Category Archives: Saints
Ffynnon Fair, Llanfair-is-gaer and Ffynnon Ddeiniol, Bangor, Gwynedd by Howard Huws Source New Series No 4 Summer 1995
Readers of Source will need no reminding of the numerous holy wells lost or destroyed through neglect and vandalism. Others, still extant, have become obscure and do not appear in lists such as Francis Jones’ Holy Wells of Wales or Myrddin Fardd’s Llén Gwerin Sir Gaernarfon, l However a familiarity with sources of local history may reveal such sites of interest. This was the case with two holy wells at or near Bangor which I have been able to locate with but a little effort, and some help.
The first is Ffynnon Fair (St Mary’s Well), in the parish of Llan-fair-is-gaer near Bangor. The old parish church stands on the shore of the Menai Straits, a short mile west of Y Felinheli. This spot was formerly an important crossing point, served by a ferry.2 The well of Ffynnon Fair is about 500 yards south-east of the church, where a noticeable scarp marks a geological fault of some severity. The O.S. Grid reference is SH 5053 6564.
Until very recently a road ran from the church directly past the well and thence up the slope towards higher ground. This would have linked the ferry to the old Roman road from Chester to Caernarfon. Continuing southwards, the track would have passed through Eryri LSnowdonial to Beddgelert, and towards Cardigan Bay and South Wales.3 Beddgelert Priory owned land in Llanfair-is-gaer and in the Anglesey parish of Llanidan directly opposite. Beddgelert Priory was similarly dedicated to the Mother of God, and had a Ffynnon Fair.4 I do not know the date of Llanfair- is-gaer’s foundation, but as Llanfair yn Arfon it was known to the fourteenth-century compilers of the Triads of the Isle of Britain in connection with the myth of Henwen the sow.5 The first written mention of the well which I have seen is a reference to ‘Cae Uwchyffordd alias Cae Ffynnon Fair’ in a Llanfair Hall Estate deed dated 1458 and now at the National Library in Aberystwyth (Llanfair Estate D2).6 The name appears subsequently in other estate documents, but not in any well-list that I know of, and not in the Royal Commission Inventory.
My attention was drawn to it by a chance reference in a papur bro (community newspaper) to Allt Ffynnon Fair as the name of the above- mentioned scarp. Subsequent enquiries established that the well is locally known, being noted for its cold, clear water, available at all seasons. This preservation of the well’s name amongst Llanfair’s inhabitants since before the Reformation reflects the tenacity of local oral tradition, and the importance of a dependable water supply.
Had the site come to my attention two years ago, I could have reported concerning the water’s potability. However those planning and constructing the Felinheli By-pass have since seen fit to incorporate the well in the road’s surface water drainage scheme. The well is now enclosed in a concrete sump, and access denied by a heavy iron grid. The water rises and falls according to rainfall, but for the most part looks stagnant and unappealing. Even where it is accessible, there are no means of determining what part of the sump’s content is spring water, and what part roadwork runoff.
Nearby ground tends to become waterlogged after rain, and investigation proved that a layer of stony clay, probably glacial, lies about a foot below the surface. Any hole dug quickly fills with water, but this is probably soil runoff rather than an upwelling. To strike the water table, one would probably have to dig several feet through the clay: so any question of restoration remains speculative. The site of the well is easily accessible from the road, but the nearby field is private property and permission should be sought at Crug Farm before venturing there.
This well is (or was) situated about a mile and a half west of the centre of Bangor, behind the suburb of Glanadda. There is no mystery concerning its general location, old Ordnance maps naming the area as Cae Ffynnon Deiniol St Deiniol’s Well Field). Francis Jones refers but vaguely to wells near Bangor.8 The name Deiniol or Daniel appears in several place names at or near Bangor, as would be expected. There is Perllan Cae Daniel, Porth Daniel, Gwely Deiniol and Cae Ffynnon Ddeiniol.9 The well site stands at the northern end of what was a wooded ravine, in rough ground. The ravine is referred to in documents by various names, including Nant Gwtherin, Nant y Fferam Nant Uffern, Nant Offeirin and Nan yr Offeren, i.e. the Ravine of the Liturgy (10) The latter version appears in Garmon Jones’ toponomical notes of 1951 11 as being favoured by the the inhabitant of nearby Nant Farm, who said that he had ‘a letter from London’ so addressed. If correct, it would certainly be interesting in the present context: but Welsh toponomy is bedevilled by ill-informed speculations concerning the ‘true meaning’ of place-names. Any of these versions, or none of them, could be the ‘correct’ one. Nowadays the area is simply known as Nant. Somewhat behind this ravine are three fields called ‘Llan’ (i.e. enclosure or church), where another aged informant interviewed 1951 said there was ‘a very old rum .12 There are very many wells in the Bangor area, but why this one should be specifically linked with St Deiniol, I cannot tell; no legend or tradition has survived. As with Ffynnon Fair above, the site is very near to a road linking the Menai shore at Y B011h (the present George Hostel site, and an important crossing point) to the old Roman Road. It was much used by drovers.13 The first written reference to Cae Ffynnon Ddeiniol of which I know is in an episcopal rental of 1647.14 The land was church property, specifically that of the bishop of Bangor, and remained so until the middle of the last century. It appears to have been regarded as inalienable, and was only sold off when mid-nineteenth century legislation enabled church land to be so disposed of. In any case, such poor ground would appeal little to the rapacious.
The upper part of the ravine, noted as being part of Cae Ffynnon Ddeiniol, was sold to the enterprising James Smyth Scott in 1843 and a reservoir was built there to provide Bangor with a dependable water supply. This was expanded in 1845, but then abandoned as inadequate. A brewery was established at the lower and of the field by c. 1867,15 utilizing water from either the research
By that time the land-hungry Penrhyn Estate was showing interest, and maps then drawn up are to be found at the National Library (Church in Wales, B/Maps/II) and the archives at University College Bangor.16 The latter is particularly interesting as showing two wells as small rectangles, possibly indicating that they were stone-lined. One at O.S. Grid Reference SH 5743 7101 is in the middle of the area named Cae Ffynnon Daniel. The other is shown in an adjacent field (at O.S. 5752 7103), named Cae Ffynnon. The Penrhyn Estate acquired the land in two purchases in 1871 and 1872. Worrall’s trade directory of c.1880 contains an advertisement for a soft drinks manufactory which replaced the brewery. The advert makes specific mention of the renowned health-giving properties of St Deiniol’s Well: and hyperbole apart, may indicate the proprietor’s awareness of a local tradition concerning the water’s healing powers.
A tradition now lost, alas. The manufactory closed by the middle of this century, but the name ‘Cae Ginger Beer’ has stuck to the field. The ravine was used as a dump until about 1965, and is largely filled The land, having been owned by Bangor City Council and Arfon Borough Council, now belongs to the Lowry family of nearby Hendrewen Farm. With their permission I visited the site following rain in November.I almost immediately came across a slate-lined structure half buried and mud-chocked of which I had high hopes. But a little digging revealed it to be a conduit, not a well, and probably intended to convey water to the brewery, It contained a few shards of glazed nineteenth-century pottery, and the remains of a glass bottle. It was also obvious that the site had changed much since the last century: field boundaries have altered, and a quarry which would have provided a useful point of reference with the old maps has been filled and has disappeared under scrub. Dirty water flows strongly across the field from the ravine/dump, and then disappears down an old concrete drain sited roughly where I had imagined one of the wells, i.e. the one in the middle of the 1872 map, to be.17
The well may have suffered the same fate as Ffynnon Fair, and have been incorporated into some past drainage improvement scheme. But further study of the available maps leads me to suspect that I may have been ten or twenty yards out in my guess of where the spring should be, and that a rather unappealing area of muddy scrub may prove rewarding. Another visit during slightly drier weather may therefore be in order.
As for the second well, the landowner tells me that it was filled in only about two years ago. It was walled, with steps and a grating, with a public right of access to it. It fed the same stream as the other above-mentioned. It could be as viable a candidate for the title of ‘Ffynnon Ddeiniol’ as the other, given that it was obviously a maintained structure sufficiently important to be specifically mentioned in land deeds, and given that the boundaries of Cae Ffynnon Ddeiniol may have changed and shrunk over the years. At present therefore I cannot say which of the two wells is Ffynnon Ddeiniol; but the information gleaned so far is sufficient fuel for further research. I shall inform readers of any progress.18
- BMSS z: Bangor Manuscripts collection, University College of North Wales, Bangor.
- CV Carter-Vincent manuscripts collection, UCNW, Bangor.
- Jones, Francis. The Holy Wells of Wales. Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1954
- Jones, John (Myrddin Fardd). Llén Gwerin Sir Gaernarfon.Caemarfon, Swyddfa ‘Cymru’, 1908.
- Davies, H.R. The Conway and Menai Ferries.pp. 69-71. Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1942.
- Margary, I.D. Roman Roads of Britain. 3rd ed. London, John Barker, 1973. Map p. 316; course of road described, p. 351. It may not be too fanciful to suspect that a branch of this road may have run from Caeathro across the Afon Saint at Pontrug and on towards this important crossing point at Llanfair-is-gaer. This would spare the traveller a needless detour via the fort at Segontium (Caernarfon).
- Davies, H.R., op. cit. p. 70.
- Hughes, H. , and North, H.L. The Old Churches of Snowdonia. pp. 200, 227. Bangor, Jarvis and Foster, 1924.
- Beddgelert Priory’ s reputed impoftance to travellers to and from Ireland would underline the signifiance of the Llanfair ferry over the Menai Strait. This had to be crossed before reaching Anglesey ports of embarkation. If Llanfair church is a late dedication, it may have been so founded and sited for three reasons. Firstly, as an act of piety. Secondly, as a place of prayer and thanksgiving at a potentially hazardous ferry crossing. Thirdly, to confirm the prior of Beddgelert’s economic and territorial ties with lands on both sides of the Straits hereabouts.
- Triad 26: ‘Three Powerful Swineherds of the Island of Britain: Drystan son of Tallwch…And Pryderi son of Pwyll…And Coll son of Collfrei,qy, who guarded Henwen, the sow of Dallwyr Dallben, who…went to the Black Stone in Llanfair in Arfon, and there she brought forth a kitten; and Coll son of Collfrewy threw that kitten into the Menai. And she was afterwards Palug’s Cat’ – Bromwich, Rachel, Trioedd Ynys Prydein:The Welsh Triads, 2nd ed., Cardiff, University of Wales Press, 1978, pp. 45-6.
400TH POST! The sacred springs and holy wells of the St David’s Peninsula Part One (part one) by Julie Trier Source New Series No 4 Summer 1995
To introduce my commentary on the holy wells of St Davids in Pembrokeshire (one of the three counties presently constitionlly Dyfed), I would like to highlight a passage from Francis Jones’ now well-known guide, The Holy Wells of Wales:
“There are in the district twelve holy wells, seven of which are concentrated in the immediate vicinity of St Davids, as also are most of the cromlechau. It is probable that some of these wells were there in pre-Christian days. In St David’s time, a powerful pagan family lived there. Yet it was here in the heart of the pagan camp that the missionaries settled and it was here that Dewi St David) built his church, and twelve chapels were erected in the same district. It is possible that in this remote headland, with its rugged cairns looking westward over the waves towards the setting sun, lay the sacred mysteries of our ancient pagan stock.” (Jones 1992, 25-6).
Here is an evocative acknowledgement of the roots of our holy wells, inextricably linked with the ancient cultures. It has moved me to attempt a brief history of the early peoples of this region, suggesting their relationship with water sources in terms ‘sacred mysteries of their religious beliefs and customs (Jones’).
Some reference to contemporary evidence from other areas is used, to present this apparently ‘remote headland’ and its possible water cults within a broader historical, archaeological and religious context. This will lead into the Christian era when wells took on a new status and, in many cases, their present names. Most of the prescribed ‘twelve’ will be detailed along the way, although of those visited and recorded by Major Jones, a few have unfortunately all but disappeared.
In the beginning…
To live on the St David’s peninsula is to be ever aware of the presence of water, bounded as we are by the Irish Sea to the north, west, and south. Rainfall is plentiful, creating a landscape which flows with springs, streams, and a modest river, all microcosmic echoes of the last Ice Age melt-down that carved out the valleys and ‘cwms’ 12,000 years ago.
From about 8000 BC, as the climate warmed, the Mesolithic cave-dwellers of southern Pembrokeshire began to live in open settlements on the low-lying forested and marshy land beside the shores. Much of this land was later submerged beneath the sea (tree stumps are occasionally revealed during unusual surface-shifts at local beaches) as the water level finally rose, around 5500 BC (Miles 1978, 37; Worsley 1989, 13-14). Two thousand years later, the western sea-routes became established by Neolithic colonists originally from the Near East, who arrived in their skin-covered craft by way of Atlantic Europe, bringing with them their knowledge of farming (Bowen 1972, 26, 36). Their communities were probably sited close to the abundant natural springs, life-sustaining sources of water which would have been cherished for their practical uses; and doubtless reverenced as shrines. As they lived in close contact with the natural world, these people must have appreciated the earth’s creative, nurturing, and regenerative qualities, and felt awe at its destructive potential. Water issuing from unknown depths below the ground would suggest renewal and continuity of life after death It is natural, therefore, to find many of their burial chambers – erected to commemorate prominent or prosperous families – positioned near to sacred springs. It is interesting to note that a number of traditions exist linking both well and tomb with healing ceremonies (Jones 1992, 14-17,101). Dowser Guy Underwood believed these tombs also marked ‘blind springs of exceptional importance’. He considered such sites to be ‘the esoteric “centre” of the Old Religion as well as being the actual centre of its monuments’ (Underwood 1974, 92, 39). It has also been suggested that these cromlechs or dolmens, their huge earth mounds once concealing inner chambers of stone tripod and capstone, would have stood prominently upon the landscape, acting as territorial markers (Hills 1986, 50; John 1994, 13). Many wells were also used to mark boundaries (Bord 1985, 74; Jones 1992, 55-7). Two possible local examples of well, cromlech, and boundary complexes are worth noting here,
Ffynnon Penarthur (‘Penarthur Well’: SM 751265), ‘which stood at the end of the land of Arthur Li.e. the pen – ‘head’, or ‘end’ – of Arthur), was a boundary mark of a manor at St Davids’ (Jones 1992, 5). The ‘land of Arthur’ (probably just a local chieftain, although an Arthurian legend exists in this area: Jones & Jones 1982, 123), would appear to extend from the spring westwards for two miles, to the edge of the peninsula, where a cromlech named Coetan Arthur Arthur’s Quoit’) can be seen against the sky-line on St Davids Head. The easterly boundary at ‘Arthur’s End’ (as it was actually shown on some maps), marked by the well, would seem to be naturally formed by a stream which flows through marshy ground to join the River Alun as it meanders along the valley towards St Davids, half a mile away. It is possible that a second boundary, extending into fields as a footpath (on 25″ O.S. map, 1908), intersects the first at the well-site. This may be ‘the boundary of a manor at St Davids’. It is stated that this holy well ‘had an ancient cromlech nearby which was destroyed’ (Sharkey 1994, 51). Fifteen years ago, a visiting archaeologist told the then owner of Penarthur farm that a large stone in an adjacent field appeared to be the capstone of a cromlech. This stone had been removed and the present farmer did not know its whereabouts.
A recent inspection of the well-site revealed a large flat stone of the capstone type serving as a wayside foot-bridge, in the verge opposite the spring. Today there is nothing to see of the original well-structure except for a few moss-covered boulders around a modern concrete water-tank. A hollow indentation in a large boulder – ‘a common feature of holy wells’ – had been observed previously (Sharkey 1994, 51). A small hut next to the spring houses the machinery that pumps the water uphill to Penarthur farm, a quarter-mile distant. As with so many once-sacred springs, the identity of Ffynnon Penarthur has almost been effaced. However, it was once of undoubted importance, as three ornamented stones are believed to have stood around it, placed there in the early Christian era. One of these, the inscribed ‘Gurmarc’ stone, with its unusual Alpha and Omega symbols (Laws 1888, 76, 77; Dark 1992, 19, 20; James 1981 -illustration Pl. 5) had been serving as a farm gatepost in 1856. The other two were found in hedge banks. By 1886 all had been rescued and placed in St Davids cathedral (Arch. Camb. 1856, 50-1; ib. 1886, 43-5). Together with a further cross- marked stone from the Penarthur area, they are now to be seen in the new lapidarium in St Mary’s Hall, in St Davids. The three stones are of particular interest as the complex interlacing of their designs is specifically Irish, an influence which recurs constantly in this area.
At Naw Ffynnon (‘Nine Wells ‘), two miles east of St Davids (SM 788240), another example of the well/crornlech/boundary combination can be observed. Destroyed in the last century, the cromlech stood in a field above a now ivy-covered roadside well, one of the original nine (Jones 1992, 26). A few yards away, across the main road, and spanning a rushing stream, stands an old inscribed stone indicating the boundary between St Davids and Whitchurch parishes. As the name suggests, water is the predominating feature of this area. The English antiquarian Browne Willis, using material supplied by a local correspondent (James 1981, 182), reported: ‘not far from a Place called Llandridian (Druid’s Church) there are nine Wells within five or six paces of one another’. (Willis 1716, 66. Willis’ etymology is incorrect here. Tridian is a personal name, and doubtless recalls an otherwise completely forgotten saint: in the parish of St Nicholas, ten miles north of St Davids, there is a further Llandridian, and a well called Ffynnon Dridian -Wade-Evans 1910, 28-9.) And the gentleman historian Richard Fenton, who was born in St Davids, in his Historical Tour through Pembrokeshire written a century later, remarks: ‘Part of the road is constantly irrigated with water issuing out of that conflux of springs called ‘ ‘The Nine Wells’ ” (Fenton 1903, 76),
Although from these descriptions it would appear that all nine wells were almost amalgamated, at least four individual springs and wells are identifiable, scattered around a slightly wider area, and are known locally as members of the Nine Wells. The most accessible representative of the group stands, as mentioned, on the wide verge beside the road at the entrance to the track leading to the coast. Its stone structure is camouflaged with ivy, and its frontal retaining slab has been deeply indented by the constant friction of buckets, indicating its heavy use by the local community within living memory.
Close to this well is a modern dwelling, formerly a pump house which was built over one of the conflux of springs at the turn of the last century in order to take water to St Davids. In the 1930s the other springs in the immediate vicinity were incorporated into a large underground tank, to boost this supply. The colourful folklore of Nine Wells, as collected locally by Jones, indicates the interest in this site both in pagan and Christian times
By these wells stood a cromlech which was destroyed in the last century, and where a mound still exists. The tradition states – that in pagan times twelve maidens each under twelve years of age were burnt alive as a sacrifice on the stone altar there; that in Catholic times mass was celebrated at the wells, priests dipped their rosaries there, and water was carried thence to St David’s Cathedral to wash the sepulchre (the shrine of David?); that sick pilgrims came from Tregroes via Dwrhyd by Llwybir Pererindod (the ‘Pilgrims’ Path’ I (the path and the name are lost) to bathe at Nine Wells, and were then conveyed in a cart to Non’s Well where the cure was completed, and were finally carried to the Cathedral where they were blessed by a priest (Jones 1992, 26).
The ‘altar’ was evidently the cromlech. In Wales, cromlechs were regularly termed altar, allor, because of their suggestive shape. Their earthen mounds would possibly have eroded by Iron Age times, revealing the altar-shaped structures, which may then have been associated with druidic sacrificial rites – if not in actuality, then in the imaginations of later generations. Hence the legend at Nine Wells (and possibly the ‘Druid’s Church’ of Willis’ report). The ‘pilgrims’ path’ from Tregroes (Whitchurch) to Nine Wells made a slight detour from the main southern pilgrims’ route across Wales and the St Davids peninsula, which passed through Whitchurch and on directly westwards to the shrine of St David.
( Though no other information has survived locally to substantiate this, the reference to the ‘pilgrims’ path’, and the consecutive visiting of the various sacred sites of the St Davids parish culminating in a visit to the cathedral, suggests perhaps that it was once the custom to visit all the ‘twelve’ chapels and wells of the region in a single ’round’ a common enough practice at specifically sacred pilgrimage sites throughout the Celtic lands. It is known from other shrines in Wales (at Holyhead, Anglesey, the custom continued into the eighteenth century) and is still a regular feature of pilgrimage in Ireland – note from editor)
The Neolithic engineers who were apparently supported by the farming communities to construct the chambered tombs, were also responsible for the first stone circles. These were refined by the incoming Bronze Age or Beaker Folk, around 2000BC, who also set up isolated standing stones (megaliths, or menhirs). These, like the cromlechs, are often found close revered to springs, or: with their long axes pointing to water courses 1992, (Jones 15-18, 10, Arch. Camb., 1989, 21). A local example of such a well and stone circle connection (St Non’s) will be described in Part Two.
The arrangements of stones could be used in conjunction with the heavens as almanacs to predict auspicious moments in the farming year (Worsley 1987, 2, 3, 38-9). Did they also play a part in utilising or controlling currents within the earth, and emanations from the water below ground? Electrical engineer and dowser Bill Lewis found that underground streams radiate outward from the centre of stone circles, passing directly beneath the gaps between the stones. The movement of underground water creates a small static electric field, intensified where such streams cross, An electrical field produced in this way also concentrates neutron (or natural) radiation (Hitching 1976, 119, 121-3; Gordon 1989, 48, 52). This is verified and developed by Roger Coghill, researcher and author of Electropollurion, who suggests that ‘since the telectricall current produced by the underground movement of water forms a continually changing magnetic field around itself, it constitutes a chronic disturbance of the environment’. Through case studies, he concludes that subterranean aquifers, particularly where streams cross at different levels, may detrimentally affect the health of life on the surface (Coghill 1990, 117, 64).
However it is also interesting to note that electro-magnetic fields (E.M.Fs) are used in modern medicine, as they appear to stimulate body tissue to heal faster; but that, if experienced at the wrong frequency, as indicated above they can be damaging. The early scientists, probably recognising these energies through observation and divination, could then have judged them helpful or harmful. If this learned group – perhaps constituted as a priesthood – could be seen to manipulate the forces of nature, they would have been in a powerful position; but their authority would ultimately have rested upon the maintenance of the prosperity of the land and its people.
Fundamental to this would have been the preservation of a fresh water supply, and in particular, the springs. These not only afforded vital refreshment, but had ‘magical’ (? mineral) properties which might promote health; and their constant outpouring would have symbolised fecundity and well-being, which might have been regarded as the favours of a mother-goddess. Such a female deity was likely at that time to have embraced all aspects of existence, including death (her images were buried in tombs with the dead: Green 1993, 72-3) and, naturally, water, the ‘quickening’ element of life. In the Neolithic era specific water worship is less distinct in Britain than in other ancient civilisations, such as those of Egypt and Greece. However, Aubrey Burl in his The Stone Circles of the British Isles has remarked upon the above-noted connection between stone circles and water sources, suggesting ‘the importance of water in the ceremonies that took place in the rings’ (Bord 1985, 2-4). Rites of passage such as birth, betrothal or death, and rituals to induce healing and divination, may have been celebrated at these sanctuaries. Remnants of these appear to have persisted through the ages, as folk memories and customs may reflect (Jones 1992, 15-16, 101).
The worship of water deities became more apparent in the Bronze Age. As metallurgy flourished, cult objects and votive offerings were fashioned in the new metal. Although no evidence has been found to date from this era at spring-sites in Wales (possibly due to lack of excavation), the veneration of springs at that time appears to have been widespread, propitiatory gifts in bronze having been found in Denmark, Switzerland, France, and Italy (Jones 1992, 96). Unnamed supernatural powers associated with water and the sun were worshipped, as shown by artefacts depicting aquatic birds and sun-symbols (for example, ducks with sun-wheels) in Central Europe (Green 1993, 138, 147-8). At a late-Bronze Age settlement at Lichterfelde, Germany, well-offerings of rows of small vessels layered with grass may indicate a request for water in times of drought (Green 1993, 139). A well, 100 deep, containing wooden buckets, ropes, utensils and amber beads possibly a ritual deposit – was discovered at Wilsford near Stonehenge (Bord 1985, 4). This shaft dates from the time of the completion of Stonehenge, c. 1300 BC, when the ‘blue stones’ from the Preseli Hills in Pembrokeshire were rearranged in the way they are seen today (Green 1993, 145; Atkinson 1959, 17; Worsley 1987, 6, 32-5). The route that was established between the famous ‘temple’ in Wiltshire and the source of the esteemed spotted dolerite of the Preselis was significant in the Bronze Age for another reason, which also concerns St Davids. Merchant-smiths from as far away as Greece and Minoan Crete followed this road all the way to the Wicklow mountains in Ireland, where they traded their bronze, amber, and jet for Irish gold; a metal with which they delighted to decorate jewellery, weapons, and objects for use in solar worship (Worsley 1987, 52, 86; Bowen 1972, 43, 46, 48-9; Glob 1973, 101, 113, 115, 123-5). St Davids, at the closest corner of Britain to Ireland, stood at the end of this land route (‘the Golden Way’) across Wales, Porth Mawr (Whitesands Beach) being the embarkation point for the traders’ sea crossing. It is possible that some of our holy wells close to the shore once received offerings in bronze adorned with ship symbols, tokens greatly favoured at that period as protective prayers for dangerous voyages by sea (Glob 1973, 148).
Part two with references next month
When I researched holy wells for holy wells and healing springs of Kent, I visited Sheerness in search of more information and contacted Mr and Mrs Stanford to visit the Abbey Well and they were more than happy to arrange a time for me to visit. I was taken to their garden where there was to what appeared, a simple wooden pine ‘shed’, within which the well was found. The well had been fitted with security lid and lights has been placed over and down the well shaft, by Mr Stanford.
This shed was becoming a sort of mini-museum with artefacts from the well. He informed me that after consultation with NRA and Southern water, the water had been analysed and was shown to contain essential minerals: manganese, phosphorus, silicon, zinc, copper and calcium, and was one of the purest in the county.
I was informed of a catalogue of cures which had been documented, which included Mr Stanford himself. He informed me that when he took over the property he walked with a stick, and was to undergo surgery, but after taking the water for a couple of weeks, he now walks unaided and never needing the operation. He also said that it was good for eye complaints and one such individual is a Mary Smith, whose serious eye infection made her a virtual recluse. Yet, despite using eye
lotions for two years with no effect, the complaint was cured the day after.
He stated that hundreds have come drink the water, some with fertility issues or, wanting to cure serious illnesses such as including cancer and blindness. Often he said they filled 25-litre water to take away with them some even going to mainland Europe with it. Of course he does not charge for the water. However, orders come for water throughout the world it would appear, from Africa to the US to Australia to send water too.
A second well was also excavated by Mr. Slade and his team and lies outside the old Abbey
Gatehouse, sadly still not still not marked and under concrete, called the Gatehouse Well or Well of the Triple Headed Goddess. The well was a public well and a number of similar discoveries
to those of St. Sexburga’s well, have been found in relation to this well, however overshadowing these is the controversial ‘Venus de Minster’ also called a triple headed goddess.
Interestingly, Slade suggests that Minster Abbey replaced a temple dedicated to Apollo and Diana and the image may be of her or equally of course St. Sexburga and her sisters and functioned as ancient pilgrim souvenir or a votive object. The image was associated with a strange ‘miracle’ concerning one the excavators, Mr. Ian White, being the only team member able to squeeze into the well he had direct contact with its water, and it was claimed that his wife became surprisingly pregnant, after four miscarriages and being told that she was unable to have children. When When a Dr Ian Godsland, a medical research scientist at Imperial College, heard about the Whites’ baby, he decided to send £150 towards the excavation of the well. He told the Daily Express:
“I really believe that the goddess may have played a part. Don’t ask me how it happened or for any explanations. I just believe now that the world can work in a different way to the one we scientists think we understand.”
Ian White told the Daily Express:
“Of course I can’t say it was the goddess for certain. No one can. But we both like to believe it.”
I never saw the Triple Goddess figure, as I never in the end went to see Brian and I have no idea where it is now. He had told me that there were at least three other cases similar to Mrs White’s one.
As Mr. White went down both wells the ‘miracle’ could be attributed to either site, but the media liked to connect it to this well. A modern ritual developed involving the touching a copy of the goddess image for luck, and then going to the Abbess’s well to drink its water.
Are either really holy wells?
What makes a holy well? Certainly there is a lot here to process – association with abbey ruins, highly mineralised water, cures and effigies but in a way no mention of this site itself as a holy well either by tradition of pilgrimage to it or association directly with saint historically recorded. What in way we have is a modern holy well based on an ancient mediaeval well. A well with some pedigree but none the less an abbey well or in the case of the other site a domestic well with no recorded sanctifying of the site. Brian Slade’s books are very interesting reads and he writes a lot which suggests that Sheerness was a very interesting place but its nearly all conjecture without any real evidence. But does it really matter?
The Abbey Well and Well of the Triple Goddess appear to have fallen again into obscurity and one cannot be sure whether people still come for the water. The later, really the gatehouse well still from what I can gather remains sealed! The site is marked on google maps as a tourist attraction but so little is on the internet about it, that I am sure modern miracle seekers are very puzzled by this marker which just appears to be in a non-descript street!
The Holy Well in the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham – Fr Martin Warner. Source New Series No 4 Spring 1995:
We continue our series of articles on living cults at particular British holy wells with the following account of the Well of Our Lady of Walsingham, in Norfolk. It is written by Fr Martin Warner, the Administrator of the Anglican shrine of Walsingham. Those unfamiliar with the history of the Walsingham shrine are recommended to read J. C. Dickinson, The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, Cambridge 1956. The original medieval well, in the grounds of the ruined priory, and the holy well now enclosed within the modern pilgrimage church, are both described by Janet and Colin Bord, Sacred Wates Paladin (London) 1986 pp 199-201. The Bords note that ‘this newly restored holy well can safely claim to be the most active holy well in England. Probably Britain.’
In the Spring/Summer 1929 edition of Our Lady’s Mirror, a quarterly paper for the newly formed Society of Our Lady of Walsingham, an article by G.S. Dunbar on holy wells was published, listing a number of sanctuaries linked with Holy Wells and Springs. Making reference to the already famous use of water at Lourdes and the miracles that had been recorded there, Dunbar continued, ‘such miracles were worked in the past at Glastonbury and Walsingham, to mention two places amongst very many, and at Walsingham, to mention two still survive, and pilgrimages are being resumed, while sufferers resorting there after Confession and Holy Communion, use the water, invoking our Lady of Walsingham, and receive healing.’
A short time later, during the excavations for building the new shrine in 1931, a well was discovered and incorporated into the pilgrimage church. A photograph published in the Mirror in 1934 shows the proximity of the well to the Holy House which can be seen rising in new brickwork behind it. The discovery was part of the evidence which encouraged Fr Patten, the restorer of the Shrine, to believe that the site on which he was building had been the location of the original Holy House. Other foundations discovered between 1931 and 1937 convinced him that this was likely to be so.
The story of the origins of the shrine at Walsingham tells us that when the Lady of the Manor, Richeldis, had a vision of the Blessed Virgin Mary, she was taken in the spirit to Nazareth, shown the house in which the Holy Family had lived and told to build a replica of that house in her own land. The sign for where thus ‘casa sancta’ should be built was the eruption of a spring of water, and so the well has always been a part of the Walsingham cult, witnessed to by the well (more modern and more akin to a pond) in the ground of the ruined Priory, spoken of by Dunbar in his article and used by pilgrims prior to the restoration of the Shrine church in 1931.
Today the well in the shrine is an important part of our identity. It stands as a sign of the continuity of the new and old, witnessing the use of water to indicate hallowed ground and the presence of God in a particular way. More universally, the well points also to the centrality of baptism, the Sacrament by which Christians participate in the life and death of Jesús, within his body, the church. In this way the power of the incarnation is experienced as the source of all healing and all miracles.
To describe fully the significance of the well in the life of the Shrine today, it may be useful to look first at what happens when pilgrims come to be sprinkled, and then at three different types of pilgrim for whom this service can be of particular importance.
First of all, the service of Sprinkling. This is an informal service which takes place at 2.30 pm, each afternoon from Easter to the end of October and every weekend throughout the year. People gather in the main body of the Church for an introductory talk. After an opportunity to reflect on their sum of human suffering and our universal need for healing, there is a simple recognition of sin, brokenness and pain, and prayer for reconciliation. Going then to the well, the water is received in three ways. First, a sip to drink then used for making the sign of the cross on the forehead, and finally poured out into cupped hands to splash some part of the body in need of healing, or simply as a gesture of refreshment or cleansing. Those who have been sprinkled then make their way into the Holy House for final prayers and a blessing.
For Christians this can be a powerful and moving rite. A source of healing and a symbol in action of the movement from death to life. But it also speaks eloquently of another movement, that of all Christians towards unity and healing of past divisions. For those who experience sprinkling at the well, the Anglican identity of the Shrine is not of paramount significance. Walsingham is holy ground, to which Christians of all traditions (Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, Reformed) have various points of access, each which focus on baptism, helping pilgrims of different traditions to recognise what we share in allegiance to Jesus Christ, the child of Mary. The rite gives a structure for Christians to pray and worship together in an activity which unlike the eucharist, does not raise issues of denominational boundary.
Many of those who visit Walsingham and come to the well are from other religious traditions. A number of Asian families are often to be seen at the rite of sprinkling, some of them Christian, but some of them not. For these pilgrims water has a special religious significance with which they easily seem able to identify.
As an expression of the sacred, the River Ganges holds a powerful place in the religious imagination and landscape of India. Washing is a natural religious ceremony for many, and in the Islamic tradition Mary has a significant place of respect. Thus the well open up a dialogue with people of other faiths, recognising that in the ritual association with it there is an expression of some sacred awareness germane to human identity.
During the Summer months many holiday makers stumble across the Shrine and its well and attend, almost by accident, the rite of sprinkling. What their impressions are and how they interpret the symbolism is not always clear. But again, some relationships is often awakened with those whose faith is inarticulate, but whose search is real. This can sometimes be expressed by tears which indicate a hurt in need of healing. Sometimes it can be a sign of the strengthening of family bonds, hint at a sense of life as a precious gift and graciousness of its creator. For those who feel such stirrings, to crowd with others, into the dimly -lit Holy House after being sprinkled , witnessing the glow and candlelight, us to come as near as one night to siftinging holiness and jostling with angels. The waters of this well go deep indeed.
As St Georg’s Day approaches I thought it would be interesting to cast one’s attention to wells dedicated to the saint. Jeremy Harte in his 2008 English Holy Wells Sourcebook refers to six wells dedicated to St George: Wilton, Cullompton, Hethe, Holsworthy, Kirkwhelpington and Stamford. He does not include Padstow’s St George’s Well because he does not include Cornwall in his survey. Interestingly though he misses a St George’s Well at Minsteracres which means despite a sparse distribution across the country, two exist in Northumberland.
It thus begs two questions. Why does England’s patron saint have so few wells dedicated to them? And how authentic then are the St George’s wells which are known?
One of the most interesting is that at Minsteracres at Barley Hill Northumberland. The Historic record notes simply: Park with gate lodges, water features, a well and a chapel. The well itself lies in a shrubbery enclosed in a small piece of low stone walling on one side rubble built behind and dressed at the front. The spring arises in a circular chamber near the walling in a pavement area which is lower and enclosed. There is often water in the well but no perceivable flow. The brickwork looks Victorian and the site is marked on the first series OS map but significantly perhaps not in italics suggesting no great age.
The estate is mediaeval but it is likely to be two origins to the well. Firstly it could link back to the family who owned the estate in the 1800s, the Silvertop family. They were devout Catholics, who made considerable fortune from coal mining but were persecuted for their faith. George Silvertop is likely to be the first one responsible. He travelled widely and brought back a number of trees and plants from his journeys to beautify the estate. Did he improve a spring and dedicate it? The second likely person is his nephew Henry Charles Englefield, who inherited the estate and adopted the family name and significantly built the mansion’s private chapel which became St Elizabeth’s Catholic parish church in 1854. Did he need a spring for baptism water and liturgical processes – if so why George and not Elizabeth?
The final group of people were those who took over the estate after the second world war: Friar Colum Devine of the Passionist Order, who transformed Minsteracres into a monastery and retreat centre which opened in 1967. However, despite a Catholic order being the most obvious choice for dedication their taking over of the estate is too late as it had already appeared on the OS map by that point. My person guess is the Henry Charles Englefield but I am sure that a deeper examination of the records may reveal something and perhaps explain why this saint was adopted. And was it an earlier holy well forgot and restored or just a simple spring?
So why are St George’s Wells so scarce? One would have thought being England’s patron saint would have been popular enough to have a large number of dedications but that it a way underlines how wells are named and why. Did the cult of St George arrive too late to see a wide spread adoption of his name? Indeed of the 6 wells mentioned by Harte on Wilton’s has any authenticity being recorded as mediaeval. But of course this did stop the wider adoption of St Anne in the 14th century. Of course that in itself may suggest why certain saints had better ‘healing traditions’ and saintly importance in the pantheon of saints. Equally often wells adopted saints names due to an association of the saint with water and healing. St George does not obviously appear to have either.
If I was to be asked ‘take me’ to a classic holy well, one which had that romantic and mysterious feel and remained in the 21st century still a place of solitude and contemplation, one site I would suggest is St Cuby’s Well at Duloe. Throw in the fact nearby is the presence of an ancient church and a unique quartz stone circle and the site certainly has its attractions to the antiquarian.
In Ancient and Holy Wells of Cornwall by Mabel Quiller-Couch (1894) tells us:
“In the parish of Duloe, on the road which leads from Sandplace to Duloe Church, at one time stood the consecrated well of St. Cuby… The well of St. Cuby was a spring of water on the left hand side of the above road, which flowed into a circular basin of granite, carved and ornamented round the edge with the figures of dolphins, and on the lower part with the figure of a griffin; it is in shape somewhat like a font, with a drain for the carrying off of the water.”
The well is first mentioned in land documents appearing as La Welle with the valley Kippiscomebe according to Lane-Davies being Cuby’s combe being originally Cub’s combe.
Why was St. Cuby?
St. Cybi (Cuby) founded a monastic settlement within ‘Caer Gybi,’ being born 480 AD at Callington near Plymouth. His father was a Cornish Chieftain and great grandson of Cystennin Gorneu, King Arthur’s grandfather. He was a well connected saint, his mother Gwen, was sister of Non, St. David’s mother. He decided not to follow in his family footsteps and being a chieftain and so became a Christian monk travelling to Gaul establishing religious centres with his disciples. He returned to Cornwall settled at Tregony living in a cell next to a well. Quiller-Couch (1894) notes:
“This saint, who has been called also Keby by some of his biographers, was the son of Solomon, a Christian king or chieftain of Cornwall. According to the Rev. S. Baring-Gould, Solomon was a son of Geraint, and his wife was a sister of St. Non. St.Cuby at an early age gave himself up to learning and religion ; he renounced all claim to his father’s kingdom, to which he undoubtedly had the right, in favour of his brother’s family, and settled at Tregony for a short time, after which he visited Ireland, and finally went to Anglesea, where he died.”
Traditions of the well
According to Helen Fox in her Cornish Saints and holy wells the well’s water cured TB, Scurvy and rheumatism although I am unsure where this piece of folklore is derived from. The most well-known piece is quoted by Quiller-Couch wo states that:
“The well at one time was very much respected, and treated with reverence by the neighbouring people, who believed that some dire misfortune would befall the person who should attempt to remove it. Tradition says that a ruthless fellow once went with a team of oxen for the purpose of removing the basin ; on reaching the spot one of the oxen fell down dead, which so alarmed the man that he desisted from the attempt.”
In Mrs Peel’s Our Cornish Home, it is said that the basin was broken when it was rolled down Kippiscombe by drinken workmen and it came to rest beside a cottage of an old lady who heard the Piskeys laughing over it all night.
Quiller-couch notes that:
“In spite of this tradition, however, the basin has been moved, probably when the new road was cut, and was taken to the bottom of the woods ‘on the Trenant estate ; it is now placed in Trenant Park.”
This story of the well is told in more details in In the Old Cornwall Journal of April 1928 the story is told that so strong was the superstition attached to the basin that when the squire (Wm Peel d 1871) wished to move it into Trenant Park for preservation about 1863 he had to pledge himself firmly to provide the pensions for the families of any who fell dead before the carters would took the stone. Of this font one now must travel to the church being returned in 1959 when it returned to the parish. It is a remarkable relic with a snake, griffin and dolphin on the bowl’s rim. It certainly looks pre-medieval.
Recently as it spreads across Cornwall (and beyond) the well have become a rag well or as it might be called locally clootie well.
The well today
The well is made of granite ashlar with a gabled end and roof constructed of large blocks of granite with a rounded head arched entrance with an ancient Celtic cross above the door. There are two cells the outer one has a stone seat but its a cramped location to wait. The inner well house is built into the bank and has a round-headed arch to the inner well house room which has corbelled walls and a flat stone roof. The well is thought to be 15th century but its present state owes to be restored by a former Rector The Rev. Dr, Barrington Ward around 1822 when the nearby road was built and remains a delightfully well preserved granite well chapel. Despite being close to a road it is a peaceful spot shrouded by bushes and resembles a grotto where within you can be devoid of the world outside as it is dark; very little light penetrates through! The water now seeps from the side and flows into the floor of the second chamber. It is clear and flowing although it had a dead mole in it! Despite this it is a remarkable place.
Most of the Belgian wells (about 300) spring in the countryside; and mainly in the French-speaking region. However towns are not unprovided by them.
So, in order to get a general idea let us be allowed to focus only on some of the them i.e on some of those to which healing power is attributed by tradition. They very often gave birth to cults or rites and generated enthusiastic pilgrimages surviving for centuries, consequently illustrating the depth of popular credulity in the past as at the present time.
If these fontaines merveilleuses are, in most cases, hidden away at the end of paths twisting through fields and woods, they are of easy reach in villages and towns. Occasionally, they may be fed by a hand pump. Sometimes, a chapel enhances the importance of the spot. These are determined by the zone of emergence of the miraculous source, according to the legend or life of the saint to whom it is closely related. Some names occur in the hagiography, whereas other names, taking into account dialectal pronunciations, became quite modified. Shall we dare say that some are simply apocryphal?
As a rule in Belgian villages, wells are situated alongside roads but can easily escape notice. Let us cite a few examples.
A Scots (Irish) Monk, named Monon (ob. circa 636) built a hut in solitude and sielence near the remote fons Nasiana or Nasonoa (now called Nassogne). Later on, Pepin the Short. Charlemagne’s father, who is aid to have caused a source to gush force there, in thankfulness for the kindness of God through Monon’s intercession came back to the lonely placed to richly endow the pious monk’s sanctuary. Nowadays, only an engraved slab modesty commemorates this fruit of a rather queer superstition of two medieval legends. Hence the pretty name of ‘Source de la Pepinette’
Another example is Saint Fredegan’s Well, hidden under the foundation of a house at Mousteir-sur-Sambre. It was supposed to cure children of tuberculosis or to improve their locomotion. They had to drink water from the spring. Some could be washed, dipped or even dressed with wet clothes. This out-of-the way tradition begun ‘a longe tyme ago’.
The most talked-of holy well in Belgium is undoubtedly found in the village of Banneux, near Verviers ie not far from the German border. This is an international centre of pilgrimage, devoted to the virgin after she appeared there in 1933. Thousands of hopeful pilgrims and tired day-trippers come mainly on summer sunny days to visit the chapel and gaze for a while at the neighbouring source topped by Mary’s statue. The water is renowned as miraculous.
At Bouval, horses are blessed, watered and well-groomed every August 24 at St Bartholomew’s Well. At this occasion, a procession takes place in the open country.
Saint Roch is believed to have cured himself of the plague after washing at the source at the village of Harnoncourt, so the legend tells. Ever since, the neighbourhood as always been preserved from epidemics. Once raised to the ground, the saint’s statue which formerly adorned the old washing-place, had been replaced. It has been set above the renovated fountain (1976). The odd thing about the well is that various personifications of the water (such as sprite monsters, undines, water people and cintry-people) are also present in a decorative manner. Pilgrims yearly come on August 15 to drink the water and to pray.
A cube shaped fountain, bearing the name of Saint Lawrence, whose cult is widespread, has been built below the church of Patagne-la-Grande. Its fresh water, people say, is a sovereign for burns, the saint having perished on a gridiron. There as at some other places, wells associate the Christian cult with the realities of peasant life.
Every year, also on August 15, a curious tradition is maintained at Saint Lawrence a village in the Namur district, with a procession and pageant in the saint’s honour. This gives the villages the opportunity for villagers dressed as soldiers to soak their points of their swords of the butts of their rifles into Saint Lawrence’s well water.
In the same province, it is said that a certain Lupicin, having three times driven his stick into the ground at Lustin, sprouted out three sources which fed Saint Lupicin’s Well. On Whit-Monday, pilgrims invoke him for headaches.
Since the eighteenth century, lots of pilgrims – hoping for the best – go to Marcourt (Province of Luxembourg) where Saint Theobald’s well, hidden in a wood, is supposed to be miraculous. After drinking the water, washing and in some cases filling bottles, devout folks stick crosses (made from two small branches of wood) into the ground as votive offerings. Should young girls walk three times in silence round the chapel, they will become engaged within the year.
At Vielsam in the same province, Saint Gengoux, killed by his wife’s sweetheart in the year 760 is paradoxically evoked for a couple’s union. This source is conceived by naïve lovers as the right spot for pilgrimage, not only against rheumatism and eye disorders, but also to plight one’s troth. That sounds silly, doesnt it? A useful wariness should be observed, for everyone knows how dodgy this may sometimes be!
Some of the many lavoirs (public washing places) situated in the southern and eastern parts of Belgium have been connected, too. in the course of time, to a particular cult. For instance, at Laneffe, horses are yearly invited to drink the water which is thought go have a beneficial effect on animals. . Whereas, at Villers-devant-Orval, those who suffer sorrows or finger infections evoke Saint Gengoux’s aid at his washing-place.
Other holy wells can also be seen in more or less extraordinary spots, even near the sad walls of a cemetery (Villers-la-Bonne-Eaux). Several, seated along side houses in picturesque surroundings, often date from Celtic times and are concealed far from indiscrete at Couture-Saint-Germain, on a hidden hillside in the open country and next to a chapel. Slow-growing children are taken there by distressed parents asking for relief with a glimmering of hope in their eyes. The pilgrimage is traditionally linked with various dipping of chemisettes and sick lambs. Three times linens must be dropped into the water, and the chapel passed round many times; and it is piointless to controvert established opinion.
Woods too, especially in the southern part of the Walloon region, including several holy wells. Charming legends are common, but many are no better known then the old story of King Alfred and the cakes is by today’s British computerised undergraduates. Some are not very easy to discover whilst others are found on the outskirts of villages or close by.
The goal of an annual pilgrimage since 1855 (for skin diseases), the small Saint Meen’s Fountain, near Couvin can be encountered at the verge of the wood. It is the only Belgian sanctuary consecrated to this Irish preacher much noted in Brittany (6th cent.)
We cannot forget, of course, to mention the other old fountain of Bellefontaine (Ardennes) designed for the purpose of commemorating Saint Furcy, another Irish priest (7th cent). They say he stayed there after having made a well spring out from his rod. In the past pious pilgrimage were very popular there, but in our hectic days, the dried up source is forlorn and does not attract anybody.
Others too, suffering loneliness and loss of interest, ceased to be hospitable and are no more alas! what used to be sic transit gloria mundo as we all know.
First published in Source Holy Wells Journal New Series No 3 Spring 1995
Many claim to be the oldest holy well but by virtue of its association with the first Christian ministry of the Saxons, St. Augustine’s Well Ebbsfleet is perhaps according to tradition the obvious claimant for the oldest ‘English’ holy well.
However early records are rare and its first reference appears to be on the 1874 OS map and its earliest written account is George Dowker in 1897 article for Archaeologia Cantiana On the landing place of St, Augustine records:
“Formerly Ebbsfleet was supposed to be situated where the farm-house of that name stands, and is so placed in the Ordnance Maps of Thanet; of late the spot has been shifted to near ” The Sportsman,” and by a spring of water called St. Augustine’s “Well, chiefly on the representation of the late Mr. W. R. Bubb, who resided at Minster; he walked with me to the spot where the present memorial cross is erected, and explained his reasons for concluding that the landing must have been there, and not at or near the Ebbsfleet Farm, as usually represented. These reasons were chiefly the presence of a large oak tree that was said to have formerly grown there, and the proximity of the place to Cotting-ton-field, which he thought a corruption of Godman-field.”
Interestingly it almost suggested that it was Bubb who coined the well and it would appear to be a possible invention by revived Catholics. This is supported by Rev Boggis (1907) in A history of St. Augustine’s College Canterbury,, as a Catholic revival:
“The next station is made at St. Augustine’s Well — just to quaff a draft from the spring which he is fabled to have brought bubbling up through the briny sands.”
The account also adds a piece of folklore similar to the tradition that like Becket at Otford he perhaps prayed for water, which is related by Goscelin of Saint-Bertin who states the saint was able to provide water for his thirsty followers by striking the ground with his pastoral staff but this could equally be another site. Iggleseden (1901-1946) Saunters in Kent. He describes:
“..a stagnant pool, the remains of a well, which had the reputation of miraculous healing powers, while the water was also used for baptismal purposes.”
However, Howarth (1938) who notes:
“near which is a well (known locally as St. Augustine’s well). This will continue to delude people into the notion that there is a real foundation for the view.”
Yet, Certainly by Stanley (1956) in The London Season pilgrimage was formalised:
“Near to the fifth green is a little spring of clear water which is known as St. Augustine’s Well, which legend holds appeared miraculously to slake the Saint’s thirst. Every year this site is the scene of the pilgrimage headed by the Warden of St. Augustine’s College, Canterbury, who, in his role of Bishop Knight, kneels by the spring to drink the water.”
Why wonder what connection that has with what James Rattue (2003) in his Holy wells of Kent records:
“Apparently local nuns used to clear it out, but this has ceased to happen for almost twenty years.”
I was also informed by some members that this site was where a drunken vicar drowned, but have not substantiated this story.
St Augustine or St Mildred’s Well?
Howarth (1938) does not support the fact that Ebbsfleet was the location where on Whitsun A.D. 597, Augustine baptised heathen Saxons, amongst them, possibly King Ethelbert in the area. However, local lore recognised first a tree and now an ornate carved cross dating from the 1800s which depicts the story however there is a possible another association. James Rattue (pers com) suggests that the well may have originally been dedicated to St. Mildred, daughter of Queen Ermenburga, who was given land at Thanet, by the converted King Egelbert, as an apology for killing her brothers. Here, she founded a monastery, and became the Abbess of Thanet Minster; latter becoming their patron saint.
The view that the well was dedicated to her is based upon local tradition that a stone, located within proximity of the well, bore the footprint of the saint, made miraculously as she set foot on the land at Ebbsfleet, from France. One tradition associated with St. Mildred’s stone is that it could never be removed. Whenever it was it returned to the same position! This is a common folklore belief only spoiled here by the fact that St. Mildred’s stone has not been seen since the 1800s!
The site today
When James Rattue visited he described it as:.
“a pit, now usually dry, but which represents St Augustine’s Well.”
Now on the 17th fairway of St. Augustine’s Golf Course St. Augustine’s Well is a large circular steep sided pool, from which a sluggish stream arises, flowing to the sea. I found it full of water but not very pleasant more recent photos have shown cleaner water.
The plants and trees on the surrounding banks seem to lean towards St Aldhelm’s Well in perpetual veneration. The effect is of being at the heart of a leafy hermit’s cell. The magic of the place is hidden from irreverent eyes by a wall through which the water trickles in a trough in the lane. In May the wooded slopes are lush with pungent wild garlic and all year round the steady sound of running water offers a refreshing reward even for the most world-weary modern pilgrim.
The village of Doulting (Somerset) lies about two miles east of Shepton Mallet on the A361. The name means ‘dark water’ and until the eighteenth century the river Sheppey was known as Doulting water. The village is famous for its stone which was used in the building of Wells Cathedral and Glastonbury Abbey. In previous years Doulting St Agnes fountain (another holy well) was reputed to cure the ‘quarter-all’ (cattle paralysis) but not if the cattle was stolen.
St Aldhelm, after whom the well is named, was a Benedictine monk who died in Doulting in 709. He is immortalised in the present church in stained class and in a statue; standing beside his spring, which he often visited to pray and to baptise the faithful. It was customary until recently to use the wall water for all christening; these days this only happens at the special request of the parents.St Aldhelm was the first Englishmen to encourage classical study; writing lengthy prose in a flowery and extravagant Latin style. He moved in high circles and was a relative of Ina, the heathen King of the Saxons, as well as being Abbot of Malmsebury and later Bishop of Sherborne.
He also appears to have had an eccentric side to his character. Gloria and Favid Bowles are residents of Doulting and have made an extensive study of the saint and his well. They hold the spot in high regard and due to their strong sense of connection with the place, are keen to see it preserved as a sacred shrine. David told me that Aldhelm used to nuddgle and eat fire to attract would-be converts, as wella s being remembered for lying up to his neck in the ice-cold well bath, whilst reciting the Psalter. Hewent on to say, with an impish smile, that he cherishes a mental picture of St. Aldhelm juggling three balls before a fascinated audience while muttering ‘ Father, son and holy ghost’
The well is now under the management of the Shepton Mallet Amenity Trust which bought it from Wells Cathedral for £1. The trust tried to interfere as little as possible with the site, doing minor repairs to the walling and felling some dangerous trees. Test on the water proved it free of contaminants and good to drink. Plans a few years ago to bottle the water for wider distribution were not met warmly by the village and were abandoned.
In 1893 R. C. Hope in his Holy Wells of England described the water as ‘wonder-working; and there are legends about its ability to cure blindness. Fred Davies of the Amenity Trust told me that less than ten years ago a Shepton woman of his acquaintance bathed her child’s severe eczema with the water from the well and the condition cleared. There appears to be no recent mineral analysis of the water, which seems a worthwhile task, in view of the well’s reputation.
According to Janet and Colin Bord in their book Sacred Waters (Granada 1985) the earliest water cults can be traced to around 6000 BC with an increasing awareness of the importance of unpolluted water, we are today seeing something of a revival in interest in water lore. Most ancient cultures developed ritualised ways of honouring the value of water. Divinities and the guardian of sacred wells was recognised as female and revered by many names the world over. Some of the old deities’ names still remain hidden in the names of our rivers today. Ceremonies were regularly performed beside wells and springs – to improve one’s fortune, gain insight into the future, seek healing or even make a curse. Often wells are attributed with specialised healing properties; eye complaint, infertility and children’s ailments being most usual. In less cynical days than ours, pieces of clothing from the sick would be bathed in water and bound to the ailing part or tied to the branches overhanging the well. These days rags and offerings can sometimes be found in the vicinity of ancient holy wells and the tradition of well dressing surviving only in Derbyshire is now reappearing in other parts of the country.
For many years St. Aldhelm’s Well was a site of pilgrimage and in the 30s and 40s Dom Ethelbert Horne, a Downside monk and enthusiastic antiquarian, took parties of visitors to the well. He recorded its existence for posterity in his book ‘Holy wells of Somerset’ (1923)Today as well as being a recreational spot and a water hole, for many in the village and beyond the well continues to be a place of pilgrimage and, from tome to time, local people have decorated it with flowers and candles to honour it as a natural spring
(The above was the first draft of a booklet entitled St Aldhelm’s Well published by Ms Sherwood (Shepton Mallet 1991) and is printed her by kind permission of the author.
Professor Charles Thomas Holy Wells of Cambourne extracted from Christian antiquities of Cambourne H.E Warne Ltd 1967 pp120-6 by kind permission of the author Originally published in Source – The Holy wells journal New Series No 2 Winter 1994 Part Two
In my aim to restore the lost articles from the Source archive this is the second part of the Holy Wells of Cambourne article
8 Maudlin Well
Just north of Roseworthy is the tenement of Cornhill, and in the valley bottom, on the Camborne side of the Connor street where a large field meets the uncultivated moor by the river, there is a spring now enclosed in a modern concrete housing. On the 1840 Tithe Map, this appears as ‘Maudlin Well’(field no. 435) miscopied as ‘Moudlin Well’ on one version. Henderson noted a version Medlenswell; but does not state where he found this. It is hard to think of any Cornish word which could have given rise to this way by corruption, and looks like as if this well was formerly ascribed to Mary Magdalene, sister of Lazarus and Martha.
9 Sandcot Well
In the extreme north-west corner of the Parish, there is a small steam flowing on the southside f the B3301 road, opposite the small one-storey cottage called Sandcot (below Pencobben) down the Red River bridge, or Gwithian Bridge, which divides Camborne from Gwithian. The stream comes out from under a rock in an overgrown quarry, and issues with some force,
The writer is indebted to Mr W. J. Furze of Beach House, Gwithian, for the information that this was at one time thought to be a holy well. The physical situation is certainly not against this theory, and it is interesting to note that there is no holy well otherwise known to be connected with the nearby chapel of St. Gothian, patron of Gwithian. This may be St Gothian’s Holy well.
The history and development of this site was fully discussed in Chapter V. It is worth stressing again that this may have been a medicinal well. Edward Lhuyd merely comments that ‘the well was call’d FentonIa in the psh of Cambron’ but fifty years later, Dr Borlase described it as a ‘well notated for Physical virtue’ and again as ‘…a rude well noted for its physical virtues.’ It is pity that we are not told what these virtues specifically were.
11 Fenton- Veryasek
The evidence for the existence of St. Meriasek’s holy well in Camborne, a shrine of some renown, rests not only in passages in Beunans Meriasek (a late mediaeval miracle play in Cornish detailing the life of St Meriasek/Meriagog -ed) but a wide range of independent accounts. The earliest is provaky that of Nicholas Risarrck writing in circa 1600 who says ‘there is a well wch also bereth that name and it is called St Marazaak’s Well’ Lloyd does not appear to have regarded the well as worth noting, but it appears in his notes as his chapel no 4 (at Rhoszwerb ie Rosewarne) and that some kind of structure was still visible about 1700 is confirmed by Tonkin
Thomas Tonkin of St Agnes in his unpublished Parochial History of Cornwall wrote between 1702 and 1730, the following passage concerning Camborne:
“I am inform;’d that there is a walled Consecrated well in the Parish called Mearhagos…and yearly the young People of the Parish frequent thai well, drink the water, and perhaps Cast some kind of offering in it, besprinkle themselves and then for the future are reckied true Parishioners and called Meerhagicks.”
Tonkin clearly shared an informant with William Hals who in the published portion of his county history, stated this
“CAMBURNE a Rectory, Is situate in the Hundred of Penwith etc. For its modern name Camburbe, which was not extant at the the of the Norman conquest, it signifies crooked or arched burne or well pit of water, so named from the famous consecrated spring of water and wall’d well in this parish call’d Cam-burne Well; to which Place Young People, and some of the Elder Sort,, make frequent Visits, in order to wash and besprinkle themselves with the Waters thereof…viz such as have been much sprinkled with Sprigs, Shrubs or Branches, viz, the shrubs, or Branches of Rosemary or Hyssop with which they are besprinkled. These are again by others also nick-name Mearagacks alias Meraragiks, that is to say Persons erring, straying, doing amiss, rash, fond, perverse, wilful, obstinate.”
This strange and much embroidered passage contains a good deal of hidden information. Tonkins Meerhagicks,, Hals Mearagacks and Lhuyd’s spelling of the Saint’s name as ‘Meradzock’ all confirm that by the 18th century, the last stage of Spoken Cornish, in intervocalic -s-in Meriasek’s name has become an English -J- sound, As Nance commented the colloquial pronunciation would now be ‘Mer -aj -ek’(probably with a strong penultimate stress). Hals gives at least two false etymologies ; that of the name Cambourne taking burne as a well or well-pit (OE burne stream, brook, fountain, well), an idea which was also expressed by Borlase; and an indigeneous attempt to translate Mer-rasick as a compound word instead of a proper name. As he appears to think it means ‘much sprinkled’ presumably be seen as VC mur, meor ‘great’ or meor ‘many much’ and an invented adjective ‘rasick’ possibly intended as a united form of crasyk (?crysek) from ModC crys, ‘a shaking, a shir’? Cf W crony vb to shiver and in Middle Ir creasach ‘ shivering. ‘Mearagacks alias Merargiks, on the other hand, he translates by a string of not wholly related adjectives, and it is hard to see what Cornish words, real or imagined, he had in mind here.
The special virtue of this well, as we know from Beunans Meriasek lay in the power of its water to cure insanity (lines 005-8 ‘likewise the water from my well/I pray that it may be a cure/For a man gone out of his mind/to bring him back to his wits again.). This reflects an original facet of Meriasek cult. At Stivalin Brittany an early mediaeval bell attributed to the saint is used to cure headaches and deafness, and at St Jean – du -Doigt, a mediaeval reliquary in the form of a bust of the saint contains what is alleged to be a piece of his skull. This head motif is thus central to some lost tradition it seems, in this respect to have been commissioned to both Cornwall and Britany. In Camborne, by a simple transference of ideas, those frequently Fenton-Veryasek would be jocularly regarded as in need of this specific cure, and the name ‘merajick’ must by Hals and Tonkin’s time have bee a local synonym for a hot-head or giddy fellow of any kind.
It is also seems clear from what Tonkin says that this well was in some way central to the life of Camborne; one suspects that the young people who frequented it ‘yearly’ did so in particular in early June, on the occasion of Meriasek’s feast-day.
Neither the well nor chapel are mentioned at all by Borlase, and all subsequent accounts derive either from Hall’s florid passage quoted above, or (more recently) from a minor elaboration of Hal’s remarks by Robert Hunt in his folk-lore collection. The chapel may have been in ruins as early as the 16th century, even if some kind of structure – as Thomas Tonkin suggests – even remained around the well itself until after 1700. In some form or other, the actual well was both known and identifiable until the last century, and gave its name to a house (St Maradox Villa) at the bottom of Tehidy road, Camborne.
The well was not, as tradition sometimes asserts, inside the present wall around the grounds of Rosewarne House. It stood on the opposite (west) side of what is now Tehidy Road, probably within the front garden or gardens of the late 19th century dwellings there. There is made clear from an interesting and unpublished paper by the late Tomas Fiddick, JP of Cambourne, a precis of which is fortunately preserved in Canon Carahs notes. The paper read to the Camborne Old Cornwall Society on 15th June 1925 states:
“St Meriadoc’s Well, which until existed until about 70 years ago was then a wishing well and children dropped pins into it, and expressed some wish, hoping to have their desires fulfilled, This well was inside a wall on the left of what is now Tehidy Road, going from the town, and just opposite St Meradix Villa. It appears to have been drained dry by mine adits and pumping operations at Gustavus mine. The water of the well was thought to have miraculous powers and especially for the insane.”
An interesting account of 1872 comes from the Rev John Bannister (vicar of St Day and author of A glossary of Cornish Names,18721) Reviewing Stokes edition of Beunans Meriasek, he wrote
“At the foot of Fore street also, east of the parish church, is a well still vulgarly called St. Merijicks, and the first Friday in June (some say July) is Teeming-day in Camborne, Some fifty years ago, I was told by an old habitant (who when a youth learnt orally from his uncle, the Cornish numerals up to 20, which he can now, though upwards of 80 years, repeat fluently from memory), no one could pass up the street on this day without having a pitcher of water thrown at him. Something o the kind though not quite so bad is still kept up; and old Hals yells us that persons washing in Camborne well, for the relief of some maladies were called Mereasicks or Mearagasks, though ignorant of St Meriasek, he gives his usual, some strange derivation for it, making it means something like sprinkled with rosemary.”
Bannister must be regarded as a reliable informant and this takes the life of the well a decade later than Thomas Fiddick states ‘Teeming day’ means ‘Pouring day’ from the obsolete dialect word ‘’teem’ pour (out) water preserved only in the English phrase ‘ teeming with rain’.
The famous well is now recalled only by a bronze plaque into the wall of the farmer Rosewarne park, a short distance away on the opposite side of the street. Erected by the late ,Mr James Holman who bought Rosewarne in 1911, it commemorates the starting point of Richard Trevithick’s first run in his road locomotive in 1801 – the birthplace of the modern railway system- and is dated ‘Peace day July 19th 1919’ it concludes ‘Also near this spot was the once famous Well of St. Meriadoc supposed to possess healing qualities of great virtue.
12 Bodryan Well
Henderson recorded a ‘Bodryan Well’ for both 1608 and 1650 as being in Camborne parish. Despite the most intensive search, the writer has been unable to find any other occurrence of this place name, either with reference to a tenement or to a field. It may represent ‘bos plus dreyn ‘ thorns’ or ‘house by the thorns’ but this scarcely helps in locating it.
A note on the locations of the wells listed
The following is based on the new (1963) Ordnance Survey 6 in. revised edition; N.M indicated not marked.
|1||Vincent’s Well||SW 67683776||N.M|
|2||Newton Moor Well||SW 6713873||W|
|3||Peter James’ Well||SW 65633728||W|
|4||The Reens Well||SW 65203834||N.M|
|5||Treslothan Well||SW 65143784||N.M|
|6||Silver Well||SW 65253744||N.M|
|7||Pendarves Well||SW 64703812?||N.M|
|8||Maudlin Well||SW 61413986||Spring|
|9||Sandcot Well||SW 59304230||N.M|
|11||Fenton -Veryasek||SW 64604052?||N.M|