The holy well of St. Winefride – ‘Santes Gwenffrewi’ in her native language of Welsh – is just outside the eponymously named town of Holywell on the north Wales coast. The natural spring is said to have come forth from the earth in the 7th century, on the exact spot that St. Winefride was murdered and subsequently – and miraculously – brought back to life. In the centuries that followed, up to the present day, pilgrims have visited the shrine to benefit from the healing powers of the holy water. Quite apart from its reputed healing powers, the shrine is a very beautiful place, worth visiting to appreciate its history and character.
There are various tellings of St. Winefride’s story, and as this blog is about my own experiences of visiting places of interest rather than providing a detailed history of those places, I think the very concise version on the shrine’s website offers enough background to provide a context. The full history of the shrine is fascinating and well worth further reading for those who want to know more.
‘Winefride (Gwenfrewi) was the daughter of a local prince named Tewyth and his wife Gwenlo. Her uncle was St. Beuno.
One day, around the year 630, Caradoc, a chieftain from Hawarden attempted to seduce Winefride. She ran from him towards the church which had been built by her uncle. Caradoc pursued her and cut off her head. In the place where her head fell, a spring of water came up. St. Beuno came out from the church, took up her head and placed it back on her body. He then prayed and raised her to life. A white scar encircled her neck, witness to her martyrdom. Caradoc sank to the ground and was never seen again.
Winefride became a nun and …. joined a community at Gwtherin where she became the Abbess. She died there some 22 years later.
Pilgrimage to St Winefride’s Well has taken place throughout the 1,300 years since St Winefride was restored to life. It is of great historic significance that the crypt was not destroyed during the reformation of the middle ages and that pilgrims continued to come despite the threat of persecution which existed for those practising the Catholic faith.
Pilgrims have come to St Winefride’s Well throughout its history, to seek healing. Records dating back hundreds of years are testimony to the many cures from sickness and infirmity received through the intercession of St Winefride and the stories who have come in thanksgiving for healing for themselves or others.‘
The entrance or ‘Mynedfa’ in Welsh, leads into a shop/ information centre and very small exhibition centre. The original museum – also on site – is no longer open to the public but still stores a wealth of artefacts and historical documents. Entrance is just £1.
The tiny exhibition/information centre holds a small number of historical objects and offers a detailed history of the site.
The holy water from the well is piped to a tap for those pilgrims who don’t wish to bathe in the waters but still would like to benefit from its healing powers.
Although the spring is said to date back to around 630, the crypt within which it is enclosed was built in the early 16th century in the Late Perpendicular Gothic style. It is a grade 1 listed building and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
It’s interesting that construction of the crypt is attributed to Margaret Beaufort, grandmother of Henry VIII, and the direct Tudor connection could explain why the site was not destroyed during the Reformation when saints, relics and pilgrimages fell out of favour.
The metal barriers around the outer bathing pool spoiled the effect somewhat, and I felt it was sad that it was judged necessary for them to be there. Perhaps the pool had been used inappropriately in the recent hot weather or, for health & safety reasons, access needed to be carefully controlled and monitored. The area is covered by CCTV and I witnessed the speedy arrival of one of the staff when two young people took the plunge an hour before the final access time of the day, scheduled for 3 pm. Two earlier 30 minute windows are scheduled for 11 am and 1 pm.
The inner pool – the site of the spring, the crypt and a tiny chapel make up the sanctuary. A changing area is connected to the chapel for the convenience of any visitors who wish to bathe in the outer pool.
The inner pool is architecturally splendid and looks quite oriental. It’s a very tranquil place, the spring bubbling continuously and the water absolutely clear.
The wonderful vaulted ceiling hosts some intriguing grotesques
The stone columns around the inner pool bear the engravings of pilgrims who have visited over the last 400 years. Some of the older inscriptions are too faded to make out but there are numerous testimonies to the curative powers of the sacred water.
The stone bed of the inner pool is littered with coins. I haven’t read anywhere that such offerings are customary – or welcomed – but neither is there a sign requesting that visitors refrain. Perhaps a member of staff periodically gathers up the offertory. It’s interesting to me that there is the connection to the lore of the wishing well, a merging of religion and folk tradition. A wish or a prayer; it’s a fine line that separates.
Whilst having no plan to bathe ourselves, we were content to sit on one of the wooden benches, enjoying the sunny afternoon and the peaceful, contemplative mood and surroundings. Shortly before 3 pm, people started to arrive , in pairs and small groups, some carrying towels and carrier bags. Some went into the changing room whilst others removed outer garments at the side of the pool. I had the impression that some of these were regulars who were focused and well-practised in this ritual. A few seemed less confident or were perhaps more self-conscious and took their time to build up to the immersion. Interestingly – and to my surprise – all were young, late teens to mid 40s. Three young women, seemingly not new to this, went into the water fully clothed. It’s just as well it was a hot day, though perhaps they would have done the same in the cold, their discomfort perhaps part of their petition.
Feeling slightly voyeuristic but completely intrigued, we watched the bathers in the pool. Most completed ‘laps’ of the perimeter, quietly uttering prayers and fingering rosary beads as they waded their way slowly through the chest-high water. Others, including what looked like a teenage boy and his father, took deep breaths before submerging themselves in the pool, emerging seemingly exhilarated. One woman seemed very emotional, which made me feel even more of a voyeur. Having accomplished their goal, some quickly towelled themselves down, returned to their cars and drove away, further adding to the impression that this was not an unusual activity for them. A few, possibly first-timers, remained in the grounds, apparently wanting to soak up more of the positive energy – or just the sunshine.
My visit showed how the well of St. Winefride clearly still has deep spiritual and personal significance in the 21st century; miracles are still real and obtainable to those who believe in them and in the associated rituals. It also made me mindful of the continuum of old beliefs, changing through the ages but essentially the same: sacred water coming up from the earth; springs devoted to the goddess and the divine feminine; wishes and prayers for healing, then as now. Maybe we haven’t changed that much after all.