Song of the Water: On Discovering Pembrokeshire's Holy Wells

Song of the Water: On Discovering Pembrokeshire’s Holy Wells

Diana Powell reflects on the process of writing Song of the Water, a new project which tells the story of the ancient wells of Pembrokeshire, commissioned by Ancient Connections.

Water is the source of all life and sustains all living things. Here in Wales, we are blessed or cursed, depending on your point of view, with an abundance of it in all forms. We have the sea on three sides; rain is constantly falling on our mountains, then spilling down in full, rushing streams and rivers, to gather in lakes or that sea. But there are also many less obvious sources, which were crucial for pre-industrial communities, reliably providing clean drinking water close at hand.

These are the ancient wells, found throughout the country and particularly in Pembrokeshire, around which a sacred relationship developed, rendering them ‘holy’, in both Christian and pre-Christian terms.

Next month sees the publication of the ‘Holy Wells of Wexford and Pembrokeshire’, commissioned by Ancient Connections. Ancient Connections is an EU funded arts, heritage and tourism project, linking north Pembrokeshire and north Wexford, further details of which can be found on their website. The publication is a series of five chapbooks, celebrating the wells in these two areas of common ancestry, history and traditions. It coincides with the launch of a new pilgrim route – the Wexford-Pembrokeshire Pilgrim Way between Ferns and St. David’s. The sites are explored through fiction, essays, photographs, poetry and prints, each approaching the subject through different perspectives.

My own chapbook, ‘Song of the Water’ is one of the prose contributions to the series. And I was delighted when Ancient Connections accepted my submission brief, as this gave me the opportunity to explore a part of Pembrokeshire’s landscape and culture that I had been largely unaware of before.

I began with research. There is plenty of useful information available on the Internet, some specifically about Welsh wells, and others about wells in general. But there are two indispensable books necessary for the Welsh ‘well-hunter’. These are: ‘The Holy Wells of Wales’, by Francis Jones (1954, p/b edition University of Wales Press, 1992) and ‘The Living Wells of Wales’, by Phil Cope (Seren, 2019). As their titles suggest, these cover the whole of the country, but there is plenty about Pembrokeshire in both, partly on account of the prevalence of wells here.

Pembrokeshire has more wells than any other county, with Jones citing two hundred and thirty-six in his study. Ancient beliefs were often pushed to the margins of a country – and the belief in the power of well-water and the rituals surrounding it is certainly ancient. And, of course, Pembrokeshire is the ‘home’ of St. David, and numerous other saints. It was, therefore (and is!) a place of pilgrimage, and pilgrims need the sustenance and spiritual benefits such wells supply during their journeys.

It is hardly surprising that I found myself spoilt for choice – so many wells, so many interesting facts, so many stories told about them.

I also began to visit some of them, including several that weren’t in the specific area, to see them for myself and to experience the atmosphere (if any) surrounding such sites. Sometimes, I failed in my quest, because in spite of there being over two hundred, many have disappeared, or have become impossible to reach, due to changes in the landscape and neglect by us all. I myself couldn’t find St Teilo’s on the day I went looking for it. The roads in the area are extremely narrow and winding, making it difficult to stop and search. It is also said to be situated on private land – which is certainly true of others, and therefore cannot be visited without the permission of the owner.

And then there are wells which are accessible, but in rather unsuitable and surprising places – for example, the well in St Bride’s Inn in Little Haven, which is situated through a door at the back of the bar! It has ‘shelves’ on either side, which look as if they would serve for pilgrims to rest on and bathe their feet, but have more recently been used for cooling beer-barrels. The owner of the Inn told me that the well used to supply the water to the village, and indicated where the pipe carrying that water ran. He had no idea that there may be any ‘holy’ significance to the well. Perhaps he is right, yet, with the pub being called St Bride’s (Sant Ffraid), who knows?

Another inappropriate setting is the one found along Solva harbour. It lies between a toilet block and a large boat (although the latter spends some of its time in the sea, hopefully). It seems such a shame that whoever decided to install a Public Convenience there didn’t see any cultural merit or beauty in the well.

The same can be said for the construction of the road leading to Whitesands beach, which edged St Aidan’s (St Maedog’s) well to the side, and caused it to dry up. True, the well, as it is now, isn’t a very appealing structure, but Aidan was founder and first bishop of Ferns. He was also a student of St David and there are many stories told about him… how he brought the drowned back to life, took bee hives back to Ireland and defeated an army. The well has some wonderful views from it, across to Carn Llidi – if only one didn’t have to stand in the road to appreciate them.

And then there are wells in gardens, in church-yards, in car-parks (or boat-parks, rather) as in Porthclais.

This well is known as St David’s well (Ffynnon Ddewi) and is said to be where St David was baptised by St Elvi (Ailbhe, Aelbyw or Elvis) (although there is also a St Elvis’s well near Solva, which also lays claim to the baptism).  Surely this is a very significant connection and a reason to look after the site. And yet, as it is now, it is very difficult to find and is very much overgrown.

All this shows how vastly different some of these sites can be from how they were centuries ago. This is something crucial to remember. What we ‘see’ now and what we ‘know’ may have very little to do with how things were, when the wells were visited for simple village needs, Christian purposes and for ‘pagan’ practices.

Folklore and stories passed down through the generations may give us some insight into the latter. With regard to the religious, Rhygyfarch’s ‘Life of Saint David’ is the source of much information, but it was written in the eleventh century, five hundred years after David’s death. And it was, undeniably, a hagiography of those he wrote about.

It is therefore necessary to take it all with a pinch of salt.

I decided on a few key points from the start – I wanted to stress the value of water in all its forms; I would understand ‘holy’ in terms that were not only purely Christian; setting would be important – how the place spoke to me. Most particularly, I wanted to write from a female point of view ­– to reclaim the wells for women. After all, women were the original guardians of the wells, and appear on the edges of many of the tales. Sometimes, unfairly, they were branded as villains in some accounts – both Grassi and Mererid were held responsible for not replacing the well-covers and thereby flooding the land. Saint Govan, a true shape-shifter, might have been a woman. In St Teilo’s story, the saint has a maid-servant during his life-time and his well had a keeper, Miss Melchior, in later years. And his famous skull, used to drink the water, is believed by some experts to belong to a woman.

Now I wanted to put them centre stage.

St Non’s well fits most of the above criteria. St Non was the mother of St David, and is still celebrated as such. For those who don’t know it, her well is in a beautiful location, on the cliff-tops between her son’s cathedral and the sea. It is still visited by pilgrims today, where the water is said to be beneficial for health, particularly for eye problems. She was, therefore, an obvious choice for my work. However, I was somewhat anxious about this, as she has been written about so many times, both in her capacity as a Christian saint and as a mother goddess. As word count was limited, I decided on a piece something akin to a short prose-poem for Non, which I divided into five sections, each referencing Non at a different stage of her life, together with a different kind of water. This was helped by the fact that Non had several different names. So I had ‘Nonnita at the House Well’, ‘Nonna by the Sea’, ‘Nun in the Rain’, ‘Non – her waters breaking’ and, finally, ‘Blessed Non Fendigedig’s Well’.

And then I needed to write a longer story about a second well. But which one to choose?

When it comes to setting, there are few better than that at Llanwnda, belonging to St Gwyndaf (St Wnda). I was lucky enough to visit it for the first time on a day of beautiful spring sunshine, with the sea and sky a bright blue, while the daffodils added striking daubs of yellow to the green. The well is situated among the trees, between the Garn with its earth-fast tomb, climbing behind, and a view of the sea below. And the hamlet is in an ideal location on the Pilgrim trail and has its church and a history of its own, connecting it to the famous Last Invasion.

Perfect in so many ways, except…

…unfortunately, I didn’t really like St Gwyndaf very much at all. The key tales that are told about him concern the fight he got into with St Aidan, over the naming of the Whitchurch well, and his cursing of the fish that leapt out of the stream he was crossing, causing him to fall off his horse and break his leg. A fish is a Christian symbol, and regarded as a well-oracle in many tales, and is also an important source of food. Strange, then, that the saint banished them from the stream. But also, this, as a story, did not appeal to me.

And then, through my research, I learnt that Gwyndaf had a wife, Gwenonwy. Little is known about her, except that she was a noblewoman, and may have been Arthur’s sister (or the sister of one of the possible Arthurs). But that, in a way, gave me the freedom to imagine. And imagination is very important when it comes to well stories – any stories, really.

Whether Gwenonwy accompanied her husband on his travels is unclear, but, for the purposes of my tale, I decided that she did – as the dutiful ‘pilgrim wife’ of the title.

The story begins at another well – Whitchurch, to the south of Llanwnda, near the lower edge of the ‘arm’ of North Pembrokeshire. This is not far off what would have been a favourite pilgrim’s route to St. David’s – this, together with the springs at Nine wells, providing sustenance for the travellers. (Back then, two pilgrimages to St David’s were equal to one journey to Rome, while three were worth one to Jerusalem, so it was a very popular and valuable undertaking). This well is where Gwyndaf’s quarrel with Aidan was said to have taken place, so I was able to ground the story in a recorded tradition, even though what happens later is purely fiction. It is another in a picturesque setting, which I describe in the tale – a quiet woodland glade, with a mound rising behind.

I was also able to reference a ‘real’ feature of the well.  I had read that the pebbles in the stream were red on their upper side, while being the usual stone colour underneath. When I visited, I found this to be quite true. And Gwenonwy, who is cooling her feet in the stream, sees this redness, and interprets it as blood ‘what else can it be, rusting the pebbles beneath your spooling toes?’

She wants this blood to come from women – whether the monthly bleeding of the maidens, or that of women coming to this place to give birth – just as she wants the well to belong to them. She believes she can see them, as it is a liminal space, where they, and she, will find a way to another world.

But then, Gwyndaf and Aidan appear, fighting over the well, wanting to claim it for Christ, for themselves, causing real blood to be shed and destroying the beauty and atmosphere of the place.

Gwyndaf, having lost the quarrel, decides not to go on to St David’s, as he had intended, but turns inland, and Gwenonwy, as the dutiful pilgrim wife, must follow. They travel through several locations, following the route he is said to have taken through Pembrokeshire, before, finally, he settles on Llanwnda – and, really, he can go no further, because there is only the sea.

I was still able to mention other ‘truths’ of the story, without dwelling on them – the breaking of his leg, the cursing of the fish. But, otherwise, the story is about what happens to Gwenonwy in this new place – a place she hates at first, because of its weather, and because she has to nurse her husband after that fall. And then, one day, she discovers a well. It has, for her, a transformative power, just as these wells can be for so many who visit them, and experience them as ‘a space to seek your truth.’

I won’t say any more about the story, as I don’t want to spoil it for any potential reader.

It is available to pre-order from Parthian Books (many thanks to Parthian, for editing and publishing) and is accompanied by a Welsh translation and a trilingual introduction (Welsh, English and Irish).

And it is beautifully illustrated by Flora McLachlan. This has been a particular pleasure of the book – to see my work accompanied by Flora’s magical etchings, whose fluidity capture the essence of water so perfectly.

The other chapbooks in the series are also available here, including the Irish fictional equivalent to mine, by the fabulous Michelle Dooley Mahon – it will be fascinating to see our different approaches!

This commission has brought me so much more than a finished story I am happy with, presented in an unusual format. Besides Flora’s illustrations, I have been lucky enough to have a song based on my ‘Gwenonwy’ tale. This was composed by the extremely talented Jo MacGregor Messore who has produced an album for the same project, together with Dan Messore, in collaboration with musicians from Ireland. It is a very special feeling for a writer to hear a haunting and melodic musical rendition, inspired by their work.

And with so much fascinating material out there, I fully intend to write more stories on the same topic in the future. And I shall be visiting the wells again. It is a pleasure to follow pathways normally untrodden, to see what lies at their end – a new way of exploring our wonderful Pembrokeshire and connecting with special landscapes, and also, perhaps, the whole of Wales.

Song of the Water is available to pre-order from Parthian Books.