‘On blest St. Garmons hill there lies,
A spring concealed from stranger’s eyes,
Within an arched cell,
Fair trees and gorse protect it round,
And in a channel underground,
O’erflows the Goblin Well.’
Margaret Butler Clough, ‘Scenes and Little Known Stories’ (1861)
Ffynnon-yr-ellyllon has gone now, a victim of a series of road widening schemes that eventually swept away the last remains of the well. When the Royal Commission visited in 1910, they noted in Maes Garmon field a,
‘stone enclosure, 8 feet by 4 feet, containing a spring called the ‘Goblins Well’; the stones are mostly displaced, and the bed of the well is trampled by cattle; the overflow is fairly copious.’
The cattle are still there, shading themselves from the sun, or shielding from the wind and rain amongst the trees, and there is indeed still much trampling going on - much dung to be navigated in a visit to the Alleluia Obelisk which stands in the field. But the well is no more, though it is thought to have been amongst the trees, cut through by the Mold to Gwernaffield road. The spring that fed the stone enclosure seems to have made its way to the surface a little distance elsewhere, on the other side of the road, in fact. Francis Jones (The Holy Wells of Wales, Cardiff, 1954) gives it short shrift, assigning it as a Class D well, which is code, methinks, for a Jonesian shrug. It has, as far as we know, no tradition of healing.
So, why are we here, why the fuss of a visit and an entry here? Well, because of Margaret Butler Clough, to be honest. In 1861, she wrote a book of historical stories set to verse, ‘Scenes and Stories Little Known Chiefly in North Wales’. It has become much derided since, the verse at times is excruciating, but I have a soft spot for the work, because it’s well meant and interesting and because she wrote it to raise money for churches within her parish (her husband was the Reverend Charles Butler Clough, well known for his efforts in preserving the Mold Gold Cape) - it’s also a mine of information, perhaps reflecting the traditions and stories she had come across in her time in the area.
One of the stories in her book was ‘The Goblin Well of Maes Garmon’ - clearly the now lost well beside the Alleluia Obelisk, ‘On blest St Garmon’s Hill’. Her tale as told, tells of the well being haunted to the extent that,
‘But few will pass alone that way,
Except in cheering sunlight’s ray,
When fancy fears no ill;
But when the gleaming moon doth shine
On shadows, sight may not define,
They shun the murmuring rill.’
In Butler-Clough’s story, John, a lead miner from Gwernaffield, ‘led by the might of love’, was apt to visit a widow, a hostess of a pub by the name of ‘The Fish’ in Mold, by way of the Gwernaffield road, by way of The Goblins Well. Butler-Clough in an addendum to her story, explains that only the names of the ‘hero’ and the inn have been changed, and I rather suspect that the name of the inn was only changed to ‘The Fish’, in order that Margaret could rhyme it with ‘dish’.
Talk in the pub turns inevitably to the haunted Goblin Well, but our brave swain, beered up and proud is all booze bluster and bravado. Turned out by his ‘fair dame’ at closing time, with warnings that when approaching the well to,
‘Be careful to shut your eyes, and pray,
That you may be kept from the wicked Fay,
That dwells in its mossy cell.’
As he approaches the Goblin Well, he finds himself ill at ease, and turning to look behind him, sees,
‘There before him arrayed in white,
Stood the lovely form of a lady bright,
Who prayed for his company:
To guard her up that very dark hill,
For fear the spirits should do her ill,
In their midnight revelry.’
He accepts, of course, but he soon realises, much to his disquiet, that he has not, and cannot see her face beneath ‘a snowy mantilla of satin rare’. He begins to peer, he begins to stare,
‘but nothing but vacancy could he see,
Which frightened him terribly!’
And well it might, since as it turns out, there was nothing to be seen beneath the hood, since there was nothing to see beneath the hood.
‘See here’ she cried, ‘is my beautiful head!
I’ve now for some hundreds of year been dead,
And thus must I ever walk,
Unless I can meet with a noble youth,
Who will serve me one night with faith and truth,
And fear not with me to talk!’
So saying, she shook her mantle white,
And struck John dumb with terror quite,
As he saw a lovely head;
Held under her arm so soft and sweet,
With scented tresses, that flowed to her feet,
He wished himself in bed.’
John, it seems had forgotten to shut his eyes and pray, as he was advised to do by the hostess of ‘The Fish’, and headless or not, he was entranced by the lady in white, who bade him meet her at the midnight hour, when she would say,
‘such a charm of power,
As the spirits shall deceive.’
There lies a great and precious store,
Of sparkling gems, and golden ore,
Close under the sacred well,
But you must pick-axe bring and spade,
For we’ll hide with turf the hole we have made,
When we have broken the fairy spell
And you shall be rich for evermore;
For yours shall be all the golden store,
And my necklace will fasten my head,
(Aye, no more will it tumble off when set,
In its ancient place on my shoulders, wet
With the blood of the sacrifice shed).’
On the verge of a dangerous glamour, John happens to sneeze, of all things, so violently it seems, that he is minded to declare, ‘Heaven keep me!’ With this cry to Heaven, the enchantment of the Lady in White is broken, and she disappears, ‘like a furnace spark’. John, as you might imagine, is terrified, and runs home to bed, clutching a rowan branch - a charm against magic spells and the Lady in White. He never again risks the Gwernaffield Road at night, staying well away from the ‘The Fish’, wooing the widow by daylight.
Where Margaret Butler-Clough found this tale is unknown, but it’s probable that it originated as a local myth that she was well aware of - the Butler-Clough’s owned land in Gwernaffield and were local enough. There is a tradition of Ladi Wen at wells and lakes and pools of water, though this seems to be a largely south Walian thing, although I’m of a mind to recall the tale of the White Lady of Dyserth. It’s interesting that at one point in her tale, Butler-Clough describes the White Lady as an elf, and the attachment of enchantments broken by a cry to Heaven, of buried treasures are common in myth and legend.
While the Gobin Well has long been swept away, and despite the sometimes wince inducing verse of Margaret’s writing, we should be grateful for these little stories which maintain our links not just with the physical remains of the past, but our fascinating habit of attaching continued myth and legend to a time and place. Because, the name of the well remains a curiosity.
The obvious suggestion is that the name reflects the myth and legend surrounding Bryn y Ellyllon, ‘The hill of the Goblins’ - the site of the discovery of the famous Mold Gold Cape. Is it possible then, that the well reflects a darker past in this area? And consider also that the well is sited beside the site of what was thought to be the scene of the famous Alleluia Victory, attributed to St Garmon - surely a better subject for the naming of a holy well. Of course, the evidence for said battle taking place in this field is slight, to say the least. So, as critical as many are of Margaret’s writing, perhaps her work reflects a darker tradition tied to the well, a tradition she was very well aware of, a tradition now lost, along with the well itself.