Wondering around Wales can often bring up surprises. OK yes there are beautiful views almost everywhere you go in this small and varied country, but not all discoveries encompass wide expansive views of empty unspoilt beaches or mountain ranges. Some of them are man made, and whilst young in comparison to geological or landscape time spans, they can be ancient in human terms. Around the corner from Llansteffan is a beautiful sandy cove called Scotts Bay. So what you may ask? I’ve shown lots of photographs of sandy beaches on this blog. But sometimes you have to look around a little. On the map there is small blue writing signposted proclaiming St Anthony’s Well. Intriguing I thought, as I persuaded Aunty to make a small detour from our walk along the coastal path the other day. The well is not immediately obvious, my original thought was where the small river trickles down to the beach. But after walking up a narrow wooded lane we came across a green gate in an old high stone wall proclaiming we had arrived at the well.
Opening the gate we walked down a few steps into small stoned walled enclosure, shutting us off from the world outside. A small, quiet and secretive place. Tucked into the wall next to the steps was the rubblestone well, with a sunken chamber about 40cm deep behind a triangular shaped recess. There’s a small shelf at the back which presumably may have held a religious image at one point. Disappointingly the well was dry, and this may have been so for many years. This summer has been wet, and so the water source may have been diverted sometime in the past following work along the lane. This well seems to be visited on a regular basis, and unsurprisingly being so close to the beach, shells have been left as votive offerings in the well.
The next question that needs to be answered is – Who was St Anthony? This is certainly not a Celtic or Welsh name, and we have to look back to the early Christian Church to get any clues. The well appears to be dedicated to St Anthony of the Desert, an early church saint. An if you’ve been to Wales, you’ll understand there are no desserts here, so obviously not a local. Born around 250AD, St Anthony was renowned for his asceticism, and he lived in the Egyptian Dessert where he battled with the Devil. The early Celtic Church seemed to have been greatly influenced by the simple approach to religious devotion promoted by St Anthony, and the early Christian community is characterised by hermits living in caves and forest settings, often connected with a local monastery. Through Wales, Ireland and Cornwall there are ancient hermitages, many developing into early Christian centres. Looking at the sheltered Scotts Bay there could be worse places to be a hermit.
During the medieval period the well developed a reputation for healing. And it is conceivable it may also have been a stop over for pilgrims on their way to St Davids further to the west. Apparently two pilgrimages to St Davids was the equivalent to a single pilgrimage to Rome, indicating that travelling through Wales at that time was not to be taken by the faint hearted.
The age of St Anthony’s Well is uncertain. The current walls are relatively modern, but the water flowing in has now dried up. In fact the well is situated above the current stream, and so the water entering the well must have come for a small spring in the bank behind. Does the well predate Christianity, as many wells lay claim? I certainly don’t know. Often local religious saints took over older non or pre-Christian holy sites that were welded into the belief systems of the local community. I doubt that the well was used originally as a water source, as it is situated above a stream, and it would have been much easier to take water from the stream. If only time travel were possible.