Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Freeing the Waters – Two Rediscovered Holy Wells of Wales


An age-old tradition links women with wells. In the ancient world sacred springs were regarded as the entrance to the Underworld where the spirits dwelled. Pilgrims visited them to receive oracular utterances from the priestess who was guardian of the shrine – a practice that was still alive not two hundred years ago in Cornwall.  A mediaeval Grail text tells us of the “Voices of the Wells,” which were silenced when the Well Maidens were defiled by an evil king and his followers. Because of this the Holy Grail was withdrawn from the kingdom and its blessings no longer poured freely out into our world. This last weekend I visited two wells in mid Wales that were once lost but recently found again. Strangely enough, the stories of their rediscovery all involve women.

Ffynnon Ffraid
Winding up through the Cambrian mountains in the hazy heat of early July, I went in search of one of the few holy wells in Wales dedicated to St Bridget.  The Irish holy woman who was once the Celtic goddess Brigit is known here as St. Ffraid (pronounced Fride), and a mediaeval Ffynnon Ffraid had been rediscovered not long ago by a woman living in a remote upland farm in these parts. According to tradition, when Bridget was young her duties involved milking cows and making butter in the hafod, the country people's summer home in the high pastures.

Brigit of the red kites,
Brigit of the moorland,
Brigit of the meadowsweet,
Brigit of the dragonflies . . .

The well was entirely unique in Wales, being covered by stones in the shape of a beehive, but was in a bad state of repair. Annwen Davies and her mother worked for years to get funding for its restoration, but in the end had to use their own savings to get the job done.

When I drew up into the farmyard, Annwen was not at home, but I found her mother in the kitchen, busy making cakes for her grandson. Warm, earthy, merry and kind, Jasmine Jones offered me lemonade and told me how she and her daughter had the devil’s own job to convince the authorities they had actually found an unrecorded holy well – and how gratifying it was to prove the 'experts' wrong. But that was in the past – now she is endlessly surprised and delighted at the visitors who have ever since been making their way up here from all over – even as far as Australia.

Jasmine led me through the yard past her collection of stone hedgehogs to the starlings’ nest in a nearby shed where the mother was feeding her gaping chicks. She told me of her sixteen feral cats, her ripening gooseberry bushes, and the time that the snoring in the chapel – which caused many a sidelong glance in the congregation – was finally traced to the barn owls roosting in the rafters. (“They’re the only fully Welsh-speaking, card-carrying Methodist owls in the county!”)

Brigit of the hafod,
Brigit of the creamery,
Brigit of the bakestone,
Brigit of the speckled bread . . .

 She apologised for her slow progress up to the well in the garden behind her daughter’s house – her knee had been bent when she was pinned down by a sheep and never the same since. But she had no trouble heaving away the iron safety gate from the entrance to the little well so that I could look inside. 


It was dim and quiet away from the glare of the sun on baled hay and the noise of the tractor down in the farmyard. The well looked as it must have done in the Middle Ages, covered with mosses and lichens and overhung by a dense thicket of hazel and wild roses. I had to crawl inside, but it was as black as night within. One sandaled foot encountered the shock of ice-cold water from which, unseen, I filled my bottle.

In the dark of the well-house no time exists. I wondered whether Bridget herself, as 7th century Celtic holy woman, ever walked up here from her Abbey of Llanfride, rumoured to have once stood on the coast of Cardigan Bay. Centuries later, perhaps a procession of white-robed monks of Strata Florida abbey paused here for refreshment en route to Bardsey, the Island of the Saints, or even over to Ireland where they owned land. And what of the bard who lived in the nearby house in the 18th century: Ieuan Brydydd Hir, one of the great classic poets of his time, whose tempestuous life led to him being ‘incorrigibly addicted’ to a drink much stronger than water, as Samuel Johnson observed.

Brigit of the beehives,
Brigit of the honeycomb,
Brigit of the scent of summer,
Brigit of the methyglyn . . .

I had hoped to spend some time at the well by myself in meditation, tuning into the spirit of the waters, but it felt like it was time to go. Anyway I had already realised that, in the person of Jasmine Jones, I may have met with Bridget in the flesh. For She has many faces and is well-known to abide where there is laughter and an open heart.

The Well in the Silent Grove
I could not leave this area without a visit to one of the most mysterious holy wells in Wales. Hidden deep within the forestry plantation on the mountain above the ruins of Strata Florida, it has no name, but may have been the “Well in the Silent Grove” described by minister and antiquarian, George Eyre Evans, in 1903:

“. . . Follow the lane as it wends its way up the valley, with Glasffrwd . . . babbling over its rocky course, on the right. Here you are at once in the heart of the country – ‘Alone with the Alone’ – the sky, water, mountains, trees, rocks and birds. The monks new (sic) well the value of this spot, here were – nay, still are – their wells of healing waters, – iron, sulphur, chalybeate – used with benefit by the natives to-day. What more truly romantic spot can be imagined or desired than that round ‘Ffynnon dyffryn tawel' the ‘Well of the silent grove’? Here . . . its cool waters still bubble forth, much as they did when pilgrims to the Abbey slacked (sic) their thirst at its welcome brink . . .”

Since the time of George Evans this beautiful area had been acquired by the Forestry Service who covered it with serried ranks of conifers under which nothing grows and where no birds sing – a different kind of silence. It wasn’t until the plantation was clear felled in the 1990s that the well came to light again, spotted by an archaeologist, Caroline Earwood, from an aerial photograph. It took her hours to reach it after scrambling up and down steep mountain slopes, fording the stream, and forging her way through dense rows of Sitka spruce. Yet someone must have known about it, for beside the well stood a brown Denby mug without a handle, holding a posy of flowers.

When I first moved to Wales I knew I must visit this well, which is not marked on any maps. My first attempt ended ignominiously with soaked, muddy legs and a thousand itchy midge bites! The second time I went there with an experienced dowser who had been once before and a woman who was legally blind. After hours of searching, it was the blind woman who found the well.

On Sunday I found the way marked by forestry poles. Newly-planted saplings of both conifers and deciduous trees were dotted about the valley, poking up above the grasses and purple foxgloves. The brush around the well had recently been cut but not cleared, so it was slimy with dead grass and weeds and its channels choked. I spent some time cleaning it up with only a stick and bare hands, throwing great gouts of mud and slime up onto the banks. In that quiet place I was ‘Alone with the Alone’ for hours, and the silence was only broken when I fished out a piece of bark that was blocking the pipe to the cistern and the voice of the well returned loud and clear and bright.