Folklore of Cornish Holy Wells
Holy Wells are wonderful places to visit. They exude the mystery and enchantment of the landscape, and can talk to us, bringing history and folklore alive. If you sit by a holy well for a while, they can bring a stillness and tranquility to our lives, and the liminal nature of these places can allow us a glimpse of another world. A world of miracles, fey-folk and magic.
There are 238 recorded holy wells in Cornwall, according to the Heritage Gateway, and roughly half of these are still in a reasonable state of repair. There are 135 listed by Cheryl Straffon in her book Fentynyow Kernow.
The subject of holy wells has become very fashionable in recent years, as the Holy Wells of Cornwall Facebook page will attest, and many more people are now visiting the sacred wells of Cornwall and elsewhere. But what separates a holy well from a drinking well and shouldn’t all water be seen as sacred and life giving?
In more ancient times a well or spring would have been a very important place for a community, giving access to fresh drinking water. These places in the landscape would have quickly become incredibly important and because of this, very special. The subject of folklore arises from everyday and mundane activities from the past, which over the centuries have become embellished through word of mouth story telling from one generation to the next. What once may have been an everyday mundane occurrence, such as collecting water from the old spring on the edge of the forest, has become something more, something special and even sacred! Add a Celtic saint or mythical beast and the well becomes even more of a place of wonder.
So when does a ‘well’ become a ‘holy well’? The three criteria commonly used today to separate these ancient fountains are:
1. Does the well have a saintly dedication?
2. Is the well associated with a nearby church?
3. Are there any folkloric tales linked specifically to the spring?
Source material and books
The source material for most of this talk has come from ‘Ancient and Holy Wells of Cornwall’ by Mabel and Lilian Quiller-Couch. Mabel and Lilian compiled this book in the early 1890s from the extensive notes left by their father, Thomas Quiller-Couch. This important book is invaluable for anyone interested in the holy wells of Cornwall, and it contains lots of folklore recorded first hand by Thomas Quiller-Couch during the middle of the nineteenth century, plus many additions by Mabel and Lilian. Other books I have consulted include ‘Fentynyow Kernow’ by Cheryl Straffon, (1998). ‘Secret Shrines’ by Paul Broadhurst and ‘The Healing Wells, Cornish Cults and Customs’ by P.O. and D. V. Leggat (1987). Plus ‘Celtic Saints in their Landscape’ by Elizabeth Rees and Lives of the Saints: Cornwall and Devon by Nicholas Roscarrock.
Shared folklore themes
Many holy wells have folklore asking visitors to leave an offering. St Non’s well at Pelynt has folklore stating that visitors should leave an offering, or the piskies (embodying the spirits of the dead) will follow you home. The tying of bits of cloth or other such stuff known as ‘Clouties’ is now common. Cornish dialect referred to these ‘clouties’ as ‘jowds’ (rags). Unfortunately the practice has now taken on an element of littering, with unsightly plastic and other non biodegradable tat being left, which completely misses the point. Cornish folklorist William Bottrell (1880), describes the practice at Madron Well:
“a piece rented off from some part of the clothes worn by the child or any other person using the Well, must be left near the water for good luck; ever so small a bit will do; this is mostly placed out of sight, alongside of the stream which runs from the Well”.
This practice was one of sympathetic magic - as the cloth rotted away, so the illness would diminish.
Quiller Couch (1894) records a strange custom where: “At some wells a cross of rushes or straw is floated on the surface of the water, to sink or swim as Fate decides. Coins were also left on a niche in the well, or cast into its waters as an offering; this custom seems to have entirely disappeared in Cornwall at least, although at one well, Jesus Well, St. Minver, it was a distinctly remembered practice: it was probably a much older custom than the dropping in of pins; for setting aside the fact that pins were not in use until the sixteenth century, there is never any mention in the old accounts of the skewers of wood or bone of former days being among the offerings to the naiad.”
There is, however some recorded folklore from the Fairy Well at Lelant, regarding bent pins as offerings. Again - Quiller-Couch (1894) records that people would go the well and throw bent pins into the water and make a wish.
In the west of Cornwall is a now revived tradition of Dolly Dunking or Baptism of the dolls. In the 1920s Cornish antiquarian A. K. Hamilton Jenkin wrote about an old custom for people to visit a particular well on Good Friday with their children to baptise their dolls. At the time of writing, he noted that the tradition was starting to die out, and by the middle of the century there is no record of it taking place at all. This custom has now been revived and takes place every Good Friday at Fenton Bebibell, on the Penwith Moors. There is also a similar revived custom at Figgy Dowdy’s Well, on Carn Marth, near Redruth and there is an old rhyme referring to the well which goes:
Figgy Dowdy had a well, on the top of Carn Marth hill, She kept it locked by night and day, Lest people should take her water away.
So probably best not to take any water away with you.
Bowsenning is a local dialect term for a custom or ceremony where people are immersed into the waters of the well to obtain a cure from insanity, or in some instances to receive the blessing of the holy wells saint. Several Cornish wells share this theme including St Cleer, Altarnun, The lost well of St Agnes at Chapel Porth and St Gundred’s well at Roche. Dupath well house is said to contain the remains of an immersion pool, where cures were sought.
The striking of a staff
Another traditional piece of folklore which is shared by some of the Cornish Holy Wells is that of water miraculously bubbling up from where staffs were struck into the ground. This is usually connected to a saint, such as St Samson and St Petroc.
Healing and miracle cures
The most common theme across the folklore Cornish holy wells is the theme of healing. Eye cures are very common, but many other illnesses could be cured by the sacred springs of Cornwall. Skin complaints, rickets and even madness are all documented.
The Holy Wells
I have deliberately chosen to document some of my favourite Cornish holy wells, and have concentrated on those with interesting folklore and localised oral traditions, mainly from mid and east Cornwall. I have split this section into three themes: Dark wells, Saintly wells, and wells of good fortune.
St Cuby, Duloe
It is said that Cuby was born in Callington in around 480 AD. He set up a chapel by an ancient spring and carved a bowl with his favourite creatures seen on his travels.
When Cuby had finished carving he was very pleased with his creation; the little spring flowed into the granite basin, with dolphins carved about the edge and a griffin on the bottom section. Cuby decided to place a curse on the bowl, as he was concerned that it would be stolen. Therefore any one who had the arrogance to take Cuby’s basin from its holy site would suffer a terrible fate. For many generations the well’s neighbours respected the curse and left the font alone. Then one year, a nearby farmer decided to test the curse. He thought the tale about the cursed basin to be complete nonsense, so he took four of his prize oxen and a rope and set off for the holy well. On reaching the well the farmer tied strong ropes around the granite basin, and hitched them to his beasts. As they began to take the strain all of the oxen fell down dead on the ground. The curse had struck and the farmer had lost his greatest beasts. With this he returned to his farm with neither oxen nor his prize. In spite of this tradition, however, the basin has been moved, probably when the new road was cut, and was taken to the bottom of the woods on the Trenant estate; it now resides in the parish church, though it is not known if anyone has suffered the curse because of this.
Tregenna Chapel Holy Well, Blisland
Quiller-Couch reported that the well water was good for sore eyes, and that the field next to the woods, where the chapel stands is cursed against anyone who ploughs the land for crops.
“From generation to generation it has been believed that it should never be broken for tillage, and that whenever this was done some frightful disaster would befall the family of the person by whom the act was committed. This year (1878) there was grown in it a crop of corn; and in the time of harvest the son of the farmer, a boy of about ten years of age, whilst climbing up to take down a scythe, fell, together with the scythe, and falling on it cut his knee so severely that it was found necessary to amputate the leg above it, thus strengthening the superstition.”
This story is still told in Tregenna, and last year a resident told me that there was a farmer years ago, who ploughed the field above the chapel and within hours of doing it broke his leg so the field is still cursed and hasn’t been touched since.
St Nonna’s Well, Altarnun
This well was once thought to have curative properties for the mentally ill. In former times the well served as a bowsening pool, which the unfortunates thought to be mad were thrown into it order to effect a cure. After immersion in the water, patients were then carried into the church for mass. Arthur H. Norway describes the practice in his Highways and Byways in Devon and Cornwall, published in 1904,
“The water running from St. Nunne’s Well fell into a square and close-walled plot, which might be filled at what depth they listed. Upon this wall was the frantic person set to a stand, his back towards the pool; and from thence, with a sudden blow in the breast, tumbled headlong into the pond, where a strong fellow, provided for the lunatic, took him and plunged him up and down, across the water, until the patient, by forgoing his strength, had somewhat forgotten his fury. Then was he conveyed to the church, and certain masses sung over him; upon which handling, if his right wits returned, St. Nunne had the thanks; but if there appeared small amendment, he was bowsened again and again while there remained in him any hope of life or recovery.”
According to Robert Hunt “The 2nd of March is dedicated to St Nun, and the influence of the water is greatly exalted on that day.”
St.Cleer Well lies in the heart of the village, a short distance from the church and the impressive well house is built of granite. Like St Nonna’s at Altarnun, the well was reputed to cure madness by repeated immersion. The well house was knocked down during the Civil War, 1642–1651, and Thomas Quiller-Couch reported that it was still in a ruined condition in 1850 and a local legend states that if any of the granite blocks were ever removed or stolen they would mysteriously find their own way back at night. The well house was restored in 1864. Thomas Quiller-Couch made enquiries as to any folklore associated with the well, but was only told “that there were many strange stories about it, and that it was still held to have miraculous virtues”
St Nuns or the Piskey well, Pelynt
This beautiful well sits on the side of a steep hill overlooking the Looe Valley at Hobb’s Park, Pelynt. The localised name appears to have been St. Ninnie's Well or the Piskies well. This well was rebuilt by Thomas Quiller-Couch, who recorded an old story from this well, which is remarkably similar to the tale told at St Cubys.
“An old farmer once set his eyes upon the granite basin, and coveted it; for it was not wrong in his regard to convert the holy font to the base uses of the pigsty. One day he drove his oxen and wain to the gateway above, with intent to remove it. Taking his beasts to the entrance of the well, and fixing his chains around the sculptured trough, he tried to drag it from its ancient bed. For a long time it resisted the tugs of the oxen, but at length they started it and pulled it laboriously up-hill to where the wain was standing. When nearly up it burst away from the chains, rolled down towards the well, and, making a sharp turn, rolled into its own old place. No one will again venture to displace it, seeing that ... a man thriving and well-to-do in the world never prospered from that day forward. Indeed, retribution overtook him on the spot, the oxen falling dead, and their owner being struck lame and speechless. No one since has been hardy enough to try the removal of the font.”
The well is famed for being used for divination, and bent pins were left in the bowl as an offering.
The Piskey legend
The well is reputed to be guarded by an elf, and during the 1960s the Rev. A. Lane-Davies recorded how an old lady was horrified when her children brought home eight pennies they had found in the well. Greatly agitated, she sent them back instantly, saying she would not have piskeys in her house for untold gold. And a Pelynt girl told a story about anyone who visited the well without leaving an offering would be followed home by clouds of piskeys, in the guise of small night-flying moths, believed to embody spirits of the dead. So if you do visit this well, maybe consider a small offering of a small coin or a bent pin.
This beautiful well-house, sited in the valley below Kit Hill is the largest in Cornwall. It was built about 1500, by the Augustinian canons of nearby St German’s priory and stands over an ancient spring, believed to cure whooping cough. The well house contains the remains of an immersion pool for cure-seekers.
A legend is attached to the well house that explains why it was built. There was a duel between two rival suitors for the hand of a local maiden. Gotlieb, a wealthy gentleman was the preferred choice of the lady's father, whilst the fair maiden herself loved a poor knight, Sir Colan. The fight was long and hard, but eventually Gotlieb was killed. Sir Colan then built the well to atone for his sins, but he soon died from a mortal wound inflicted during the fight.
St Swithin’s holy well, Launcells
Known as St Swithins in the Dell, this is a beautiful holy well, set amidst beautiful woodland, which according to the church guide, pre-dates the church. Local oral tradition states that the Holy men of Hartland Abbey who raised the first great granite walls here, can still be heard chanting by the well. As with many Cornish wells, the water has the tradition of soothing sore eyes, and of general healing qualities and legend states that the well has never run dry. Nicholas Orme has St Andrew as the church saint as far back as 1403, so quite why Swithin is now listed is a bit of a mystery.
St Petroc, Bodmin
The holy well of St Petroc, Bodmin lies in a hollow at the edge of Priory Park, and although it was restored in 2002, ironically it is now flooded due to the towns flood alleviation scheme, which in itself, paved the way for the restoration. Only the top lintel is now visible. However the well does have a wonderful tale attached to it. During the early part of the 20th century a wooden statue of St Mary was found hidden in the well. It is believed that it was hidden in the well from Cromwell’s troops during the Civil War. The statue was found to be in a remarkable state of preservation, maybe due to the miraculous virtues of the well? This remarkable statue was given to the Catholic community in 1908, and was sent to Buckfast Abbey for preservation and minor repairs. It is now kept at St Mary’s Abbey in Bodmin.
The miracles of Petroc are well documented. Two stories are told about Petroc and dragons. In one he showed kindness to a dragon by taking a splinter from its eye. In the other he banished the last dragon from Cornwall. It was terrorising the people in and around Padstow, so he bound his belt around it, led it into the sea and allowed it to swim away. Petroc arrived in Cornwall in 518 AD. He sailed into the Camel estuary and on his arrival he asked the inhabitants for a drink, they refused, so Petroc simply tapped his staff on the ground and a fresh water spring rose forth. This particular miracle is recorded in Nicholas Roscarrock’s Lives of the Saints, but surprisingly no holy well seems directly connected to this tale. However there are a few holy wells around Padstow, so maybe one of these has lost this wonderful folkloric tale?
The holy well in St Petroc’s church yard in Bodmin was at one time also dedicated to St Petroc, though now has a dedication of St Guron, who founded the site a few years before Petroc arrived. The holy well’s source rises under the church, and flows through the well house and then out into a drinking trough via two gargoyles. Though I wouldn’t fancy drinking this now, as heavy traffic from the towns main road rushes past within a few feet.
Petroc also had a cell at Little Petherick two miles south of Padstow. This is the spot in the wilderness that is frequently mentioned by his biographers that he retreated to. Here he built a little mill fed by the water of a creek which flows into the Camel, and a hermitage cell and chapel. He spent much time standing up to his neck in the water of the muddy creek, reciting Psalms.
Cornwall Historic Environment Record does list a well at this location, but places it in a different location. The research continues on this possible lost holy well. It was somewhere in the vicinity of this well at Little Petherick that Petroc saved a Stag from the hunt. King Constantine was leading the chase, when Petroc stepped in and called to the stag. The animal hid behind Petroc and Constantine was so in awe he converted to Christianity on the spot. The road by the church is said to be haunted by the ghost of a robed monk-like figure. Some say it is Saint Petroc himself.
St Columba the Virgin, Ruthvoes
Columba was the daughter of King Lodan and Queen Manigild, both pagans. She became a Christian when the Holy Ghost appeared to her in the form of a dove. The Latin word for dove is 'columba'. When she refused to marry a pagan prince, her parents had her imprisoned. She escaped with the help of an angel and took ship for Cornwall but was followed by the prince. She landed at Trevelgue Head and was pursued through the forest which is now Porth Beach, and fled up the valley, past Rialton and Treloy until she was captured at Ruthvoes, two miles south of St Columb Major. There the prince cut off her head, and where the blood fell a spring gushed forth and the water following the course of her flight made the still unnamed river which empties itself on the north coast at Porth.
Orme points out that Ruthvoes meaning derives from the Cornish for "red bank", whose red soil may have suggested the location and manner of the martyrdom. She was buried at nearby St. Columb Major. Her feast falls on 11th November.
St Keyne’s well
St Keyne was a pious virgin and one of the many saintly daughters of King Brychan of Brecon. She may have lived at Keynsham in Somerset, but founded St Keyne in Cornwall, (among other sites) in the late 5th century, and left her name to a church and a well there. The holy wells waters are said to give the upper hand to whichever of two newlyweds drinks the holy water first. St Keyne is said to have planted four trees at the well, oak, elm, ash and willow. All which were thought to have grown from one root.
St Samson’s holy well, Golant
St Samson, a sixth century saint landed in Cornwall from Wales at the Camel estuary and travelled south along what is now called the Saints Way, and arrived at Golant, on the banks of the Fowey. The well house by Golant church is lovely and the folklore of St Samson states that it miraculously bubbled forth from where he placed his staff.
Samson performed many miracles whilst in Cornwall and the Golant locals asked him if he could rid their creek-side village of a fierce serpent that lived in a cave by the river. Samson found the cave and entered its dark interior, and upon disturbing the serpent, Samson wrapped his girldle around the creature’s neck, and catapulted it into the river. The serpent was never seen again. Samson then claimed the cave as his own. However he soon realised that he needed fresh water, so he tapped the roof of the cave with his staff and from that day forth, fresh water has flowed into the cave.
Wells of Good Fortune
Pipe well, Liskeard
This miraculous healing spring, formerly known as St Martin’s Well, was first mentioned in the Borough documents in the 14th century. According to Margaret Courtney in "Cornish Feasts and Folklore" there was a lucky stone which stood in the well, and if couples stood on the stone and drank the water, they would have a happy and successful married life. The stone also conferred magical powers to anyone who touched it. The following account of St. Martin's Well is from “the History of Cornwall” compiled by Hitchens and edited by Drew:
"There is a house standing near the bottom of the town, which from its windows, gateway, and sculptured ornaments, appears to have been formerly connected with some religious establishment. Near this building issues the spring which supplies the inhabitants with water. The excellency of this salubrious fountain is deservedly held in high estimation. Conscious of its intrinsic value, the credulous inhabitants of former ages attributed to it some miraculous virtues, which fancy still continues to cherish with fondness, even to the present day. The source whence this water issued is acknowledged to be involved in a kind of indefinite mystery, so that even curiosity is content to let it remain unexplored. The stream on becoming visible is divided into three parts, all of which have some peculiar efficacy; but one branch far surpasses the others in its potent qualities. A stone that is deposited in the well is presumed by tradition to have a considerable influence over the matrimonial connections of any fortunate female, who, under given circumstances, and at an appointed time, shall have the happiness to touch it with her foot. These tales are still kept alive, and the ceremonials are practised by the young and thoughtless to the present hour."
Jesus well, St Minver
According to Robert Charles Hope's The Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England (1893), the spring was visited by children suffering from whopping-cough, Quiller-Couch adding that children were dipped in the water. Quiller-Couch also tells us that:
“People came from long distances to pay their devotions and use the waters, which were celebrated for many cures, and for the evils which befell scoffing unbelievers. Its virtues continued till late years. No longer ago than 1867, Mary Cranwell….who for a considerable period had suffered severely from a skin disorder, and could obtain no relief from medical treatment, fully believing, as she stated to the author, from the repute of the well, that if she bathed in the water with faith she would be cured of her disease, went to the place, and kneeling beside the well recited the Litany to the Holy Name of Jesus, and bathed the diseased parts in the waters. She received relief from the first application; and repeating it the prescribed number of three times, at intervals; she became perfectly whole, and has never since suffered from the same malady.”
Quiller-Couch continues…. “Coins were also left on a niche in the well, or cast into its waters as an offering; this custom seems to have entirely disappeared in Cornwall at least, although at one well, Jesus Well, St. Minver, it was a distinctly remembered practice”
The wells folkloric origins are from an unknown Celtic saint, who whilst travelling the area, became thirsty and struck his staff into the ground. The water bubbled up miraculously and the saint was able to drink. Maybe this is the origin for the story of Petroc and his staff that we spoke about earlier?
The Fairy well, Lelant
The Fairy well, Lelant is dramatically situated high above Porth Kidney sands and is dedicated to St Euny. This enchanting well, which emerges from a rocky basin, before tumbling down to the beach far below, is widely known as a wishing well. To make the wishes work though, you must ask for them silently, never uttering them aloud. St Euny was celebrated at Lelant on February 1st. This well is very much hidden amongst the trees and foliage in its cliff side location. A truly elemental well.
Close by the well, the cliffs between Carbis Bay and Lelant are haunted by a peculiar humanoid figure called the “Cliff Creature”, who is seen walking with a strange swaying motion towards the cliff edge, only to disappear over the edge. He appears human but has a huge round head. Maybe he is the elemental spirit of the cliffs?
Holywell Bay and Cubert
The well in the cave at Holywell is one of the most unique holy wells in Britain. Only reached at low tide, this remarkable well is truly bound by the elements. The qualities of this healing place have seen miraculous cures over the centuries. The legend regarding the well is, that in olden times, mothers on Ascension Day brought their deformed or sickly children here, and dipped them in, at the same time passing them through the aperture connecting the two cisterns; and thus, it is said, they became healed of their disease or deformity. It would seem that other classes also believed virtue to reside in its water; for it is said that the cripples were accustomed to leave their crutches in the hole at the head of the well.
"This well has Nature only for its architect, no mark of man's hand being seen in its construction ; a pink enamelled basin, filled by drippings from the stalactitic roof, forms a picture of which it is difficult to describe the loveliness. What wonder, then, that the simple folk around should endow it with mystic virtues?" Thomas Quiller Couch.
Richard Polwhele, writing in 1803, is clear that it is the sea cave that pilgrims visited. He says: "In this parish (St Cuthbert) is that famous and well-known spring of water, called Holy Well, so named, the inhabitants say, for that the virtues of this water were first discovered on All Hallow's Day. The same stands in a dark cavern of the sea cliff rocks, beneath full sea-mark on spring tides. The virtues of the waters are, if taken inward, a notable vomit, or as a purgent. If applied outward, it presently strikes in, or dries up, all itch, scurf, dandriff, and such-like distempers in men or women. Numbers of persons in summer season frequent this place and waters from countries far distant. It is a petrifying well.” History of Cornwall, Richard Polwhele.
A legend of this well tells us that in 995 AD, Alchun, Bishop of Holy Island, took up the corpse of St Cuthbert, who was once abbot of Lindisfarne. In escaping the ravages of the Danish invasion, he and his monks resolved to transport the saint's relics to Ireland, but were driven onto the north coast of Cornwall where they settled and built the church at Cubert. Told by an oracle to take the sacred bones to Durham, they left, but not before the relics accidentally touched the well, communicating healing powers to the waters. However, the parish is named after the 8th century Welsh missionary St Cubert, so some confusion has arisen over the centuries, and the Cuthbert story may have been added to Christianise the sea cave holy well, though I doubt we will ever know for sure.
There is also some confusion to which of these two wells this story is about, though I suspect that it is the well at Trevornick holiday park, rather than the cave well at Holywell Bay. St Cubert’s Well at Trevornick lies by the golf course at the back of the holiday park, with clear footpaths. This holy well has been restored and is very atmospheric. J. Meyrick was of the opinion that the valley site (Trevornick Well) was where monks and pilgrims would stay when they visited and that this was the site of a restored 14th century chapel.