St Teilo and Two Wells in West Wales

by Linda Dearden

I would like to describe to you two visits to wells both dedicated to the Celtic/Christian St Teilo. I will start by recounting an article found in Pembrokeshire Antiquities about St Teilo’s well in Llandilo, near Maenchlohog:

‘This strong spring rises close to Mr Melchior’s farm and within a couple of hundred yards from the ruined church of Llandilo. The well empties itself into a pond. These waters had formerly the widespread reputation for the healing of pulmonary complaints.

The last cure which created any sensation took place sixty years ago. [This would be in 1837 since the article was written in the 1890s]. “A gentleman living in the Gower peninsula had a son far advanced in pthisis. All known remedies had been tried in vain. Some friends recommended St Teilo’s waters, as a last resort.

The Glamorganshire gentleman in despair put his lad into a post chaise and drove him over execrable roads up to Llandilo, at the foot of the Precelly Hills.

The boy drank the waters and then returned to Glamorgan none the better. “But,” said the friend, “did your son drink from the saint’s skull?” “No, from the well.” (came the answer). “Ah, that is no good at all, the water must be drunk out of St Teilo’s skull.”

So a second time the unhappy father and son performed the pilgrimage. This time the skull was brought out. From it the son drank the healing waters and was duly cured of his complaint. The skull was preserved in Mr Melchior’s house until 1927 and is now apparently lost. The skull was imperfect – only the brain pan was remaining. It was apparently the skull of a young woman. St Teilo actually died an old man; but there seems to be no doubt that it was a piece of genuine pre-Reformation relic.’

The Melchiors were obviously hereditary guardians of the well. They only moved from the farmhouse next to the well in the 1950s and they apparently took the skull with them. Rumour has it that it is now in Essex or the West Country. It is still a mystery why they moved after so many generations of guardianship – though the last in the line was an old spinster lady. It was also around this time when the well actually dried up. The new owner plans to restore it and renovate it sensitively.

Melchior is an interesting name in itself and probably stemmed from ‘Chaldea’. One of the three Magi who followed the star to the birth of Christ was called Melchior. To me this implies the original guardian of the well was a man skilled in natural magic, like Merlin. Apparently in Wales the Christian name of the father was carried on by the son as a surname. So thus, we see, the offspring of the original Melchior becoming hereditary guardians of the well.

The well is actually sited within a large ‘alcove’ in a farm dry stone wall. On the far side of this wall, yet immediately above the well can be seen three grave stones. These belong to three members of the Melchior family who died in the eighteen hundreds.

The well is on the farmyard side of the wall and the wall carries on to circle a grove of tall beech trees and also to make up one side of a ruined chapel or sanctuary of healing. This is a spot of rare and unusual beauty and romance. I must warn you that it is difficult to gain access, though. It was only after a long discussion that the present owner decided that we were genuinely interested and then he uncovered the well and allowed us to see it. He is at present engaged in rearing hundreds of saplings native to the area and planting them, a noble task I thought. He was not the only guardian operating on the afternoon of my visit. For a ‘killer’ red ant, which had its nest on a slab above the well, managed to drop on my head and then inject its poison into the corner of my left eye. I had previously had allergic reaction to ant stings but weathered this with no real effect!

There had been three standing stones originally within the grove. They were inscribed with Ogham and although much more ancient had been used by the Romans as monuments to the death of three members of an important family. One stone was removed by a local clergyman to a village called Cenarth (with links to Arthur) some twenty miles away. He sited the stone on an old hill fort. Legend had it that it was buried over the head of his favourite horse and that he had taken the stone from the side of the road near Llandilo. I think this minister, the Reverend Lewis, had knowledge of the old druidic ways and was utilising the power of the standing stone. I feel that the moving of the stone (in itself a difficult task since it is five feet high) was a calculated rather than whimsical act. The other two stones were moved into the local church at Maenchlohog in the 1950s and are now kept in a damp, musty corner with the brooms. This is apparently to protect the Ogham script from further weathering.

The whole area surrounding this well is particularly powerful. Standing as it does half a mile from Temple Druid and the nearby stone circle at Gors Fawr, which is all that remains of a giant circle containing within it twelve circles. Towering above Gors Fawr is the mountain Bed Arthur with its great Warrior Stone.

The Celtic head cult was linked to water and heads were probably sacrificed to wells to enhance and give back any healing power, which people had taken from the water. Celts would leave offerings at their sacred watering places for they believed that the water would lose its power if they took without giving anything back. As head-hunters the pagan Celts believed that the severed head was also a fertility symbol and when a head was thrown into a well its influence was added to that of the water, which they believed had life-giving properties. There are many stories linking wells with heads, especially in Scotland and Wales. These may also link to St Melor of Cornwall and Brittany. Could the name Melor have been a corruption of Melchior?

St Melor was murdered and his murderer intended to take the saint’s head back to his uncle, who had ordered the killing. On the journey he became faint from thirst and cried out for help. He was answered by saint Melor’s head, which told him to plant his staff in the ground. ‘When he had done this, not only did a spring of water spout forth from the ground but the staff took root and was turned into a most beautiful tree and brought forth branches and fruit, and from its root an unfailing fountain began to well forth.’

This story seems to link quite easily to the Glastonbury legend of Joseph of Arimathea, Christ’s uncle, planting his staff which grew into the flowering thorn. This thorn can still be seen at Glastonbury along with Chalice Well which flows with its iron rich ‘blood’ waters. Indeed it is a sacred spot as is the forgotten St Teilo’s Well in West Wales.

The second St Teilo’s well I visited is under the village graveyard of the church dedicated to St Teilo in Llandeilo, a Medieval town which was once walled. The well is a large walk-in type with steps leading down into it. The well ‘room’ is some twelve feet square and is actually immediately below the gravestones. To the left hand side is a tunnel leading into the depths under the church.

The locals will not drink the water because of its location, but we polished off several cup-fulls from the piped waters which flow fast and freely. We also took some bottles home and definitely suffered no adverse effects.

Both wells are in places called Llandilo/Llandeilo because Llan in Welsh means church and dilo/deilo is a corruption of Teilo. I feel that both sites have validity even today because they both emanate powerful vibrations which can help to alleviate stress and mental ill-health. Very important sites!

Text © Linda Dearden (1989)

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