Well Hopper

Exploring the ancient holy wells and healing wells of North Wales


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Deborah’s Well, Gwernaffield

deborahs well4We launch into 2015 with an oddity, a well that failed to cure. Deborah’s Well lies by the side of the road to Cadole from Gwernaffield, just to the west of Mold. The only account of its history that I have found anywhere dates from the 1980s and was written by local historian, the late Councillor Arthur Smith.

That the name of Deborah has some historical association with the area is undoubted. The woodland close to the well site is known as Deborah’s Wood and a field opposite also carries her name. A lead mine seam, dug in the late nineteenth century is marked on contemporary maps as the Deborah seam. However, no well, named or unnamed, appears on any of the OS maps back to the 1870s.

Cllr Smith’s account of the history of the well, first written in a local history magazine, is engraved on a metal plaque mounted beside the well. It tells of an outbreak of cholera in the area. Deborah led the healthy residents into the hills above the village in hopes of avoiding the disease. She established a hospital in the woods above the well as a refuge from the outbreak. However, despite her precautions cholera reached her hospital and the villagers died. Survivors then concluded that the spread of the disease was not a natural inevitability but rather a direct result of Deborah’s actions and concluded that she must be a witch and responsible for the deaths. They burned down the hospital with her inside.

deborahs well3

We find some obvious holes and inconsistencies in the story. The account on the plaque beside the well sets the story in the 16th century although a retelling in a local history pamphlet adjusts the date to the 6th century. Both accounts in passing refer to a local chieftain, Byffna, supposedly buried in a stone cyst close to the site, although they fail to mention whether or not the story of Deborah is linked to Byffna. Clearly the survival of a story in local folklore from the 6th century may be harder to credit than one from the 16th century and perhaps the possibility of it being a much later invention to explain the naming of local landmarks increases.

In addition, whichever date is chosen, we must note that cholera did not appear in the UK until much later and could not have been the disease Deborah sought to avoid. Clearly in a story passed down through successive generations these specific details may easily mutate in response to current attitudes and fears.

The site we see today includes the plaque bearing Cllr Smith’s account and a stone monument with the name of the well. The well itself is enclosed on three sides by a low stone wall. The whole site was constructed in 1989 as a gift to the village by the local quarry company on the instigation of Cllr Smith, and was unveiled then with much ceremony. I do not know what, if anything occupied the site prior to this time.

deborahs well2

A final story of the site, again from Cllr Smith’s account, tells of an event late one night in 1972. A couple were driving home stopped close to the site. A woman, with flames leaping from her hair ran from the woods. The couple fled, but when they returned the next day, no evidence or accounts of injury could be found. This we must assume was the spirit of Deborah, seen fleeing from her burning hospital.

deborahs well1

ref: A Photographic History of Gwernymynydd Village. (no date) http://www.community-council.org.uk/gwernymynydd/


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news: Ffynnon Dyfnog, Llanrhaeadr

I was thinking over the holidays that much of my reporting here in recent months has taken the form of revisiting and revising previous posts as wells are cleared, investigated or other changes take place. While obviously it is useful to have all the information regarding a site in one place, and that information should be as up to date as possible, the blog was created as a record of visits to sites, and as the entry changes that spontaneity of recording what we see becomes lost.

I considered the idea of shorter update posts, linked back to the original to document how things change on succeeding visits, and I suspect a combination of the two – sometimes editing the original, particularly to correct or update the history; and separate updates to highlight changes may be my way forward.

This also allows me to bring in news items which may arise, and I was immediately handed a good example of this when my attention was drawn to this item on the BBC news website this weekend.

6th Century St Dyfnog’s Well to be restored

We have noted in the past the campaign and plans to restore Ffynnon Ddyfnog at Llanrhaeadr and it seems as though these plans may finally be coming to fruition, which we should welcome. I suspect that there may be some element of journalistic hyperbole in the BBC account that might lead one to assume that a wholesale redevelopment is planned at Llanrhaeadr which I am sure is  not the case.

The report is relatively light in detail, and I suspect this represents the state of planning at present where an outline wish list may be ready without concrete details of the precise form it may take. A visitor centre can take on many forms, from a full blown, paid for, audio visual experience to a shelter housing interpretative posters, earlier evidence  suggested something along the lines of  the latter was planned here, which would form a welcome addition at this  location;although the new BBC article states “The group now intends to create a £300,000 religious tourist attraction, environmental centre and education facility.” which does sound like something on a wholly different scale. Images of a St Dyfnog theme park briefly pass before the eyes, though I suspect (and hope) that the quoted price tag is actually largely made up of  the full cost of all the restoration and landscaping works rather than being blown on computer wizardry.

We are certainly not of the persuasion that sites such as this should be preserved as they stand for posterity. This has never happened in the past and it is normally relatively meaningless, a bit like musical chairs, to say that centuries of change and development should suddenly be stopped and frozen at some arbitrary moment in time. The well we see at present is part of such a progression, probably owing more to eighteenth century outdoor bathing and nineteenth century landscaping habits than to the activities of sixth century saints or medieval pilgrims. I assume that the pool we see today would be totally unrecognisable to those who visited three, five or seven hundred years ago.

Thus, like so many, the site is complex with a chequered history and what happens next is merely the latest in a chain of re-imaginings for the site. One would hope that as a part of any works and archaeological investigation would be carried out which might enable some of the previous changes to be better understood and included within the interpretation provided for the site.

Regular readers may know that I might appear hard to please, having complained about both sites that have become overgrown and allowed to deteriorate and at the same time criticising the manicured, council maintained wells that appear to have been drained of all character in their restoration. There must be some happy medium of protecting a site from tourist feet whilst at the same time preserving some element of its prevailing atmosphere and we believe that this is what is planned and Llanrhaeadr. We shall, of course follow developments with interest.


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Ffynnon Sanctaidd, Carnguwch

The Nefyn road out of Llanaelhaearn climbs steeply up towards Bwlch yr Eifl. On the right rises Tre’r Ceiri, which so often as we pass seems to be cloaked in mist, its top is home to the amazing remains of an Iron Age hill fort later a Romano British settlement; stone hut circles and ramparts appear scattered randomly everywhere across the hill top. On a clear day the summit provides views of the sea on both sides of the peninsula – Nefyn to the north and Abersoch to the south. Nearby, on the opposite side of the road slightly dwarfed by its neighbour is the rounded, cairn topped Mynydd Carnguwch.

Beuno's church, carnguwch

St Beuno’s church at Carnguwch and its associated holy well shelter close to the foot of the mountain, around the far side from Tre’r Ceiri. It is best reached by a lane to the left, signposted to the church just as you reach Llithfaen. From this lane a downwards sloping track leads towards the church which sits in the middle of a field. Established since at least the 13th century, it was substantially rebuilt in the 19th century but soon after abandoned as the population centre moved away from the surrounding farming communities towards expanding Llithfaen and new churches were built there to save worshippers the muddy slog across the fields. Now deconsecrated Beuno’s church is maintained by a Friends of Carnguwch Church group. The church was locked, with no indication of where to find a key,  so we couldn’t visit it, but signs of recent work and new windows on one side suggest that it is still being looked after.

The original church it is claimed was founded by Beuno, from his based up the road at Clynnog his influence spread along the Llyn. Some texts give a nod to a little known St Cuwch though evidence for her influence, or even existence is minimal. The only story that any text seems to quote regarding the church and its well derive from Myrddin Fardd’s note that a vessel of well water was kept by the door of the church and a brush, known as ysgub y cwhwfan was used to sprinkle water over each member of the congregation as he or she entered the church. Fardd implies that this custom remained within living memory when he collected information in the early twentieth century.

Ffynnon Sanctaidd, Carnguwch

The holy well, Ffynnon Sanctaidd is known to lie close by the church. Fardd says that at one time it was surrounded by a stone construction with steps down to the water on either side. Of this little if anything remains. There are a number of small springs close by marked on the map, and at least two different reports as to which is Ffynnon Sanctaidd. We examined several, and the most likely looking candidate appeared to be that documented in around 2005 during a widespread survey of the wells on the Llyn Peninsula by Gwynedd County Council although the grid reference on their record is a kilometre out. This spring lies some 300 yards to the north east of the church at the foot of a steep bank marking the division between the foot of Mynydd Carnguwch and the plain of the River Erch.

Ffynnon Sanctaidd, Carnguwch

A strong spring rises at this point forms a stream flowing southwards towards the Erch. Although no evidence of structure remains there is stone littered around and in the stream bed. The pool is in a small hollow in the landscape suggesting that steps may well have once been needed for access.

Ffynnon Sanctaidd, Carnguwch

Continue on along the track around Mynydd Carnguwch and you return to the main road. In the field on the right hand side as you approach the junction the remains of a building can be seen. This was the cottage of Cae Garw, and beside it another well once in much repute and visited for cures for rheumatism and warts. Again, in line with a very common tradition a pin was cast into the well, one for each wart, to obtain a cure.

Early maps show a spring immediately to the south of the house, and the ground here is till very boggy with reeds growing from it. However, an earlier description of Cae Garw gave it as a strong stream issuing from the ground. It seems as though the spring has now been tapped to form a local water supply. Towards the eastern side of the field there is a large concrete tank, from which an overflow streams across the field. We assume that this now represents the flow of Ffynnon Cae Garw.

Ffynnon Cae Garw, Carnguwch


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Ffynnon Fair, Nefyn

nefyn insertVery very little is written about Ffynnon Fair, St Mary’s Well, in Nefyn which might be considered surprising considering its prominent position by the side of the main road through the town. This location, on the main route from Caernarfon to Aberdaron leads to the inevitable assumption that this was once a significant well on the Bardsey pilgrimage trail, falling as it does in quick succession after the important wells of St Beuno at Clynnog and St Aelhaearn at Llanaelhaearn. Nefyn was a thriving town throughout the pilgrimage period and home to a priory close to the well site.

What we see today, however are the  remains not of a holy well but of Victorian municipal building, the well, the original of which may not have been at this precise location,  having been converted to a town water supply in 1868, a fact commemorated by two plaques, one in Welsh, the other in English on either side of the building. Steps lead down from the roadside to a metal grill through which the remains of silted water can be seen, but we cannot determine whether the foundations are the remains of an earlier pool or whether the whole is the work of the nineteenth century.

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Ffynnon Cawrdaf, Abererch

St Cawrdaf AbfererchSt Cawrdaf’s Well
The former parish of Abererch, now included within that of Llannor, extended to the north and west of Pwllheli. The church is dedicated to St Cawrdaf, and his holy well is to be found in a field some half mile to the north west of the church. Parts of the church building date from the fourteenth century, although as with many of the local churches it was substantially reconstructed in the nineteenth century

In the field of Welsh saints where nothing is particularly certain Cawrdaf’s history is murkier and more vague than most. He appears in early stories with links to King Arthur. He was probably a missionary to the area and a disciple of St Seriol, the church at Llangoed on Anglesey, close to Seriol’s monastery, is also dedicated to Cawrdaf

Bartrum mentions that his name appears on the list of “seven happy cousins” alongside Cybi, Beuno, Dewi and Seriol, which must surely be a good company to be in; although once again he points out that some sources omit Cawrdaf from the list including instead alternative happy cousins in his place.. His feast day is celebrated on December 5th.

The well is now enclosed in a small brick building, completely overgrown with brambles which made a close examination of the structure impossible. Myrddin Fardd records that the well was once reputed to cure all ills. The Royal Commission on Ancient and Historic Monuments reported in 1964 that the building stands on a surround of stone slabs which “may be ancient”. The stones do remain but could only just be glimpsed through the thorns.
Ffynnon Cawrdafb Abererch

The water still flows, however, demonstrated by the steady stream that emerges from the front of the structure flowing across the field before it.

There are two other noted wells in the parish, one supposedly dedicated to Cadarch, who some histories have suggested was Cawrdaf’s brother although others fail to associate in any way with the area; the other is Ffynnon Gwynedd, a well Fardd records to have been used in divination. I was unable to get access to either of these on this visit, but hopefully will have a chance to report on these in future.

Ffynnon Cawrdafb Abererch


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Ffynnon Badrig, Llanbadrig

llanbadrig churchSt Patrick’s church at Llanbadrig stands high on the cliff tops looking out across the Irish Sea and the Wylfa power station near Cemaes. A wedding was just finishing as I arrived and I waited as guests released mauve helium balloons which floated away along the cliff top path.

The guests and I were clearly lucky this July day, Angharad Llwyd described very different weather conditions at the church:

The church is built most inconveniently upon a cliff washed by the Irish sea, and so near the sea that during the prevalence of northerly or north-westerly winds, the waves break over it with such violence, as to interrupt, and frequently to prevent the performance of divine service, and even the funeral service has been unavoidably deferred for several days, during the continuance of those winds, at which times the church is altogether inaccessible.[1]

llanbadrig church

St Patricks has popularly always been associated with the Irish patron saint, its feast day occurs on March 17th. One story has it that he was shipwrecked on the small rocky outcrop known as Middle Mouse or Ynys Badrig, a hundred yards or so offshore. He managed to swim ashore where he found a welcoming cave and spring of fresh water. Thanking God for his unlikely survival he founded this church on the spot. The more mundane though probably more realistic alternative is that this was the bay from which he set sail on his journey to Ireland.

More usual now is to attribute its founding instead to Padrig ab Alfryd of Arfon. Francis Jones in his Holy Wells of Wales attributes the well to this saint, following the line of Baring Gould and Fisher’s Lives of the British Saints. Bartrum’s 1993 Welsh Classical Dictionary also gives Padrig ab Alfryd as the church’s titular saint. [2,3,4] Padrig was a member of Cybi’s community at nearby Holyhead.

Deborah Crawford [5] has recently put up a very spirited and convincing argument for the reassociation of the site with the Irish apostle. I tend to think that this is the correct attribution, although it is not my purpose here to take sides.

The well and cave are on the headland between the church and the sea. Neither is particularly easy to access. A study of ten years or so ago looked at the potential of including reference to the well on the local tourist trail, but nothing seems to have come of it, probably on safety grounds, and the vicar, as he locked up the church after the wedding, warned me to take care getting down there.

ffynnon badrig, llanbadrig

Having dealt with the likes of Ffynnon Fair by Aberdaron, however, Ffynnon Badrig offered few problems. A steeply sloping track close to the stile leads down to the rocks around Patricks cave, Ogof Padrig. On the way down you should look out for the imprints of the saint’s feet in the rock, I don’t think I spotted them. The cave might have provided a welcome refuge from the storm, but filled with massive boulders it does not look like a place that any saint would want to live in for long.

There is though that important fresh water spring. Possibly more than one, since pools of fresh water are dotted around the area, flowing through channels in the rocks down to the sea. There is one large pool formed in a rocky cleft on the path, visible from the top, as you climb down. This is fed from a small spring in the rocks. This I initially take to be Ffynnon Badrig. There are some accounts place it below the cave and there may be a spring within the case itself although i couldn’t see any evidence of it below the large rocks on the cave floor. There are certainly substantial volumes of fresh water running in pools and streams in front of the cave.

Is one specific pool then Ffynnon Badrig? There is no evidence or record of any structure having existed that might point to specific use. I suspect that in its modern interpretation it is the body of fresh water in its entirety that forms Ffynnon Badrig, whether the source of this is a single spring or two or more springs drawing from the same subterranean source.

This is a view of the large pool at the foot of the pathway

ffynnon badrig, llanbadrig

This is water from the springs below the cave which flow down towards the cliff edge and into the sea. from existing documentation I believe that this body of water best represents Ffynnon Badrig.

ffynnon badrig, llanbadrig

Ffynnon Badrig was well known in older times. The Gruffydd’s [6] tell us that its water was once in demand for treating the disorders of children and that it was bottled and sold in fairs and markets across Anglesey. It was also claimed to be effective for rheumatism and toothache.

The Gruffydd’s book also suggests that there is a second Ffynnon Badrig in the east of the parish near Northwen. I have tried tracking down this spring but as yet have been unable to pinpoint it.

[1] Angharad Llwyd(1833) . The History of the Isle of Mona, Ruthin
[2] Francis Jones(1954) . Holy Wells of Wales. Cardiff UP.
[3] S Baring Gould and J Fisher (1908) Lives of the British Saints
[4] Peter Bartrum (1993) Welsh Classical Dictionary. National Library of Wales
[5] Deborah Crawford (2014) The Saint of Llanbadrig: A Contested Dedication. E-Keltoi 8 (57-95)
[6] Eirlys and Ken Lloyd Gruffydd (1999) Ffynhonnau Cymru.  Carreg Gwalch, Llanrwst

Ogof Badrig


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Ffynnon Iestyn, Llaniestyn

St Iestyn’s Well

st iestyn This was a second visit to Llaniestyn, both on particularly gloomy, wet days, though I’m sure this is coincidence and not characteristic of the place.

Llaniestyn is a small, sparse parish close to Llanddona in the south eastern corner of Anglesey. Iestyn, its patron, is said to have been a nephew of local hero Cybi, and a brother to Saint Cyngar. A second parish is dedicated to him on the Llŷn Peninsula and he was also active further south, in Cornwall and Brittany. Some commentators suggest that he is the same saint as Justin or Just. His feast day is celebrated on October 10th.

The main item of note in the church is a striking 14th century relief of Iestyn, in the distant past it was thought to be his grave slab, but its date shows that it couldn’t be. It used to lie flat by the altar, but which is now upright on one of the walls. The parish was once a part of the lands of the priory at Llanfaes. Angharad Llwyd describes a stained glass depiction of St Catherine here in the early 19th century, but there is no evidence of it now, or any other recollection of it.

Iestyn’s well is rarely referred to in any of the descriptions of the parish. The only account that I have found is that in Jones’ Holy Wells of Wales,[1] which is repeated in the Gruffydd’s Fynhonnau Cymru [2]. They record that water from the well was taken into the church for use in baptisms; and also that the local population refused to drink from the well believing the water to be cursed. This may be due to the local tradition of taking corpse pennies, the coins use to close the eyes of the dead, and throwing them into the well following a funeral.

I have been given two potential locations for the well. Jones places it nearby in the corner of a field on Tyddyn Uchaf land; the Gruffydds qualify this by stating that it is to the north of the church. The most obvious location for this is marked on the map as a well beside the drive to the house now known as Tan-y-fynwent. Access to this location is very clearly unwelcome as shown below. I just assume that this is to prevent the unwary from falling victim to the curse.

ff iestyn

There is another spring in the corner of a Tyddyn Uchaf field to the east, this too was inaccessible, and probably to far away from paths to be a prime candidate.

An alternative site that has been given is a well within a thicket to the east of the church. This is much closer to the road from Llanddona, but would have been accessible if the thicket has not been so dense in the past. Brambles and undergrowth restricted access, but the well is shown below.

ff iestyn

Maybe this was the well, and maybe the curse is still active. Certainly for the rest of the day after taking these pictures my camera refused to work.

This has to be a work in progress type of post, questions about Ffynnon Iestyn remain open, and I’m sure further visits will be required. Maybe next time it won’t be quite so rainy.

ff iestyn

[1] and [2] – see references page

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