Holywell, Clwyd CH8 7PN
Restored to life at the prayers of her uncle St Beuno, Winefride lived as a nun until her second death some 22 years later. Whatever the exact truth of her legend, Winefride herself was real rather than legendary, and the extraordinary and enduring personality of this 7th-century Welsh woman has meant that she has been venerated as a Saint ever since the moment of her death. Since that time, too, her Well at Holywell has been a place of pilgrimage and healing – the only such place in Britain with a continuous history of public pilgrimage for over 13 Centuries.
A holy well or sacred spring is a spring or other small body of water revered either in a Christian or pagan context, sometimes both. The term holy well is commonly employed to refer to any water source of limited size (i.e. not a lake or river, but including pools and natural springs and seeps), which has some significance in the folklore of the area where it is located, whether in the form of a particular name, an associated legend, the attribution of healing qualities to the water through the numinous presence of its guardian spirit or Christian saint, or a ceremony or ritual centred on the well site. In Christian legend, the water is often said to have been made to flow by the action of a saint, a familiar theme especially in the hagiography of Celtic saints.
In ancient Greece and Rome a nymphaeum or nymphaion (Greek: νυμφαίον), was a monument consecrated to the nymphs, especially those of springs.
In England, there are examples of reverence for wells and springs at a variety of historical periods. The medieval traveller William of Worcester saw a ‘holy-hole, or well’ within the cave at Wookey (Somerset), a site of human habitation in the Palaeolithic era and the source of a river which had been the site of ritual activity. The proximity of named springs to Neolithic or Iron Age monuments, such as the Swallowhead Springs, close to Silbury Hill (Wiltshire) or the Holy Well near Tadmarton Hill (Oxfordshire), suggests that reverence for such sites continued without a break. There is abundant evidence for the importance of wells and springs in the Roman and sub-Roman period, not just at temple complexes such as Bath (Somerset), Chedworth (Gloucestershire), and Blunsdon Ridge (Wiltshire) which have medicinal springs at their centre, but a variety of smaller sites, and at wells and ritual shafts used for superstitious and sub-religious rituals.
Saint Inans Well, Irvine, Scotland. Dated 839 AD.
Christianity strongly affected the development of holy wells in Europe and the Middle East. Aside from the spring that issued from the staff of Moses and the Well of Beersheba, there were already a number of sites mentioned in Jewish and Christian folklore, including Moses’ well near Mount Nebo, visited by the fourth-century nun Egeria and many other pilgrims. St Athanasius’ Life of St Antony, written about 356–62, mentions the well created by the desert hermit Antony. It is unclear how many Christian holy wells there may have been, as records are very fragmentary and often a well appears only once, making it impossible to tell when reverence for it began and when it ceased, but by the Reformation England, for instance, probably possessed some hundreds. As they were closely linked with the cults of the saints, many wells in countries that converted to Protestant forms of Christianity fell into disuse and were lost, the Holy Well at Walsingham (Norfolk) being a good example, which, having been an integral element of the pilgrimage to the shrine of the Virgin Mary in the village, vanished completely. Nevertheless, this particular holy well at the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham was restored nearby the original site and its water is known for its healing properties, thus making it a popular site of Christian religious pilgrimage. Visiting of wells for therapeutic and entertainment purposes did not completely die out, however, as spas became fashionable in the 17th century and later. Eventually antiquarians (from the 17th century) and folklorists (from the 19th) began to take notice of holy wells and record their surviving traditions. Over a hundred holy wells exist in Cornwall, each associated with a particular saint, though not always the same one as the dedication of the church.