St Winifred’s Well: Welsh 100- No 45

A number of the visits we undertook during our holiday seemed to have developed an ecclesiastical theme. But this may not be a surprise when you remember that so many of the towns, villages and hamlets in Wales start with Llan. That said how about this for a miraculous tale and how the church has turned a mystery into a money making enterprise that continues today. Unlike many of the wells that we’ve visited or will visit in the future in Wales this is very much an organised enterprise. You can only access and exit the well through a gift shop, very reminiscent of so many Catholic shrines abroad.

The main well where the water enters the shrine.

First let’s go to the legend, and I love a story, some of which may be based on truth especially the most basic instincts involved, but the rest can only be an allegory for rebirth. The daughter of a local rich Nobel man, Gwenffrwd (St Winifred) had chosen to devote her life to the service of God. Caradoc, the son of a local chief, had long been attracted to her beauty, called to the house asking for water while her parents were out. But wanting more he pressed his attention on Gwenffrwd. However, having de opted herself to God she rejected his advances, angry at being turned down he attacked her and started to tear away her clothes. She fled towards her uncle’s (St Beuno) church, hoping that he would be able to aid her, but Prince Caradoc was quicker and caught her on a hillside. Winifred fought back, so Caradoc, in a fit of rage beheaded her with his sword (1).
St Beuno had been insider is church nearby church and came outside to find Winifred’s decapitated body and with Caradoc standing over her with his bloody sword. St Beuno cursed Caradoc, who immediately died and melted away. As St Beuno picked up her head in grief, a spring welled up from the ground at the spot where Winifred had fallen. St Beuno replaced St Winifreds head on her neck, and after a short prayer the wound was healed and the young woman was resurrected, leaving only a slight scar. Red marked stones at the bottom of the well are said to be stained with blood of St Winifred. She then went on be an influential figure in the early church in Wales. 

The pool where people bath. water enters the pool from the well head in the shrine.

St. Winifred was a local Welsh saint of little importance until her relics were translated, in 1136, to a magnificent shrine in Shrewsbury Abbey. Then two years later Prior Robert of Shrewsbury wrote a history of her life and devotion. Her original tomb was retained at Gwytherin and St. Winifred’s Well. The well has been a pilgrimage destination for centuries, including a number of monarchs. In 1189 Richard I, the Lionheart, made a pilgrimage to the Well. Then in 1416 Henry V paid a thanks giving visit following his victory at Agincourt, walk from Shresbury to St Winefride’s Well. According to the Welsh poet Tudor Aled, Edward IV came on pilgrimage in 1461 , when he placed a pinch of earth taken from beside the Well upon his crown. The believe and dedication continued when in 1686 James II and Queen Mary Beatrice came on pilgrimage to pray for an heir; according to Thomas Pennant the Jesuits then in charge of the Well presented the King with a present of the very shift worn by his Great Grand Mother Mary Stuart was wearing when she lost her head! Strange how they still had, and were then able to give back when James II visited.

Detail showing the complicated dome over the well head, supporting thechapel above.

Following the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII visiting holy wells was actively discouraged, and many pilgrim wells disappeared. In 1579 Queen Elizabeth’s council issued a command to the Council of the Marches to “discover all Papist activities and recommend measures for suppressing them… to pay particular attention to the pilgrimages to St Winefride’s Well and in view of the claim that the water is medicinal to appoint two men to test its properties; if not medicinal the Well should be destroyed.”

However attempts to suppress the well seemed to have the opposite effect and visitor numbers may have increased throughout the seventeenth century. In 1625 the Bishop of Bangor reported .“There is a great concourse of people at St Winefride’s Well, in an old church near a public Mass is said continually”
Early in the 20th century the well dried up due to mining on Halkyn Mountain as the water was diverted. The well today is fed by the local water utilities so it will not have the same mineral properties as the early pilgrims would have taken advantage of.

The healing waters of St Winifred’s (Winifride) Holy Well have attracted pilgrims for over 1300 years and the crypt in which the well lies was stacked with crutches left by the cured invalids until some time in the 1960’s, though can still be seen on display.

In order to effect cure for whatever ailment should be troubling you, the pilgrim should enter the water three times for the cure to be effective although even this process does not necessarily guarantee success. Now I only have a slightly dogy knee but the water was very cold and I only managed to tolerate entering the pool twice. When I say cold, believe me it was! I think I’ll stick to more pragmatic methods that will be more beneficial to me. Today around 3600 visitors have been recorded and the numbers have been said to be increasing significantly (2). 


  1. Early British Kingdoms. Accessed 2016.07.06
  2. BBC News (2012)

St Cewydd

During the weekend while we were pretending to be Dr Livingstone and searching for the source of the Severn we stayed at a small and quiet caravan site at Disserth, right under a delightful old church. It is dedicated to St. Cewydd, who is said to have been one of the many saintly sons of Caw of Prydyn, a Pictish king in the Strathclyde area of modern Scotland. With the rest of his family, he would have moved south to Edeirnion in Wales, around the early 6th century. However, the evidence for this family relationship is mostly based on the unreliable Iolo MSS and must therefore be treated as highly suspect.

Traditionally, Cewydd became a monk in St. Cadog’s monastery at Llancarfan (Morgannwg) and places in South Wales named after him may date from this time spent in the area. Llangewydd, near Bridgend, has lost its original church dedicated to him, now only traceable in the fieldname, Caer Hen Eglwys. Lancaut near Chepstow is also probably named for Cewydd; along with Cusop, near Hay-on-Wye, and the extinct Capel Cawey in Monachlog Ddu (Pembrokes). Perhaps he also took evangelical trips to Somerset, where Kewstoke is believed to derive its name from Cewydd.

Elsewhere, place-name evidence shows that Cewydd eventually settled in Elfael (Radnorshire) where he made a number of foundations. The churches of Aberedw and Disserth are both dedicated to him. Cewydd’s Retreat, Cil Cewydd, appears in the adjoining parish of Llanfihangel Bryn Pabuan and his hill-slope, Rhiw Gewydd, is a mountain track above Llandilo Graban, possibly leading to his brother Meilig’s home in Llowes. He probably died in this region on a date variously said to have been on 1st, 2nd or 15th July. The latter appears to have been the most widely accepted. All three dates also have close associations with Cewydd’s English equivalent, St. Swithun. Both were the ‘Rain-Saints’ of their respective nations and it seems likely that these particular days were originally pagan Celtic festivals, of some kind, related to the weather. It is popularly said that if it rains on St. Cewydd’s day, it will rain for forty days and forty nights! But this is Wales and so this will always happen every year at least once. Rain is what we do well here.

St Cewydd established the first church here in Disserth, but in reality there is little to support or dispute this claim based on how long ago this occurred. This may be supported by the name Disserth, which derives from the Latin “desertum”, indicating a wild and secluded spot, which can be applied to a hermit’s cell or retreat. But the church is certainly old, and one of the few that has not been “improved” by the Victorians. It is thought that the main church belongs to the 13th century, with the font dating to the 14th. The church was reroofed in the 16th C with some additions and minor alterations in the 18thC. Probably the windows.What is truly fascinating is that the pews are still present, enscribed with the family initials and date of installation. The earliest I could find was dated 1666. 

The parish records contain some interesting accounts of the parishioners and their habits. 1694 Betty Jones was “presented” before the congregation for “shoving straw up her neighbour’s nose during divine service”. Perhaps sermons have always been boring, and the record doesn’t tell if the neighbour was sleeping or if they were both messing about. Nothing really changes. I remember being very bored in chapel at times when I was young and desperate to be outside aging.– luckily there was no straw available in my days!

Another story concerns the need for exorcism. And every church needs an exorcism. In the nearby town of Trecoed lived a tanner, Charles Lewis. He was known for his dishonesty and double dealing. He was reputed to have two scales, one giving double weights when he was buying and one short weights when selling. When he died no one grieved, but he came back and his spirit molested travellers after dark. The local parson, Jones summoned the ghost to meet him at Disserth Church, and there with three other parsons they faced the spirit. Soon three of the parsons fled the church in fear. But eventually Parson Jones emergent triumphant with the evil spirit trapped in a snuff box which was pushed down into a local bog. 100 and 1 things to do with a snuff box. No there’s a title for a TV show!

Not all the priests were heroes though. Kilvert, in his diary, gives an amusing account of a victor from the 1860’s. “He would get up to the pulpit without an idea about what he was going to say, and would begin this: ‘Ha yes, here we are. And it is a fine day. I congratulate up on he fine day, and glad to see so many of you here. Yes indeed. Ha, yes, very well. Now then I shall take for my text…..yes let’s see. You are all sinners and so am I. Yes indeed’.” I wonder if there were any Betty Jones’ and straw around?

In most villages there is a Church and a compliment of houses surrounding it. Not so in Disserth. There is a Church, yes, but no houses only a farm. This is because Wales didn’t have villages following the English plan. Parishes were large, and house and far,s were scattered around the parish. The nearest village was about a mile away, but the parish church remained isolated but central to the parish in Disserth. That said this is probably why there are so many ancient unspoilt and original churches scattered about Wales. So as I sit here outside the church wall the birds sing their hearts out. A song thrush repeats it’s refrain loudly in a tree near by, a wren completes it song with a trill and a flourish, the blackbird nearby sings it’s unchained melody. It’s almost lulling me in a period of quiet contemplation – but I’m not good at reflection and decide on another cup of tea instead.

Afon Hafren – Mystery and Myth from the Source

The weather looked good for the weekend and so we made a second attempt to find the source of the Severn. OK it may not quite be in the significant realms of Livingstone and the source of the Nile, but all explorers have to start somewhere. After parking in the forest car park in Forest Hafren. Handily this is on the banks of the river, and all we had to do was follow it upstream for 4 miles. As we climbed steady through the forest and out eventually onto the moor the clouds cleared away and we were walking alone in glorious sunshine. Moor can seem desolate places, but they take on a whole new persona when the sun shines. The colours that can be muted in the rain take on new palate of subtle browns, blacks and the green of new spring growth.

This small pool is the start of the mighty Afon Hafren.

The Severn, or Hafren in Welsh is the UK’s longest river at around 220 miles. This may not be long in a world sense, but this river is full of mystery, power and the ability to surprise. We live very close to the Severn Estuary, and so it is fitting that we should also seek out the source. All rivers, not mater how great or humble have to start somewhere. The Hafren starts in a small pool high up the hills in Mid Wales, on the northern slopes of Pumlumon (Five Stacks). This hulking lump of moorland has traditionally been known as one of the Three Mountains of Wales. It doesn’t have the splendour of the sharps crags and drops that Cadair Idris and Snowden boast. But Pumlumon is the source of three major rivers, the Wye, Rheidol and Hafren. Not many mountains can claim that.

The hulk that is Pumlumon.

As you look around the summits here you quickly notice cairns everywhere. This now desolate area must have had a fundamental and deep importance for the Bronze Age population who raised this these monuments. On a small summit, Pumlumon Cwmbiga, just above the source the twin cairns of Carn Biga stand proud on the horizon. The cairns mark the summit of Pumlumon Cwmbiga, the fifth of the five beacons or summits of Pumlumon.

The cairns at Carn Biga overlooking and guarding the area.

The river starts as a small trickle from the pool, but quickly picks up speed and volume as it tumbles down the mountain side. At first it is hidden, but within a hundred yards it’s possible to hear the river gurgle into life and then it’s sparkle is seen emerging from the dark peat soil.

Hafren carving out shapes in the rock.

How did the River get its name? There are a number of explanations with their origins lost in a time of Iron Age, and probably older, worship of water nymphs and goddesses. Once three sisters; all water spirits, met on the slopes of Mount Plynlimon to discuss how best to reach the sea as they greatly desired to explore the waters of the Celtic Sea and beyond. The first of the sisters, and most hasty, decided that she would take the shortest and most direct route. She made her way down the mountains in a westerly direction. Reaching the sea before the others, she became known as Ystwyth (Rheidol). The second sister was not so hasty as Ystwyth. She enjoyed the landscape, and journeyed through the Welsh valleys and forested vales of Herefordshire. Arriving at the sea second she became know as the Wye. The third sister had no desire to rush. She had Ystwyth’s taste for exploring the landscape around her, but she also wished to visit the fairest cities of the kingdom and see the wonders of men. She became known as Severn.

In an number of places its as if Hafren is in a hurry to reach her destination as here at Blaen Hafren Falls.

Another legend is darker and is recounted by Geoffrey of Monmouth. Locrinus, one of the sons of the Trojan Brutus who is supposed to have founded Britain leads an army to the north of England to defeat invading Huns who have already defeated his brother, Albanactus, in Scotland. With the invaders defeated, Locrinus falls for one of the prisoners he has taken, a German girl called Estrildis, whom he wishes to wed.But as always it is never that simple. Locrinus is already promised to Gwendolen, daughter of Brutus’s second-in-command, Corineus. 

Then at other times she is willing to take her time to meander through the forest.

When he heard that Locrinus had other ideas to the match Corineus, marches to London and forces Locrinus at knife point to honour his word and marry Gwendolen. Seeing that he may have made a mistake Locrinus keeps his promise. But being sneaking and deeply in love he keeps Estrildis as a mistress in an underground dwelling in London. Pretending that he is making sacrifices to the gods, Locrinus visits his lover for seven years, and surprise, surprise she falls pregnant and bears him a daughter by the name of Habren. When Corineus dies, Locrinus sees his chance and denounces Gwendolen and marries Estrildis. Mad with rage, Gwendolen returns to her fathers lands raises an army in Cornwall. She then marches against Locrinus, defeating her former husband’s forces and killing Locrinus in a battle near the River Stour (probably the Severn tributary, that joins the Severn at Stourport). Gwendolen then ordered that Estrildis and Habren be put to death, whereupon they are drowned in the Severn. In tribute to the guiltless Habren, she pronounces that the river should bear the child’s name – Habren or Hafren. Hafren effectively becomes the genius loci of the river, and may even be a memory of a genuine river goddess.

Aunty doing her impression of Hafren

Which ever version you prefer they seem to be based on a deep folk memory. A need to explain the natural landscape, to provide answers and give a sense of understanding to what is happening around them. Very quickly the river builds and within only a few miles is has broadened out into a wide river at Llanidloes. Here is it joined by the Afon Dulas and Afon Clwyedog, making an early statement about the power and majesty that Hafren will become later. From Llanidloes she flows north east through Welshpool, before turning south at Shrewsbury becoming the border between Wales and England for much of its course. Passing Bewdley and Worcester before Gloucester, eventually becoming the wide and treacherous Severn Estuary. This also includes the Severn Bore – no not me in a pub! But a natural phenomenon that Aunty and I witnessed a few years back.

The enlarged Hafren at Llanidloes after joining forces with the Afon Dulas and Clywedog.

Just as a post script, I’ve been experimenting with the camera on the iPhone. All photograph in this and the previous few blogs have been taken exclusively with the iPhone, and I’m impressed.

Glastonbury without the festival

We are staying just outside Bath for a few days, but the caravan has an extra resident. Number 1 daughter has muscled in on the act this time and sudden,y everything is so much more expensive than usual! We’ve never been to Glastonbury, well except for Number 1 whose been to the festival so I’m not sure if that counts. It has an unusual atmosphere, almost every shop has a mythical edge selling gems, new age clothes (is it still new age after all this time?), witches brews and spell books, mystical books an know how, meditation and mindfulness courses. Lots of people seeking something, but never quite finding it.


But the sun was shining and we had a look around Glastonbury Abbey, which became the second richest religious setting before being ‘done over’ by Henry VIII as he seized the churches assets. And he did a pretty good job of it as well. In 1536, during the 27th year of the reign of Henry VIII, there were over 800 monasteries, nunneries and friaries in Britain. By 1541, there were none. More than 10,000 monks and nuns had been dispersed and the buildings had been seized by the Crown to be sold off or leased to new lay occupiers. 


St Patrick’s Chapel. a very old legend that St. Patrick, Apostle of Ireland, came back to Britain in his old age, collected together some hermits he found near Glastonbury and became their first Abbot there. While there is no sound evidence, documentary or archaeological, that the Apostle of Ireland either lived or died at Glastonbury.

There’s been a church here for a long time, but it was never a very rich site. Originally set up by the local Saxin King in the 7th century it began to accumulate wealth and property, and following the Norman invasion in 1066 is was further developed.

 Then in 1184 the abbey church was destroyed by fire. Seeking the huge funds required to rebuild it was a surprise to everyone when the monks found a deep grave in the cemetery to the south side of the Lady Chapel. They then claimed that this was the grave of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere, and attracted a large number of pilgrims, who also left a lot of money to the Abbey. That was very convenient! These bones were reburied, much later, in 1278 within the Abbey Church, in a black marble tomb, in the presence of King Edward I. He then used this as propaganda to support his attacks on Wales. Just like the English Rugby team he failed against the Welsh more often than he succeeded.

The legend of the Holy Thorn tells that it came here as the staff carried by Joseph of Arimathea. It is said that Joseph was a trader in metal, so came to this area for lead from the Mendips, and when his boat arrived at Wearyall Hill he disembarked, planting his staff into the ground whilst he rested. In the morning he noticed his staff had taken root, thus becoming the Holy Thorn. The Thorn in the abbey grounds is said to be a descendant of the original tree. It flowers twice each year, around Easter and at Christmas.  

From there we went onto to Glastonbury Tor. This lone limestone knoll stands out above the Someerset Levels and is visible from all directions as you approach Glastonbury. Before the levels were drained it must have stood out like a beacon among the marshes and flooded levels.

 The archeology shows that man has used the hill from the Neolithic period, with evidence of buildings through the Saxon period but the main focus is now on the ruined tower of St Michael’s Church survived until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 when, except for the tower, it was demolished The Tor was the place of execution where Richard Whiting, the last Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, was hanged, drawn and quartered along with two of his monks, John Thorne and Roger James. Not a nice way to end, and quite possibly they didn’t agree with Henry’s new order.

 But now the views from the top are fantastic. This is looking towards the Mendips, where Chedar Gorge can be found.