Some Holy Wells of South Carmarthenshire
by Kemmis Buckley, MBE, DL, MA
A talk given to the Llanelli Art Society on 3rd February 1971
My task this evening is to introduce a little-known subject to you: Holy Wells. I intend to divide the talk into two parts. In the first I will discuss the historical background, and in the second I will illustrate this background with examples from South Carmarthenshire. Within the time available I can hope only so to interest you that you will want to learn more; and if I succeed in this object I would most strongly recommend Major Francis Jones’ book, Holy Wells of Wales. Apart from remaining the definitive work on the subject, it is written in a most readable style; and I must freely acknowledge my debt to both it and its author.
The cult of well worship is a relic of the prehistoric worship of nature in its various manifestations. The underlying principle of water worship can easily be seen: water is purifying and recreative; showers renew the fertility of the earth; and wells provide a necessary, indeed vital, part in human existence. Moreover, some wells and springs contain mineral elements which give a curative property to the water. It was, therefore, only a short and logical step to the deification of the well or fountain.
This is a subject which belongs not to any particular race or creed or age, but to all mankind throughout recorded history. To narrow this argument to our own religion, the Bible abounds in references to holy wells or pools. Siloam, Beersheba and Bethesda are examples; and Israelite kings were consecrated at the wells of En Gihon and En Rogel. Nearer our own day there is the story of the vision of Bernardette at Lourdes. I deliberately link these references to show that the cult of wells and springs does not belong to any particular sect of the Christian belief. So far as I am aware, water is used in the rite of baptism of most, if not all, Christian denominations – Catholic, Protestant, and Nonconformist; and one finds the symbol of the holy well or pool much in evidence both in the names of Nonconformist chapels (how many Bethesdas and Siloams are there in South Carmarthenshire?) and in their hymns. If one takes examples from the Methodist Hymnal, one immediately thinks of No. 308 ‘Ffynnon Llawn o Rhinwedd’ – ‘Spring Full of Virtue’ – and No. 369 ‘Ffynnon Calfaria’ – ‘Spring of Calvary’. But this anticipates the history of the subject.
When Christian missionaries came to these Islands they found that well worship was endemic; and Pope Gregory the Great wrote in 601 A.D. to his missionaries that ‘men climb not by leaps and bounds but by gradual steps’. Idols were to be destroyed and the temples which housed them were to be cleansed with holy water. Altars were to be erected and then ‘converted from the worship of devils to the worship of the true God’. So while, in the words of the old hymn, the ‘Tantum Ergo’, ‘ancient rites give way to new’, the site remained. The new God supplanted the old, but the spring or the well remained a place of veneration – with all the consequences this implied.
Throughout succeeding centuries, ecclesiastical voices were raised in denunciation of the worship of wells. Saint Columba’s Missal includes a penitential canon which states clearly that the worship of trees and wells is sacrilege, and it goes on to include a prayer for the blessing of a well. In 1102 A.D. the 26th Canon of Saint Anselm decreed – ‘Let no-one attribute reverence or sanctity to a dead body or a fountain without the bishop’s authority’. The battle had been fought: old gods had been supplanted by new; but the well retained its reputation for sanctity.
Not all holy wells have their origins in pagan times, although it would be a mistake to think that because a well bears the name of a Christian saint it necessarily dates from the Christian era. It may have had a pagan origin and have been rededicated after the introduction of Christianity into this country. Thus, it is unlikely that St Clare’s well in the parish of Llanarthney, which I shall mention later, was suddenly discovered in the fourteenth century and dedicated to the follower of St Francis of Assisi, the foundress of the Poor Clares: it is more likely that the well and its cult had already existed for many centuries and that it was rededicated to Saint Clare during a period of fashionable devotion to her after her death.
Whether by first instance or by rededication, however, many wells are dedicated to saints of the Celtic and Roman Calendars. The lives, the deaths, and even the thirsts of the Celtic saints provide a rich harvest of holy wells; but by far the most popular of the saints to whom wells are dedicated is the Virgin Mary. There are something like eighty wells dedicated to her throughout Wales; but perhaps the most appealing is Ffynnon Fair – one of two in the parish of Kidwelly. It is said that Our Lady landed by sea at Kidwelly and that she asked one of the local inhabitants to take her back to her ship. He refused – and killed her. According to local tradition, the descendants of this man have never succeeded in any enterprise to which they have put their hand; and, at the spot where she was killed, in a field called Arvell Meade to the north of the castle, a well sprang up.
It was customary for suppliants to make some form of offering at the well. In the part of Carmarthenshire we are discussing tonight these offerings seem mainly to have taken the shape of bent pins, rags or coins. I am unable to discover the origin of the bent pin ritual, although it is clearly of considerable antiquity and was widely practised both in this country and on the continent. The latest example of this practice of which I am aware is at Saint Clare’s Well in the parish of Llanarthney which I have already mentioned, where, even into the 1930s, children used to throw a bent pin into the well and ‘wish’.
The origin of leaving rags, either at the well or on trees near the well, is likewise unknown. It is suggested variously that the custom may represent the idea that the disease will be left in the discarded rag; or it may be that it is a relic of the habit of leaving the whole of the garment as an offering. It may equally be a sign of penance, or a sign of thanksgiving – a forerunner perhaps of the crutches and other indications of debility cured by faith which one sees today in Continental shrines.
Of monetary offerings I need say little. Either they were thrown into the well to propitiate the deity, or to give thanks to him. One may also possibly suspect that coins were thrown into the source as a consolation or compensation to the custodian.
Certain wells were credited with the power to cure specific illnesses. The water of Capel Erbach in Llanarthney parish was regarded as a cure for spasms and the water of Capel Begewdin was said to mend sprains. Through the generations their curative properties have in some cases become multifarious: the waters of Pistyll Giniwil in the parish of Llansaint have, for example, the reputation of curing both the eyes and the stomach. But one should perhaps at this stage make two observations. The effect of faith on the human frame is still not entirely understood, but one will find few medical practitioners who do not accept that the mind has a certain degree of control over the body. Would this not apply with greater force in the days when faith and superstition were stronger? Secondly, one cannot help feeling that the efficacy of a well was assisted by the lack of hygiene in the dark and middle ages. A suppurating sore which had never been washed might be cured by a thorough scouring at the local well, thereby adding lustre to the legend. Finally, the water of some wells, as I have said earlier, contains mineral elements, sulphur and iron in particular, which in certain circumstances are curative.
One last custom needs to be recorded. It was by no means unusual both in this country and on the Continent to find that brown sugar was added to the water before it was drunk. This seems to have been more prevalent in the Kidwelly district than in the rest of Carmarthenshire. One obvious reason for this habit was that sugar disguises the metallic taste of water which possesses mineral qualities. Nevertheless, the waters of Ffynnon Stockwell and Pistyll Giniwil, which both taste absolutely pure, have each been subject to this custom. Indeed, in the case of Ffynnon Stockwell, special mugs were kept for this purpose and, particularly on Palm Sunday, parents would put brown sugar into these mugs and take their children to the well where they would dilute the sugar with well water and drink the syrup. It is, to say the least, interesting that this custom should obtain at such a considerable festival of the Christian Church.
This, then, is the outline – on the broadest of canvasses – of the historical background to the subject; and I will now turn to specific examples in our part of the county. From the hundred or so examples which I could have chosen, I have selected ten as a matter of personal taste. In some cases these are situated near the houses of friends or near my own home; in other cases it seems to me that they possess a certain artistic interest; and, finally, I have chosen other examples where the legend is appealing and deserves to be recorded. For all these illustrations I am much indebted to Mr David Jenkins of Ferryside whose motor bicycle and whose feet have suffered sorely in the search of the map references I gave him and who has produced, as I am sure you will agree, some remarkable photographs which will ultimately be placed in the County Archives.
Ffynnon Fair yn yr Alefed:
(SN 40 412073)
It was here in Arvell Meade, a field to the north of Kidwelly Castle, that the Virgin Mary is said to have been killed. This is an old tradition and one does not have to search far in the Borough for someone who remembers it.
The well itself can readily be identified by a circle of shaped stones rising, reluctantly, above the level of the surrounding marsh. It would be an interesting, and not too difficult, exercise to drain this marsh and to excavate the well.
One has been sometimes asked why this well, and the story associated with it, is not better known. Could it be, perhaps, that the answer lies in the fact that the inhabitants of Kidwelly in past generations, were not anxious to admit that their forebears had murdered the Mother of God?
(SN 40 435074)
This is a pool, of some considerable significance, in the parish of Kidwelly. It is in a wild and exceptionally melancholy ravine below the site of the old chapel dedicated to St Teilo to the south of the road from Mynydd-y-Garreg to Four Roads and is well described in the words of a local historian:
The path to the pistyll is extremely inaccessible and dangerous; one has to descend the rock face to reach it. Tradition persists from the past that one could get a draught fairer than wine here and that the stream had special powers. I remember twisting my feet as a young lad and some surgical expert’s advice to facilitate my recovery and to free me from lameness was to hold my feet under the main torrent in the gully…A sheltered road leads from Mynydd-y-Garreg through Cwm Teilo to Trimsaran where, formerly, it is said, spirits were to be found and corpse candles were to be seen.
Mr Ebenezer Jones of Bryn Forest, now aged 86, remembers miners believing that the waters of the pistyll could remove bruises incurred in their work. They used to hold their limbs under the icy water until ‘they were red hot’.
It is said that a ghost haunts this pistyll and cries in pitiful tones:
It is long and cold and tiresome to wait for the descendants of Wil Wattar.
To this day natives of this district prefer not to walk by night along the road which skirts this ravine; and one can only assume that this is because of the ghostly voice which is supposed to come from the bottom of the cwm.
If only it was possible to discover the identity of Wil Wattar, a whole wealth of local legend might be uncovered.
Ffynnon Eidion or Eiddion:
(SN 41 432109)
This is a pleasant well and well-chamber in a good state of preservation about which very little is known. It lies about a mile north-east of Gelli-Deg in the parish of Llandyfaelog.
Ffynnon Diolch i Ddiw:
(SN 50 537065)
Those of us who live in South Carmarthenshire will be familiar with this as a horse trough on the main road near Llanon. The water is, however, piped into this trough – which was erected by Rhys Goring Thomas in 1883 – from a holy well of considerable repute in the field behind the road. People from as far away as Llanelli used to visit this well in times of smallpox in order to wash their coins in the water.
(SN 51 539102)
This is to be found between Llanon church and Tumble, and it is interesting in that it is the only well of which I am aware in South Carmarthenshire where an attempt was made to commercialise the waters. It was a well of considerable repute the waters of which possessed similar qualities to those of Llanwrtyd Wells; and there are still local inhabitants alive today who recall numbers of votaries arriving there in horse-drawn vehicles.
The minister of Bethel Baptist chapel, Tumble, Rev. L. Rowe Williams (minister of Bethel 1898-1909) ‘bought’ the well and tried to develop it as a commercial exercise with a view to making a fortune. He enlarged the well; but other waters seeped in and destroyed the healing properties of the original. Today nothing except mud and marsh can be seen on the site: and only the cry of the curlew serves to remind one of the cupidity of the Rev. L. Rowe Williams.
(SN 30 386084)
This was associated with the parish church of Llansaint. It has now been covered over and the parish pump erected on top of it. With the passing of the years the village has nearly forgotten the existence of this holy well and in reply to questions, the older inhabitants will answer, ‘Ah! you mean the pwmp!’ It was, it appears, covered over by the pump after a small child fell into the well chamber and was drowned.
(SN 51 516177)
This well is situated a mile north-east of Llandyfaelog parish church near a house called Holywell; and it consists of a small enclosure some 3 feet square by 2 feet deep at present half-covered with slate to prevent the cattle falling into it. There is a local tradition that the well was used for baptism ‘years ago’; but the owner of Holywell House can only testify that the water makes ‘a very good cup of tea!’ It is interesting that the word ‘sanctaidd’ has been anglicised to ‘holy’; but it is more interesting that the tradition of sanctity remains to this day in the memory that baptism took place there ‘years ago’.
(SN 30 378084)
I have included this little spring in my list of examples because its properties are still recognised – or were until very recently – by the inhabitants of St Ishmaels and Llansaint. As I have said earlier, its waters are reputed to cure eye and stomach complaints and were frequently drunk with brown sugar. The latest date when I am aware that this custom was practised at this pistyll was in 1953. In addition to its specific remedies, the water appears to have achieved a general reputation not only for its curative properties but also its holiness. An inhabitant of Llansaint told me that when his mother-in-law ‘was very low, indeed dying, nothing would satisfy her but that she should have a drink of dwr o Giniwil [Giniwil water]’. This incident occurred after World War II.
I have made strenuous efforts to determine the origin of the name Giniwil. I had originally thought it was a corruption of Gini-Well, i.e. Ffynnon Gini; but I am assured by every inhabitant of Llansaint to whom I have spoken that it was named after two people – Gini and Will – but no-one is able to tell me who they were or why the pistyll is named after them. An alternative is that there may be some remote connection between the name and the long furry caterpiller which one sees moving at speed in late summer. Locally this is known as Giniwil; or Gini-blewog; and it is said both in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire that the killing of these caterpillers will bring on rain. But it is probable that the meaning of Giniwil resides in the meaning of the element Gini [= ‘guinea’].
I mention Giniwil at length to illustrate both the difficulties and the fascinations of this whole subject.
(SN 51 530147)
This well chapel, in the parish of Llanarthney, was partially excavated in 1970 by the Carmarthenshire Antiquarian Society; and it is one of the two well chapels in South Carmarthenshire. It dates possibly from the early 14th century and its waters were said to cure spasms.
Architecturally, the points to note are the Norman door at the west end, the niche for the statue of a saint – probably the saint to whom the chapel was dedicated – and the rill through which the water still flows. Excavation has shown that there is no well as such inside the chapel but that there is a cistern at a point central to both the west door and the altar which is fed by a stream rising to the east of the chapel. It was probably both at the cistern and at the rill where the sick bathed themselves in the water.
It is curious that the Antiquarian Society has as yet been unable to either uncover the early history of this considerable chapel or to make any tenable suggestion as to the meaning of the word Erbach.
(SN 51 512147)
This, the second of the holy well chapels in South Carmarthenshire is situated in the parish of Llanddarog; and it is more difficult of access than is Capel Erbach. Not only must it be visited by tracks alternately muddy and stony, but it is situated in a wood and is almost invisible at a distance of even some forty feet. Much work needs to be done on the fabric of this, probably twelfth century, edifice; and the interior is choked with mud and fallen masonry. Nevertheless, it remains a remarkably fine and romantic structure where it is still possible to determine the masons’ marks on the trefoil window, a niche for the statue of a saint, and the site of the well. Seeing this ruin for the first time on a summer’s day, one is irresistably reminded of the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement. Cows, eglantine, wild garlic and endless briars, bar one’s way to this chapel in the wood; and one is irresistably reminded of Burne-Jones’ ‘Sir Isambras at the Holy Well’. If the members of the Society could make the journey with their equipment, they might profitably and enjoyably record one of the great architectural and ecclesiastical relics of the county.
Again, nothing is known of its history or of the meaning of the name ‘Begewdin’; but it should be recorded that the owner of the nearby farm gives its meaning as ‘the place where man was found’.
We have come a long way this evening; and I can only hope that I have interested you in a relic of the days when faith and superstition walked hand in hand. If you have followed my argument and if the illustrations have appealed to you, may I dare hope that you will take this study one stage further forward? I have already suggested that you record Capel Begewdin; but there is more that you can do within a short distance of this hall. This is a subject which is in danger of being forgotten. Where is Ffynnon Elli; where is that well in Ann Street in which the inhabitants of Llanelli used to wash their clothing in times of cholera; where, in Llanelli parish, are Ffynnon Rowell and Ffynnon Menin; and where is Ffynnon Brodyr in Cilymaenllwyd? What other holy wells are there in the Borough? I am not suggesting that, as a Society, you should work on this subject, but I am sure that both the County Archivist and the Borough Historian would be more than happy to record the result of your individual researches – before they are lost for all time. In particular, I am sure you will appreciate the importance of recording any story or legend attached to a well: so often these stories, attractive in themselves, have a significance not readily apparent.
Some time in the autumn of 1970 I was invited to give a talk to the members of the Llanelli Art Society. As I was in no way qualified to talk to them about anything relating to the history of art or to discuss matters of artistic appreciation, I had to cast around for another subject which might entertain them. I had long been fascinated by a little well only a mile or so from where I live, Giniwil, and I decided to build a talk around it, to meditate upon the background of the whole subject of holy wells, and to illustrate the talk with examples of other wells in the immediate neighbourhood.
I naturally had recourse to Francis Jones’s book on Holy Wells of Wales and I would imagine that I must have discussed my talk with him although I cannot be sure of this at this interval of time. A review of his book has appeared in another edition of Source, but I would like to say here how much most of us who knew him regret his death earlier this year. He was a man of great and diverse experience, soldier, antiquarian, herald, raconteur. How one misses those long stories about bygone families of West Wales told with a gentle smile on his face and a glass of something cheering in his hand! One could relate many memories of him, but one must serve for all: it was a wet and cold day and we had spent a profitless afternoon trying to find an inscription on a gravestone in Pembrey churchyard. Suddenly there appeared an ancient lady who addressed us in Welsh. ‘So, Madam’, replied Francis, ‘You too speak the language of the Princes’.
But to return to the talk given to the Llanelli Art Society on 3 February 1971. I am happy to say that very little has changed in the intervening years. All the wells are still there although scrub and trees have encroached further into the two marvellous well chapels which I discussed; and I believe that the water of Giniwil is still used as a tonic by people in the neighbourhood. We are no nearer to deciding the meaning of either Giniwil or Erbach.
And finally, I should say something about the people mentioned in the talk. David Jenkins is now Doctor David Jenkins practising in the village of Ferryside, and Mr. Ebenezer Jones just failed to reach his hundredth birthday. So far as I am aware the descendants of Wil Wattar have not yet arrived at Pistyll Teilo: had they done so, I would surely have been told by one of the patrons of the Prince of Wales, Mynydd y Garreg, the inn at the head of this haunted gorge.
Kemmis Buckley August, 1994
Some time ago, in response to our request for information about Ffynnon Fair, in Kidwelly, the Llanelli Reference Library sent us a copy of part of the article printed below. Recognising its interest, we asked for a copy of the full article, and for permission to print it in Source. The Library supplied the copy, but said that we would need to obtain permission to print from the author, and put us in touch with Major Kemmis Buckley. We wrote to ask Major Buckley if we might print his article; and – somewhat surprised – he replied to say ‘certainly’, but could we please send him a copy first, as he had not seen the article for 23 years, not having retained a copy for himself! The down-side of this story is that it must appear unreferenced: the library copy had become separated from its reference sheet, and after 23 years it was unrealistic to expect Major Buckley to remember his sources. However, even without these, the wealth of descriptive detail still makes the article a substantial contribution to holy well studies. We offer our thanks to Major Buckley and to the staff of the Llanelli Library.
Roy Fry & Tristan Gray Hulse
Text © Kemmis Buckley (1995)
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