Holy Wells in Devon & Cornwall
Some of our most ancient sites are known as Holy Wells. Long before Christianity the wonders of the natural world were worshipped and where clean spring water emanated from the land became both a useful, and venerated site. All over Cornwall and Devon are many ancient wells, close to a church, nearby an old celtic cross, or occasionally hidden in the landscape, they are interesting reminders of the celtic world when they were so important.
In Roman times the practice of scratching a wish on tin and throwing it into the water was commonplace, we have been tossing coins in wells ever since.
The medicinal properties of minerals has led to many wells being venerated for their healing abilities. Some of the wells I have visited are large enough for a body immersion, and are known for curing illnesses as varied as rheumatism or madness.
In 452 AD the church announced it’s first edict on the view of religious wells.
Soon after it must have been realised that the importance of fresh water were an important part of life and .so the well were incorporated into the new religion
“If in the territory of a bishop infidels light torches or venerate trees, fountains or stones, and he neglects to abolish this usage, he must know that he is guilty of sacrilege.”452 The Second Council of Arles
St David’s well in Davidstow was one of the first wells I visited. On opening the door I was greeted by the site of a small silver chalice sitting in the silt. I took off my shoes and socks and waded in to retrieve it. A simple goblet with a slight filigree on the rim, but no hall mark I could see. I used it to drink the water as I stood there with icy feet on the silt covered rock. It was delicious, cold and refreshing, with a slightly hard mineral flavour from the moorland granites. The water has been used for many years to make a delicious local cheese. Davidstow is named after David, who is a character in tmy first Talan story, ‘Talan and the Welsh Boy’. Before journeying to Wales and becoming their patron saint, St David spent his formative years here in Cornwall, with his Mother Nonna, hence ‘Altar-Non’ (Altarnun), and a few miles to the west at Davidstow.
This well at Whitstone is dedicated to St Anne, often a favoured saint for churches with wells. I have no idea why this is. Interestingly I have noted that many churches built on hill tops are dedicated to St Michael.
Around the opening is the faint traces of ‘Sanctii Anna’ in a beautiful celtic script. This is one of the few wells inside a churchyard, although is some distance away and may have been ‘outside’ originally. There are Norman traces to the church although there was a lot of rebuilding in the 15th century.
Inside the well itself I found this odd face protruding from the wall. Perhaps whoever rebuilt the well house found this sculpture in the remains of the old well and mortared him or her into place. She looks over the waters almost hidden by Ivy, a distinct face but weathered with age. The water was clean and crisp, with only the slightest minerality.
This Well at Dupath has a large enclosure.
Between Plymouth and Callington the well was the site of a duel between two knights, Gottlieb and Calan, over the love of a woman. Gottlieb was killed, and Calan died later of his injuries. On his deathbed he asked for a well house to be built in his memory. The water was muddy and spread across the floor of the well house in a shallow pool.
It didn’t appear too appetising at first but was soft and clear tasting with no sense of vegetation or algae.
This delightfully camouflaged well is situated along a very old lane, now used as a footpath. St Breward village is a mile away at the top of the hill, on Bodmin Moor.
Breward, Brelade or Branwalder was another Brythonic monk, possibly the son of a Cornish King, he worked with Saint Samson, and probably travelled widely in Brittany. King Athelsten rescued some of his relics from Breton clerics fleeing vikings and transferred them to Milton Abbey in 935. The body itself maybe at Branscombe in Devon. The well is reputed to be good for bad eyesight, and the usual offering is a pin or pins.
I thought the water tasted slightly of iron, but perhaps that was all the rusting pins.
This beautiful well house and nearby chapel was rebuilt in fitting style by Sabine Baring-Gould. He first came to my attention when I read his dramatic biography of RS Hawker, a victorian mystic, poet and collector of folk tales. The well is a romantic spot high in the Inny valley near Bodmin moor. The Well stream passes under the nearby chapel, with a little door to allow access. The chapel has been rebuilt in a simple ascetic style and fits perfectly with the celtic aesthetic.
The well can be found by walking through the churchyard at St Clether and following the path up the valley.
The chapel is privately owned and well kept. Here you can see the the little hatch to the stream that flows underneath. I like to think that Talan would have been very much at home with the simple furnishings. St Cleder or Clederus was one of the children of King Brychan. Little is known about the saint, although there are references in the Breton landscape.
St Nectan’s Well is in the village of Welcombe, just over the border from Cornwall. I used to pass it almost everyday. Close to the church I was married in it is a beautiful example of a small well house. Nectan was murdered by cattle thieves. Local folklore has that Nectan was killed not far from this well at Upton Cross. He was one of the children of Brychan, his sister lived just across the valley at Morwenstow.
This Well outside Morwenstow churchyard is dedicated to St John. Morwenna was the sister of Nectan. in Victorian times the church was rebuilt by one of the areas most famous characters, RS Hawker, a mystic, poet and collector of many of the folk tales of the area. It was his writing that romanticised the celtic age for me. Hawker was the vicar of both Morwenstow and Welcombe and led a very interesting life. there is a superb website about his life that makes very interesting reading.
St Genny’s Well is close to where I am living now. Located just outside the churchyard in a small hamlet close to the larger conurbations of Crackington and Crackington Haven. St Genny’s church is dedicated to St Genesius, an early martyred saint from Arles in France and the patron saint of actors. There are some records of a more local saint in the area known as Gwynnas.
St Non’ Well is to be found near Looe. Across a track and close to a property I met a lady who was tending the ground. Was this the same Non, as Nonna at Altarnun? The lady called it the Pisky Well and inside was a little grotto full of offerings and a delightful stone bowl to catch the spring. The bowl was thrice removed over the years but on the last occasion the thief was struck dumb.