Secret Shrines: A Tale of Reincarnation….

by Paul Broadhurst

The landscape around Camelford, Cornwall is dominated by the distinctive shape of Roughtor. Whichever way you enter the town, the distant moorland crags of this rocky fastness glower on the horizon, partly obscuring Brown Willy, the closest thing that you can get to a mountain in this most westerly county. Out there, close to the top of the world, any minor flight of fancy assumes an almost believable solidity, the definition between reality and romantic imagination becoming faint and indistinct. Up among the granite crevices, the cascades of tumbled rocks look exactly like the ruins of an ancient city, some vast edifice shaken to the ground by an Earth-shattering cataclysm. Here, below the ruined foundations of a chapel dedicated in Christian times to St Michael, is Roughtor Holy Well, covered by slabs and chunks of grey granite, plain unhewn moorstone over a bleak spring that must go back to the very beginnings of Man’s habitation of this wild area, tower down the slopes, the legacy of our ancestors leaves its imprint on the windswept moor. A Stone Age village, with hut circles, animal enclosures, thoroughfares and a beautiful stone circle, with an outlying stone aligned to the rising of the Sun. A landscape that sets the mood when travelling through this area of remote antiquity, providing a sharp perspective against which to view the transient nature of our existence.

Such thoughts may well slink off into some secret recess of the brain in travelling through the old market town of Camelford, in search of an old well with a name of paradoxical modernity. But Jetwells Holy Well in between Camelford and Lanteglos, is in fact an ancient title, derived down the centuries from St Julitta’s Well Parks, and as if to drag us screaming into the twentieth century, is now located below Juliot’s Well Holiday Park. There must be some connection here, it would seem, with St Juliot’s Church near Boscastle, famous as ‘Hardy’s Church’, where the young Thomas Hardy met and fell in love with the Rector’s sister-in-law, Emma Gifford. Dedicated to a saint who was said to have suffered a violent death, there used to be a well near the church which was visited by pilgrims, and by those who wished to avail themselves of the waters’ reputation for the cure of skin diseases. In the last century, however, the well was filled in with the curiously carved stones that stood around it, one supposedly of the Virgin Mary, as it was considered to be dangerous to cattle! Later, when the surrounding marsh was being drained, one of the labourers found a gold circlet, said to have been worn on the head, and lost, or left behind as an offering, by one of the visiting pilgrims. Evidently, this interesting treasure was sold to a local antiquarian for its weight in sovereigns, who later sold it to the editor of a well-known daily newspaper, who, as the story goes, eventually presented it to the British Museum.

Sir John Maclean, in his History of Trigg Minor tells us about the place, once one of the county’s great Deer Parks: ‘Jetwells contains about eighteen acres of rich meadow land. It derives its name from a holy well which formerly existed on the premises, and which has been ruthlessly torn down, and the place desecrated….The two stones which formed the ancient equilateral arch still lie on the spot, as do other stones which formed the building. In 1569 it is mentioned under the name of St Gitwell Park.’

But the old well was to be reincarnated thanks to a certain Colonel Bake, who, in the last century, had the stones collected from their temporary resting place in the walls of an outbuilding, and restored them to their rightful place near the bottom of a field, in a leafy hollow sunk in shade. The new owners of Juliot’s Well Holiday Park were intrigued to learn these facts about their holy well the day I turned up and asked if they could direct me to it. As I promised them a copy of the photograph, they pointed the way down a muddy lane and past a tiny, ruined cottage. At the bottom of a sloping meadow, a shadowy depression beckoned, and I crunched my way over a carpet of crisp leaves to the ancient site. A century ago, it was described as ‘a quaint, picturesque little structure, with a weather-beaten thorn growing on the ledge above it, and luxuriant ferns lining the interior. The roof, which slopes back to the level of the field, is rounded, and composed of rough masonry; the doorway is arched, the stone evidently being the original one; there is an old stone step at the entrance, slightly guttered in the middle, but the copious spring no longer runs over it, overflowing the building and the surrounding field as in former times, for the superfluous water is now drained off in an underground channel, and flows into a miniature lake at the bottom of the field.’

The round roof had long since disappeared, the remains of the tiny building just a shadow of its former self. Ivy and dark green moss clung tenaciously to the remnants of old masonry, the granite arch balanced precariously on top, rocking like a logan stone as I touched it gingerly. Stones lay about, the interior of the well now dry and lined with mouldering leaves. A faintly sad sight, but with the piquant flavour of the remote past. And there, growing out above the well, a curiously misshapen thorn tree. Was this a remnant of the thorn described in that visit of 1891? I suddenly experienced a sense of the continuity of the place, somewhere that had once almost ceased to exist, and yet stands to this day despite the vicissitudes and vagaries of the past.

Text © Paul Broadhurst (1989)

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