Saturday 21 October 2023

Folklore of Bodmin’s holy wells


Folklore of Bodmin’s holy wells

Alex Langstone

The historic town of Bodmin, has a long and distinguished history. The place-name means abode of monks, from the Cornish language Bod-meneghy, and was once famous for its priory, friary, guild chapels, sacred relics and a 9th century illuminated manuscript. The town has several holy and healing wells, and they have some interesting folklore surrounding them. 

The town's priory park contains the holy well of St Petroc, which lies in a hollow between the football club and Pendower Meadow and was once within the scared enclosure of the former priory. Dedicated to St Mary and St Petroc, little remains of this once great institution, just a few visible foundations, bits of masonry and the fishpond. The well does have a wonderful tale attached to it. During some renovation work in the early part of the 20th century, a wooden statue of St Mary was found concealed in the well. It is believed that it was hidden 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 qualities of the sacred well? The 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 holy well in St Petroc’s churchyard (below) has a dedication to St Guron, the 6th century founder of the site. The holy well’s source rises under the church and flows through the well house and then out into a trough via two gargoyles. Rush crosses were thrown into the well on Good Friday, to confirm who would still be alive at Easter the following year. If the cross floated all was apparently fine.  There is also an early medieval tale told about St Petroc, who miraculously restored the eyesight of a dragon which lived in the valley by the well. 

Nearby, in the town centre lies the Bree Shute which was also known as the Eye Well. The water here was once famed for curing sore eyes, and a plaque above the well still reads ‘Eye Water’. 

On on the edge of the town lies the beautifully secluded Scarletts well. Sited adjacent the Carnewater river it was historically recorded as a mineral rich healing well. Sited by the town’s parish boundary, the well has frequently been visited over successive generations by townsfolk performing the ritual of Beating the Bounds, where an effigy of a dragon was once ceremoniously paraded.   The site is set back into an ivy clad bank, where a spring gushes forth from the hillside and flows into a granite trough which holds the water briefly before its current continues towards the woodland stream. The well was once part of the Priory of Bodiniel and has many stories of healing and miracles associated with it. During the 17th century Richard Carew documented that people flocked to the well for its healing virtues. 

There is some interesting modern folklore attached to Scarletts well, which may have some alluring indications to an older origin. The well is believed to have been used by many of Bodmin’s wise women and charmers, including Nell Parsons, who used the waters to assist in her trade, and her water pitcher (left) now resides in the collection of Boscastle’s Museum of Witchcraft and Magic. The contemporary mythology of Bodmin witch Joan Wytte, tells us that she also utilised the well for scrying, healing and magic.

A few years ago, whilst visiting this well, I struck up a conversation with a local man, who told me that when he was a child, he knew of a tale about a white lady who haunted the leafy lane around the site. I can find no references to back up this statement. However, a curious story is told about St. Whyte, and although this saint has her shrine in Dorset, she may have been venerated at the nearby church of the Holy Rood and has been linked locally to the towns holy wells.  Maybe the tales of Joan Wytte and St Whyte are a folkloric echo of some lost lore of the ghostly white lady of the well? 

Idyllically sited on a farm in Fairwash Coombe lies the Bodmin Holy Well, which was famed for divination.   This ancient holy well is also known as The Well of the Holy Rood. There is no public access to the well, but you can visit the site of the Holy Rood chapel, from whence the well takes its name, and the surrounding cemetery is reputed to be haunted. Berry Tower is the only part of the chapel that is still standing, and an apotropaic charm (below) can be seen scratched inside, no doubt put there to help ward off the restless ghosts around the old churchyard.

Words and photos copyright Alex Langstone. Article first published in Meyn Mamvro Vol. 2 No. 8 Autumn/Winter 2023

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