Category Archives: Wales
The modern seaside town of Porthcawl is classic British seaside and in the summer the eateries swam with visitors, surfers ride the waves and children clamber over rocks in search of crabs…a few miles from this buzz of seaside fun are three watery relics which have survived the spread of the town. How many of those seaside visitors come and examine them is unclear but if they did they would be privy to a magic otherworld..quite literally in fact!
The first of our wells really does appear to contact to another world being Ffynnon Fawr. A flight of stone steps descend into a world deep beneath us into a pool where light just about penetrates. Inside a large chamber brimming with clear water. Ffynnon Fawr lives up to its name – it is indeed a large well!
It is not the easiest to find. My sources pinpointed it on a modern roundabout on the outskirts, but on the wrong side so I spent a fair time looking in the wrong place and resigned myself to not finding it. However, I was determined and returning found it below the level of the ground at the roundabout.
The well is a rectangular grey stone building with a camber headed doorway with an iron gate. On the side it reads:
“Y Fynnon Fawr”
“Mae Dwr Yn Fendith Angenreidol Rhoddes Duw Inni Ar Lawr; Cofiwyn ‘Awdur Pob Daioni’ Wrth Yfed Dwr O ‘r Fynnon Fawr’
“Water Is A Necessary Blessing Which God Has Given Us On Earth; Let Us Remember ‘The Author Of All Goodness’ As We Drink From Fynnon Fawr”.
The well provided water for the older village of Newton Nottage now absorbed into the Porthcawl sprawl however no legends or traditions are recorded.
Not far away is St. David’s Well sitting just beside the edge of a lane but still feeling from a distant age. This is a true holy well and its present fabric albeit early 20th century doubtlessly includes medieval work as noted by Charles Davies in his 1938 The History of the Ancient Church situate at Newton, Porthcawl in the Parish of Newton Nottage.:
“A few years ago there was but a muddy heap of stones by the way-side; lately a partial restoration has been attempted, but without even indicating the name that gives it importance and interest.”.
Charles Davies further states:
“We are justified in surmising that the Well at Nottage owed its origin to the Memory of St. David, for the axiom of archaeology states that, when found in proximity, the shrine and its adjacent spring both commemorate the identical saint. A chain of evidence is available showing that such was the case. The remains of an ancient roadway bearing the significant name of “Heol-y-Capel” (Chapel Road), can be traced through the Croft leadmg from The Holy Well to the site of the Vanished Chapel and the adjoining “Cwrt Offeiriad”. Now this Chapel was situated on the west bank of the little valley, watered by Ffynnon Dewi (David’s Well), which is known today as “The Rhyll”, but in the 12th century was named “Dewiscumbe”. These facts prove an intimate relationship between the little hamlet and the National Saint of Wales in Pre-Norman days the nourishing of a Davidian Cultus – and all that is implied by Saint David having been its Patron Saint.
It is regrettable that the memory of the Shrine and Valley has completely faded ; not without shame do we remember our neglect of the Holy well itself, which has been the means of our resurrecting the past. …. Many are still spared who can remember It as it was some forty years ago. The limped water, of a constant depth, flows to the rough stone font, unaffected by winter flood or summer drought, incapable of gain or decline The rivulet still makes tremulous music as it meanders down the little valley of Dewiscumbe. Here, in mediaeval days, many a pilgrim quest found its consummation, and even today the idyllic surroundings appear to summon up the long-vanished atmosphere of the Welsh Saint.”
The site consists of a small stone enclosure with a style, said to be the church’s old altar, to prevent animals access it. The well itself is an ancient looking structure whose roof is made of large stone slabs and steps again go deep into the ground to a roofed chamber.
It is said that the ghost of a girl peering into its waters in the evening having been seen on a number times. She may have drowned in its deep waters. Today this is not possible as access again to the waters is no longer possible.
Possibly one of the easiest of North Wales’s holy wells located a few feet from the roadside down a cobbled path, all part of the local vicar’s attempt to landscape and preserve the site in the 1970s. A plaque on the wall tells us it is Ffynnon Sara. The well itself consists of a large stone lined bath like structure, 4.5 by 2.3 metres and fills to around a metre depth although when I visited it appeared only a few centimetres in depth, the water being reached by four steps in one corner.
The well was once firmly on the pilgrim’s trail from Holywell to St Davids being marked on maps until the 17th century. A cottage was located nearby and may have been used by visitors. Peering into the duckweed covered sluggish water it is difficult to see how these waters had thought to have a wide range of powers. Amongst the usual claims of eczema and rheumatism, cancer was said to be cured here. Patients would bathe in the well and leave pins! Presumably those who bathed afterwards would be aware of this. Crutches were said to have been left in the cottage which existed on the site, said to have been lost in the 1860s. Now a sign proclaims unfit to drink!
Who’s well is it?
There has been some confusion over the origin of the name. Whilst the name could easily derive from the owner of the nearby lost cottage, possibly a family name, others have sought to associated with a saint. St Saeran, a sixth century saint has been suggested. He established a monastic settlement at Llanynys, eight or so miles from the site. However, there is no reason why they should be the original dedication. Indeed in the 17th century it was called Fynnon Pyllau Perl – pearl ponds – perhaps after pearl producing mussels in the water.
Upon visiting the well I was greeted with a delightful encounter. Peering into those murky waters was a lady who unbeknownst to her got me interested into holy wells in the first place. It was author Janet Bord. With her was fellow enthusiast, Tristan Grey Hulse (founder of the Source new series, author and St Winifred Wells companion) and a number of others. They had simply stopped there to have a quick look and were actually only visiting churches. I suppose after visiting so many wells it was bound to happen but it was a fitting finish to my North Wales Holy well pilgrimage.
It is nice to easily find a holy well for once, for Rhuddlan’s St Mary’s Well lying as it does in the grounds of Bodrhyddan Hall, is easily seen by the side of the drive to the hall (the gardens of which are open Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and well worth exploring)
Pure folly or holy?
What greets us today is a typical folly building but does the well have any provenance before the current construction. The earliest reference is as Ffynnon Fair and is made by Lhuyd in 1699 however it does not appear on an estate map until 1730, although an engraving on the fabric of the well states emphatically 1612! Significantly neither of these dates are associated with any traditions and there appears to be no pre-Reformation reference.
The only hints of its importance are traditions of clandestine marriages at the well, although it is possible that this is a mixed up tradition with a more famous Ffynnon Fair at St Asaph. The other hint is found in the hall, where a possibly unique stone fish inserted in the flooring of the hall shows the boundary of the parishes and as you may have gathered regularly reading this blog many holy wells mark parish boundaries. Neither pieces are particularly emphatic!
The well itself is a delightful edifice consisting of an octagonal stone four metre well house and adjacent stone lined ‘bathing pool’. The well has arched entrance with cherub kerbstone. Inside the rather cramp well are seats around the inside and although access to the water is prevented by a metal grill. On the top of the well house is a carved pelican and a stylised fish (more similar to classical images of dolphin) pours its water into the cold bath which is surrounded by a stone ballastrade.
Keeping up with the Joneses?
One of the biggest issues with site is who built it. On the well house it is proclaimed that Inigo Jones was responsible. Jones was a noted architect and garden designer, so the building has the appearance of something he could have built, the date was when he was at the height of his fame so it is surprising nothing more official is recorded. Was this a local of the same name or the family adding the date and person at a later date to impress visitors? Certainly the building looks late 18th or early 19th century, probably being built when the house was restored then. Whatever, the well is part of a larger landscape including other wells, tree lined walkaways and now a summerhouse above a landscaped pool.
Its absence in 1730 but present on the 1756 one suggests not. Furthermore, Norman Tucker 1961’s Bodrhyddan and the families of Conwy, Shipley-Conwy and Rowley-Conwy states that the lettering is on the wrong period! Another possibility is that the architect may have been involved with designing the gardens and when the well was constructed later as the central piece the date of the garden design was recorded…but of course this does not explain who the well’s designer was!
Wishing well or healing well?
Today a sign, rather tacky to my mind (and I removed it to take photos) claims it is a wishing well. Visitors have certainly have paid attention to the sign as the well is full of coins. It is worth noting that although there is no curative history to the waters, anecdotally its powers could be significant. All the owners who have drunk from the well have lived to a considerable age, indeed the present owner is in his 100s I believe. Perhaps it might be worth bottling it!
Whatever its origin the well is a delightful one and certainly a change from muddy footpaths, negotiating brambles and nettles and getting completely pixy led…and there a nice garden and fascinating hall to see too.
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St Trillo’s Well has been on my personal must visits for some time. It is not only a unique site being a chapel enclosing a holy well – a rare survival – its location tucked under a seaside road, a juxtaposition between the seaside houses and the promenade and the sea makes it one of the most unusually situated. It is everyone’s classic view of an ancient chapel, privately arranged and simply adorned and whilst it may not be as old as first assumed it does have its own unique charm.
I was particularly concerned that it may be open. Being a chapel I am always wary that like churches – urban areas and access do not often work. Yet parking above it, now almost hidden by shrubs and the hill itself, the path led to the railed enclosure which was open and walking around I pushed the old wooden door, it yielded and I was in. As soon as one enters, one is overcome with a feeling of peace. Whatever frivolities gone on outside feel an eon away. As a chapel it is very unusual, being claimed with its room for six chairs, to be the smallest church in Britain. This is no folly but a functional place of worship for the congregation which meet for communion on Friday mornings and those more intermittent visitors who leave votives and prayers. For perhaps uniquely again for a British well, the saint’s intercessions are still asked for via its well.
Many years ago historians thought that the chapel dated from the early medieval, even from the 6th century times of the saint. However, whilst it is very likely that the present structure is built upon this original hermitage it is much more recent. Generally it is thought to date from the 1500s. Francis Jones in his 1954 Holy Wells of Wales notes:
“In the Denbighshire parish of Iscoed, a certain Angharad verch [daughter of] David, examined in 1590 before Roger Puleston of Llay, the local Justice of the Peace …resolutely refused to conform “by reason of her conscience.” In answer to further questions concerning her marriage, she declared that the ceremony had taken place last harvest time at a place called Llandrillo Chapel near the sea side in Creuddyn whilst she was on a pilgrimage to St. Drillo’s [sic] well.”
Such a visit suggests a pre-Reformation importance to the site especially as the date, in Harvest, suggests a regular pilgrimage as this was a popular time to go. Thomas Pennant visited the site in the late 1700s and described it as:
“… saw close to the shore the singular little building called St Trillo’s Church. It is oblong, has a window on each side and at the end; a small door; and a vaulted roof paved with round stones instead of being slated. Within is a well. The whole building is surrounded with a stone wall.”
Clearly what is seen present despite in its ancient appearance is Victorian in nature for in 1892, a letter in Archaeologia Cambrensis by folklorist and cleric Elias Owen (author of Welsh Folk-Lore) described it as :
“I was sorry to find that the vaulted roof had fallen in, that the well inside the chapel was covered over with the debris from the roof, and that the whole structure and its surroundings presented a ruinated and uncared for aspect.”
This concern was headed and in around 1898 two buttresses were erected to support the seaward side, a cross was inserted into the gable and more importantly a new roof. A stone altar was inserted over the well and stain glasses of Saints Trillo and Elian installed. An account by the Royal Commissioners who visited in 1912 happily describe a better condition, being described as:
“A small building, internally eleven feet nine inches by six feet three inches, standing on the sea shore within reach of the highest spring tides, and sheltering a small spring of clear water which traditionally represents the well of the patron saint of the parish. The building is roughly vaulted, and, according to earlier accounts, the vaulting was effected in the primitive manner of the earliest Christian oratories … It is, however, doubtful if the chapel is not far more modern than it is assumed to be.”
It has remained well looked after ever since, being adopted by the church of Wales who have a rather intimate Eucharist ever Friday at 8 am during the summer.
The Holy well
The first thing to notice is that the well is central to the chapel’s function being positioned in the centre beneath the altar. It is covered by a metal grill and two wooden slats. Upon removal two steps appear, suggesting perhaps that the water was easier lower or else individuals entered it for baptism. Indeed, baptism appears to be the only recorded function for its waters. The water is clear and arises at the foot of the hill being channelled into the well chamber by pipes. It is clear that it was the spring which caused the saint to establish a hermitage here.
Of the well the first post Reformation reference to its powers is made by Evans (1802) who briefly notes
“St. Trillo’s Chapel: inside is a well, formerly much esteemed for the sanative virtues of its waters; it was supposed to have been the constant residence of the saint.”
But despite this and such postulations by Colt Hoare, who visited the well one July in 1801 noted it was:
“once probably held in high veneration for its miraculous qualities.”
But stated nothing more. Interesting there are no ‘modern’ traditions of the well and it would appear it has become a largely supplementary feature to the chapel’s powers via the intercession of St. Trillo.
Who was St. Trillo?
St Trillo who is shown with fellow local saint St Elian, in two small stained glass windows in the chapel, was the brother of two other saints, Tegai and Llechid and was a monk of Bardsey Island before settling here. He is also saint to have been involved with the Diocese of Bangor Diocese. However, like many 7th century saints little is really known.
Located as it does seems an unusual place for a holy well perhaps but as Francis Thompson (2008) in his Early Hermit sites and Well Chapels states its location is not that unusual. Indeed, along with cliff races, islands and valleys, it was another ideal location for a hermit to reside. Furthermore, it was a very fortunate place to be, the sea would provide a harvest and even today the rock pools are full of winkles, mussels and edible seaweed. The survival of a medieval fish trap a few yards from the chapel is also significant and may have been the occupants attempt to provide a more substantial harvest by trapping fish. Not only would such a location provide a bumper food supply, fishermen may have provided money in thanksgiving or offerings for a profitable and safe fishing.
This giving of thanks or asking for the saint to intercede with God is still very much an important role for the chapel. On the altar are a range of curious items, votive gifts of thanks and on a board petitions are regularly attached. Tristan Grey Hulse in his 1995 A Modern Votive deposit at a North Welsh Holy Well for Folklore, Volume 106 recorded the range of requests. The author notes:
“Thus the sudden and spontaneous development of a new religious cult practice at the chapel is a fact of some importance, likely to be of interest to students in a variety of disciplines. I have visited Capel Trillo many times over the past fifteen years, but beyond noticing the odd coin thrown into the holy well, I had never seen the chapel otherwise than described above. But paying a first visit in 1994, on 21 April, I encountered a significant change. There were more flowers than usual, in pots on the window-ledges as well as on the altar. There was a crude but exuberant and colourful painting of St Trillo standing by his well propped against the altar; and the altar-table itself had scraps of paper scattered across it. Each of these contained a handwritten prayer or request for prayer. There were seventeen in all. Intrigued by this unexpected development, I copied the texts.”
Doing further research, he noted:
“The present custom apparently began in the summer of 1992. Arriving as usual one Friday morning to celebrate the Eucharist, the vicar of Llandrillo, Canon E. Glyn Price, found a single piece of paper impaled on a nail sticking out from the wall of the chapel, containing a hand-written prayer. Touched by its contents, he left it there; and the following Friday found that it had been joined by several others. The vicar placed them all on the altar. Since then, the practice has continued uninterruptedly, without any encouragement (or-perhaps significantly discouragement) on the part of the parish clergy.
Now, at any one time there is an average of perhaps thirty votive notes on the altar. Each ex-voto is left for three or four weeks before being removed and reverently destroyed by fire. Originally Canon Price read out each invocation in the course of the weekly Eucharist at the chapel, but eventually the growing numbers rendered this impracticable, and they are now commemorated collectively. The chapel cult has also expanded somewhat, in that offerings of flowers are now left anonymously; and the “folk-art” depiction of St Trillo arrived in the same manner.”
In Hulse’s article he notes that the principal petition was regarding health (19). Interestingly to those prayers which are addressed, these according to Hulse’s survey was overwhelmingly to God (17) compared to the saint (8), although a number were ambiguous in their dedications.
The ailments ranged from Insomnia to Cancer, through eye problems, stress, a physical disability or else concerned the well-being of the family whether through reconciliation of its members, improvement of the quality of life or overcoming bereavement, the commonest perhaps reflecting more the age of the votive despositer. One even requested help to learn Welsh! The majority were women.
These votives still cover the altar as can be seen and between the two visits I made they had clearly changed. Now official notelets are produced and pinned to the board beside the altar, these two changed between the visits. Indeed, sitting for just over an hour a steady stream of ‘pilgrims’ can be seen many just curious, others did appear to leave something..so it pleasing to see this most romantic of well chapels still functioning in 21st century Britain.
If you visit only one holy well after reading this blog – make it this one. Easy found and reached (and signed) either by walking along the promenade or driving Marine Parade to Trillo Avenue, Why? For its peace, for its uniqueness, for its feel of the ancient, a connection to the time of hermit saints – or for the fact you can visit this, have an ice cream, do rock pooling and see the oldest puppet show in Britain…what’s not to like!?
At this site alone one can see how vital the holy well was for the community and how much wealth it could generate. Indeed, the name a quite difficult to pronounce Llanrhaeadr-yng-Nghinmeirch is related to the well or rather the waterfall it produces beside the church (Llan).
Before visiting the well, I recommend a visit to the church. A grand and imposing edifice with a splendid roof and its chief treasure – its Jesse Window – why? This is because it was said to have been paid for from offerings from the well. Fortunately, it was removed and was buried at the time of the Commonwealth and thus was preserved.
From behind the church an archway leads over a stream and through a woodland towards this mighty of all Welsh holy wells. The route has been considerably improved with fine brick arches, giving an idea of the grandeur of this site. Once there it does not disappoint being a large bath structure. A considerably flow of water arises here clear and clean from two springs one possibly called Fynnon Fair. Indeed, the 16th century Leland antiquarian noted it was:
“a mighty spring that maketh a brook running scant a mile”
The water fills a large bath stone lined bath, said to have a marble bottom and under an archway tumbling to form the stream. The water appears to be petrifying forming interesting smooth incrustations to the north-west of the bath and entering the pool.
The well had a long history of use. It had become established along the Medieval pilgrim route to Holywell and was said to have cured a number of ills. Unlike other sites its fame and attendance continued well beyond the Reformation. Francis Jones (1955) in his Holy Wells of Wales that in the 16th century an unnamed bard defends the saint and his well stating he reveres Dyfnog’s effigy, accepts his miracles, praises his miracle-working well and gives grace to all nations and cures all ills – dumbmess, deafness, y frech wenwynig. later Edward Lhuyd 1698 Parochialia records its survival of use:
“a bath, much frequented, the water heals scabs, itches etc, some say that it would cure the pox.”
A hermit’s penance!
St. Dyfnog was a hermit who is said to have lived by the spring in the 6th century. It is also claimed that the spring gained its healing properties from a regular penance the saint would do in the water. He is said to have worn a hair shirt being belted by an iron chain. Very little is known beyond this.
Two wells for the price of one
The considerable flow which in times of heavy rainfall is often a threat to the fabric of the well, in particular the remains of the arches through which the water tumbles and falls. One of the reasons for this is that as Lhuyd in 1698 records there are actually two wells. Unsurprisingly, the one above the main spring is called Ffynnon Fair (St. Mary’s Well) which flows forming some curious calcified hummocks suggesting it has petrifying properties.
Holy well or folly?
The most impressive feature of the well is the very large rectangular bath (xxx ) A structure which is far more representative of a cold plunge bath than a holy well. Together with accounts of its marble lining and surrounding statues this was clearly developed foremost as a folly it would seem presumable for Llanrhaeadr Hall.
Alternatively these were improvements to help visitors as Browne Willis in the early 18th century records:
“the famous well of St Dyfnog, much resorted to, and on that account provided with all convenience of rooms etc, for bathing, built around it.”
All sadly gone, although the remains of the walls of these may be traced nearby. However, despite the forlorn appearance of this well it is one of the few sites where this is active restoration, although the blog has not been updated since 2013, a visit in 2015 suggestions the plan to restore is still very much on the books, with plans for a £300,000 religious tourist attraction, environmental and education facility – the well now has a separate visitors book in the church! So please donate if you can to this most impressive and evocative of Welsh wells.
Compared to Tremeirchion the provenance for St. Beuno’s Well at the fascinating Clynnog Fawr is much better. After following King Cadwallon from Holywell to Caernarvon, he was offered land here by his cousin Gwyyddaint after a falling out with the King! It is said that this was his final resting place, where he built his last cell, a chapel said to have been located at the site of the church. Thus in the seventh century a monastery was established which was destroyed in a 10th century Viking raid. Nothing is left from this period the present Chapel and church dating from the sixteenth century but excavations within have revealed earlier buildings.
A substantial well
St Beuno’s Well is of a style commonly met – a quite substantial well. The spring arises to fill a large rectangular bath surrounded by stone seats. The whole enclosure being walled around and raised above the roadway presumably to prevent animals reaching it and soiling it. Although the main road now thankfully bypasses the village and the well, the roadway was and still is, the pilgrim route down the Lleyn peninsular to the sacred isle of Bardsey beyond (a fact emphasised by the presence of a stamp collection for pilgrims)
A healing well
Here we come across a more confirmed usage of the well. This was mainly for children suffering from epilepsy and rickets for also conversely was linked to curing impotency. Scrapings from the pillars in the church were mixed with the water to cure sore eyes. An even more fascinating the tradition was that the bather would then visit St. Beuno’s chapel and laid on a bed of rushes upon a stone called Beuno’s tomb. A good night’s sleep procured a cure. I was denied even an attempt at this as the Chapel a unique side chapel reached by a small walkway was locked! However, I am not sure how good my cure would be as the stone itself was only a fragment of its original being removed in 1856. The practice itself was still being undertaken long after the reformation as accounted for by Thomas Pennant:
“and I myself once saw on it (the tomb) a feather bed on which a poor paralytic from Merioneddshire had lain the whole night after undergoing the same ceremony.”
A pagan tradition?
What has been related so far is strongly suggestive of some long lost pre-Christian tradition. Indeed today by the door is a large sarsen stone possibly part as perhaps Beuno’s stone, of a megalithic monument. What is even more curious is the tradition of St Beuno’s cattle. These were cattle with ear markings which were slaughtered and offered to the saint to ensure well-being of the stock. This was later replaced by monetary offerings based on the sale of livestock and the chest, Beuno’s cyff, remains within the church. The money being used for the poor. The ‘sacrifice’ of stock is clearly very resonant of pre-Christian practises and perhaps the area was dedicated to a deity visited for such wishes.
“Here is to be seen the well of the saint, enclosed with a wall. The Sybil of the place attends, and divines your fortune by the appearance or non-appearance of a little fish, which lurks in some of its holes”
Thomas Pennant (1778) Tours in Wales
Compared to last month’s post we have a bit of a reversal – Ffynnon Peris has much written about it but less about the saint. This is a well which is not only one of the best positioned picturesquely but one of the most curious tradition wise – its sacred fish.
The well is fairly easily found in a private garden of a house called Tynyffynnon arising delightfully at the bottom of a small rocky cliff. It is a roughly square well made up of stone lined basin, around four feet, surrounded by stone benches. Niches are found in the back wall either to place offerings or leave buckets.
Who was the saint?
Saint Peris is a bit of a mystery. He was thought to have existed around the 6th century and called Bonedd y Saint the ‘cardinal of Rome’. His connection with Nant Peris is that he is said to retired presumably by the side of the spring. With such a dubious hagiography, it seems likely that this was an ancient pagan site of which the following tradition gives some support.
A fishy story?
Baring Gould and Fisher in their 1908 Lives of British Saints states that:
“There is also an alms box in the church, the key of which is kept by the wardens and into which the 6d and 4d pieces were formerly put very frequently by persons who either bathed their children or came themselves for the purpose in St Peris’s Well. These small offerings to the Saint amounted at the end of the year to a considerable sum, but at present they are very trifling.”
Of the fish, these were trouts of which Catherall in his 1851 Wanderings in North Wales records:
“A poor woman who lives in a cottage near the spring has a few pence given to her by strangers for showing one or two large trout which she feeds in the well.”
The fish tradition may have been continual from the time of the saint or from some pagan tradition and they were fiercely protected by the locals and tradition tells of someone stealing one of the fish being forced to return it. Baring Gould recorded that the fish would live up to 50 years, and that it was practice that two fish should be always kept in the well. It appeared to be strictly two added at the same time, so that when one died…it remained there until it died and then two were added together. In 1896 it was recorded:
“The last of the two fish put into the well about fifty years previously died in August 1896. It had been blind for some time. It measured 17 inches and was buried in the garden adjoining the well.”
What is quite remarkable is that the tradition was maintained at least until the mid-20th century and perhaps beyond. A correspondent to the Wellhopper.com article on the well noted that there were fishes in the well until the early 1970s.
Why were these fishes there? The fishes had a role in the curative nature of the well. The appearance of the fishes whilst the sick person bathed was thought to be necessary to effect a cure…such the guardian of the well no doubt would tempt them out with food morsels, as Pennant noted:
“divines your fortune by the appearance or non-appearance of a little fish.”
For a higher fee no doubt!
A number of cures could be solicited from the well – scrofula, rheumatism and rickets could be cured – the later from bathing hopefully with the fish’s help. The height of the well’s popularity was in the mid-18th century and offerings were given at the church and these were sufficient to pay the salary of the Parish clerk.
The well clothed in moss and ferns has a delightfully rustic feel, but it was evident that there were no longer any fish in it – the water actually looked a little too anoxic to provide two trout with any healthy environment.
“This township is situated on the left bank of the river Elwy, and near that river is a beautiful and romantic dingle, in which is a fine spring, called Y Ffynnon Fair, discharging about 100 gallons of water per minute, and strongly impregnated with lime. It is enclosed in a richly-sculptured polygonal basin, which was formerly covered by a canopy supported by ornamental pillars, and was then much resorted to as a cold bath. Adjoining the well are the ruins of a cruciform chapel, in the decorated and later English styles, parts being overgrown with ivy. Prior to the Reformation, this was a chapel of ease to St. Asaph, and was served by one of the vicars to that church. ……”
Samuel Lewis A Topographical Dictionary of Wales 1849
Ffynnon Fair must rank as one of the most romantically atmospheric sites in the whole country. It has been a site which has graced many books on the subject – even one on English well traditions. It has been immortalized in poetry and its ruins do not disappoint. I have had this one site on my to do list for some time
On my way to the well, I came across an elderly gentlemen. He came towards me and I said have you been to the well. He relied, he could not find a way in…it could not be that difficult I thought and realising he looked rather crestfallen at not succeeding at his mission I turned him and around and thought I would help him. He was not best dressed for well hunting appearing to have sandals and socks which soon became sodden as we had to cross the small brook formed from the springhead. I asked him whether there was a reason for his visit. He said he was an artist and was planning to paint a number of holy wells using the water from the well – I took his name but to my regret I failed to remember it. At the well we soon found the old rusty gate, untied the loop and let ourselves in, closing it behind for fear of letting some livestock here.
The site has a delightful restfulness and one could clearly see even as a ruin how this chapel could be a pilgrim site. The gentlemen asked me to fill his beaker and I obliged. He then produced a pen wrote the name of the well and date and duly vanished!
What we can see is a bit of an enigma. The well chapel is a star shaped structure around eight feet whose water flows in channel under the chapel. The well chapel is said to have been built in the 13th century which additions and rebuilding in the 1500s. What remains aside from the well is a chancel, a north and south transect under which the water flows, with some Perpendicular tracery in the windows and doorways. Paul Davis in his ‘Sacred Springs’ believed like St Winifred’s Well, the well chamber had elaborate vaulting over it, probably contained within a projecting wing creating a cruciform plan. He also believes the well could have been a hostel for pilgrims – all interesting theories but unsupported.
This was another site for clandestine practices. It is said up until 1640 marriages were performed here – probably Catholic ones. It seems likely that the place was a place of pilgrimage like St Winifred’s past the Reformation but if so how did it become so ruinous?
The water was quite cold on that particular August day, typical of waters associated with the cures its water claim to give for rheumatism and arthritis. There was also claimed to be a ‘sweet scented moss much esteemed by pilgrims’, that presumably once found at St. Winifred’s Well on which this well was on the pilgrim route to. Audrey Doughty in her book ‘Spas And Springs Of Wales’ suggests it was used for fertility and eye complaint, but I am unclear what her sources are. There appeared at some point possibly to develop the waters as a minor spa in the Victorian period as a small bath was excavated beside. However, by this time it was already becoming the picturesque ruin attracting poets and artists such Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89) Jesuit priest and poet and Felicia Hemans 1793-1835 who wrote Our Lady’s Well:
“FOUNT of the woods! thou art hid no more From heaven’s clear eye, as in time of yore. For the roof hath sunk from thy mossy walls, And the sun’s free glance on thy slumber falls; And the dim tree shadows across thee pass, As the boughs are swayed o’er thy silvery glass; And the reddening leaves to thy breast are blown, When the autumn wind hath a stormy tone; And thy bubbles rise to the flashing rain,— Bright fount! thou art nature’s own again!
Fount of the vale! thou art sought no more By the pilgrim’s foot, as in time of yore, When he came from afar, his beads to tell, And to chant his hymn at Our Lady’s Well. There is heard no Ave through thy bowers, Thou art gleaming lone midst thy water flowers! But the herd may drink from thy gushing wave, And there may the reaper his forehead lave, And the woodman seeks thee not in vain,— Bright fount! thou art nature’s own again!
Fount of the virgin’s ruined shrine! A voice that speaks of the past is thine! It mingles the tone of a thoughtful sigh With the notes that ring through the laughing sky; Midst the mirthful song of the summer bird, And the sound of the breeze, it will yet be heard!— Why is it that thus we may gaze on thee, To the brilliant sunshine sparkling free? ’T is that all on earth is of Time’s domain,— He hath made thee nature’s own again!
Fount of the chapel with ages gray! Thou art springing freshly amidst decay; Thy rites are closed and thy cross lies low, And the changeful hours breathe o’er thee now. Yet if at thine altar one holy thought In man’s deep spirit of old hath wrought; If peace to the mourner hath here been given, Or prayer from a chastened heart to Heaven,— Be the spot still hallowed while Time shall reign, Who hath made thee nature’s own again!”
Chapel or folly?
Her work included a sketch which suggests that this ruin is not all what it seems. In particular her drawing shows the west wall of chapel only been a few feet high and no bell tower. More shocking is the lack of a star shaped basin. This has been used for well researchers to suggest a date and construction in line with that of Holywell’s St. Winifred’s Well. Was the site rebuilt in the Victorian period by the landowners as a quaint folly and a pretend St Winifred? Considering its time exposed to the elements it is remarkable well preserved! Indeed research has indicated despite the attempt to reconstruct via drawings a chapel akin to that of St Winifred excavations show that the well was never actually enclosed in the chapel. It was not thus a well chapel but a chapel beside the well! Water would thus run through the chapel in a manner similar to St Clether’s Well, Cornwall.
But pretend or pilgrimage site…one verges towards the later of course, this is a delightful site which must be on anyone’s list of North Wale’s sacred springs.
This year the monthly theme is wells of North Wales. This is a region rich in holy and healing springs – so much that it would take many years to discover or rather re-discover them all – as has done my fellow holy well researcher over at Wellhopper.com – please visit and follow his blog its excellent!
This month, I am covering a fairly well known site named after a well-known Welsh saint, indeed he is the patron saint of North Wales. It’s also an opportunity to highlight a remarkable site which readers will be interested in knowing can be holidayed at!
The well lies on the outskirts of the village of Tremeirchion and is dedicated to the famed Welsh saint – St Beuno – a name we have already heard mention in the legend of St Winifred at Holy Well and we shall meet again. Overlooking this much reported and unique well are St. Beuno’s Huts.
Who was St Beuno?
St. Beuno was a 7th century abbot, being based in Clynnog Fawr, and confessor who was born in Powys from a royal dynasty said to have descended from Vortigern one of the last Kings of Britain. He was a missionary across North Wales, having 11 churches named after him – one being in Somerset. A number of miracles, particularly concerning raising the dead, such as St. Winifred are attributed to him. It is said to have died in 640 on the seventh day of Easter.
Unlike other sites in this region there is no direct evidence of the saint having resided or even visiting at the spring. Moreover the village is on a pilgrim route to Holy Well and like similar pilgrim routes, such as the pilgrim’s way to Canterbury, springs dedicated to the saint who was the main pilgrim focus, in that case St. Thomas. Yet Winifred should be the dedication in that case however I theorize that Holywell celebrated both saints and indeed, albeit overgrown, there is a St. Beuno’s Well in that town. I am also of the belief that well changed fluxed over time, adopting new names as the saints popularity waxed and waned and the names changed like franchises. It is probable also that a local hermit adopted the name of the saint, much as Popes do today, a point I shall return to later.
The well, a substantial one, lies tantalising just off a small road in a private garden. Fortunately, although the internet is rife with rumours of new owners being restrictive and unapproachable, I found the owner, Mr. Chris Marsh completely the opposite – in fact I don’t think he could be any more welcoming if he tried! It is worth noting that the sign which was once associated with the sign in which a correspondent to Megalithic portal saw as a sign…was removed because it was broken and has yet to be fixed! The owners were more than happy, but I would advise ringing or emailing first. The contact details can be gained from below’s link to their holiday lets.
The well consists of a brick lined tank covering 18 feet by 10 feet with a sandy bottom, although this appears to cover a constructed one. The depth was around two feet. Its clear water bubbles up arising it appears from under the present St. Beuno Cottage. Interestingly, there appear to be steps on one side which led to nowhere and it is possible that the house footings have changed over the time and that perhaps the house itself was originally a room for changing to bath in the well. Was this an early spa, using the name of a saint to justify its existence as seen elsewhere? It is a theory I shall visit in a moment.
The well chamber is surrounded by a rough wall which has a doorway and a pump. Both of which probably date from an 1800 period of restoration. However the two most remarkable features are those involved with drainage. The most photographed is a supposed stone head embedded within the wall which apparently would flow into a chamber reached by stone steps. Much has also been written of this monument in support of the head cult and holy well theory. Some have seen it as a pagan god, others as St. Winifred. Yet I think we can largely discredit these theories straight away as it is clearly not just a head but a torso and head, the arms held in benediction. I believe any link with a head cult is further dismissed by closer inspection. The origin of the piece is clearly a gargoyle possibly moved here in that 19th century restoration to give the rather mundane structure some rustic antiquarian charm. It may have come from a nearby church restoration or from the ruins of a nearby monastery. It is no more evidence for a head cult than any other gargoyle, grotesque or boss seen in churches across Christendom! Furthermore it has failed to work for many years – and the owner was told that any photo that shows water running through it has been faked by throwing buckets of water through it from the other side! I was resisted the temptation.
The other feature is more strange and as far as I aware unique. The other side of the wall from the head is a large plug hole – the plug of which is attracted to a chain – which can be pulled out to empty the well! I was informed that although the bath took possibly 24 hours to fill – it could be emptied in just under an hour – a fact demonstrated to me.
What was it?
Theory one – a medieval bath
How old is the well structure? Much of it appears to be only a few hundred years old by the nature of the stone work and the concretion makes it difficult to judge. This recent date would explain the lack of any recorded history – the well was too insignificant to be recorded. It is also worth noting that the original house dates from a post-Reformation 1560 so was unlikely to be capitalising of its holy credentials. In 1897 it was suggested that the site was medieval but was this antiquarian fancy. I would hazard to suggest the presence of Jesuit College founded in the 1840 may have had a role in either naming or cementing the saint especially as no pre 1800 date for the site can be found. It is worth noting that both antiquarians Dr. Johnson and Thomas Pennant visited the Parish church but did not mention the well.
Below emptying the well
Theory two – a spa bath
There is more evidence for the development of the site, probably in the 18th century as either a private plunge pool or even a spa. These are quite common, and there is a nearby stately home, but it does not appear to been linked to the well site. There is certainly circumstantial evidence for its development as a spa and this would explain its later appearance, wells as far afield as in London, Nottinghamshire and Sussex appear to have adopted saintly dedications to justify their importance. Selling healing waters would be more successful if a pre-Reformation association could be advertised. Especially as it is evident that its waters had no apparent qualities! It is interesting to record that H Morton Stanley, noted African adventurer who lived in the 1820s stated it had:
“no virtues beyond purity and sweetness.”
The day I visited I was informed that a local nun regularly visits the well to pray and collect water for the poor, although the owner questioned the quality of the water. However, the lack of reportage from Pennant and Johnson suggests it was not used as a spa.
Theory three – a reservoir for drinking water
It appears more likely that the structure was made as a source of permanent water for the local farm. This cannot of course be disputed as most holy wells are used for this purpose at some time, however this does not negate against an ancient origin only an old origin for the current structure. Perhaps this explains the gargoyle outflow provided to give villagers access to the water for whatever reason.
Evidence for an ancient origin.
As the well chamber emptied I was shown the cave up above the well in the hill side. A large entrance which opened up into a series of larger chambers. Within this have been found some fascinating finds – remains of cave bears, hyenas and a lion. However more significantly the cave was 35,000 years ago the last refuge in Northern Europe of the Neanderthal Man.
This cave is a remarkable site and illustrates more than anything else the continuation of use which frustrating lies undocumented at many holy well sites. It would have been the combination of a suitable shelter and fresh water which brought these early people to settle here and whilst they may not have seen any religious significance to the water – we can only postulate they did.
What is even more intriguing is the likelihood that this was also a hermit’s cave. There is no archaeological evidence of this, yet it is difficult to deny that it is more than probable.
So what can we conclude? Is it a holy well? To many people today it is seen as a typical holy well – indeed like many typical ones I could add it has little historical evidence. But does that really matter? I feel that whatever its’ true origins it is likely to be an ancient site.
Indeed it seemed more than fitting that Chris Marsh had decided to establish these unique St. Beuno’s Huts, a far more all mod cons and modern take on the religious hermit – although you could take your partner and children too! So if you are a real holy well enthusiast who is looking for somewhere unique to stay I couldn’t recommend the uniqueness and hospitality of St. Beuno’s Huts, a chance to commune with this unique landscape.
The small village of Trellech provides much to excite the antiquarian. Its curiosities being forever immortalised in the 17th century sundial in the church. The most obvious is the Tump Turret, a large mound once a Norman motte and bailey castle. However, a local myth states that this was the burial mound in a battle between Harold Godwinson and the opposing Welsh in Gwent in 1063. This claim is also given to three large conglomerate stone monoliths. Here folklore states that three chieftains fell in that battle with Harold. Another theory is that they were arranged to indicate local springs and that is significant in consideration of the village’s most famed site – St Anne’s or the Virtuous Well.
The springhead arises in a horseshoe shaped stone built well enclosure. Stone benches are set up either side along the curved walls of a small paved courtyard. The spring arises in the arched recess through a stone basin. There are two squared niches in the rear wall which may have been used to place offerings. Although the stone work is medieval in date it has gone through periods of dereliction as noted by 19th century writer W. H. Thomas described it as ‘neglected fountain’ and the owner needed to ‘cleanse out its channels and invite guests to a festival of health’ as well as ‘rebuild its ruined walls’. Sir Joseph Bradney’s History of Monmouthshire (1913) shows the walls overgrown, soil virtually reaching the wall and the central forecourt flooded. It was fortunately the advice was headed and it was restored, the last time fully in 1951 for the Festival of Britain. A local legend claims that the water is connected to Tintern Abbey by a three mile tunnel, but this is more likely a confusion between the discovery of drainage channels and the knowledge that the Abbey owned property in the area.
Although not apparent today, the spring is a chalybeate one. In the 18th and 19th centuries the unpleasant-tasting water was considered especially beneficial for eye ailments and according to Edward Lhuyd (1660-1709)
‘very medicinall to such as to have the scurvy, collick and distempers’
and ‘complaints peculiar to women’. These wide range of powers owed it the name the Virtuous Well, a convenient name to re-focus from any popish reflections. Furthermore the spring is one of the traditional locations for the hanging of cloutties, which dipped in the water and rubbed on the skin, took away the affliction as it rotted on the trees around. Cloutties are the only evidence today of veneration at this site regularly seen however there were none there when I visited last in a snowy January.
The commonest form of well-wishing here was that by throwing a stone into the water, a maiden could find out by the number of bubbles how many months it would take to be married. Other folk would throw a stone which by the number of bubbles rising would indicate whether the wish would be granted.
A well for the fairies
The well was said also to be the haunt of fairies who were particularly visible in Midsummer. A local legend tells how a farmer dug up a fairy ring near to the well and the next day found the well dry which never happened. However it was clear that to others it had water and that it only happened to him, the other villagers could draw water! Finally he was told by an old man sitting on a wall that if he returned the ring he would be able to withdraw water – he did and the water was restored to him.
Another story tells of a witch who displeased with the suitor of her daughter sent him to the well where he was pulled into the water. After a struggle, three times over, he escaped and running back to the house saw the mother as an evil witch stirring a pot and he ran!