It is early November, and the trees are gradually taking on their autumn shades of gold and brown. After days of rain, the skies have cleared to bring a chilly day with fitful sunshine and ominous dark clouds which threaten much but thankfully prove to deliver nothing. After weeks of deliberation, I have made my way (despite the vagaries of public transport) to St. Winifred’s Well in Holywell, Flintshire.
The colder winter months bring many less visitors, affording me the luxury of almost having the place to myself, as the few who do come do not stay long.
The girl at the entrance desk helpfully informs me that visitors of pensionable age need only pay 60p of the already modest £1.00 fee, so I can only assume that running up and down the stairs at Crewe railway station to catch my connection has taken its toll on my previous youthful good looks, and I look every one of my 66 years.
The sound of choral singing fills the air as I pass through a wonderland of devotional paraphernalia, statues, candles and expensive rosaries, but sadly nothing as far as I can see that might tell you about the history of the well and its buildings, which is a shame. Leading from the gift shop, one enters the museum which is dark and cavernous, and seems much too large for the small yet interesting collection of items on display.
Tucked into a corner lie a jumble of wooden crutches abandoned by their former owners after receiving a miraculous cure through bathing in the well’s waters. Some of them are of such a small size that they must could only have been used by children, a saddening thought. I have an old picture postcard at home which shows some of these items festooned around the well as if people needed proof of the well’s curative efficacy, or additional encouragement to enter the freezing waters.
There are also a number of processional banners (painted with an apparent enthusiasm for the subjects depicted which is not quite matched by his artistic ability) by one Frederick Rolfe, a flamboyant character with a hazy past associated with the great revival of the Well and Shrine under Fr. Charles Beauclerk in the late 19th century.
Other exhibits of interest include a rugged and venerable wooden chest which may have housed the original reliquary of St. Winifred’s bones, and a collection of prints depicting the well in former times. It would seem that apart from its miraculous health restoring qualities, its usefulness as a source of power to run several industries (including a brewery and several textile mills) was highly prized, and a picture showing the weekly wash being done in the pool suggests a certain local pragmatism on the matter.
Owing to expansion of lucrative mine workings in the area, there was a deleterious effect of the underground source of the well which caused it to run dry for the best part of the year in 1917. When it resumed, it lacked the previous volume and intensity which was said to be of 100 tons of water per minute, yet although apparently from a different source (said by some to be the same as the town’s tap water), its healing qualities seemed undiminished.
Among other items in the museum, my eye was caught by some small items resembling brooches; on closer inspection I discover that they are in fact tiny reliquaries, each containing a miniscule relic of a saint. One holds the tiniest fragment of a splinter supposing to be a piece of the original crucifixion cross surprisingly displayed here - in a damp smelling building converted from a one time bathing pool to be puzzled over by the curious, the devout and the skeptic alike.
I make my way up to the well house and chapel, past the white statue of St. Winifred, which is so eroded by time and weather that it appears to be slowly melting, and notice that presumably due to the recent heavy rain, the water in both the well itself and the outdoor bathing pool is a muddy-looking opaque green and does not look in the slightest bit inviting, even if one were to brave its icy temperature.
On my previous visits, the water had been crystal clear, especially the one within the actual star-shaped well basin having an attractive aquamarine cast, so this unphotogenic alteration is something of a surprise to me. The outside pool is surrounded by ugly metal crush barriers, which detract greatly from its appearance, and I can’t help thinking that there must be some other way of ensuring both visitors’ safety and restricting access to the pool more in keeping with the surroundings.
Bathing is restricted to short intervals during the day, at which times the chain across the steps is unlocked by a serious silent youth with long hair. This same person will later prove to have an uncanny ability to process my purchase of a humble souvenir without using one single word, let alone a smile. If he did not have the countenance of a renaissance angel, I might be offended.
The water still bubbles up from whatever undetermined source to make the surface look as if it is simmering. I have seen an old photograph which shows a magnificent brass chandelier hanging over the well, laden with tiers of candles; how magical it must have looked, with the flickering candlelight shimmering over the moving waters. The chandelier is no more, and gone are the embroidered hangings and other former decorations, and the well is stripped back to a pleasing austerity. The stones and water are beautiful enough.
The walls are engraved with inscriptions from many visitors, their efforts ranging from scratched initials to inscriptions chiseled into the stone with obvious skill. So many people have felt the need to leave their mark in a way that would be completely unacceptable nowadays, least of all on a fragile 500-year-old grade one listed building.
It is a beautiful and unique place, whatever anyone’s reasons are for coming here, and I look forward to visiting again.