‘The Parish abounds with springs of excellent water, one of which, called Ffynnon Sarah, or Sarah’s Well, is in great repute for its efficacy in the cure of Cancers. These dreadful diseases, Stone and Gravel, are totally unknown to those inhabitants who are Natives; and some who have removed hither from other situations have been completely cured.’
N. Carlise, A Topographical Dictionary of the Dominion of Wales, 1811
It is hard to credit now, that this little island of unbridled beauty and serenity might well have witnessed considerable hustle and bustle. To spend time here now, is to feel connected and at peace - at least if one is inclined to allow a sloughing away of the weight of the world. And if that were all this place could do, your time here would still be well spent. However, some two hundred years ago, it’s likely that this now quiet spot on the back road from Clawdd-newydd to Melin-y-Wig would have been busy with those looking for relief from ailments ranging from warts to cancers.
This well has known several names in its history, reflecting its long presence in this community, in this space. While known now as Ffynnon Sara, if only because of the naming plaque upon the exterior wall of the enclosure, it is also known as Ffynnon Sarah, Ffynnon Saeran and Ffynnon Pyllau Perl. I will freely admit that I prefer the latter - the old name, the oldest name we have for this well.
It is from Edward Lhuyd, perhaps unsurprisingly, writing at the end of the 17th century, that we get the earliest reference to the well by name. And, the meaning of Pyllau Perl has been, and remains a matter of some debate. It is easy to conclude that it is, in form a topographical naming - describing the appearance of a busy, bubbling spring - the pearl pool. All good and simple and neat. But, digging a little deeper, the word ‘perl’ can also mean cataract - and that opens up another possibility, essentially that the name references the medicinal qualities of the waters here. Many wells were known for their ability to heal eye problems. Francis Jones, writing in 1954, lists four wells in Flintshire and Denbighshire as being known as eye healing wells - but Derwen's well is not one of them. That does not mean that it was not used to treat eye conditions, of course. Perhaps its fame and efficacy at healing other conditions trumped the eye. After all, according to Jones, Fynnon Pyllau Perl was one of only two wells that were specifically named as having the power to cure cancers (of which more will be said a little later).
So, your opinion as to what this oldest of names relates to is as good as anyone else’s. Its later name of Ffynnon Sarah (and we can probably extend that to, Sara) is just as curious. It is thought today that the name relates to a custodian of the well. It had at least one cottage on the site (a ‘circular building like a summer house’ was added later), and this was thought to have been inhabited by a number of different persons over the years before it burnt down sometime at the end of the 19th century. This would also suggest that the well became something considerably more important than a locally known spring, used by the community for all manner of reasons. It is possible that the original cottage was built at the same time as the bathing pool - that it was developed into a sort of spa that catered for visitors.
But, returning to the question as to the later naming of the well as Ffynnon Sarah, we have the thrilling possibility of an early connection to gypsies. The Children of Abraham were well known within North East Wales, particularly in Betws Gwerfil Goch where the Romany language was known to be spoken until the 1960s. It is perhaps no coincidence that Betws Gwerfil Goch is no distance at all from Derwen, and is in fact on the road that passes Ffynnon Sarah.
John Ogilby's late 17th century map showing the road from Holywell to St. Davids - which ran past Ffynnon Sarah.
Janet Bord, an expert on wells and a Denbighshire resident, writing in an excellent article in Archaeologia Cambrensis, suggests that our Ffynnon Sarah is on an ancient road linking Holywell in Flintshire and St David’s in Pembrokeshire. This is certainly the case, since it features in Ogilby’s ‘Traveller’s Guide’ of 1699. Subsequent assertions that this road was in fact primarily a pilgrimage route do not seem to have much supporting evidence, although it seems unlikely that it was not used by pilgrims and Christians along with everyone else in traveling between the districts and settlements on its route. Bord makes the point that gypsies were likely to have used the road in traveling to markets, particularly to those in Caerwys, which was renowned for them. She also makes the fascinating point that of the three wells known to have been named or have connections to a Sarah, all are on this road. It is also worth noting that upon this ancient road is the settlement known as Aifft - the Welsh word for Egypt. It was thought, also by the gypsies themselves, that their people originated from Egypt - hence the name gypsy. It would seem fairly compelling evidence that the road then, was used by gypsies, that Aifft was a gathering point on the old road.
Sarah, of course is not a name solely known amongst the gypsies - far from it, but it was popular within their community. And in another fascinating point, Bord explains that the Derwen well was clearly known by the gypsies, perhaps intimately. John Sampson (1862-1931), the first full time librarian at Liverpool University and who became unarguably one of the greatest scholars of gypsy culture in Wales (and elsewhere) rented a cottage in Betws Gwerfil Goch specifically to study the Romani people. In compiling a Romani dictionary, based on his first hand experience of talking to Gypsies in North East Wales (who often visited him at Betws), he used the name Saraki Xeni to illustrate the Romani word for well, showing that both he and his Gypsy acquaintances were aware of the nearby well at Derwen. The time frame fits, after a fashion, since the Romany people arrived in North Wales some time in the mid 18th century, after Lhuyd’s naming of the well as Pyllau Perl at the end of the 17th century.
Of course, all this might well be entirely wrong, and the waters may well be named after the custodian, after all. Still, it remains an intriguing possibility, and the argument is reflective of some outstanding research by Janet Bord.
It is not known when the well began to acquire the dedication to St Saeran. It's possible that it happened at the same time as the building of the bathing pool, the well and its medicinal properties gathering about it a holy reputation that many of the faithful were compelled to credit to a higher power. It does not seem to have collected the offerings that some other wells were apt to reap, such as the wonder that is St Dyfnog’s. And while it is hard to avoid cynicism in such things, looking back on the past with our weary, wizened and oh so very clever modernity, I see the genuine faith of people at Sarah’s Well. I’m not sure - in fact I really rather doubt we are in a better place for our modern doubts.
The crosshead within St Saeran's, Llanynys - possibly a depiction of the Saint - linked to Ffynnon Sarah?
St Saeran, of course, is fairly local. He is said to have been buried at his church in Llanynys - on or very near the ancient route from Holywell.
‘There is a well called Ffynnon Sarah in the parish of Derwen, not far from Llanynys, which may possibly be a Saeran Well.’
Baring-Gould & Fisher, Lives of the British Saints Vol 4, 1913, p.130
But no one is certain, no one is very sure. There is little actual evidence to link Saeran with the well, other than what would seem to have been a fairly hesitant attempt to understand what were, it seems, the real medicinal qualities of the waters here - what some would have termed at the time as miraculous. However, the appearance of Saeran here does not seem to have put down roots to any depth. Why?
There is a distinction to be found between holy wells, and those that healed without the patronage of a saint. It would seem, as at Sarah’s Well, that many were originally without a holy dedication. These were simply known, sometimes far and wide as healing wells, sometimes as spas. These waters were highly regarded, and the benefits of bathing within them were known and availed upon by many. Their healing qualities were such that making sense of them would sometimes lead to their being sequestered to a saint, possibly by the clerical powers of the parish. But what were the medicinal benefits of Sarah’s Well, and were they actually considered to be holy?
It has already been mentioned that cancers were said to be healed here. That would make Sarah’s Well, according to Jones, as one of only two that had this power (the other in Glamorgan), although Gwenfrewi’s Well in Holywell healed just about everything. However, it is unlikely that cancers of the 17th and 18th centuries were as we would regard them today. The term would probably encompass all manner of skin complaints - visible lesions, tumorous growths and other horrible oomska, some related to working with farm stock and the like. Sarah’s Well was said to heal them all. A young woman in the 19th century was said to have been healed of eczema by the waters of the well - so much so that she was able to wear her wedding dress without concern. It was also believed to heal rheumatism. This was a fairly common power of wells, holy or otherwise. Nicholas Carlise, writing in 1811, makes the claim for the cure of cancers, and also ‘Stone and Gravel’, relating to kidney complaints - another common illness of the 18th and 19th centuries. The possibility that its oldest name, Ffynnon Pyllau Perl, relates to a power to heal cataracts, eye complaints, is intriguing but still a matter for some debate.
Essentially, many of these illnesses and ailments would have been relieved, temporarily and sometimes permanently simply by the beneficial qualities of bathing (and possibly drinking) the cool, clean, clear waters of the spring. It is possible that the people availing themselves of the waters were well aware that this was no holy miracle, but rather a quality of the water - perhaps this is why the patronage of St Saeran was always a little timid. Perhaps we assume too quickly that peoples of the past were apt to turn to the mystical before the science. That is not to say that they were disinclined to accept a faith based reason behind the powers of a well, but simply that they were not inclined to accept such things if there seemed to be a good reason for a more pragmatic basis for its powers. While water has always featured in belief and ritual from the very earliest of times, there is no particular reason to think that people were apt to blind themselves to reasoning explanations.
It is hard to say now for certain when the fame of the well became such that a bathing pool was built about the spring, Ffynnon Pyllau Perl, a cottage raised and a custodian installed. It does not seem to have ever become anywhere near as extensive a complex as was to be found at St Dyfnog’s in Llanrhaedr-yng-Nghinmeirch, which was always believed to have been a holy well. While the famous Jesse window at the church of St Dyfnog’s was probably paid for by the offering of pilgrims, Sarah’s Well enjoyed no such patronage. It would seem that those that used the waters here, gave the custodian a few pennies to keep the well clear of nature’s advance, release the waters from the bathing pool after use and generally supervise its ongoing care.
We need to be careful, of course, but we can probably say that the bathing pool and cottage were raised at the same time. In the absence of further information, shall we assume this? We can say with some confidence that a cottage was on the site by 1819, since the well features as Ffynnon Sarah, on Robert Dawson’s hand drawn Ordnance Survey map of that year. The mention by Carlise of, ‘some who have removed hither from other situations’ in 1811 would suggest that the fame of Sarah’s Well was probably sufficient for it to warrant some form of custodial oversight. The tithe map of the mid 19th century shows the presence of a cottage quite clearly. There are ongoing references to a cottage throughout the writings of the 19th century, but no mention of a building before 1800. The last clear reference we have of a cottage on the site is by the Rev. E. L. Barnwell in 1864, describing the well as,
‘situated at the back of what is now a common cottage of unusual lowness, so that a person of little more than the average height must take care of his hat, if not of his head. The masonry of this building is extremely rude, almost approaching the Cyclopian and certainly very different from the ordinary rude work of the cottages in this remote district.’
E. L. Barnwell, Lost Churches in Wales, Archaeologia Cambrensis 1864, p. 331
Still, Barnwell’s description of the cottage as ‘rude’ and ‘Cyclopian’ might well suggest that by 1864, it had been abandoned as a lived-in home, and was being used as a sort of storage building. It is worth noting that it was said that the cottage held a collection of crutches left by those fortunate souls that had been healed by the waters - and I am mindful of Gwenfrewi’s well at Holywell, which still holds many of these reminders of the power of faith and belief.
The cottage burnt down sometime between 1864 and 1911. By the time of the Royal Commission's visit it was nothing more than a shadow in the soil.
‘By the well side is a grass-grown heap, the site of a cottage that was burnt down about half a century ago, where the crutches of those cured at the well were preserved.’
RCAHMC, ‘An Inventory Denbigh’, 1911, p48
We should also mention that there was, for some time, a second pool - a pin well, to be precise. The offering of pins was a common custom, and most wells can be said to have received offerings of this kind - they are too numerous to list. Skin conditions, such as warts, were often pricked with a pin, or had the pin drawn through the wart before being thrown into the waters. At Sarah’s Well, the bathing pool was separate to the pin well, which was divided into two - pins thrown only into one half of the pool.
It might come as something of a surprise to learn of this second pool - and I am more comfortable in calling it a pool. But, its presence must be regarded as certain. It is mentioned by Edward Charles in 1861, who mentions that visitors offered,
‘a pin to a little well close to the one they were going to use.’
E. Charles, Hynafion Dyffryn Clwyd, Y Brython, 1861, p. 326
Elias Owen, writing in an unpublished work on holy wells, tells of a conversation he had with a Susan Williams in 1883, whose family it seems were once custodians of the well. She tells of a pin well, which was off to the side of the bathing pool, and that for a time a, ‘circular building like a summer house’, was between them, upon which bathers used to hang their clothes before using either pool. It had two doors, each facing one of the springs. Gone now, along with the cottage and indeed the pin well itself.
There is also the intriguing and exciting legend of a lost church or chapel nearby,
‘the site of which is known only to a few of the oldest of the native residents. It was said to have a sanctuary to it, where minor offenders found a safe asylum.’
E. L. Barnwell, Lost Churches in Wales, Archaeologia Cambrensis 1864, p. 330-331
It was this ‘lost church’ that the Rev. Barnwell was actually referring to when writing of the aforementioned cottage. There was said to be found in the barn at a nearby farm, named as Pyllau Perth, parts of the roof of this church. Unfortunately, there would seem to be very little evidence for a church, and it could very well be a matter of the confused mutterings of antiquarians and ‘native residents’. Still, if it is out there, perhaps it awaits discovery.
The well became almost entirely neglected during the second half of the 19th century - though I hesitate to say forgotten. That is until it was restored in 1972-73 by the Rev. J. P. Cooke to, what Hubbard intriguingly describes as, ‘to his design.’ What you see today is down to Cooke.
Today, as you might expect, it is a serene and secluded spot, perhaps more so than it would have been at the height of its popularity. A sign makes clear that the water is no longer to be trusted, which I refuse to allow to spoil the ambiance of the site. It is quite the most wonderful place.
S. Baring-Gould & J. Fisher, The Lives of the British Saints Vol. 4, London, 1913
E. L. Barnwell, Lost Churches of Wales, Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1864
J. Bord, Derwen’s Healing Well. A History of Ffynnon Pyllau Perl, alias Ffynnon Sarah (Sara) and Ffynnon Saeran, Archaeologia Cambrensis Vol. 171 (2022)
N. Carlisle, A Topographical Dictionary of the Dominion of Wales, London, 1811
E. Charles, Hynafion Dyffryn Clwyd, Y Brython, Medi 1861
E. Davies, The Prehistoric & Roman Remains of Denbighshire, Cardiff (1929)
T. Gwynn Jones, Welsh Folklore and Folk Custom, London 1930
E. Hubbard, The Buildings of Wales Clwyd, London 1986
F. Jones, The Holy Wells of Wales, Cardiff 1954
S. Lewis, A Topographical Dictionary of Wales Vol. I, London 1834
E. Lhwyd, Parochialia, Being a Summary of Answers to Parochial Queries, Archaeologia Cambrensis Supplement Part 1, April 1909
RCAHMC, An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire: IV County of Denbigh, London 1914