Well Hopper

Exploring the ancient holy wells and healing wells of North Wales


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Well Hopper

So what has changed recently?

15.08.2015 – Ffynnon Oledd, Llanaber added
11.08.2015 – Ffynnon Decwyn, Llandecwyn added
03.07.2015 – Ffynnon Fihangel, Ffestiniog added
13.06.2015 – Ffynnon Fair, Maentwrog added
06.05.2015 – Ffynnon Ddeiniol, Llanfor added


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Ffynnon Oledd, Llanaber

Cerrig Arthur. Photo wellhopper
Were I ever to suffer from rheumatism I think treatment at this well would be one of my last resorts. From a small car park provided to serve walkers to a nearby panoramic viewpoint, quiet, above Barmouth teeming with visitors on a very hot August day, I climbed for almost two hours up into the hills to find this well. Admittedly, the time was somewhat extended by my getting lost a couple of times, but this must still be a good two or three mile walk from the car park. The well is about a mile to the NNE of the farm Sylfaen marked on OS maps, and the route passes through a small stone circle, with two standing stones at the centre, known as  Cerrig Arthur.

It is difficult to determine who the main users of this well would have been.it is hard to imagine rheumatic residents of Barmouth making the journey, although people were much more hardy back then and thought nothing of walking substantial distances. More likely, I suspect, these hillsides were much busier in the past. There are remains of dwellings scattered around, and the several trackways that converge around the well were quite possibly major thoroughfares and driving routes before the A496 was built to speed people along between Barmouth and Dolgellau.

ffynnon Oledd. Photo wellhopper

The well itself is of dry stone construction, built up against and partially into a stone field boundary. There are three steps leading down into the pool from one corner. The pool is some 4 feet long and 3 feet wide, the water was maybe a foot deep, covering a stone bottom to the pool. As can be seen it is overgrown with ferns and pond weed. Water enters from a small gap in the stonework on the western side and flows out through a channel, covered by a very large flat piece of stone on the east. It flows away forming a substantial stream down the hillside towards the farm buildings of Goledd with which it shares its name.

The well, and its believed efficacy for curing rheumatism and scorbutic complaints are noted in the inventory of the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historic Monuments. This information is repeated by Jones in his Holy Wells of Wales (1954), who adds an alternative version of the name without the mutation,  Ffynnon Goledd, citing a piece in Bygones from 1880 as his source.

ffynnon Oledd. Photo wellhopper

ffynnon Oledd. Photo wellhopper

ffynnon Oledd. Photo wellhopper

ffynnon Oledd. Photo wellhopper


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Ffynnon Decwyn, Llandecwyn

A couple of miles to the south west of Maentwrog we come to the church of St Tegwyn (also written as Tecwyn) at Llandecwyn. Tegwyn is supposed to have arrived in the area with Cadfan and a number of others who have left dedications in the area. Some writers have suggested that he and Twrog were brothers, although this is not a common belief, one thing they did have in common was the large stone that bore their name. However, whilst Twrog’s stone remains beside his church, Tegwyn’s was apparently broken up at some time during the eighteenth century to be used to construct a new barn.

The church too, is of relatively recent construction; the previous church was completely demolished and rebuilt around 1879. There is one small inscribed stone built into the new church wall that dates from one of the previous buildings commemorating St Tegwyn.

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Like his stone, Tegwyn’s well has also been reused, and according to an information sheet within the church has now been recycled to provide a water supply to the nearby farm Plas Llandecwyn. The well was recorded in 1699 by Lhuyd, whose record states

Ffynnon Degwyn is by Plas Degwyn not far from the church.

In 1914 the site was visited by the Royal Commission on Ancient  and Historic Monuments compiling their inventory for Merionethshire. They wrote

Near Plas Llandecwyn is a spring which flows into a cavity about 3 feet at the front and 2 feet at the back by a breadth of 21 inches; the water stands in its rock cistern to the depth of 14 inches and as there is a slight but steady flow the water is kept sweet. There can be little doubt that this is the well noted by Lhuyd, but the name of Tecwyn is not now connected with it.

The grid reference provided in the Coflein inventory for this site is SH 63173742. This area is shown in the photograph below, and can be seen to be completely covered in bracken. Despite our best efforts we could find no trace of the feature described in 1914. If since that period the spring has been diverted to provide for Plas Llandecwyn then it is quite possible that the remains of the spring no longer exist. This would appear to be a case of as whatever community once existed around this very isolated site dispersed the folk memories associated with the landscape died too. The stone and well lost any special associations and were readily reused as more immediate needs prevailed. As a result  I am unable to find a record of any particular practices associated with the well.

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To record what does remain of the site it clearly  appears necessary to return to explore it again in the winter – I would be interested to learn whether there would be any merit in doing so and if any reader of this item knows if any remnants of the spring may  be seen.

The Royal Commission report concludes by noting

The Inspecting Officer’s attention was directed to a spot about 330 yards north east of the church where is a hole about 21 inches square cut into the rock at the level of the road, water dripping within and overflowing the road.

We were unable to find this feature during this visit.


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Ffynnon Fihangel, Ffestiniog

IMG_5676 - small We visited Ffynnon Fihangel, St Michael’s Well, on the Crimea pass between Dolwyddelan and Ffestiniog in 2013, reporting on the noted fallen stone there, with the countless names of visitors carved into it, and a small spring emerging beneath.  Correspondence and comments received since have thrown into doubt whether this spring is actually known as Ffynnon Fihangel, it may just have been a misrecording, although it still appears as such in the Historic Environment Record (HER); and while it may possibly remain as an important site, linked with 19th century preachers, what is certain is that it is not the Ffynnon Fihangel of Ffestiniog.

This spring lies a few miles further along the road at Manod, about half way between Llan Ffestiniog and Blaenau Ffestiniog.  The spring here lies equally as close to the A470 as the previous one, and is perhaps equally as lucky to have survived recent road improvements. It is covered by the remains of a small building, built probably in the mid 19th century called Ffynnonddwr. It is beside a fast flowing stream ion private land belonging to the farm Y Ffynnon.  

At present nothing can be seen of the spring itself as it lies buried under the debris of the collapsed building and the build-up of earth inside; however the spring still flows strongly emerging from the end wall of the cottage and flowing towards the southwest to join the stream. We are referring  to this as Ffynnon Fihangel now although it has not always been known as such in recent times. The earliest known reference to the name Ffynnon Fihangel being applied to this spring is from a map of 1795; later maps refer to it simply as Y Ffynnon. Williams in his History of the Parish of Ffestiniog (1882), which provides this 1795 information, suggests that until the beginning of the 19th century the well attracted numerous visitors looking for cures for arthritis, paralysis and seizures; although it might have fallen out of popular use relatively early in the 19th century, to the extent that a house could have been built over it. Visitors to the well continued into the 20th century. Emrys Evans (1997) records a case of it being resorted for a cure for a sprained ankle early in the 20th century. IMG_5686  

Evans identified one description of the spring, from Owen Roberts a local poet who wrote in 1910 that the spring was in a six sided bath with two steps down into the water. Evans also suggests that a relative of Roberts had lived in the house during 1881 and that Roberts would have been familiar with the spring.  By 1914 when the Royal Commission visited to record the Ancient Monuments of Merionethshire the house was in ruins and there was no sign of any bathing pool. They recorded it only as Y Ffynnon (The Well)

 This is not so much a well as a spring of water which, rising beneath the floor of an old ruined house, flows copiously through an iron pipe from under the ruins. It is still resorted to by sufferers from rheumatism, fractured limbs and other maladies, but not to the same extent as in former days. For this reason it has been suggested that it might have been the old sacred well of Ffestiniog but it is not associated with any saint and is known only as Y Ffynnon.

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According to the notes on the Archwilio website, the owner of the farm in the 1990s believed the building was the remains of the old church of St Michael and that water from the spring had been carried to many churches in the area for use in baptism. I am not aware of any other written evidence for this idea. On the basis of a visit in 1994 another note state that there are actually two buildings on the site connected by 6 slate steps.  

Efforts to restore the spring in the 1990s appear to have come to nothing, and thus it remains buried within the ruins of the cottage beside the stream, gradually being taken over by rampantly growing Japanese Knotweed.

G J Williams (1882) Hanes Plwyf Ffestiniog

Emrys Evans (1997) in Llygad Y Fynnon No 2,  Cymdeithas Ffynhonnau Cymru, Summer 1997

RCAHMW (1921) Inventory of the Historic and Ancient Monuments of Merionethshire

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The floor under which the spring rises
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water emerging on the south west side of the building
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Ffynnon Fair, Maentwrog

ThMaen Twroge village of Maentwrog, beside the road from Ffestiniog to Porthmadog is a place of steep steps and slopes, a village where, in places, it seems that you look out at your neighbour’s house at chimney level. This topography must have helped sixth century St Twrog who, it is claimed, once launched a massive boulder from the top of Moelwyn, a hill to the north of the village, neatly crushing a pagan altar in the valley below, close to where he built his church. This stone remains in place beside the church and gives the village its name – Maen Twrog – Twrog’s stone.

Twrog we find in Lives of the British Saints, he may be the brother of saints Trillo, Lechid and Tegai, all of whom we have come across as having been active in the local area, Wells dedicated to Trillo and Llechid we have visited previously. Twrog was possibly a disciple of Beuno at Clynnog and is reputed to have written the long lost Book of St Beuno which once lay in Clynnog church.

Twrog himself has two churches dedicated in his name in Llandwrog and Bodwrog. His feast day is celebrated on June 26th.  The present church in Maentwrog, dating from the early nineteenth century,and having been extended and improved in the 1890s is not dedicated to Twrog, instead it is St Mary’s.. Some sources do suggest that previously the local church was dedicated to St Twrog, The well too carries the name Ffynnon Fair, St Mary’s Well.

Although the information sheet provided in the church informs the visitor that St Mary’s Well can be seen in the village, it gives no indication at all as to how and where to find it. Fortunately we were forearmed with a route and climbing the steep steps opposite the church, turning right at the top in front of a row of cottages and then bearing left up towards another terrace we soon reached Ffynnon Fair. It lies around 80 yards to the south east of the church on a sloping hillside immediately north of this second terraced row, again the name gives it away, Bron Fair.

The spring itself is enclosed in a slate tank, some three feet high, three feet deep and around two feet wide. From the front water flows, or leaks into a concrete gully and down into a drain. When we visited the tank was almost covered in ivy and brambles, and if we had not known what we were looking for we could have easily passed it by.

Ffynnon Fair Maentwrog

This housing would appear not to have changed in over 100 years, since the description provided by the Royal Commission when they visited in 1914 to compile its Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Merioneth matches exactly what we see today. They stated that the spring is used as a water supply for the neighbouring houses, so we may suppose the slate tank was constructed at the same time as the terrace in the nineteenth century.

Ffynnon Fair Maentwrog

Apart from its name, nothing seems to mark it out as a particularly special site. I have found no account regarding any particular customs practised at the well or of any special properties of the water. Clearly this is the holy well of Maentwrog, but beyond its name all history has been lost.

Ffynnon Fair Maentwrog


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news: Ffynnon Elen, Dolwyddelan

Ffynnon Elen, Dolwyddelan

I have written in the past concerning the restoration of wells and of the potential conflict between retaining the characteristic atmosphere and environment of the site while preserving and presenting the structure for the future.. While obviously, by their definition, many wells have had spiritual functions and had specific powers attached by visitors throughout time; there can be a tendency to the romanticising of these springs today, applying particular twenty first century viewpoints and sensibilities to sites sometimes somewhat removed from their original uses. It is this perception that can be often severely degraded by restoration. There is a danger in restoration that a site can become over-sanitised, as I have in the past highlighted  at one or two locations, and thus lose the very characteristic environment that continues to draw visitors. Still I would argue that restoration and preservation, in any form, is almost always better than ignoring the site and allowing further degradation until it is lost forever.

Thus we have taken a close interest in the work carried out at Ffynnon Elen over the last year. When we first visited the site two years ago it was virtually lost. Overgrown with ferns, brambles and small saplings we stumbled around blindly, falling into ditches, in a hunt for what little remained to be seen of the well – see  previous post for more details on the site’s history..

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Since then excavations by archaeologist Bill Jones and members of  the Dolwyddelan Historical Society, supported by the site owners Elen’s Castle Hotel and the National Park Authority, have gradually brought the site back to life, initially felling trees which threatened the structure of the well, then excavating the site and its surrounds to explore the history of a site which is said to date back to Roman times. Finally conserving the site to preserve what remains within a sensitive setting. Comparing the “before”  as seen above and the “after”  seen below indicates the scale of work carried out.

Ffynnon Elen, Dolwyddelan

So we were very pleased yesterday, to join a large crowd to witness the unveiling of the completed restoration and the interpretation boards produced to inform future visitors of the history of the site.

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Ffynnon Elen, Dolwyddelan

The results show what a little lottery funding and a great deal of determination and enthusiasm can produce, and could serve as a model for the investigation and restoration of similar sites elsewhere.

Ffynnon Elen, Dolwyddelan


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Ffynnon Ddeiniol, Llanfor

St Deiniol Church LlanforLlanfor is a small settlement clustered around its church on the right hand side of the road just before you enter Bala from Corwen. The church, dedicated to St Deiniol has been closed since the 1990s. I understood that it had recently been sold when I first visited early last year, but nothing appears to have changed there since then so maybe I was mistaken. It has also, at some times, borne a second dedication to a shadowy little known St Mor. It is more than probable that this is due to a misinterpretation of the name Llanfor which appears more likely to be a corruption of its earlier more usual name Llanfawr.

The well associated with the church lies around 40 yards to the north east, beside a footpath accessible from the rear of the churchyard which runs back west parallel to the road. This path is supposed to be the remnant of the medieval route into the village.

Lhuyd, at the end of the seventeenth century, recorded the spring as Ffynnon Ddeiniol, though by the start of the twentieth century the Royal Commission reported that this name was all but forgotten and that it was generally identified as the old well of the parish. It was then surrounded within a rough stone enclosure some 3 feet by 2 feet 3 inches. It can now be seen within a small, three sided construction of stone, brick and concrete roofed over with a large stone or slate.

ffynnon Deiniol, Llanfor

The field in which the well stood was known as Cae’r ysgubor. In recent years the area around the well has been incorporated within the garden of the house at the foot of the hill. The Royal Commission stated that the stream from the spring once flowed through the churchyard. When we first visited the area around the spring had been landscaped and the stream flowed downhill for about 20 yards before forming an ornamental pond. On this visit we found the area around the spring much more overgrown with the pond drained and abandoned. With no one around it wasn’t possible to get a closer look.

A substantial brick built feature close to the spring raises the possibility that at some time it may have been tapped for a water supply.

ffynnon Deiniol, Llanfor


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Ffynnon Elian, Llanelian yn Rhos

Ffynnon Elian Llaneilan . Photo WellhopperNot in the mystic Elian’s grove,
Did feather’d songsters sing of love,
But birds of omen harbour’d there,
And fill’d with brooding shrieks the air;
The blasted trees so rent and riven,
By fi’ry speed of burning levin,
Had prov’d the bolt and wrath o heaven,
Some stretch their wither’d arms on high,
In scornful mood to mock the sky,
Whilst shadow’d by their branches sear,
And deep, and dark, and dank and drear,
The baneful fountain rises here.

 

At long last we visit another well with a widespread reputation, one that I admit to having put off describing for as long as possible for fear of failing to do it justice. This is the well of St Elian at Llanelian yn Rhos near Colwyn Bay.

The reputation of Ffynnon Elian has spread far and wide, and really for the wrong reasons because from the late 18th century and for much of the 19th century it appears to have been a predominantly bad reputation. The above is drawn from a lengthy dramatic poem by the youthful Charlotte Wardle published in 1814 and titled St Elian’s or the Cursing Well.

It is said that the well first sprang forth at the request of a thirsty St Elian in the 6th century and that in thankfulness for the water, he prayed that whoever should come to the well with faith would be granted their wish. Lhuyd in 1699 (cited in Lives of the British Saints) refers to rituals and offerings carried out there for the cure of sick children. However, while for the vast majority of its active life the spring may have enjoyed a favourable reputation and was resorted to for  healing well it is perhaps inevitable that given such powers it should be those who wished evil rather than those who wished good might eventually take precedence and give the spring such an undeserved bad name and it is difficult not to dwell on this aspect of its history here.

Ffynnon Elian Llaneilan . Photo Wellhopper

We are told that cursing became a big business during the 18th century, with unscrupulous well guardians growing rich by taking advantage of the supposed powers of the spring for their own ends. The idea of a facilitator at the well was not limited to this location and appears to have been a relatively common practice – someone who knew the required procedures that should be followed to ensure the efficacy of the approach to the well and someone willing to take donations, either, as in this case, for their own or in other cases for the church or communities benefit.

When Charlotte Wardle wrote in 1814 the practice appears to be firmly established here, her dramatic piece imagines a local hag paid to place a curse on behalf of the villain of the piece on his enemy.

The witch drew water from the well –
Invok’d the saint, and forthwith sped
Beneath the wave the mystic lead
On which Sir Gryfydd’s name was read;
The charm has pass’d her quiv’ring lips,
And now once more the bowl she dips,
Beneath the darkling surface – then
Repeats her orgies o’er again.

There was apparently quite an established  scale of charges in the early 19th century for cursing at the well, providing both a fee for laying on a curse and a substantially higher one for removing the curse again – thus the well attendant could profit twice and some seemed able to do very well for themselves for providing this service.

Ffynnon Elian Llaneilan . Photo Wellhopper

But probably, side by side with its duties as a curing well, people would have  continued to visit for its original, more positive, reasons. The practice documented by Lhuyd includes the need to empty the well three times during the ritual, a process remembered in the passage from Wardle’s poem quoted above which demonstrates the persistence of the customs, albeit being applied for very different purposes.

Rhys tells of a meeting with an old woman at the well which must have occurred in the 1860s. She could recall pieces of rag being tied to branches of trees around the well with wool. Traditionally this was done around wells by those in search of a cure. This must place the presence of rags around the well in the early 19th century implying double use for curing and cursing even then. She stressed that here natural wool rather than anything that had been spun or treated should be used. The same account refers to sightings of corks with pins stuck into them floating on the well surface. These too had been a common sight throughout the earlier part of the century and these were taken to be emblematic of curses.

The spring was described in 1816 as being circular in shape with a diameter of about 30 inches, covered with a stone arch and sods and enclosed by a strong square wall 7 feet high. It lay in the corner of a field within a grove of trees. (Pugh, 1816 cited by Baring Gould and Fisher). They quote a source suggesting that this structure was destroyed around 1829 in response to the reputation of the well. However a spring is not that easily stopped and customs continued at the site throughout most of the century. Janet Bord cites a number of cases of individuals suffering in the belief that they had been cursed at the well.

The spring has recently been restored by its present owner and historian and is now used to provide a water supply to the nearby house. In memory of its previous history a pipe leads from the bricked up well head feeding a shallow circular basin close by where it collects before running away down the hillside. A stone wall in the nearby bank provides a niche where a small figurine – representing St Elian perhaps, sits; surrounded by the remains of a number of burnt out candles.

Ffynnon Elian Llaneilan . Photo Wellhopper

It is indeed curious that the two wells we have seen in North Wales that both have this reputation of double use in cursing and healing are both dedicated to Elian, the other being at Llaneilian on Anglesey,, although we should remember that cursing at wells is more widespread and not a peculiar preserve of these two sites. There is nothing in St Elian’s life that indicates a predisposition for cursing so although possibly the tradition has spread from one to the other by association with the name or maybe it is just pure coincidence. The conclusion is that both have a much worse reputation than they really deserve.

Ffynnon Elian Llaneilan . Photo Wellhopper

 

references:
S Baring Gould and J Fisher (1907)  Lives of the British Saints
Charlotte Wardle (1814) St Elian’s or the Cursing Well.
Janet Bord (1995) Cursing Not Curing, Source Journal
John Rhys (1893) Sacred Wells in Wales, Folklore Vol 4.

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