Madron Well in Cornwall
“I loved the healing wells in your book. Are they real?”
A reader who prefers to be anonymous asked that question, and I love getting to respond to it. Though this is a repost republished as part of the great reclamation and rebuild post tragic incident of perfidious hackage, I don’t have its original post date and I have now added new contents, so I’m considering it new.
Where to begin?
First off, healing wells or holy wells are all over the British Isles and elsewhere in the world. They seemed to obvious a connection to my magical world not to use. But I knew nothing about them, other than seeing an occasional reference in books I’d read. So, off on the hunt!
I found many resources–some scholarly and some anecdotal–that gave more information than I’d ever use in the books. But it’s in wading through such references that I find the juicy tidbits that end up giving me delicious new subplots and details for my world, so I dove in with relish!
In researching, I found a beautiful photography book, The Holy Wells of Wales. I had to order it from amazon.co.uk but that is not unusual for me. I love this book, since a photography book [as opposed to an informational book] generally has more emotive and evocative images, the kind that suck me into their world, which is as important for my fiction writing as the information is. The appearance of the wells was different from one to the next, from little trickles from the earth to those that had shrines built around them. They were known as healing wells long before Christians came to these beautiful islands, and holy wells after the idea of the divine shifted.
I read about people going to these wells and praying for help, whether from the goddesses whom the Celts believed to live in and bless the waters, or the Christian saints whose stories often supplanted them. Not only did they sometimes make offerings, they also did things such as tie ribbons to the trees in the area to represent their prayers. Some wells had specific purposes, with a reputation for healing the lame, as an example, and crutches would be found wedged into the rocks, where someone had been healed and had walked away. It wasn’t unusual for a well that had a reputation for curing stomach problems to be analyzed and contain minerals that are soothing and beneficial to the digestive tract. It’s sometimes easy to connect the dots between healing and the belief in holiness.
I also found a number of old writings, and in particular, a 19th Century public domain book also available on Kindle which made it particularly handy for travel: Ancient and Holy Wells of Cornwall. So many wells were written about in this book, and with detailed info on how to get to them–but by paths, villages and farms that were the landmarks over a century ago. And the book emphasized how many were being forgotten and lost as time passes.
I wondered how many were still there, and still remembered, and how many had been swallowed up by history and modernization. Information that was anecdotal was quaint and fascinating, but I wanted to see some of these for myself, and fortunately, were going to Cornwall for research.
I have talked about the magic of the British Isles, that sometimes I feel it all around me, and this became one of those times. We’d been crawling all over the Penwith Peninsula of Cornwall–a small area that is particularly dense with neolithic standing stones, holy wells and more. [There is a story about that, as well, for another time.]
I was a bit overwhelmed about finding the wells, however. Would people laugh at the gullible tourist for asking about such things? It all felt a bit bizarre, as even though we have streams and creeks in Dallas, I have never stumbled across one that had goddesses in it or holy expectations for those who drank the water…
I asked at a small shop if there were any holy wells still in existence, and the next thing I knew, several people in the shop began discussing which well to send us to, which would be easiest to reach, which the most picturesque… It gave me chills, which I am sure would amuse them the way they are usually amused [hopefully] by the emmets. But my source was so old…! And the very concept of holy wells is a bit fanciful and quaint to most Americans who are so far removed from this kind of heritage.
Yeah. I guess the wells are still there! And real!
We ended up at the Madron Well.
The path leading back to it was lovely, and a perfect example of why simply walking down a path in England can make me believe in magic!
[Yes, I am constantly saying that the places I’ve been and paths I’ve walked and experiences I’ve had on my research trips make me believe in magic. Well, they do! They touch a place in my inner child that always saw magic living in these places. Thank you Brothers Grimm, Disney, etc.]
But when we reached the water, I couldn’t breathe.
The trees were covered with clooties or clouties. Ribbons. With mementos. With written requests and prayers. Images of people and even pets being prayed for. Exactly as I’d read would have been there over a century earlier. [Sorry Cornish people, emmet having more chills!]
There was no ‘well’ to be seen, nor bubbling water coming from a spring. If you will look closely at the image, water spreads under the tree as if overflowing from a source a distance away, and sure enough, I found out that the actual water source was further in the wood and only intrepid locals were inclined to go back through the brush to get to it. That said, I was also told of a group of women who took a child to be bathed in the spring in search of healing. The past is present is future…
And, if you walk further, you come to the chapel ruins–a chapel built in the 5th Century. It is very common for holy or healing wells that existed as long as we have records, predating the Christian era, eventually become the sites of Christian chapels, churches, cathedrals, etc. Some claim it was a calculated effort by the early Church to bring the locals to the Christian faith by using as much of their existing spiritual belief as fitted with Christian theology, thus, building their places of worship in those places already associated with the divine. Others believe that the same evocative feelings of miracles, grace, and divinity that drew the first inhabitants to the wells, also spoke to the early Christians. I think it’s a bit of both.
And yes, this does show up in the Fury Triad, but I won’t say how and where and when! Well, I’ll tell you this much, it’s in Untune the Sky.
Madron Chapel has its own little source of running water that was used for baptisms. I am looking for my pictures and will post one when I find it. But Madron Chapel is different from most Christian places of worship. The altar is still inside where you can see it today, after all these centuries. But oddly, this chapel is not aligned the way most Christian places of worship were. Instead, it has “a doorway to the north (unusual in Christian churches as it is sometimes considered the Devil’s Door), an altar to the east and a simple stone font in the southwest corner.” Source.
ETA: One well that shows up in This Crumbling Pageant is St Non’s Well in Wales. When we were on that trip we were within a mile of it–and at the time, I didn’t know about it, or that I’d be using healing wells/holy wells in my book. So frustrating in retrospect, but that’s why I always want to return to a place as soon as I catch my breath at home. The Resident Storm Chaser and I have the same habit–coming home from a new place fascinated, and ready to start investigating and learning more about that wonderful location and its history, and then? We want to go back, because now we know what we missed that we wanted to see but didn’t know it yet!
One issue I have a lot is not knowing what a well might have looked like two hundred years ago. For example, how old are the path, the steps, and the covering of the well? What would they have looked like when the old Ordinary Welsh woman insisted Persephone go up there with her to partake of the holy waters? Sometimes I do have to take literary license that is generally built on what I’ve read about other locations or situations near the same time period.
But that brings us back to the question, “Are the wells real?”
Oh, yes. They are.
And if you ask me, so is the magic.
They still offer hope to people in need of healing or help, as they have for centuries, no matter which deity you worship.
And even if you don’t go to to worship, the beauty is so amazing you will come away happy you stopped to seek it out.
Thank you, anonymous person, for asking! I’m happy to have the opportunity to answer twice.
Remember, if you have a question, just ask!
Also, have you signed up for the newsletter? Big news is coming very soon, and I also include images and info of this sort that may not ever make it to the blog.
I will be reposting more of the “world of the fury triad” posts along with new ones, so watch the lower right corner of the Fury Triad home page for updates, or sign up and get them in your inbox! I will also be adding some of this material to the various volumes of the triad giving background and author notes on the real world behind the world of my creation.