DIPPING WELLS: Wells and Springs around Trellech
DIPPING WELLS – Stephanie Poultner
|Wells and Springs around Trellech
by Stephanie Poultner
Before the advent of mains water, every village or community had wells. These were either very deep, where a shaft was dug down to the water table, or shallow, where a spring naturally bubbled up and flowed freely at the surface.
Both types can still be found in and around Trellech, an area where many springs arise. The impressively deep shaft-well underneath the Village Green Inn and Restaurant and the old Town Well where spring water bubbles up into a chamber underneath a large stone slab on the ground are typical examples of both local types of well.
The name ‘well’ is derived from the old English words ‘wella‘, ‘wielle‘ or ‘waella‘, meaning a spring or moving water. Since these springs and wells carried on flowing when other sources of water dried up, they were often linked with a deity or nymph of healing or fertility to whom offerings were made in order to obtain the deity’s good will.
Customs such as tossing coins into a well or leaving offerings of flowers, metal tokens or pieces of cloth tied to nearby trees survive from ancient practices, the hope being that the spirit of the well may be persuaded to cure diseases, grant wishes, bring good luck or give glimpses of the future.
The ‘miracle’ of underground water rising spontaneously to the surface lead to wells gaining many supernatural associations. The Celts often raised altars and made sacrifices by them which may be how well-dressing ceremonies originated. In Derbyshire, wells are decorated with fluorspar (a local mineral), stones, petals, bark and grasses, forming elaborate pictures which are displayed at the well on Ascension Day.
According to the writer Geoffrey Grigson, such wells are ‘relics of an ancient delight in the ceaseless welling up of springs, a delight in clear sparkling water which is about as old as mankind.’
The Christian authorities often denounced and forbade this well-worship, but as these beliefs persisted they eventually ‘Christianised’ many ‘Pagan’ wells. For example, what we now know as the Virtuous well was called St Anne’s well. St Anne, the mother of the Virgin, was a favourite patroness of holy wells, possibly to encourage fertility. At St Anne’s well at Llanfihangel in Glamorgan, water flowed out through the stone breasts of a figure of this saint.
Sometimes wells were roofed with small stone buildings and the spring water often flowed into a stone bath or tank so that people could totally immerse themselves in the healing waters. The remains of a splendid local example can still be found below Hygga Farmhouse, half a mile south-west of Trellech.
Some Examples of Local Wells and Springs
The Village Green Inn and Restaurant well
This was likely to have been the old Castle well. Originally at ground level, its circular entrance is now concealed under a metal cover on the cellar floor, the top ten feet or so of dressed stone blocks having been removed during building work on the rear extension to the Inn some years ago. What remains of this well is still very impressive. It is five feet across at the top, tapering to about four feet at the bottom, approximately 50 feet below. Peering down into the well one can clearly see many chisel marks where the walls of the shaft were hewn out of solid rock and the stalactites and stalagmites that have slowly built up over many years from calcium deposited in droplets of water. At present (May 1999) there is about three to four feet of water in the bottom of the well.
A local water diviner told the Inn’s present landlord, Bob Evans, that he believed the well to have been on this site for over 1,000 years.
Trellech town well
This is situated in the ‘Withybed’ field adjoining the Cwmcarvan Far Hill road, approximately 200 yards west of Trellech Post Office. A spring bubbles up into a brick-lined chamber capped by a square stone slab. Several stone steps lead down to the water level and the remains of a rusty old chain still dangles from the underside of the stone slab. According to local resident Shiela Appleton, a bucket of cream would be attached to this chain to keep cool in the well water so that it would separate out properly in the churn when made into butter.
Until mains water arrived in the village in 1954, this little well used to supply drinking water and was never known to dry up. As a child, Shiela had to fetch several bucketfuls of water during the day, which involved running the gauntlet of an aggressive cockerel who resided in the field and attacked anyone who went there. Mrs Ellaway (Shiela’s mother) once hit the bird over the head with her bucket and thought that she had killed him, but he got up, shook himself and chased after her!
Overgrown and hidden for years by nettles, this well has just been uncovered again (June 1999). Students from the University of Wales College at Caerleon on their annual archaeological ‘dig’ in Trellech have carefully cleared out all the silt and excavated the area around it.
The Village Pound troughs
Beside the cross roads at the lower end of the village is a curious little stone building. Recently converted into a dwelling, this used to be the village pound where stray animals and drunken inhabitants could be safely enclosed. Recessed into its curved roadside wall are two water troughs fed by a spring which arises from the verge near the Virtuous well. The larger trough was presumably intended for sheep, cattle and horses and the small one for dogs, a reminder of the time when the hilly Trellech road was the main route from Monmouth to Chepstow and weary travellers and their animals could stop here to quench their thirst.
Minutes of a parish meeting held on July 13th, 1896 record the unanimous decision to site a water trough here and at a further meeting on October 30th the accounts for its erection were approved. Details of local subscribers were listed, ranging from �5 given by Monmouthshire County Council to ten shillings from the vicar and five shillings from the Crown Inn (now the Village Green Inn). The most expensive item on the bill was the cost of laying the water pipe from near the Virtuous well to the Pound, which was estimated as �7. The cost of the large trough was �1 and the small trough three shillings.
Water now once again cascades from a pipe into one end of the large trough, then overflows via a semi-circular channel at the other end into the much smaller trough adjoining it, but over a number of years this water supply gradually dwindled and finally ceased altogether. It took a great deal of patient detective work by the local Community Councillors, Shiela Appleton and Alan Poultner, to unravel the mystery and get the water flowing again. It was discovered that drainage ‘improvements’ carried out by the Highways Department in the roadside verge close to the source of the spring had resulted in the water pipe becoming blocked with silt and grit washing down from the road.
Over several years, the services of a dowser, two drain-rodding companies, an official from Welsh Water and remedial work from County Council workman to isolate the Pound’s water supply from the surface water drainage finally resulted in the water flowing freely again into these troughs during the Spring of 1999.
The Virtuous well (St Anne’s well)
First depicted on the sundial erected in 1689 by Lady Magdalen Probert that now resides in Trellech church, this ancient well is situated in a field on the eastern edge of Trellech Village adjoining the Tintern road.
A Chalybeate spring bubbles up into a stone basin set into an arched recess in the rear stone wall of a horse-shoe shaped structure partly sunken into the meadow. Steps lead down into a paved area with a stone benched seat on either side, although in recent years a rise in floor level has made sitting in here difficult. There are two squared niches in the rear wall, possibly for drinking vessels or votive offerings. Today offerings are also frequently placed on the ledge around the inside of the arched recess, while the hedgerow trees behind the well are festooned with strips of white cloth and ribbons, reflecting a continuing belief in the medicinal properties of the spring water. Tradition had it that if you dipped a piece of your garment in the healing water, as the fabric rotted away, so your symptoms would disappear.
The name ‘virtuous’ well does in fact refer to its medicinal qualities and not to any moral virtues supposedly endowed upon those who partake of its iron-impregnated waters. According to an ancient Welsh manuscript, the healing water of the Bards ran beneath the Caer of the Three Stones and it has been suggested that the existence of this well was associated with the choice of Trellech for mystical Druidical rites.
Many pilgrimages were made here over the centuries. An inscription on the Sundial in Latin describes Trellech as being ‘greatest because of its well’. In the 18th and 19th centuries the unpleasant-tasting water was considered especially beneficial for eye ailments and ‘complaints peculiar to women’.
Like many other holy wells, St Anne’s well was also used as a wishing well. To make a wish one threw into the water a small metal object. Many bubbles arising from it meant a rapid granting of one’s wish, few bubbles meant that a long period of time would elapse before the wish came true and no bubbles at all meant that one’s wish had not been granted. The young maidens of Trellech anxious to know how long they had to wait until their wedding day, would drop a pebble into the water and every bubble that arose counted for one month.
Several local folk tales concern the Virtuous well: for instance, the fairies were believed to dance around it. One day a local farmer dug up the fairy ring around the well as he ‘didn’t like all them silly tales’. The following day when he attempted to draw water, he discovered that the well was dry, something that had never happened before. However, it was only dry when he tried to obtain water. A little old man seated by the well informed him that he was extremely annoyed by the destruction of the fairy ring and ordered its immediate restoration. As soon as the farmer replaced the missing turf, the water started flowing freely again.
Legend also has it that nuns used a three mile long secret passage from Tintern Abbey so that they could come and take the well waters unobserved. However, according to historical record, there were only monks at the Abbey – or were the nuns kept very well hidden?
Hygga bathing place and horse pool
Half a mile south-west of Trellech, close by the old farmhouse, stone steps lead down to a curious bathing place which was described in Bradney’s One Hundred of Trellech (1913) as follows:- ‘On the west side of the house is a large bathing place, with steps leading into it, filled by a strong spring which comes out of the bank…. in 1677 it is described as ‘the little well adjoining the brew-house of Andrew Lewis, gent”‘.
Today, although a little overgrown, one can still see a huge oblong stone trough, approximately nine feet long and two feet six inches wide, divided into two sections, situated against the steep bank of a tree-covered hillock. Spring water arising from the bank is channelled separately into each half of the trough via two stone spouts set into the rear retaining wall – an early example of a ‘his’ and ‘hers’ bathing place, perhaps?
Beyond the trough is a square, two feet deep water sump remaining from the time when the spring water was pumped up to supply the farmhouse. At the base of the surrounding wall of squared old red sandstone blocks is an outflow. From here the spring feeds two ornamental ponds before trickling into the nearby stream (which forms the Angiddy Brook), along with another spring which flows out of a rocky outcrop beneath a clump of mature trees, about 50 yards to the west of the old stone bathing place.
On higher ground to the east of Hygga farmyard, in the lee of an enormous, ancient, hollow sycamore tree, is the ‘Horse Pool’. This very impressive 30 feet square pond is now rainwater filled, but used to be spring fed. It is walled on three sides with thin, squared stones and set into the centre of the East wall is a channelled overflow stone six feet long, two feet wide and one foot thick. In years gone by the farm’s cart horses would be lead into the pool from the west side to quench their thirst and be cleaned off after working hard in the fields all day.
Rose Cottage well
About a quarter of a mile past the Virtuous well, but set back from the roadside, is Rose Cottage. A lovely old specimen of Albertine rose rambles over the face of this little cottage and just a few feet in front of it is a large stone-built well head, about three feet high and seven feet square. This was only uncovered a couple of years ago by the present owners, Hilary and Kevin Lindsay, when they were removing an old stone and earth wall adjacent to the cottage.
The 30 feet deep well shaft is three feet in diameter and is lined all the way down with local quartz conglomerate ‘pudding stone’ blocks. The water is about six feet deep and when a cave diving friend descended into the well in the Spring of 1999 he reported that he could clearly see shards of pottery sticking out of the layer of silt at the bottom.
One mile east of Trellech is an area of mixed deciduous woodland and walled fields known as Ninewells from the nine springs that once arose from there.
In 1810, Charles Heath described how a number of small springs arise beneath the roots of some fine beech trees standing on the summit of rising ground. He says that within ten yards these streams unite to supply a Cold Bath below. According to Charles Heath, ‘Mr Pritchard, carrier, Monmouth, having broke his leg, was advised by his surgeon as soon he was able to use a crutch, to bathe in this water, which he did, and in a very little time he was restored to the perfect use of his limb. Afterwards, it became the resort of the afflicted with lameness, and other infirmaties (sic.), from all parts of the country, many of whom partook of its benefits; indeed, it is said, that the trees around exhibited many supporters of affirmity, left in them, as trophies, by those who had derived health from the virtues of these springs. At present, like the well at Trellech, the Bath is seldom made use of, except by those who reside near it.’
Today, this Cold Bath is capped by a huge, ugly slab of concrete, placed there some years ago by the local farmer to keep out his cattle. An old photograph, taken very early this century, shows five steps leading down into an oblong stone-lined bathing place. Ferns and other plants are sprouting out of the walls above the water line and a profusion of aquatic plants can be seen covering much of the water’s surface. This photograph, which appeared on an old black and white postcard, is labelled ‘Old Roman Baths, Ninewells’.
From the concrete-covered bathing place, the field slopes down to join a stony track leading from Ninewells cottage to the Tintern road. About 50 yards from the roadside entrance, another of the nine springs trickles from a pipe set in the centre of a 14 foot semi-circular recess in the dry stone boundary wall of Ninewells Wood. This spring supplies a modern galvanised cattle trough, the overflow from it forming a little brook which runs alongside the track and flows underneath the wall beside the old stone gatepost, before disappearing briefly underneath the gateway and re-emerging as a fast flowing roadside brook, that makes its way down towards Whitestone.
At the lower end of Catbrook’s old village green can be seen a good example of a typical Monmouthshire well. A spring bubbles up inside a stone chamber surmounted by a flat-topped stone, approximately two feet six inches square, whose lower surface is shaped into a semi-circular arch. The spring then flows out through a stone-channel for several yards before passing underneath a drystone wall to join the Cat Brook.
This attractive little well was lost to public view for over 20 years after a local resident, concerned about childrens’ safety, campaigned to have it filled in and so County Council workmen cemented it over in the early 1970s. The well was opened up again and restored to its present picturesque appearance by another local resident, Alan Watkins, who also tends the village green with its three commemorative trees. Beside each one is a metal plaque giving details of its planting; the oldest celebrating the jubilee of King George V and Queen Mary in 1935 and the most recent, a flowering cherry, marking the closure of Catbrook primary school in 1987.