”
This may have been to do with the unfavourable nature of the well which was renowned as a cursing well. Recently restored it rags have yet to re-appear there!
Finally he records Ffynnon Cefn Lleithfan, or Well of the Lleithfan Ridge, on the eastern slope of Mynydd y Rhiw, in the parish of Bryncroes, in the west of Caernarvonshire, here:
“The wart is to be bathed at the well with a rag or clout, which has grease on it. The clout must then be carefully concealed beneath the stone at the mouth of the well.”
Which is yet again another variant possibly to do with the paucity of trees in the area
In an article in the Cardiff Naturalists Society (1935) by Aileen Fox, entitled “A Rag Well near Llancarfan” the spring called the Inflammation Spring she states that:
“When I first visited the spring in August, 1935, 3 old rags – pieces of dish cloth and calico – and a piece of brown wool were tied on overhanging branches by the source.”
And records that:
“The treatment described by Mrs Williams consisted in using the water for drinking to the exclusion of all other fluids, in applying mud from the source as a plaster on the affected parts, and in tying a rag, preferably from the underclothing, by the well.”
Distribution of the rag wells in the county is spread out with a small cluster in the south. Research and survey work indicates that there are eight traditional sites of which only three have a continued tradition, although it is difficult to describe or define the presence of rags there as continued or revived tradition without further research. Add to this only three sites which have no tradition but have no become rag wells. This latter category itself is a puzzle to define.
A recent visit to the atmospheric St. Pedr’s Well at Caswell Bay on the Gower did reveal rags and objects hanging from trees. However, the more traditional appearing was St. Teilo’s Well, Llandilo in Pembrokeshire where trees beside the pool filled by the spring were adorned with white and red fabrics of cloth and as such perhaps appears closer to the tradition than other sites such as St Anne’s Well, Trelleck, Monmouthshire, where a tree is adorned with a multitude of objects when it is not actively cleared up by local people. Why rags and objects should appear at St Tegla’s Well, Llandega, Denbighshire, or the Holy Well, Pileth, Powys or Patrishow’s holy well, Llanlawer is unclear. As sites which have received publicity in the earth mysteries and pagan press these rank pretty high. However, it is interesting to note that they are all close to the English border too. The origins of the custom in Wales similarly is difficult to determine. The widespread nature of the custom and it variant usage suggests possibly a wider distribution and the sites remaining are bar the remnants or that it arose individually in a number of places.
Wales is much endowed with holy wells many dedicated to local saints. Behind the evocative 14th century church of Gumfreston, lay three wells which should be right be dedicated to some saint, but they only have the name – Church wells. Nevertheless, these wells are a fascinating example of water lore in this region of Wales. Three springs arise here, two enclosed in rough stone walling the other a simple spring. According to tradition, the uppermost spring is pure water, middle one chalybeate and lower one sulphur although all appear to be chalybeate. Francis Jones (1954) Holy Wells of Wales states that the wells were visited on Easter Day and bent pins were dropped into the water. This was called ‘throwing Lent away’, a recognised custom this appears to have been last recorded in the 17th century when the rector of the church was removed by puritans. However, despite the superstitious popularity of the well being removed by the 18th century the water was being analysed. A Dr. Davis, a physician to William IV, described the warers as being chalybeate and were ‘as good as the wells of Tunbridge’. At this time nearby Tenby had developed as a spa and visitors would visit Gumfreston to take the waters and there was a growing business to provide bottles for those unable to reach it. In the 1830s plans were drawn to enclose the springs and build a pump house and changing rooms for these visitors. This does not appear of have occurred but the wells continued to be regarded. Later a Dr. Golding Bird who was a ‘Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians and Professor of Therapeutics to Guy’s Hospital’. He described it as follows, reported in Samuel Hall and Anna Hall The Book of South Wales 1861:
“In consequence of the shallowness of the basin, this water is apt to vary in composition after heavy rains, from its undergoing dilution; this however applies nearly exclusively to the solid ingredients as the evolution of carbonic acid gas from the subjacent strata is so considerable that the water is, under all circumstances, saturated with the gas, so as to sparkle vividly in a glass, and undergo violent ebullution when laced on the air-pump and very slightly exhausted. The water is remarkable for its singular purity, the quantity of the saline ingredients being exceedingly small. An imperial gallon contains but five grains of lime, part of which exists as carbonate, and is held in solution by an excess of carbonic acid. The exceeding minute quantity of sulphuric acid is remarkable, less being present than in the purist river water. The quantity of oxide of iron is about 2.4 grains of iron. The Gumfreston water is, however, one of the purest hitherto noticed, and owes its medical properties to the iron, and the larges quantity of the carbonic acid it contains. This extreme freedom from saline ingredients, the presence of which constitutes the hardiness of water would render this water of great value to those patients who cannot bear the ordinary chalybeate water. The Gumfreston water resembles that of Malvern in its purity, and of Tunbridge Wells in the quantity if iron it contains, exceeding all other chalybeate waters in Great Britain in the large quantity of Carbonic acid held in solution. In cases of chlorosis, and other forms of deficiency of red blood in the system, this water would be invaluable.”
Traditionally cures such as leg problems were associated with the upper spring due to its shape like a leg, the middle for hands and arms, and the lower for eyes.
Customs associated with the well
Jones notes that it was custom here and at other wells to visit at New Year to get ‘New Year’s Water’. He recalls that children would collect it and carried it to local houses to sprinkle on their front doors with sprigs of evergreen or box. They sung a song which went:
“Here we bring new water from the well so clear, For to worship God with, this happy New Year, Sing levy dew, sing levy dew, the water and the wine, With seven bright gold wires, the bugles that do shine, Sing reign of fair maid, with hold upon her toe, Open you the west door, and turn the old year go. Sing reign of fair maid, with gold upon her chin, Open you the east door, and let the new year in.”
When the custom ceased is unclear, but traditions continue at the well. The custom of throwing Lent away has been recently revived with nails used to symbolise the crucifixion and done on Easter Sunday. Within recent years a number of newer customs have arisen. Davis (2003) in his Sacred Springs states that for a small donation visitors can make a wish or make a prayer and hang a ribbon and bell from one of the trees overhanging the springs. Since the 1990s a simple well dressing has been developed in Easter.
Image and text Copyright Pixyledpublications
A more romantic spot for a holy well one could hardly find and as such it is one of my favourite sites. Tucked within a rocky chasm struck from the Pembrokeshire coast, the sound of sea birds crying, the wind whistling and the waves crashing forcefully on the rocks below; one could easily imagine oneself back in the time of the saints, when a new faith was brought into these heathen heartlands and changed them perhaps forever. A remote site and perfect for a hermit. To reach the well below and its romantic chapel, the modern pilgrim descends a long row of steps, said impossible to count and these enter this delightful chapel of St. Govan.
Who was St. Govan?
No hard evidence can be found of the founder of this chapel. Some authorities identify him as King Arthur’s Gawain, but he is more likely to be Gobhan of Wexford as in the early medieval period there would have been links between the coasts. A legend tells that the saint journeyed to reach the family of St. David, the saint who trained him. Another legend identifies him as a repentant thief. Doubtless a chapel existed from the early times but the present algae covered chapel was built sometime between 1300-1500.
The birth of a chapel
Local legend tells that the saint was sent upon by pirates and at the spot the cliff opened up to form a cave which allowed him to escape and prevented them from reaching him. Another legend is that the saint’s hand prints were imprinted upon the chapel floor. A story tells that he had a silver bell which he placed in the chapel tower. It was stolen by the pirates but it was reclaimed by angels who encased it in a rock at the sea’s edge. It is a legend with is similar to that of St. Declan at Ardmore where his bell was left on the rock. When the saint died he was buried beneath the altar and indeed may still remain there. This cave formed the nucleus of the chapel and he survived on fish and water from two springs one within the chapel and the other covered in well house, both are now dry but the later is traceable.
The Holy Well.
This holy well is tucked below the chapel almost blending into the boulder below is St Govan’s Well It is a small well house made of the nearby boulders and stones with a round rough roof. The chapel itself is said to be built over the springhead and local legend records it never flooded. The water cured lameness, eye problems and rheumatism and those cured would leave their crutches and walking sticks at the altar. Its waters were collected by a limpet shell by the faithful. However there are cures no more as if one looks inside we shall see nothing but small wave worn boulders. Despite the dryness of the well, the atmosphere of this rocky crevasse and its delightful chapel is worth the pilgrimage.
In my searches for holy wells, here are ten of the oddest places I have found them. If you know any odder ones let me know. I’ve hyperlinked to megalithic portal for most were a page exists. Note due to the locations some of these sites are on private land.
Under a church. Much is spoken of the Christianisation of pagan springs by siting churches over them but the evidence is not common, St Ethelbert’s Well in Marden Herefordshire is one such example, located in a room to the west end of the nave, existing as a circular hole in the carpet mounted by a wooden frame.
In a bridge, Bridge chapels are a rarity in England and so were bridge holy wells and as far as I can tell of those said to exist at Barking in Essex and possibly in Nottingham at Trent bridge, only Biddenham’s Holy Well still survives in an ancient bridge, probably dating from the 17th century its worn steps lead down to a chamber beneath the bridge, although access is hampered by a locked gate.
Under my kitchen. A visit in search of St John’s Well near Retford, Nottinghamshire reveals a subterranean rectangular stone lined chamber designed to be a plunge pool for body immersions beneath a trap door in a person’s kitchen. More can be learned here or in Holy wells and healing springs of Nottinghamshire.
In the shadow of the tower blocks. Urbanisation has a tendency to sweep away anything inconvenient and messy like an ancient well and have in conduited away in pipes or just filled in, luckily one of oldest of Derbyshire’s holy wells (or at least with one of the oldest provenances) survives in a juxtaposition between some older housing and some tower blocks. Vandalised over the years and currently protected by an unsightly metal cage it St. Alkmund’s Well, flows on at the point where his body is said to have rested on the way to his shrine (supposedly in the city museum)
On a golf course. Surprisingly, despite what you would think would be an inconvenience, a number of holy wells arise between the bunkers and fairways of the countries golf courses. In Kent we have St Augustine’s Well at Ebbsfleet, Oxfordshire’s Holy Well at Tadmarton, and Jesus’s well at Miniver, Cornwall. My favourite, although it may not be a holy well per se (deriving from O.E holh or hol) is Holwell on Newstead Golf Course, Nottinghamshire. A natural fern, moss and liverwort adorned cave whose sweet waters are still available via a cup attached to a metal chain.
In the grounds of a school. As long as they don’t fill them with paper aeroplanes and rubbers, wells can survive in school estates well. The best example is the Lady’s Well located within the Bedgebury School Estate, a large sandstone structure has been raised over the spring either to celebrate Our Lady, original landowner Vicountess Beresford or perhaps a past Bedgebury School Headmistress!
Amongst the rock pools on the beach. Although now dry, St Govan’s Well and its associated Chapel are undoubtedly the most atmospherically positioned of any of this list. A small stone well house covers the spring which has either dried or being filled up by too many pebbles.
In a cave. Perhaps the most atmospheric of holy wells is the Holy Well of Holy Well bay near Newquay Cornwall. A large sea cave reveals a magical multicoloured series of troughs made by a natural spring that has dripped its mineral load over the rocks and formed a perfect immersion set up. Its origins are linked to the resting of St. Cuthbert on his way to Durham. Crotches were left on the beach outside by healed pilgrims.
Under a holiday home and an old Courthouse – St Winifred’s Well Woolston is a delightfully picturesque black and white tudor courthouse now a holiday home sitting up top of the chambers of St Winifred’s Well. A site associated with the pilgrim route to her shrine in Shrewsbury and well at Holy Well in Flintshire.
Restored in a new housing estate. Developers of new estates are not always sympathetic to history perhaps and certainly not water history, but the designers of De Tany Court in St Alban’s took good advice and preserved the newly discovered St. Alban’s Well, lost for decades in the grounds of the nearby school’s playing fields, in their new housing estate and made it a garden feature.