‘Ffynnon dhyvnog a Bath much frequented; the water heals scabs, Itch, etc. Some say ‘twould cure ye pox.’
Edward Lhuyd, Parochialia (1696)
Ffynnon Dyfnog is a treasure - of that there can be no doubt. It is, frankly, astonishing. To walk the wooded, winding route taken by countless others for more than a thousand years can make you quite giddy, if considered for a moment or two - and quite right too, since this place is a little piece of heaven on earth. The village within which the well resides, Llanrhaedr-yng-Nginmeirch, is pretty enough - it's almost all too much.
Richard Fenton, writing at the beginning of the 19th century, was most taken with the spot, while also noting both the once salubrious surroundings and its eventual neglect.
‘Passing to the left, you descend into a deep and narrow Dingle shaded by very lofty trees of Ash and Wych Elm, etc, through which a small stream ripples o’er a pebbly and rocky bottom; which stream is fed by the Spring of St. Dyfnog at the upper end of the Dingle arched over, from which the Water used to fall through a Pipe in the Wall into a Bath, whose bottom was paved with Marble, with a building round it and roofed, but now exhibiting one shapeless ruin, the Bath being choked up and all the building fallen - a most shameless neglect, as this Dingle, connected by a Tunnel going under the Road with Llanrhaiadr, constitutes the prettiest part of the Grounds.’
R. Fenton, Tours in Wales (1804-1813)
The well was certainly well known by the beginning of the 16th century, since it is mentioned by Leland.
‘Loke here for Fonnon Dunoc. Dunokes Welle a mighty spring that maketh a brok renning scant a mile.’
John Leland, Itinerary in Wales, (1536-39)
Leland, though, says nothing of its powers. But curative powers it had and is said to have gained them from the presence of St. Dyfnog who, dressed in a hair shirt belted with an iron girdle, bathed in the cold waters of the spring, seeking repentance for unspecified sins. Lhuyd states that the waters healed scabs and itches, while also suggesting they make have cured the pox, which would have made the well especially valued.
Much of what we know about Ffynnon Dyfnog has come to us from an anonymous bard, who wrote a cywydd in praise of St. Dyfnog, probably sometime in the early to mid 17th century - it would seem Lhuyd’s suggestion that the well waters cured the pox suggests he was aware of the cywydd, even if he fails to mention the fact that the bard also says the waters healed deafness and dumbness. The cywydd is used by Baring-Gould and Fisher in their Lives of the British Saints to flesh him out a little, but what we have is slight.
The genealogies suggest that Dyfnog was the son of either Medrod ab Cawrdaf ab Caradog Freichfras or (as Defnog) St. Cawrdaf. The village within which the Well dedicated to him resides, was originally named for him, as Llanddyfnog, before being changed to the rather longer Llanrhaedr-yng-Nginmeirch (the church near the rushing stream in Cinmerch). The change of name suggests that Dyfnog’s personal fame was eventually overcome by that of his well. Dyfnog, it would seem, must be content with the church and well, if not the village.
It is clear then that the well had become extremely well known, growing in renown further afield than the local area. Commentators such as Browne Willis writing at the beginning of the 18th century state that a collection of buildings had been raised about the well to accommodate the growing number of visitors.
‘Near the Church is also a famous Well of St Dyfnog much resorted to, and on that Account provided with all Conveniences of Rooms etc for bathing built about it.’
Browne Willis, Survey of the Cathedral Church of Bangor, (1721)
What is interesting is that Lhuyd, writing some 25 years earlier than Browne Willis makes no mention of any buildings about the well. His silence on this matter does not mean, of course, that there were no buildings there in his time, but it does at least suggest the possibility that the changing rooms and assorted infrastructure (Fenton speaks of a marble bottomed basin) were raised at the beginning of the 18th century. If so, their lifespan was relatively small, since by the time of Thomas Pennant at the end of the 18th century, the buildings seem to have been substantially reduced.
‘The fountain is inclosed in an angular wall, decorated with small human figures; and before is the well for the use of the pious bathers.’
Thomas Pennant, Tours in Wales Vol II, (1781)
Why Ffynnon Dyfnog became so popular might have its origins in its impressive curative powers. If the anonymous bard is to be believed, the tradition that the waters cured pox, deafness and dumbness, as well as itches and scabs would have elevated the well to greatness. Commentators also make mention of the softness of the water and its unusual coldness, both of which may have given the waters an especial sense of otherworldliness. It became, possibly because of its powers, a popular stop of pilgrims to’ing and fro’ing from St Winifred’s Well at Holywell. It’s probable that the astonishing Jesse Window within the church was paid for with the donations gathered from visitors and pilgrims to Ffynnon Dyfnog - the bard tells of an image of Dyfnog being held at the church.
And so, we end where we began - with the essential beauty of the well and its environs. It feels holy. The walk from the church to the well, through the woods and over the little stone bridges does feel like a journey into a different world, heightens the expectation of the spiritual. And to stand within the glade is a magical experience - one can readily imagine the impact this would have on countless pilgrims in ages past. Ironically, the proliferation of buildings, however sumptuous, would I fancy, have detracted from the inherent holiness of the site. At Ffynnon Dyfnog it feels as if the membrane between our world and a holy hued other is at its most fragile - if one was to allow oneself to do so, a glory might be beheld.
S. Baring-Gould & J. Fisher, The Lives of the British Saints Vol II, London (1908)
Browne Willis, Survey of the Cathedral Church of Bangor and the Edifices Belonging to it, (1721)
R. Fenton, Tours in Wales (1804-13), London (1917)
J. Leland, Itinerary in Wales, (1536-39)
E. Lhuyd, Parochialia, (1696), Archaeologia Cambrensis Supplements (1909-11)
T. Pennant, Tours in Wales Vol II, (1781)
RCAHM, An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Wales, Denbighshire, (1914)