The Holy Wells of Glamorgan
by Dewi Bowen
During the dismal summer of 1985 my interest in the holy wells of this area was rekindled, partly due to the publication of the Bords’ Sacred Waters, and also the appearance of Source. What follows is not anywhere near a complete list of Glamorgan wells, but an account of those I’ve visited as well as a few sites that will need more effort to track down.
I will begin with a well that forms part of my early childhood memories. On the opposite side of the valley to my parents’ house in the Rhondda, is the hillside of Penrhys. On certain days during the summer the hill would be bright with the many pilgrims visiting the well. The sanctity of St Mary’s Well, or ‘Ffynon fair’ is recorded as far back as 1460, when the bard Gwylim Tew went there to be cured of the ague and fever, and then wrote a poem on the event. It is said an image of the virgin and child appeared miraculously in the branches of a nearby oak tree. The Bard Lewis Morganwg had a lot to say regarding the healing properties of the well, indeed he said the virgin brought the dead to life, the mad were baptised and became sane, the blind recovered their sight, cripples bathed and afterwards ran, and the deaf obtained their hearing.
The Reformation dealt a heavy blow to wells throughout the country, and in August 1538, Cromwell instructed William Herbert to remove the effigy as ‘secretly as might be’ to avoid a local uprising. On September 26th, the image and her apparel were burnt in London. But Ffynon fair could not be destroyed and continued to be the resort of the local people as a healing well. In 1947 some four thousand Catholics made a pilgrimage to pay their devotions and use the waters of Ffynon fair, Penrhys.
Another celebrated well is Taff’s Well in the village of that name, north of Cardiff. There is a tradition that Taff’s Well, or Ffynnon Dwym, has been famous for its curative properties since Roman times. An analysis of the water shows it to have the same mineral properties as the famous springs at Bath. It also has the same greenish tinge. The well has long had a reputation for the cure of rheumatism and I have myself met an elderly man who, having suffered from rheumatic fever as a child, was taken regularly to Taff’s Well, and swears by the benefits he obtained. A curious tradition was noted by Mary Trevelian during the early parts of the last century, whereby young people assembled at the well on the eighth Sunday after Easter, there to dip their hands in the water and scatter drops over one another. They would then resort to the nearest green space to spend the rest of the day in dancing and merriment.
A similar tradition existed at Gellionnen Well at Pontardawe which was formerly frequented by people in seasons of drought for the purpose of getting water. It was believed that when this was scattered about it would bring rain. This was the custom in the early part of the nineteenth century. An old man remembering the tradition from his childhood said the participants would dance on the greensward nearest the well, and throw bunches of flowers and herbs at each other. Then they would sing old songs and dance, and play ‘kiss in the ring’. The leader of the company would cry ‘bring us rain’ three times, then fill bowls and pitchers with water.
The Silver Well at Llanblethion near Cowbridge was a great resort of youths and maidens, who went there to test the fidelity of their lovers. The points of the blackthorn were gathered by breaking and not cutting them from the bush, and thrown into the well. If the point floated the lover was faithful, and if it whirled around he or she was also of a cheerful disposition, whereas if it remained still on the surface he or she was stubborn and sulky. If it sank the lover was unfaithful, if a number of points sank the lover was a great flirt.
Rag wells are more common in Glamorgan than the rest of the Wales due no doubt to the Anglicisation of the county. In 1892, a Mr Howells of Pencoed near Bridgend told the folklorist John Rhys of a well in the village of Tremains, called Ffynnon Cae Moch, which means ‘spring of the pig field’:
‘It is within eighteen yards of the high road where the path begins. People suffering from rheumatism go there, they bathe the part affected with the water and afterwards tie a bit of rag to the tree which overhangs the well. The rag is not put in the water at all but is only tied there for luck. It is a stunted, but very old tree, and is simply covered with rags.’
Rhys visited Marcos Well in the village of Llanblethion near Cowbridge in 1893 and wrote:
‘Marcos Well had its deposits of pins for wishing purposes, and offerings in the form of old rags were fastened to the trees in the close vicinity.’
The waters of Ffynnon Well were also medicinal and especially for eye and ear infections. An old rhyme runs:
‘For the itch, the stich, rheumatic and the gout.
If the devil is in you then this well will take it out.’
People also believed that the waters would promote the growth of hair.
The last recorded evidence for the use of rag well also comes from Glamorgan. It was visited by Mrs Aileen Fox, wife of the pioneer archaeologist Sir Cyril Fox. In 1935 she wrote:
‘A small spring rising from the woods on the south side of Cwm Y Breach, S.E. of Llancarfan village, is marked by the O.S. as Ff-y-Flameiddan – the inflammation spring…..When visiting the large contour hill for Castle ditches, on the opposite bank of the Cwm, it was pointed out to me as place of local interest by a local farmer, Mr Williams of Ford Farm. His wife had been cured of erysipelas by its water. The spring, known locally as Breach Well, rises about 30ft above the level of the small tributary of the river Thaw, which runs down Cwm-y-Breach. (The underlying soil is lower lias). During the dry summers of 1933-35 it was unaffected by the drought. When I visited the well in August 1935, three old rag-pieces of dish cloth and calico and a piece of brown wool were tied to the overhanging branches, by the source. The treatment as described by Mrs Williams consisted in using the water for drinking to the exclusion of all other fluids, in applying the affected part and in tying a rag preferably from the under clothing by the well. Erysipelas, I was told, was not uncommon in the parish. The well was resorted to especially when medical treatment failed. The rags at the well, however, were becoming less numerous.’
Lady Fox later had the water analysed. It was found to be normal for the type of has substrata that occurs in the district.
Penlan Well near Cardiff was also used for wishing purposes and beside this well, rags, crutches and sticks were left as votive offerings.
One of the strangest stories regarding Glamorgan wells is that of the Shee Well near Bridgend. Here’s the yarn as collected by Marie Trevelian around 1840:
‘An old woman living in the hamlet of Ogmore remembered a curious story which was told to the children in the early part of the nineteenth century. Three springs not far from Ogmore mills on the Ewenny River were regarded as mysterious. These springs joined up at a point known as Shee Well. The people believed that girls carried off by the water ogres were kept imprisoned at the source of the springs. Some of these maidens never escaped, but one returned, but was ever after dumb, so that she could not describe what happened during her absence.
The Shee Well once ran away. Wild men once lived near the well. They neglected the land, instead preferring to live by robbery and murder. So, often the rivers were tainted by human blood. Because of this the Shee Well receded into the hills. The low cavern of the well became quite dry. The robbers heard the moanings and groaning of the well and said, ‘What matter is it ? The ogre of the Shee Well cannot deprive us of the fish in the stream.’ But when they looked to see where the stream flowed to meet the river, nothing was found but snakes and toads!
When they then went to the Ewenny River, they found that the ogre of the Shee Well had charmed away all the fish. Then the robbers were penitent and went humbly to the well and begged the ogre to let the waters return. The ogre agreed, provided the men promised to till the lands, cultivate the fields, and mow the meadows. Then, the robbers made the cavern and basin of the well sweet and clean, and planted trees around. The people danced and rejoiced at the return of the Shee Well, and it is said that old men and women grew young again for joy.’
Text & Illustration © Dewi Bowen (1988)
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