‘In the parish of Kilken, there is a spring, which (as is said) ebb’d and flow’d at set times like the sea’.
William Camden, ‘Britannia’ (1586)
Ffynnon Leinw is a marvellous curiosity, largely for its reputation of being subject to the tides. That Camden makes special mention of this particular spring clearly has a lot to do with the fact that Leinw had become known as the well mentioned by Giraldus Cambrensis in 1191 as,
‘a spring which not only ebbs and flows like the sea every twenty four hours, but frequently rises and falls at other times, both day and night’.
The Journey Through Wales (1191)
Why Ffynnon Leinw became synonymous with this spring, which is described as being not far from Rhuddlan, some 18 miles to the north west, is unclear. However, Camden was clearly aware that Leinw was widely thought to be Giraldus’ legendary well, though he was subsequently certain that there was no tidal element at Leinw, ‘tho the general report is that it did so formerly’. Somewhere in the 400 years between Giraldus’ tour and Camden’s visit, Leinw had become the famous ‘flowing well’.
Edward Lhuyd mentions the well at the end of the 17th century, without any suggestion that it ebbed and flowed, without any detail at all, in fact. If indeed Ffynnon Leinw was known as a ‘flowing well’, it would have been likely that Lhuyd’s local correspondents would have made special mention of it. Around a hundred years later, Thomas Pennant, a Flintshire man, wrote,
‘In this parish, on the side of the turnpike road, not far from Kilken hall, is the noted Ffynnon Leinw, or the flowing well; a large oblong well with a double wall round it. This is taken notice of by Camden for its flux and re-flux; but the singularity has ceased since this time, according to the best information I can receive’.
Thomas Pennant, ‘Tours in Wales’ (1778)
But it remains impossible to find any source, credible are not that states that this ebb and flow was actually seen, and in fact Camden suggests that it was a case of mistaken identity, something Pennant does not mention. Camden makes the case that the well that Giraldus was actually identifying was probably a spring called, ‘Fynnon Affav, a noble spring, to which they also attribute the same Phenomenon.’
And this would all suggest that Ffynnon Leinw was actually not that important, that its fame rested on a case of mistaken identity. But then, in 1833, just a few decades after Thomas Pennant, Samuel Lewis made an extraordinary claim, stating that,
‘Near Killen Hall, in the vale of Nannerch, is the celebrated Fynnon Leinw, or ‘flowing well’, which Camden describes as flowing and ebbing with the tide; but this peculiarity has long since ceased to distinguish it: it is a copious and limpid spring, and is much resorted to for bathing, for which purpose it has been enclosed, and it is said to possess properties fully equal, if not superior to those of the far-famed spring at Holywell.’
Samuel Lewis, ‘Topographical Dictionary of Wales’ (1833)
Given the focus of its reputation thus far has rested on it being a, ‘flowing well’, the suggestion that its healing properties were, ‘fully equal, if not superior’ to St Winefride’s Well are utterly astonishing. Lewis is the first author to attribute any healing properties to Leinw, and it is a little surprising that he did so, given that nothing had been said in the centuries before. And yet, there is of course a structure at the spring, a basin, the remains of a double wall, evidence of it being an immersion well. Clearly, it must have held healing qualities, and perhaps qualities of some considerable power.
A little under a hundred years later, a Royal Commision visit makes it clear that Leinw’s reputation as a tidal spring was still the focus. They state categorically that the well was dry, other than after considerable rainfall, and do nothing to reiterate Lewis’ belief in its extraordinary healing properties. Instead, the report suggests that the well was dry because of mining activities in the area. And this may suggest a reason why Ffynnon Leinw became known as a flowing well, and the spring identified by Giraldus Cambrensis in 1191, despite his being twenty or so miles northwest of Cilcain. Is it possible that the mining activity in the area had the effect of temporarily emptying the well basin, which then refilled as shifts changed or ended? It might well explain how some would see the well empty, while others saw it full. Mining in the area declined steady throughout the 20th century, and its possible that its demise has affected the Well and its flow as a consequence. As the pictures testify, in the summer of 2020, the Well was sadly empty.
And while fascinating, it is perhaps unfortunate that so much focus has rested on its apparent connection to the tides, rather than the reason people in the area resorted to it for bathing, which with the structural aspects to the complex would suggest that it was a healing well, and one of some importance and stature, even if perhaps Samuel Lewis was a little over enthusiastic as to its fame. What we have now is a rectangular pool of about 18 feet by 10 feet and about 2 feet in depth, with a rather rough and ready stone wall surrounding it. It remains entirely atmospheric and quite haunting.
Worn and weathered, the steps entering the basin are still visible
Ffynnon Leinw was a sizeable well basin, perhaps the story of its ebb and flow with the tides has served to distract from what must have been a well of considerable importance in the area.