Category Archives: Wales
It is a pleasure to present Tristan Gray Hulse’s second part of his monograph on Ffynnon Leinw
On the Tuesday of Holy Week 1188 Giraldus and Archbishop Baldwin rode from Bangor to Rhuddlan Castle, where they were entertained for the night. On Wednesday Baldwin preached the Crusade in Rhuddlan, before saying Mass in St Asaph cathedral, after which his party rode on to spend the night at Basingwerk Abbey, near Holywell. On the Thursday they rode to Chester. At some point (Giraldus’ mention is made between his accounts of Tuesday evening and the events of Wednesday, so that he probably heard it at Rhuddlan on Tuesday night) they were told of a spring not far from Rhuddlan which ebbed and flowed twice daily with the tides, but which was also liable to rise and fall frequently throughout the day. Humphrey Llwyd identified Giraldus’ unnamed spring with an unnamed ebbing-and-flowing well in Cilcain parish; adding that the spring was observed to dry up at a certain time of the year. Llwyd’s identification of Giraldus’ spring with the Cilcain well was followed by David Powel, who named the latter as Ffynnon Leinw; and Camden followed Powel in locating an ebbing-and-flowing spring in the parish of Cilcain, without naming it. Richard Mostyn and, after him, Edward Lhwyd, suggested that Ffynnon Asa, in Cwm parish, as being closer to Rhuddlan, was a more plausible match for Giraldus’ spring; also noting that Ffynnon Leinw no longer ebbed and flowed.
Giraldus’ topographical notices in the Itinerarium were almost entirely anecdotal, apparently dependent upon the casual comments of his hosts; the hit-and-miss character of this kind of information-gathering can be assessed from the fact that, although he spent a night at Basingwerk, he has no account of St Winefride’s Well, Holywell, although its fame was by then long established in north-east Wales and the northern Marches – its absence is best explained by assuming that no-one happened to mention the Holywell well to Giraldus during his few brief hours at Basingwerk.
Ffynnon Leinw and Ffynnon Asa were not the only ebbing-and-flowing wells in Wales. Giraldus had mentioned another one in his Itinerarium Cambriae, at Dinefwr (I, 10: Giraldus 1908, 74). Francis Jones wrote that ebbing and flowing was “a claim common to many Welsh wells”. (Jones 1954, 53: Jones noticed the claim for a Ffynnon Fednant, in Caernarfonshire – ib. 154; Llandyfeisant Well, Carmarthenshire, i.e., the Dinefwr well – p. 171; Ff. Asa and Ff. Leinw, in Flintshire – 178, 180; Ff. Maen y Milgi, Llandrillo, in Merioneth – 193; two wells at Chepstow, Monmouthshire – 196; and St Non’s Well, at St Davids, Carncwn Well, at Newport, Ff. Lygaid, at St Davids, and Pencw Wells, at Goodwick, all in Pembrokeshire – 210, 212, 213, 216.) James Rattue (1995, 114) notes that such wells were reported in England, and were particularly attractive to antiquarian writers such as Camden; on p. 117 he quotes Camden quoting an ode by Sir John Stradling to an ebbing-and-flowing well at Newton, in Glamorganshire. (This is St John’s Well, Newton; Jones 1954, 183, listed the well, but missed the ebbing-and-flowing claim, and Stradling’s poem.)
Less than two miles from Rhuddlan, Ffynnon Asa is a plausible identification for Giraldus’ spring; Ffynnon Leinw, rather less so. But, given the sheer number of wells for which such claims were made, it cannot be certain that Giraldus’ spring should be identified with either Ffynnon Asa or Ffynnon Leinw. What is certain is that the ubiquity of Camden’s Britannia guaranteed that a well in Cilcain parish – more exactly identified by Powel with Ffynnon Leinw – was for centuries identified as being fed by an ebbing-and-flowing spring.
So far as I am aware, the claim of regular twice-daily ebbing and flowing has never been established for any of the many springs for which the claim has been made in the past. What is probably being witnessed by such claims is a common but irregular fluctuation in water levels created by sustained periods of more or less rainfall, observed casually, from time to time, by persons who noted different water levels each time they had cause to visit the well, and invoked the example of the universal regular tidal ebbing and flowing as an explanation of a local phenomenon. In certain instances it may be that one has to do with a periodic spring, dry for part of the year, but returning after prolonged rainfall; certainly this seems to be what Humphrey Llwyd was recording for the Cilcain well.
Flintshire is famous for its wells, which owe their existence to the Carboniferous Limestone that constitutes its central plain. This rock is porous and the water percolates it till it comes in contact with impermeable shale or clay, where it accumulates and finds its way again to the surface through some of the many fissures … Ffynnon Leinw, “the flowing well,” in Cilcain parish, was at one time an intermittent spring, flowing at regular intervals, owing to syphon action, but it has long lost this peculiarity (Edwards 1914, 25, 27).
This and related phenomena are common in the local limestone landscape. Numbers of the rivers and streams flowing through Cilcain parish run underground for some distance at certain times of the year; as the Parochialia noted:
All their rivulets dive. [It names the Alun, “underground abt 3 quarters of a mile” (it sinks at a place below Cilcain village called Hesp Alun, “the dry Alun”); the Fechlas, “underground hlf a mile it breaks forth at a place therefore call’d tarth y Dŵr” (Tardd y Dŵr, “eruption, or issue, of water”); and the Cain, “dives for hlf a mile more and so to Alen within the P’ish”.] They have severall other Rills that dive (Lhwyd 1909, 80-1).
(The overflow from Ffynnon Leinw drains into the Fechlas; Tardd y Dŵr is two-thirds of a mile west of the well: SJ 175 675. Tardd y Dŵr and Ffynnon Leinw are both in the former Cilcain township of Dolfechlas.) The places of their re-emergence would all exhibit greater or lesser volumes of water, depending on the rainfall. With regard to Ffynnon Leinw, more careful observation (as suggested by Richard Mostyn and Pennant) would have cleared up the popular suggestion of any twice-daily ebbing and flowing.
The suggestion here is that Ffynnon Leinw, before its final drying-up as a result of mining locally (cf. RCAHM 1912, 16; Davies 1959, 65 – if indeed it has really dried up; it would seem still to flow periodically: cf. Davis 2003, 71), was a periodic spring whose flow varied with the rainfall, and which often ceased to flow altogether during drier periods of the year. This idea is perhaps reinforced by the name of the well. The element leinw has caused placename scholars a number of problems (cf. e.g. Davies 1959, 65), but it may simply relate in some way to the verb llanw or llenwi, “to fill”, and to the masculine noun llanw, “influx”. (The ll > l is simply the regular lenition, following the feminine noun ffynnon, “well”; in just this way the personal names Mair and Mihangel mutate to give Ffynnon Fair and Ffynnon Fihangel. ) It is in this sense that Pennant understood the element, when he translated Ffynnon Leinw as “the flowing well”. Professor Hywel Wyn Owen has commented on the name:
The form leinw cannot be explained as a noun or adjective. Most Welsh speakers would know leinw from Psalms 84.6 ‘y glaw a leinw y llynnau’ [“the rain also filleth the pools” – AV]. That was in the old translation … The Psalms use leads me to suspect that the well was originally y ffynnon a leinw ‘the well which fills’. In time the relative pronoun was omitted leaving us with y ffynnon leinw > Ffynnon Leinw (pers. comm. to TGH, 14 December 2015).
The name would thus seem to reference the sudden filling of a well with the recommencement of a periodic spring after heavy rain. It would seem not to carry any inevitable sense of a regular ebbing and flowing like the sea’s tides, but only of flowing; though doubtless the secondary use of the noun llanw for “the flow of the tide” would facilitate any popular misinterpretation of such periodic springs as regularly ebbing and flowing.
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[Williams, John] Ab Ithel, “Holy Wells”, Archaeologia Cambrensis 1 (1846) 50-4
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Wynne, Glenys, Cilcain, Mold: Cilcain W.I., 1944
In 1994 after a period of absence Source was reborn under the helm of Tristan Gray Hulse and Roy Fry. Under their stewardship Source became more academically minded and in particular focused more on monograms of specific sites which were merticulously researched. Tristan himself due to his monastic background contributing some important pieces as well as questioning some long held folklore views in the subject such as head cults. After source went on to research and write a number of scholarly pieces on saint cults and holy wells including a piece on votive offerings at St Trillo’s well in the folklore journal as well as being involved with St Winifred’s well in Holywell. So it is with great pleasure and a great honour that his unpublished monogram on a north Welsh well – and how Welsh wells doyen Francis Jones could get it wrong – in my celebration of Source.
Immediately to the north of Plas Llandecwyn, on the side of an ancient lane leading uphill towards the church of St Tecwyn, Llandecwyn, Merioneth, a short distance away, is the holy well of St Tecwyn. It is still just as it was described 100 years ago by the Royal Commission Inspecting Officer.
Ffynnon Decwyn … The antiquary Edward Lhuyd, or a correspondent of his, writing about the year 1698, has the note “Fynnon Deckwyn by plas Ll. Deckwyn not far from ye church”.
Near Plas Llandecwyn is a spring which flows into a cavity about 3 feet at the front and 2 feet at the back by a breadth of 21 inches; the water stands in its rock cistern to a depth of 14 inches, and as there is a slight but steady overflow the water is kept sweet. There can be little doubt that this is the well noted by Lhuyd, but the name of Tecwyn is now not connected with it … Visited, 15 August, 1914 (An Inventory 1921, 82, § 214).
The name Ffynnon Decwyn is apparently now in common use for the well once more.
The Inspecting Officer continued his entry by noting
“a spot about 330 yards north-east of the church where is a hole about 21 inches square cut into the rock at the level of the road, water dripping within and overflowing the road”.
This unnamed well also survives much as described, though it is now covered with small rough slabs of stone, for protection. And a few yards south of the lych-gate is another spring, rising at the northern or upper end of what appears to have been a regularly rectangular tank, now choked with water-weeds. It is initially tempting to guess that one or other of these unnamed springs represents a further sacred well claimed for the parish, Ffynnon Fair, listed by Francis Jones in his The Holy Wells of Wales (1954).
Jones, citing Edward Lhwyd in reference, included the well in his list of Ffynhonnau Mair in Merioneth in his gazetteer of Welsh holy wells:
Ff. Fair … 2. ‘By ye Church’ in Llandecwyn parish – Lhuyd Par. ii. 105 (Jones 1954, 191).
However, it turns out that this well is no more than a “ghost”, created by Jones’ trusting but careless reading of Lhwyd in the at-this-point potentially confusing editing of the Parochialia texts by Rupert Morris. As the printed edition stands (Lhwyd Paroch., part 2, 1910), the entry for “Llandekwyn” runs from p. 103 to the foot of p. 106, and notices “Fynnon vair by ye Church” on p. 105 and “Fynnon Deckwyn by plas Ll Deckwyn not far from ye church” on p. 106. The Llandecwyn entry is immediately followed by that for “Mantwrog” (top of p. 107), which, as it stands, consists of only six lines.
But it is clear that a section of this arrangement (from p. 104 line 7 to p. 105 line 30, reproducing pp. 131-133 of the original Lhwyd ms as seen and edited by Morris) has been displaced in the original Lhwyd ms; this section all refers to Maentwrog parish, not to Llandecwyn, and must originally have followed and completed the now minimal Maentwrog entry (at the bottom of original ms p. 137) printed at the top of Lhwyd 1910, p. 107. This restores the original reading, a complete text, of the normal Parochialia format, for Maentwrog immediately following a complete text of familiar format for Llandecwyn (thus, originally: Llandecwyn, ms pp. 129-130, 136-137; Maentwrog, ms pp. foot of p. 137, 131-133).
This explains why the mentions of Ffynnon Decwyn and Ffynnon Fair are separated in the Morris printed text. It also means that “Fynnon vair by ye Church” was in Maentwrog parish, not in Llandecwyn; and that, therefore, there is no mention of a Ffynnon Fair in Llandecwyn parish. The Llandecwyn Ffynnon Fair is an inadvertent creation of Francis Jones, who then duplicates the well by separately noticing the Maentwrog well, from the Royal Commission Inventory for Merioneth:
Ff. Fair … 7. About 80 yards SE of Maentwrog church: it supplied the neighbouring houses – Anc. Mon. Mer. (Jones 1954, 191).
The Maentwrog well still survives, basically as per the Inventory:
Ffynnon Fair … This well is situated on sloping ground about 80 yards south-east of the church, and north of a terrace called Bron Fair. It is now enclosed in a square slate cistern, and [in 1914 still, but no longer] supplies the neighbouring houses (An Inventory 1921, 154, § 498).
Tristan Gray Hulse
25 April 2016
An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire. VI. County of Merioneth, London: HMSO, 1921
Jones, Francis, The Holy Wells of Wales, Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1954
Lhwyd, Edward, Parochialia, being a summary of answers to “Parochial Queries in order to a Geographical Dictionary, etc., of Wales”, ed. Rupert H. Morris, part 2, London: The Cambrian Archaeological Association, 1910
In our final post on the noted wells of the area, we cover perhaps the most famous well around the town that of St. John or Sandford’s Well. Despite its fame it is the most unattractive of the town’s surviving sites. Charles Davies describes it as thus:
“The well, oval in shape, of 6½ft. and 4½ft. diameters and 13½ft. in depth below the surface, with a covered flight of 20 steps, is about 85 yards south of the Church, and about 500 yards from the shore : its position is marked on a map of Dutch origin of 1646.”
Charles Davies in his 1938 The History of the Ancient church situate at Newton Porthcawl states:
“The Holy Well in close proximity to the Parish Church at Newton, and possessing a like Patron, has also a lay name “Sandford Well” – which sheds considerable light on the time of the Church’s original foundation. Now it is Impossible to seriously doubt, when certain external evidences are considered, that Sir Thomas de Sandford had as much to do with the original foundation of the Church as with that of the Well. Dre-Newydd, Nova Villa, New Town, by whichever name be it called, was a dowry on his marriage, a “dot” of a new village, and it is not likely that he confined his legacy to it to the mere well, when we remember its intimate connexion with the Church.”
Who was de Sandford?
It is believed that De Sanford, was a crusading Knight of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, who in the 12th century founded the church being granted land by William Earl of Gloucester between 1147 and 1183.
Rituals at the well
The legend of the well is inscribed on a large plaque by its side as seen below:
A number of traditions are associated with the well. It is reported that May Day or rather one would presume Beltaine bonfires were lit close to the well, although one would have thought Midsummer – or the feast of St John would have been a more obvious time. Those visiting the well would use the water to wish away sins and if water removed from the well was spilt bad luck would ensue
Ebbing and flowing
The well is mainly noted for being an ebbing and flowing well. Author R.D.Blackmore wrote of the well:
“It comes and goes, in a manner, against the coming and going of the sea, which is only half a mile from it: and twice a day it is many feet deep, and again not as many inches. And the water is so crystal clear, that down in the dark it is like a dream. – The children are all a little afraid of it… partly because of its maker’s name… and partly on account of its curious ways and the sand coming out of its “nostrils” when first it begins to flow”.
It is possible that this deep well is connected via fissures in the rock with the sea where the tide would force water up into the well. It is probable that the two were linked and that if there was a time difference, that it is contrary to the tides this could be explained by the time taken for the water to flow through the cracks to the well.
The well today
For such a famed well and especially when compared with the other wells in the area, St John’s Well looks a little forlorn and long overdue a repair. The well consists as described by pastscape as:
“a gated rubble stone entrance doorway to, and side walls of, a long descending flight of stone steps with stone slab roof and limewashed interior. At street level to side right set in a walled recess is a semi circular stone basin with iron pump in wall to rear and stone drainage channel right.”
The pump is dry and it is impossible to access the waters and indeed one cannot see it as the grill is too narrow and the depth too deep. The door is rusty and unsightly as is the attempt to extend the walling to include an electric substation. St John’s Well is long overdue an improvement.
The final site appeared to base its reputation on the above site this being St. John’s Spa. Davies (1938) again records:
“The water discharged on the beach deserves notice. Recent investigation has confirmed the tradition that the waters of this particular issue have extraordinary healing powers over external and internal ulcers, old wounds, rheumatisms, neuritis and various other ailments. Cold and clear as crystal, the scores of analyses that have been made in hospitals and by specialists, throw not the slightest light on the cause of the water’s efficacy. Its temperature is about 51 degrees Fahrenheit at all times of the year, a sensation of intense cold is felt by the hand which, after a deep immersion lasting for about ten minutes, regains its warmth, and, for a considerable length of time after withdrawal, shows a decided redness. Investigation may prove the presence of isotonic properties which may account for the beneficent effect on the many visitants with divers ailments, who drink the water or immerse the affected parts.”
He continued to note that:
“St. John’s Spa is renowned ; countless invalids have benefitted by their visits to “Doctor Dwr” (Doctor Water), who is always at home when the tide is out, and overs free treatment in a surgery which is thoroughly cleansed twice a day. In all probability, the therapeutic value of this water would be unknown in these days, were it not for the chance discovery of Dr. Hartland who has proved, beyond doubts, its curative properties.”
Whatever happened to the latest instalment is unclear but St John’s Well survives albeit massively in need of some TLC!
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.