When is a well a holy well? It’s a question that often gets asked, but not often addressed very well (unintentional pun – but read on).
Helen Fox, member of the Tamar Dowsers and resident of nearby Bodmin Moor, has embarked on a sequential pilgrimage to visit all of the holy wells of Cornwall.
She has located and visited about 250 so far, but still has a very long way to go – both numerically and logistically.
Inspired by the unique concept of water and places that are both functional and sacred, and aided by the vast platform of work and information already provided by Cheryl Straffon, Helen has set out to document – and to experience – all of the Holy Wells in Kernow for herself.
Her first problem was to find them. While many are quite well (that word again) described, still used and reasonably accessible, many others are sadly overgrown, derelict or even destroyed. One of Helen’s primary aims is to improve the lot of every site she encounters or finds – to leave the holy place in a better condition that she finds it. Angie Kibble, who is embarking on a similar quest in Devon concurred that so many of them are in a poor state of repair, or are on the brink of disappearing altogether.
So, how has this sad state of affairs come about? At the time Holy Wells were in their heyday (in the Christian era, from maybe the sixth century onwards) sources of pure water, let alone water with healing properties, would have been hugely valuable and their efficacy doubtless attributed to the divine. These places became associated with ‘Saints’ – probably holy men and women, monks and nuns, often from the sister lands of Ireland, Wales and Brittany.
In a time before a modern understanding of medicine, water with curative powers would have been greatly revered – and in a region affected by natural mineral pollution, water that was safe to drink by animals and humans alike would have been essential to their mutual health and well-being. Today, piped water is taken for granted (at least in more developed countries), over-the-counter remedies for everyday maladies are available and affordable, while more serious illnesses can be referred to the NHS or complementary practitioners. This may not have been quite the case in the days of St Petroc or St Piran.
While dowsing implies that most holy wells and sacred springs are ancient by human timescales, it is probable that their continued existence in the hugely socially-modified landscape is largely due to the sanctity bestowed on the tiny aquatic shrines by those early Christian Saints and their successors.
As the Saints themselves have passed into an ever more distant historical period, the location and purpose of these special water sources has faded with them. Helen has found that significant numbers of the dedicated wells and springs mentioned in old manuscripts or indicated on ancient maps have now been lost (at least visually). For the dowser, it would be an interesting challenge to seek out and investigate some of the energies, or the absence of them, at former Holy Well locations – but that will need to be a project for another day.
Many Holy Wells are associated (either in fact or folklore) with healing or revelation. People may have had, or may have seen, the personal experience of maladies being mitigated – and it only takes a couple of such occurrences for a site to become revered and revisited. Pilgrimage routes have developed around just such miraculous manifestations, and the journey to the source can become as important as the object of the quest.
Holy wells are often associated with the healing of certain types of illness. A few (including the one at nearby Altarnun) are said to cure madness, while several are believed to be beneficial to those with eye problems. Whether this is due to the mineral content of the water or to the spiritual/informational effect of attending the site is a debateable point. As ever with such situations, dowsing indicates there are many factors at work – at a physical, a psychological and a psychic level. How transformational change unfolds probably depends on your own philosophy, but if it works without endangering anyone else, why knock it?
Indeed, does the very word for such a site derive from its positive purpose – or is it the other way around? Well, well – so many questions!
Helen describes the sensation of being at a Holy Well as the abundance of the earth goddess rising up and flowing out into the landscape. While a more pedantic view might explain it as the presence of a certain configuration of earth energy, water and ley features, the experience is much the same. It is a place of great positive energy, emanating from deep in the planet’s crust, and available to all those with a sincere will and an open heart to perceive and receive it.
Helen has found some wells that are almost too strong to approach, while others have been so wondrously magnetic that it is difficult to leave them behind. She also relates how much the ambient environment around a well can be improved by a judicious bit of undergrowth clearing, litter removal and general TLC. Sacred sites are always a heady admixture of the naturally beneficial and the loving devotion of the human realm. A spot that feels good, maybe for some very down-to-earth reasons, can develop a sense and a persona of its own – a symbiosis of planet and person across a number of levels.
Many thanks to Helen for taking time out to talk to us about this fascinating subject – and, as ever, to all those who helped to stage the event.
Nigel Twinn Tamar Dowsers, February 2017
The two volumes of Helen’s Cornish Saints and Holy Wells – and her set of Oracle Cards based on the subject matter – can be obtained from: