Cornish Cousins: seven wells from across the water

Look hard, you might find

the lip of a well, now hidden

beneath a cobweb of frost,

mosses and silt, crutches and votives

from the hundreds who come

with their bundle of sorrows

tied like a knot in the pit

of the stomach ….

From The Source by Maura Dooley

A few days in Cornwall for a family reunion, and a chance to explore some of the holy wells over there. There are strong ties between Ireland and Cornwall, indeed many of the Cornish saints seem to have originated in Ireland, so no surprise to find the wells shared many similarities yet  retained their unique characteristics and identity.

Chapel Downs Well, Sancreed

A small green lanes runs off behind the red telephone box in the middle of the village of Sancreed. The well lies just off the path and is an enchanting place, its presence heralded by an impressive clootie tree.

Chapel Downs Well & clootie tree

The well lies deep within the earth, a massive thatched lintel holding up the subterranean wellhouse; several uneven, mossy steps leading down to the clear water within. Little offerings, coins and shells, are tucked into the stony crevices but then astonishingly it becomes apparent that some of the moss is actually glowing – a bright fluorescent green: phosphorescence.

In 1990 Paul Devereux in his book Places of Power, recorded the extremely high radiation count at this particular well. It has also been noted that well seemed to induce a pleasant languor and Devereux concluded:

I suspect that at particular wells or springs like this, radiation languor was one of the factors used to induce trance-like states conducive to visionary and divinatory work.

The clootie tree adds an ancient and mystical feel. The offering are mostly ribbons and rags, no sign of any rosaries or other hints of Catholicism that you might find in a Cork well. A St Bridget cross was a nice reminder of home though.

A modern cross erected nearby is the only concession to Christianity, though in the undergrowth the stone ruins of a small chapel still remain.

It certainly is an extraordinarily peaceful place, unspoilt but humming with presence. The well has no known patron saint, and no feast day. The waters have no particular cure but are considered exceptionally potent. A delightful site. I didn’t fall asleep but certainly felt relaxed and refreshed after visiting.

St Euny Holy Wells, near Sancreed

Two miles away from Sancreed are two wells dedicated to St Euny*. These can be found tucked away behind the Iron Age village of Carn Euny. This well preserved settlement was built sometime between 550BC-500AD and is now in the care of English Heritage. Perhaps most intriguing is the enormous fogou (souterrain) with its huge corbelled roof– now considered to have had ritual significance ie no-one has a clue what it was used for!

The two wells can be found just outside the settlement on either side of the ancient trackway, now signed as Saint Euny’s Well Way. The first well is barred by an unattractive gate and looks rather forlorn.

But the adjacent tree contains some interesting and  evocative offerings, all mostly made from organic materials – shells, cones, woven willow.

The second well is further down the track and completely different – obviously much revered and well tended. Quite similar to Chapel Downs Well at Sancreed, the wellhouse is subterranean and approached by some steep stone steps, flanked at the moment by a riot of primroses.

Entrance to St Euny well

The wellhouse was most likely constructed out of stones from the original chapel which in turn was built on the site of a much older shrine. The water is fresh and clear; in fact the whole area is dominated by water – streams, pockets, pools. A highly adorned clootie tree lies further down overhanging the stream.

Clootie tree, St Euny’s well

The water is rich in many minerals including iron, sulphates, calcium and arsenic. Robert Hunt, writing in 1881 (Popular Romances of the West of England)  recorded :

On the first three Wednesdays in May, children suffering from  mesenteric (intestinal) diseases are dipped three times, against the sun, and dragged three times around the well over the grass in the same direction.

St Euny was the patron saint of Lelant and Redruth areas, and the brother of St Ia whom St Ives is named after. He seems to have been distinguished by an unusual choice of hairstyle: close shaved at the front then flowing tresses behind. He seems to be still much admired and his feast day is the 31st October.

  • Apparently the first well is not considered a true holy well but belongs to the nearby house

Venton Ia, St Ives

This well can be found in the delightfully named Downalong area of St Ives, just below the cemetery right in the centre of town. It seems a little forgotten and unloved with none of the charm or mystery of the wells so far described. The well consists of two chambers and has been built rebuilt into the passage way that goes round the cemetery.

Venton Ia

It has a rather plain and functional air but a posy of wood anemones had been tacked to the exterior so someone still valued it.The water was fresh and clear and as the plaque testifies, once provided the water for those in the Downalaong area.

St Ia was originally from Ireland and of noble birth. St Fingar and St Piala decided to head over to Cornwall and Ia was desperate to come with them. She was told she was too young for such a journey and left on the shore. She prayed for guidance and a leaf floated by. Testing it with her staff the leaf seemed sturdy enough and soon it started to grow. She hopped aboard and reached Cornwall before the other saintly crowd!  Sadly the King of Cornwall was unimpressed by their preaching and they were martyred sometime around 450AD. Her name lives on though in the town of St Ives. Her feast day is the 3rd February.

Fenton Bebibbel, near St Ives

This has to be one of the most extraordinary wells yet encountered.  We had a brilliant day in the field discovering Men an Tol, Lanyon Quoit and the Nine Maidens stone circle and knew that Fenton Bebibbel Well was in the vicinity.

Fortunately we had a grid reference for it and the GPS proved invaluable as it took us over windswept moorland full of bleached grasses, treacherous underfoot.The first sign we were getting close was a windswept hawthorn, small but conspicuous in the landscape.

Windswept hawthorn

A closer examinations showed we were on the right track for the bush was adorned with rather forlorn and somewhat sinister-looking naked Barbie dolls. The tradition here was to bring your dolls to be baptised on Good Friday – a tradition that has recently been revived (it will be happening tomorrow, 14th April). Another name for the well is Well of the Little People so there must be some connection between the dolls and the faeries.

The well itself is a few metres away. It has a roughly square basin, just below ground level, the rather scummy water streaming off into the moor, large stones scattered here and there.

Fenton Bebibell Well

Fresh water drips constantly down behind the stones. What a remote and strange spot.

Madron Holy Well, near Penzance

Approached down a long, leafy green lane, the blackthorn trees with their cloudy blossom, this is a wonderful long and bosky approach to another ancient well.

Again a clootie tree signals the presence of something special. This tree, laden with offerings, is over a stream and is a magical spot but it is not the actual well – look carefully at ground level and a small sign arrows you off across the stream and into the undergrowth.

Clootie tree above the stream

The well is somewhere off in the thicket. Try as I may, and I approached from every direction, I could not get through the thorny undergrowth – and underfoot it was more swamp than bog. Somewhere within lay the main well, famed for the purity of its waters. Here naked children were plunged three times, against the sun, into the water, then passed around the well nine times, from east to west. Similar to the rites at Sancreed – a little alarming for the children though. In a slightly more sedate fashion, young girls would head out to the well on May morning before sunrise, take two reeds, tie them together with a pin then drop them into the water. The number of rising bubbles would tell them how long they had to wait until they got married!

The well looks like this should you be able to find it.

Photo by Malcolm Kemp, Wikipedia

A little further on lie the remains of an old baptistry, partly destroyed during the Reformation.

Remains of baptistery

This is a sturdy rectangular building which contains its own well, the water abundant, fresh and flowing – the same source as water from the main well, which until the 18th century provided the main water supply for nearby Penzance.

The granite seats around the edge of the chapel and the old stone altar still survive. It has a remarkable charm, hidden amongst the green mossiness.

 

The Giant’s Well, St Michael’s Mount, near Marazion

St Michael’s Mount

This well may not have had the atmosphere and authenticity of the others but the location is stunning! A walk along the still damp causeway, the majestic mound rising before you, then staggering up the steep cobbled paths, incredibly lush vegetation on each side is worth the jostling with the crowds!

The well is unmissable but it is slightly disappointing in that the lid is firmly on and the area fiercely manicured.

The Giant’s Well, firmly closed

A little further away lurks the enormous Giant’s heart, a substantial boulder.

The Giant’s burial place

The well marks the spot where a giant was felled either by St Michael himself or Jack the Giant Killer. A giant called Cormoran lived on the island with his wife Cormelian. He was not a big friendly giant but terrorised the neighbourhood. Young Jack decided enough was enough and one night rowed out to confront the giant. In the darkness he dug a huge pit and in the morning blew his horn. Out lumbered the giant and in he fell, deep down into the pit where Jack killed him with a blow from his axe! The huge boulder marks the spot! A nice retelling of the old story – good versus evil. And just one version of the many stories to do with Cormoran.

Fieldwork in Cork will resume shortly!

Holy Wells:Cornwall a photographic journey by Phil Cope is a wonderful source of information for these intriguing wells,

5 thoughts on “Cornish Cousins: seven wells from across the water

  1. Pingback: Saintly Pigs and Curious Carvings | Roaringwater Journal

  2. Robert

    This was once home territory for me, Amanda – and I visited many of those wells frequently. However, I never came across Fenton Bebibbel – absolutely intriguing!

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  3. Finola

    What a great collection! More clooties than we normally see here, but fewer religious tokens. Same atmospheric locations and sense of mystery. Lovely post!!

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