Late one night in 1972, a couple driving home from Loggerheads to Buckley pulled over on Cadhole Road on the outskirts of Gwernaffield. The driver had the urge to meet a call of nature, and wandered off into the woods beside the road. His wife remained in the car. All was quiet until quite suddenly, from the trees a woman appeared and walked silently but purposefully towards the car - her hair aflame. She made no sound, but simply stood before the car. In a panic, the woman fled from the car, into the woods to find her husband, dropping her handbag in the hullabaloo. Having found each other, the couple returned to the car, to find the woman gone. They hurriedly drove away.
What elevates this haunting tale from that of a simple ghost story to something more interesting, is that the couple were so shaken by the whole episode, that they reported the incident to the authorities. The next morning, the police arrived at the spot to find no sign of the woman, no signs of burning, but recovered the handbag containing some £90, returning it to its rightful owner. While the Buckley couple were apparently unaware of the identity of the woman, locals were clear - this was the ghost of Deborah, a woman whose efforts in the 6th century to prevent the ravages of cholera from killing the people of the villages around Gwernaffield ended in tragedy.
The tale as told is confused, but one which continues to intrigue. The earliest written account of the events surrounding Deborah is from the 1980s, by the councillor and local historian Arthur Smith. Where his information regarding Deborah came from is unclear, but given that Mr Smith was local to his core and pips, it is likely that his writings are based on a local oral tradition. This would certainly explain some of the inconsistencies. Smith’s tale is as follows.
Deborah was said to have been a native of Conlan, a hamlet now known as Cornel to the south west of Gwernaffield, and was believed to have been a ‘white witch’, concerned with caring for the ill, using natural remedies found in her wanderings amongst the woods. Such persons were tolerated for their skills, often tremendously successful, in an age when more mainstream medicine was often borderline murderous. However, such tolerance was often temporary, fickle and entirely dependent on the foibles and superstitions of local people.
The story goes that during an outbreak of cholera in the area, Deborah led those not yet affected to the higher ground above the site of the present memorial, establishing a hospital there. The suggestion has been that Deborah was acting on empirical evidence in removing the villagers from infected water sources in their communities. Here, the villagers managed to avoid the outbreak for some time.
However, eventually, the cholera arrived at the hospital, and the villagers began to die. Predictably, the blame fell upon Deborah, and quickly she became known as a ‘black witch’ - with malice and evil her intent. A villager was sent to destroy the hospital, and set fire to the building. All within were burnt to death, including Deborah - hence the ghostly figure aflame witnessed by the unfortunate Buckley couple in 1972.
There are obvious problems with the story. The given date is problematic. Such an early date for the tale is difficult to credit, without some corroborating evidence, which is lacking. And cholera as a recognised disease is of fairly recent date - in the British Isles a 19th century origin is well established. That is not to say that water borne diseases did not exist much earlier, but a 6th century association has us having to ask some serious questions, especially in such a rural community as Gwernaffield. There are suggestions that the tale as told is actually from the 16th century - an oral tradition of disease, witchcraft and fire is perhaps better suited to this date.
The probability that the origins of this story lie in a well established oral tradition, evolving ever slightly with every telling seems more likely. It has the glamour of such. The existence of Deborah within the landscape is telling. The woods within which the memorial is to be found are called Deborah's Wood, and have been so called as far back as anyone can remember. The name cannot be found on OS maps from the 19th century, but seems to have been recognised within the community before cartographers arrived. There is a field on the other side of the Cadhole Road, opposite to the memorial also named after this ‘white witch’, and a lead shaft a mere stone’s throw from the memorial also carries her name. It is possible that an urban myth evolved to give meaning to these names - but it is just as possible that the names reference a real event, the muscle memory of which exists in this tragic story. But what of the well, you may ask? OS maps from the 19th century show no evidence of a well in the vicinity of the memorial in the woods. Curiously, however, they do indicate a well in the Cornel area, the apparent home of Deborah. A coincidence, perhaps, but an interesting one.
Visited on a cold November morning, snow and sleet in the wind, Deborah’s Well was intensely atmospheric. The memorial itself is a quiet delight - a gently tapered pillar of stones topped with little flowers, raised in 1989 for the community at the expense of the local quarry operators, and at the instigation of Councilor Smith. The memorial rests within a stone edged precinct of sorts, which was once, presumably the well basin. It was no hard thing to imagine hauntings here, no hard thing at all.