Holy Wells and Healing Springs of North Wales: Guest Blog post St Gwenfaen’s Well, Anglesey by Ian Taylor of wellhopper.wordpress.com

This month I celebrate 5 years blogging about holy wells and healing springs. So this month to celebrate…I am having a break (!) all the posts this month are guest blogs

Our first guest blog is from a fellow Holy Well Blogger – Ian Taylor with his excellent exploration of holy wells of North Wales. This month he offers a guide to a lesser well known well on the island of Anglesey.

This is coast-trod, the end of known territory. A chance to lift feet but not land them in the place intended. Squall forces eyes back against their brain-lock. The wind whinnies and runs off, dragging trees forward, bounding over gorse. Four choughs chase a peregrine – stiff meet and St Gwenfaen’s church holds a flat palm shape to the wind a warning

Holy Island, Ynys Cybi, lies at the north western corner of Anglesey, separated from the main island by a narrow strait crossed by two bridges. Its name refers back to the religious settlement founded here in the sixth century by St Cybi, the town of Holyhead too still bears his name in its Welsh form, Caergybi.

This was journey’s end for Cybi. A life spent wandering following a pilgrimage to Jerusalem which finally saw him settling on the Llyn peninsula, where he is remembered in the old parish name of Llangybi, the site of a popular well that also bears his name; before being given land by King Maelgwn Gwynedd here on Anglesey where he established his great monastery.

St Peulan features in most medieval accounts of the life of St Cybi, being identified as one of the ten disciples who followed Cybi from his original home in Cornwall, through South Wales and into Ireland before finally arriving in North Wales, a medieval manuscript identifies him as one of the twelve “sailors” who formed Cybi’s family.

It is through Peulan that the story of Gwenfaen as a saint enters the record. A late version of the Bonedd y Saint (ref. Bartrum) identifies Paul Hen from Mannaw, the place name suggesting that he was from the Strathclyde area of Scotland, as being the father of two sons Peulan and Gwyngenau and of a daughter Gwenfaen who were all amongst those who followed Cybi to Anglesey. Although Peulan is identified as one of Cybi’s primary companions, Gwyngenau and Gwenfaen appear more as bit players in the story, suggesting later additions. It is probably noteworthy however that, in addition to Gwenfaen, each of these sons too have had churches dedicated to them and named communities on Holy Island at Llanbeulan and the, now extinct, Capel Gwyngenau.

The implied connection between the three is strengthened by the dates recorded for their feast days. Cybi’s is celebrated on November 5th, Peulan on November 1st or 2nd and Gwenfaen on November 4th or 5th. Although any festival date for Gwyngeneu is not known.

Gwenfaen benefits from a much more colourful legend than her brothers.. It would appear that it is initially a localised, possibly later story, since it isn’t picked up by the lives of the saints stories. We are told that her cell was attacked; some accounts tell us by Druids, others by Vikings, neither would be possible at the time Gwenfaen lived. She fled to the sea, jumped from the cliffs, climbing onto a natural stone column. As the sea rose around her she was in danger of drowning until two angels descended and carried her up to heaven.

The female Welsh saints appear regularly to have led perilous lives; in many cases their sanctity being derived from their ability to preserve their honour against all odds. However the story may retain some memory of the Viking raids of the 9th and 10th centuries, which had a devastating effect on religious and secular communities on Anglesey.

Rhoscolyn, a small scattered community, is towards the southern end of Holy Island close to the air force base at Valley. It centres on its church which is dedicated to St Gwenfaen, a late Victorian reconstruction on the site of an earlier church, destroyed by fire,. The community previously carried her name, having been known as Llanwenfaen, although for several centuries now it has been Rhoscolyn, the column on the moor, in reference to a large Roman stone in the area.

Gwenfaen’s well (Ffynnon Wenfaen) lies on the cliff tops some 1000 yards to the south east of the church. To find it one follows the path running just to to the east of the church towards the coast between several scattered houses, predominantly holiday lets today,  as far as the lookout station, and then turning to the right and following the cliff path downwards.

The well is set in a hollow in the landscape and very easily missed even when following the path which runs close by. It is however a complex dry stone built structure in three separate parts. Steps lead down to a smallish paved antechamber with four triangular seats set into the corners. Beyond this a second area contains the small oblong bath, which could have been used for bathing. Water flows out from the structure into another stone lined exterior pool, with steps down to the water on two sides, before being channelled away to a pond down the hillside. There is no indication that any of the sections have ever been roofed.

There is a belief that Gwenfaen’s own cell was situated close to the site of the well, although no evidence for this can be seen or has been found. The site of her original church is probably closer to the existing one, as with the later buildings; Angharad Llwyd notes that:

“The burying ground of the original establishment is still distinguishable by the number of bones that are found whenever the spade or plough are used in that spot.”

Cathrall writing a detailed parish by parish history of Wales in 1828 fails to mention the well. He is admittedly very scathing about traditional customs and beliefs, however he does make mention of six other Anglesey wells, suggesting that Gwenfaen’s may have been of less significance at the time. Neither does it merit a mention in Pennant’s Tour of Wales (1810) or Angharad Llwyd’s History of Anglesey (1833), although she appears to draw mainly on the two former authors for much of her information. From this we might assume that while it may have had some local use, it did not feature on the main antiquarian tourist trail in the 19th century.

The charm

Is two quartz stones

And a wish for healing

The well has a reputation for alleviation of depression and for general mental problems. The primary written source for this would appear to be a poem, The Sacred Well of Gwenfaen, Rhoscolyn, written by poet and historian Lewis Morris during the 18th century. His knowledge of the spring and local traditions could not be questioned, he was born on Anglesey and his first wife was from Rhoscolyn.  Baring-Gould and Fisher (1907) refer to the text and imply from it that the well may have been used for divination, a common practice at Anglesey wells, though no indication of the form this took is provided.

I haven’t managed to track down a complete copy of the poem; however the Grufydd’s quote the following short section in their book,

“Full oft have I repaired to drink that spring waters which cure diseases of the soul as well as the body and which always prove the only remedy for want of sense.”

Morris seems to be the earliest written source for the tradition of offering two white or quartz pebbles as an offering to Gwenfaen when seeking a cure. This is widely reported today, and one often finds small collections of white stones within the well. We find quartz pebbles as a not uncommon offering at wells across North Wales. In the early medieval period they were said to be associated with water and healing and are recorded as having been offered well into the eighteenth century. At one of the very few Welsh wells subjected to an archaeological excavation, albeit in the 1930s (St Tegla’s Well, Llandegla, Denbighshire) a layer of white stones was found, suggesting a regular practice at this site. (Edwards, 1994) Although such stones do not feature in what is now the widely known complex ritual supposedly practised at that well for the cure of scrofula.

The offering of white pebbles is also explored by Janet Bord (2006), who notes the practice occurring not only in Wales but also in Ireland and the Isle of Man and suggests that it is almost certainly a custom of some antiquity since similar stones have been found within burial mounds and at very early Christian sites.

There has been a suggestion that the white stones and the dedication might be interlinked. It is possible to translate Gwen faen, (or Gwyn faen) as white stone, thus the well might really be called “white stone well” and the history of St Gwenfaen may have been constructed in response to the name. This is not completely unknown in North Wales. On the other hand the white stones might be left in honour the saint’s name. Either might be possible, though since the name Gwenfaen, does enter the record relatively early I suspect the former is unlikely and, given the more widespread use of white pebbles, the latter may be unnecessary.

In a region where every second spring appeared to offer a ready cure for warts or rheumatism, a well that provided relief for the depressed is certainly different. Morris clearly believed in its restorative powers for the mind, writing

Tis thou and thou alone that I invoke to lead my pen

Then grant me that me that small boon

That wit and gentle sense my glow in every line

In such proportion as I’ve drunk thy waters.

Maybe it does have an impact, or maybe it is just the exhilarating walk along windblown cliff tops, towards the end of known territory, to reach it, but certainly a visit to St Gwenfaen’s well rarely fails to lift the spirits.

Ffynnon Wenfaen, Rhoscolyn, Ynys Mon. SH25947534


Extracts from

Clear (for ffynnon Wenfaen) by Suzanne Iuppa. Well Spring, Gwendraeth Press, 2015. (info@thegwendraethpress.com)

The Sacred Well of Gwenfaen, Rhoscolyn by Lewis Morris.


Baring-Gould S and J Fisher (1907) The Lives of the British Saints, London

Bartrum. Peter (1993) A Welsh Classical Dictionary. National Library of Wales.

Bord Janet (2006) Cures and Curses. Heart of Albion

Cathrall. William (1828) The History of North Wales

Edwards.Nancy(1994) Holy Wells in Wales and Early Christian Archaeology. Source, New Series Issue 1.

Grufydd. Eirlys and Ken (1999) Ffynhonnau Cymru, Wesg Carreg Gwalch, Llanrwst.

Llwyd, Angharad (1833) A History of the Island of Mona.,Rhuthun.

Pennant. Thomas (1810) A Tour In Wales


Guest Blog Post: The Healing waters of Malvern’s Holy Well by Cora Weaver

This month I celebrate 5 years blogging about holy wells and healing springs. So this month to celebrate…I am having a break (!) all the posts this month are guest blogs. The second post is from a well-known researcher in the field of Spas and healing waters. Cora Weaver has written extensively on the subject of spas, with works on spa visitor Celia Fiennes, Florence Nightingale at the spas and in particular about her home town Malvern. This month she has given us an overview on the most famous of Malvern’s healing wells – the Holy Well – linked to her recent book which will be reviewed here.

The Holy Well at Malvern Wells is one of the earliest known English spas. As early as 1599, a travelling diarist and poet known only as ‘J. M Gent’ deviated from his tour of the country to the Holy Well in search of a cure for his colic. The well must already have had a positive and widespread reputation.

Unlike most healing waters, which rely on their mineral content to affect cures, the springs of the Malvern Hills are very low in dissolved salts and minerals. So although the water was drunk, its effectiveness was due largely to the external application in wrappings, bathing and lotion.

Lodgings were scarce at Malvern Wells, and in the late eighteenth century the nearby village of Great Malvern began to extend its accommodation for invalids. In 1810, a new hotel was built and five years later a pump room and baths were constructed at its own holy well, St Ann’s Well on the eastern hill slopes. In the 1820s a library, more accommodation, a pump room and baths were built in the village centre. There was no need for invalids to travel that bit further west to the Holy Well.

Following the ten-week visit to Great Malvern in 1830 by Princess Victoria, her mother and their retinue, the famous little village was ready by 1842 to receive hydropathic doctors James Wilson and James Manby Gully. Their invalid patients were wealthy, suffering generally from either stress-related problems or the effects of their lifestyle. Lifestyle problems were excesses – of meat and cake, alcohol and drugs, late nights and late mornings, snuff and cigars, and too little exercise. The symptoms of both complaints were similar – lethargy, nausea, constipation, boils, swimming head and skin complaints. The stressed needed to be sedated; the lascivious lifestylers needed stimulating.

The same treatments can either sedate or stimulate blood circulation, depending on the water temperature, the way it is applied to the body and the length of time of application. Short immersions stimulate; lengthier applications sedate. With drugs and surgery, it is they that ‘cure’ the body of its ills. With the water cure, it is the body that stimulates the cure, so is very tiring for the patient.


Healing with water is based on two simple principles. Firstly, when the body is warm the blood flows gently to the surface of the skin to cool the body. If the body is cold, the blood flows gently inwards to the vital organs to keep them warm. Secondly, when the body is cooled by being wrapped in a cold, damp sheet, or is immersed in cold water, the body naturally creates a cold layer between the skin the whatever is making it cold. That is why, when you get into the sea, it doesn’t feel quite so cold after a couple of minutes.

Great Malvern attracted household names. Wordsworth and Wilberforce, Mrs Charles Dickens and Mr Charles Darwin, Alfred Tennyson and Florence Nightingale. Miss Nightingale came to Malvern once before the Crimean War and nine times after it, when her health was so bad that her friends and family thought that her death was imminent. She had little faith in orthodox medicine and admitted that Malvern saved her life.

In a letter to her friend Edwin Chadwick, Florence Nightingale said that the term ‘water cure’ was misleading because it suggested that water alone could cure. The Water Cure was a combination of a strictly healthy diet, fresh air and exercise, early rising and early to bed, no stress, no alcohol or tobacco in any form and the internal and external application of Malvern’s spring water. To be successful, each patient underwent an intimate verbal gruelling about every aspect of their lifestyle by the doctor before any procedures could begin. Only then could the doctor ascertain the reasons for the illness and prescribe an individual course of treatment.

Malvern acquired the sobriquet The Queen of English Health Resorts but by the late 1880s the water cure had ended. The pioneer hydropathic doctors had retired or died and their replacements were not of the same calibre. Also, Malvern was expensive and it was cheaper to travel to the first class spa facilities in Germany. Today, Malvern is a heritage spa but much of its hydropathic heritage remains in its buildings and it is still possible to collect and drink the pure water from the famous hills springs.

To learn a little more about Malvern’s water cure, read these books:

Cora Weaver, The Holy Well at Malvern Wells, Cora Weaver (2015)

ISBN 978-1-873809-33-4   £2.99 plus £1.26 postage & packing

Cora Weaver, Malvern as a Spa Town, Cora Weaver (2016)

ISBN 978-1-873809-43-3     £2.50 plus £1.26 postage & packing

Cora Weaver and Bruce Osborne, The Great Malvern Water Trail, Cora Weaver (2004)

ISBN 978-1-873809-52-2 £1.95 plus £1.26 postage & packing

Bruce Osborne and Cora Weaver, Celebrated Springs of the Malvern Hills, Phillimore (2012)

ISBN 978-1-86077-679-3   £15.00 inc. postage and packing

Cora Weaver, Charles Darwin & Evelyn Waugh in Malvern, Cora Weaver (2009)

ISBN 978-1-873809-77-8 £2.50 plus £1.26 postage & packing







Guest blog post: Walking Between Worlds – a Secret Little Book of Devon’s Ancient and Holy Wells by Alex Atherton

This month I celebrate 5 years blogging about holy wells and healing springs. So this month to celebrate…I am having a break (!) all the posts this month are guest blogs. The third post is from Devon artist Alex Atherton, who has recently authored a delightful book which takes Devon’s beautiful wells weaving her artistic magic to draw the reader in. In this guest blog she explains how she became entranced by holy wells!

Often forgotten, occasionally neglected and mostly overlooked by visitors and locals alike, Devon’s beautiful and magical ancient and holy wells are worth just as much attention as those in other counties that are perhaps more well known. Indeed, many people are surprised to learn that Devon has such a rich and diverse well heritage, even though they may live close to and walk past local examples every day of their lives. And before I embarked on this project, I was one of these people – unaware that I regularly drove past at least two examples on the lanes around my home on Dartmoor, like Druids Well near Chagford (see drawing).


The inspiration for this project came initially from an encounter with an ancient spring at Lydford whilst working on another art project early in 2015. Little did I realise at the time that this chance discovery would be the start of an enchanting journey that took me to some of the most remote, beautiful and hidden corners of Devon in search of its ancient and holy wells.


As an artist living on Dartmoor, I normally paint landscapes in oils that capture the many moods of the moor. But my growing curiosity about Devon’s wells presented me with an exciting new challenge, and provided an opportunity for me to explore the world of pen drawing. Initially, I saw these drawings very much as a personal project, but as I continued on my journey of discovery, and produced more and more drawings, the idea of publishing a ‘secret little book’ started to take shape.

With a copy of Terry Faull’s ‘Secrets of the Hidden Source’ in one hand and my sketchbook in the other, I travelled the length and breadth of the county on a personal pilgrimage, descending through dark, narrow paths in shaded woodlands, scrambling down steep paths alongside coastal cliffs, carefully negotiating boggy fields and quietly searching the back lanes of peaceful villages.

Many of the wells are associated with local legends. When the Devil arrived in Widecombe one day, so the story goes, the locals gave him water to drink from Saxon’s Well, just outside the village centre. The water burned as he swallowed and with his wrath he brought down the church steeple. When Joseph of Arimathea tapped the ground near the Exmoor coast with his staff, water sprang up from the earth – and today an imposing 19th century structure marks the site deep in the oak woodland.

Others were highly regarded in the past for their healing properties. The three distinct troughs at Leechwell in Totnes may offer you relief from skin problems, snake bites and disorders of the spirit, if you know which is which of course!

It was hard not to be moved by some of the structures that I came across and their setting. For example, Fice’s Well is a wonderful structure, but its stark location on the bleak moor left me with a feeling of loneliness and a sense of regret leaving it behind.


 Sometimes I would find a hidden jewel where I least expected it. This was particularly true of Cathedral Well at St James Park railway station, Exeter. When I visited the area late on a winter Sunday afternoon, there was a remarkable peace despite its urban address, helped by the quiet and nostalgic railway-side allotments opposite the sadly bricked-up well building.

It seemed on occasion that some wells just did not want me to find them! The first time I travelled to see the haunting Eyewell on the coast path at Morte Point I was defeated by failing light as the sun set; the second time I was turned away by gale-force winds and lashing rain. Only on the third attempt did I manage to reach this enigmatic and moss-drenched well!



I have cherry-picked 40 of the most enchanting little structures for the book and I hope these captivating places entrance readers as they have entranced me, and that the illustrations will inspire others to seek out the county’s well heritage so that they too might discover what it is like to walk between worlds…


Further details about the book and how to obtain it can be found on my website at http://www.alexatherton.co.uk.

Holy Wells and Healing springs of North Wales: St Mary’s Well, Rhuddlan


It is nice to easily find a holy well for once, for Rhuddlan’s St Mary’s Well lying as it does in the grounds of Bodrhyddan Hall, is easily seen by the side of the drive to the hall (the gardens of which are open Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and well worth exploring)

Pure folly or holy?

What greets us today is a typical folly building but does the well have any provenance before the current construction. The earliest reference is as Ffynnon Fair and is made by Lhuyd in 1699 however it does not appear on an estate map until 1730, although an engraving on the fabric of the well states emphatically 1612! Significantly neither of these dates are associated with any traditions and there appears to be no pre-Reformation reference.

The only hints of its importance are traditions of clandestine marriages at the well, although it is possible that this is a mixed up tradition with a more famous Ffynnon Fair at St Asaph. The other hint is found in the hall, where a possibly unique stone fish inserted in the flooring of the hall shows the boundary of the parishes and as you may have gathered regularly reading this blog many holy wells mark parish boundaries. Neither pieces are particularly emphatic!

The well itself is a delightful edifice consisting of an octagonal stone four metre well house and adjacent stone lined ‘bathing pool’. The well has arched entrance with cherub kerbstone. Inside the rather cramp well are seats around the inside and although access to the water is prevented by a metal grill. On the top of the well house is a carved pelican and a stylised fish (more similar to classical images of dolphin) pours its water into the cold bath which is surrounded by a stone ballastrade.

Keeping up with the Joneses?

One of the biggest issues with site is who built it. On the well house it is proclaimed that Inigo Jones was responsible. Jones was a noted architect and garden designer, so the building has the appearance of something he could have built, the date was when he was at the height of his fame so it is surprising nothing more official is recorded. Was this a local of the same name or the family adding the date and person at a later date to impress visitors? Certainly the building looks late 18th or early 19th century, probably being built when the house was restored then. Whatever, the well is part of a larger landscape including other wells, tree lined walkaways and now a summerhouse above a landscaped pool.

Its absence in 1730 but present on the 1756 one suggests not. Furthermore, Norman Tucker 1961’s Bodrhyddan and the families of Conwy, Shipley-Conwy and Rowley-Conwy states that the lettering is on the wrong period! Another possibility is that the architect may have been involved with designing the gardens and when the well was constructed later as the central piece the date of the garden design was recorded…but of course this does not explain who the well’s designer was!

Wishing well or healing well?

Today a sign, rather tacky to my mind (and I removed it to take photos) claims it is a wishing well. Visitors have certainly have paid attention to the sign as the well is full of coins. It is worth noting that although there is no curative history to the waters, anecdotally its powers could be significant. All the owners who have drunk from the well have lived to a considerable age, indeed the present owner is in his 100s I believe. Perhaps it might be worth bottling it!

Whatever its origin the well is a delightful one and certainly a change from muddy footpaths, negotiating brambles and nettles and getting completely pixy led…and there a nice garden and fascinating hall to see too.

For more information on North Wales Holy Wells follow wellhopper.wordpress.com




Guest blog post: In search of holy wells and sacred trees of County Clare by Michael Houlihan

Our guest blog post this month is from author Michael Houlihan who has recently published an excellent work on the Holy Wells of County Clare which includes 60 colour plates, maps and invaluable information. Michael completed an MA in Arts (Local History) in 2015, having previously done courses in Archaeology and Regional Studies. He has published two books, “Puck Fair, History and Traditions” (1999) and “The Holy Wells of County Clare” (2015). He is currently working on a book entitled “The Sacred Trees of County Clare” of which this article is a very welcome introduction. A review of his book is coming soon.

When considering writing a piece on Clare holy wells recently, I thought that instead of focussing on the springs I might instead take a look at sacred trees, which form such an intimate part of the holy well space. I am no expert, but it seems to me that these trees seldom get the attention they deserve and are now only recognized as an additional artefact, there to complement the blessed well. Before starting, for those of you who may not know Clare, it is one of the 32 Irish counties, lying in the lower half of the west coast, hemmed in by the Atlantic, the river Shannon to the east and south, and ferocious Galway men (at least when playing the game of hurling) to the north.

Debate on the age of Irish holy wells ebbs and flows. Currently it’s thought that many wells (not all) came into use in the early medieval period. They were in active use for several centuries, faded a bit and were re-invigorated around the late 16th century (possibly prompted in part by Counter Reformation activities?) Sacred trees are generally grouped with the wells, lending both status and sanctity to the holy well site. There is little doubt that during the enormous deforestation that took place in Ireland in the 16th and 17th centuries it was a significant advantage to trees to stand within the termonn or protected area of the well. This location also shielded them during searches for kindling or charcoal material in later years, as no sacred wood could be burned.


‘The Unusual Tree,’ an old and beautiful ash at Saint Flannan’s holy well, Drumanure.

There is a growing school of thought pushing scholars towards the notion that a very early deep reverence for trees might indeed have been a significant Irish phenomenon. These trees may have been a source of veneration in themselves and part of a belief system at least as old as the sacred spring. There are clues to this in the literature (cf. Dindsheanchais) but perhaps one of the best indicators of an ancient tree custom is the word bile, pronounced ‘bill-a’, meaning ‘sacred tree.’ Anglicised to bella, billa, billy, villa, vella and many other variants, it occurs in hundreds of place-names across the country. A short exercise identified eight bile place-names in county Clare alone. A deeper look would certainly lead to more.

There is no doubting the very early and constant presence of sacred trees in the story of Ireland. Without visiting the history too closely, the earliest written records – transcriptions taken from a long oral tradition – speak of the five sacred trees of Ireland, reaching back to the mythic era. At the beginning of the Christian age a little after 400 AD as writing began to come into use, trees were important to both secular and religious. No king had a cathair or estate without his sacred tree (bile ratha), no inauguration or assembly site was without one or more trees, churches and saints were all the stronger for the presence of trees. The tree as source or symbol was associated with power.

When this age passed, trees maintained their presence at holy wells and abandoned monasteries or were left standing apart in open plains. Many trees stood for centuries. Gnarled and heavy, they finally keeled over in exceptional old age. Even then, lying spent, they were honoured with votive rags or coins hammered into their trunks.


Saint Margaret’s holy well, Cooraclare is said to have a second well in the bole of its companion tree

Holy Wells and Sacred Trees: It is generally understood that a tree or bush beside a holy well partakes of the sanctity of the well. Many folktales combine the origins of the holy well and sacred tree. In others the tree came later, or perhaps more correctly, the story explaining the presence of the tree came later. One such tale describes a severe drought on Scattery Island in the Shannon estuary, forcing the sixth century Saint Senan to dig a pit with a hazel stick. When finished he stuck the rod in the ground beside the hole. The following morning crystal clear waters flowed from the hollow and the stick had grown to a full sized tree. Bile cuill (the sacred hazel) is said to have stood beside the well for generations.


Saint Senan’s well on Inis Cathaigh /Scattery Island.

When Saint Finghín’s well was deliberately filled in, water was seen dripping from a nearby tree. Tobercrine (tobar i gcrainn – the tree well) can still be pointed out beside the ruined abbey today. A tree that grew from a stick blessed and planted by St. Feicín at Loughcooter (now Loughcutra) was much venerated (3). St. Muaghan’s tree stood as an emblem of sanctity at Kilmoon holy well in the north of the county until old age caused it to topple in the nineteenth century… and so the stories continue.

Trees are not only cherished companions of the well but also serve as markers around which people move when performing the prescribed ‘rounds’ or ‘stations’ – walking meditations if you will. When prayers are completed, rags are tied to the tree or bush as an offering of thanks and a means of leaving concerns in the care of the saint. One remote Clare well, dedicated to St. Colman Mac Duagh, has extensive offerings on its rag tree. It lies hidden in a grove of hazels for much of the year and contains many of the elements of an early Irish eremitical site – holy well, rag tree, hermit’s cave, 7th century oratory and two leachta (altars), as well as having a significant corpus of stories about its past.

There is one reference from the early 1900’s which might suggest remnants of tree veneration near a holy well, which reads ‘The devotees take off their shoes, stockings, and hats, (or, if women, their shawls and bonnets), and start for the well repeating the prescribed prayers. They climb to kiss a cross on the branch of one of the weird old weather-bent trees in the hollow, and, lastly, pour water from the well on their faces, hands, and feet.’ 4 The addition of a crucifix to the tree here may have Christianized an older practice. However the tree may also have been nothing more than a ‘station’ in the prescribed ‘rounds’ of the well.

The types of trees found at holy well sites vary enormously. The ash seems to have been by far the most important tree in ancient Ireland (not the oak as one might think, even as a leftover of things Celtic – blame Pliny.) A study of 210 holy wells in Cork in the 1960’s found a prevalence of thorns or whitethorns (103), ash (75) and oak (7), with a mixture of other trees making up the remaining 25.5 The blackthorn – small, wizened and nearly indestructible – has always been a favourite as a rag bush, especially on poor land.



St. Fachtnan’s well with its blackthorn rag tree, Termon, Carran.


Saints, Holy Wells and Trees: Patricius/Patrick, arriving from Romano-Britain in the 430’s with his missionaries started a religious conflagration that, it could be argued, has not yet been fully extinguished. He introduced Christianity gradually to the Irish, permitting the new religion to disseminate slowly, mixing the best of what went before with the new faith. In this context, Christian missionaries recognized the importance of venerated springs and trees to the Irish (or likely already had a sense of these connections themselves?) Patrick re-dedicated former indigenous cult centres to Christianity. From the annals we read that he went to Tobar Slán, a spring venerated by the druids, which he blessed and thus Christianized. Sometime later he “went thereafter to Bile Tortain and near to Bile Tortain he built for Justian the presbyter a church, which now belongs to the community of Ard Brecáin.” Bile Tortain was one of the five great trees of Ireland that stood at Ardbraccan in county Meath. (6) There is a tale about another of the five sacred trees, Eo Rossa, that when it died of old age St. Molaisse divided it among the saints of Ireland. St. Moling of Carlow utilised his portion in making shingles to roof his oratory. This tale might be read as a form of Christian triumphalism or more kindly, an acknowledgement and retention of sacredness in a new role.(7)

A great love of the natural world permeated early Irish Christianity. One has only to read some first millennium nature poems by the saints to see this. Here is a small flavour from a longer piece entitled Atá Uarboth Dam I Caill, translated here as ‘The Hermit.’ The 9th century poem is attributed to Saint Marbáin, in which he describes nature’s bounty at his little hermitage.


I have a bothy in the wood –

none knows it but the Lord, my God;

one wall an ash, the other hazel,

and a great fern makes the door.

The doorsteps are of heather,

The lintel of honeysuckle;

and wild forest all around

drops mast for well-fed swine.*

Trees of apple, huge and magic,

great its graces;

crop in fistfuls from clustered hazel,

green and branching.

Sparkling wells and water-torrents,

best for drinking;

green privet there and bird-cherry

and yew-berries. 8



St. Colman Mac Duagh’s well, Keelhilla.

As well as the cherished trees at holy wells there are several other tree types held in affection across the Clare countryside. These include inauguration and assembly trees, religious trees directly associated with a church, monastery or graveyard, trees found within liosanna or ‘fairy forts’, funerary trees at which a funeral might pause, Mass trees and lone bushes. It is with lone bushes we will complete our story.

Lone Bushes: Lone bushes tend to be in a category separate to the trees we have been discussing, coming from a long-held indigenous belief system that has only recently faded. They are mostly stand-alone whitethorns that grow at a distance from other trees. In Irish the whitethorn is called Sceach gheal meaning bright or shining (thorn) tree, because of its profusion of splendid white flowers in early summer. The single whitethorn is strongly associated with fairy folk who, as people will know, are at the best of times a bit temperamental. Consequently lone bushes are never interfered with; the month of May being the only time some latitude is given. Being supernatural trees they serve as important foci for the Lucht Sidhe (the fairies), particularly before important events. Here our Clare story lies.

In the late 1980’s the main motorway going north from Limerick city (M18) was being significantly upgraded. To facilitate road expansion a fairy tree at Latoon, Newmarket-on-Fergus would need to be destroyed. Local folklorist Eddie Lenihan objected saying that this tree marked territories between two groups of Sidhe (Shee) and was an important assembly point before and after fairy battles. Its removal would not alone be an outrage to folklore and tradition – much worse – should the wrath of the Sidhe descend, it could have serious repercussions for traffic users passing the spot in the future. Whichever aspects of Eddie’s argument were most cogent, he won his case. The route of the motorway was altered and the tree still stands.


Lone fairy bush at Latoon, foreground.


 Final Word:

A last word on an important aspect of holy wells and trees not yet mentioned is the modern pilgrim. A cohort of people across county Clare, mostly made up of the very young and the no longer young maintain the wonderful tradition of holy well visitation, including interacting with the bile, especially on the saint’s patron day. For them the well is a living entity, to be honoured and enjoyed. It’s a day of rosary beads and prayer, flasks of tea and sandwiches, small courtesies and chats with fellow pilgrims, with plastic bottles of blessed water being filled for friends at home. Later they will return to help maintain the holy well site or perhaps cajole their sons to fix a damaged wall or fallen stone. Whether they know it or not, and I think they do, they are the last remains of a vast tradition.


Grandmother and grandson visiting St. Martin’s Well, Ballynacally, on the saint’s feastday November 11th



1 Irish Folklore Collection, Ms. 466, p. 398.

2 Daniel Mescal, The Story of Inis Cathaigh, (Dublin 1902), p. 65.

3 Irish Folklore Collection, Journal 12, p. 73.

4. TJ Westropp, recorded on a visit to what is now St. Joseph’s Well, Kilmurry Ibrickane, in Limerick Field Club Journal. Vol III No 9 1905 p 15.

5 A.T Lucas, ‘The sacred trees of Ireland’ in the Journal of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society, (JCHAS), lxviii, (Cork, 1963), pp 16-54.

6 The Tripartite Life of Patrick, 9th Century, CELT, (UCC, Cork) p. 185.

7 J. F. M. Ffrench, ‘St. Mullins, Co. Carlow’ in The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Fifth Series, Vol. ii, No. 4 (Dec., 1892), pp 377-388

8 James Carney, Medieval Irish Lyrics, The Dolmen Press, (Dublin 1967), pp 67-72.


Available from Limerick & Clare Books

The Holy Wells of County Clare

by Michael Houlihan

County Clare contains one of the greatest concentrations of holy wells in Ireland. While most wells are associated with local saints, some have earlier origins and different affiliations. In this book, Michael Houlihan tours these wells, examining their long history from earliest times and reviewing their unique traditions. The defining characteristics of native wells and their distinctive physical features are explored along the way.Holy Wells have been of service to generations of Irish people. In spite of repeated waves of invasion and suppression, followed by political and religious strife, over 3,000 wells still exist in Ireland today. They once proved a centre for religious expression when no other existed, offered shelter in Penal times and served as a focus for communal solidarity. In Clare, participation was strongest in the decades before the famine, when venerated springs made a huge contribution to local communities. They performed a key role in village healthcare systems and erased the pain of bereavement, especially involving infants. Te continuing loss of the Irish language and the slow attrition of long-held folk beliefs, also at this time, deeply impacted daily life, including holy well usage.

The great holy well patterns of the late 18th century, once the high point in the rural social calendar, are discussed, including those in Clare on Scattery Island and Inis Cealtra and at Killone. When the Catholic Church began reasserting itself, aided in part by Daniel O’Connelll’s in the 1828 Ennis by-election, the Patron Day gatherings and other aspects of folk life were slowly surrendered, as the last vestiges of the old Gaelic world slipped away. The Famine compounded these changes, with congregations forfeiting the fields and wells for the new chapels.

The holy wells story continues into the presentm including its occasional high points in the twentieth century. Ten contemporary Clare wells are visited, from the popular St. Brigid’s at Ballysteen to others since fallen out of favour. A final section discusses the health of the holy well tradiiton in the county today.

The book contains nearly 60 colour photographs from across the county, with some basic maps and tables for those interested in doing their own exploration. While Clare’s holy wells have long been associated with peace and health, they are also an archaeological and historical treasure trove waiting to be rediscovered. This book will help those who want to better understande a neglected feature of the landscape while catching up on a lost part of Clare’s social history.

ISBN: P1624

€ 9.15  Save €0.85 (RRP €10.00)

Available now.

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Giant’s Grave or Robin Hood’s Dip? Cambridgeshire’s curious spring head

Cambridgeshire is not a county readily associated with holy wells, however my research for volume VIII in my series suggests that there are a number of little known sites. Frustratingly, there a number of attractive and curious streams in the county, especially in the chalk regions, but their names tell nothing – often being called simply – the spring head or numerically named such as Nine springs. One such Springhead has given us a bit more to go on, its alternative names – Robin Hood Dip or bizarrely Giant’s Grave are far more tantalising.

A peacefully evocative site sandwiched between two rather busy roads. A delightful place in spring when its surrounding cherry trees are rich in blossom.  Very little is written down about the spring head except that in modern terms it was used as a water source for the village and as a laundry! However it is surrounding landscape and legends which perhaps provide a clue.

Robin Hood Dip Cherry Hinton (33)

Who is the giant?

All that is known is that the giant was buried at the site and that he is thought to be Gogmagog, the name also applied to nearby hills. One of these hills, Wandlebury, is a hill fort to which a considerable amount of confused history, mystery and legend has been attached. What is interesting is that when folklorists collected stories of the giant (or giants as it really is Gog and Magog traditionally) it was noted that they were buried nearby but not where. This is along with a golden chariot at Fleam Dyke.

It is worth recording the legends of this hill fort. They were recorded as early as 1219 by One Gervase of Tilbury:

“Osbert, a bold and powerful baron, visited a noble family in the vicinity of Wandelbury, in the bishopric of Ely. Among other stories related in the social circle of his friends, who, according to custom, amused each other by repeating ancient tales and traditions, he was informed, that if any knight, unattended, entered an adjacent plain by moonlight, and challenged an adversary to appear, he would be immediately encountered by a spirit in the form of a knight. Osbert resolved to make the experiment, and set out, attended by a single squire, whom he ordered to remain without the limits of the plain, which was surrounded by an ancient entrenchment. On repeating the challenge, he was instantly assailed by an adversary, whom he quickly unhorsed, and seized the reins of his steed. During this operation, his ghostly opponent sprung up, and, darting his spear, like a javelin, at Osbert, wounded him in the thigh. Osbert returned in triumph with the horse, which he committed to the care of his servants. The horse was of a sable colour, as well as his whole accoutrements, and apparently of great beauty and vigour. He remained with his keeper till cockcrowing, when, with eyes flashing fire, he reared, spurned the ground, and vanished. On disarming himself, Osbert perceived that he was wounded, and that one of his steel boots was full of blood. Gervase adds, that as long as he lived, the scar of his wound opened afresh on the anniversary of the eve on which he encountered the spirit.”

Of course the Knight and the Giant may be unconnected entities. I shall return to the Knight in a moment, but the giant in more recent times has created more legends. In 1955 archaeologist TC Lethbridge intrigued by reports by various 17th and 18th century antiquarians. The first of these, John Layer (1586–1640) wrote that he thought on the hill was a hill figure on the hill was believed with the work of Cambridge undergraduates being cut with ‘within the trench of Wandlebury Camp’ as does  William Cole (1714–82) noting the ‘the figure of a giant carved on the turf at Wandlebury’)  and Dr Dale recording it ‘cut on the turf in middle camp’ in the 1720s. Bishop Joseph Hall:

“A Giant called All Paunch, who was of an incredible Height of Body, not like him whose Picture the Schollers of Cambridge goe to see at Hogmagog Hills, but rather like him that ought the two Aple Teeth which were digged out of a well in Cambridge, that were little less than a man’s head. When I was a boy, about 1724, I remember my father or mother as it happened I went with one or other of them to Cambridge……always used to stop and show me and my brother and sisters the figure of the giant carved on the Turf; concerning whom there were then many traditions, now worn away. What became of the two said teeth I never hear.”

Lethbridge using rather unusual archaeological methods apparently revealed this figure, or as it turned out figures and although his work was criticised, traces of his giants remain and his theories have relevance to Cherry Hinton’s spring head. Does the name of the camp remember Wandle, an ancient God or Woden, a deity often associated with water?

Or does as the Cherry Hinton Chronicle of 1854 records in 1854 the discovery of  Iron Age burials unearthed locally on Lime Kiln Hill whose the skeletons were unusually tall gave rise to the legend!?

The Footprint stone

Across the road from the spring head at the Robin Hood and Little John Inn is a curious stone. Rather unceremoniously placed by the car park the large round stone looks like a glacial erratic and clearly left there or placed there at some time. But why? A closer inspection reveals it to be hollowed out and the hollow is like a footprint or more like a shoe, around a size 11 as it fits my shoe well!

Robin Hood Dip Cherry Hinton (34)

Carved foot print stones are widespread, often associated with prehistoric burial chambers as far afield as the Calderstone at Liverpool to a burial chamber Petit-Mont Arzon in Brittany, France. The Romans too carved such footprint stones inscribing them with pro itu et reditu, translating as‘for the journey and return’, the tradition would be to place one’s feet before and then after the journey as a good luck.  Footprint stone and wells are not infrequently met. There are two in Kent for example, St Mildred’s or St. Augustine’s stone near Sandwich (now lost) and the Devil’s footprint at Newington once associated with a barrow (now lost). So there might be some precedence?

Does the Knight story have relevance here? Does the stone record an ancient ritual of kinship, that knight with his challenge record? There are Celtic and Pictish traditions of kingship or installation stones. These would work in the equivalent way as placing crowns on a King, by placing their feet in the holes would mean they had taken over the tribe and such places survive on the Isle of Man and Scotland (for more information refer to Janet Bord’s Footprints in Stone (2004)

Of course the hollow could have a much simpler explanation. It could have been made as a socket for a cross. However, here we have another interesting possibility, such holed stones called bulluans are associated with holy wells, and although none exist in Cambridgeshire it is tantalising that this could have been one.

Robin Hood in Cambridgeshire?

The alternative name, Robin Hood Dip is one which creates the most curiosity. There is no record of the folk hero in Cambridge, as far as I am aware, and this is well beyond Sherwood Forest! Taking to one side the possibility that it’s a site which achieves its name from story-telling about the folk hero’s exploits, explaining its name appears at first difficult. However, folklorists will have another explanation. Robin Hood is a commonly met name for an elemental, a fairy folk or spirit and what is more interesting he is often associated with springs and water places. See this article for more of an overview. Why is this name associated with springs? I have made various suggestions. Firstly, the associated with a sprite may discourage use – i.e a warning off children and secondly it may record an earlier cult presence. Perhaps the Giant and Robin Hood are the same folk memory of a deity which was celebrated at this spring. The name Thirs interesting is also associated with springs and water holes and this is Saxon word meaning possibly ‘giant’!

Robin Hood Dip Cherry Hinton (2)

The Roman connection may also give support to this idea. It is known that the river Rhee, arising at Ashwell was associated with Roman shrines and a deity called Seunna. Was Granta a Roman deity? Is there an unwritten story which connects Granta and Woden which would explain the grave?

Piecing it all together

So what do all these different facets bring to the site at Cherry Hinton? The legend of Wandlebury is rather lacking of any location for a grave and its fairly obvious perhaps that the name is derived from the large grave shape size of the springhead. But does this remember a folk memory of it being dug? Or does it remember the presence of large bodies in prehistoric graves? The interesting point is that the island is called the grave according to local tradition. Did this mark a barrow?

Nearby on the Fulbourne Road were found three Bronze Age ring-ditches and Neolithic flint artefacts and Early Bronze Age pottery were found in the locality suggesting a long period of history. As well the Iron Age material earlier. It is very likely they settled here for the water supply and it is very likely it was culted.

What of the stone? Is it coincidentally located near the springhead or does it remember practices at the well? Is it a Kingship stone, a receptacle for healing water or a simple cross base?

There appears to be a considerable amount of unknown history to this simple, but picturesque, spring head and whilst we must always be wary of neo-pagan exaggerations, it does seem plausible that this is a long lost sacred spring. Sacred to the Saxons, Sacred to the Romans and perhaps long before this!

Read more of Cambridgeshire water lore in

Holy Wells and Healing Springs of Cambridgeshire.

Holy Wells and Healing Springs of North Wales: St. Trillo’s Well and Chapel, Rhos-on-sea

St Trillo’s Well has been on my personal must visits for some time. It is not only a unique site being a chapel enclosing a holy well – a rare survival – its location tucked under a seaside road, a juxtaposition between the seaside houses and the promenade and the sea makes it one of the most unusually situated. It is everyone’s classic view of an ancient chapel, privately arranged and simply adorned and whilst it may not be as old as first assumed it does have its own unique charm.

I was particularly concerned that it may be open. Being a chapel I am always wary that like churches – urban areas and access do not often work. Yet parking above it, now almost hidden by shrubs and the hill itself, the path led to the railed enclosure which was open and walking around I pushed the old wooden door, it yielded and I was in.  As soon as one enters, one is overcome with a feeling of peace. Whatever frivolities gone on outside feel an eon away. As a chapel it is very unusual, being claimed with its room for six chairs, to be the smallest church in Britain. This is no folly but a functional place of worship for the congregation which meet for communion on Friday mornings and those more intermittent visitors who leave votives and prayers. For perhaps uniquely again for a British well, the saint’s intercessions are still asked for via its well.

St Trillo's Chapel and Well, Rhos on Sea (57)

How old?

Many years ago historians thought that the chapel dated from the early medieval, even from the 6th century times of the saint. However, whilst it is very likely that the present structure is built upon this original hermitage it is much more recent. Generally it is thought to date from the 1500s. Francis Jones in his 1954 Holy Wells of Wales notes:

In the Denbighshire parish of Iscoed, a certain Angharad verch [daughter of] David, examined in 1590 before Roger Puleston of Llay, the local Justice of the Peace …resolutely refused to conform “by reason of her conscience.” In answer to further questions concerning her marriage, she declared that the ceremony had taken place last harvest time at a place called Llandrillo Chapel near the sea side in Creuddyn whilst she was on a pilgrimage to St. Drillo’s [sic] well.”

Such a visit suggests a pre-Reformation importance to the site especially as the date, in Harvest, suggests a regular pilgrimage as this was a popular time to go. Thomas Pennant visited the site in the late 1700s and described it as:

“… 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.” 

Clearly what is seen present despite in its ancient appearance is Victorian in nature for in 1892, a letter in Archaeologia Cambrensis by folklorist and cleric Elias Owen (author of Welsh Folk-Lore) described it as :

“I was sorry to find that the vaulted roof had fallen in, that the well inside the chapel was covered over with the debris from the roof, and that the whole structure and its surroundings presented a ruinated and uncared for aspect.”  

This concern was headed and in around 1898 two buttresses were erected to support the seaward side, a cross was inserted into the gable and more importantly a new roof. A stone altar was inserted over the well and stain glasses of Saints Trillo and Elian installed. An account by the Royal Commissioners who visited in 1912 happily describe a better condition, being described as:

“A small building, internally eleven feet nine inches by six feet three inches, standing on the sea shore within reach of the highest spring tides, and sheltering a small spring of clear water which traditionally represents the well of the patron saint of the parish. The building is roughly vaulted, and, according to earlier accounts, the vaulting was effected in the primitive manner of the earliest Christian oratories … It is, however, doubtful if the chapel is not far more modern than it is assumed to be.”

It has remained well looked after ever since, being adopted by the church of Wales who have a rather intimate Eucharist ever Friday at 8 am during the summer.

St Trillo's Chapel and Well, Rhos on Sea (20)St Trillo's Chapel and Well, Rhos on Sea (17)

The Holy well

The first thing to notice is that the well is central to the chapel’s function being positioned in the centre beneath the altar. It is covered by a metal grill and two wooden slats. Upon removal two steps appear, suggesting perhaps that the water was easier lower or else individuals entered it for baptism. Indeed, baptism appears to be the only recorded function for its waters. The water is clear and arises at the foot of the hill being channelled into the well chamber by pipes. It is clear that it was the spring which caused the saint to establish a hermitage here.

Of the well the first post Reformation reference to its powers is made by Evans (1802) who briefly notes

“St. Trillo’s Chapel: inside is a well, formerly much esteemed for the sanative virtues of its waters; it was supposed to have been the constant residence of the saint.”

But despite this and such postulations by Colt Hoare, who visited the well one July in 1801 noted it was:

 “once probably held in high veneration for its miraculous qualities.”

But stated nothing more. Interesting there are no ‘modern’ traditions of the well and it would appear it has become a largely supplementary feature to the chapel’s powers via the intercession of St. Trillo.

Who was St. Trillo?

St Trillo who is shown with fellow local saint St Elian, in two small stained glass windows in the chapel, was the brother of two other saints, Tegai and Llechid and was a monk of Bardsey Island before settling here. He is also saint to have been involved with the Diocese of Bangor Diocese. However, like many 7th century saints little is really known.

St Trillo's Chapel and Well, Rhos on Sea (153)

Why here?

Located as it does seems an unusual place for a holy well perhaps but as Francis Thompson (2008) in his Early Hermit sites and Well Chapels states its location is not that unusual. Indeed, along with cliff races, islands and valleys, it was another ideal location for a hermit to reside. Furthermore, it was a very fortunate place to be, the sea would provide a harvest and even today the rock pools are full of winkles, mussels and edible seaweed. The survival of a medieval fish trap a few yards from the chapel is also significant and may have been the occupants attempt to provide a more substantial harvest by trapping fish. Not only would such a location provide a bumper food supply, fishermen may have provided money in thanksgiving or offerings for a profitable and safe fishing.

Votive offerings

This giving of thanks or asking for the saint to intercede with God is still very much an important role for the chapel. On the altar are a range of curious items, votive gifts of thanks and on a board petitions are regularly attached. Tristan Grey Hulse in his 1995 A Modern Votive deposit at a North Welsh Holy Well for Folklore, Volume 106 recorded the range of requests. The author notes:

“Thus the sudden and spontaneous development of a new religious cult practice at the chapel is a fact of some importance, likely to be of interest to students in a variety of disciplines. I have visited Capel Trillo many times over the past fifteen years, but beyond noticing the odd coin thrown into the holy well, I had never seen the chapel otherwise than described above. But paying a first visit in 1994, on 21 April, I encountered a significant change. There were more flowers than usual, in pots on the window-ledges as well as on the altar. There was a crude but exuberant and colourful painting of St Trillo standing by his well propped against the altar; and the altar-table itself had scraps of paper scattered across it. Each of these contained a handwritten prayer or request for prayer. There were seventeen in all. Intrigued by this unexpected development, I copied the texts.”

Doing further research, he noted:

“The present custom apparently began in the summer of 1992. Arriving as usual one Friday morning to celebrate the Eucharist, the vicar of Llandrillo, Canon E. Glyn Price, found a single piece of paper impaled on a nail sticking out from the wall of the chapel, containing a hand-written prayer. Touched by its contents, he left it there; and the following Friday found that it had been joined by several others. The vicar placed them all on the altar. Since then, the practice has continued uninterruptedly, without any encouragement (or-perhaps significantly discouragement) on the part of the parish clergy.

Now, at any one time there is an average of perhaps thirty votive notes on the altar. Each ex-voto is left for three or four weeks before being removed and reverently destroyed by fire. Originally Canon Price read out each invocation in the course of the weekly Eucharist at the chapel, but eventually the growing numbers rendered this impracticable, and they are now commemorated collectively. The chapel cult has also expanded somewhat, in that offerings of flowers are now left anonymously; and the “folk-art” depiction of St Trillo arrived in the same manner.”

In Hulse’s article he notes that the principal petition was regarding health (19). Interestingly to those prayers which are addressed, these according to Hulse’s survey was overwhelmingly to God (17) compared to the saint (8), although a number were ambiguous in their dedications.

St Trillo's Chapel and Well, Rhos on Sea (142)

The ailments ranged from Insomnia to Cancer, through eye problems, stress, a physical disability or else concerned the well-being of the family whether through reconciliation of its members, improvement of the quality of life or overcoming bereavement, the commonest perhaps reflecting more the age of the votive despositer. One even requested help to learn Welsh! The majority were women.

These votives still cover the altar as can be seen and between the two visits I made they had clearly changed. Now official notelets are produced and pinned to the board beside the altar, these two changed between the visits. Indeed, sitting for just over an hour a steady stream of ‘pilgrims’ can be seen many just curious, others did appear to leave something..so it pleasing to see this most romantic of well chapels still functioning in 21st century Britain.

If you visit only one holy well after reading this blog – make it this one. Easy found and reached (and signed) either by walking along the promenade or driving Marine Parade to Trillo Avenue, Why? For its peace, for its uniqueness, for its feel of the ancient, a connection to the time of hermit saints – or for the fact you can visit this, have an ice cream, do rock pooling and see the oldest puppet show in Britain…what’s not to like!?

A tree, a bird and a holy well: Bisham’s curious Elizabeth’s Well

Elizabeth's Spring, Bisham

Laying on private farm land is one of the most curious holy wells in the country. A well associated with a curious 14th century legend. The earliest account is as a place name Holywellfette in 1534.  Compton (1979) in his work on Bisham Abbey records:

“A spring of water that rose from beneath a chalky hill in a field that for some time took on the name of Holy-well. The site, now being disfigured by the making of a road, is on the left at the foot of Bisham hill, coming from Maidenhead”

Rutherfurd’s 1935 A rationalised miracle in medieval England states:

The well had been associated with the curing of a man who bathed his eyes in the well. Nothing unusual there but the cult that developed obviously concerned the religious authorities. In short it records how in 1385 Bishop Erghum was attempting to prevent ‘pilgrims’ from Marlow and Wycombe visiting a well at Bisham. It is stated:

“to the Bishop of Lincoln urging him to take steps against those commiyting idolatory at the new well near Bustleham.”

What is more unusual is that it was associated with a tame bird who sat on a nest over the well and would not fly away, could be handed and placed offerings in its nest. According to the Bishop they were:

“blinded by the phantasy of diabolical deceit”

The report records in Latin as follows:

Et pro eo quod, ut dicitur, in eodemn fonte, iuxta quem in quodam arbore insuper nidificans quedam duis minibus hominum in nido suo tacta illorum, ut asseritur, non recessit, ymmo quia domestica et satis domita in nido reposita pacifice requievit, lippus quidam vir fantasticus, suos nuper lauans oculos defluentes estu feruido autumpnali* adustos et potu superfiuo plus solito humectantes, oculorum suorum lippitudines frigore aquatico naturaliter operante refrigescere senciebat, hoc nunc reputat pro miraculo multorum erronie credentium ceca lenitas scandalizans; unde modernis temporibus ad fontem eundem tanquam ad locum sanctissimum multi confluunt, et ibidem offerunt et adoran’t. Quorum quidam in nidum dicte auis, vile gizofilacium suis et pullorunm suorum stercoribus maculat-um, es iactant, et nephanda manu prophanas oblaciones turpissima deuotionte reponunt, in sancte matris ecclesie scandalum, fidei catholice preudicium, perniciosum exemplum plurimorum, ac ipsorum sic ut premittitur ydolatrantium grave periculum animarum.”

A rough translation meaning:

“And because, as stated in place, the spring, according to which, moreover, a bird makes its nest in a tree which men touched, as it is asserted, is not gone, but it is enough for domestic and tamed in the nest is laid to rest in peace,

His eyes just wash away the heat of battling autumn dour and drink more than usual superfluous humectants, his eyes rheumy cold the water naturally functioning cold feel, that counts for a miracle now believed by many erroneous blind leniency offending;

Hence, in these modern times to the same source, as many flock to the holy place, and there they must not show adoration. Some said the bird in the nest, which you provide nefarious profane offerings with ugly devotion. This is a scandal of our holy mother church scandal and disastrously prejudice the Catholic faith and is an example of many of them and so that the aforementioned idolatry a grave danger to souls.”

This profane and heathen devotion appears to be more about the bird’s nest and its bird who’s tameness was put down to the holiness of the place. A peculiar cult had thus developed. However, it was possible that the Bishop was wrong in viewing the bird as part of the cult. The leaving of money deposits in the nest was probably because it was a convenient and safe place rather than being ‘for the bird’.

The Bishop had informed them that the coldness of the water was responsible for the cure and the rural dean was ordered to fill in the well and tear up the tree. Excommunication was threatened against anyone who visited the site. This was apparently done, but it is clear at some point the well was uncovered. Presumably the bird flew away.

The cult of Elizabeth I

I have made the connection before between holy wells and Elizabeth I. It is evident that as the populace still needed holy wells, and the move to protestant ideology prevented this. However some wells appeared to have been rededicated to Elizabeth at the height of her cult and thereafter, perhaps allowing legitimate visits. The cult was short lived perhaps as scientific understanding allowed the development of spas. The earliest reference to the site is the John Nichol’s 1788 Progresses and public processions of Queen Elizabeth:

“In this Parish in the fields called the Moors is a well which still bears the name of Queen Elizabeth’s Well, and seems to be the only remembrance left of her frequent visits to the spot.”

In this case local legend states that when she stayed with the Hoby family of Bisham Abbey during her three day stay used the water to bath due to its traditions of healing. This traditions continued until recent as Compton (1979) notes:

 “Local belief in the healing properties of the spring, however, lingered on in the minds of those who, traditionally and by birth, were part of the district. Less than a lifetime ago there were people still living who claimed that application of the water (which broadens into a stream running at the base of Quarry Woods) had relieved some complaint of their eyes or bettered their vision. In 1905 the water, after being analysed, was said to owe any curative effect to suspended gases.”

In search of St Walstan and his holy wells Part three – Bawburgh

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2016 is a 1000 years since the death of St. Walstan. Now he may not be a very familiar saint and one that you may not think is readily associated with holy wells, however he is. Furthermore, he is unusually associated with three holy wells, in an area not always readily associated with such sites- East Anglia – which in itself is a rare occurrence. Not only that, however, unlike other multiple applications these wells are said to have a direct connection with the saint’s life and death.

Who is St. Walstan?

St Walstan was according to most accounts an Anglo-Saxon prince, the son of Blida and Benedict. Most accounts place his birth at Bawburgh (more of this place later) and his life appeared restricted to the west of Norwich. Despite being a royal he forsook the crown and all its privileges to become a simple farm labourer, giving whatever wealth he had to help the poor. After his death a localised cult developed, which grew and grew and in a way outlived the Reformation, as a saint for farmers and animals.

Three holy wells

In 2016 I decided to seek each of these wells and follow as close as possible the journey that St. Walstan is said to have made which resulted in these springs – Taverham, Costesssey and Bawburgh. Already I have tried to locate the first at Taverham’s and found the restored site at Costessey, now the easiest to find – that at the location of the saint’s shrine church, Bawburgh.

This is the third well of the saint in the English Life but the second in his Latin Life. In St Walstan Confessor, de sancto Walstanus confessore notes:

“The bulls went down from that place with the precious body towards the vill of Bawburgh. When they had come almost to the place where the body now lies buried they made another stop in a certain place, where the love of St. Walstan the divine piety made another spring of wonderful power against fevers and many other infirmities, which is still there today.”

The English Life adds:

“ye other ox staled; a well sprang anon next beyond ye parsonage”.

What is interesting is the use of the word, stalled which may be O.E for ‘come to a halt’ or with one l, staled meaning ‘urinated’! The later perhaps recording a more significant role for the white oxen.

The saint’s body was transferred through a special opening made in the north wall of the church and this arch can still be seen, now blocked up. His shrine was then established in the north transept of the Parish church of St Mary the Virgin, since then known as St Mary and St Walstan, as a separate chapel. The saint was canonised by the diocesan Bishop, who visited the site, with a large procession of priests, and hearing of his holiness:

“The bishop gave an ear and hearkened sore, And allowed him a Saint evermore.”

From this point on the well and especially the saint’s shrine was the goal of pilgrims, first from neighbouring villages, and then from Norwich (along Earlham Green Lane), and then after the news of its powers spread across England from farther afield. In particular farmers would bring their sick animals to the well to have them cured. In fact the well and shrine were so popular that a college of priests were established to control and administer the large numbers of pilgrims.

However, although it was apparently the shrine which was the goal, of the eleven medieval miracles associated with the saint, only two are associated with the holy well. One being that of Swanton’s son and the other of Sir Gregory Lovell. In the former, a man called Swanton had a lame son. Together they prayed to God and St Walston and bathed in the water from the Holy Well. The son recovered and ‘now goeth right up and his health hath’.

Nearby lost settlement of Algarsthorpe appears to have been given as a pitanciary to the Monks of Norwich as a result of the other miracle from the holy well. A Sir. Gregory Lovell who was cured of:

“Great sickness and great bone ache by water from St. Walstan’s Well”

According to the English Life of the saint:

“It happened by means of Walstan and God’s grace, To muse in mind upon a night, A mean make to holy Walstan in that case, For water to his well he sent as tyte, Therewith him washed and also dyte, And remedy readily should have anon, by the grace of God and holy Walston.”

Unfortunately as with most shrines the Reformation had a destructive effect, and the shrine was dismantled, its relics scattered over the fields and lost forever. Sadly his shrine lay in the north side of the church and was destroyed in the purges of Henry VIII and his relics burned. The removal of the chapel meant that the north side had no supporting side and hence a buttress had to be placed there!

Yet despite this wanton destruction, it appears St Walstan’s Well continued to be visited, and even through the Commonwealth period, superstitious farmers would visit the well collecting its healing waters for their sick animals. As Twinch (2015) astutely notes:

“The Bawburgh well is an integral part of the later medieval story but it assumed greater importance post-Reformation, after the tomb and chapel was demolished. The emphasis seems then to revert almost to the pre-1016 era of folk lore and water worship”

This has continued until recent years and even in recent times local farmers believe in its livestock curing properties. In 1928 the Norfolk and Norwich Archaeological society during an excursion to Bawburgh were told by the Revd Gabriel Young of the story of a local farmer and churchwarden, who had recently died, called Mr. James Sparrow of Church Farm who had a sick mare. The mare was so inflicted with sores that he had to have her put down, at which point a farm boy asked if he could treat her with the well’s water. This is apparently he did and after 10 days of the treatment was cured. The farmer apparently put its powers down to chemical or vegetable substances, rather than miracles, although no chemical analysis has been able to identify these.

This revival in the importance of St Walstan’s Well can be traced back to the 1790s when an anonymous letter on the subject of wells and baths in the September of Gentlemen’s Magazine:

“My business has very lately obliged me to make a tour through this country, at all the market towns and even at every village I stopt at, I was informed of its wonderful efficacy in curing all disorders. The resort to this spring has been very great all this summer. I was assured by a person who was on the spot, that there were frequently 2000 people there at a time, particularly on Sunday mornings; and that the spring was frequently emptied, not so much by the quantity drank on the spot, as what was put into bottles, casks, and barrels, to be transported to the remotest parts of the county.”

As Twinch (1995) notes 2000 people is a lot to assemble around the well, and hence there is doubt in this description. However Husbenbeth (1859) wrote recording around the end of the 18th Century partly collaborating this:

“An old man died not long ago at Babur, who was known to the writer, and in his younger days kept an inn there, which was frequently by crowds of visitors to St Walstan’s Well.”

The Norwich Gazette noted that these crowds often resulted in trouble, and in 1763 it reported that: ‘much confusion ensued …..and many heads were broken in the scuffle.’

Its water was so pure that it was sold in the streets of Norwich. However religious pilgrims only begun to return en masse to the well in the 19th Century. This appeared to be the result of a number of miracles associated with the distribution of its water. The earliest recorded of these involved a Francis Bunn. In 1810 he had joining the militia, but was within five years discharged suffering from ‘incurable ulcers.’ Hearing St Walstan’s well in 1818 after moving to live at Costessey, he walked the three miles to the well to apply the water to his leg. Remarkably his wounds were healed and Husenbeth recorded that they continued to heal up to Bunn’s death in November 1856. The next miracle involved Sister St John Chrysostom, of the Hammersmith Convent. She fell ill in 1838, and was so close to death that the Mother Abbess suggested that she should seek a cure through the moss of St Walstan’s Well. However she disagreed and preferred to put her faith in the healing power of her medallion of the Virgin Mother. Incredibly it is said that as she held this medal to her stomach it was heard to say: ‘drink some water poured from the moss from St Walstan’s Well.’ Taking this as good advice she did so at once, and upon swallowing this moss exclaimed that she was cured!

In 1868, A Revd Benjamin Armstrong noted that one of his five Roman Catholic parishioners had taken some of the moss and:

“applying it to a bad sore overnight, she found it completely healed in the morning, leaving a scar, as from an old wound.”

An account in the Eastern Daily Press of 1913 dubbed it A Norfolk Lourdes and recorded the cure of a London Catholic who had been suffering from eye troubles for some time. It is reported that he saw a number of specialists and was told than the man was likely to loss his sight altogether. The apparently the man remembered the moss he had taken from the well the year before, applied it to his eye using the well’s water. The following day his eye sight was restored. The doctor pronounced him cured. He is said to be determined to join 300 other Catholics from congregations in Norwich, Costessey and Wymondham to give thanks.

Holy Wells and Healing Springs of North Wales: Ffynnon Gybi, Llangybi

St Cybi's Well Llangybi (45)

If holy wells had a token head, a site which makes the non-enthusiast an enthusiast, it would be St Cybi’s Well. Why? Firstly, it is well signposted, secondly it is well looked after, thirdly it is well written about – why all of these? This is because St. Cybi’s Well is a rare thing amongst holy wells – a site looked after and managed by a heritage organisation – CADW. Now although this may make you think that means it is sanitised and over populated…nothing can be further from the truth. Despite its CADW guardianship this is still a remote site, one still needs to traverse footpaths, cross muddy fields and still possibly get lost. This still is not an ‘exit through the gift shop’ site – there are no facilities at all in fact. It remains an eerie isolated place. I have been there a number of times and even at the height of summer it is still has the feeling of a special place however many people are there. Its walls echo a time long gone and it is captivating in its ruination.

What greets the visitor is quite unlike other holy wells in many ways, for these are the remains of a commercial enterprise – a house which served a guardian, a bath, well and even a latrine – fortunately down river – useful but often missing today from most holy well sites! The house itself is thought not be that old dating from around 1750, but were thought to have been built by the then landowner a Mr. Price to capitalise on the known properties of the well.

Who was Cybi?

A Cornish man descended from it is thought a Roman military leader of minor King and his mother was thought to be the first cousin to St. David. A much travelled man said to have be taught religious studies in France and travelled even to Jerusalem and Rome. When he returned to Cornwall becoming the leader of a failed uprising which forced him to travel northwards, first to South Wales and then to Ireland. He was not received well in Ireland being involved in territory squabbles and ended on the Lleyn Peninsula settling and founding the church of Llangybi. The spring is said to have arisen in a classic fashion for holy wells, him striking the ground with his staff and the spring arising!

St Cybi's Well Llangybi (126)St Cybi's Well Llangybi (63)

A catalogue of cures and a sacred eel!

The well here appeared to cure one of the widest range of ailments from warts, scrofula, scurvy, lameness to even blindness, one 18th century account telling of how a man blind for 30 years bathed his eyes for over three weeks in the well’s water and was cured. It was also used to love predictions. This was done by using a handkerchief. It would be floated on the water and somehow would tell who their love would be. For those unable to get the cure on site, water was often placed in bottles or casks. Jones (1954) in his Holy Wells of Wales even tells of smugglers being challenged by exercise men claimed the casks contained not spirits but holy well from this well!

A specific ritual arose for its use involving patients having to bathe in the water once or twice a day for seven to ten days, then sleep in a room in the adjoining cottage where they would be given the well’s water mixed with an equal volume of sea water. If the patient became warm in their bed then the treatment had worked. Offerings were left at the church being placed in a box called Cyff Gybi and crutches were found around the well; left by the cured.

Whilst I was at the well, I slipped and ended up falling into it – not enough to get too wet but enough to hopefully awaken its famed resident – it still remained. This was a large eel. It was claimed that if the patient stoop bared legged in the water the eel would effect a cure by wrapping around their legs. No eel appeared. Apparently it was removed some time ago and it was said the spring water’s powers was lost!

Certainly, what has not been lost is the magic of this site. Even on a day when the rain is torrential, there is still a mysterious and tranquil air to this site. Worth a restful moment on any day.