‘Beyond the village, and after descending the hillside about a mile, past fir groves, and the leafy woods of Brynbella Hall, I came to the foot of the hill, and a few yards from the road-side stood the inn, grocery-shop, and farm-house known as Ffynnon Beuno, - St Beuno’s Spring or Well.’
The Autobiography of Sir Henry Morton Stanley,p42
Ffynnon Beuno in beautiful Tremeirchion is, by any reckoning, a wonder. Strange then that there would seem to be little evidence of an actual historical connection to tie St Beuno to the village. Still, he is by some distance one of the most important and ubiquitous of the north Walian saints, and so we should not be too surprised to find him here, there and everywhere. There is no doubt that he has had a tremendous impact on the village, since other than the well, there is the nearby Jesuit college and retreat, St Beuno's Ignatian Spirituality Centre, founded in 1848. There is a suggestion that a pupil of Beuno built a foundation here, which is, of course, entirely possible given his influence.
Much of what we know of Beuno comes from a collection of 14th century Welsh scripts. They tell us that he was born in around AD 545 to Bugi ap Gwynllyw and Peren, a daughter of King Lot Luwddoc of Gododdin, in the ancient Kingdom of Powys, probably on the modern Denbighshire, Flintshire border. His early years were spent at Caerwent where he entered holy orders. The next few years were spent at Llanfeuno, in Herefordshire where he founded a religious institution. On hearing that his father was ill, he left Llanfeuno in the hands of three of his disciples and returned to Powys, ensuring that his father died in the good graces of the Lord. While there he created a religious foundation, and planted an acorn by his father’s grave. It grew into a mighty oak, with one branch growing down to the ground, creating a sort of arch. It was said of this arch that, ‘if an Englishman should pass between this branch and the trunk of the tree, he would immediately die; but should a Welshman go, he would in no way suffer’. At another well dedicated to Beuno at Holywell, over the road from his niece’s more famous site, there is another story involving an oak, the attempted removal of which was said to have been a risky business.
Beuno then set up another foundation at Berriew, but left after seeing Saxons hunting across the Severn, believing that this was a sign of a near future invasion. He spent time at Meifod with St Tysilio, and then to Gwyddelwern, after being granted lands by Cynan Gawyn. The church there is dedicated to the Saint. It is said that it was at Gwyddelwern that he raised an Irishman from the dead, the first of seven resurrections he undertook. It was thought that the name of the village took its name from this act (‘Gwyddel’ means Irishman in Welsh), although this is a matter of some continued debate. You might see something of a theme developing here, since Beuno seems to have left Gwyddelwern in anger, having fallen out with Cynan’s grandsons.
He returned to Flintshire, where he agreed to teach his niece, Gwenfrewi (known also as Winefride/Winfred). She decided to take holy orders, much to the fury of her suitor, Caradog, whose advances she declined and who promptly decapitated her as a result. Gwenfrewi’s head is said to have rolled down a hill, and where it came to rest a spring appeared. Beuno replaced Gwenfrewi’s head upon her shoulders and miraculously she was returned to life. The spot at which the spring appeared has since become one of the most celebrated and holy wells in Britain, St Winefride’s at Holywell.
Whilst in Gwynedd, Beuno fell out with its king, Cadwallon, after discovering that the land he had been given for a church was actually owned by someone else. After cursing Cadwallon, a cousin of the king offered Beuno his own lands of Clynnog, so fearful was he of Beuno’s curse. It is at Clynnog in Gwynedd that Beuno is buried, and by the church that would seem far too big for the village it stands within, there is another holy well dedicated to Beuno.
The remains of the stone steps leading down into the tank.
As for Ffynnon Beuno at Tremeirchion, it is situated within the grounds of a small-holding, now a rather splendid and thriving glamping business, welcoming visitors from far and wide, including, on one notable occasion a Nigerian princess and her entourage, eager to view the holy well. It was a tavern in the 19th century before being rebuilt at the end of the 20th century after the original derelict building dating to around 1560 collapsed. It was thoughtfully rebuilt to the original design as far as possible.
The spring rises almost in the house itself, bubbling up into a large rectangular tank measuring roughly 10 feet by 18 feet, with two ruinous steps, probably contemporary to the tank, descending into the waters. Given the chance, the tank fills with about 340000 gallons of spring water before overflowing through the wall and through the remarkable and famous stone head. However, the tank has a drain which means it rarely fills, though a rather modern looking plug is available if one should wish it to. From this basin the waters are drained away underground.
The mysterious, weatered and worn stone head through which the tank overflow is drained.
The large tank would suggest a very real importance, and was undoubtedly used as an immersion pool. Curious then, that there is little evidence that the well had any healing quantities. There are no written records of anyone, in fact, being healed by the waters. That controversial personage, Henry Morton Stanley, Denbigh born and St Asaph raised, lived for some time at Ffynnon Beuno and states in his autobiography, quite plainly that the well had, ‘no virtues beyond purity and sweetness’. It is likely that he would have heard of traditions concerning the well, should those traditions have existed. And before Stanley, Thomas Pennant makes mention of the Church and indeed the Rood of Grace, but nothing of the well. And before Pennant, Dr. Johnson – nothing. Edward Lhuyd makes mention of the well as, ‘Ffynnon Veyno yn nhre’r Graig’, referencing its nearness to the Neolithic cave further up the hill, but again, no mention of cures, or for that matter, the remarkable stone head. Was it then used perhaps as a baptismal font? What explanation can be given for the size, which by any opinion is too large for a simple trough.
And the stone head is absolutely fascinating and rather fabulous. There is an air of the terribly ancient about it, the fearsomely pagan, though there is little evidence to say that it is either. Stanley called it, ‘a rude representation of a human head’, and he is quite right to have done so. Who is it? What is it? It has often been thought of as being representative of a Celtic head cult, but it’s unlikely given that in fact on closer inspection, the head is clearly attached to a set of shoulders and possibly a pair of crossed arms. Of course, it could well have been recycled from a building elsewhere and brought to the well at a later date. Given Beuno’s miraculous reattachment of his niece’s head, could it be St Winefride?What of Beuno himself? Truth is, we will likely never know. Whatever its providence, its weathered weirdness is a delight, a curious presence in a quite glorious place.
Archaeologia Cambrensis, Rev. C.A. Newdigate, (April 1897) p. 108-124
The Autobiography of Sir Henry Morton Stanley, Houghton Mifflin Co. (1909)
The Holy Wells of Wales, Francis Jones, Cardiff, (1954)
An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Wales and Monmouthshire, Flint, London, (1912)