Well Hopper

Exploring the ancient holy wells and healing wells of North Wales


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Ffynnon Gemig – St George’s Well, Llansansiôr, Abergele

St George’s Well, Ffynnon Gemig, Ffynnon Gegidog or Ffynnon Lansansiôr (see note at the end on naming) is a well I’ve often intended to visit but until now never stopped off to investigate. Speeding down the A55 to potentially more interesting sites I was often tempted to turn off just after the marble church at Bodelwyddan at the signpost to Llansansiôr, but mainly because I understood that the well was inaccessible I never have until now.

The inaccessible bit is very quickly confirmed and thus again this post will be light on pictures other than those that show the forbidding welcome you receive when you approach the site. The extremely impressive grade 2 listed gates tower above you as you look up the overgrown driveway to the equally impressive Kinmel Hall, the present incarnation of which dates from the 1870s.

The fate of the well in recent years has gone hand in hand with that of the Hall. The hall was used as a hospital during the Second World War, after which it was converted for use as a girls public school. A major fire in 1975 forced the school to close and the hall was reopened as a Christian Conference Centre until this in turn closed in 2001. Since then it appears to have been in the possession of a property development company registered off shore in the British Virgin Islands. Various plans to convert it into a hotel seem to have come to nothing. It appeared on the Victorian Society’s 2015 list of the top ten most endangered buildings.  It stands sad and lonely protected by high fences and apparently a complex system of security cameras, motion sensors and taped warning messages.

During periods when the hall was occupied access to the well was fairly readily available, and indeed at some times the owners were very encouraging. In the early 1970s a local group worked hard to excavate and restore the well, forming a society Friends of St Georges Well to fund and organise the project. Donations were sought to build up a trust fund to ensure that the well could be maintained going forwards. I’m not sure how long the group remained active, but certainly by the 1990s the well was once again becoming lost.

For the history of the well we are indebted to an excellent booklet produced by John Beckett in 1974, the heyday of the well’s restoration project. Beckett does an admirable job in differentiating between the actual recorded history of the well (which is limited) and the later unsubstantiated musings and deviations from fact (which are many). His booklet is something of an object lesson in picking out wheat from the chaff in the writings of antiquarians and folklorists from the 18th through to the 21st century.

According to Beckett virtually all we know of any custom or tradition associated with the well is drawn from two letters to antiquarian Edward Lhuyd dating from 1697 and 1701 in response to his Parochial Queries survey.

The initial response to Lhuyd from the then rector of the parish of St George gave a single sentence concerning the well, a sentence which has given writers free rein to interpret in different ways ever since

Ffynnon Lan San Shor Lhe y bydded ystalm offrymu kyffyle ag hevyd un I’r person. (Ita trad)

Beckett’s translation is

The well of St George where in former days horses used to be offered and also one for the parson according to tradition.

It was the former parson’s successor, new to the village, Humphrey Ffoulkes, who provided further information in 1701 writing

Having just done my Parochial perambulations on Ascension Day…. One of the most material ceremonies in the procession, which was to visit St Georges Well and to read a prayer or two by it as they usually do at a crossroad, the principal standing amongst us.

Our St George has been reckoned the tutelary patron of horses and they have used within these twenty years to bring horses from Caernarfonshire and the Uwchmynydd of Denbighshire to this well where they threw some of the water over the horses saying Rhad duw a St Sior arnat, then offering a groat to the church box.

Beckett focuses on the word offering in relation to the horses, pointing out how this has been interpreted in successive accounts of the well whether horses were either given to the parson alive or even sacrificed at the well.

Pennant, who visited the area some 80 years after these accounts were written, stated that the rich were often wont to offer one to secure his blessing on the rest; but it is Jones in 1954 who says

At this well it would seem that horses were actually sacrificed, one being given to the parson.

Again sacrifice could have a double meaning, either just to go without and give to the parson, or to actually kill. One has to assume that Jones is inferring the latter. It is notable however that even in 1701 Ffoulkes, a parson who might well have benefitted from the donation of a horse omitted to mention the custom, stating that a groat was the accepted offering. Beckett refers to an account from 1535 noting a sum of 23 shillings given in donations at St George’s, though it is not clear whether this is to the church or to the well.

A number of authors have drawn attention to a number of other horse linked place names (Meirch) within the immediate landscape. In particular Parc- y-Meirch is close by, the site of the discovery of a large horde of Bronze Age horse harness fittings in the nineteenth century. Whether the use of the well for horses is linked to a wider set of horse related customs in the area can only be speculation.

Clearly we are left with the conclusion that this well gained a reputation across North Wales as a site for bringing horses to be blessed. This custom had effectively died out by around 1700 although it remained in living memory. However, even then the well formed part of an Ascension Day beating the bounds perambulation (it lies close to the parish boundary) and was, we assume, still known and used. Wells as waymarkers on parish boundaries are common, and the practice of perambulation on certain days of the year with customs at specific points, including wells, was standard practice.

However, use must have declined. Although Pennant mentions its existence he doesn’t report seeing it, nor do other travel writers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. It was clearly not of tourist interest, even those horse-borne, as a noted site for  horse blessing in a village with little else to interest the visitor.

We know that up until around 1871 it wasn’t within the boundaries of the parkland of Kinmel Hall, it is shown as such on the 1871 Ordnance Survey map. Before this it lay within a farm called Gemig, from which it obtains its alternative name Ffynnon Gemig. It sometime during the 1870s, presumably at the time of constructing the present Hall building, that the grounds of Kinmel Hall were extended and the road to the village realigned, at which period the well is pulled into the parkland. Gemig farm appears on the tithe maps but must have been demolished during the extension of the park.

The hall was owned by the Hughes family, and occupied up until the late 1920s. Clearly access to the parkland to some degree must have been available to local residents since it is John Beckett again who says his earliest memories of the well were being taken to sit beside it by his brother at school lunchtimes in around 1906.

At this time all he remembers is a marshy area with some large stones scattered around. The well was visited by the Royal Commission on Historic and Ancient Monuments in Wales in 1912 when compiling their inventory on sites in Denbighshire. They reported that

This spring is situated in a glade of Kinmel Park. It is now nearly dry. The form of the well is a rude oval, about 15 feet long by 8 feet broad; the chamber is constructed of large stones and there is a wide channel for carrying off the overflow.

It was towards the end of the 1960s that a group of locals, John Beckett included, took it upon themselves to thoroughly investigate and restore the well. This would seem to have been done in an organised and professional manner, with advice sought and taken from experts from the RCAHM and the Department of the Environment. Clearance and excavation took place over about four years. During the work in 1973 the site was accorded the status of a scheduled monument.

What was found exceeded all expectation, and a much more complex site was found than that described by the Royal Commission in 1912.  The layout is essentially two square stone lined basins with a stone floor surrounding the two. There is a smaller pool around 30 inches square and to its east a larger pool about five feet by six feet. The spring flows into the smaller basin from where it flows into the larger pool. This two pool layout is reminiscent of other wells including Ffynnon Gybi at Llangybi, Ffynnon Fyw at Mynytho and Ffynnon Wenfaen at Rhoscolyn. There is then a stone lined channel which carries water away to the north east from the larger pool.

The layout is best seen in a photograph taken during the excavation in 1970 by Douglas Hague of the Department for the Environment.  For copyright reasons I will not show it here, although it can be seen at

http://www.coflein.gov.uk/en/archive/6389882/details/504

The tree growing through the side was removed later during the clearance. I have taken the liberty of reproducing a cross section and plan from Beckett’s book.

When the work was finished, stones were replaced an iron fence was constructed around for protection, and initially at least regular maintenance was carried out to prevent weed and tree growth damaging the site.

I’m not sure how long the Friends group was in existence, or whether anything occurred to prevent maintenance of the well. Around 20 years later in August 1996 it was visited by Eirlys and Ken Lloyd Gruffydd of the Welsh Wells Society Cymdeithas Ffynhonnau Cymru. They found it to be

… almost impossible to see the well. Trees were growing through it and there were thorns and brambles everywhere covering the black water with all kinds of vegetation.

Following discussions with the site’s then owners the tenant cleared the well, although it was clear that there was a general intent then to discourage visitors to the well and the openness of the earlier times was gone.

Further photographs and sketches made by Ken Lloyd Gruffydd can be seen here:

http://www.ffynhonnaucymru.org.uk/llan_sain_si%C3%B4r.htm

Around this time proposals were also aired to excavate land below the well and to dam the outflow to form into a pool to attract wildlife to the area. An inspection in 1999 suggested that this might have been done although the site was once again overgrown. It doesn’t show on aerial pictures of the site today.  One assumes that it was following the closure of the conference centre in 2001 that access to the well was effectively lost.

Thus, the fate of the well remains to a great extent subject to the fate of the hall. This isn’t the only case of a massive Victorian building, apparently too important to lose but too expansive to save. Is it inevitable that it is gradually going to crumble into ruin?  And stuck in the middle of this process is a significant, still solidly constructed well complex, potentially one of the best preserved in the area. However there seems no desire to facilitate access to the well.

So here we have learned a salutary lesson, showing that the best laid plans for well restoration can only be short lived without the long term engagement of both community and land owners.

We can only hope, but with little confidence, that at some time in the not too distant future it can once again be cleared and suitable access provided.

On naming
Both parish and well have a number of names. The parish today is generally known as St George, or its direct Welsh translation Llansansiôr. In the 12th century the parish was known as Cegidog,,assumed to be derived from Cegid – hemlock, which grew in abundance. This name has persisted in parallel over the years. Lhuyd’s correspondent in 1697 referred to the well as being the well of Llansansiôr; his successor in 1701 called it St George’s Well.which is how it appears on all mapping of the area.

Up until the mid-nineteenth century the well lay on land belonging to a farm called Gemig,and thus it also carried the name Ffynnon Gemig which is the  name most writers appear to prefer these days. It is also  referred to as Ffynnon Gegidog after the alternative name of the parish.

References

Beckett John (1974) The Well of St Georges (privately printed)
Gruffydd  Eirlys (1996)  Ffynnon Lansansiôr. Llygad y Ffynnon Issue 1
Gruffydd Eirlys (1998)  Ffynnon Gemig, Llansansiôr. Llygad y Ffynnon Issue 5
Gruffydd Eirlys (1999)  Ffynnon Gemig, Llansansiôr. Llygad y Ffynnon Issue 6
Jones Francis (1954) Holy Wells of Wales. Cardiff Univ. Press
Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments in Wales (1914) Inventory –  Denbighshire

Information on Kinmel Hall has been sourced from Wikipedia and from the website of The Victorian Society.

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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.

A full history of this well has been written by Jane Beckerman, available as a self published book through Amazon. Unholy Water? Ffynnon Elian ‘The Cursing Well’. 2017.


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Ffynnon Eidda and Ysbyty Ifan

Ff Eidda

It is, perhaps, its location rather than any history or tradition that draws people to Ffynnon Eidda. Several correspondents recently have suggested that I visit and it always was on my to do list anyway. So last weekend we headed off up the steep climb onto Snowdonia’s Migneint moorland from Ysbyty Ifan. Trickily we chose the day of a massive cycle race and had to dodge upwards of 800 cyclists hurtling downhill towards us as we drove.

Ffynnon Eidda lies around 1500 feet above sea level at a road junction on the B4407 between Ysbyty Ifan and Ffestiniog. It is indeed an impressive structure, standing out on the edge of bleak peat bog moorland. The spring basin, some two feet square is roofed and provided with an entrance enclosure with stone seat. The water is supposedly cold and pure, good to drink, though today it was rather murky, full of pond weed and not all that appealing. The bottom of the basin was covered with coins, evidence of the regularity with which passers by must stop.

The front of the housing bears a number of plaques recording the name of the well, its rebuilding in 1846 and the motto “Yf a bydd diolchgar “ – drink and be grateful.

The well is recorded as a drover’s well, used by the cattle once driven over this pass, heading towards the A5 and away to England. Beside it is the remains of a banked and ditched enclosure which may have been associated with either the spring, maybe a cattle pen used as a stop off point by the drovers or with the farm which once stood close by. The well would have represented a landmark and a convenient resting and refreshment point on the difficult path between Ffestiniog and Ysbyty Ifan – from observations during our visit it still performs a very similar function today .  It is marked and named on the OS maps back into the nineteenth century.

There is little record however of any wider significance of the well, although the Cymdeithas Ffynhonnau Cymru website does suggest that it may have been considered to have beneficial healing qualities at some time. Regarding the derivation of the name, Eidda appears associated to a few geographical features in the area and appears to be derived from the place name, Eidda being a small township to the west of Ysbyty Ifan.

Ff Eidda

Thomas Pennant crossed the route in the 18th century. He describes his journey through the “black and moory mountains” to see nearby Llyn Conwy, and although he would have passed the well he fails to mention the factm suggesting that at that time it was not considered significant.

Ff Eidda

Ff Eidda

Ffynnon Penrhyn

Heading back down into Ysbyty Ifan we passed the final stragglers of the cycle race and, at the roadside entering the village, another stone walled and roofed well. This is Ffynnon Penrhyn, which has no claim to fame other than being an old village water supply. It too has its name and date, 1866, carved in the stone surround. It is fed by a metal pipe in the back wall through which the spring water still streams.

 

Parking outside the church, once the site of a medieval hospital run by the Knights of St John, which gives the village its name, we walked up to a third spring. This is the only one we saw today with any real claims towards healing properties. This is the chalybeate and sulphur well above Tŷ Nant.

 

Until around 1910 the well was enclosed in a wooden hut with seats around for visitors. Any remnants of the hut have long since vanished together with a wooden cover that used to protect the well. However, the slate floor remains giving an indication of the size. At one end there is a bath, with stone sides and bottom, into which the spring water is piped. The outflow runs away down the hillside, the dark brown colour characteristic of the iron rich chalybeate water once so valued as a cure. The mineral content is supposed to be very similar to that of the much more well known Trefriw spring. It is recorded that this well was much resorted to up to the 20th century, Children were sent to soak warts in the basin and bottles and tins of spring water were taken away for drinking. Aching legs and feet would be soaked in the ice cold mineral rich waters. Up to the early part of the twentieth century it was a popular meeting place for people of the village on Sunday afternoons an summer evenings.

Chalybeate spring Ysbyty Ifan

The name of Ysbyty Ifan itself bears testament that it has long been a place of healing. In this case it was a hospital rather than a saint’s well that provided the focus and the cure. Our visit still found a couple of wells of note, and their condition and the settings made them well worth a visit.

Reference has been made to two articles in Llygad y Ffynnon, the publication of  Cymdeithas Ffynhonnau Cymru, in issues from Christmas 2011 and Summer 2010.

Chalybeate spring Ysbyty Ifan


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Ffynnon Fair, Llanfairfechan

Everything you read about Ffynnon Fair at Llanfairfechan seems to lead back to a single source. By the time it is described in Hughes and North’s Old Churches of Snowdonia in 1924 it had already been lost for 50 years, but their account remains the sole readily accessible reference for the well. No subsequent writer seems to be able to add anything new to the record. North spent a part of his life resident in Llanfairfechan, so maybe he had the story from one of the older locals he met there.

IMG_4287

There is no indication on any of the Victorian OS maps of its location. North tells us that the well stood in a field, nearly opposite to the Rectory drive, in a field known as Cae Ffynnon, in a plantation by the remains of some yew trees. He records that water was taken from the well for use in baptism services in the old church. Articles that were supposed to be bewitched were dipped into the well to remove the enchantment. Bent pins were deposited in the well as an offering.

 The field Cae Ffynnon gives its name to Cae Ffynnon Road, along the western side of which runs a line of trees. Our best estimate of where the well might have been is within the somewhat wider clump of trees opposite what was the Rectory drive, now the entrance to Bryn Castell. Despite even the heavy rain which had fallen over the last few days the ground remained resolutely dry and our collection of bewitched objects had to remain un-dipped.

IMG_4288

From older maps the field seems to have been much bigger in the 1880s, additional field boundaries have been introduced since, and the coppice to the west was wholly within the field at one time, with footpaths marked inside it. Although this agrees less well with North’s comment about being opposite the Rectory drive, this could be an alternative possibility for the site of the well.

It should be noted that some sources quote the date of the well’s closure as 1874. Whether this comes from another more precise record, or whether it is based solely on counting back 50 years from North’s 1924 publication date is uncertain. I have information from one correspondent now in his 80s, with a strong interest in the history of Llanfairfechan,  who once asked his grandmother about the well, her memories would take us back deep into the nineteenth century, but she knew nothing of it.


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Ffynnon Elen, Dolwyddelan

IMG_3932This post was originally written in November 2013, describing the well as it was found at the time. In June 2014 the vegetation surrounding the well was cleared and an excavation started to investigate the well and the surrounding hillside. This article has now been updated with additional pictures taken in August 2014 which show progress in the excavation and reveal the structure of the well. 

 

2013
The name of Elen, or Helen, appears frequently in this part of the world.

There is a well, Ffynnon Helen, up the road near Caernarfon; an old long distance Roman road which passes through the area carries the name Sarn Helen, in the belief that she commissioned its building.

The history of Helen, presumed a local saint, has spread itself far and wide, becoming intertwined with those of other saints and deities from across the Christian and pre Christian world. She is made heroine of one of the later Mabinogion stories, The Dream of Macsen Wledig; and is claimed by wider British mythology, her story becoming confused with that of Helena of Constantinople.  Helen is cited as the alleged discoverer of Christ’s Cross, and actual mother of Constantine, first Christian ruler proclaimed emperor at York, There are more wells dedicated in Britain to St Helen than to any other, non-Biblical saint. [1]

Dolwyddelan lies on the A470 south west of Betws y Coed, under the shadow of its impressive Welsh castle.There was a belief that the name Dolwyddelan itself was derived from Dolydd Elen – Elen’s Meadow. The village more likely owes its name to St Gwyddelan, the Irish associate of Beuno who we met previously at Gwyddelwern and to whom the church here is dedicated. His original chapel was set up on the nearby hillside of Bryn y Bedd in around 600AD.

Despite this, the connections with Helen continue to run deep, a Methodist chapel first established in 1783 bears the name Capel Elen and the hotel beside the well  is called Castell Elen. 

But is the well Ffynnon Elen or is it Ffynnon Elan? The historical record prefers the former. Francis Jones [3] and the Gruffydds [2] both use Elan and both give an alternative dedication to Gwyddelan himself, citing Myrddin Fardd. For no other reason than choosing to follow the larger crowd we have used Elen for now, though we are obviously open to offers to change.

IMG_3901
In recent years the well here has suffered various attacks of nature. Trees growing close to the site were observed some 20 or 30 years ago to be spreading their roots into the well structure, displacing stones and leading to landslips around the well. Recently the most invasive of these trees have been removed to protect and stabilise the well; however problems with access means that the site is difficult to visit and maintain.

IMG_3896

I asked a passer by near the church whether he knew of the well and for directions to it. He immediately directed me to a small, stepped, pathway leading off the main road through the village between the hotel and the next door chapel. This path leads directly up to the well which lies some 50 yards up a steep hill beside the road. As I understand it though, the owners of the land across which the path runs have forbidden its use, it is not marked as a right of way, and although this path appears to have as its sole purpose giving access to the well, indeed North and Hughes state (in 1924) that this path is the access to the well [4], today  the primary access is supposedly through the gardens of the hotel.

IMG_3906

As a result rescue work on the well has been hampered and the site is, during my visit at least, almost totally buried beneath undergrowth and ferns. Beneath all of this it was just possible to make out the remaining stonework and structure, and to note that water still flows into the well, possibly being directed away through blue plastic pipes which cross the site.

Ffynnon Elen has a long history. Legend has it that Roman soldiers used it as a picnicking site, and possible Roman coins have been found close to the well in excavations. Excavation has also shown evidence of a road close to the well suggesting that the road through the village at one time ran much closer to the well.

The Royal Commission visited the well in 1956, recording that it consisted of

“A small rectangular basin now dry, 9ft by 7ft with walls of earth-mortared rubble, on ground sloping steeply to the south. The south wall is 1ft 6 ins thick and 1ft high; the remaining walls are revetments only, that on the north side reaching a height of 4ft; water emerging outside the south wall is now collected in a drinking trough. The name has also been applied to a natural spring about 100 yards to the NW. Condition; ruined and overgrown”

At some period in its history, the well was surrounded by a small stone basin, itself in a rough stone built well house, some nine feet by eight and a half. A narrow pathway ran around the well within the building. A sketch on the information board in the car park for Dolwyddelan Castle shows the shape of the remains of the well in  better days.

ff elan

The water entered the well from a spring to the north and flowed away in a stream towards the road to the south. It was noted for its tendency to steam during cold weather. The waters were noted as particularly efficacious for weak children and for paralysed limbs. The Gruffydds record an account of one old woman, sometime in the twentieth century, who feeling weak would ask for water from the well to drink, which she claimed strengthened her. [2]

It is to be hoped that access arrangements can be agreed for the well. Apparently grants have been secured to restore the well and to provide interpretation for the site. Much remains of the basic structure, and water does seem to flow. It would be a great pity if such a monument were to be lost for such a trivial reason.

IMG_3908

[1] Graham Jones (2012) Wells of St Helen: A told and untold story. Paper given to the Well springs conference, Caerleon, September 2012
[2] Eirlys and Ken Gruffydd(1999) Ffynhonnau Cymru vol 2. Gwasg Carreg Gwalch
[3] Francis Jones(1954) Holy Wells of Wales, Cardiff University Press
[4] Herbert North and Harold Hughes(1924) The Old Churches of Snowdonia, Bangor

 

2014
Excavation at the well were begun in June 2014 and are on going. The square basin of the well has been revealed, with back and side walls set into the hillside. The back wall has a niche similar to those observed at Ffynnon Beris at Nant Peris. The well is certainly not dry, although it flows very slowly and there is evidence from nearby channels that the water supply may have been diverted at some time. Water is currently drained away from a level below the well floor, via the pipes seen last year, to a pond further down the hillside.Possible road surfaces from the original road passing the well are found nearby

Public access issues remain to be  resolved.

ffynnon elen, dolwyddelan

ffynnon elen, dolwyddelan

ffynnon elen, dolwyddelan


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Ffynnon Bedr. Llanbedr-y-cennin

IMG_3992Llanbedr-y-cennin lies on the river Conwy, close to the site of the old Roman fort of Caerhun and under the shadow of the impressive Iron Age hill fort of Pen y Gaer. The settlement lies on the slope of a steep hill, with the church of St Peter at the higher end of the village. The Open Doors information from Conwy BC  states that St Peter’s Church was established in the thirteenth century on the site of an earlier “cell” built near two curative wells. I haven’t been able to  trace their reference for this detail.

Francis Jones in his book The Holy Wells of Wales [1] identifies two wells, one a little to the north and east of the church for the folks on the hill and a second on the flat land at the foot of the hill for those who couldn’t face the climb. He informs us that:

Llanbedyrcellin well. Near the church – curative – a yew tree grew above it. It was covered by a little building, now ruined some 10 feet by 9 and a half feet. The well itself being 6 feet by 4 feet and 3 feet deep. About 60 years ago sick children were bathed there and afterwards carried to a little chapel nearby which had disappeared before 1906.

Whereas

Ffynnon Bedr (St Peter’s Well) is about a quarter of a mile south of Llanbedrycennin. It is overshadowed by a yew. It was once covered by a building10 feet 9 inches by 6 feet. Up to about 1844 children were bathed there and afterwards taken to a little chapel outside the cottage garden.

The immediate reaction is to the similarity between the two descriptions. I’m sure there never were ever two wells with such similar properties, but has the description of one found its way to being applied to a second well or was there only ever a single well whose location has been misinterpreted at some stage?

The  sources cited by Jones for the two wells were two volumes by H L North, Old Churches of Arlechwedd and Old Churches of Snowdonia [2] themselves printed 20 years apart at the start of the twentieth century. I suppose it may be down to Mr North himself confusing two stories and failing to check his back catalogue before racing back into print, although probably more likely is that Jones himself, and not for the first time, failed to cross reference in his own gazeteer.

The associations of the yew tree and the noted use for healing children certainly belong to Ffynnon Bedr, the well to the south of the church at the foot of the hill. By the time the Royal Commission came out to investigate the Ancient Monuments of Caernarfonshire in the 1950s this was the only well they identified. By this time all vestiges of any building were removed, the well presenting itself as

A rectangular hollow 10feet by at least 14 feet, axis NE – SW, surrounded by a masonry revetment destroyed on the NE. Water enters through an opening on the SE side. The cottage of this name lies 150 yards to the S.

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The buildings around the well began to decay towards the end of the 18th century although usage continued up until the 1850s. At the turn of the twentieth century walls could still be seen Water flowed through the well, joining a small stream that runs along the nearby field boundary. It is believed the well was largely destroyed around the end of the First World War, when the farmer seeking to stop the flow of water, filled up the well with earth and large stones. The interruption of the well affected the health of the yew tree and there were fears that it was dying at some periods.

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A public footpath starting close to the old shop leads across the fields to the well. It wasn’t the best time of year to go visiting the well. Nettles grew waist high all across the site, and it was difficult to make out anything more than the jumble of large stones in the area. With a little stretch of the imagination it was possible to interpret them as a rectangular enclosure, though clearly nothing remains of the well itself, and I wasn’t able to identify any signs of the spring.

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In around 2003 members of Cymdeithas Ffynhonnau Cymru carried out work on the well to try to unblock the spring and restore water to the tree. A number of large boulders were removed from around the tree at that time, and it was noticed that the ground at the base of the tree was wet despite the lack of rain. The tree now appears to be thriving once again, although the outside appears dead, there are new shoots growing on the inside.

Ffynnon Bedr cottage, near which reputedly stood the well chapel, remains today. The oldest parts date from the sixteenth century or earlier. Its main claim to fame these days is that it was once the home of the celebrated school story author Angela Brazil, who lived there for around 20 years, around about the time at which the well was being filled in.

The contrast between winter and summer pictures below shows the extent to which any features are hidden for much of the year, but even when the weeds die down there is little other than heaps of stone to mark the site.

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Thus, whilst the decline and decay of Ffynnon Bedr has been relatively well documented, Llanbedr well, if it ever existed as a separate entity, has silently vanished away. There remains one drawing, a preliminary sketch for a painting entitled The Village Well exhibited in the 1870s by artist Henry Harris Lines, at the time when the area was occupied by a small artists’ colony. The title of the sketch is Llanbedr Well. Examining the lie of the land, the route the footpath takes  and the absence of a prominent yew tree, there has either been some huge degree of artistic licence used, or this is indeed an illustration of the second well, Llanbedr well, on the lane rising up the hill to the north of the church.

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So – one well or two?  I tend to believe that the well Harris drew was just a village water source rather than a holy well.  Returning in the winter of 2014 I walked up the hill from the church and found the water source below. There is a well marked on the map in this location – is this the remains of Harris’s Well?

Well Llanbederycennin

[1] Francis Jones(1954) Holy Wells of Wales. Cardiff University Press.
[2] H L North (1900) The Old Churches of Arllechwedd and H L North and H Hughes(1924) The Old Churches of Snowdonia.

A scene featuring a visit to Ffynnon Bedr occurs in the historical romance “Nectar From A Stone” by Jane Guill. Simon and Schuster (2005)


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Ffynnon Fach, Crimea Pass, Dolwyddelan

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(edit – October 2014, although this well still appears in the HER as Ffynnon Mihangel, we have adopted the more commonly accepted name of  Ffynnon Fach as discussed in the comments below. There is a Ffynnon Mihangel near Manod a few miles to the south of this site.

Follow this link to see my account of a visit to this spring.)

The A470 south of Dolwyddelan climbs steeply into the mountains of Snowdonia towards Blaenau Ffestiniog. Improvements carried out on the route in recent years mean that travellers now speed on their way, within five yards of Ffynnon Fach (or Mihangel), without even realising that it’s there.

This route is known as the Crimea Pass. The new turnpike road, replacing an earlier road to the west which dated back to Roman times,  was constructed  in the 1850s, around about the time of the Crimean War, and there are stories that Russian prisoners of war from the battle were put to work building the stone walls in the area. An inn, the Crimea, stood at the top of the climb from Dolwyddelan close to what is now a lay-by and picnic spot.

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Ffynnon  Fach, is on the eastern side of the road about 250 yards north of this layby. It was investigated during the rebuilding of the road in the early 21st century, but was unaffected by the building work. It is now enclosed in a mesh fence. Water from the spring is channelled under the road in a bright blue pipe, and emerges to form a small stream on the opposite side.

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The spring itself is relatively unremarkable and the investigation found no evidence that there had ever been a structure around it. It is, however, marked out by a large stone, St Michael’s stone, some three feet in length, which once stood beside the spring as a marker, but at some point fell over the spring. The stone is now totally covered by graffiti recording names and dates.

Local tradition is that people carved their initials into the stone before going to war in the belief that it would bring good luck, which may be a memory of a belief of in particular properties of the well   It may also be a mark of the popularity of the well as a watering place for travellers over the route in the past. The earliest date identified on the stone is 1887, and from the layout of the inscriptions it is clear that the stone had already fallen flat by that time.

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It is recorded that during the Revivalist meetings of 1859 a group of revivalists knelt down to pray at the well. This date again ties in with the construction of the new road which brought travellers much closer to the location although this again may hint at a longer tradition associated with the site.

source: Hopewell (2009) A470 Blaenau Ffestiniog to Cancoed Improvement Gwynedd Archaeological Trust