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Ffynnon Oswald

‘The largest independent rivulet is that which gushes from Ffynnon Oswald, or the well of Oswald, in the township of Merton Ychlan.’

Thomas Pennant, ‘The History of the Parishes of Whiteford and Holywell’ (1796)

 

On first thought, it is perhaps a curious thing to find a holy well dedicated to an English saint, deep within the Flintshire countryside. But then, it really shouldn’t be. Flintshire’s history after the Roman occupation, better described as Tegeingl at this time, was one in which ownership of the land was often won and lost by the native peoples of the area. A cursory study of the Domesday Book of 1086 shows how very many of the settlements in Flintshire have Saxon origins, especially those closest to the coast.

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Oswald was the Saxon king of Northumbria at the beginning of the 7th century, a man considered saintly in his lifetime by the Venerable Bede. He had reunited the Saxon provinces of Bernicia and Deira (largely constituting the modern areas of Northumberland and Yorkshire) at the expense of Cadwallon ap Cadfan of Gwynedd in the Battle of Heavenfield in 634. Following this victory, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes Oswald as Bretwalda, the most powerful of the English kings at the time, although it really is not known whether this was a formal title, accepted and respected by his contemporaries or a later recognition of his power.

 

At some point in 642, Oswald seems to have moved against the pagan Mercians under the ferocious Penda. At the Battle of Maserfield, thought to have been sited somewhere in the near vicinity of the Shropshire town of Oswestry (though this continues to be a matter of some debate) , Penda, with Welsh allies, defeated the Northumbrians in pitched battle. Oswald was brutally dismembered, with his head and limbs displayed on stakes and left in the field of battle. His gruesome demise and the legends that arose from his death are remembered in myth and place name, not least of all, in the name of Oswestry - Oswald’s Tree.

 

Despite Oswald being a Northmbrian, his profound Christianity, promoted by the likes of Bede, had a powerful effect on Mercian territories, including those lands held in Tegeingl, his popularity spreading rapidly. So, perhaps a holy well dedicated to Oswald at Whitford is not so unusual.

 

Edward Lhuyd makes no mention of a Ffynnon Oswald at the end of the 17th century, though he makes mention of five other springs - although given that a deed of 1348 makes mention of a stream by the name of 'Osswallt', an absence of any mention of Oswald by Lhuyd, whether as a well or stream is curious. There is no tradition recorded of cures here, which one perhaps could expect, but Pennant writing at the end of the 18th century, suggests that Oswald was remembered in the near vicinity, beyond the spring. He claims a nearby field was named, Aelod Oswald - Oswald’s Limb, an obvious reference to his gruesome death, and a hill closeby was called Bryn-y-groes, which Pennant suggests was so named after a cross was raised there and dedicated to the Northumbrian king. Does this, perhaps, suggest a cult of Oswald in the area? An interesting thought. Having said that, the tithe map for the area, dated to the middle of the 19th century, name the said field, Aelwyd Ydwellt, which can be translated in a number of ways, but which all relate to a household, a fireplace, a hearth and so on, of Oswald - perhaps referring to a local called Oswald (remembering that a lot of Flintshire had Saxon DNA), rather than the 7th century English king. Perhaps then, Pennant is seeing, in the landscape, what he wants to see, marrying what he knows of Ffynnon Oswald, with the landscape he was born and brought up within.

 

The Royal Commission visited in the summer of 1910, and recorded a spring, ‘discharging a considerable volume of water into a tank, which is protected by a modern brick arch.’ It was a terrible effort to find, in truth, much overgrown with brambles and low leaning trees. It was there of course, the waters were evident from a slight distance, but the arch and tank was found only by going full Indiana Jones and suffering a number of willow wanded welts. Nature is writhing it’s way into the brick and mortar, reducing its brick arched strength - but it remains, and the water is cool and clear. A little wonder amongst the undergrowth.

 

You will find it amongst the growth of scrub and well overflow, opposite the road up to Ffynnon Oswald Farm, there along the first of the two public footpaths, quite suddenly. You’ll have to hunt for it, but it’s there.