It was, when I think about it, one of our ‘raids’; one of those rapid incursions which usually happen we visit somewhere an event is about to start. Like the wedding we almost gatecrashed, although we were to be fair, invited in to look round as the guests assembled and the vicar, rehearsing the nervous groom, very kindly interrupted the proceedings to tell us about some carvings in the chancel…That was the day we began to understand the significance of the Jester in the medieval wall paintings… and we left the church looking like a pair of startled rabbits, leaving congratulations floating on the air behind us.
We had lunched at the Greyhound before pointing the car in the general direction of the snowy hills of Wales. It was mid-afternoon and we had some vague idea of finding a place for the night in Holywell where we were heading in search of the town’s namesake.
The legends of the well tie in with so many of the areas we have looked at in the books. The well sprang up, according to the tales, at the site of the near martyrdom of St Winefride. Her Welsh name was Gwenffrewi , which means ‘white/fair’ ‘peace/reconciliation’, a curious coincidence when looked at a little deeper. ‘White’ was often used to denote a sacred place… and there was certainly a divine reconciliation in her story.
Winefride was born in the 7th century, daughter of Tyfid ap Eiludd, a Welsh nobleman and his wife, Wenlo, herself a sister of St Bueno. Winefride caught the eye of Caradoc, but refused his advances, choosing instead to devote her life to the service of her God. In a fit of rage Caradoc drew his sword and beheaded her. The severed head rolled down the hill and where it stopped a spring began to flow.
There are many versions of the story, but all agree that it was through the intervention of St Bueno that Winefride was restored to life. Some say Caradoc was swallowed by the earth for his heinous crime, others say he was slain by Winefride’s brother, Owain. The spring was found to be miraculous and have healing powers. St Bueno, we are told, rested upon the stone that now stands in the bathing pool and promised in the name of God, “that whosoever on that spot should thrice ask for a benefit from God in the name of St. Winefride would obtain the grace he asked if it was for the good of his soul.” (Catholic Encyclopedia)
Winefride retired to a convent at Gwytherin where she later became abbess. She was buried there after her second death some 22 years later in 660AD. Further miracles attended the progress of her remains when her body was moved and healing springs rose from the ground where it rested.
The symbolic and spiritual interpretation of her story, however is a little different depending upon the perspective from which it is examined. Whatever the version or truth of the story it would appear that Winefride herself was a historical figure and early accounts of her mention the scar on her neck. Today the waters of her spring still flow in Holywell, a place of continuous public pilgrimage for thirteen centuries making it unique in Britain.
We arrived to find the bathing pool and shrine in use by a family of pilgrims, passing a full clothed, dripping and gelid teenager making her way back to their van. Although one might think it would be more pleasant to have had the spot to ourselves, it was really heartwarming to see the family use the sacred place, with laughter and genuine devotion, as it should be used. We spent a little time there in the peaceful spot, drinking the waters of the spring and paying our respects in the shrine of the Virgin and Laughing Child. It seemed right somehow.