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.

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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.

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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.

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

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Ffynnon Beuno, Tremeirchion

ffynnon Beuno Tremeirchion.Another Beuno’s Well, this time at Tremeirchion which lies a mile or so to the north of Bodfari, between the A55 and A541 and sitting directly on the pilgrims’ trail which traced the route of Winefride from Holywell to Gwytherin. There is little in the recorded lives of Beuno to link  him to Tremeirchion; it has been suggested that a pupil of Beuno built a foundation here. The first recorded church here dates from 1240 though it is quite likely that earlier churches stood on the site. Today the  parish church  bears a dedication to Corpus Christi.  Still, however Beuno’s name arrived in Tremeichion it echoes through the village with the well at one end and at the other St Beuno’s Jesuit College, now a retreat, built in the village in the 1840s.

The name Tremeirchion has in the past been mis-interpreted as the Town of the Maiden, again trying to link the location with Winefride. A more historically accurate interpretation, based on the original name of Dinmeirchion, is Fortress of Meirchion in memory perhaps of Merchion Gul, a fifth century king of Rheged.. The Ffynnon Beuno bone caves, in the hills above the well bear testament to the length of habitation of the area, finds of animal bones and prehistoric tools showing that these caves were home to the last of the Neanderthal population and the first humans in Britain some 35000 years ago.

Inside the bone caves above Ffynnon Beuno 
ffynnon Beuno bone caves Tremeirchion.

Beuno’s well itself has interested me for several years, mainly through its apparent inaccessibility. It sits behind a high wall in the grounds of a cottage bearing the same name, with only the famous carved head, through which the overflow runs, visible to the passing public. So I was delighted to be given the opportunity by its new owners to see inside.

The original house at Ffynnon Beuno dated from around 1560 but was recorded as derelict in the 1980s. When reconstruction began around that time the remaining walls collapsed completely. What stands there now if effectively a new house, although attempts have been made through the use of photographs and local memories to recreate the original as far as possible. Although generally a farmstead, the house served as a public house in the nineteenth century, perhaps another echo of the hospitality accorded to passing pilgrims and visitors to the well. Continuing the theme of hospitality since its rebuild, the house has served as a restaurant; and the present owners offer a “glamping” experience, providing accommodation in a few attractive shepherds huts sited on adjoining hillsides.

The spring rises almost beneath the house itself at one end of a rectangular tank measuring some 10 feet by 18 feet which holds the spring water. At the spring end of the tank two steps descend into the water, although these now lead down from a blank wall. Whether at one time there was actually access from inside the house, or just another external entrance is uncertain. one correspondent has reported that during reconstruction work during the 1980s evidence of an earlier door leading from the house to the steps could be seen, suggestive perhaps of an indoor dressing room with access to the pool. Water can fill the tank to a depth of around three feet before the overflow begins to trickle through the mouth of the stone figure on the side of the tank furthest from the source and closest to the road. From here the water would flow into a small basin with steps down to it, although at the base of this there is a grating and water is channelled away underground.

Remarkably at this end of the tank there is a large plug which can be removed to allow the water within the tank to completely drain away. The spring will fill the tank from empty to the level of the overflow in some 12 to 24 hours; whilst once the plug is pulled it will empty in something less than an hour.

ffynnon Beuno Tremeirchion.

The size of the well tank at once suggests that the well has in the past been used as a bathing pool, though whether for its healing qualities or for more general health and well being uses is unclear. It is well-documented that in the 18th century a number of springs were adapted as outdoor bathing pools and there are several other well preserved examples in the area. A note from the 1897 suggests that the tank is medieval, however it has been frequently restored and rebuilt and is so heavily rendered with concrete patches and lacking in features it is difficult to date.

Another more prosaic suggestion is that the tank merely formed a reservoir for the farm water supply. There is a water pump standing beside the entrance to the tank which draws water from the tank. The present working pump was restored in 1987. Given that the water source from the spring has been identified as being at a depth of several hundred feet below the farm any pump could not tap directly into the source so some form of reservoir would have been necessary. Such a feature of this size built solely as a reservoir would be unique in itself and relatively unlikely. It is probable that it was used at the very least as a bathing pool.

ffynnon Beuno Tremeirchion.

For such a substantial, named and well-maintained well the lack of surviving documentation is surprising. There are a number of twentieth century sources which refer to it stating that “it was once in great repute as a healing well”. The source of this phrase appears to be a short item in Archaelogia Cambriensis from 1887 written by C A Newdigate.[3] He was then a young student at St Beuno’s College, and although not native to the area presumably must have spoken to local residents concerning  the history of the well. Still the reliance on documentation, particularly from the internet can be a dangerous thing. It is more than possible that a major healing centre was active here before the eighteenth century, but no one thought it necessary to record the fact. A number of researchers believe that the layout of the pool is heavily indicative that it has had healing uses.at some period.

ffynnon Beuno Tremeirchion.

Representing the counter argument we have the journalist and African adventurer H Morton Stanley. He spent some of his teenage years living at Ffynnon Beuno in the 1820s, albeit unhappily, when it was run as a public house by his Aunt Mary. Writing in his autobiography in the 1890s he recalls the well clearly, likening it to that at Holywell although stating that, unlike St Winefride’s it boasted “no virtues beyond purity and sweetness.” He does state that the outflow from the tank is provided for “the benefit of villagers”, but what precise benefit he does not enlarge upon.[2] If accurate, this record could be a strong indication of the lack of healing traditions concerning the well. Such beliefs, although by then beginning to die out, would still be widespread within the population at the time, and sitting in the pub kitchen would be the best place to hear them.

A record from the parish register from precisely that time, reproduced in the current church guidebook indicates the remaining faith placed in some healing wells during that period since a sum of 2s 6d was paid out of parish funds so that John Davies may spend two or three weeks bathing at Holywell to the intent of reclaiming his health. [1] 

Thus the use of the well for healing must be in some doubt. The presence in the churchyard of a medieval carved cross, for many years lost but now restored, which itself had a reputation for miracles, may have been a more important healing location than the well in this village. A number of travel writers visited Tremeirchion in the 18th century, including Dr Johnson and Thomas Pennant. They each visited and commented upon the church but fail to mention the well in their accounts.

Despite this it is clear that the well has represented a significant landmark and probably carried important religious links for many centuries. It occupies a prominent place by the roadside on an important medieval pilgrimage route. The name itself has been recorded for several hundred years and was probably known long before that. The famous stone figure built into it is considered a medieval relic.

Many writers have considered the stone head through which the water flows to be representative of some form of head cult associated with the spring, traditions which occur in several parts of Wales and further afield. It has also been suggested that it represents another link with Winefride, recalling her severed and reattached head. It may also represent Beuno himself. The head cult theory is easily discounted, closer inspection shows that the effigy is much more than a head, since the upper part of a body can also be seen, with arms either crossed over the chest or with hands together in prayer, thus clearly having religious overtones.

ffynnon Beuno Tremeirchion.

The head has been in situ since at least Stanley’s time in the early nineteenth century. I have so far found no earlier reference to it. Maybe it was placed here when the occupants of the house decided to take control of the water supply leaving this an outlet for the pilgrims who had so long venerated and used the spring in passing. The provision of such a feature may have appeased early objectors to the annexation of a previously common water supply. Was it carved for the well, or is it, as seems perhaps more likely, a gargoyle or figure taken from some other demolished building and reused at the site of an historic well?

All in all a visit to this particular Ffynnon Beuno raised a few more questions than it answered. A well tank of that size must surely have had a use other than that as a farm reservoir – a handsome outdoor bathing pool but was it ever used for healing? And if it was once in great repute as a healing well how can it be that such traditions have been so completely lost?  Stranger things have happened and the story doesn’t end here I’m sure.

ffynnon Beuno Tremeirchion.

[1] Corpus Christi Church Tremeirchion. Guidebook.
[2] The Autobiography of Sir Henry Morton Stanley, edited by his wife Dorothy Stanley. Houghton Miffin 1909
[3]Rev C A Newdigate (1887) Carved and Incised Stones at Tremeirchion.  Arch Camb.

Beuno’s Huts


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St Mary’s Well, Bodrhyddan Hall, Rhuddlan

IMG_3740Rhuddlan’s St Mary’s Well lies in the grounds of Bodrhyddan Hall, a mile or so to the east of the town. The well sits virtually  on the boundary between Rhuddlan and Diserth parishes, the parish border is marked by a stone set in the floor in the Hall.The hall is the home of the Rowley-Conwy family, and in private ownership. House and gardens are open to visit however on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons during the summer.

A house has stood on the site for some 700 years, however the present building dates from the end of the seventeenth century, though very largely remodelled in the 1870s. It is the later Victorian sections that you get to see on the hour long guided tour. The tour reminds one of nothing more than when Elizabeth Bennett is being shown around Pemberley; with our guide,in the role of the aged housekeeper, reeling off lists of ancestral portraits and recounting stories of how the various treasures on display had been accumulated by the collectors and hoarders of the family; whilst ensuring that we don’t tread where we shouldn’t or stray too far from her breathless accounts of family history.

The gardens may be visited independently, for a lesser charge, though the historical interest and entertainment provided for the extra couple of pounds for the house tour is well worth the money.

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The well itself is quickly found, just to the left of the main drive as you approach the house.  It is enclosed within an octagonal stone chamber, with seating around the inside. It is roofed, with a carved pelican at the top.  A grating in the floor covers the spring, through which many coins have been thrown, in response to the paper sign hanging by the door proclaiming the site to be a wishing well.

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Water from the spring drains through a carved fish head into the adjacent stone lined bathing pool.

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The well is recorded by Lhuyd in 1699 as Ffynnon Fair in Rhuddlan parish. It clearly thus has a sustained history of usage. There are stories of it, in common with other such wells, being the location for clandestine marriages at times in the past, though we note here that the term “clandestine” need not necessarily mean secret, merely that they were without official proclamation and outside the more usual church setting.

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The existing building bears, in large letters, its troublesome attribution as being the work of celebrated early seventeenth century architect Inigo Jones.  It would appear generally accepted now, that the building is not the work of Jones. CPAT (ref. through Archwilio on links page) suggest that it may date from the late 17th or early 18th centuries, which would make it coeval with the redevelopment of the house at that period. Moreover the ancient monuments record points out that it does not appear to be depicted on an estate map of 1730, whilst present in 1756. Tucker (1961) also suggests that the lettering style is not that of the period.[1]

The area around the well was developed into a pleasure garden for the hall, with groves, fish ponds and walkways, and the well house would have formed a central feature within the garden layout of the time. It is possible that there has been a tradition in the family that Jones, who would have been 40 in 1612 and by that time a noted architect in London, played a role in designing earlier gardens at Bodrhyddan , and this has been recorded at a later period at the well, possibly giving the idea of a longer continuous history to the hall following its rebuilding at the end of the seventeenth century.

Questions concerning the date of the building and its designer aside, there is no doubt that the spring at Ffynnon Fair, Rhuddlan has a lengthy and significant history, and in its present guise is a picturesque site to visit.

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[1] Tucker Norman (1961) Bodrhyddan and the families of Conwy,Shipley-Conwy and Rowley-Conwy. Flintshire Historical Society


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St Beuno’s Well, Holywell

There are days when you begin to  imagine that St Beuno was in the franchise business. His wells seem to have branches everywhere, from Gwyddelwern to Clynnog, from Bala to Aberffraw, he almost had the North Walian market sewn up back in the day. Interestingly, although he is now remembered by so many solely for his role in  the story of  Winefride (more accurately Gwenfrewi in Welsh), Baring Gould and Fisher in their Lives of the British Saints suggest that traces of the presence of Beuno himself in Flintshire are much slighter than elsewhere.

His well at Holywell has, in recent years, been overshadowed by its more famous neighbour that of St Winefride. When I first tried to track it down I soon found myself waist deep in nettles and brambles and was forced to retreat in failure. Now, however, Beuno’s well seems to be making a comeback, making a bid to regain its place on the tourist trail and on the pilgrim trail. It is set to become a landmark on a new St Beuno’s Heritage Trail linking Holywell and Basingwerk. A new path has been constructed. It begins with a few steps leading out of the corner of the St Winefrides’s Well car park, follows a short woodland path and then leads up a vertiginous, exhausting flight of 75 steps climbing the hill. This is where, they say, Beuno’s chapel stood, where, they say, Winefride fled when pursued by Caradog, and from this spot here then severed head bounced and rolled until it came to rest at the point from which her well still issues forth.

Ff Beuno Holywell. Photo Wellhopper

Over the last hundred years, Beuno’s well has received rather disparaging comments. The Royal Commission in 1910 reported

A pool of water which at present can hardly be considered a well. It is situated beneath a tree in a meadow below Pen Dre House west of castle Hill. The pool is of irregular shape, and a bank projects into it. Two of its sides are about 8 and 5 yards respectively. It has recently been cleaned out. There is a slight spring

The HER records

A pool of water, rather muddy, 2m by 3m, partially enclosed by a stone wall, with a slight spring evident.

Ff Beuno Holywell. Photo Wellhopper

The site now resembles a small crater, CPAT suggest it looks more like a mine shaft than a well. The hollow on the hill top is some 10 by 15 yards, with steep sides and at its maximum depth the bottom is some six or seven feet below the surface level.

When I first saw it last autumn – see below – it was completely enveloped in trees. Hawthorn trees grew all around the well and up the slopes of the edge of the pit, and larger tress grew in the bottom of the well.

ff Beuno

These have now largely been removed so that the outline can be seen more clearly. Although nature has replaced them with tall grasses, flowers and weeds, so that the shape of the bottom of the bit still cannot be seen clearly.

Ff Beuno Holywell. Photo Wellhopper

A 1:500 scale map from the 1870s shows the feature as with a very distinctive shape. A spring appears to rise towards the north, which flows in a short dog-legged stream to a pool some feet away. It is, with faith, possible to trace this pattern. There appears to be evidence that the water rises at the very northern end of the pit and flows down through it. It forms a small muddy pool towards the centre of the pit, with evidence of the remainder of the pit southwards being considerably waterlogged. It maybe that the cleaning out reported in 1910 may have changed the shape of, or even eradicated, the dog-legged stream; however evidence of a slight spring and water remain.

A number of accounts make reference to a tree above the well. It was, apparently a custom for pilgrims to hammer coins into the tree by way of an offering. It seems that this practice led eventually to the death of the tree and I believe it was finally removed by the council at some point in the 1950s. Baring Gould and Fisher record that “All trees growing on land belonging to Beuno were deemed sacred and no one dared to cut any of them down lest the Saint should kill them or do them some grevous harm”. I’m not sure whether those responsible for removing the trees here have felt the effect of this. 

There is no obvious evidence of the stone wall mentioned in the HER file, although recent excavations, carried out in connection with the restoration report having found evidence of a stone pathway, dated to the eighteenth century, around the top of the well at some points.

The recovery of St Beuno’s well is clearly a work in progress, and may well repay further visits. If and when any changes occur I shall update this report.

Update June 2016 – A new interpretation sign has been erected recently providing the story of the well and that of Beuno and Gwenfrewi 20160625_132816

 


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Ffynnon Ddeier, Bodfari

We saw how St Marcella’s Well at Denbigh suffered the indignity of being buried beneath a traffic roundabout, in a neighbouring parish her brother’s well has fared little better. Once a celebrated healing well, Ffynnon Ddeier has been drained, infilled and diverted so that today its outlet, if indeed any water still flows is within a small nondescript brick and stone built chamber, clogged with leaves, just off the main A541 between Mold and Denbigh.

Ff Deier - photo - wellhopper

For a well with so few physical remains however, its documentary remains are substantial, and for the bulk of this article we are indebted to the far ranging paper written in the early 2000s by Tristran Gray Hulse [1]. This piece not only explores the history of Ffynnon Ddeier, but considers the well cult across Wales in general, knocking more than a few myths on their heads as it goes.

Deier, the saint after whom the well is named, is alternatively given as Deifr or possibly most accurately as Diheufyr. For the purpose of this article we shall refer to him as Diheufyr, although retain the accepted spelling of Deier in naming the well.

As previously indicated, he is considered by the histories to be a brother of Marchell and Tyrnog. Little is known of their lives, though it is probable, given the proximity of their foundations, that they were part of a local Clwyd family. Baring Gould and Fisher record that they were originally at the monastery at Bangor On Dee and later ended up at the monastery on Bardsey Island

Diheufyr’s well grew to be known as a prominent healing well in the area, and customs similar to those practiced at nearby Ffynnon Degla grew up, involving walking around the well a certain number of times carrying various types of domestic fowl. The well gained a reputation for curing illnesses in children. Gray Hulse notes that in the earliest accounts of the well these customs are not related, countering the notion that they may be remnants of a pre-Christian practice, suggesting rather that they became associated with the well only in the later medieval period.

He further surmises that the account in the some versions of the life of Winefride, which suggests that after leaving Holywell she visited first Diheufyr at Bodfari and then Sadwrn at Henllan on her journey to Gwytherin may be evidence that the well was then a significant stopping off point on an important pilgrimage route, since given the timescales of their births Winefride would never have actually encountered Diheufyr.

Ffynnon Ddeier was originally situated in a field some 100 yards to the north of its present location, around 300 yards from the church which is dedicated to St Stephen rather than Diheufyr. It was filled in and piped to its present location in the late 19th century to provide a water supply for the area. Gray Hulse quotes from an unpublished note from 1885 which states:

St Deifar’s (sic) well has been drained and no longer exists. It was surrounded by masonry with steps to go down into it. The walls were high and a platform ran completely round the well so as to enable people to walk around it. Its water was bright and clear and being several yards square it was broad and deep enough to bathe in.

A Clwyd Powys Archaeological Trust (CPAT) Report [2] says that it shows signs of having been restored during the past 20 years. They also quote correspondence reporting that “locally it retains its reputation as a holy well.”

Ff Deier - photo - wellhopper

At present it can be seen as a brick and stone built square chamber, a piece of slate, carved with graffiti, set into the back wall partly protects the chamber. Gray Hulse and CPAT both refer to an inactive tap, which we couldn’t see, probably concealed below the slate and buried under the leaves and mud that fill the well.

Ff Deier - photo - wellhopper

Gray Hulse also comments on another well, found inside a local pub, the Dinorben Arms beside the church, which in the late 20th century was widely and inaccurately advertised as being the lost holy well of St Diheufyrr. Unfortunately the inn closed down in around 2007 and remains empty, so this imposter could not be seen.

Baring Gould and Fisher note another well, Ffynnon Dyfr at Abergele, named possibly after the same saint. St Diheufyr’s festival is given as either the 7th or 8th March.

[1] Gray Hulse, Tristan (2002) The Documentation of Ffynnon Ddeier: Some Problems Reconsidered.  Living Spring Journal.

[2] Silvester, Bob and Richard Hankinson (2004) Early Medieval Ecclesiastical and Burial sites in Mid and NE Wales. Field Assessment in CPAT Report 612.


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Ffynnon Wen, Gwaenysgor

IMG_3074Ffynnon Wen lies in the shadow of Gop Cairn, a massive hilltop prehistoric mound between the villages of Gwaenysgor and Trelawnyd a little to the east of Prestatyn.  The mound, and the discoveries of bones from  pleistocene animals including bison,reindeer, Irish elk, hyena, woolly rhinoceros and arctic lemming in nearby caves point to evidence of human occupation of the area for thousands of years, sustained possibly by the water source at Ffynnon Wen. Legends linking the location with Boudicca’s last battle against the Romans add to the mystery of the place.  In keeping with its links with unwritten prehistory, there is very little recorded evidence of the uses and development of Ffynnon Wen. My only source is the 1912 record of the Royal Commission on Ancient Monuments in Wales. This speculates that  Though no traditions exist respecting the cult associated with the spring, or its popularity, there can be no doubt that the name signifies the Holy Well (‘gwyn’ mutated by the feminine ‘ffynnon’ into ‘wen’=blessed) and denotes its primarily religious character.  In a footnote they add that the well Ffynnon Gwaynysgor mentioned in 1698 by Edward Lhuyd is “unquestionably” Ffynnon Wen. One may speculate that, given the name is not recorded by Lhuyd, it may have been added at the time the well was being built up by the local landowner to give it some sense of spurious historical importance. Another Ffynnon Wen at nearby Henllan was given a similar treatment at a similar period. The present structure, such as it is, represents the remains of a probably eighteenth century bath house built possibly for the family of nearby Cop’rieni Hall, now Gop Farm. There was a stone enclosed and roofed well house about five feet square with steps down into the water and an adjacent dressing room. Roberts and Woodall (1902) mention a pointed stone roof.IMG_3078  These buildings, already ruinous when recorded in 1910, were virtually demolished soon afterwards by the tenant farmer, tired of a constant stream of visitors to the well.  The square stone lined well basin remains, surrounded by stone work from the demolished buildings. The overflow from the well now creates a rectangular pool, bound by a stone and earth bank, probably a remnant of an earlier hedge or wall. IMG_3080  The Clwyd Powys Archaeological Trust record for the site on the Archwilio database states that the well chamber was covered over by a late slab when seen in the 1980s. This slab is now removed, and possibly lies broken in pieces by the well. A large tree beside the well is further affecting the stonework. IMG_3076 IMG_3083  During the winter, what remains could be seen clearly, however in summer the site is hidden by nettles and brambles as Ffynnon Wen is slowly drawn back into the unrecorded prehistory of the surrounding countryside. IMG_3082

Ff Wen is on private land not open to the public, although a public footpath runs close to it. All photos were taken from outside the fenced off area.

Askew Roberts and Edward Woodall (1902) A Gossiping Guide to Wales


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St Winefride’s Well, Holywell

It would not be possible to keep a blog on the holy wells of North Wales without reference to St Winefride’s Well at Holywell; however it would be difficult to say anything new about this site  without extensive original research. St Winefride’s is a fully described in numerous guidebooks and has been the subject of extensive more scholarly research. IIt shrine of national if not international importance, the only shrine in Britain to have survived the Reformation; and has, since late Victorian times provided the town with the epithet of “The Lourdes of Wales”.

Unlike the other wells I have described, this is very much an “exit through the gift shop” attraction. Strongly promoted on the tourist trail, it is the only well to charge an entrance fee, albeit a modest 80p, and to be a fully fledged “visitor attraction”. Saying this, however, it remains at the same time a place of pilgrimage, holds regular services and many visitors travel long distances to bathe in the well or to take away well water. By tradition the visitor should enter the water three times for the cure to be effective although even this process does not necessarily guarantee success; cures have also been obtained through prayer or drinking the well water. Today the well receives around 36000 visitors a year and recently numbers have been said to be increasing significantly.

St Winefride’s Well has one of the most detailed recorded histories amongst the local wells, Throughout its history it has been visited by royalty, and the well and its surrounded beliefs managed to survive the reformation almost intact, which is virtually unique in the area.

The story of St Winefride has become embellished with miracles in its telling.
We shall continue to call her Winefride for the purposes of consistency in this article. This name is  an anglicised version of the Latin Wenefreda. The original Welsh version of her her name is Gwenfrewy;  in previous times it was rendered as a more prosaic Winifred. Winefride was the daughter of a noble land owning family in the region in the 7th century. She was intended to be a nun, her aunt Tenhoi was  abbess of Gwytherin, near Llanwrst. However, a local prince, Caradog, met her. Whilst some stories suggest he wished to marry her, most suggest that he was already married his intentions were less honourable. Either way she refused him and he first tried to rape her, and then took out his sword and sliced her head off. Later embellishments to the story record that  her head went rolling down the hillside and out from the earth where her head had landed burst forth a stream of water forming what is now St Winefride’s Well.

Fortunately her uncle (saint) Beuno was close at hand, celebrating mass in his church and  was able to reattach the head and restore Winefride to life. Caradog was taken by the devil and Winefride was able to return to her destined religious life, first founding a convent near Holywell before joining her aunt at Gwytherin and eventually becoming abbess herself. Pictures and statues of her, in accordance with the legend traditionally bear the white scar around her neck showing where her head had been reattached. She died and was interred at Gwytherin, however, following reports of cures at the well  her remains were transferred to Shrewsbury in 1138. Although most of her relics were lost and destroyed during the Reformation a bone, too small to be identified, although accounts describe it as part of a finger bone, survives and is now at Holywell.

Although the beheading is clearly an improbable story, it was not written down or widely repeated until some 500 years after her death, and is a not a unique embellishment to the stories of the Welsh saints, although Winefride is the only one to have been restored to life after the vent, we might  believe ofther aspects of the story and that  much of the Winefride’s history  is based on elements of fact..

The history of this well has been recorded for 1000 years. The church at “Haliwel” was given to St Werbergh’s Abbey in Chester  in 1093 indicating that the place name of Holy Well was already established by that date. References to the well as a place of pilgrimage and specifically of healing date certainly from the twelfth century. Apart from the existance of the name, there is no recorded evidence of the significance of the well before that date. A number of writers have drawn attention to the fact that no record of the well or chapel are made in the Doomsday Book, implying that had the well had such a reputation at that date then it would certainly have merited a mention. Although in fact the Domesday Book contains very little information from Flintshire so this omission is not necessarily significant. Similarly Giraldus of Wales, who toured the region with the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1188, lodging for a night at Basingwerk Abbey, makes no mention of the well, despite having described another notable well in the area, probably Ffynnon Asa.

From 1240 up until the Reformation the well belonged to the nearby Basingwerk Abbey By the fourteenth century the cult of the saint had spread nationwide. Her feast day was kept throughout Wales and Southern England. It was made obligatory in 1398 to keep St Winefride’s Day, Richard II provided funds. She was invoked and honoured by kings. Henry V relied upon her aid in his battle at Agincourt, the year following his victory he made a pilgrimage from her tomb in Shrewsbury to the well at Holywell. Edward IV also visited the well, and Richard III provided funds for its upkeep.

It is often repeated  that Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, was one of the leading sponsors of the building work in the early 1500s that remodelled the well and church resulting largely in the buildings that we see today. More recent research has indicated  that this is not the case, and neither is there any recorded evidence that Catherine of Aragon, wife to Prince Arthur and later Henry VIII, was a benefactor although her arms appear on the roof of the well chamber. The heraldry on the roof is particularly complex and confusing.The building work, which was completed in 1512 was undertaken by Abbot Pennant of Basingwek. 

Much too has been made of similarities  between the star shaped well basin here and that at Ffynnon Fair at Cefn Meriadog  suggesting that the same patrons or architects may have been involved with each. The two wells are linked  by a common route of pilgrimage, although there is no evidence for greater links; and it has been suggested that the well basin at Cefn Meriadog may be an early nineteenth century forgery.

Some 50 years later however, Henry VIII led the Reformation in Britain, leading to the destruction of the abbeys. Several elaborate wells and well chapels across the country were also destroyed in the following century, as beliefs in the power of pilgrimage and healing were discouraged as being superstitious or heretical. St Winefride’s was no exception to this, and throughout the reigns of Henry and Elizabeth the state went to great lengths to discourage visits to the shrine. However such was the strength of belief, and probably the power and influence of certain local families, that it managed to survive relatively intact through a period in which most other shrines of a more local importance vanished.

In 1579 Queen Elizabeth’s council issued a command to the Council of the Marches to

discover all Papist activities and recommend measures for suppressing them… to pay particular attention to the pilgrimages to St Winefride’s Well and in view of the claim that the water is medicinal to appoint two men to test its properties; if not medicinal the Well should be destroyed.”

However attempts to suppress the well seemed to have the opposite effect and visitor numbers may have increased throughout the seventeenth century

In 1625 the Bishop of Bangor reported

“There is a great concourse of people at St Winefride’s Well, in an old church near a public Mass is said continually”

In the 1630s the statue of Winefride in the shrine was described as having been whitewashed to cover up any decoration on it; it was later were broken up and destroyed. The statue standing there now dates from  the 1880s.

In the interludes of Catholic monarchy, with  Mary and later James II, the well enjoyed periods of recovery and reconstruction. James II and his wife Mary of Modena visited the well in 1677, finding it in a poor state of repair, to ask for Winefride’s help in producing a male heir. The visit is supposedly commemorated by a stone set in the wall of the well basin during reconstruction at that time. A son James was born to the king and queen the following year.

Mary of Modena made arrangements at the time for the chapel’s ownership to be transferred to the Jesuits, it being in public ownership at the time.I In the early 1700s the chapel building was appropriated for use as a school and religious use finally ceased.

Thomas Pennant, who lived nearby would have known the shrine well. In his Tour of Wales, written at the end of the eighteenth century he reported:

The resort of pilgrims of late years to these Fontanalia has considerably decreased; the greatest number are from Lancashire. In the summer still a few are to be seen in the water in deep devotion up to their chins for hours, sending up their prayers, or performing a number of evolutions round the polygonal well; or threading the arch between well and well a prescribed number of times. Few people of rank at present honour the fountain with their presence.

Later in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the persecution of pilgrims lessened, and the well gained favour as a tourist attraction. The young Princess, later Queen, Victoria is reported to have visited the well whilst on holiday in the area in the 1820s.

Pennant also noted in 1778 that
The spring is certainly one of the finest in these kingdoms; and by the two different trials and calculations lately made for my information, is found to fling out about twenty-one tons of water in a minute. It never freezes. After a violent fall of wet, it becomes discoloured by a wheyey tinge.

The stream formed by this fountain runs with a rapid course to the sea, which it reaches in little more than a mile’s distance. The industry of this century hath made its waters of much commercial utility. The principal works on it at this time are battering-mills for copper ; a wire-mill, coarse paper-mill, snuff-mill, a foundry for brass; and a cotton manufactory is now establishing. During the reign of pilgrimages, nothing but a corn-mill or two, the property of the monks, found employ for this beneficial stream.

All early descriptions and illustrations of the well indicate that the volume of water flowing from the well was  much greater than that seen today, the spring forming a small river that ran from the well.   Disaster struck the well at 8am on 5th january 1917 when nearby mining works struck and diverted the underground stream that fed the well causing the well to run dry. Eventually another source was found to feed the well; however the force of this is much less and the well now forms a modest bathing area outside the shrine rather than the rapid stream that used to flow from the building in earlier days.

St Winefride’s Day is celebrated on November 3rd. This commemortaes her death which occured on November 2nd; howver that being All Soul’s Day her feast was moved to the next available date. A second festival is celebrated at Holywell on June 22nd which commemorates the day on which her head was removed and replaced.

In addition to the shop, the visitors centre houses an interpretive exhibition with panels showing scenes from Winefride’s life and the history of the well. The centrepiece of which is a large scale model of Winefride and Beuno at the well. The exhibition also includes a number of ancient crutches discarded by healed pilgrims. There is also the Museum of the Pilgrimage on the site, which also acts as a library for the Well, housing documents and records of healings attributed to the well. there is a small display of various items relating to the history of the pilgrimage, although take note this museum is not always open during the well opening times.

On the hillside overlooking the well is  the location of another well dedicated to St Beuno. Formerly another important location, this is now little more than a deep oval depression, muddy in the bottom and ringed around with thorn trees, ferns and high nettles.. A visit to this well was difficult on this occasion, however since then clearance has begun and the well is beginning to re-appear.

References

St Winefride’s Well – A History and Guide.by Rev Christopher David (2002)
St Winefride, Her Holy Well and the Jesuit Mission c650 – 1930. T W Pritchard (2009)

Wellhopper gratefully acknowledges the invaluable comments and information provided by Tristran Gray Hulse and Janet Bord used in the preparation of this article.