Well Hopper

Exploring the ancient holy wells and healing wells of North Wales


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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 Faglan, Llanfaglan

IMG_4173Ffynnon Faglan, St Baglan’s Well, once stood overlooking the Menai Straits a couple of miles south of Caernarfon. It was a well to rival that of St Cybi at nearby Llangybi, indeed saints Baglan and Cybi are said to have met beside it to chew over the gossip of the day. Today, however, nothing remains at the site but a flat, level field grazed by cattle.

Baglan (and there were two St Baglans by the way, this is the north Walian guy rather than the other one commemorated at the village of Baglan near Neath) was one of a family of saints, he founded his cell at what is now Llanfaglan before heading off with St Dyfnog to Bardsey island in the late sixth century. The church dedicated to him stands padlocked in the middle of a field, no more than a stone’s throw from the sea. It is abandoned now and left to the care of the Friends of Friendless Churches charity. It is considered most unusual in that there is no evidence of a road ever having led to it, the sole access being the muddy track through the field. I think that weddings are still occasionally celebrated there so long as the guests are happy to arrive in their wellies.

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St Baglan’s Well, now completely vanished, lay some two hundred yards to the north west of the church, across a small stream and a stile. The tree topped hillock below which it stood can be clearly seen from the church. Rhys in 1893 records that

The two oldest inhabitants, who have always lived in this parish of Llanfaglan, remember the well being used for healing purposes. One told me his mother used to take him to it, when he was a child, for sore eyes, bathe them with the water and the drop in a pin. The other man, when he was young, bathed in it for rheumatism; and until quite lately people used to fetch away the water for medicinal purposes. The latter, who lives near the well at Tan-y-Graig, said that he remembered it being cleaned out about fifty years ago, when two basinfuls of pins were taken out, but no coins of any kind. [1]

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Coed y Ffynnon from St Baglan’s Church

The well was once a significant structure. Rhys states that in terms of its construction it was an imitation, though on a smaller scale, of St Beuno’s Well at Clynnog. A stone built bath measuring around 6 feet by 3 feet was surrounded by a stone wall with seats built into it. There were recesses in the walls on the north and east sides. This description matches that from Hughes and North’s Old Churches of Snowdonia  published in 1924 which suggests that the well was still visible for the first part of the 20th century.

Even by the late nineteenth century however, drainage work in the fields had led to a reduction in the flow of water to the extent that the well was beginning to dry up. It is presumed at this stage the local population began to lose interest. By the time the Royal Commission on Ancient Monuments [2] arrived to inspect it in the late 1950s they found

The enclosure, 9 feet by 8 feet 6 inches externally has now been filled for the protection of cattle.

A record from 1970 notes records that

“Two low walls, 4m and 3.5m long set at right angles and bordering a shallow depression is all that now remains of this well.” [3]

Although by 2004 Chris Thomas was only able to describe

“… a hollow in the ground with stones scattered about the perimeter. One stone still left standing has a scooped hollow in the top and is said to have been used for outdoor baptisms. When it rained the baptism was carried out in the church and water brought from the well instead.” [4]

It isn’t until around 2010 that there start to be reports that the landowner seems to have removed all the stone from the site and the last remnants of this once impressive well have vanished. Only the grid reference on the map now gives any clue to where it once stood, at the foot of this small hillock. Its location does live on in the name of the adjacent woodland Coed y Ffynnon – Well Wood. There is a heap of large stones piled up beside an old tree on the hilltop (shown in the little picture at the top of the post) – we just wondered whether these represent the final remains of Ffynnon Faglan?

The picture below shows the well site, which was in the centre of the shot at the base of the hill

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The gradual decline and disappearance of Ffynnon Faglan over the last century from the disruption of the water supply to the infilling and removal of surface evidence is a sad story that has been repeated at a number of once important local landmarks across the country, that through lack of any protection are rapidly fading from view and memory. There are many others that have suffered a similar fate, and many more that will soon follow if more is not done to help them survive.

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[1] John Rhys (1893) Celtic Folklore
[2] Harold Hughes and Herbert North (1924) Old Churches of Snowdonia
[2] RCHAMW – Caernarfonshire – Central
[3] Archwilio  The On line Database for the Welsh Historic Environment Record
[4] Chris Thomas (2004) Sacred Welsh Waters


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White Well, Whitewell

IMG_3666 croppedWhen a whole community, however small, is named after a well, then it is a great shame that the well can be allowed to be lost so easily. It does feel a little like biting the hand that feeds you.

Admittedly the community around Whitewell is relatively sparse, It lies very close to the English border, south east of Wrexham and a couple of miles to the east of Whitchurch in Shropshire.

CPAT notes that there is no historic core to Whitewell nor any convincing evidence that it was ever a nucleated settlement [1]; and to be fair the well as never going to be a major tourist attraction.

When the Royal Commission visited it in 1910 they found it to be

covered with a locked iron plate, beneath the supporting stone work a copious flow of water still issues.

There is no information immediately available to support its history, or any indication that the well was ever endowed with any sacred importance. Although for an area to take on its name it must at the very least have been used in some manner. Thus the current Historical Environment Record (HER) records it somewhat sniffily as an Alleged Holy Well, pointing out that there is no evidence there of great antiquity and that the remains are certainly post medieval.

All this became somewhat academic however around 2011, when Cymdeithas Ffynhonnau Cymru wrote that they believed that the well had been buried. My visit, therefore, became an expedition to see whether or not this was the case; and, after spending an hour poking around in grass and nettles in the area indicated by the grid reference supplied, I concluded that this does appear to be true. The iron plate and the well below are lost to view.

There follow a couple of photographs showing where something used to be:

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The location of the well was some 20 to 30 yards to the south of St Marys Church. A small whitewashed brick building dating from around 1830. This replaced a much earlier chapel, in a sequence that stretches back to at least 1570. Earlier buildings may have been closer to the well, reinforcing its significance.

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In passing, it is worth recording that a second feature in the next field to the south, which has been variously indicated on maps since the 1870s as a well or a sluice, and which could previously be seen, surrounded by a small wooden fence, has suffered a similar fate and is no longer visible.

[1] http://www.cpat.org.uk/ycom/wrexham/whitewell.pdf


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St Chad’s Well, Hanmer

We’re close to the English border here and Chad is an English saint rather than Welsh, having a wide scattering of churches and wells dedicated to him across England; even still there are suggestions that his name implies some Welsh or Celtic ancestry. He was bishop of Mercia towards the end of his life and there are stories that he visited Hanmer in around 670 (he died in 672), performing baptisms in a lake now called Llyn Bedydd. The settlement retained the name Chadhill for some 500 years until it was renamed Hanmer sometime in the late twelfth century.

Despite its dedication to a saint from across the border, the church holds an important place in Welsh history. It was here that Owain Glyndwr was married to Margaret, daughter of Sir David Hanmer, in 1380. The church now is a distant relative of the churches that stood in earlier times. Massive fires destroyed successive church buildings in 1463 and in 1889, so the present building is largely modern in construction, dating from the late nineteenth century and completed in the 1930s, although the 1720 chancel remains relatively intact.

 St Chad’s well lies some half mile to the north of the church, beside a footpath. The church tower can still clearly be seen from the well. It was visited in 1910 by the Royal Commission for Historic and Ancient Monuments who saw

“…a deep circular pool, 4 feet in diameter, formerly the sacred well of Hanmer church.”

St Chad. Photo wellhopper

However,by the 1970s the spring had dried up so much that that visitors then reported it as merely “a marshy hollow”  trampled by cattle. The spring was first disturbed by drainage works in the mid nineteenth century. John, Lord Hanmer himself, in his memoir of the parish, holds up his hands as being “without intention” the guilty party. He also records that up until the early part of the nineteenth century Hanmer Hall was supplied with water from St Chad’s Well, being taken twice a day in a barrel.[1]

At this stage a little confusion may have crept in as to which of a number of marshy hollows represents the remains of the well. Maps from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries show a distinct pool, a little to the east of the field boundary, clearly marked as St Chad’s Well. Later maps, and the grid reference provided on Coflein seem to have allowed it to drift a little westward so that it is closer to the hedge. This is supported by photographs in the church purporting to show the site of the well. The two possibilities are only some 10 to 15 yards apart, well within the permitted margins of error of grid references, GPS and folk memories.</span>

 We therefore conclude that the well is around the location of the gate below

 St Chad. Photo wellhopper

Or within the hollow shown below, which clearly does become wet at times, with the growth of plants and the dried up marks of cattle hoofs

 St Chad. Photo wellhopper

Both sites were dry at the time of our visit, although a gully containing water flows along the hedge by the gate.

That the well was important in the past is beyond doubt, remembered well into the nineteenth century; Eirlys and Ken Gruffydd record that the custom of dressing the well died out sometime before 1879. [2]. However as CPAT point out that now

 St Chads’s Well is one of the many wells which has largely disappeared through lack of use and neglect despite its links with Hamner church.[3]

[1] A memorial of the Parish and Family of Hanmer. John Lord Hanmer , privately printed 1877.

[2] Ffynhonnau Cymru 2, Eirlys and Ken Gruffydd, Llanrwst 1999

[3] CPAT Report 1090. Silvester et al, 2011.


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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.

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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 Farchell, Denbigh

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St Marcella’s Well
There are some wells high up in snow covered mountains, others lie in sun dappled, tree lined valleys. Some wells are so long forgotten that their location will never again be known, whilst other wells lie buried deep beneath roundabouts on the Denbigh bypass. Ffynnon Farchell, the holy well of St Marchell or Marcella, the Latinised form by which she is usually referred to, falls firmly into this final category.

Marchell was a daughter of Hawystl Gloff and Tywanwedd. She and two of her brothers, Deifyr and Tyrnog arrived in the area in the early 7th century; reputedly following the destruction of the great monastery at Bangor is y Coed by Ethelfrith in 613. They each set up neighbouring cells. Deifyr’s eventually became the parish of Bodfari and Tyrnog’s the parish of Llandyrnog. Marchell’s own parish was known as Llanfarchell up until the fourteenth century at which time Denbigh began to develop where it is now. Other of her brothers travelled further afield establishing churches on Anglesey.

The image of Marchell above is from a recently restored fifteenth century stained glass window in the church at Llandyrnog.

The guidebook to St Marcella’s church paints the fanciful picture of her arrival:

“Here on this very spot we can picture her raising her little shelter of twigs and osiers, her food such as she could gather from herbs, roots and berries and her drink, water of the spring which henceforth bore the name of Marcella’s Well or Ffynnon Farchell.” [1]

The present church dates from the fourteenth century, although the thirteenth century tower remains from an earlier building. Over time, with the movement of the population further west it has at times fallen into disuse and disrepair. During the Civil War it was used for stabling, and in the mid 1800s Lewis commented:

The ancient parochial church, dedicated to St. Marcellus, and now in a very dilapidated condition, is situated at Whitchurch, about a mile from the town, from which place the rectory was transferred by act of parliament to Denbigh, which was made the head of the parish. [2]

The church was restored in 1908 and is now in regular use. Its characteristic colour, being covered in white plaster, stands out in the landscape, and gives the area its name of Whitchurch (White church) or Eglwys Wen.

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The well was located some 400 yards to the west of the church. It was recorded by Edward Lhuyd in his inventory of 1699.

“Ffynnon Fachell, near Whitchurch which is thought to be the Saint’s Well”

The uncertainty, even at this time, suggests that any traditions associated with the well were starting to become lost.

Eighteenth and nineteenth century writers, such as Pennant and Lewis, fail to mention it at all, suggesting again that most local tradition concerning healing traditions at the well had faded. However some memories of the significance of the well must have survived even at this period. Its use, maybe for  bringing luck or as a wishing well are  recorded by the Royal Commission on Ancient Monuments description in 1914.

The son of the old man who told me of the well informed me that as a boy he used to visit the well early in the morning after the great Denbigh fairs; and always found a number of coins which had been thrown into the well by passers-by. Once he discovered a half crown. [3]

The well finally dried up when the spring that fed it was cut during the construction of the Denbigh and Ruthin railway line in the late 1850s, so that by the time of the Royal Commission vsit in 1912  they reported that

There is no trace of it at present, except the channel which took the water away. [3]

The site of the well did continue to be recorded  on Ordnance Survey maps up until the 1960s. This would suggest that it thus survived the building of the Myddleton Park housing estate, before it eventually vanished under the line of the bypass.

In visiting the well now the location identified below was based on these OS mapping records.

Let us assume that this represents Ffynnon Farchell, St Marcella’s Well.

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Then our best estimate of where it was is as shown in the photographs below, just beside the roundabout on the bypass where you turn off towards Whitchurch

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Yes, it is still there below see, just by the roadside
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The image below is the church of St Marcella as viewed from the location of her holy well.

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St Marcella’s feast day is celebrated on September 5th.

[1] R M (Bobi ) Owen (2010) St Marcella’s Church Denbigh – Guidebook
[2] Samuel Lewis(fourth edition, 1849) A Topographical Dictionary of Wales
[3] Royal Commission on Ancient and Historic Monuments (1914) An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouth – Vol 4 County of Denbigh.


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Ffynnon y Saint, Llanfihangel Glyn Myfyr

Saints Well
From one Llanfihangel to another – because that’s how Wellhopper rolls. Today we visited Llanfihangel Glyn Myfyr in search of Ffynnon y Saint – the Well of the Saints.

Llanfihangel Glyn Myfyr lies between Corwen and Cerrigydrudion, a little off the A5. The village consists of a pub, the church and a few scattered houses. The church of St Michael which gives the village its name is a plain building, parts dating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but with little of note. A plaque high on the east wall marks the height reached by the water from the River Alwen that runs alongside, during a notorious flood of 1781

Llanfihangel Glyn Myfyr

Ffynnon y Saint – the well of the Saints – is marked on early twentieth century maps around 300 yards to the north west of the church on the land of Tyddtyn Tudur, once home to the noted eighteenth century Welsh cultural historian and publisher Owen Jones (Owain Myfyr). Who is commemorated in the church The well was visited in 1912 by the Royal Commission for Ancient Monuments, who reported that

“The spring is now dry and the well chamber is practically empty. A depression to the east affords proof that the overflow was copious.”

The current historical record, Coflein, reports a chamber, 0.2 metres deep, dry and partly filled. and a visit by the Clywd Powys Archaeological Trust in 2003 reported  that

Ffynnon y Saint was still visible as a spring within living memory, lying beside the farm access road. It has now been completely filled in and no visible sign remains, even the well chamber of an earlier report being of uncertain form. The farmer could vaguely remember it from his youth.  (from Archwelio database)

The maps record the well as lying on the left hand side of the track approaching the farm beside the track and the field boundary. On our visit a small stream was flowing beside the track, although the gap between the track and the fence seemed much less than that implied by the maps, suggesting that possibly either the track or the field boundary has been adjusted in the 100 years since the maps were drawn up.

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The other side of the track was marshy with tracks of streams flowing through it; a stone covered, concrete lined tank was there filled with water. The farmer said that all signs of the well had vanished, but then one kind of thought that he would, wouldn’t he?

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I have found no accounts associated with the well or any customs associated with it. No evidence that it is linked with the church and with St Michael, or with some other now lost ecclesiastical foundation, there is a field across the river  known as Cae’r Saint, again with no recorded history or reason attached. Clearly there is a distant memory a religious significance now long lost, preserved only in these names within the landscape Llanfihangel Glyn Myfyr.

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As we returned to the car, through the drizzle and gathering gloom, I tried explaining that it is just as interesting and important to document finding nothing as it is to record finding an impressive well chamber. I have a feeling few were convinced by the argument.