Well Hopper

Exploring the ancient holy wells and healing wells of North Wales

Ffynnon Fair, Uwchmynydd, Aberdaron

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Here we are, beyond Aberdaron at the tip of the Llyn Peninsula, a small inlet, guarded by sharp rocks with a direct view across the sea to Bardsey Island – the journey’s end for many Welsh pilgrims who would have embarked for the final sea crossing to Bardsey, if not from this dangerous and uninviting looking inlet, then from one of the neighbouring bays. Pilgrimages aside, this inlet and many other, scattered around this tip of the peninsula have been home to sailors, fishing boats and the like for centuries; St Mary’s Chapel on the cliffs above stood there as a refuge and place of prayer for them and her well here as a source of water.

St Marys Well

The well is a natural spring, a small rock lined pool in the cliff side, inaccessible at high tide, and easy to mistake for just another rock pool as the sea recedes. In fact, it was only after tasting the saltiness of several rock pools that we finally identified St Mary’s Well itself by the taste of its pure, fresh water. The well is not safely accessible at high tides, some authors have suggested that it is actually wholly under the sea at high water, although others state that this definitely is not normally the case. All I know is that on the occasion of our first visit the tide was much to high to get a chance to see the well, it took a second visit, and a check with the tide tables before setting off, before we found the well.

St Marys Well

It is reached from a grassy car park at Uwchmynydd, in the cleft between Mynydd Gwyddel and Mynydd Mawr, provided there on the hillside above for walkers. It is, initially, half heartedly, signposted from Aberdaron, but the signing gives up half way, and without a map it would be more luck than judgement if you were to find the spot.

Follow the stream down into the inlet, and to its right there are steps carved into the rock that lead the way. At the foot of the steps a climb and scramble across the cliff face to the right for some 20 yards is necessary to reach the well which lies in a small natural triangular basin in the cliff face, lined with grass. There you can perch on the rocks beside the well, watching the waves break below you and beside you.

Grisiau Mair, St Mary’s StairsIMG_4077

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The strangeness of a fresh water pool so close to the sea, so inaccessible, has led to legends and customs arising around it over the centuries. There are wells dedicated to St Mary across Wales, however there are few which claim to have been visited by the Lady herself, but here. it  was claimed, she rode across the sea and drank from the well. If you search carefully you are able to find the imprint of her hand where she placed it on the rock beside the well, and elsewhere the imprint of her horse’s hoof.

 One evening, a local girl was wandering by the church, desperately wanting to make a wish. At that point a stranger appeared and told her the powers of the well and what she should do to achieve her desire. The instructions given soon became passed around the youths of the area and the well became a noted wishing well.  Catherall provides one scathing description from his history in the early 19th century

In the time of Popery this well, which was only accessible at low water was much frequented by devotees who superstitiously believed that if they could carry but a mouthful of water, by a circuitous and dangerous path to the summit of the hill their wish, whatever it might be would be surely gratified.

To be sure of the wish being granted the water had to be carried either once or thrice around the church. St Mary’s Chapel (Capel Fair) stood on the flat ground above the inlet. A church used by sailors and fisher families to pray for safety before sailing out into the dangerous channel. Now totally vanished, its description remains from past records and sketches. The Ancient Monuments record indicates it being a rectangular building about 40 feet by 22 feet within an enclosure around 40 yards square. The area being bounded by a field system indicating medieval cultivation. It was reported as being in ruin in the early 18th century and the remains were still visible at the end of the 18th century, being the subject of an etching by Moses Griffiths used to illustrate Pennant’s account of his visit.

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We can’t leave St Mary’s Well without remembering an earlier well hopper, whose fate demonstrates well the perils of visiting this well. Joan Abbott Parry, the daughter of Manchester judge Edward Parry, tried to climb across the rocks to the well on 6th September 1904, a few days before her 16th birthday. Either missing her footing on the cliff edge or being hit by a wave, she was swept out to sea and drowned. A £20 reward was advertised for the recovery of her body, which was eventually buried in the churchyard at Aberdaron. [1]

Bardsey island

Bardsey Island  from St Mary’s Well

[1] Perrin Jim (1997) Spirits of Place, Gomer Press

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