It has been said that Ffynnon Tegla is a disappointment. What utter nonsense. Perhaps those who have thought so prefer their holy wells to be bigger affairs, more dressed in drama, enclosed in stone and mortar. Ffynnon Tegla, to be found by the banks of the River Alyn amongst a scattering of trees from within whose very roots the spring seems to rise, is a delight for the fact that it is quite the opposite. There is something beautiful about these holy wells, hidden away in field and hedgerow, and St Tegla’s is no different. Its beauty lies in its remoteness from ostentation. In fact, the building of an information panel has detracted from the beauty of the holy well, to some extent, and would be better placed at the church, or at the entrance to the field through which one is required to walk to reach the well.
The reader will notice that I have chosen to name the well, St Tegla's, in the belief that the well was first dedicated to this most mysterious of British saints. In fact, so obscure and forgotten has she become that in effect, the well has also taken the name of one St Thecla, a far more famous 1st century early Christian saint and, by all accounts, a furiously strong individual. Her icon, sent as a gift from the community of The Tomb of St Thecla’s in Ma’loula in Syria is displayed prominently to the left of the altar in St Tecla’s Church. The earliest record of her life comes from the apocryphal ‘Acts of Paul and Thecla’. She became a follower of St Paul after witnessing his preaching in Iconium (Konya, in Turkey) and was saved from burning at the stake by a storm. She travelled with St Paul to Antioch where a nobleman by the name of Alexander attempted to rape her. Thecla fought him off, wounding him in the process and was put on trial for assault. She was, predictably found guilty and sentenced to death once again, this time by being eaten by wild beasts. She was again saved, this time by the protection of the female beasts that fought off the male animals. She then proceeded to baptise herself. Whether one believes that the well was first dedicated to Tegla, or Thecla, it remains an indication of the power of both that this well was thus named.
And it is Thecla to whom we probably should attribute the healing nature of the well. Thecla was a renowned healer, so much so that in Seleucia she made so many doctors redundant that they arranged for her to be raped of her virginity by a group of young men (she was apparently aged 90, at this time). She was saved by the opening up of a passage in the cave in which she lived, which was subsequently blocked by a rockfall. The passage led her to Rome where she died beside St Paul’s tomb. Thecla was famous for curing many ailments, including epilepsy, and it is for curing epilepsy that the well is most famous. It is of course possible that the well was always known for curing epilepsy, and with the arrival of the knowledge, perhaps with the Romans, the two were merged.
The process by which people were healed of their epilepsy was noticeably complicated. It is a process mirrored for similar effect at Ffynnon Ddeier at Bodfari. The sufferer was required to arrive at the well after sunset on a Friday, carrying a cockerel (if the sufferer was a male) or a pullet (if female). The bird was then pricked with a pin which was then tossed into the well. A groat, around four pence, was also thrown into the well as a thankful offering and the afflicted then washed their feet in the water of the well.
The bird was then carried around the well three times while the Lord’s Prayer was recited. The sufferer would then go to the church, which would also be circled three times, the Lord’s Prayer once again recited. Then the individual would enter the church and sleep beneath the altar, still holding the bird and apparently using a Bible as a pillow. At dawn, the individual seeking Thecla’s cure would place the bird’s beak in their mouth and breath into the bird, thus transferring the sickness to the unfortunate animal. An offering of silver for the poor of the parish was made and the sufferer would be on their way, leaving the fowl within the church. If the bird died, it was believed the sufferer was cured, but if not the process would be repeated.
One of Edward Lhuyd’s correspondents described it thus:
'A man has always a cock with him under ye Altar [a form of sacred incubation or sleep was practised as an essential part of the Llandegla rite], a woman a hen, a boy a cockrel & a girl a Pullet. These are given the Clerk who says yt ye flesh appears black, and that sometimes...these Fowls, if ye Party recover, catch ye Disease viz. The falling sickness.'
This process of seeking a cure to an ailment through a dream state is called ‘Incubation’ and was a popular ancient practice. Many ancient cultures have some connection to incubation, and it was especially important in the worship of the Greek god, hero Asclepius. There are examples of incubation in many religious texts, including the Bible, though the early Christian Church periodically worked against it. It is the reason many have wondered whether the original dedication of the well was to Asclepius, that the use of the well can thus be traced back to Roman times. However, St Thecla’s cures at Seleucia also practiced incubation, so in truth there is little need to go looking for Asclepius at Llandegla, however tempting. And in any case, the history of the well, as likely as not stretches back as far as people have been present in the area, and as discussed elsewhere, that is a very long time indeed.
Apparently, there were attempts at Llandegla to bring the incubation practice to an end. In 1749, the dean, 'gave strict charge to the parish clerk at his peril to discourage that superstitious practice, and to admit no one into the Church at night on that errand.’
It continued anyway. Excavations by Alwyn Rees in 1935 found a variety of votive offerings in the mud of the well, many of which were dated to the 18th and 19th centuries, including pins and coins, as well as older pieces of quartz and calcite. Llandegla was a famous drovers route, and it is said that cattle were watered there to strengthen them for their long journeys to London. The well has never failed, even in times of severe drought.
The well itself is a chamber of about four feet by three feet and about a foot in depth, with a stone lined bottom. The water flows from a spring beneath a large flat stone. The trees about have on occasion been decorated with ribbons, and visitors have sometimes left offerings around the well itself, including on the rather incongruous information panel. The well is clearly signposted through a field by the Allt yr Efail road. Ffynnon Tegla is a place of beauty and peace in a village of almost effortless calm. That the well remains a place of pilgrimage for those seeking comfort is reassuring, evidence that people have not yet given up their connection to the past.