Well Hopper

Exploring the ancient holy wells and healing wells of North Wales


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Clorach Wells

Clorach wellsOne of the sites I most frequently receive inquiries about is Clorach, near Llanerchymedd. It is one of the most enduring and endearing stories associated with the early saints in North Wales. That of how the founders of the two great Anglesey monasteries, at Penmon in the south east and on Holy Island in the north west, would regularly trek across the island to meet at this central point to chat and set the world to rights.

The story tells us that Seiriol walking westwards in the morning and eastwards in the evening always had his back to the sun and thus never got a tan (regardless of how he spent the rest of his time). Cybi on the other hand always walked towards the sun.

The account has been set in verse by both Matthew Arnold and also by Sir John Morris Jones We give the first verse of the latter’s work here.

Seiriol Wyn a Chybi Felyn
Cyfarfyddent, fel mae’r son,
Beunydd wrth Ffynhonnau Clorach
Yng Nghanolbarth Mon
Seiriol the fair and Cybi the tawny
Met as it is said
Daily by the well of Clorach
In the centre of Anglesey

At the point where they met were two strongly flowing wells directly opposite to each other, one on either side of the road. These wells have had a reputation as an important site which is documented  back into at least the 18th century and probably long long before that.

The Rev John Skinner was shown and sketched the two wells during his 1802 tour of Anglesey, noting that both were enclosed in a reservoir of stonework. He doesn’t comment on any customs of the wells, other than repeating the story that they were the meeting place of the two saints. He does record being told that they were close to the former nunnery of St Claire which he locates about 1/4 mile to the north of the wells. There does not appear to be any other record of this nunnery having existed.

Carreg LleidrSkinner, and all subsequent visitors, also make particular reference to the nearby Thief Stone, Carreg Leidr (Leidr y Frydog),  a standing stone in a field close to the wells. Legend tells that this represents a man who stole the chained Bible from the nearby church, and was turned to stone as a result of his deed. The square protuberance at the top being the Bible still in his hands. The legend frees him to run three times around the field each Christmas Eve before returning to his station.

The wells are mentioned, though not described by William Cathrall in his 1828 History of North Wales where he notes that the two are remarkable not for their healing powers but for their history in relation to the two saints. Although Angharad Llwyd in 1833 notes that the wells are still held in high estimation she doesn’t refer to any particular virtues of the waters.

The earliest reference to healing attributes that I’ve seen occurs in The Lives of the British Saints which states that people would formerly visit the wells for cures for various diseases .  Francis Jones’s Holy Wells of Wales includes a reference to an 1893 document  which states that Ffynnon Seiriol would be visited in the dead of night  in the nineteenth century  and water would be taken to cure sick people. There does not appear to be a record of any  specific complaints for which the waters were used.

The Gruffydds’ book adds to this the tradition that the spot was considered a good place for couples to meet up to reconcile differences following an argument.Thus we are left to consider whether the healing beliefs of the wells arose as a new custom during the 19th century, or whether it had always existed and was ignored by, or just unknown to the earlier historians. An article by Miss E M Fussell (1921) doesn’t help. She discusses bathing in the well by sufferers from rheumatism and the floating of handkerchiefs in the well for divination.   I tend to believe that she has confused this well with either Cybi ‘s well at Llangybi in Caernarfonshire or a closer one in Holyhead, both of which had traditions of divination.  Of course it is always possible that traditions migrated from one well to another over time and were indeed practised here too.

The pair of wells were reduced to the single well we see today in around 1840 when the road was realigned and the bridge, Pont Clorach, built over the stream here. At this time, the well to the north of the road, that of St Seiriol, was lost under the bridge foundations. St Cybi’s remained untouched on the southern side of the bridge.Clorach wells

There remains some difference of opinion as to whether the one remaining well is that of Cybi or Seiriol. Most mapping and reference sources however identify it as Cybi’s after Skinner’s eighteenth century sketch which labels the wells and marks Cybi’s on the southern side of the road. On the other hand Baring-Gould and Fisher, followed by Francis Jones, suggests that it is Seiriol’s well rather than Cybi’s that has survived.

So this is what we see today; the old stone structure repaired and topped with brick, covered by a concrete and iron lid to keep out the cattle.  The Gruffydds record that it was in use as a local water supply up until the 1950s when piped water arrived in the area. Overgrown  now and apparently the inside walls have collapsed blocking access to the spring, although it still produces water that flows out from beneath into the surrounding ground.

Clorach wells

There is another well dedicated to Cybi about 3 miles to the west, and there has been tradition in this area that this well marks the Saints’ meeting point rather than the Clorach wells.

Clorach should probably be an iconic destination in any tour of the historical religious sites on Anglesey, but quite clearly it is a huge anticlimax as many people before me have discovered. Whatever the travel writers and historians of the early Victorian period said about the local importance of the springs wasn’t heard by the bridge builders. It is hard to tell whether their accounts of the high esteem in which the wells were held was exaggerated, whether even by their time it was receding from memory, or whether even then as so often today progress needs to take precedence over history and the bridge was built regardless of the history it was destroying.

Clorach wells

In the bare midst of Anglesey they show
Two springs which close by one another play;
And, “Thirteen hundred years agone,” they say,
“Two saints met often where those waters flow.

Extracts from
Seiriol Wyn a Chybi Felyn by Sir John Morris Jones (1864 – 1929)
East and West by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)

Eirlys and Ken Lloyd Gruffydd (1999) Ffynhonnau Cymru. Cyfrol 2.
Angharad Llwyd (1833)  A History of the Island of Mona
John Skinner (1802) A Ten Day Tour Through Anglesey
William Cathrell (1828) The History of North Wales
Sabine Baring Gould and John Fisher (1907) The Lives of the British Saints.
Francis Jones (1954) The Holy Wells of Wales
Miss E M Fussell (1921) Some Aspects of Monasticism in Anglesey in Transactions of the Anglesey Antiquarian Society.


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Ffynnon Gybi, Llangybi

St Cybi’s Well
Ffynnon Gybi at Llangybi is firmly on the tourist trail, and justifiably so,  the route marked from afar by a series of brown signs from the A499 north of Pwllheli. But once you finally arrive, and leave the road onto the footpath the signage ends and soon you are left facing a broad muddy water filled hole. For a minute you can be excused thinking disappointedly “Is this what all the fuss is about?”, but be assured it isn’t. This is another well, Ffynnon Llety Plu, supposedly once associated with a pub of lodging house in the area. [1] The path turns to the right here and Ffynnon Cybi is still another hundred yards or so away.

The track to the well has clearly been a major route at one time, the remains of stone walls and houses can be seen beside a wide track. It turns left onto a bridge crossing the stream and a raised stone causeway leading to the well buildings can be seen under the grass.

The buildings that stand now are the remains of eighteenth century buildings, on the left an enclosed bathing pool and beside it the remains of a house occupied by the well keeper. These were erected by the land owner Mr Price around 1730 after having been convinced of the efficacy of taking the waters. The spring itself lies immediately behind the bathing pool (in photos below), forming another small pool from which water flows into the building.

The well’s outlet is from the front of the building, through which it forms a fast flowing stream that flows through a stone lined channel across the field down towards the river. As it goes it passes through another smaller building, linked to the wellhouse by another stone path, which has at one time been a latrine block.

The bathing pool itself is inside the left hand building of the pair (shown below). it is stone lined,  approximately four yards square, with a narrow stone path running all the way around it. Within the walls of the chamber there are small niches in which candles and offerings have been left.

The well was a point of pilgrimage. Its waters were said to cure warts, lameness, blindness, scrofula, scurvy and rheumatism. Crutches and wheelbarrows left by cure seekers were to be seen around the well. A box, Cyff Gybi, was kept in the church to receive the offerings from grateful pilgrims.

At one time it is told that an eel lived in the well. The patient stood bare legged in the well and a cure would take place if the eel coiled itself around the patient’s legs. At one time the eel was removed and people believed that the well lost much of its powers at that time.

Treatment was also said to have consisted of giving patients an equal quantity of well-water and sea water, morning and evening, for a period varying from seven to ten days. They then had to bathe in the water once or twice a day, retiring after each bath to a bedchamber in the adjoining cottage where they were given a quantity of healing water to drink. The success or otherwise of the treatment was judged by whether the patient became warm in bed or remained cold, with the former condition indicating that the treatment was progressing satisfactorily.

An eighteenth century record of cures includes the case of one man, blind for 30 years having his sight restored after bathing his eyes in the well over a period of three weeks; whilst another was cured of a “sharp pain in the nose” after using the water. Water was frequently taken away from the well in bottles and casks for use as a medicine. Jones (1954) repeats the story of a band of smugglers who

“…when returning with casks of spirits from Porthdinllaen were challenged by an excise officer. The smugglers said the casks contained water from ffynnon Gybi which they were taking to the well known land owner Mr Price of Rhiwlas.”

The well was also frequently used for divination, with local youths floating handkerchiefs on the water to see which way their love would go.

Cybi is another locally famed saint with origins far distant from North Wales. He came to the area rather late in life, apparently fleeing from a chain of disagreements and feuds he had had elsewhere. From what evidence exists he is believed to have been born in Cornwall, his father a Roman military leader or minor king, and through his mother Gwen, he was a first cousin to St David.

He was educated in Cornwall and reputedly visited Jerusalem and Rome on pilgrimages before staying in France where he received his religious training. Baring Gould notes that some accounts have him staying in France until he was over 70, but this was clearly impossible.

He returned to Cornwall at a time of strife in the area, and Baring Gould suggests that, maybe involuntarily, he may have become involved as a leader of a failed uprising and was forced to flee northwards. He arrived in South Wales, but was not well received by the local ruler there. Although he managed to obtain land for the establishment of two cells, he soon moved across the sea to Ireland.

Again he worked on his ministry and established churches, but once again was involved in land disputes, and accused of incursion on other’s territory. Recrimination and curses followed as once again he was forced to move on, finally arriving on the Lleyn Peninsula where he founded his church at Llangybi. It was here that he plunged his staff into the ground bringing forth the waters which now flow as Ffynnon Gybi.

Once again disputes arose between Cybi and the King of Gwynedd, Maelgwn. In settlement Maelgwn eventually conceded his stronghold on Anglesey where Cybi finally ended his days. This is the site that became known as Caer Gybi, in English, Holyhead. Cybi died on the 8th November around the year 554. His feast day is now generally celebrated on the 8th November, although other sources record it as being on the 5th.

[1] Megalithic portal entry – see comments

Coflein data record