Unlike many of the wells to be found in these pages, there is no need to hunt through hedgerow and underbrush to find St Mary’s. Quite the opposite, in fact, since the well is prominently sited within the gardens of Bodrhyddan Hall, not far from the entrance. The well chamber and its accompanying bath is a really rather picturesque and romantic feature. A casual wander about the garden will find it - it’s frankly hard to miss.
Bodrhyddan Hall is something of a mile outside of Rhuddlan on the road to Dyserth, and is in fact on the parish boundary between the two. Wonderfully, there is a carved figure of a fish on the flagstones within the house marking the boundary. The house today is largely an 18th and 19th century refurbishment of the original 17th century building and there are, here-and-there if one knows where to look, hints of this earlier date. It has been home to Lord Langford and his family for over 500 years, and by way of a complicated genealogy, can trace its history to the Edwardian conquests of the late 13th century.
The well, its chamber and bath are today a beautiful feature within the extensive gardens. While we can say with some confidence that the well is ancient, the chamber and bath date from much later. Etched into the north face of the octagonal chamber is a strikingly clear inscription, attributing its building to the famous architect, Inigo Jones and dated to 1612. This has caused some hand wringing, since it would be a remarkable survivor of 17th century religious convulsions that swept these Islands, and there is no indication of the chamber on Bodrhyddan estate maps of 1730, while it is clear on later maps dating to around 1756. In a brief mention in an article focusing on the Bodrhyddan families, Norman Tucker suggests that the inscription is not contemporary to the early 17th century. It is likely then, an 18th century feature, part of a wider refit of the House and gardens. It is possible, of course, that Inigo Jones had a hand in earlier work at Bodrhyddan, and that the inscription is a later recognition of this work. It is also possible that the inscription was added at a later date to remember the actual building of the well chamber in 1612. Frankly, no one is very sure.
The inscription on the well chamber suggesting an Inigo Jones foundation - a later engraving, perhaps?
The earliest written record we have of a well at Bodrhyddan is believed to be from a mention by Edward Lhuyd at the end of the 17th century, in which he names it as ‘Ffynnon Vair’ - St Mary’s Well. This mention by Lhuyd has been supposed to be surety of an ancient past, and this would seem entirely reasonable. This mention by Lhuyd is considerably later than 1612, of course, and one cannot help but think that the great man may well have mentioned the presence of a stately looking well chamber and bath, should they have existed at the time of his writing.
It has also been suggested that there was once a tradition of clandestine marriages at the well. It is worth noting that clandestine marriages of the past were not the same as perhaps we think of them today - a Gretna Green kind of affair. Such marriages were perfectly legal, and undertaken with clergy present, but did not require the traditional banns to be read. These marriages were possibly as a result of some issues with acceptance by family of the union, or possibly to save money. It remains unlikely, however, that marriages of this sort took place at the well, and that Ffynnon Fair at Bodrhyddan has become confused with Ffynnon Fair outside of Trefnant, which did have such a tradition. These marriages were often in isolated spots, and it is hard to see how such a marriage could have taken place on the private land of Bodrhyddan Hall - hardly an inconspicuous site, whatever the religious loyalties of the Conwy family at the time. It is something of an irony, however, when one notes that Bodrhyddan Hall is now a popular setting for marriages.
Within the well chamber - looking up to the lantern.
We have no record of cures at the well, though the Coflein website is careful to suggest that the waters may have been medicinal. It is hard to credit the waters as not having a tradition of being curative, given that it is more than likely very old indeed. And while the well chamber and bath are later additions, it would suggest that the buildings here reflect an ancient tradition - stretching further back than the foundation of the House. Some have noted the nearness of the well to the parish boundary, or more properly, the parish boundary to the well. And, while I mention this with a smile, the koi carp that swim leisurely within the well water of the bath are huge things - I fear for the heron that would attempt a catch at St Mary’s Well. Holy well water hugified koi, if you please.
The well is, as already mentioned, quite beautiful. A 4m tall octagonal chamber with smooth 1m wide facings. The arched entrance has a cherub keystone, while the ornate lantern atop the cupola is topped with a splendid pelican - and you will see many pelicans at Bodrhyddan Hall. Internally, the chamber has centre facing stone seating, gathered about a central grated spring. It is described now as a wishing well, which seems fair enough, since all holy wells were such, after a fashion, and one can see money through the metal which is regularly collected and donated to charity. To the north is the large rectangular bath - the waters of the spring flow from the well chamber into the large bath through a carved fish head. Its use as an immersion pool is assured by the presence of steps leading down into the waters. Quite alarmingly large koi swim within the waters now.
Bodrhyddan Hall is a delight. One of those places which seems to have quietly gathered its past within itself, away from the loudness of museum and exhibition. If you have a chance - take the tour. You might be reticent, you might be a little shy to be led through the House. Don’t be. Pay the entrance fee, and take the tour - if only to see the long oaken table upon which a quite dead William Rufus, he of the arrow in the New Forest, was laid upon. The guides are lovely and knowledgeable. The House and gardens are open Tuesdays and Thursdays through the summer and £10 per person. There’s a little tea room as well - what’s not to like?
E. Hubbard, The Buildings of Wales Clwyd, London, (1986)
E. Lhuyd, Parochialia Part 1, Archaeologia Cambrensis, April (1909)
T. Norman, Bodrhyddan and the families of Conwy, Shipley-Conwy and Rowley-Conwy, Flintshire Historical Society Publication Vol 19, (1961)