WELL RESTORED The Holy Well, Morvah: a well lost and found
– Cheryl Straffon
The holy well of Tregaminion at Morvah is a very ancient and sacred place, that was for many years completely neglected and lost, and has now been rediscovered and restored. There are many holy wells in Cornwall (over 100 still remaining in one form or another) but they are usually impossible to date. What can be said with some confidence is that natural springs of fresh and clear water, issuing forth from the ground, would have been very important to prehistoric peoples, their means of sustenance, and such places would have become very important and perhaps ‘sacred’ to them, and to their gods or goddesses. Later, these pagan places remained holy under Christianity and were often given saint’s dedications or had early Christian chapels built nearby. Such is the case with Tregaminion at Morvah.
Previously, near to where the holy well still stands (but closer to the coast) there was an early Christian chapel, which would probably have been built in about the 6th-8th century A.D. This would have been a simple rectangular building made of local granite, where perhaps one hermit or holy person would have lived. He or she would have obtained their water from the holy well nearby, and both chapel and holy well would have looked over the wide Atlantic ocean. These early holy people were later thought of as ‘saints’, and the remains of their chapels can still be seen in the area on the cliffs at Chapel Jane near Gurnards Head and St Helen’s Oratory at Cape Cornwall. At Tregaminion all traces of the chapel have now disappeared, but the holy well site has fortunately been recovered and may still be visited.
The earliest reference we have to the chapel, and by implication the well, is from the 7th May 1390. On this date Sir Roger Melleder, vicar of St Madern (now Madron) had leave to celebrate Divine Service in the ‘chapels of the Blessed Mary of Laneyn (now Lanyon, which lies a short distance inland) and of Saints Brigid and Morvetha’ at Tregaminion. Ten years later, on 22nd September 1400, Bishop Stafford officially licensed a chapel of Saint Briget in the parish of Madron, where Morvah stood. This was presumably the Chapel at Tregaminion, which has now been sanctified for over 600 years. The dedications of the Chapel are interesting: it looks as if Saint Morvetha has given her name to the village of Morvah, but both saint and village name may derive from an early Cornish word meaning ‘place or person of the sea’ (related to the Breton word Morverch, meaning ‘woman of the sea’). Saint Morvede was recorded here as early as 1349 and Saint Morvethe in 1379, both references pre-dating the 1390 dedication of the Chapel. So, clearly Morvetha was known here at a very early date, and the holy well may have originally been dedicated to her, and perhaps also to Saint Brigit.
By the beginning of the fifteenth century a church had been built in Morvah itself and an 7th April 1409 it was dedicated to Saint Morvetha. This church was a daughter church to the church at Madron, and was built by the Knights of St John. However, at some point soon after this the church became dedicated to Saint Briget of Sweden, who had formed the order of Bridgentines in 1373. Remembering that the Chapel at Tregaminion had also been dedicated toboth Saint Morvetha and Saint Brigid, it seems as if the Saint Brigid dedication was carried over into the ‘new’ church. The holy chapel and well at Tregaminion remained, though increasingly superceded by the Church.
Over the centuries the chapel became ruinous, but the holy well retained its powers, so that by the early 1880s when Quiller Couch visited the site he was able to record that the waters of the well were thought to possess extraordinary healing qualities, and the site was the scene of many miraculous cures. There was also a legend associated with the place that claimed that the corner of the field in which the well stood was never tilled, a memory of the sanctity of the place. Another oral legend said that the place was protected by mermaids, and a famous mermaid legend is also known just along the coast at Zennor. This ‘mermaid protection’ legend at Morvah may be a dim distant memory of a time when the site was under the ‘protection’ of the Saints Morvetha and Brigid, who themselves may only be be Christianisations of a Pagan Goddess of the sea who was invoked and revered here at this well. At any rate, it seems as if this spot has been a sacred and holy place for many hundreds if not thousands of years.
In the early 1950s a pump house was built next to hte well in order to supply water to nearby Tregaminion Farm and the people of Morvah, using the stream that overflowed from the well. David Tresize of Tregaminion Farm remembers this being built and how a channel had to be dug out in order to to allow the water to flow into the pump house. At the same time the well was capped with concrete slabs. This water source was the main supply until the mains water was brought in during the 1960s, so Morvah people must have been drinking some of the holiest water in West Penwith! By the late 1960s when the Reverend A.Lane-Davies visited the site, the well was ‘now only a square recess….in a marshy field under a bank’ and when J.Meyrick went there in 1979 he could find no trace of the well itself assuming that the pump house now stood on top of what had been the well.
However, he was incorrect, for the well was still there, now hidden by overgrown gorse and vegetation. And so it remained, until Morvah Schoolhouse was opened as a gallery and community centre in 1999. Graham Roberts of the Schoolhouse became interested in the site of the well, which could be identified from old parish maps, and with a small team of volunteers went to see if he could uncover the site. They cut through much of the brambles that had overgrown the site and traced the water outlet back to the concrete slabs that still covered the well. The well is now being restored and maintained, and can once again be visited after several centuries of neglect. A Cornish hedge that was built there early in the Twentieth Century to keep the cattle out has helped to create a separate enclosed area for the well, and a grant was obtained for the demolition of the ugly pump house.
So, now in the early years of the twenty-first century, some 600 years after the chapel – first dedicated here, the well is once again accessible and open for all to visit. It stands in a very beautiful and dramatic position, with the rugged cliffs a few metres away, and a stunning view along the coast northwards to Gurnards Head and out to sea. When you visit the well, you may care to take some of the refreshing water, perhaps either for healing or for splashing on yourself remembering the powerful reputation that it once held. Or you may look back and remember the old hermit or saint who once lived there and used the well for refreshment and healing. And at the same time you may care to give thanks to Saint Morvetha or Saint Brigid themselves for their lovely well, and to be glad that what was once lost and forgotten has now been restored and lives again.
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