A ruined chapel stands in a tiny clearing, sheltered and roofed by the trees that cluster close to its walls as if to offer it protection. The walls still guard the interior from view and a single doorway in the northern wall gives entrance. There is a sense of simplicity and peace about the chapel and its glade; centuries of prayer have hallowed the place… and its sanctity may be measured in more than just the hundreds of years that its walls have survived.
The chapel is not large, measuring just twenty-five feet by eighteen, with stone walls two feet thick making the interior considerably more intimate. The stones still stand eight or nine feet high and entering the green-roofed precinct, you leave the world behind. This seems right, for this has been a sacred space for longer than the chapel walls have closed around it, in spite of the destruction it suffered at the hands of Cromwell’s men.
The remains of the chapel are at last nine hundred years old and stand upon a much earlier sacred site. One theory suggests that the Welsh and Irish brought their goddess with them when they came to Cornwall around fifteen hundred years ago and that St Madern, to whom the chapel is dedicated, is a corruption of the Celtic maternal deity, Mordron.
Natural springs, always a place of feminine mysteries, were held as sacred places of healing and vision and have been venerated from the very earliest of times. There is an abundance of them in this westernmost corner of Cornwall, a land of mists and magic that the Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus named Belerion, ’The Shining Land’, almost two thousand years ago. The spring that feeds the Holy Well and the Wishing well close by was once also channelled into this glade, eventually becoming an integral part of the chapel.
The single doorway through which you may enter the chapel is in the northern wall. This in itself is curious for a Christian chapel, as traditionally the north door was the ‘devil’s door’, through which the demons could escape when baptism drove them forth…and the chapel is often referred to as the baptistry. In magical systems, the primary compass points are associated with the elements, and north is assigned to the element of Earth.
Along the north and south walls are stone benches, probably dating to the twelfth century, built into the walls. In the southwest corner of the chapel is a strange stone cubicle, unlike anything I have ever seen in a place of Christian worship. Until recent years, the spring fed a fountain in the outer wall that fell into a shallow pool. Today the water, weather permitting, comes from the fields, but still flows in summers not plagued by drought. As the chapel is called a baptistry, you have to think that this is a place where baptisms were performed, or rituals of healing in the waters of the sacred spring. From this highly unusual ‘font’, the water flows to a drain through the north wall, flowing through a channel across the western floor of the chapel…and the element of water in magical systems is assigned to the West.
The altar, a low stone block with a carved depression in which a cross could be placed, sits, as always, in the east. In magical systems, this direction symbolises the element of Air, the dawning light, the breath of life and the soul. When we visited, the altar was decked with flowers and offerings, and if they looked more pagan than Christian, no disrespect was intended. The chapel is still used by pagan and Christian alike.
Of the four directions, only the south is unmarked by any defining artefact, and we cannot know if once it held the candles that sent prayers winging to heaven or the chapel lamps. There is a fifth element, the quintessential element that unites the others, whole in themselves, yet but facets of a greater whole… Æther, or Spirit, and this little chapel in the glade needs nothing more than the green grove above its open heart as a symbol.
We stood a while in the quiet peace of the place. I wished there was more time to simply sit and absorb the living silence… I wished too that we might come back when summer had not drunk the earth’s moisture and the waters flowed freely. Perhaps, one day, we will… but for now, the road called and this time we would obey the summons. There was a long way to go before we would reach Bodmin Moor and the unusual inn at which we were going to stay for the night…