Holy Well or Holy Grail?

The Mystic Quest in Cornwall

by Paul Broadhurst

Cornwall, like the other parts of Britain that are still steeped in that peculiarly ancient Celtic atmosphere, retains a fascination for those in search of myth and mystery that has been translated in the popular imagination into some fairy-tale, holiday-brochure vision of a land of legend. But the people who are born within the bounds of the county, or those that choose to soak themselves in its rarefied atmosphere are always aware of the strange sense of isolation that pervades the land, and even the visitor experiences a subtle, but distinct change of consciousness when crossing the border.

This unique remoteness has in many ways preserved in elemental aspic the prehistory of the area, a primeval landscape of stone circle, cairn, cross and holy well that through our twentieth- century eyes may seem distant and obscure. But as all the diverse remains of thousands of years of human evolution testify, this land was for millennia a thriving centre for successive cultures that perceived an order of reality very different from our own. It is this curious evocative quality, a strange power to penetrate to that magical and imaginative part of the mind, that is poignantly apparent at those special places on the surface of the Earth where the inspirational waters bubble up at an old Nature shrine.

The eccentric edifices that sometimes stand over a sacred spring often seem to possess an intoxicating aura of agelessness. It may seem a little surprising that some of them still exist at all, after centuries of neglect, the ravages of mining and the modern scourges of road improvements and current farming methods. But what these solitary shrines sometimes lack in solidity of structure has been more than made up for by the devotion to their simple maintenance by countless generations of evolving humanity. A natural reverence for such places is an integral part of the constitution of most countryfolk, and, besides, the time-worn stones of these old ruins, dripping with moss and ferns and penetrated by the gnarled roots of twisted trees, sometime seem to be protected by the very forces of Nature that ordinarily erode such man-made structures with slow but remorseless purpose.

Some of the old wells of Cornwall possess a distinctly raw, primeval character that cuts right through the superficiality of modern life. Everyone who visits the weirdly prehistoric well near Sancreed Church feels the womb-like sanctity of the subterranean shrine, while the ruins of the chapel above add another level, this time from the Christian phase of well-worship, to the impressive ambience of the place. In North Cornwall, the picturesque, Gothic-style building that covers St Anne’s Well at Whitstone, framed by an old thorn tree growing in harmony with the ancient spring, boasts a strange link with early times. Peering out above the waters is a crudely-carved stone effigy that seems to have escaped the destructive ravages of millennia. Unlike anything else to be found at Cornish wells, this rude idol has an impressively ancient face, with two holes drilled for the eyes, a rectangular nose and a rough slit for the mouth, the whole image breathing an air of extreme antiquity.

The whole county abounds in such wells, each with their own often striking individuality. In deep, wooded valleys, narrow green lanes and tranquil country churchyards, the old springs still bubble forth. By quaint villages and isolated farms the thread of continuity that runs through both the Nature religions and the Christian tradition still exerts a potent influence over human beings and the countryside, now noticeably beginning to materialise in the current resurgence of interest in the old Holy Wells. On a deeper level, the development of ‘well-consciousness’ is a re-identification with the living body of the Earth, a re-establishment of the great feminine principle behind Life, as the polarities swing back to a delicate equipoise.

The seeking out and visiting of the old wells is a strange adventure of the mind, but it is a blissful form of obsession, for there is no better way of discovering the exquisitely intimate character of our countryside than the quest which leads, in the end, to the magical waters, brimming like the Grail myth with hidden secrets that seem to well up in the consciousness of the pilgrim as they travel in the footsteps of the mystics of old. For the ancient use of these places, charged with Natural energy and the rites and observances of our ancestors, was as places of transformation, where the lower energies may be transmuted to the higher in the most auspicious circumstances. Thus the healing, regenerative and fertility traditions that surround the wells are just half-forgotten examples of the Alchemical Great Work, the balancing and fusion of the opposites. The other-worldly symmetry of an often pointed, male building over an opening in the Earth mother strikes the imagination as a potent symbol of this fusion.

But all is not moody or mystical about the old sacred springs. The amusing incidents and situations that naturally attend any search sharpen the eye for intriguing experiences, and travelling across the countryside provides fertile soil for strange serendipity as well as first-hand knowledge of the raw elements! As an antidote to the ills of the technological age, well-hunting provides more than a rest-cure for the bewildered brain. It stimulates exactly that part of the mind that was so revered by the ancients and which forms the basis of all Natural Magic and the root of the world’s religions, as well as being symbolised in the image of the Grail of Celtic myth. After two years wandering the countryside of Cornwall in the search for the old holy wells, there is no shadow of doubt left in my febrile brain that a certain transformation accompanies the meditative reverie that these place evoke, echoing the intuitive rapport of our precursors. This short piece is by way of an introduction to a series of articles drawn loosely from my recently-finished book Secret Shrines; In search of the old holy wells of Cornwall, and in the future I hope to convey to the readers of Source some small feeling of the power of some of the Cornish wells, not only the imaginative qualities that give such delicious melancholy when dwelling on the past, but that subtle force which can awaken certain latent powers of the living present.


Text © Paul Broadhurst (1986)

Designed & Maintained by Richard L. Pederick (© 1999) | Created 27/03/00

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