Forgotten Holy Wells in Cardiff and South Wales
Cardiff Dowsers Group have been dowsing the area of Cardiff since 2013 now, and we have a particular interest in the holy sites in South Wales. We are very concerned with the fate and condition of Holy Wells in the Cardiff and Glamorgan area and dowsed them between May and September 2016. These Wells are ancient features which bring a very positive atmosphere and ambience to the surrounding areas, as well as being outstanding historic heritage features. What could be more magical then crystal clear unpolluted water constantly pumping from the depth of the Earth?
However we have come to believe that they need protection. Many are in danger of disappearing within a generation, due for example to building developments.
Francis Jonesi essential book on Holy Wells (The Holy Wells of Wales), first published in 1954, explores the well-cult in medieval and post-medieval Wales and beliefs and rituals connected with wells. There are already numerous wells recorded by him that can no longer be found.
Phil Copei, in his photographic journey, discovered 44 Holy Wells in Wales. The cult of Wells is an ancient spiritual phenomenon. Cope says: ‘Water has provided the inspiration for most engaging beliefs, legends and tales. Many traditions include the belief that springs issue from the supernatural world, the spiritual womb of the Earth. Celtic mythology places the Well of Wisdom at the centre of its Otherworld, the spiritual source …. As the main source of all existence, springs are often seen as symbols of love, sexuality, procreation, creativity and sometimes eternal life’ (p 11).
Sixteen Holy Wells visited by Cardiff Dowsers
These are the Wells we dowsed with a brief description of the state we found them in. Below I provide a longer description of three chosen Wells which can be easily restored.
1. to 6. Llancarfan Wells: there are six Holy Wells in the Llancarfan area although four are just places in the landscape. However we identified one in a small pond and another one covered with a mound. Fortunately this one lies just off the main road in the Llancarfan Village. We describe this Well in detail below.
7. & 8. Llandaff Wells: St Teilo is easily found close to Llandaff Cathedral, but it is forgotten and gathers rubbish, and is not properly sign-posted. St Odeceus is neglected and on the grounds of the Cathedral School and therefore inaccessible to the general public – unless some agreement with the School is made.
9. Pistyll Golau – ½ mile into Radyr Woods. It isovergrown and deliberately blocked, and there is a path but it is not easily accessed.
10. Taff’s Well – a Holy Well and a hot spring which was used until the 1950s as a bathing pool. It sits in an old Victorian building and is surrounded by a green, so it’s accessible, although the building is hardly ever open. We were not sure the Well likes to have a roof above it and not to see the daylight.
11. Wilcrick Well – perfectly preserved, sitting in a charming dome, but the area needs protection and sign-posting. We describe this Well in detail below.
12. St Fagan’s Well – perfectly preserved, sitting in the grounds of St Fagan’s Castle, very easy to restore. We describe this Well in detail below.
13. Penrhys Well – perfectly preserved, sitting on the side of the hill in Penrhys village, in a little chapel. However, sign-posting is needed and quite a lot of funds, as a kind of platform should be made for accessibility.
14. Llandenis or St Dennis Well – easily accessible in the middle of Cardiff above Roath Lake. Some funds are needed for restoration and sign-posting, as it discharges into a small pond.
15. Penylan Well – no longer exists, build upon.
16. Ely Well – as above.
Now I will give examples of three Holy Wells which are easy to restore.
Llancarfan Holy Well
This Holy Well is near the centre of Llancarfan village, on the side of a road leading from Llancarfan towards Pen-onn Farm and Moulton. No Well is visible but in its place there is a small 4-5 metres high mound and behind it a field. A pipe comes from the mound with water constantly running into the drain in the road – this is water from the Holy Well. The top of the mound is fenced and there a small bog, protected with the iron bars – we think the seeping water is from the Holy Well.
Llancarfan Holy Well is one of six Holy Wells in Cwm-y-Breach valley. These Wells were classified by Jonesi as Class C wells: ‘Wells which, … in surviving tradition, are known to be primarily reputed to be healing wells, and whose names are not those of saints as in Class A, and are not as … obviously connected with churches as in Class B.’ (p140). He described the Llancarfan Welli as a pin & rag Well: ‘A plaster, made from moss, clay and mud, was mixed at some wells and applied to the afflicted part of the patient e.g. ..Llancarfan’ (p.101).
We see the development of the area as requiring greater effort than for Wilcrick and St Fagans Wells, but still not large, as follows:
· Registering the site as CADW or National Trust which will ensure its protection from developments as well as increasing its visibility. This will include formally establishing the ownership of this small area.
· Razing the mound to the ground and building a stone well enclosure, for example similar to Trellech or Wilcrick wells.
· Providing a fence with a gate, sign-posting a) from A4266, b) from Llancarfan and a small car park.
Wilcrick Well is located off the B4245, very close to M4 Junction 23a and close to Magor. The Well’s dome is well-preserved, the water is clean, and the Well is standing on a lawn about 10m by 20m wide with some lovely beech trees on it. There are two large private houses on each side of the Well and a 13th century church behind it, first mentioned in 1254[i]. The Well is at the bottom of Wilcrick Hill – a large Iron Age hill fort[ii].
Phil Copeii states that nothing is known about this well, as does Francis Jonesi. However, a Desk-based Assessment[iii][iv] was made for Legend Court Ltd by Gwent-Glamorgan Archaeological Trust Ltd in response to a planning proposal for a theme park around Wilcrick and Pencoed. The study found that the proposed development area contains a wide range of sites of significant archaeological interest.
We see the development effort of the area as minimal, akin to Llancarfan Well (with no mound to raze) with sign-posting a) from M4 J23a, b) from B4245 at the crossroads with lights, c) from B4245 at the turning to the Well and a small car park.
St Fagan’s Well
St Fagan’s Holy Well is located in the grounds of St Fagan’s Castle in the formal garden. It is at the side of the second fishpond, on the site opposite to the castle. The Well's dome is preserved but overgrown and barely visible. On one side of the Well is the fishpond and on another a ditch and a wide path. On this already established protected historical ground, there is plenty of space to establish a small enclosure.
Francis Jonesi states that this Well was described by Richard Symons who visited St Fagan’s in 1645 with King Charles. It was one of Jones' Class A wells – which bear the names of saints, the Trinity, God, Holy Innocents, or Easter.
St Fagan’s Conservational Area Appraisal[v] comments: ‘The village of St Fagans ….. was ﬁrst established as an important location during medieval times, when the Norman conquerors built a motte and bailey castle. Nothing of the original Castle now remains, with the exception of the Holy Well of St Fagan, situated between the two lower ﬁshponds in the Museum of Welsh Life.’
The Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust, Historic Environment Record on Archwillio[vi] confirms that ‘The spring known as St Fagans's Well issues from the hillside in the grounds of the Welsh Folk Museum. The opening, 0.6m high and 0.6m wide, is enclosed by stone, repaired with brick’.
We see the development effort of the area as minimal, similar to Llancarfan Well (with no mound to raze) and with sign-posting a) at the St Fagan’s Castle entrance and throughout the Castle grounds, b) at the Welsh Folk Museum entrance and throughout the Museum; and a small car park.
Cardiff Dowsers are now looking into possibilities of these Holy Wells being restored – if you have any ideas, please let us know.
Below: St Fagans Holy Well is marked with a black star.
[i] St Mary’s Church at Wilcrick in Archwillio: http://www.cofiadurcahcymru.org.uk/arch/ggat/english/index.html
[ii] Archwillio: Wiggins, H , 2006 , Prehistoric defended enclosures in Gwent, http://www.cofiadurcahcymru.org.uk/arch/ggat/english/index.html
[iii] Archwillio: Marvell, A and Yates, A , 1998 , Legend Court, Pencoed, Newport, Archaeological Desk-Based Assessment
[iv] Archwillio: Legend Court, Newport, DBA, http://www.cofiadurcahcymru.org.uk/arch/ggat/english/index.html
[v] St Fagan’s Conservational Area Appraisal comments, Cardiff Council, 2007
[vi] Archwillio: http://www.cofiadurcahcymru.org.uk/arch/ggat/english/index.html