“Just over the boundary, in the parish of Wilcote, is an old well of beautiful clear water, surrounded by a wall, with stone steps going down to it. It is called the Lady’s Well, and on Palm Sunday the girls go there and take bottles with Spanish juice (liquorice), fill the bottles, walk round the well”
Violet Mason, SCRAPS OF ENGLISH FOLKLORE, XIX. Oxfordshire Folklore, Vol. 40, No. 4 (Dec. 31, 1929), pp. 374-384
My first visit to the Lady or Lady’s Well at Fincote was on a misty cold December walking down from the village I was struck by the old gnarled elms which lined the way to the well and the feel of an ancient processional route to it. Back then in the 90s I was unaware of the folk customs associated with it as hinted above.
The well itself is a small affair enclosed as stated above in a high wall. The gate was locked and so sadly I could not access the water directly. However, it followed from beneath the wall and nearby was what appeared to be a trough or perhaps even a bath half sunk into the ground. It is known that the water was used by Wilcote Grange for water and filled a series of ponds nearby now gone. Interestingly there is a Bridewell Farm nearby so was the well originally dedicated to St. Bridget or the pagan Bride? What the well lacks in structure is made up by its association with the curious custom noted above which existed until recently and may still do locally. On the Finstock Local History website it is recorded:
“Mrs. Ivy Pratley, describes the making of the Spanish Water. “On the Saturday evening before Palm Sunday, we children would crush humbug sweets and white peppermints together and to this we would add some pieces of chopped liquorice stick, the mixture was then added to a bottle of water and we would sit around the room shaking the bottles until it had dissolved”.
The correspondent notes that:
“This bottle of liquid was drunk the following day while walking to Ladywell. They also carried with them, in a paper bag, some of the dry mixture, which was mixed with water from the well to drink on the way home. Early on Sunday afternoon the walkers would set off, one group using the footpath by the Plough Inn and another group near the top of High Street using the path to the left of the road about 50 yards east of Gadding Well. The groups then merged to follow the path through Wilcote Field Longcut or the Longcut as it was known locally. Most of the girls were given a new straw hat for the occasion and these were filled with primroses and voilets on the way through Sumteths Copse. They then crossed the field to the front of Wilcote Manor and followed a route past St. Peter’s Church to the Ash Avenue which leads directly to Ladywell.”
The custom was still current when Violet Mason in 1929 recorded it but little beknown to her it was soon to disappear. The Finstock Local History society record that it died out at the outbreak of war in 1939. However, Janet Bord in her excellent Holy Wells in Britain a guide (2008) received correspondence which suggests later. She notes:
“The one-time vicar of Wilcote, J.C.S Nias, informed me that when he first went there in 1956, ‘numerous members of county families used to go to that well in Palm Sunday with jam jars containing crushed peppermint and (I believe) liquorish.”
Interesting the vicar then goes on to suggest what might have been the original reason for the Spanish water:
“they pour water from the well on to this mixture which, they believed, would then be a specific for certain ailments during the following year.”
Another correspondent noted:
“Local historian Margaret Rogers noted in a letter to me in 1984 that ‘local people do not any longer visit it on Palm Sunday’ she added; Occasionally one elderly lady visits it, but way back in 1934 there used of a substantial number of people going down on lam Sunday to make liquorice water.”
Bord’s correspondent may give another reason for the custom’s demise:
“Quite a few elderly members of the village remember with indignation that they did not get Sunday school stamps for going down there.”
Now that’s a way to kill a custom off! Perhaps some people still make their private pilgrimage but whatever there is something otherworldly about the Lady Well. It’s a recommended walk.
St Trillo’s Well has been on my personal must visits for some time. It is not only a unique site being a chapel enclosing a holy well – a rare survival – its location tucked under a seaside road, a juxtaposition between the seaside houses and the promenade and the sea makes it one of the most unusually situated. It is everyone’s classic view of an ancient chapel, privately arranged and simply adorned and whilst it may not be as old as first assumed it does have its own unique charm.
I was particularly concerned that it may be open. Being a chapel I am always wary that like churches – urban areas and access do not often work. Yet parking above it, now almost hidden by shrubs and the hill itself, the path led to the railed enclosure which was open and walking around I pushed the old wooden door, it yielded and I was in. As soon as one enters, one is overcome with a feeling of peace. Whatever frivolities gone on outside feel an eon away. As a chapel it is very unusual, being claimed with its room for six chairs, to be the smallest church in Britain. This is no folly but a functional place of worship for the congregation which meet for communion on Friday mornings and those more intermittent visitors who leave votives and prayers. For perhaps uniquely again for a British well, the saint’s intercessions are still asked for via its well.
Many years ago historians thought that the chapel dated from the early medieval, even from the 6th century times of the saint. However, whilst it is very likely that the present structure is built upon this original hermitage it is much more recent. Generally it is thought to date from the 1500s. Francis Jones in his 1954 Holy Wells of Wales notes:
“In the Denbighshire parish of Iscoed, a certain Angharad verch [daughter of] David, examined in 1590 before Roger Puleston of Llay, the local Justice of the Peace …resolutely refused to conform “by reason of her conscience.” In answer to further questions concerning her marriage, she declared that the ceremony had taken place last harvest time at a place called Llandrillo Chapel near the sea side in Creuddyn whilst she was on a pilgrimage to St. Drillo’s [sic] well.”
Such a visit suggests a pre-Reformation importance to the site especially as the date, in Harvest, suggests a regular pilgrimage as this was a popular time to go. Thomas Pennant visited the site in the late 1700s and described it as:
“… saw close to the shore the singular little building called St Trillo’s Church. It is oblong, has a window on each side and at the end; a small door; and a vaulted roof paved with round stones instead of being slated. Within is a well. The whole building is surrounded with a stone wall.”
Clearly what is seen present despite in its ancient appearance is Victorian in nature for in 1892, a letter in Archaeologia Cambrensis by folklorist and cleric Elias Owen (author of Welsh Folk-Lore) described it as :
“I was sorry to find that the vaulted roof had fallen in, that the well inside the chapel was covered over with the debris from the roof, and that the whole structure and its surroundings presented a ruinated and uncared for aspect.”
This concern was headed and in around 1898 two buttresses were erected to support the seaward side, a cross was inserted into the gable and more importantly a new roof. A stone altar was inserted over the well and stain glasses of Saints Trillo and Elian installed. An account by the Royal Commissioners who visited in 1912 happily describe a better condition, being described as:
“A small building, internally eleven feet nine inches by six feet three inches, standing on the sea shore within reach of the highest spring tides, and sheltering a small spring of clear water which traditionally represents the well of the patron saint of the parish. The building is roughly vaulted, and, according to earlier accounts, the vaulting was effected in the primitive manner of the earliest Christian oratories … It is, however, doubtful if the chapel is not far more modern than it is assumed to be.”
It has remained well looked after ever since, being adopted by the church of Wales who have a rather intimate Eucharist ever Friday at 8 am during the summer.
The Holy well
The first thing to notice is that the well is central to the chapel’s function being positioned in the centre beneath the altar. It is covered by a metal grill and two wooden slats. Upon removal two steps appear, suggesting perhaps that the water was easier lower or else individuals entered it for baptism. Indeed, baptism appears to be the only recorded function for its waters. The water is clear and arises at the foot of the hill being channelled into the well chamber by pipes. It is clear that it was the spring which caused the saint to establish a hermitage here.
Of the well the first post Reformation reference to its powers is made by Evans (1802) who briefly notes
“St. Trillo’s Chapel: inside is a well, formerly much esteemed for the sanative virtues of its waters; it was supposed to have been the constant residence of the saint.”
But despite this and such postulations by Colt Hoare, who visited the well one July in 1801 noted it was:
“once probably held in high veneration for its miraculous qualities.”
But stated nothing more. Interesting there are no ‘modern’ traditions of the well and it would appear it has become a largely supplementary feature to the chapel’s powers via the intercession of St. Trillo.
Who was St. Trillo?
St Trillo who is shown with fellow local saint St Elian, in two small stained glass windows in the chapel, was the brother of two other saints, Tegai and Llechid and was a monk of Bardsey Island before settling here. He is also saint to have been involved with the Diocese of Bangor Diocese. However, like many 7th century saints little is really known.
Located as it does seems an unusual place for a holy well perhaps but as Francis Thompson (2008) in his Early Hermit sites and Well Chapels states its location is not that unusual. Indeed, along with cliff races, islands and valleys, it was another ideal location for a hermit to reside. Furthermore, it was a very fortunate place to be, the sea would provide a harvest and even today the rock pools are full of winkles, mussels and edible seaweed. The survival of a medieval fish trap a few yards from the chapel is also significant and may have been the occupants attempt to provide a more substantial harvest by trapping fish. Not only would such a location provide a bumper food supply, fishermen may have provided money in thanksgiving or offerings for a profitable and safe fishing.
This giving of thanks or asking for the saint to intercede with God is still very much an important role for the chapel. On the altar are a range of curious items, votive gifts of thanks and on a board petitions are regularly attached. Tristan Grey Hulse in his 1995 A Modern Votive deposit at a North Welsh Holy Well for Folklore, Volume 106 recorded the range of requests. The author notes:
“Thus the sudden and spontaneous development of a new religious cult practice at the chapel is a fact of some importance, likely to be of interest to students in a variety of disciplines. I have visited Capel Trillo many times over the past fifteen years, but beyond noticing the odd coin thrown into the holy well, I had never seen the chapel otherwise than described above. But paying a first visit in 1994, on 21 April, I encountered a significant change. There were more flowers than usual, in pots on the window-ledges as well as on the altar. There was a crude but exuberant and colourful painting of St Trillo standing by his well propped against the altar; and the altar-table itself had scraps of paper scattered across it. Each of these contained a handwritten prayer or request for prayer. There were seventeen in all. Intrigued by this unexpected development, I copied the texts.”
Doing further research, he noted:
“The present custom apparently began in the summer of 1992. Arriving as usual one Friday morning to celebrate the Eucharist, the vicar of Llandrillo, Canon E. Glyn Price, found a single piece of paper impaled on a nail sticking out from the wall of the chapel, containing a hand-written prayer. Touched by its contents, he left it there; and the following Friday found that it had been joined by several others. The vicar placed them all on the altar. Since then, the practice has continued uninterruptedly, without any encouragement (or-perhaps significantly discouragement) on the part of the parish clergy.
Now, at any one time there is an average of perhaps thirty votive notes on the altar. Each ex-voto is left for three or four weeks before being removed and reverently destroyed by fire. Originally Canon Price read out each invocation in the course of the weekly Eucharist at the chapel, but eventually the growing numbers rendered this impracticable, and they are now commemorated collectively. The chapel cult has also expanded somewhat, in that offerings of flowers are now left anonymously; and the “folk-art” depiction of St Trillo arrived in the same manner.”
In Hulse’s article he notes that the principal petition was regarding health (19). Interestingly to those prayers which are addressed, these according to Hulse’s survey was overwhelmingly to God (17) compared to the saint (8), although a number were ambiguous in their dedications.
The ailments ranged from Insomnia to Cancer, through eye problems, stress, a physical disability or else concerned the well-being of the family whether through reconciliation of its members, improvement of the quality of life or overcoming bereavement, the commonest perhaps reflecting more the age of the votive despositer. One even requested help to learn Welsh! The majority were women.
These votives still cover the altar as can be seen and between the two visits I made they had clearly changed. Now official notelets are produced and pinned to the board beside the altar, these two changed between the visits. Indeed, sitting for just over an hour a steady stream of ‘pilgrims’ can be seen many just curious, others did appear to leave something..so it pleasing to see this most romantic of well chapels still functioning in 21st century Britain.
If you visit only one holy well after reading this blog – make it this one. Easy found and reached (and signed) either by walking along the promenade or driving Marine Parade to Trillo Avenue, Why? For its peace, for its uniqueness, for its feel of the ancient, a connection to the time of hermit saints – or for the fact you can visit this, have an ice cream, do rock pooling and see the oldest puppet show in Britain…what’s not to like!?
2016 is a 1000 years since the death of St. Walstan. Now he may not be a very familiar saint and one that you may not think is readily associated with holy wells, however he is. Furthermore, he is unusually associated with three holy wells, in an area not always readily associated with such sites- East Anglia – which in itself is a rare occurrence. Not only that, however, unlike other multiple applications these wells are said to have a direct connection with the saint’s life and death.
Who is St. Walstan?
St Walstan was according to most accounts an Anglo-Saxon prince, the son of Blida and Benedict. Most accounts place his birth at Bawburgh (more of this place later) and his life appeared restricted to the west of Norwich. Despite being a royal he forsook the crown and all its privileges to become a simple farm labourer, giving whatever wealth he had to help the poor. After his death a localised cult developed, which grew and grew and in a way outlived the Reformation, as a saint for farmers and animals.
Three holy wells
In 2016 I decided to seek each of these wells and follow as close as possible the journey that St. Walstan is said to have made which resulted in these springs – Taverham, Costesssey and Bawburgh. Already I have tried to locate the first at Taverham’s and found the restored site at Costessey, now the easiest to find – that at the location of the saint’s shrine church, Bawburgh.
This is the third well of the saint in the English Life but the second in his Latin Life. In St Walstan Confessor, de sancto Walstanus confessore notes:
“The bulls went down from that place with the precious body towards the vill of Bawburgh. When they had come almost to the place where the body now lies buried they made another stop in a certain place, where the love of St. Walstan the divine piety made another spring of wonderful power against fevers and many other infirmities, which is still there today.”
The English Life adds:
“ye other ox staled; a well sprang anon next beyond ye parsonage”.
What is interesting is the use of the word, stalled which may be O.E for ‘come to a halt’ or with one l, staled meaning ‘urinated’! The later perhaps recording a more significant role for the white oxen.
The saint’s body was transferred through a special opening made in the north wall of the church and this arch can still be seen, now blocked up. His shrine was then established in the north transept of the Parish church of St Mary the Virgin, since then known as St Mary and St Walstan, as a separate chapel. The saint was canonised by the diocesan Bishop, who visited the site, with a large procession of priests, and hearing of his holiness:
“The bishop gave an ear and hearkened sore, And allowed him a Saint evermore.”
From this point on the well and especially the saint’s shrine was the goal of pilgrims, first from neighbouring villages, and then from Norwich (along Earlham Green Lane), and then after the news of its powers spread across England from farther afield. In particular farmers would bring their sick animals to the well to have them cured. In fact the well and shrine were so popular that a college of priests were established to control and administer the large numbers of pilgrims.
However, although it was apparently the shrine which was the goal, of the eleven medieval miracles associated with the saint, only two are associated with the holy well. One being that of Swanton’s son and the other of Sir Gregory Lovell. In the former, a man called Swanton had a lame son. Together they prayed to God and St Walston and bathed in the water from the Holy Well. The son recovered and ‘now goeth right up and his health hath’.
Nearby lost settlement of Algarsthorpe appears to have been given as a pitanciary to the Monks of Norwich as a result of the other miracle from the holy well. A Sir. Gregory Lovell who was cured of:
“Great sickness and great bone ache by water from St. Walstan’s Well”
According to the English Life of the saint:
“It happened by means of Walstan and God’s grace, To muse in mind upon a night, A mean make to holy Walstan in that case, For water to his well he sent as tyte, Therewith him washed and also dyte, And remedy readily should have anon, by the grace of God and holy Walston.”
Unfortunately as with most shrines the Reformation had a destructive effect, and the shrine was dismantled, its relics scattered over the fields and lost forever. Sadly his shrine lay in the north side of the church and was destroyed in the purges of Henry VIII and his relics burned. The removal of the chapel meant that the north side had no supporting side and hence a buttress had to be placed there!
Yet despite this wanton destruction, it appears St Walstan’s Well continued to be visited, and even through the Commonwealth period, superstitious farmers would visit the well collecting its healing waters for their sick animals. As Twinch (2015) astutely notes:
“The Bawburgh well is an integral part of the later medieval story but it assumed greater importance post-Reformation, after the tomb and chapel was demolished. The emphasis seems then to revert almost to the pre-1016 era of folk lore and water worship”
This has continued until recent years and even in recent times local farmers believe in its livestock curing properties. In 1928 the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological society during an excursion to Bawburgh were told by the Revd Gabriel Young of the story of a local farmer and churchwarden, who had recently died, called Mr. James Sparrow of Church Farm who had a sick mare. The mare was so inflicted with sores that he had to have her put down, at which point a farm boy asked if he could treat her with the well’s water. This is apparently he did and after 10 days of the treatment was cured. The farmer apparently put its powers down to chemical or vegetable substances, rather than miracles, although no chemical analysis has been able to identify these.
This revival in the importance of St Walstan’s Well can be traced back to the 1790s when an anonymous letter on the subject of wells and baths in the September of Gentlemen’s Magazine:
“My business has very lately obliged me to make a tour through this country, at all the market towns and even at every village I stopt at, I was informed of its wonderful efficacy in curing all disorders. The resort to this spring has been very great all this summer. I was assured by a person who was on the spot, that there were frequently 2000 people there at a time, particularly on Sunday mornings; and that the spring was frequently emptied, not so much by the quantity drank on the spot, as what was put into bottles, casks, and barrels, to be transported to the remotest parts of the county.”
As Twinch (1995) notes 2000 people is a lot to assemble around the well, and hence there is doubt in this description. However Husbenbeth (1859) wrote recording around the end of the 18th Century partly collaborating this:
“An old man died not long ago at Babur, who was known to the writer, and in his younger days kept an inn there, which was frequently by crowds of visitors to St Walstan’s Well.”
The Norwich Gazette noted that these crowds often resulted in trouble, and in 1763 it reported that: ‘much confusion ensued …..and many heads were broken in the scuffle.’
Its water was so pure that it was sold in the streets of Norwich. However religious pilgrims only begun to return en masse to the well in the 19th Century. This appeared to be the result of a number of miracles associated with the distribution of its water. The earliest recorded of these involved a Francis Bunn. In 1810 he had joining the militia, but was within five years discharged suffering from ‘incurable ulcers.’ Hearing St Walstan’s well in 1818 after moving to live at Costessey, he walked the three miles to the well to apply the water to his leg. Remarkably his wounds were healed and Husenbeth recorded that they continued to heal up to Bunn’s death in November 1856. The next miracle involved Sister St John Chrysostom, of the Hammersmith Convent. She fell ill in 1838, and was so close to death that the Mother Abbess suggested that she should seek a cure through the moss of St Walstan’s Well. However she disagreed and preferred to put her faith in the healing power of her medallion of the Virgin Mother. Incredibly it is said that as she held this medal to her stomach it was heard to say: ‘drink some water poured from the moss from St Walstan’s Well.’ Taking this as good advice she did so at once, and upon swallowing this moss exclaimed that she was cured!
In 1868, A Revd Benjamin Armstrong noted that one of his five Roman Catholic parishioners had taken some of the moss and:
“applying it to a bad sore overnight, she found it completely healed in the morning, leaving a scar, as from an old wound.”
An account in the Eastern Daily Press of 1913 dubbed it A Norfolk Lourdes and recorded the cure of a London Catholic who had been suffering from eye troubles for some time. It is reported that he saw a number of specialists and was told than the man was likely to loss his sight altogether. The apparently the man remembered the moss he had taken from the well the year before, applied it to his eye using the well’s water. The following day his eye sight was restored. The doctor pronounced him cured. He is said to be determined to join 300 other Catholics from congregations in Norwich, Costessey and Wymondham to give thanks.
At this site alone one can see how vital the holy well was for the community and how much wealth it could generate. Indeed, the name a quite difficult to pronounce Llanrhaeadr-yng-Nghinmeirch is related to the well or rather the waterfall it produces beside the church (Llan).
Before visiting the well, I recommend a visit to the church. A grand and imposing edifice with a splendid roof and its chief treasure – its Jesse Window – why? This is because it was said to have been paid for from offerings from the well. Fortunately, it was removed and was buried at the time of the Commonwealth and thus was preserved.
From behind the church an archway leads over a stream and through a woodland towards this mighty of all Welsh holy wells. The route has been considerably improved with fine brick arches, giving an idea of the grandeur of this site. Once there it does not disappoint being a large bath structure. A considerably flow of water arises here clear and clean from two springs one possibly called Fynnon Fair. Indeed, the 16th century Leland antiquarian noted it was:
“a mighty spring that maketh a brook running scant a mile”
The water fills a large bath stone lined bath, said to have a marble bottom and under an archway tumbling to form the stream. The water appears to be petrifying forming interesting smooth incrustations to the north-west of the bath and entering the pool.
The well had a long history of use. It had become established along the Medieval pilgrim route to Holywell and was said to have cured a number of ills. Unlike other sites its fame and attendance continued well beyond the Reformation. Francis Jones (1955) in his Holy Wells of Wales that in the 16th century an unnamed bard defends the saint and his well stating he reveres Dyfnog’s effigy, accepts his miracles, praises his miracle-working well and gives grace to all nations and cures all ills – dumbmess, deafness, y frech wenwynig. later Edward Lhuyd 1698 Parochialia records its survival of use:
“a bath, much frequented, the water heals scabs, itches etc, some say that it would cure the pox.”
A hermit’s penance!
St. Dyfnog was a hermit who is said to have lived by the spring in the 6th century. It is also claimed that the spring gained its healing properties from a regular penance the saint would do in the water. He is said to have worn a hair shirt being belted by an iron chain. Very little is known beyond this.
Two wells for the price of one
The considerable flow which in times of heavy rainfall is often a threat to the fabric of the well, in particular the remains of the arches through which the water tumbles and falls. One of the reasons for this is that as Lhuyd in 1698 records there are actually two wells. Unsurprisingly, the one above the main spring is called Ffynnon Fair (St. Mary’s Well) which flows forming some curious calcified hummocks suggesting it has petrifying properties.
Holy well or folly?
The most impressive feature of the well is the very large rectangular bath (xxx ) A structure which is far more representative of a cold plunge bath than a holy well. Together with accounts of its marble lining and surrounding statues this was clearly developed foremost as a folly it would seem presumable for Llanrhaeadr Hall.
Alternatively these were improvements to help visitors as Browne Willis in the early 18th century records:
“the famous well of St Dyfnog, much resorted to, and on that account provided with all convenience of rooms etc, for bathing, built around it.”
All sadly gone, although the remains of the walls of these may be traced nearby. However, despite the forlorn appearance of this well it is one of the few sites where this is active restoration, although the blog has not been updated since 2013, a visit in 2015 suggestions the plan to restore is still very much on the books, with plans for a £300,000 religious tourist attraction, environmental and education facility – the well now has a separate visitors book in the church! So please donate if you can to this most impressive and evocative of Welsh wells.
Compared to Tremeirchion the provenance for St. Beuno’s Well at the fascinating Clynnog Fawr is much better. After following King Cadwallon from Holywell to Caernarvon, he was offered land here by his cousin Gwyyddaint after a falling out with the King! It is said that this was his final resting place, where he built his last cell, a chapel said to have been located at the site of the church. Thus in the seventh century a monastery was established which was destroyed in a 10th century Viking raid. Nothing is left from this period the present Chapel and church dating from the sixteenth century but excavations within have revealed earlier buildings.
A substantial well
St Beuno’s Well is of a style commonly met – a quite substantial well. The spring arises to fill a large rectangular bath surrounded by stone seats. The whole enclosure being walled around and raised above the roadway presumably to prevent animals reaching it and soiling it. Although the main road now thankfully bypasses the village and the well, the roadway was and still is, the pilgrim route down the Lleyn peninsular to the sacred isle of Bardsey beyond (a fact emphasised by the presence of a stamp collection for pilgrims)
A healing well
Here we come across a more confirmed usage of the well. This was mainly for children suffering from epilepsy and rickets for also conversely was linked to curing impotency. Scrapings from the pillars in the church were mixed with the water to cure sore eyes. An even more fascinating the tradition was that the bather would then visit St. Beuno’s chapel and laid on a bed of rushes upon a stone called Beuno’s tomb. A good night’s sleep procured a cure. I was denied even an attempt at this as the Chapel a unique side chapel reached by a small walkway was locked! However, I am not sure how good my cure would be as the stone itself was only a fragment of its original being removed in 1856. The practice itself was still being undertaken long after the reformation as accounted for by Thomas Pennant:
“and I myself once saw on it (the tomb) a feather bed on which a poor paralytic from Merioneddshire had lain the whole night after undergoing the same ceremony.”
A pagan tradition?
What has been related so far is strongly suggestive of some long lost pre-Christian tradition. Indeed today by the door is a large sarsen stone possibly part as perhaps Beuno’s stone, of a megalithic monument. What is even more curious is the tradition of St Beuno’s cattle. These were cattle with ear markings which were slaughtered and offered to the saint to ensure well-being of the stock. This was later replaced by monetary offerings based on the sale of livestock and the chest, Beuno’s cyff, remains within the church. The money being used for the poor. The ‘sacrifice’ of stock is clearly very resonant of pre-Christian practises and perhaps the area was dedicated to a deity visited for such wishes.
For the last twelve months I have been cataloguing some of the rich sacred spring heritage of Sardinia. For the final post, perhaps the most fascinating sacred spring site has been saved until last!
For buried beneath a fairly ordinary Sardinian church is a unique marvel – an incredible relic of ancient times and a testament to the continuation of tradition and spirituality. For 1000s of years, generations of Sardinians – whether Nuraghic, Roman, Punic, Islamic or Christian have worship here at the sacred spring.
The site is in a remote place – remote in every sense – geographically, culturally and of course historically.
The village of San Salvatore is a typical example of a temporary religious centre, such as we discussed at Santa Christina. A village of 130 houses which apart from one house the village is completely deserted centred around its church of Jesus the Saviour. So deserted in fact that I feared that the church would only be open at specific times, as my guide book suggested, but I found it was. When the church is certainly open and the village comes alive in the first Saturday of September. It is then that the village swarms with attendees of the naked foot race. This race called the Corsa degli Scalzi or Barefoot Race is said to commemorate an 1506 Arab pirate attack that forced nearby town of Cabras to run to San Salvatore to hide their Saviour’s statue. The local faithful still run this dirt track in their white tunics and stone torn feet.
It is very tempting and indeed it is likely that this ritual arose from some ancient practice at the site. This is especially considering the autumnal date of the custom which would tie in with harvest festivities which certainly were celebrated by ancient civilisations. Essentially considering the name Saviour is the same as Sin Salvatore’s church. Is this some ancient processional ceremony to celebrate the harvest?
The site today
Arriving at the church, it is a fairly typical whitewashed Italian church. Not remarkable but pleasing to the eye, a simple two aisles divided by pillars. The only clue to anything unusual is that it is arranged in an unusual orientation. This is a clue to what lies within as its arrangement was presumably done to enclosure the original sanctuary.
It is this sanctuary that we have come here to see. A rectangular hatch in the floor opens up to reveal a step set of stone steps into a dug out chamber, made of sandstone and brick faced with cement – a hypogeum – not the only one in Sardinia but unique in what we find within.
The steps lead us to three separate chambers set off a central room in essence a cross arrangement. The shapes of the chambers with their dome roofs suggest partly a Roman origin. However, it is thought that the construction of the church may have removed any firm evidence.
The central chamber is dominated by a large square well, now dry. Originally this well’s water was obtainable from the church above by an aperture now closed up. The furthest chamber is the most interesting and looks like the most significant religiously. Here is found a small table altar, a semi-circular drainage hole and circular well shaft. It is this well which is believed to be the original nuraghic site, although the evidence is scant. There is certainly no lack of evidence for its usage. This evidence being on the amazingly preserved drawings or graffitos on the walls around the chamber. The wells were dry in August but that is probably significant I could not confirm it but I would reckon that the spring was flowing in September at the time of the festival.
The site was probably a baptistery, and the dedication of the church to Jesus may well suggest this, but it is also possible that the hypogeum was the shrine of some saint. There is support for this for in Mamertina prison, a healing well was said to have used by Saints Peter and Paul, the water of which came from the catacombs of St Elena. Early baptisteries were incorporated into church and it was only after the risk of persecution was lifted that they became separate buildings.
Father Aleu, in his Successos Generales de laisla de SardeIra” (Avvenimenti generali della isola di Sardegna), sud- isla de SardeIra (Events General of the island of Sardinia) is one of the first to describe in the 1684:
“San Salvador, whose church remains until now, and has an underground until now, and has an underground chapel in the form of sanctuary, and in the area above the ground you can see the ruins of brick and cloisters, which document the existence of a Monastery.”
“Vi era un altro insediamento-scrive Fra Alèu nel 1684-non lonta- This monastery is thought to date from 1070 and suggests an importance to the settlement long since past. However, dig beneath the surface and this history is indeed very ancient. Near the village itself are Roman remains. It is en route to the city of Tharros and along the Sinis lagoon are Neolithic towns. The presence of Neolithic towns along the banks of the lagoon Sinis have left not only obsidian tools and more significantly a Mother Goddess. Clearly a very significant location.
Once in the chamber one is struck by the otherworldly nature. Sardinia has many great relics. Indeed its domus tombs are amongst the most awe inspiring. However, there is something more atmospheric about this site. Part of this is due to the artwork and inscriptions – graffiti – from over the ages on the walls.
These inscriptions span the centuries from 16th century back to Roman. Drawn in charcoal for the most part, although some have traces of colour, probably ochre, they are Arabic, Latin and Greek in origin. Inscriptions some of scripture, some harder to decipher, animals, deities and various scenes, laying upon each other in a confused manner, even modern graffiti. Like many places more recent visitors have made themselves known such as a Fin Salvatore in 1920 which is on the central well. These modern inscriptions sit with older Latin writings from the fourth and fifth century AD although deciphering them is now difficult. It is possible that these and the Greek letters represent some sacred alphabet perhaps a magical incarnation or spell. This may explain the appearance of RF written eight times on the walls. One interpretation maybe that this is someones’s name – Rufus – another that it may derive from a Semitic prayer barb-pe-aleph (ip ‘), meaning ‘heal, save, give health.’ And may have been associated with the use of the well water.
Those who visit churches will be familiar with bosses, poppyheads and misericords showing strange animals often personifying human evils. It is probable that some of these images fulfil the same function. For on the walls are geese, dogs, and large cats. More interesting and again emphasising its classical origin there is a winged horse probably Pegasus and fish. Fish of course represent a secret code for Christians and their presence on the wall must be seen as significant. It emphasises the chambers use as a secret place of worship. Although one might question why did these early Christians not remove the signs of pagans – perhaps like in many other places they were attempting to assimilate not destroy signs of earlier worship.
Another possible link with the well is the presence of ships. Some of these are of local, fassoni reed boars, and possible ancient origin. Others are three mast ships, a feature which does not belong to the ancient world, but is rather typical of the sixteenth and seventeenth century. So why are they here?
It is probable that the ships were part of some long held ritual here. Boat images are quite regularly found in the nuraghic settlements as votive offerings and it is tempting to think that these drawings are part of a continuation of this. Particularly as one shows a human figure with their arms raised to the sky presumably as prayer. Were these drawings part of a long lost tradition of going votives to a sea deity perhaps linked to the waters of the well, which may have due to the proximity of the lagoons be saline? What is also interesting is that tradition may have connections to the Greek graffiti here – the Island of Delos – where God was born and ships shipwrecked. The fact that this tradition survived possibly from prehistoric times is remarkable.
Greek iconography is very evident in the shrine. Two particular deities are present – Hercules strangling the Nemean lion. This image is particularly interesting considering the role the cult of Hercules had in the late period of the Roman empire when he vied for religious dominance against Christianity, Mithrasm and other cults. However again, Hercules was adopted by the early Christians as a metaphor. His many labours recognised as a divine struggle akin to that central to the story of Jesus and indeed he was often called Soter – the Savior. The dedication of the current church may possibly be a link to another association preserved from ancient times.
The most remarkable graffiti is that of two female figures standalone, with corona radiata on their head: identifying them as a deity. Over their heads of the figures they are painted their names: VENVS and MVRS – Venus and Mars. Above them is a winged cupid with AMOR. As a result the interpretation of this scene is the love affair of Venus and Mars. One which was particularly significant in the political and religious life of Rome: The city founders, Romulus and Remus, were said to be the children of Mars and descendent from Aeneas, a descendent of Venus. What is interesting again is the context Venus was another cult, popular at the times of emergent Christianity, and its survival here like Hercules is perhaps an attempt to adopt it perhaps as Mary.
However, there is something more significant in line with the spring arising here. The appearance of the Venus is akin to that of a water spirit and indeed, Venus was a Goddess associated with water – being associated with the waves and the morning dew.
Move forward the centuries to the Arabic inscription in the third room, which reads translated as:
“In the name of God the merciful and gracious. There is no God except Allah …. and that Muhammad. It testifies that heaven actually exists and Hell really exists.”
This may date from 1509 a time when the Sardinian coast was subject to many Arab incursions and a landing occurred not far away at Cabras. The presence of the inscription may be due to the site being used as refuge or maybe a prison!
There is so much to observe in these four small chambers remote from the outside world. However what is clear that they remain a rare relic from an ancient time and a fascinating testament to how the faiths through the millennia had one central theme – the sanctity of water.
A quiet village
A sign off the main road reads – Rebeccu medieval village – the road winds; upwards past an old Gothic Aragonese church surrounded by grazing sheep to the small hilltop village of Rebeccu – a lost village 508 metres above sea level. That’s is not to say that the village is deserted; just that its’ population has reduced and indeed bar a small bar in the compact village square the place was deserted!
This an ancient community with evidence of centuries of inhabitation – the Tres Nuraghe for example. The hills around are peppered with rock cut cave tombs and within the larger parish is the incredible Sant Andrea Priu tombs with their caved sacred cow, Roman wall paintings and early Christian iconography…..an incredible example of ritual continuation – indeed when I visited there appeared to be animal skull placed rather than left on the summit of the caves suggesting that such rituals survive in modern Sardinia.
At this village bar I enquired about the Fonti Su Lumarzu. They knew it but it appeared to be a distance away; quite remote and removed from the village. Indeed a small wooden sign indicated its location taking a small track through an area called the wilderness. Talking this path it flowed down the valley to an open area when I was assured I would find the well. Just before this and beside a stream is a small well, well I assumed it was, it was dry but resembled one. Indeed, one could be confused to think this was the exact site although it lacks the isodomic nature of the basalt blocks or the basin. Indeed, although there is some old fabric this would appear to be modern – probably medieval!!
A perfect miniature pozzo
The well is a perfect miniature pozzo only a metre six in height and 97 cm wide at its base. Constructed into the hillside to take advantage no doubt of the spring which arose here and is channelled through a canal with T blocks. The well is constructed of the usual basalt being partially isodomic, some blocks being smaller than others, probably to fit into its location. One can still see evidence of the original clay and lime based mortar on some. The spring fills a circular basin with a monolithic bottom conch. Looking up it is clearly enclosed with a tholos as typical. The water is accessed from a square cut opening. Water then flow beneath the floor of a paved rectangular vestibule only around 5 metres to 2, appearing from a hole and down a grooved stone into a small brook.
A ritual use?
Little is recorded concerning the use of the site but a nice suggests perhaps votive offerings. Taramelli (1919) in his Fortezze, recinti, fonti sacre e necropoli preromane nell’agro di Bonorva, discovered miniature Nuragic pottery jars which may have had a ritual function but equally could have been domestic. Interesting sherds of such pottery were found in the mortar when the site was restored in 2004. Was this purely for bonding or did it signify a ritual deposit? Certainly like more substantial Pozzo, there are lateral and frontal benches, for ‘priests’ or although equally for those wanting a rest, wait or chat at the well (many British Holy wells have such arrangements and it should be noted these are purely functional in use). What is interesting was the find of Roman Imperial coins in this vestibule. So it is clear that like the town the well continued generation over generation to provide both function and perhaps ritual to the settlers on this hill. As indeed the fresh flowing water does today despite a flowing spring beside the church which fills a substantial rectangular basin. Perhaps this water is better, it certainly was a delightfully refreshing draft and needed as I ascended back up the hill and into modernity..
One of the most remarkable aspects of Sardinia archaeology is that it can constantly surprise. The journey to Sa Sedda and Sos Carros is a long and winding one, through dirt tracks and narrow roads. It puts us in contact with remote places and ancient worlds. Although this Nuragic complex dates from 14th century BC its location in a valley rich in Palaeolithic remains and evidence in nearby caves of some of the earliest human habitations in Europe, Sa Oche. Sa Sedda and Sos Carros is often overlooked by those taking a track to the better known Tiscali, but it is just as unique if not more so…for the one thing Tiscali did not have..a water supply.
The site consists of a several huts which focus on a sacred area, characterised by a central court. Several circular rooms surround the courtyard with one of them containing a beautiful and unique sacred fountain this was built with the use of basalt ashlars. One made with limestone ashlars and had some ram protomes from which the water originally poured gathering in the central wide circular basin. The room is paved with limestone slabs and has a counter-bench running along the wall. In this area it was found a big votive deposit, including numerous bronze objects currently at the Museum of Sassari. Archaeologists found a large quantity of bronze offerings and an orientalising bowl dating from the 8th century.
Foundry or Fountainhead?
In 1977 excavation discovered such a range and size of bronzes that it may have been a foundry. Evidence of iron slag was also significantly discovered. However no crucibles nor layers of ash to prove the foundry theory so it would suggest that this was a significant site.
The sacred well
Two particular aspects are notable of this area. The most noticeable are the uses of basalt blocks, some of which are over 1 metre long. Basalt is not found locally and so their presence is interesting. How did they get here and from where? One theory is that they were recycled from an earlier sacred building, however this asks the question where did these come from and why? The why is easier to explain. The basalt blocks are arranged in one room which appears to be a storage tank for water. This would be important because basalt is impermeable to water and in such a dry environment every drop would be valuable.
The ram heads
The unique aspect of the well are the ram heads. Rams are found as votive bronzetti such as that which can be seen in Cagliari museum dating from the 8th-7th century. We know very little of the Nuragic civilizations religion but of course the ram is a common deity not only across ancient Europe, but across the world and in particular. Often the subject of sacrifice even within the Bible it is both slain instead of Isaac by Abraham and represents the ultimate sacrifice as Christ in the New Testament. However, it is perhaps the Sardinian view was more akin to Ancient Egypt where the ram was seen as figure of fertility. Was it used here to represent the properties of the waters here? One wonders the connection too with the Urthos from the Fonni carnival which are supposed to represents the ‘God of Darkness’, identified by some as a bear, but the hair is clearly a ram! Sadly we shall probably never know the significance of this sacred site.
The small village of Trellech provides much to excite the antiquarian. Its curiosities being forever immortalised in the 17th century sundial in the church. The most obvious is the Tump Turret, a large mound once a Norman motte and bailey castle. However, a local myth states that this was the burial mound in a battle between Harold Godwinson and the opposing Welsh in Gwent in 1063. This claim is also given to three large conglomerate stone monoliths. Here folklore states that three chieftains fell in that battle with Harold. Another theory is that they were arranged to indicate local springs and that is significant in consideration of the village’s most famed site – St Anne’s or the Virtuous Well.
The springhead arises in a horseshoe shaped stone built well enclosure. Stone benches are set up either side along the curved walls of a small paved courtyard. The spring arises in the arched recess through a stone basin. There are two squared niches in the rear wall which may have been used to place offerings. Although the stone work is medieval in date it has gone through periods of dereliction as noted by 19th century writer W. H. Thomas described it as ‘neglected fountain’ and the owner needed to ‘cleanse out its channels and invite guests to a festival of health’ as well as ‘rebuild its ruined walls’. Sir Joseph Bradney’s History of Monmouthshire (1913) shows the walls overgrown, soil virtually reaching the wall and the central forecourt flooded. It was fortunately the advice was headed and it was restored, the last time fully in 1951 for the Festival of Britain. A local legend claims that the water is connected to Tintern Abbey by a three mile tunnel, but this is more likely a confusion between the discovery of drainage channels and the knowledge that the Abbey owned property in the area.
Although not apparent today, the spring is a chalybeate one. In the 18th and 19th centuries the unpleasant-tasting water was considered especially beneficial for eye ailments and according to Edward Lhuyd (1660-1709)
‘very medicinall to such as to have the scurvy, collick and distempers’
and ‘complaints peculiar to women’. These wide range of powers owed it the name the Virtuous Well, a convenient name to re-focus from any popish reflections. Furthermore the spring is one of the traditional locations for the hanging of cloutties, which dipped in the water and rubbed on the skin, took away the affliction as it rotted on the trees around. Cloutties are the only evidence today of veneration at this site regularly seen however there were none there when I visited last in a snowy January.
The commonest form of well-wishing here was that by throwing a stone into the water, a maiden could find out by the number of bubbles how many months it would take to be married. Other folk would throw a stone which by the number of bubbles rising would indicate whether the wish would be granted.
A well for the fairies
The well was said also to be the haunt of fairies who were particularly visible in Midsummer. A local legend tells how a farmer dug up a fairy ring near to the well and the next day found the well dry which never happened. However it was clear that to others it had water and that it only happened to him, the other villagers could draw water! Finally he was told by an old man sitting on a wall that if he returned the ring he would be able to withdraw water – he did and the water was restored to him.
Another story tells of a witch who displeased with the suitor of her daughter sent him to the well where he was pulled into the water. After a struggle, three times over, he escaped and running back to the house saw the mother as an evil witch stirring a pot and he ran!
Speak of St Nectan and often his glen is recalled amongst those interested in water lore, however if we travel in the neighbouring Cornwall two possibly more significant and ancient sites can be found where he is the patron saint.
Who was St. Nectan?
It is not exactly clear who he was. A 6th Century Welshmen or Irishmen. We know through his Vita that he was a hermit and subsequent martyr, who may have been related to the chieftan Brychan from which many saints claimed descendency, one of 24 children. Possibly a native of Wales or Ireland, he is best known through legends. He lived as a hermit in Devonshire, England, founding churches there and in Cornwall, England.
A 12th century Gothan manuscript notes that as a hermit he lived in a remote valley near a spring. He is said to have been helpful in recovering a swineherder’s pigs and once had to convert from thieves of his cows. However, other robbers murdered him, of which more in a moment, and where his blood was spilled, foxgloves grew. His murderer is said to have driven made. Even after his death, he is said to have cured a boy of the plague and helped King Athelstan at the 937 Battle of Brunanburgh. His cult continued to be popular throughout the middle ages.
St Nectan’s Well, Welcombe
Easily found by the roadside just over the Devon boarder is this small stone well house which was restored around 1899 according to Baring-Gould. The spring fills a small stone trough, but any legends and traditions associated with the site are unrecorded, although it was used for baptism. There is a little niche above the doorway which often has an icon but may have originally been constructed for a candle. Of course this was probably the well of Welcombe of which record is made in King Alfred’s Will of 881 AD and as such is probably the oldest holy well in the county.
St Nectan’s Well, Hartland
This is perhaps the best recorded of the two local St. Nectan’s Wells. It is a similar stone well house except with an more pronounced pitch roof covers this spring although its source is often kept locked by two wooden doors and a grill. It is difficult to work out the age of the structure but it may only be a few hundred years old. However, this is probably the oldest surviving site in the country. There is evidence of a 7th century Celtic monastery at the site and indeed this survived until the Reformation
This well is associated with a number of legend. It is said that when attacked by robbers, his head was struck off and he picked it up and walked to this site, although another site claims that story. An alternative story is that a spring arose where the head fell – a common motif.
Another unrelated piece of folklore, perhaps dating back to its pre-Christian origins is also told. It is said that the Lord of the Manor asked for some water from the well and it was collected in a large pot. However, the water proved impossible to boil despite the amount of fuel used. Hearing the problems, the Lord informed the servants that she look into the pot and see a giant eel. The eel was taken back to the well and released and subsequently the pot began to boil. Another common motif which suggests the existence of a protective spirit of the well. Sadly with the door often locked it is difficult to look for.
The water was used for baptisms by the church and was associated with a charming custom of which information is difficult to find out. On the saint’s main feast day, the 17th June, local children would process from the church carrying foxgloves and lay them at the well. One presumes that some sort of service was done at the well as well. When this ceased is unclear but certainly in the early 2000s as the picture above may show the remains of the custom. It is shame that such a delightful custom has died out and it seems very appropriate to mark such an important site with such ceremony.