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Down from the Piskies – Pelynt’s Nun’s Well, Cornwall

When I first became enchanted with holy wells in the 1980s it was the old engraving of this well which enchanted me the most but it took a few years to get to see it. The mysterious building overshadowed with by a venerable tree. Charles Hope in his 1893 Legendary lore of holy wells put it succinctly:

“Its position was, until very lately, to be discovered by the oak and bramble which grew upon its roof. It is entered by a doorway with a stone lintel, and overshadowed by an oak. The front of the well is of a pointed form, and has a rude entrance about 4 feet high, and is spanned above by a single flat stone, which leads into a grotto, with an arched roof The walls on the interior are draped with the luxuriant fronds of spleen-wort) hart’s tongue, and a rich undercovering of liverwort. “

A pin well

Hope (1893) states that:

“In the basin of the well may be found a great number of pins, thrown in by those who have visited it out of curiosity, or to avail themselves of the virtues of its waters. A writer, anxious to know what meaning the peasantry attach to this strange custom, on asking a man at work near the spot, was told that it was done “to get the goodwill of the Piskies,” who after the tribute of a pin not only ceased to mislead them, but rendered fortunate the operations of husbandry.”

When I last visited in the 1990s I could see no pins but the chamber was full of tea candles suggesting regular visitation. The most noticeable feature is its delightfully intricate basin, possibly the most ornate in situ for any British holy well, so much one wonders where it came from. QuillerCouch notes:

At the farther end of the floor is a round granite basin with a deeply moulded brim, ornamented lower and all round its circumference with a series of rings, each enclosing a Greek cross or ball. The water must be supplied from an opening at the back; for none runs into it from the rim, and yet it is always full. If emptied, it soon fills again.”

It may have been from a chapel nearby:

“The well, and a small chapel above it, the remains of which are some indistinct mounds, and a vallum, artificially made, on the north and south sides (occasionally the plough turns some shaped stones and roofing slates), were dedicated to St. Nonnet, or St. Nun, a holy woman said to be the mother of St. David, and the daughter of a Cornish chief. She is also said to have lived and died at Altarnun.”

A warning to the sacrilegious

Perhaps the most fascinating legend associated with the well is about its rather ornate basin. Hope (1893) states that:

“An old farmer (so runs the legend) once set his eyes upon the granite basin and coveted it, for it was no wrong in his eyes to convert the holy font to the base uses of a Pigsty and accordingly he drove his oxen and wain to the gateway above for the purpose of removing it. Taking his beasts to the entrance of the well, he essayed to drag the trough from its ancient bed. For a long time it resisted the efforts of the oxen, but at length they succeeded in starting it, and dragged it slowly up the hillside to where the wain was standing. Here, however, it burst away from the chains which held it, and, rolling back again to the well, made a sharp turn and regained its old positions, where it has remained ever since. Nor will anyone again attempt its removal, seeing that the farmer, who was previously well-to-do in the world, never prospered from that day forward. Some people say, indeed, that retribution overtook him on the spot, the oxen falling dead, and the owner being struck lame and speechless.”

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Hope continues to paint a picture which continues to inflict our holy wells:

“Though the superstitious hinds had spared the well, time and storms of winter had been slowly ruining it. The oak which grew upon its roof had, by its roots, dislodged several stones of the arch, and, swaying about in the wind, had shaken down a large mass of masonry in the interior, and the greater part of the front. On its ruinous condition being made known to the Trelawny family (on whose property it is situated), they ordered the restoration, and the walls were replaced after the original plan.”

And as such it was restored.

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St Nonna’s or Piskie?

Hope (1893) notes that:

“The people of the neighbourhood knew the well by the names St. Ninnie’s, St. Nun’s, and Piskies’ Well. It is probable that the latter is, after all, the older name, and that the guardianship of the spring was usurped at a later period by the saint whose name it occasionally bears. The water was doubtless used for sacramental purposes; yet its mystic properties, if they were ever supposed to be dispensed by the saint, have been again transferred, in the popular belief, to the Piskies.”

Now Piskies are the Cornish version of Pixies and interestingly I noticed the high concentration of midges- were they the Piskies I wonder? Quiller Couch continues:

“Dr. O’Connor tells us that in some parts of Ireland there is a belief that by some of their ceremonies at the patterns, or pilgrimages to wells, the daoini maethe {i.e., fairies) were propitiated. In the basin of St. Nun’s may be found a great number of pins, thrown in by those who avail themselves of the curative qualities of its water, or consult it for intimations of the future. I was curious to know what meaning the. unlettered peasantry attached to this strange but common custom ; and on asking an old man at work near, was told that it was done to get the good-will of the piskies,’ who after the tribute of a pin ceased to mislead them, gave them good health, and made fortunate the operations of husbandry.— T. Q. C.”

Quiller-Couch’s and my visits 100 years apart

This well when visited in July, 1891, was in a very fair state of preservation, though not now used for any particular purpose. A thorn and a nut tree overshadow it, and ivy creeps from between the masonry. Ferns and mosses grow luxuriantly in the interior, where the trough still stands into which were cast pins in former days ; but the surrounding ground was in such a marshy state to make it impossible to approach near enough to examine any carving which may be on it. A woman, on directing us to the spot, smilingly spoke of having visited the well for the purpose of divination in her younger days ; an old man, who stood by, remarked that no one he had ever heard of knew when or why the well was built there, — but that was very possible, — he had heard that people had attempted to move it, with no success.”

My visit in July 1991 found it an enchanting place, obviously the scale shocked me at first as I expected it to be bigger based on the sketch in Hope. The tree which had been overshadowing it was gone and that lost some of the atmosphere. But it still was an enchanting place, especially creeping inside where that old basin remained and there was a feeling of being with the piskies..

Thanks for Carol Ellis for the 2017 photos!

A cold draught…the holy wells of Nova Scotia

truroholywellI recently picked up a postcard which had a circular arched holy well which had carved across the arch Holy Well. It appeared to resemble sites found Cornwall and Devon, indeed it had Truro as its location. I was unaware of such a site in the Cornish capital and I had never heard of a Victoria Park in the town too. However, searching on the internet it revealed itself to be in Nova Scotia and such I was intrigued to find out more.

The Acadian influence

The Acadians is the name of the French colonists who settled in Canada in the 1600s around Nova Scotia in a separate colony from those of Quebec put were expelled from the region after the British conquest in the 1710. They clearly brought with them their traditions and customs and finding themselves in need of true holy well blessed this spring.

Confused tradition

Local legend states that the well was blessed by Celtic saint. This obviously is a little paradoxical to say the least as we are several 1000 miles from the Celtic homeland. It is more likely that the Celtic wells were used to explain the dedication, with an obvious Breton association, unless of course the site claims a connection with the legend of St. Brendan. Nevertheless, the site was used to baptise infants and as a wishing well.

The site today

The Victoria Park website refers to the holy well as a replica of one on Bible hill. There is still a Holy Well Park Bible hill is there a holy well there? The question being does the original survive? I have yet to discover the answer. The site itself looks old, sitting below the rock face and reached by a small number of steps. Sadly a cover is now placed over its entrance which appears to prevent access to the water.

Other holy wells

 Research reveals other holy wells in the country and the author would be keen on hearing about more. In the park itself there is an interesting spring called the Brandy spring, so named because soldiers in the Fenian raids kept their bottles cool there. It was until recently used by locals as drinking water. One holy well is associated with the legend of Oak Island and another at Point Pleasant Park Halifax, although other than having clear water I have been unable to find more information.

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More interestingly is St. Patrick’s Well, Mount St. Patrick, Ontario an area colonised by Irish Catholics.  It is said that a Father McCormack was responsible for the holy well in 1869 after finding the spring and blessing it in the Irish tradition. As can be seen from these photos from waymarking.com the spring arises in a square deep well associated with an altar with iconography in the enclosed whitewashed wooden building with blue roof. It is pleasing to see that the European holy well tradition manifested itself in the far reaches of their colonies and surely there are more wells to discover..if anyone knows of any such I would be interested to hear of more.

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A well for Christmas-The Jesus well of Minver Cornwall

jesus-st-minverMerry Christmas readers. For this time of year, what more appropriate well to discuss than Jesus Well at Minver, Cornwall? The spring head is covered by a quaint sandstone building with a slate roof and surrounded by a small wall to prevent low flying golf balls hitting it no doubt as it lies in a golf course. According to Hope (1893) the spring was visited by children suffering from whopping-cough, Quiller-Couch adding that children were dipped in the water. Quiller-Couch (1894) tells us that:

“People came from long distances to pay their devotions and use the waters, which were celebrated for many cures, and for the evils which befell scoffing unbelievers. Its virtues continued till late years. No longer ago than 1867, Mary Cranwell….who for a considerable period had suffered severely from erysipelas, and could obtain no relief from medical treatment, fully believing, as she stated to the author, from the repute of the well, that if she bathed in the water with faith she would be cured of her disease, went to the place, and kneeling beside the well recited the Litany to the Holy Name of Jesus, and bathed the diseased parts in the waters. She received relief from the first application; and repeating it the prescribed number of three times, at intervals, she became perfectly whole, and has never since suffered from the same malady.”

A strange custom.

Quiller-couch (1894) notes a strange custom where:

“At some wells a cross of rushes or straw is floated on the surface of the water, to sink or swim as Fate decides. Coins were also left on a niche in the well, or cast into its waters as an offering; this custom seems to have entirely disappeared in Cornwall at least, although at one well, Jesus Well, St. Minver, it was a distinctly remembered practice: it was probably a much older custom than the dropping in of pins; for setting aside the fact that pins were not in use until the sixteenth century, there is never any mention in the old accounts of the skewers of wood or bone of former days being among the offerings to the naiad.”

Why Jesus?

It was apparently named after a nearby lost chapel. Maclean, in his History of Trigg Minor, speaks of the old chapel, Jesus Chapel, which formerly stood not far from the well. It was described as:

“Upon the manor of Penmayne, about half a mile north of Rock, on the left of the road leading to St. Minver Church, is an ancient enclosed tenement, containing about four acres, called Chapel. A small chapel existed here until recent times. Mr. Sandys, writing in 1812, states that he had seen pieces of a Gothic window on the spot; but no remains are now to be found.” However, why this should be named after Jesus is unclear, unless its foundation was very ancient, and does as some new age antiquarians will let us believe dates from when Jesus ‘walked upon England’s pleasant land”.

Is it possible that the origins of the spring would be associated with Jesus, as local legend states an unknown pilgrim saint travelling over the dunes struck the ground with his staff and water arose. However this more probably St Enodoc. The well today Quiller-Couch (1894) states that:

“The well has fallen somewhat to decay during the last ten or twenty years; the archway has disappeared, as has also the front part of the roof, otherwise it looks much the same. Cattle were in the field in which the well stands, and had trampled down the ground around the building. It is about five feet square, and the interior is lined with beautiful ferns.”

Fortunately the well was restored and is surrounded by a small wall and the cows replaced by golf buggies. A stone slate set into the threshold reads: “Jesus Well, Jesus saith unto her, Give me to drink Timor domini fons vitae.” Hopefully the spring will continue to be a rest spot for pilgrims for many centuries to come.
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In a secluded dell, St Pedyr’s well, Treloy, Newquay

Cornwall is a great county for those who hanker for the romance of ancient times, where ancient megalithic remains abound, old chapels and churches are found around every corner and every parish has their Holy Well. I am sure like me that their fascination in holy wells begun with a trip to Cornwall, where quaint picturesque stone well houses cover gurgling ancient spring heads whose name puts once in touch with those ancient evangelical times of the post Roman period. One such romantic well is that of Treloy near Newquay The site lay on private land and so I called at the farm house, the upstairs window swung open and an elderly lady appeared. I expressed my interest in visiting and she waved me on with permission given some rough directions to where I needed to go…mainly downhill into the wall. Of the site Quiller Couch (1895), although no name is given:

 “At the top of Treskeys hill, in an orchard known as Treloy orchard, is a fairly celebrated holy well, in good preservation and much resorted to by artists and other visitors. No one appears to remember that it ever possessed any saintly name, or that there were any particular legends or ancient ceremonies connected with it. Some suggest that in addition to supplying water to the Arundells, whose property it was, it also supplied it to the monks at Rialton, but this seems rather improbable, considering the monks possessed a well close at hand in their own courtyard at the priory. The water is considered particularly good and never failing; the building over it is of fair size with stone seats. Although nothing is remembered of its holy origin, its sanctity has always been a thing taken for granted; and the fact that a chapel once stood near it seems sufficient to dismiss all doubt on the subject.”

Interestingly by Lane Davies (1970) time a name had been found. But sadly he noted that when visited in the early 1950s was difficult to reach and when he finally succeeded found a site of devastation, The destruction of the well being caused by an apple tree and in its wake it was difficult to work out what the site looked like, with stones lying all around. Fortunately, its restoration by Old Cornwall Society in it in 1953 and they did a fantastic job, revealing the old benches being in the process that a visit now would not reveal any evidence of dereliction with.  The well consists of a small chapel pitched roof edifice, the spring following into a large rectangular channel full of water cress.   St Peter or St Petroc?

In the vicinity of the well was a Chapel in 1283, noted by Hals in 1700 but no trace of it exists bar some possible some sections of stone work around the site. The moor below the well is called Pedyr moor and this presumably comes from the well or chapel. This has left historians to guess what the dedication of the well was, St Petroc and possibly St. Piran are suggested but St Peter appears to be the most obvious. But just because the moor had this dedication does not mean it the same as the well.  

Noted for cures

As Quiller-Couch notes it was much frequented, Lane-Daves (1970) notes that the well was much frequented for its ability to cure sickness. Stratton parish records state that

 “Gave to Grace Chinge to goe to the water by Lower St Cullome to seek help for her legge 5s. Gave the same time to Andrew Heddon towards the going to the well to seek help for his legg 5s. Pid forthehorse for her to ride there 6s”

Interestingly, this is one of the few wells whose attendance was supported post reformation. Today its visitors are fewer perhaps, bar the curious and those seeking rest and peace…and leave their ribbons or cloutties which appear to have festooned the trees around.