The well is ancient, clearly, and is much older than the chapel site, the ruins of which sit beside it. The building dates from the 13th century, and it is thought that the chancel was added sometime in the 15th century. Curiously, the altar base is situated underneath the southern window. That the chapel was built at all, suggests that the well was hugely important, and for this reason much speculation has gathered about it. The well basin itself is in a deeply impressive star shape, which has led to speculation that it was connected to Winefride’s Well at Holywell, and is contemporary. Unfortunately, works of art depicting Ffynnon Fair in the early 19th century do not show the star shaped basin, and so it is likely that this was an early Victorian addition, especially since a drawing by the artist J. Brooke dated 1857 does show the star shaped basin. It was built possibly in a concerted effort to establish a connection with Holywell and bring in footfall. It has been suggested that the chapel was in a distinctive cruciform shape, with the well contained in the northern spur, but excavations seem to have ruled this out. Thomas Pennant suggests that it was roofed, but he may have been repeating tradition. It is as if there has been an effort to raise the status of this well to the heady heights of St Winefride's Well, as if what remains is insufficient to delight.
From the earliest dates of the veneration of St Winefride's Well, Ffynnon Fair seems to have been somewhere that was visited by pilgrims in the same journey. The route taken by pilgrims visiting St Winefride's Well at Holywell would have taken them to a variety of other wells, including Ffynnon Fair. As the numbers increased, so the chapel, the chancel, the star shaped basin were built. In this, Ffynnon Fair is no different from a very many holy wells that steadily grew in popularity.
As elsewhere, the Reformation saw Ffynnon Fair suffer a decline in popularity and use. The chapel site began to decay, and seems to have lacked any real upkeep. It was possibly still being used by the landowners, and it was also used for marriages, clandestine perhaps, but recorded at St Asaph nonetheless. The anti-Catholic fervor of the late 17th century saw Ffynnon Fair suffer further, but never to complete obscurity.
Our first written record which suggests the importance of Ffynnon Fair as a stop for pilgrims, is an account of the affairs of St Asaph (1720) by Browne Willis (1682 – 1760), the noted antiquarian, prolific writer, numismatist and politician. He describes Ffynnon Fair as an essential visit for pilgrims, that, ‘by the side of the well there grows a sweet scented moss much esteemed by pilgrims.’ It is possibly this reason that visitors speak of the well water tasting of lime.
Curiously however, that water, lime tasting or otherwise, is not recorded as having any healing qualities. That it exists at all would suggest it did, even if those healings qualities were secondary to an original, very ancient purpose. The fact that it continued to be popular for centuries seems otherwise impossible to fathom. There have been suggestions of cures for rheumatism and arthritis, which indeed are common ailments cured by wells, but no record to be found of them.
Browne Willis, and others after him, were taken with the romantic nature of the spot. Romanticism seems to thrive in ruins, and the site continued to fall into disrepair, possibly allowed to do so. Thomas Pennant describes it thus,
‘Y ffynnon fair, or our lady’s well, a fine spring, inclosed in an angular wall, formerly roofed; and the ruins of a cross-shaped chapel, finely over-grown with ivy, exhibit a venerable view, in a deep wooded bottom, not remote from the bridge; and, in days of pilgrimage, the frequent haunt of devotees.’
Felicia Heman (1793-1835), the poet, famous for Casabianca, spent her formative years close by and wrote, ‘Our Lady’s Well’ after visiting Ffynnon Fair, and was clearly deeply affected by it, given the amount of exclamation marks in the poem.
Fount of the woods! thou art hid no more,
From Heaven's clear eye, as in time of yore!
For the roof hath sunk from thy mossy walls,
And the sun's free glance on thy slumber falls;
And the dim tree-shadows across thee pass,
As the boughs are sway'd o'er thy silvery glass;
And the reddening leaves to thy breast are blown,
When the autumn wind hath a stormy tone;
And thy bubbles rise to the flashing rain-
Bright Fount! thou art nature's own again!
Fount of the vale! thou art sought no more
By the pilgrim's foot, as in time of yore,
When he came from afar, his beads to tell,
And to chant his hymn at Our Lady's Well.
There is heard no Ave through thy bowers,
Thou art gleaming lone 'midst thy water-flowers!
But the herd may drink from thy gushing wave,
And there may the reaper his forehead lave,
And the woodman seeks thee not in vain-
-Bright Fount! thou art nature's own again!
Fount of the Virgin's ruin'd shrine!
A voice that speaks of the past is thine!
It mingles the tone of a thoughtful sigh,
With the notes that ring through the laughing sky;
'Midst the mirthful song of the summer-bird,
And the sound of the breeze, it will yet be heard!
-Why is it that thus we may gaze on thee,
To the brilliant sunshine sparkling free?
-'Tis that all on earth is of Time's domain-
He hath made thee nature's own again!
Fount of the chapel with ages grey!
Thou art springing freshly amidst decay!
Thy rites are closed, and thy cross lies low,
And the changeful hours breathe o'er thee now!
Yet if at thine altar one holy thought
In man's deep spirit of old hath wrought;
If peace to the mourner hath here been given,
Or prayer, from a chasten'd heart, to Heaven,
Be the spot still hallow'd while Time shall reign,
Who hath made thee nature's own again!
It is her pencil drawings of the well which gives us much evidence of the state of the chapel and the lack of a star shaped design about the spring.
During the 20th century, it seems to have slipped quietly into relative obscurity, known to locals, determined well hunters and academics. The well still produces a copious flow, the stream running off along a channel through a transept and meanders down to the River Elwy. It remains a wonderfully atmospheric and restful place. A delight.
St Mary's Well
by J.Brooke 1857