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© Copyright ~ 2020

Ffynnon Fair

‘Its name is known to few, except those who have visited it; but its beautiful features will not be readily forgotten by whoso has once tasted of its limpid waters.’

Archaeologia Cambrensis 1847, p261

 

It’s hard to be cynical of the spiritual at Ffynnon Fair. Such is the beauty there. Holy wells are often to be found in secluded fields and isolated woods. Some became centres of a venerating settlement, some retained a remoteness from society - Ffynnon Fair is of the latter, and its spirit lifting presence within the woodland of this Elwy valley is profound. Worn to the quick and weary with the world, a moment at Ffynnon Fair will ennoble you, remind you of the beauty that can still be found - a counter to the pernicious pessimism that assails us daily.

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An illustration from Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1847

The well is ancient - obviously. Did it serve the ancient Neolithic peoples that buried their dead in cairn and chambered tomb - such as those at nearby Tyddyn Bleiddyn? And when they ‘tasted of its limpid waters’, what did they wonder as to its presence here - did they feel a connection to the land, their landscape? I fancy they did, and least in some unconscious fashion, and I rather think this connection continued for thousands of years - and continues still, if one is of a mind to see with brighter eyes that the modern world would willfully scale over.

 

While the well is ancient, the dedication to Mary would likely have come post Norman conquest. Likely, but not certain, since as Francis Jones makes clear, while Mary was a favourite of the Normans, there is clear evidence she was venerated from the 4th century onwards. We have no record of an earlier dedication, if one indeed existed - it is of course thus possible that the well was always Mary’s, at least as Christianity sought to assert its dominance in a pagan land, its ancient past brought under Roman rule. And as Christianity came to accept the pagan well, to change the narrative to one of their own suiting, perhaps in the face of determined locals disinclined to give up their wells, so they became holy - basins were built, chapels raised and altars placed. At Ffynnon Fair, the earliest remains of the chapel have been dated to the 15th century, though there is evidence to suggest that there have been a series of rebuilds, into the 19th century in fact, and there are even suggestions that perhaps an earlier chapel existed here.

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The remains of the south facing transept, the doorway crossing the well conduit which flows beneath it.

Our earliest written record of the well is not, as you may have been forgiven in thinking, from Edward Lhuyd, but rather one Peter Roberts, a notary public living in Cefn Meiriadog. More will be said of his work, Y Cwtta Cyfarwydd, dated from 1607 a little later. However, you will not be surprised to know that Lhuyd did have something to say of Ffynnon Fair, writing at the end of the 17th century. By this time, it would seem the chapel was already in some considerable decline.

 

‘Kappel Ffynhowen (vair) is now quite ruinous. Ei gwyl mabsant a gadwant wrth y Kappel hwnnw bymthengnos o gynhaiaf amser yr eirin.’

Parochialia, Edward Lhuyd, Arch. Cam. (1909)

 

Lhuyd also makes mention here of Mary’s patronal festival as being two weeks from the harvest, at the time of berries (or plums), which fairly describes the accepted date of 15th August.

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A plan of the remains of the chapel and well - Archaeologia Cambrensis 1847

What remains today? The much ruined chapel resides in its own little patch of woodland thrusting out into Dol a capel, a T-shaped building with the shorter western end crossing the longer eastern wing, the latter presumably acting as the chancel. For many years it was thought that the lack of a ruinous western wall, other than the stump of a protruding limb to the south, was evidence that the well was once within the chapel itself, that the western end originally stretched out further to encompass the waters, and had been much reduced. However, later investigations have established that the well was always outside the building. Above the gable of the northern transept are the delightful remains of a bellcote, although this is possibly a later 19th century addition. At the eastern end are the remains of a, ‘four centred window, perhaps of three lights,’ though time has worn much away over the intervening 170 years. Another rather wonderful window is in the southern transept facing south west, with a smaller window in the eastern face. There are remains of two small doorways, one below the larger window in the southern transept, another in the southern wall of the eastern wing. Against the wall of the eastern face of the southern transept are thought to be the remains of a well basin, or possibly a baptismal font, filling with water from the well as it flows beneath and through the building, out and away to the south east to the Elwy.

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The overflow of the well runs beneath the southern transept of the building, possibly filling what was once a basin within the chapel.

The well itself is a wonder. It was likely here when no one was here and in the intervening millenia it has continued to flow. Perhaps surprisingly there does not seem to be a tradition of cures here, or least a discussion of them in the literature available. There have been claims of rheumatism and arthritis healed, which do seem to be common to many wells, but we should not be too surprised of silence here - not all holy wells were known as curative. We know nothing of its original appearance, of course, but at some point, perhaps dating to the foundation of the original chapel, whenever that may have been, the well was enclosed. Thomas Pennant, writing in 1781, describes Ffynnon Fair as,

 

‘A fine spring, inclosed in an angular wall, formerly roofed.’

Thomas Pennant, A Tour in Wales, Vol II (1781), p.133

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Likely an early 19th century addition, to take advantage of the connection with St Winifred's Well in Holywell, the stellar design is nonetheless a little wonder amongst the overgrowth.

Perhaps the most famous aspect of Ffynnon Fair today, is the astonishing and startling star-shaped basin within which the waters rise. However, it seems fairly certain that the stellar design was an early 19th century addition, since while it is to be seen in an early Victorian sketch by the poet Felicia Hemans (1793-1835), and a drawing by J.Brooke dated to 1857, writers and antiquarians of the 17th and 18th centuries, including Lhuyd and Pennant do not mention this beautiful design. To anyone who has visited the glorious St Winifred’s Well, the resemblance of the well at Ffynnon Fair to the more famous one at Holywell is remarkable. Given the later date of our design at Trefnant, it’s likely this is, at least in part, an early 19th century response to the long held belief that pilgrims visiting St Winifred’s also visited Ffynnon Fair. Excavations in the 1960s also suggest that the star design intrudes upon the western face of the chapel, suggesting that it was built some time after the fall of the wall there.

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Felicia Hemans sketch, probably drawn in the early 19th century, clearly showing the star shaped design and the remains of the lost western wall, the well instruding upon its line.

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St Mary's Well by J.Brooke, 1857

‘In this Parish are the Remains of Cappel Ffynnon Vair, now in Ruins; it is in Wickwar or Wig-vair Township about two Miles South West of St Asaph, and was formerly served by the Vicars of St Asapah for Ease of the neighbouring Inhabitants. In King James the Second’s Time, some Roman Catholics had a Design to rebuild it, it being held by them in such great Sanctity, that those who pay their Devoirs to St Wenefride, seldom fail to make a Visit there. It is called so from a large Spring or Well which lies near the West Door, and is walled about with Free Stone and the Water runs under it from West to East. By the Side of the Well there grows a sweet scented Moss, much esteemed by Pilgrims.’

Survey of St Asaph, Browne-Willis (1720)

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The belief that pilgrims to St Winifred’s also made visits to Ffynnon Fair is also mentioned by Pennant in 1781. It is also worth noting that the ‘sweet scented Moss, much esteemed by Pilgrims’ mentioned by Browne-Willis was also to be found at St Winifred’s. It’s likely then that the star-shaped design was added at some point in the early 19th century to elaborate on the existing connections with St Winifred’s Well. The first actual written record of the stellar design is to be found in the writing of Samuel Lewis.

 

‘This township is situated on the left bank of the Elwy, and contains a beautiful and romantic dingle, near that river, in which there is a fine spring, called Y Ffynnon Vair, or ‘the Well of Our Lady,’ discharging about one hundred gallons of water per minute, and strongly impregnated with lime. It is enclosed in a polygonal basin, richly sculptured by ornamental pillars, and was then numerously resorted to as a cold bath.’

Topographical Dictionary of Wales, Samuel Lewis, 1843

 

Lewis observes that the water was ‘strongly impregnated with lime’ which is curious and rather wonderful, and probably alludes to the moss which was believed to grow at the well. It was believed that the star-shaped well basin was canopied, as at Holywell, and again this was probably due to its perceived connections with St Winifred’s. In fact, it is unlikely that the well was ever covered or canopied.

 

It is possible that the knowledge that the star shaped well design is not as old as originally thought is something of a disappointment. Nonsense. It shows something altogether more profound - the continued veneration of this holy well, an appreciation of its believed powers, or at the very least a wonder and acceptance that wonder can be a part of our lives.  From the most ancient of days to the present, it continues to occupy a deeper need within us, one which the modern world would shut away behind shallow and immediate concerns.

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The east end of the Chapel - compare with the 1847 Arch. Camb. image of the same view above.

As mentioned earlier, our earliest written record of Ffynnon Fair is actually Y Cwtta Cyfarwydd, a record kept by the public notary Peter Roberts of Cefn Meiriadog, between 1607-1646. In it he records seven marriages held at the well chapel at Ffynnon Fair between 1611 and 1640, two of which were explicitly described as ‘clandestine’, the first dated to the February of 1611.

 

‘M’d that upon Friday at night, happening upon the viith date of February 1611, one Piers Gruff’ ap John Gruff’ (my brother in lawe) was married clandestynely with one Jane vz Thomas his second wief, at the chappel in Wickwer called Chappel Ffynnonvair.’

Y Cwtta Cyfarwydd, Peter Roberts, ed. D.R Thomas (1883)

 

The rediscovery of the document in the late 19th century and its subsequent publishing and study led to a number of rather fanciful suggestions, including the assertion that the chapel was used for secret Catholic marriages in a Protestant age.

 

‘The chapel at St Mary’s Well, in Wickwer, had probably never been used for Protestant service; and it may thus, perhaps, even by connivance of some of of the authorities, have been left available for the service of those who still adhered to the ancient faith and the ancient Church.’

Archaeologia Cambrensis (1884), p149

 

However, there is no evidence to suggest the marriages were performed outside of the Anglican Protestant liturgy, simply because they were held in such places as the well chapel at Ffynnon Fair. In fact, clandestine marriages were a common feature before the Marriages Act of 1753. Marriages conducted by ordained clergy, but without banns being read or a licence bought were considered clandestine, and were perfectly legal. The reasons behind such marriages were often no more than financial (they were the cheaper option) or time related, in that banns being read meant that at least three weeks were required before a marriage could take place. Still, they could be considered ‘secretive’, given that that, as at Ffynnon Fair, they were often held in isolated spot, away from crowds and before a limited number of attendees.

 

Still, this did not stop the chapel at Ffynnon Fair being declared the Gretna Green of Wales by several writers.

 

‘It is curious that, some time after the Reformation, this place should have been a kind of Gretna Green. Here runaway couples were married.’

Notes of Family Excursions in North Wales, J.O. Halliwell (1860)

 

‘There is a holy well, Ffynnon Fair, in the parish of Cefn, in a beautiful situation, once very famous, but the chapel is in ruins, though the spring flows merrily still. It was the ‘Gretna Green’ of the district, for here clandestine marriages were wont to take place, celebrated by one of the vicars choral of the cathedral, till all such marriages were put a stop to by the Act of Lard Hardwicke in 1753.’

A Book of North Wales, Sabine Baring Gould, (1903)

Gretna Green, a Scottish village on the border with England was not subject to the 1753 Act referred to by Baring-Gould, and so became the destination of many a young (specifically, less than 21 years of age) couple, but Wales most certainly was, and there are no indications that any marriages described as clandestine took place at Ffynnon Fair after 1753.

 

This all suggests a diminishment of romance, of course, even if the fact of such weddings were often anything other than romantic. In fact, the truth suggests something entirely more romantic than some secretive ceremony. What a place to be married, after all, in the wooded fastness of an intensely beautiful spot, in the presence of an isolated holy well. It would seem that a very many marriages today take place in similar spots, for similar reasons. It is somewhat ironic that a little further to the north west is Wigfair Hall – now a wedding venue.

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Looking through the east window from the chancel.

Still, by the time of Lhuyd’s writing at the end of the 17th century, the Chapel was ‘quite ruinous’, which suggests that in the years following the Reformation little was done to maintain the fabric of the building, even if several marriages took place there in the 17th century. Neglect and changes to the law may have put paid to further ceremonies. By the time of Pennant, writing in 1781, the chapel is described as, ‘over-grown with ivy’. It would seem that by the end of the 18th century it had taken on the familiar aspect of a romantic ruin, and as such began to influence a new generation of writer and poet.

 

Most visitors, it seems, were taken with the romantic nature of the spot. Romanticism seems to thrive in ruins. Felicia Hemans (1793-1835), the poet, famous for Casabianca and the author of ‘the boy stood on the burning deck’ and who coined the term, ‘Stately Home’, 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!

 

The poet, Gerard Manley-Hopkins visited the well in 1874 while studying at St Beuno’s Theology College (now St Beuno’s Jesuit Spirituality Centre) at Tremeirchion.

 

‘With Mr Bacon to Ffynnon-y-capel or Ffynnon Fair (or Mair), such another well as St Winefred’s, standing in a beautiful spot in the valley of the Elwy at a ruined chapel. We said a prayer and drank the water. The shape is something as opposite: the five points are perhaps to recall the five porches of Bethesda and their symbolism. The basis of pillars (which would have supported a canopy having five openings in circuit and two at the side between the well and the trough or bath) can be seen. The remains of the chapel are Third-Pointed.’

The Journals and Papers of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. H.House, (1959)

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Gerard Manley-Hopkins simple sketch of the well from his journal of 1874, referenced in the quote above.

Hopkin’s had converted to the Roman Catholic faith in October 1866 and on becoming ‘resolved to be a religious’ in May 1868, gave up the writing of poetry in spectacular fashion, burning his earlier work. However, it was while at St Beuno’s that he was persuaded to become a poet once more. Would it be remiss to suggest that, at least in part, Manley-Hopkins regained his poetic verve with a visit to Ffynnon Fair? Perhaps the true power of the well is not in the traditional cure of arthritis, rheumatism, infertility, but rather in an inspiration to the creative spirit.

 

In The Valley Of The Elwy

 

I remember a house where all were good

To me, God knows, deserving no such thing:

Comforting smell breathed at very entering,

Fetched fresh, as I suppose, off some sweet wood.

That cordial air made those kind people a hood

All over, as a bevy of eggs the mothering wing

Will, or mild nights the new morsels of Spring:

Why, it seemed of course; seemed of right it should.

Lovely the woods, waters, meadows, combes, vales,

All the air things wear that build this world of Wales;

Only the inmate does not correspond:

God, lover of souls, swaying considerate scales,

Complete thy creature dear O where it fails,

Being mighty a master, being a father and fond.

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A view of the western end of the chapel from above the well.

In the years since, the remains of Ffynnon Fair and its chapel have become something of a quiet and hidden treasure in the Elwy Valley. Away from worldly agitation and frenzied fancies, it resides within its little woodland, happily isolated from the fractured goings-on of elsewhere. But waiting for you…always waiting.

 

*If visiting, however, do please note that the well is on private land. The owners are more than happy to welcome visitors but do contact them beforehand. Their contact details are here, and they will give you the best means of reaching the well.*

Further Reading

 

An Inventory of The Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire: Denbigh, RCAHM, London, (1914)

Archaeologia Cambrensis, Various Authors (1847, 1858, 1884, 1887, 1921, 1947)

A Book of North Wales, Sabine Baring-Gould, Methuen & Co, London (1903)

The Holy Wells of Wales, Francis Jones, Cardiff, (1954)

The Journals and Papers of Gerard Manley-Hopkins, ed. H.House, Oxford, (1959)

Notes of Family Excursions in North Wales, J.O. Halliwell, London, (1860)

Paraochialia, Edward Lhuyd, Cambrian Archeological Association, London, (1909-1911)

A Topographical Dictionary of Wales, Samuel Lewis, (1845)

A Tour in Wales Vol II, Thomas Pennant (1781)

Willis’ Survey of St Asaph, Browne Willis, ed. Edward Edwards, London (1801)

Y Cwtta Cyfarwydd, The Chronicle written by The Famous Clarke, Peter Roberts, ed. D.R.Thomas, Whiting & Co, London,  (1883)