Living with a Holy Well
by Janet & Colin Bord
The first issue of the new-look Source seems an appropriate place in which to take our leave of our own personal holy well, which has supplied our drinking water for nearly nine years. It all began in 1985 when we bought Melysfan, a Victorian stone house in Llangwm in south-west Clwyd, a peaceful and remote part of North Wales, at the time when we had recently finished writing our book on holy wells, Sacred Waters. It seemed an incredible coincidence that we should decide to buy a house whose water supply came from a holy well (we didn’t know this until quite late on in the negotiations, so it didn’t influence our decision to buy). But little did we realise how large a role water was to play in our life here! Like most other people, we had been used to water ‘on tap’; admittedly the taste was not always brilliant and we wondered what ‘they’ were putting into it, but the water was always there – it didn’t desert us at the time of most need, a hot summer when the garden needed frequent watering and so too did the visitors.
A private water supply has one great advantage over mains water: it’s not full of chemicals! The other bonus of course, is that you don’t have to pay any water rates. But a private water supply is likely to be rich in bacteria, picked up from animal wastes on the fields through which the water flows on its way from the skies into the earth. If you are drinking it regularly it’s unlikely to be a problem as your stomach will be used to it, but it’s another thing entirely to feed it to unsuspecting visitors used only to sterile tap water, and because we did not wish to send our guests away with tummy bugs we installed an ultra-violet unit through which all the water coming into the house flowed. This kills off all living organisms and renders the water safe to drink while still retaining all the minerals and other desirable features.
We were initially happy with our holy well as a water supply – until the long hot summer of 1989. We were watering the garden with an automatic sprinkler and couldn’t understand why the water stopped coming. Was there a blockage somewhere in the system? A trip up the hill to investigate the storage tank revealed the alarming fact that it was empty and the well was no longer flowing! We were obliged to gather together as many plastic bottles as we could find and take them down to a handy tap in the village two minutes’ drive away. It looked as though the rest of the summer was going to be fully taken up with water transportation – but at least I would have an excuse for not doing any washing!
But there was an answer to our problem, when we remembered that an earlier water supply existed, the original spring which had been piped into the house when it was built in 1870. Because that system was antiquated, the previous owner to ourselves had decided to find a better supply, and while digging in a promising area had discovered a hidden well at a depth of eight feet, ‘roofed over with rough stonework’. Assuming this to be the site of the lost Ffynnon Wnnod (St Gwnnod’s Well), which was no longer on record and also unknown to the villagers, he ‘built up a circular shaft to ground level and capped it with a wooden lid on which was carved a Celtic cross and the name of the well’. A sizeable new storage tank was then installed, and a new pipe took the water from this down the hill into the house. This supply was fine, with plenty of water available through most of the year (as holiday- makers will confirm, Wales is a wet country) – except during a dry summer, as 1989 proved to be.
But once we had got over the excitement of rearranging our existence so as to avoid the use of water (and you only become aware of exactly how much you do use when it’s no longer there), it occurred to us that the old spring might still be running, and sure enough it was. Only a trickle but water nevertheless. We managed to direct it down an overground hose to the storage tank, and soon the tank began to slowly fill again. The only problem we had to deal with was the cows, which would insist on dancing down the ancient trackway where our hose was laid, and kicking it aside as they did so, thus causing our precious water to spill on to the dry ground. So regular checks had to be made; we also had to clear the airlocks in our house taps, caused by our inadvertently draining the tank dry. But soon all was back to normal, so long as we were careful and didn’t have too many showers. Before the autumn rains came again, the spring dwindled to the merest slow drip, but we survived.
Of course once it did start raining again there was no stopping it. At such times water aplenty glugs and gurgles from the well into the storage tank, and the overflow pipe is a constant rush of water. Intermittent springs start to flow in the fields, always in the same places, and there’s something about the welling up of water from the ground that is very emotive. One of these wet-weather springs is just inside our garden gate. There is even an open well in the cellar of Melysfan, that only fills when there has been a lot of rain. It never overflows, and the water seeps away through the brickwork.
The regular drying up of the ‘holy well’ in the summers since 1989 has made us suspect that the rediscovered well was not Ffynnon Wnnod after all: perhaps the original spring may have been the holy well? After all, holy wells are often known for their ability to keep flowing through the driest weather. In addition, people with expertise in wells and water supplies have stated that the new well was only collecting surface water and was not fed from any underground supply, which explains why it tends to dry up as soon as the rain stops falling. Another possibility is that the digging did take place at the site of the holy well, but the work done there to build an eight-foot chamber in fact disturbed the water supply and it no longer flowed into the new chamber. When the well first dried up in 1989 we noticed that there was still a slight flow of water out of the earth bank just a few yards downhill from the dry well: was this the holy well’s water?
There are few references to Ffynnon Wnnod in historical documents, the earliest in Edward Lhuyd’s Parochialia of c. 1698. A brief description dated 20 August 1912 from the Royal Commission Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire, Inventory of the County of Denbigh, 1914, tells us:
‘This, the sacred well of the village, is believed to be the spring now commonly known as the ‘Fron Bach spring’, near Melysfan; and it was stated that the former name was in use for it within the memory of persons now living. The water flows from the side of a bank in a copious stream, the spring being unprotected except by a couple of flag stones. The position accords with Edward Lhuyd’s account of 1698, which runs ‘St Gwnnod’s Well, a quarter of a mile beyond the church”.
Early this century, probably in 1913 or 1914, a scheme was set up to provide Llangwm village with water from the holy well, this arrangement presumably continuing until mains water was brought into the village. Today various brick-built tanks survive in the top corner of Melysfan garden as a memorial to this use of the well water, plus a roofed building housing a large storage tank which still survives beside a field between Melysfan and the village.
The precise connection between St Gwnnod and the well that bears his name is vague. Gwnnod (also written Gwynog) and his brother Noethan than were the sons of the famous historian Gildas, and lived in the 6th century. The first church in Llangym was originally dedicated to Saints Gwnnod and Noethan, this dedication being transferred to the subsequent church, but in the 1720s when the church was restored, the dedication was transferred to St Jerome. Now the church stands forlorn and unused. In addition them were once two chapels in Llangwm, dedicated respectively to St Gwnnod and St Noethan, but their sites are lost. These chapels, the holy well, and the name of the parish itself (Llangwm = ‘the church enclosure in the va1ley’: many of the most ancient and important Welsh monastic sites were identified by such descriptive names, rather than by the names of their founding saints, as was the more common practice) all suggest that Llangwm was a major ecclesiastical site in the 6th century. The church of Llanwnog (Powys) is still dedicated to Gwnnod-Gwynog. No traditions have survived about our holy well, but Baring-Gould and Fisher, in their Lives of the British Saints (vol.3, London 1911, p.246) have noted Gwnnods’ interest in watery concerns in the story of a well produced by our saint at Llanfachreth (Gwynedd).
‘According to tradition, Gwynog paid a visit there to S. Machraith, and caused a crystal spring to burst forth near the church, whose water was efficacious in various ailments. A small chapel was afterwards erected over it, and the well is still called Ffynnon y Capel.’
Perhaps our own well came into being In just such a wonderful way? This year the double water supply at Melysfan became a triple supply, as a borehole was added to the spring and well. It became clear to us, after six consecutive years of the well having dried up for a longer or shorter period in the summer, that this event was not just a ‘one-off’ but likely to happen every year, and even more likely as farmers continue to improve the drainage of their valley fields, thereby ensuring that the water in the surrounding hills runs off even faster than before. So we decided to upgrade our water supply by having a borehole drilled in our garden, and now our water comes from a maximum depth of 240 feet, flowing at a rate of 1½ gallons a minute, or a pint every five seconds. We are assured that this rate of flow will be constant at all times of the year, so we are now on an equal footing with our friends who have the luxury of mains water, except that ours is free, and tastes a hundred times better! However, we are soon to leave Melysfan, and will say goodbye regretfully to our triple water supply, whose history and development are bound up with the history of the house. It is frustrating not to know for sure exactly where St Gwnnod’s Well was situated, but perhaps further research by future occupants of Melysfan will solve the mystery
J. & C. Bord, 11 August 1991
New Life for Old Wells
[It is a curious coincidence that Janet and Colin Bord were also moving house at the time of the publication of the very first number of Source, back in 1985; and that in that issue there was a note by them about Ffynnon Wnnod, written after their first visit to Melysfan, in December 1984. This note is reprinted below: Source, (First Series) No. 1, March 1985, p.19 – Eds.]
It is always heartening to learn that a former holy well has been rediscovered and brought back into use. We were visiting a country house near the village of Llangwm in Clwyd recently, and we were discussing the water supply. The owner informed us that they had had an erratic supply of spring water, until he determined to find a better supply, and while working on the problem he rediscovered the village holy well, Ffynnon Wnnod, which was on the hill just above the house. The name relates to the former dedication of the church to saints Gwnnod and Nathan. The well may have lost its reputation as a holy well because it later became known as Fron Fach Spring, and then it must have become altogether disused, because it had become over-grown until it was no more than a damp patch on the edge of a field. He dug it out, found a good water supply, and piped it down to the house. He also left an access to the well, which he covered with a lid specially made and carved, and he and his wife planted flowers around the well. Although the water is now being used for domestic purposes and not for baptism or cures as it probably was originally, at least the well has been saved from extinction.
[Janet and Collins’ predecessor at Melysfan, Patrick Radley, published a brief account of the well which he identified as Ffynnon Wnnod, shortly after he rediscovered it – Eds. See P.F. Radley, Ffynnon Wnnod (St Gwnnods’ Well), Llangwm, The Clwyd Historian 16, Spring 1986, pp. 26-27].
Text & Illustrations © Janet & Colin Bord (1994)
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