This year the monthly theme is wells of North Wales. This is a region rich in holy and healing springs – so much that it would take many years to discover or rather re-discover them all – as has done my fellow holy well researcher over at Wellhopper.com – please visit and follow his blog its excellent!
This month, I am covering a fairly well known site named after a well-known Welsh saint, indeed he is the patron saint of North Wales. It’s also an opportunity to highlight a remarkable site which readers will be interested in knowing can be holidayed at!
The well lies on the outskirts of the village of Tremeirchion and is dedicated to the famed Welsh saint – St Beuno – a name we have already heard mention in the legend of St Winifred at Holy Well and we shall meet again. Overlooking this much reported and unique well are St. Beuno’s Huts.
Who was St Beuno?
St. Beuno was a 7th century abbot, being based in Clynnog Fawr, and confessor who was born in Powys from a royal dynasty said to have descended from Vortigern one of the last Kings of Britain. He was a missionary across North Wales, having 11 churches named after him – one being in Somerset. A number of miracles, particularly concerning raising the dead, such as St. Winifred are attributed to him. It is said to have died in 640 on the seventh day of Easter.
Unlike other sites in this region there is no direct evidence of the saint having resided or even visiting at the spring. Moreover the village is on a pilgrim route to Holy Well and like similar pilgrim routes, such as the pilgrim’s way to Canterbury, springs dedicated to the saint who was the main pilgrim focus, in that case St. Thomas. Yet Winifred should be the dedication in that case however I theorize that Holywell celebrated both saints and indeed, albeit overgrown, there is a St. Beuno’s Well in that town. I am also of the belief that well changed fluxed over time, adopting new names as the saints popularity waxed and waned and the names changed like franchises. It is probable also that a local hermit adopted the name of the saint, much as Popes do today, a point I shall return to later.
The well, a substantial one, lies tantalising just off a small road in a private garden. Fortunately, although the internet is rife with rumours of new owners being restrictive and unapproachable, I found the owner, Mr. Chris Marsh completely the opposite – in fact I don’t think he could be any more welcoming if he tried! It is worth noting that the sign which was once associated with the sign in which a correspondent to Megalithic portal saw as a sign…was removed because it was broken and has yet to be fixed! The owners were more than happy, but I would advise ringing or emailing first. The contact details can be gained from below’s link to their holiday lets.
The well consists of a brick lined tank covering 18 feet by 10 feet with a sandy bottom, although this appears to cover a constructed one. The depth was around two feet. Its clear water bubbles up arising it appears from under the present St. Beuno Cottage. Interestingly, there appear to be steps on one side which led to nowhere and it is possible that the house footings have changed over the time and that perhaps the house itself was originally a room for changing to bath in the well. Was this an early spa, using the name of a saint to justify its existence as seen elsewhere? It is a theory I shall visit in a moment.
The well chamber is surrounded by a rough wall which has a doorway and a pump. Both of which probably date from an 1800 period of restoration. However the two most remarkable features are those involved with drainage. The most photographed is a supposed stone head embedded within the wall which apparently would flow into a chamber reached by stone steps. Much has also been written of this monument in support of the head cult and holy well theory. Some have seen it as a pagan god, others as St. Winifred. Yet I think we can largely discredit these theories straight away as it is clearly not just a head but a torso and head, the arms held in benediction. I believe any link with a head cult is further dismissed by closer inspection. The origin of the piece is clearly a gargoyle possibly moved here in that 19th century restoration to give the rather mundane structure some rustic antiquarian charm. It may have come from a nearby church restoration or from the ruins of a nearby monastery. It is no more evidence for a head cult than any other gargoyle, grotesque or boss seen in churches across Christendom! Furthermore it has failed to work for many years – and the owner was told that any photo that shows water running through it has been faked by throwing buckets of water through it from the other side! I was resisted the temptation.
The other feature is more strange and as far as I aware unique. The other side of the wall from the head is a large plug hole – the plug of which is attracted to a chain – which can be pulled out to empty the well! I was informed that although the bath took possibly 24 hours to fill – it could be emptied in just under an hour – a fact demonstrated to me.
What was it?
Theory one – a medieval bath
How old is the well structure? Much of it appears to be only a few hundred years old by the nature of the stone work and the concretion makes it difficult to judge. This recent date would explain the lack of any recorded history – the well was too insignificant to be recorded. It is also worth noting that the original house dates from a post-Reformation 1560 so was unlikely to be capitalising of its holy credentials. In 1897 it was suggested that the site was medieval but was this antiquarian fancy. I would hazard to suggest the presence of Jesuit College founded in the 1840 may have had a role in either naming or cementing the saint especially as no pre 1800 date for the site can be found. It is worth noting that both antiquarians Dr. Johnson and Thomas Pennant visited the Parish church but did not mention the well.
Below emptying the well
Theory two – a spa bath
There is more evidence for the development of the site, probably in the 18th century as either a private plunge pool or even a spa. These are quite common, and there is a nearby stately home, but it does not appear to been linked to the well site. There is certainly circumstantial evidence for its development as a spa and this would explain its later appearance, wells as far afield as in London, Nottinghamshire and Sussex appear to have adopted saintly dedications to justify their importance. Selling healing waters would be more successful if a pre-Reformation association could be advertised. Especially as it is evident that its waters had no apparent qualities! It is interesting to record that H Morton Stanley, noted African adventurer who lived in the 1820s stated it had:
“no virtues beyond purity and sweetness.”
The day I visited I was informed that a local nun regularly visits the well to pray and collect water for the poor, although the owner questioned the quality of the water. However, the lack of reportage from Pennant and Johnson suggests it was not used as a spa.
Theory three – a reservoir for drinking water
It appears more likely that the structure was made as a source of permanent water for the local farm. This cannot of course be disputed as most holy wells are used for this purpose at some time, however this does not negate against an ancient origin only an old origin for the current structure. Perhaps this explains the gargoyle outflow provided to give villagers access to the water for whatever reason.
Evidence for an ancient origin.
As the well chamber emptied I was shown the cave up above the well in the hill side. A large entrance which opened up into a series of larger chambers. Within this have been found some fascinating finds – remains of cave bears, hyenas and a lion. However more significantly the cave was 35,000 years ago the last refuge in Northern Europe of the Neanderthal Man.
This cave is a remarkable site and illustrates more than anything else the continuation of use which frustrating lies undocumented at many holy well sites. It would have been the combination of a suitable shelter and fresh water which brought these early people to settle here and whilst they may not have seen any religious significance to the water – we can only postulate they did.
What is even more intriguing is the likelihood that this was also a hermit’s cave. There is no archaeological evidence of this, yet it is difficult to deny that it is more than probable.
So what can we conclude? Is it a holy well? To many people today it is seen as a typical holy well – indeed like many typical ones I could add it has little historical evidence. But does that really matter? I feel that whatever its’ true origins it is likely to be an ancient site.
Indeed it seemed more than fitting that Chris Marsh had decided to establish these unique St. Beuno’s Huts, a far more all mod cons and modern take on the religious hermit – although you could take your partner and children too! So if you are a real holy well enthusiast who is looking for somewhere unique to stay I couldn’t recommend the uniqueness and hospitality of St. Beuno’s Huts, a chance to commune with this unique landscape.