Well Hopper

Exploring the ancient holy wells and healing wells of North Wales


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Ffynnon Fair, Llanfair-is-gaer

img_6819cIf it wasn’t for a road name there would be nothing left to show where Ffynnon Fair (St Mary’s Well) at Llanfair-is-gaer once stood. Written records of this spring can be traced back as far as an estate deed of 1458 which refers to a field named Cae Uwchyffordd alias Cae Ffynnon Fair, but this counts for nothing to most drivers today who speed past this site close beside the road between Bangor and Caernarfon. It is only the road that leads from the main road up to Bethel that still provides a reminder of the name, and although there are no name signs on the roadside Lon Ffynnon Fair, still appears on the maps.

There are no records of any medicinal properties of the well, but it was known as a reliable cold, pure water supply, and the persistence of the name for over 500 years attests to its continued importance. For notes on its local usage we can refer to a letter writrten to the editor of Llygad y Ffynnon in 1999 from an elderly local resident whio stated that

It was a long held local custom for residents of Bethel to spend time at the beach by Llanfair-is-gaer. On the way they would collect crystal clear water from Ffynnon Fair, then light a fire at the beach to make tea.

He also noted that it was an old custom for the singers at Llanfair church to call at the well to drink on their way home, and to leave a note there for others ready for the next service. The church, also dedicated to St Mary, stands on the banks of the Menai Strait around about a quarter of a mile to the north of the well. Though largely a medieval structure with walls thought to date to the 13th century, it was largely restored in 1865. As is usually the case, it was securely locked and we were unable to obtain access inside.

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It may have been the well’s location with respect to transport routes that ensured its importance. Ffynnon Fair was another reliable wter source on the old pilgrimage route between Bangor and Bardsey Island, although there is no record of it being a stop off point for pilgrims. However it is certainly transport links that sped its demise. The spread of the railways in the mid nineteenth century saw the provision of Griffiths Crossing station, which opened in 1854, just a few yards from the spring, on the Bangor and Caernarfon Railway. The station served Bethel and Y Felinheli, and this seemingly quiet backwater saw up to thirteen trains a day  until its closure in the 1960s.. During the station’s heyday Ffynnon Fair was seized up onto provide a water supply for the station master. Llygad y Ffynnon’s correspondent describes

It had four walls, three low walls and a fourth even lower. There was a simple roof over it and a steel door was placed at the mouth of the well. This aroused the ire of the residents.

The final  transport related incident to befall the spring was the construction of the A487 Y Felinheli bypass in the 1990s. The old railway line was the perfect route and the roundabout junction for Llanfair and Bethel was situated virtually on top of the old well. As we have seen previously at Ffynnon Farchell in Denbigh when it comes to a fight between a bypass and a well, the well inevitably comes off worse.

We are indebted to the detective work of Howard Huws carried out shortly afterward the road opened to determine what was done with the spring as a part of these works. He identifies the location at the foot of a small scarp in the landscape, recorded as Allt Ffynnon Fair, and sitting up against a the fence which separates it from the adjacent field, just to the south of the A487. He concluded that Ffynnon Fair is now

Enclosed in a concrete sump and access denied by a heavy iron grid. The water rises and falls according to rainfall, but for the most part looks stagnant and unappealing.

It would appear that the spring water is incorporated with the highway drainage at some point. Huws notes that the ground to the east of the sump remains marshy although concludes that this is probably runoff rather than being derived from the spring.

In the 20 years that have passed since Huws’ visit the spring has fared little better. The area between the fence and the foot of the slope has filled up with thick gorse and brambles making access to the spring from the roadside effectively impossible.

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Approaching it from the field side we could see that the foot of the scarp had been utilised by fly tippers for the disposal of building materials in exactly the spot where the well was expected, as can be seen to the left of the picture below. With some effort we managed to reach through gaps in the fence and remove the rubble to reveal below the grid Huws describes. The field to the east of the sump remains marshy as described.

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From this we conclude that Huws’ 1995 description remains accurate although through the actions of human and nature even the poor remains of the spring are now effectively inaccessible. It was reported in 2000 that the correspondent to Llygad y Ffynnon did make inquiries with the highways authority as to whether the spring could be restored in some form, but considering Howard Huws’ interpretation of the composition of the water, it is likely that this would not be particularly viable, and it is apparent now that no action was taken.

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In summary, as long as the road from the bypass up towards Bethel retains the name Lon Ffynnon Fair this local site name that has been recorded for at least 550 years will live on, although the reason for the name is now effectively gone.

References

Huws Howard (1995) Ffynnon Fair, Llanfair-is-gaer and Ffynnon Ddeiniol, Bangor, Gwynedd. Source, New Series 4
Llygad y Ffynnon. Letters to the Editor Winter 1999 and Summer 2000.

 

ffynnon Fair, Llanfair-is-gaer SH 50536564


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Ffynnon Fair, Llanfair

St Mary's LlanfairFrom the coast at Llanfair, south of Harlech, St Mary decided to walk across the hills towards Hafod-y-llyn. On her journey she became thirsty and stopped to drink from a small spring. In doing so, she left the imprint of her foot on a rock beside the spring. Ever since the spring never failed to produce pure fresh water.

We know this from an information leaflet provided in the church there, it even includes a photograph of the footprint, though fails to say where or when the picture was taken. I asked the lady who looks after the keys, but she didn’t know either. She had an idea that it might be alongside a footpath running eastwards from the old vicarage. There were many stones along that route that bore marks that could resemble the photo in the church, all formed by lichen on the stones, but no signs of a spring along the way.

Most records however point towards a different location, to the south of the vicarage by Uwchllan farm.

In 1894 the well was described by Richards and Lloyd in the Transactions of the Cymmrodorion Society as being covered with slabs and earth. They noted that a more ancient well in ruinous conditions was described as being covered in briars and down the hill towards the church.

The Royal Commission in 1914 described the Uwchllan site as being

Top of hill east of church just below Uwchllan farm. Sunken reservoir 27 by 21 inches. Overgrown, church is 260m to south west.

All this background reading then did not prepare me for what I found on reaching the tie identified by the Royal Commission. The feature that we find now at the specified grid reference now is intriguing, A stone lined underground chamber with steps leading down into it, seemingly used for storage or rubbish by the farm.

Ffynnon Fair, llanfairWhether this was dug on the site of the spring since 1914, either coincidentally or to tap the water is not clear. Anyway, after this visit I returned to the Coflein record and read something I’d initially missed (unless it was a very recent addition)

Ffynnon Fair is a sunken well dug into the slope with a number of well built steps leading down into it.

The most recent reference included in the Coflein citation is to a note by N Vousden of RCHAMW made in 2012 which may have been the source of this description.

Ffynnon Fair, llanfair

Now I certainly have problems with this.If the well were such a substantial structure then I would have expected the information in the church, which shows a picture of Mary’s footprint, to also draw attention to the size and nature of the well. And the implication from the story there is that it should be a small surface spring rather than such a deep structure.

The 1894 description of it’s being covered in earth and slabs I suppose could be a loose interpretation of what is there, although it could have been much better described. The 1914 Royal Commission description, on the other hand, if they saw the same site, is just misleading.

Some 10 yards or so further down the field is a small depression with an animal water trough in it, again this may or may not tap into the spring, there was no one around to ask during our visit.

Further down the path leading from Uwchllan to the village I found what was perhaps the other well identified in 1894. This lies immediately beside the path and gave the impression of having recently been cleared out. It is ringed around by large stones and forms a small stream flowing down the hillside beside the path that leads down past the old slate quarry towards the church.

well near Llanfair church

It is quite possible that Ffynnon Fair was originally a surface spring that has been excavated and enlarged at sometime, either before or after 1914 to create a water supply for the farm or neighbouring houses. I post this as a work in progress, there is clearly more work to be done on Ffynnon Fair here.

Ffynnon Fair, Llanfair SH58042913

st mary's llanfair


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Ffynnon Fair, Dolgellau

Ffynnon Fair, dolgellau

Ffynnon Fair, St Mary’s Well, lies fairly close to the town centre in Dolgellau. To find it follow Cader Street out of Eldon Square and then turn left up a steep narrow lane, Love Lane, just after passing a Ffynnon Street on the right. Pass a small hotel called Ffynnon and then the well is signposted for pedestrians along a track on the right hand side.

Ffynnon Fair will be a great disappointment to the pilgrim, “the well that likes to say no”. In that the entrance gate is firmly locked and secured with a bicycle chain.  Normally this would be no hindrance, but the surrounding walls were a little too high and the stone flagged floor surrounding the well looked a little too slippery to attempt to jump in.

Ffynnon Fair, dolgellauWhat we see here dates mainly from the early Victorian period when the well was used as the main water supply for the town. At that time it was walled around with a roof over. Repairs were made in 1850 but soon afterwards alternative water supplies were organised and by 1890 it was in a neglected condition,The Royal Commission visited in 1913. They noted the recent age of the structure but did not describe its condition. They commented that

This is doubtless the well that was associated with the parish church. The name of the well is remembered but no traditions of healing or of popular resort to it appear to have survived.

Ffynnon Fair, dolgellauThere appears to have been talk even then of restoring the well, but nothing came of it until 100 years later when a group organised by the Dolgellau Heritage Society cleared and restored the site., after which the well was placed into the care of the Dolgellau Town council.

Although the Royal Commission were unable to identify any healing tradition associated with the well, the Christmas 2006 edition of Llygad y Ffynnon notes that it was once famous for its ability to improve arthritis, though other sources suggest rheumatism.

A number of sources highlight the fact that two roman coins were found by it and use this as an indication of the longevity of use of the spring. This record appears to be based on a note by Lhuyd in the 1690s who records that several coins were found in the neighbourhood of the well, of which two were in his possession. From this distance in time we cannot really judge what radius he might define as being “in the neighbourhood of the well” or impute that the coins were left, either intentionally or not, by visitors to the well.

Ffynnon Fair, dolgellau

Some 25 yards further along the track, on its right hand side we reach another spring. This appeared as a boggy overgrown piece of land beneath a large tree on the August day we visited. This is Ffynnon Llygaid, the eye spring, which was visited in the past to treat complaints of the eye. This would suggest that in its time it has been a particularly clean water source. Unfortunately this is clearly no longer the case. A number of stones lying around suggest that possibly there may have been some small structure around it, but it is hard to see through the weed and no record that I have seen suggests this.

Ffynnon y Llygaid, dolgellau

Ffynnon Fair,  SH72601755

Ffynnon Llygaid, SH72551757

References

Llygad y Ffynnon the well is discussed in several issues between summer 2006 and Christmas 2008.


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Ffynnon Fair, Maentwrog

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

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

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

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

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

Ffynnon Fair Maentwrog

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

Ffynnon Fair Maentwrog

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

Ffynnon Fair Maentwrog


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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.

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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.

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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 Fair, Bryncroes

St Mary’s Well
Ffynnon Fair lies at the centre of the small community of Bryncroes close to Bottwnog towards the tip of the Lleyn peninsula. So central indeed that we found we had actually parked right beside it after driving down the small single track lane into the village, even before having pulled out the map to look for it.

 The well is marked by a small sign, the same construction as that at nearby Ffynnon Aelrhiw, suggesting a coordinated campaign to label the wells of the area is underway.

Ffynnon Fair itself is a small rectangular basin, stone paving slabs around the sides and surrounded on three sides by a small stone bench. The stonework around the well dates probably to the seventeenth century. This in turn is surrounded by a low stone wall. It is directly beside the road, and is accessed by a couple of steps leading downwards. Water rises inside the basin, forming a pool a couple of inches deep before passing out through a gulley under the paving, forming a fast flowing stream. The stream flows downhill some twenty yards or so before joining up with a larger stream at the bottom of the field.

The whole site has been substantially restored in recent years and is well maintained.

There is very little known about the history of Ffynnon Fair, or of any specific rituals or cures carried out at the well. There are records of a chapel, Ty Fair, having stood beside it at some period of its history, of which no traces now remain. It is possible that it has been a stopping off place on a pilgrimage route,

It must be said that the well, although well kept, and sited on a smooth lawn, has a feeling of sterility. It lacks the sense of place or awe that the more remote, more abandoned wells attract, and its lack of recorded history leaves it with very little to interest the visitor.


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Ffynnon Fair, Cefn Meiriadog

We first visited Ffynnon Fair (St Mary’s Well) during the Easter holiday in 2011, since then we have made several visits, it remains one of the most evocative settings for a holy well in North Wales.  Initially finding it was a challenge, mainly because we’d forgotten the map. After driving from St Asaph to Denbigh and back looking for signs we were forced to return to Denbigh and find a shop open enough to sell us an OS map on a bank holiday.

That got us close enough, and after asking a lady in a cottage up the lane for directions we finally found the route. Down a track, through a gate across a field of cows (always wary of cows), where we paused to watch a herd of wild deer grazing before they jumped a barbed wire fence, and then across a very boggy stream we finally found the well site.

It is set on the floor of a broad river valley flanked by steeply sloping woodland well below the level of the road. Beside the well are the remains of the ruined well chapel, encircled by an iron fence. In 2011 it was so totally overgrown that access to the buidlings was almost impossible.  The current photographs were taken in February 2012, at this time much of the undergrowth had died back and the whole site appeared to have been cleared and was more accessible on that and on subsequent visits.

The earliest part of the chapel building dates from the 13th Century. In the 15th Century a chancel was added to the south. The altar was then situated, unusually, below the southern window, traces of its base remain.

The well basin beside the chapel is in the form of a star, similar to the more famous well at Holywell. For a long time this led to speculation that there were historic links between the two wells and that they were rebuilt at the same time.  It was also thought that in the past ornate pillars supported a canopy over the well, similar to those at Holywell, however excavations in the 1960s concluded that it had never been roofed over. Although St Mary’s at Cefn regularly featured on the pilgrim path between Holywell and Gwytherin, there is no evidence that buildings at the two were linked, and it is now considered that all the archtetural similarities are due to nineteenth century embellishments rather than historical connections.

Following the Reformation the well began to fall into disrepair, although it remained in use by the landowning family. There are records dating from the 1640s which make references to clandestine marriages being conducted there.  The site was described as the Gretna Green of North Wales. It was finally ruined during the anti Catholic campaigns during the reign of James II toward the end of the seventeenth century.

Gray Hulse [1] quotes Browne Willis’s 1720 account of St Asaph to demonstrate that even then Ffynnon Fair remained firmly on the pilgrimage trail, suggesting that pilgrims to St Winefride’s Well at Holywell seldom failed to also make a visit to this chapel, and that “by the side of the well there grows a sweet scented moss much esteemed by pilgrims”.

There are few records of the healing properties of the well, although it has been claimed to have been resorted to for cures for rheumatism and arthritis. The small bath beside the spring has been explored during an excavation and it was concluded that it was added during the Victorian period, more as an architectural feature than for practical use. It is suggested that the changes carried out as part of a major reconstruction of the site during this time were intended to echo the design at St Winefride’s Well at Holywell by the then landowners who used the area as a landscaped walk and picnicing area.

By the 18th Century the chapel was in ruins and the pilgrimages had declined.  Lovers of the romantic and picturesque however continued to admire the remains. Poet Felicia Hemans (1793-1835), mainly known now for her poem Casabianca, spent her youth living close to St Asaph and would have visited the well around this time. She wrote her ode Our Lady’s Well in its honour, which can be read here.

She produced a sketch of the well as it stood in her day, which is a prime source of evidence for the level of reconstruction the site underwent in the nineteenth century. Her drawing shows the west wall of the chapel as standing little more than a few feet high, suggesting that this has been rebuilt since then, and the little bell tower is thus a relatively recent addition. Also she does not show the star shaped well basin, again supporting the idea that this is an embellishment added much later, to mirror the well at Holywell.

Another long term belief was that that the chapel had once been in a cruciform shape, with the well enclosed within the fourth arm. Recent excavations have disproved this idea too, showing that the spring itself was never enclosed within the chapel. Although the water from the spring was always channelled into the building by the west door. There is a theory that the stream could be dammed when required within the chapel beside the west door to form a small internal bath, however there is no documentary evidence for this.

Thomas Pennant describes it in his late eighteenth century Tour of Wales, repeating the idea that the spring was once internal to the chapel:

The Elwy here takes another direction, running west, and then north, alomng most romantic dingles, varied with meadows, woods, and cavernous rocks: neither is it destitute of antiquities. Y ffynnon fair, or our lady’s well, a fine spring, inclosed in an angular wall, formerly roofed; and the ruins of a cross-shaped chapel, finely over-grown with ivy, exhibit a venerable view, in a deep-wooded bottom, not remote from the bridge; and, in days of pilgrimage, the frequent haunt of devotees.

Lewis, in his 1843 Topographical Dictionary of Wales, writes:

Near the river Elwy, in the hamlet of Wigvair , is Fynnon Vair, or “the well of Our Lady,” situated in a richly wooded dell. This spring, which is inclosed in a polygonal basin of hewn stone, discharges about one hundred gallons per minute: the water is strongly impregnated with lime, and was formerly much resorted to as a cold bath. Connected with the well are the ruined walls of a cruciform chapel, which, prior to the Reformation, was a chapel of ease to St. Asaph, in the later style of English architecture: these remains are partly overgrown with ivy; and the ruin, elegant in itself, derives additional interest from the beauty of its situation

These descriptions hold true today, the well still discharges water which forms a stream running through the field to join the Elwy, deer are often seen nearby and the ruins, still covered with ivy, remain an evocative and peaceful location to visit at any time throughout the year.

[1] Gray Hulse, Tristan (2002) The Documentation of Ffynnon Ddeier. Living Spring.