Historic churches and other Christian sites in South Wales

Holy wells

Since prehistoric times, pools and springs of water have been regarded as places where people could get in touch with the spiritual world. When Christianity took hold in Britain they began to be seen as being under the special care of saints instead of pagan gods, and became considered Christian 'holy wells'. Some of the wells found in churchyards may have begun to be venerated in prehistory, but not necessarily all of them. For example, a new church may have been constructed near a well or spring because the priest would be living on site and needed access to a supply or water. Or someone who wanted to leave the world and live as a hermit is likely to have selected, as a suitable place to live, a site near a spring so he (or less often she) would not need to go far for water. If the hermit then died and was considered by the people in the neighbourhood to have been so holy that they had now become a saint, the well itself was then likely to be thought of as a holy well.

Many holy wells were regarded as having healing properties, particularly helping with specific ailments, and provided cures for such things as rheumatism, skin disease, warts and eye complaints. Pistyll Golau at Radyr was believed to be good for sprains and weak sinews. At the group known as Nine Wells, Trellech, each of the wells, fed from a different spring, was said to cure a different ailment. People hoping to be cured usually either drank the water or bathed in it, either drawing water to bathe the afflicted part, or actually stepping into the well itself. Whilst the water springing from at least some of these wells had a mineral content with some genuine healing properties, for those frequenting them there was an element of magic in the proceedings – they needed to follow the sequence of actions set down for the individual well – a ritual in fact. Sometimes all the sick person needed to do was to say a prayer (or sometimes even just make a wish) and leave an offering, usually a pin or a strip of cloth. Wells where these particular offering were left were known as 'pin wells' or 'rag wells'.

Structures were put around at least some of the holy wells in Glamorgan and Gwent. Sometimes the spring has been covered with a little building. At others, the sides of the pool or channel have been lined with masonry. Most of them are in not in a good state of preservation, and it is not always possible to see how they would have looked when they were in use.