Bluestone's Holy Well and Folklore of Pembrokeshire Springs

By Terry John Stream at Treehouse in Village

The Bluestone spring flowing past the Treehouse in the Village

Near the east end of the ruined church at Bluestone, where the slope drops sharply away to form a large u-shaped depression, a spring of water bubbles out of the ground. From there, the water runs down through the culvert that passes the walls of the Tafarn and then into the Bluestone lake before hurrying on to join the brook flowing alongside the Nature Trail in Penglyn Woods. The stream, now much enlarged, continues on a downhill course until it meets the Eastern Cleddau near Blackpool Mill.

That spring is Bluestone’s very own holy well. It’s difficult to see nowadays, as the boggy area where the water emerges from the ground is overgrown and, especially in the summer, foliage obscures the view. Nevertheless, this is where in past centuries local people and pilgrims from further afield came to drink the water or to wash themselves in the hope of curing their illness.

Looking at the site today, it’s hard to imagine that anyone would want to wallow around in a muddy hole in the ground, but my guess is that in years gone by the spring issued into a stone basin, covered perhaps by a masonry hood. Cattle would have been kept well away so that their hooves didn’t churn up the ground and also to prevent the odd cow-pat from ending up in the water. It’s also possible that special cattle feeding ponds were constructed nearby, just to ensure that the herds kept their distance. There were once three small, roughly circular ponds along the course of the stream, where the Bluestone lake is now situated, so perhaps that is where the cattle drank.

Most parishes in Pembrokeshire had at least one well somewhere near the main village. Not only were they sources of water for everyday use, but their supernatural powers were widely believed in and respected. It could hardly be otherwise, as their origins as places of healing were linked to the lives of Christian saints.

St Deiniol’s Well is a case in point. St Deiniol lived some fifteen centuries ago and his life story tells us that at one point he made the long pilgrimage to Jerusalem. When he returned to his hermitage on the slopes of a hill to the south of Pembroke, he brought with him a jar containing water from the River Jordan. There was no water supply at the hermitage, so St Deiniol thrust his wooden staff into the ground and poured the Jordan water around it. Instantly, the staff grew into a beautiful tree and a spring bubbled up from the ground. This became a focus of pilgrimage in succeeding centuries and was famous for curing a variety of illnesses.

The well of Pistyll Dewi, which once rose at the east end of St David’s Cathedral, was created at a time of drought, when St David himself prayed for a new water supply. It was said that on occasion Pistyll Dewi ran with wine and milk.

Another well-known healing well can still be found beside the ancient church at Gumfreston, near Tenby. Actually there are several springs at Gumfreston, all clustered together, their water flowing into one stream. Pilgrims would arrive at Easter Day and, to ensure a cure, they would throw bent pins into the water, a custom known as “throwing Lent away”.

The tradition of throwing pins, often deliberately bent, into a well was a common one and it possibly dates back to the pagan Celtic era, when springs were thought of as entrances to the Other World where the gods dwelt. Iron was a valuable metal and its creation was considered a magical, supernatural process, and there was nothing more precious that could be offered to the gods.

There were different traditions to be observed at other Pembrokeshire wells. A single strand of hair was dropped into the waters of Ffynnon Ddegfel, not far from Solva, in the hope that warts and eye complaints would be miraculously cured. St Govan’s Well, next to the tiny chapel of St Govan squeezed into a cleft in the sea cliffs near Bosherston was at its most potent in July; the water had to be lifted from the well in a limpet shell. Until the mid-nineteenth century a number of abandoned crutches could be seen on the chapel altar to attest to its power. 

St Canna’s Well, on the borders of Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire, could heal a vast number of complaints, but a special ritual had to be observed. A pin would first be offered at the well and the patient would bathe in and drink the waters. The sick person then sat in St Canna’s Chair, a large boulder on which the letters CANV were carved. The healing process was more likely to succeed if the patient fell asleep, but if the cure was not immediate, the process could be repeated for up to fourteen days.

St Caradog’s Well, near Pembrokeshire College in Haverfordwest, is named after Caradog, who lived nearby at Haroldston and who habitually drank the water. In more recent times it was visited by lovers on the morning of the fair held near the well on Easter Monday, when cakes were sold and country games celebrated. As part of the fun, unmarried girls would throw three pins into the spring and they would then gaze intently at the water, believing that the face of their future husbands would appear. One poor lady received a horrendous shock when she saw instead the head of a hairy monster.

Because many of these wells were also used as domestic water supplies, the water had to be reasonably pure and safe to drink. For that reason, eels were often introduced into the well; eels prefer clean water. One of the wells around Angle housed an eel until, in the nineteenth century, the well was enclosed to supply water for the fort built at Chapel Bay.

There are few of these wells left in their original state today and even fewer that are still visited by people who believe in their healing powers. Many, such as St Deiniol’s Well, were destroyed during the Reformation, when the authorities were anxious to stamp out all links to Catholicism. Perhaps that is the fate that befell our healing well at Bluestone, as there is very little about it in existing records. We don’t even know which saint the well - and the church for that matter - is named after. My guess is that both the well and the church are dedicated to St Thomas, because there is an old document in the National Library in Aberystwyth that mention the various parishes in Pembrokeshire where there are chapels and churches dedicated to the saint and the list includes Newton North, where Bluestone now stands…but that’s another story. 

Categories:History, Environment