Well Hopper

Exploring the ancient holy wells and healing wells of North Wales


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St Digain, Llangernyw

 

There is little factual information available on the life of St Digain. Digain is reputed to have lived in the fifth century, by legend  he was a Cornish prince, born in 429, a son of Cystennin Gorneu. a king of Dummonia ( in modern terms,  part of the south west extending into  Cornwall)  who is associated with the founding of the church at nearby Llangystennin.

 The village by which Digain’s well is found is Llangernyw which may be translated as “the church of the Cornishman”. Digain is shown in a small stained glass window, dating probably from the early Victorian period, on the north wall of the church.

As well as this church in Conwy there was also a (now extinct) church of Llangernyw, in the Valley Dore,  Herefordshire.

Ffynnon Digain, Digain’s well, lies on a steep hillside about a mile to the north west of Llangernyw.

It is relatively undisturbed, although it is possible that at one time it may have had another stone at the front to form a basin, and the record of a visit in the 1990s suggests there may once have been a flat stone lying across the top. [1]The water flows out from the base of a large stone at the back, which supporting the bank, and is channelled between two other upright stones in a channel around 9 inches wide.

Within the channel the water was an inch or so deep, running on a deep bed of silt, so deep it wasn’t possible to determine whether there is a stone at bottom of it or not.

The water flows vigorously, forming a stream that runs down the hillside, collecting in a pool lower down.

The well is clearly visited, judging from the collection of burnt incense sticks we found beside the well.

Maybe this was because we were there just a few days after St Digain’s feast day which is celebrated on  November 21. It is both encouraging and fascinating to know that these wells and the saints days are being remembered, whatever the ceremony that was being carried out.

St Digain’s Church at Llangernyw deserves a study of its own. It is built beside a yew tree currently estimated to be around 4000 years old, possibly the oldest living thing in Britain. The churchyard also contains two upright standing stones, each with a cross etched into them. These are possibly the sites of Christian burials from the Dark Ages, although other sources consider they may be the remains of an ancient altar.

A further two rougher standing stones are situated close to the entrance to the church. The origin of these is probably pre-Christian and they may have stood there almost as long as the tree itself.

Finally, the church is the haunt of the notorious Angelystor, the spectral Recording Angel of Death. The Angelystor is said to make its appearance twice a year, at the end of July and again, , most suitably, at Hallowe’en. On these appearances it will read out in a deep voice the names of those people of the parish who will die in the forthcoming year.

Llangernyw Church

4000 year old yew tree at Llangernyw

Early Christian burial marker at Llangernyw

[1] http://www.ffynhonnaucymru.org.uk/llangernyw.htm

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St Michael’s Well, Cilcain

From documentation on the internet it appears that there was a concerted effort to restore Cilcain’s St Michaels Well (Ffynnon Mihangel) during the late 1990s and the early part of the 21st century. A number of working parties seem to have done work on clearing the site, and investigating grants for restoration. [1]

It seems, however,  that these were ultimately unsuccessful, as St Michael’s Well when we found it was as ruined and overgrown as it might have been 20 years ago. There were reports of a large tree that had been growing within the well, destroying the stonework. Attempts were made to remove this without further damaging the well, firstly by cutting down the tree and then by posioning the stump to try to break it up. Finding the blackened remains of this stump, sitting onto of a layer of stonework,  was the first indications that we were in the right place.

The well is to the left of a road leading out of the village to the south west from the back gate of the church, about 100 yards from the church and a little way past a house called Tyddyn Mihangel, clearly named after the well. It is several feet below the present road level. Apparently earlier excavations found the remains of steps leading down to the well, although there is little obvious evidence of these now.

The well rises into a loose stone basin, about three feet square and about two feet deep. The water was certainly flowing well on the day we visited, the overflow runs away as a little stream into a neighbouring field.

It was difficult to determine, amongst the nettles and brambles how much of the basin remains, other than the single layer of stones that could readily be seen. There does appear to be a good quantity of dressed stone scattered randomly about the site.

The church at Cilcain is dedicated to St Mary, rather than St Michael. It is worthy of visit for its interior wooden roof, apparently appropriated from Basingwerk Abbey following the dissolution, and containing a number of medieval carved wooden angels and demons, examples of which are shown below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1]  Documented on various pages of the website of the Welsh Holy Wells Society  Cymdeithas Ffynhonnau Cymru  This site is in Welsh, for non Welsh speakers google translate does a reasonable job with it.


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St Trillo’s Well, Llandrillo yn Rhos

We first visited St Trillo’s Well just after Christmas, snow has been compacted into ice on the promenade and access to the chapel was treacherous.  Returning last wekend was a much easier and more pleasant walk.

St Trillo’s Well is housed in a tiny chapel almost on the seashore, at the Llandudno end of the promenade at Llandrillo yn Rhos (Rhos on Sea). It is widely held that this is the smallest church in Britain, there are seats for six worshippers. The chapel that stands there now was substantially rebuilt, with new walls and roof at the end of the nineteenth century. However, it occupies a site where St Trillo was thought to have established his first church in the sixth century.

Trillo is said to be the son of Ithel Hael of Llydew and a brother of Saints Tegai and Llechid, both of whom established churches in Caernarfonshire. He was a monk on Bardsey Island before establishing his church at Llandrillo. He was a contemporary of St Deiniol of Bangor, and it is believed that he took part in the foundation of the Diocese of Bangor under tha patronage of Maelgwn, Prince of Gwynedd in around 550. Maelgwn had a castle at Deganwy, and a palace near Rhos on Sea at the site now called Bryn Eurgn, where the remains of a more recent, medieval house have been restored and can now be seen.

Pennant visited Llandrillo at the end of the eighteenth century and described the chapel as it then stood

“… saw close to the shore the singular little building called St Trillo’s Church. It is oblong, has a window on each side and at the end; a small door; and a vaulted roof paved with round stones instead of being slated. Within is a well. The whole building is surrounded with a stone wall.” 

The well, which is under a grate below the altar,  is dedicated to St Trillo and St Elian, who are both illustrated in the small stained glass windows in the chapel. There is no record of any healing properties for this well, although traditionally the water has been taken for use in baptisms at the other churches in the parish.

The parish church here is also dedicated to St Trillo, and there is also a church dedicated to St Trillo at Llandrillo near Corwen, where there was also a healing well carrying his name until it was stopped up in the mid nineteenth century. 

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St Trillo’s festival is celebrated on June 15th.

stained glass windows, click to enlarge

There have been other wells in the region dedicated to St Trillo at Llansannan and Llandrillo, near Corwen.


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Llangystennin

It is a sad fact that the majority of Welsh holy wells are probably lost forever now. Either built over, filled in, diverted for water sources; for some the location is known, but for many even this information is lost. Perhaps Llangystennin falls into this category, although of course new evidence is always being found that could change everything.

The churchyard at Llangystenin is currently being cleared and rescued from a completely overgrown state by a team of church members, and monuments and history are being resurected from years of neglect. Llangystennin certainly had a well, a well attached to the church is listed in Jones’ “Holy Wells of Wales”, but this is limited to a bare statement of existence with no further details of location or associated customs. Jones does imply that the well may not have been close to the church but nearer to Llandudno Junction, and there are suggestions that it was in the Mochdre area.

The current incarnation of the church at Llangystennin was built in 1843, occupying the site of an earlier medieval church, which itself is said to be built on the site of the oldest church in Wales. It is claimed that the first church on the site was established areound the year 330. Some of the fittings of the ealier church were retained in building the  current church, although some excellent medieval stained glass was removed, as was a bell believed to date to the ninth or tenth centuries, and one of very few remaining celtic bells in Wales.

The bell is currently on display in the Llandudno Museum. The glass too is in the museum, although not presently on display. Some portions of it can be seen here.

The existing church does have two attractive Victorian stained glass windows.

The church is dedicated to St Cystennin, although there remains some doubt and controversey over the identity of the saint. Cystennin is a celticised form of the name Constantine, and there are a few contenders. For many years it was assumed that this was Constantine, son of the grand emperor of Rome. Baring Gould, in his Lives of the British saints after a discussion of seven Constantines, concludes that it is probably Constantine Gorneu, who flourished in the fourth century and was the great great grandfather of Saints Cybi and Gildas. The ephitet “Gorneu” means Cornish, and Baring Gould points to another local church at Llangernyw – “The Church of the Cornishman” , which legend has it was founded by Constantine’s son Digain, as supporting evidence.

Despite the relative young age of the church, there are a number of monuments in the churchyard that date from the earlier period. A number of grave stones around the churhcyard bear dates from the eighteenth century, and the “pirate’s grave” beside the main door is earlier still.

“Pirate’s graves”, so called because they bear the characteristic skull and crossed bones motif, occur all over Britain. In most cases they don’t contain the remains of pirates, the skull and bones were frequently used to represent a “memento mori”, a reminder of man’s mortality. Above the skull on this stone there is a further emblem which is difficult to decipher. It could be an hour glass, which too is often used to indicate mortality, or it could be the coat of arms of the occupant.

Pirates graves, whether they contain the remains of pirates or not, often attract much local superstition. They are often held to be haunted, and there are frequently customs that one should adopt when passing them, or approaching them, to ward off the evil associated with them. According to legend, North Wales produced more pirates per mile of coastline than any other country in Europe, so why shouldn’t there be a pirate buried here?

Llangystennin is a little off the regular tourist track, just to the west of Colwyn Bay, it is signposted from the centre of Mochdre; but whether or not the well is unearthed during the restoration of its grounds, it is certainly worth visiting.

I have written more about pirate graves here.


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St Mordeyrn’s Well, Nantglyn

IMG_4485Nantglyn lies about 4 miles to the south east of Denbigh along narrow single track roads. It is the only parish in Wales whose patron is St Mordeyrn, although the church there now is dedicated to St James. It once lay on the route of the pilgrimage trail that followed the route of St Windefride from Holywell to Gwytherin and was possibly thronged with pilgrims. Today it is really not on the road to anywhere, and is easily missed as you pass by on the A543 on the road to Pentrefolas.

Baring Gould and Fisher highlight that the name of Mordeyrn does not appear in any of the medieval indices of Saints; it is only a 16th century poem that provides us with a history. According to this source, as many of his fellow saints, fifth century Mordeyrn was a king’s son, son of Edeyrn, grandson of Cunedda Wledig and “of the same blood” as St David. Baring-Gould concludes that this makes him the son of Edern ab Cunedda who, “in the Cumeddan Conquest of Wales, is credited with having received as his share the district of Edeymion in NE Merionethshire.” [4]

Mordeyrn was one of the twenty thousand who went to Bardsey, but to set him apart “rather than riding on the causeway which rose out of the sea for the saints’ passage, Mordeyrn crossed on his golden-maned horse without wetting so much as a hoof.”  This gained him the name “Sovereign of the Sea”.

Mordeyrn later returned to his home at Nantglyn and founded a church there. According to the bard, when he died visitors to his shrine were rid of every affliction and remained healthy for a year. Cures were also obtained for cattle, and visitors arrived laden with “oblations of fine wax and gold”.

In the early 19th century both Llwyd [1] and Lewis [2] wrote that the chapel at Trewalchmai, near Malltraeth on Anglesey was dedicated to Mordeyrn. However this wasn’t universal at the time and some of their contemporaries gave the dedication used as now, being to St Morhaiarn. Baring Gould and Fisher [4] fail to identify Morhaiarn although they don’t offer Mordeyrn as an alternative.

There appeared to be little of interest at the present church, which if it ever had a dedication to Mordeyrn soon forgot it and acquired a dedication to St James instead. It was heavily restored in the 19th century and was locked on our visit. There is, in the churchyard, an open air pulpit, slate steps and a platform built into an old yew tree. A map showing sites of local interest outside the church optimistically highlights Mordeyrn’s well.

St Mordeyrn’s well is marked on the first Ordnance Survey map of the area produced in 1874 and indeed on every issue since that date. I have taken that to imply that around 1874 the well was still there to be known by name and to be seen, since many maps don’t appear on the early mapping, not making an appearance until the early 20th century.

By 1912 however when the surveyors of the Royal Commission inspected Denbighshire the well had vanished. All their report can say is that

“The Spring rose at a point 250 yards to the north of the church, but the water has been brought into the village. The site is still moist.”

Eric Griffiths [3] does mention that, at that time, some of the older residents remember seeing large stones at the site, suggesting that the well, if nothing remained in 1912, had been in evidence not long before.

In considering the story of the water being brought into the village, it is remembered locally that during the construction of a house some 20 or 30 yards from the well site in the 1930s, underground pipes were struck and water flooded the site. Quite probably this shows the direction in which the water was taken,

The Historic Environment  Record currently identifies the probable site of the well as being “somewhere under the garden boundary of the police house”. as seen at the top of the post.This garden, although no longer a police house, had recently been dug over at the time of our visit and no sign of a potential capped well, or even moist ground, was to be seen. We did however speak to the neighbour next door. In his garden, at the roadside end, he does have problems with water; the grass there is much darker than elsewhere in the garden and the earth was muddy and soft to the touch. If there were evidence still to be found of St Mordeyrn’s well then this may easily be it.

below: a damp patch in the corner of the garden – Ffynnon Mordeyrn’s last remains?
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There is no information regarding the well in terms of traditions or cures, although the legend is that Mordeyrn carried out baptisms there. For healing and more customs we need to turn to the original chapel, Capel Mordeyrn which stood some 200 yards away as the crow flies to the south east. As with the well, the chapel site is marked boldly on all the OS maps, although also in common with the well the marking is made more with faith than hard evidence.

The chapel was fading even by the end of the 17th century, when Edward Lhuyd’s informant reported that

 “its foundations were to be seen and that people there were accustomed to sell turf out of the chapel for the cure of diseases of cattle.”

The removal of turf and also of a curious red soil that could be found at the site and which was rubbed into the backs of cattle to prevent disease was still remembered, if not practiced, into the early 19th century when recorded by Richard Fenton in his Tours in Wales.

The area surrounding the chapel is certainly redolent with names suggesting a long religious tradition. Leland in the 16th century identifies it as the burial place of a number of saints, the river that borders the site is crossed now by a bridge bearing the name Saints Ford, and the field across the river is Dol Sant – the Saints meadow. The history of Nantglyn implies that at one point in history it was divided, half bearing the name Nantglyn (or Nantclin) Sanctorum, and suggests that some residents paid their dues to the local abbot. Lhuyd records Nantglyn Sanctorum as being a place of sanctuary. The muddy lane running alongside Dol Sant is known as Lon Beti, possibly a corruption of Abaty remembering an abbey or ecclesiastical foundation once there. Finally, the farm on whose land this stands is now known as Glasmor, although historically this was Clasmor. Given that Clas is the term for an early Welsh ecclesiastical settlement then Clasmor, or Clas Mawr might indicate the presence of a foundation of some size.

below: Dol Saint as seen from Pont Rhyd y Saint
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Clearly etymological evidence is everything here; there is little physical evidence on the ground. A geophysical investigation of the supposed site of the church in the early part of this century revealed next to nothing, and some trial trenches were put through the site around the same time, with a similar lack of results. It may be easily be hypothesised that several hundred years of local farmers removing turf and digging for red earth would have effectively disturbed and hidden any evidence that might have remained. The landowner did, however, indicate to us an alternative site in the next field northwards which appears from the contours to have been artificially landscaped and levelled at some time as a more promising site for potential church or ecclesiastical buildings.

below: contours in the field sloping up towards the supposed site of Capel Mordeyrn at the top of the hill, at the left hand side. Levelled?
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That Nantglyn has once been at the heart of a significant religious and pilgrimage area whilst not proved is clearly realistic. Like so many sites there are few physical remains and so much is conjecture. Only old documentary evidence can ever shed light on the scale or importance of what was once here, though it is probable that Nantglyn was once home to one of a string of religious settlements scattered across Wales, latterly remembered as pilgrimage routes and then passing into folklore after the Reformation.

The feast day of St Mordeyrn is not generally recorded, although Baring-Gould notes a record that identifies it as July 25th. Lhuyd in 1699 suggested that it fell on the first Sunday after St James, which forms a clear linkage between the festival of this saint and that of the dedicatee of the new church in the village.

[1] Angharad Llwyd (1833) A History of the Island of Mona
[2] Samuel Lewis (1833) Topographical Dictionary of Wales
[3] Eric Griffiths (1984) Nantglyn
[4] Baring Gould and Fisher – Lives of the British Saints


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St Celynin’s Well, Llangelynin, nr Henryd, Conwy

Llangelynin Old Church is high in the hills to the south of Conwy. Climbing up there provides a panoramic view of the river, Conwy Castle and the harbour. The church dates from the 12th or 13th century, probably built on the site of an earlier church. It has once been at the centre of a widespread rural community, as evident from the number of derelict houses littered across the surrounding hills. It is also on the route of an long abandoned road, the discovery of the foundations of an inn built against the church wall demonstrates that in the past this must have been a thriving community. The church was abandoned in 1840 as a result of shifting population, and replaced with a new building lower in the valley.

The church is still used for three services a year, held on summer Sunday afternoons since there is no electricity for light and no heating in the church. The body of the church is in the form of an L shape, with two distinct chapels facing the altar. The second chapel is known as the Men’s Chapel. It is thought that the drovers would be accomodated here, to separate the unwashed and the uncouth from the remainder of the congregation. A third chapel was also added in the 16th century, but later demolished. the remains can be seen outside the church. The church is plain with few memorials, the chief feature being the inscription of the Lords Prayer and Ten commandments in Welsh on the wall beside the altar, to which a skull and crossbones are appended.

The well house is in a southern corner of the dry stone wall that surrounds the very uneven church yard. The walls surrounding the well and the benches have been restored, although the current layout fits a description of the site from 1739. The original well house according to records from 1622 was roofed.

The well was believed to have powers to cure sick children, and children were brought from a wide disatnce around for cure. Sick children would be bathed in the well either early in the morning or in the evening and would then be wrapped in a blanket and allowed to sleep at a house at Cae Iol nearby. During this time their clothes would be washed in the water. the belief being that if the clothes floated then the cure would be successful, but if the clothes sank then the child would not recover.

The remains of Cae Iol where the children were taken lie about 100 yards from the church.  The Ancient Monuments record notes a post medieval farm house and a medieval platform house, I assume it was to the latter that children were taken, although I think only the more recent house is shown in the photograph.

Celynin dates from the 6th century and was one of twelve sons of Helig ab Glannog, whose territories, between Penmaenmawr and Anglesey were flooded and now lie under Beaumaris Bay and Lavan Sands. It was said that the remains of Llys Helig could still be seen at very low tides a mile or so off the coast at Penmaenmawr. Loosing their family lands in this way the sons became monks at Bangor on Dee and Bardsey Island. A second church dedicated to St Celynin is in Llwyngwril near Barmouth.

The festival date for the church here is variously given as the 2nd or the 22nd of November. the calendars do not give a date for the festival of St Celynin.

The enclosed churchyard covers a very wide area, there are apparently records of burials there dating back to the 14th century, however the rocky nature of the churchyard means that only some areas can be used for burial.

A couple of hundred yards westwards along the drover’s path you can also find what we supposed to be Ffynnon Gwynwy.

Llangelynin Old Church is near Garnedd-wen farm and is signposted on the roads up from Henryd. The route is a steeply climbing single track road, but there is parking space at the top, about 100 yards from the church.


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St Collen’s Well, Llangollen

St Collen’s life story seems much more interesting than his well. Collen flourished in the 7th century. One account is given here in David Nash Ford’s Early British Kingdoms. Born in southern England he went to be educated in France and trained in Orleans before moving back to England, where he became abbot of Glastonbury. Disillusioned with life in the monastery he withdrew to a hermit’s cell but visions, nightmares and demons followed him, and after praying to the Lord for guidance he moved northwards and settled near Llangollen, which is named after him.

Even this part of  Wales wasn’t safe. A flesh eating giantess, Cares y Bwlch, roamed the hills around the Horseshoe Pass. Collen set forth to deal with her, and eventually killed her. He washed his bloody sword in a nearby spring, and this became known as St Collen’s Well. Despite its dramatic beginnings it has become most noteworthy for its ability to cure warts.

Collen lived out his life in Llangollen, and was believed to have been buried there, his remains being enclosed in a building called the Old Chapel which was apparently still visible in the 18th century.

We took information on the location of the spring from a posting on the website The  Megalithic Portal. This led us to a water source that fits the traditional description of the well being on a hillside close to the Horseshoe Pass. I have seen no other corroborating evidence, however,  to prove that this spring is St Collen’s Well, so at present we can’t be  certain whether the site reported here is actually correct. The spring bubbles out from underneath a rock very close to the long distance footpath, and flows as a stream alongside and even over the footpath as it goes downhill.

The site is close to the Ponderosa Cafe, apparently a very popular meeting point for bikers, and probably as lively in the 21st century as it was in the 7th century when plagued with the giantess. Surprisingly, and disappointingly, neither the cafe nor the gift shop make any reference to their close proximity to the well and its connection with the local history of the area. Consequently , although there may have been 200 people or more there on the Sunday afternoon we visited, we were the only ones to walk down to the  well.

There is a road that starts in the cafe car park and runs down hill away from the cafe. Follow that road for about 100 yards and then branch off to the left where you can see a gate and a footpath sign. Follow the footpath for about another 100 yards or so and the well is on the left hand side. The small stream it creates  is possibly easier to spot and follow to its source.

St Collen’s feast day is celebrated on 21st May.