The Three Wells Walk
by Cheryl Straffon
One of the old traditions in the far-west peninsula of Cornwall was for visits to holy wells to be made specifically at the beginning of May each year. This tradition is also sometimes found at other wells, but it seems to have been particularly focused, or particularly remembered, at the healing wells of West Penwith. The purpose of these visits was for either healing or divination and sometimes both. These customs are recorded as early as the 17th century, and may go back into Celtic times. They also lasted extraordinarily long in the remote and isolated countryside of West Penwith, and were still being observed at certain sites up until the 2nd World War.
For example, at Madron Well maidens visited the place on the first three Thursdays in May and made a cross to float on the water. The number of bubbles that arose indicated the number of years before matrimony. Straw crosses and pins were also thrown into the waters in order for wishes to be granted. At nearby Madron Baptistry, which also contains a holy well, mothers brought their sickly children on the first three Sundays in May, plunged them three times into the water, and carried them three times round the well widdershins (against the sun). At Chapel Euny well the water was considered potent for all manner of ills. On the first three Wednesdays in May children were dipped three times against the sun and dragged three times round the well in the same direction. The same custom existed at Alsia Well, where not only did mothers bring their weak and rickety children, but also maidens came to drop pebbles and pins in the water to see if they would stay with their loved ones or not, the number of bubbles rising indicating the number of years. Other wells had similar customs.
It was against this background of the long use of the wells at the beginning of May, that in 1989 a small group of us decided to revive the tradition by visiting three of the most beautiful of the wells. We decided to go not by cars on roads, but by footpaths running through the hidden heart of West Penwith, some of which were the ancient trackways and church paths, long used by our forebears to reach these places. We devised a network of tracks that linked together in a grand figure of eight, a gentle 12 mile walk through some of the loveliest countryside of West Penwith. We also wanted to make the walk a pilgrimage, collecting water from each of the wells in turn and finally placing it in the last well in a simple blessing ceremony.
On a glorious sunny Sunday in May 1989, half a dozen of us met up at Sancreed and walked to Carn Euny well, our first stop where we collected some of the water and refreshed ourselves; then walked back by a different route through fields with panoramic views across Mounts Bay to Sancreed well. Up a bluebell-strewn lane to the deep and mysterious well, we rested there awhile and had our lunch. Collecting some more water from this well, we set off through fields and meadows resplendent with daisies, buttercups and yellow gorse to the lane leading to Madron Baptistry. In Springtime this lane is breathtakingly beautiful, with the white May blossom forming an archway leading to the well. Here we rested awhile, as we could hear the distant murmur of an open-air service taking place in the Baptistry. The local Methodists and Baptists also use the site on these first three Sundays in May for their open-air baptisms. It was interesting to realise that they too were inheriting the same tradition as us, and expressing it in their particular way. We waited until they had finished, and then entered the Baptistry ourselves, where we connected with the deep peacefulness of the place, and poured our collected water into Madron’s Baptistry well. After a final blessing, we returned across Trengwainton Carn to Sancreed from where we had started some seven hours earlier. It had been a glorious day that had given us a heartfelt insight into the peace and understanding of the old ways.
Since then, the annual Three Wells Walk has become an established tradition on the first Sunday in May every year, and 1995 will be its 7th anniversary. Every single year the weather has been beautiful, and every year numbers have grown until there are now about two dozen participants. Some families with young children may only do the first leg, and some may have lifts waiting for them at Madron! But most do the whole walk, and whatever their individual faiths and beliefs, all join in the simple healing and blessing ceremony at the last well, sometimes with some gentle chanting and meditating. The Three Wells Walk is more than a walk; it is a way of welcoming in the Spring at sacred places of our precious heritage, and knowing that by walking in the footsteps of our forebears, we are helping to keep alive the profound spirituality of these most special places.
In the Editorial to Source 3, we remarked that we knew of no firmly-established neo-pagan ritual practices specifically associated with particular holy wells. Shortly afterwards we received the [above] article, submitted by Cheryl Straffon, the editor of Meyn Mamvro, describing an annual pilgrimage made to three wells in the far west of Cornwall. Cheryl’s beautiful and evocative account is a welcome addition to our ‘spirituality of the wells’ series of articles. Su Bayfield’s drawings of the three wells were originally done to illustrate an article in Meyn Mamvro, and we are grateful to Cheryl and Ms Bayfield for permission to re-use them here. – Eds
Text © Cheryl Straffon (1995) | Illustrations © Su Bayfield (1995)
Designed & Maintained by Richard L. Pederick (© 1999) | Created 22/11/99