Of all the holy wells of Wales, few if any are as well documented as Ffynnon Ddeier. This is largely through Ddeier’s association with the famous British saint, Winefride. In around 1138, the relics of St Winefride were translated from her abbey at Gwytherin to Shrewsbury Abbey by its prior, Robert, who then began a Vita, a Life of St Winefride. ‘Vita Sanctae Wenefredae’ was produced sometime after 1138.
Robert tells of a rather curious journey across Denbighshire by Winefride, in which she visits St Ddeier at Bodfari. In a later English translation of the ‘Life’ by John Falconer (1635), the reason is described thus:
‘S. Wenefride hauing in earnest prayer recommended her journey to God, was inspired to goe with her companion, to one Deifer a holy Man, liuing at Botauar, who should further direct her. This man was indeed, for his Sanctity in those dayes, & miraculous testimonies therof, famously renowned; for by his prayers he had raised out of the ground a goodly spring in a place that was dry before, & obteyned likewise of God, that the water thereof should haue a supernaturall force to cure all soares & diseases of such as did drinke therof, or wash their soares therewith'.
And so we are introduced to both St Ddeier and his well. It is worth noting that Robert and later translations do not mention specific practices that have become synonymous with the well, those mentioned by Edward Lhuyd at the end of the 17th century, such as the offerings of fowl and the well’s apparent ability to heal children. He does however, tell us of one other miracle associated with Ddeier, that of the lighting of candles in the church at Bodfari.
Yet, this meeting of Winefride and Ddeier is curious in itself, since by all accounts it simply could not have happened. Ddeier was born at the beginning of the 6th century, while St Winefride’s journey could not have taken place any earlier than one hundred years later. And this in itself is important, since it suggests that Ddeier and his miraculous well were already well known throughout the area, and perhaps much further indeed for Winefride to have undertaken such a journey. It must have been considered important that Winefride was associated in some way with Ddeier, and that by visiting him, and St Sadwrn in Henllan, her reputation was in some way enhanced.
Further translations of the ‘Life of St Winefride’ do rather omit St Ddeier, probably in order to focus more on St Winefride and her famous holy well.
Its current condition belies the historical importance of St Ddeier's Holy Well
It is to Edward Lhuyd writing at the end of the 17th century that we begin to gain a new insight to Ffynnon Ddeier. It is from Lhuyd that we are told of the curious and specific practices that were undertaken to gain a cure at the well. The following quote is from Lhuyd’s ‘Parochialia’ as taken from Tristan Gray Hulse’s outstanding article, ‘The Documentation of Fynnon Ddeier: Some Problems Reconsidered’.
'It is a Custom for ye poorest person in the parish to offer Chickens after going [with them] nine times round ye well. A Cockrell for a boy, & a Pullet for a girl. The child is dipt up to his neck at three of ye corners of ye Well. This is to prevent their crying in ye night.'
The association of fowl with holy wells is by no means unusual, Ffynnon Tegla at Llandegla is another example, although the curing of epilepsy is the usual result of cockrell and pullet, as well as perhaps filling the priest’s cooking pot. The association with curing ‘peevism’ in children is, however, specific to Ddeier.
Bishop Maddox (1736-43) gives us further information on the practices associated with Ffynnon Ddeier. Again, quoted in, ‘The Documentation of Fynnon Ddeier: Some Problems Reconsidered’ by Gray Hulse, he says:
'About 300 yards from [the church] there is Diers or Deifers Well, to w'ch they go in procession on Acs[ension] Day and read the Litany, ten Com[mandments], Ep[ist]le, and Gospel.'
The practice of Processions was, of course, widespread, and seem to be not only an act of religious devotion, but also a more practical means of reaffirming land boundaries. However, George Herbert says it best, in Chapter 35 of his, ‘Country Parson’ (1652):
‘The Countrey Parson is a Lover of old Customes, if they be good, and harmlesse; and the rather, because Countrey people are much addicted to them, so that to favour them therein is to win their hearts, and to oppose them therin is to deject them. If there be any ill in the custome, that may be severed from the good, he pares the apple, and gives them the clean to feed on. Particularly, he loves Procession, and maintains it, because there are contained therein 4 manifest advantages. First, a blessing of God for the fruits of the field: Secondly, justice in the Preservation of bounds: Thirdly, Charity in loving walking, and neighbourly accompanying one another, with reconciling of differences at that time, if there be any: Fourthly, Mercy in releeving the poor by a liberall distribution and largesse, which at that time is, or ought to be used. Wherefore he exacts of all to bee present at the perambulation, and those that withdraw, and sever themselves from it, he mislikes, and reproves as uncharitable, and unneighbourly; and if they will not reforme, presents them. Nay, he is so farre from condemning such assemblies, that he rather procures them to be often, as knowing that absence breedes strangeness, but presence love.’
It is likely that the procession to Ffynnon Ddeier on Ascension Day, was as much part of a traditional social gathering as anything else.
It seems odd that many of these practices, which cannot be traced any further back than the 17th century are associated with a pre-Christian paganism. It is entirely possible that these holy wells have a history much older than a Christian past. Indeed, it is I think, entirely likely, and naïve to believe otherwise. Yet, we are lacking written records, and because of that there is a tendency to read far too much into the information we do have.
As to Ffynnon Ddeier’s recent history, it’s present state belies its substantial written record. Today, the scant remains of the well are sited in a brick and stone chamber close to the A541. Yet, Ddeier originally, ‘raised out of the ground a goodly spring’ some 100 yards to the north of this current position. In the 19th century it was filled in and the water piped to its current chamber as a water supply for the villagers. There is apparently a tap, which today is hidden from view beneath masonry. Elias Owen tells us in 1896 that,
'St Deifar's Well has been drained, and no longer exists... It was surrounded by masonry, with steps to go down into it. The walls were high & a platform ran completely round the well so as to enable people to walk around it. Its water was bright and clear and being several yards square it was broad and deep enough to bathe in'.
Incidentally, until fairly recently, there had been a suggestion that a well found beneath the floor of the Dinorben Arms was in fact, Ffynnon Ddeier. The well now forms a splendid looking seating area for dinners and remains an attraction to visitors. As interesting as this is, it could not have been the famous holy well, since holy wells were invariably immersion chambers, rather than draw wells.