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A Thousand Miles of History: The Wells of the Wishing Tree…

“Ooh!” My companion, well used to the consequences of such exclamations, braced himself as I swung the car off the road we were supposed to be taking and onto a narrow lane. The sign was intriguing and, although we had visited our last planned site of the day, one more couldn’t hurt…

I would probably not have followed the sign had it just said ‘holy well’, but it also sported the words ‘and Celtic chapel’ and that made it irresistible. We had no idea at all of what we might find, but, in my defence, I had this vague notion of the site being close to the main road. Quite why I should have thought so when almost every other site we had visited had entailed a fair walk, I have no idea…but I didn’t expect it to be more than a ten-minute detour.

Leaving the car, we entered a green tunnel straight out of a fairytale. Moss and lichen adorned twisted branches, ferns and flowers lined the path and at any moment, I expected to see the dryads holding out their hands in an invitation to the dance. I have seldom been more aware of the presence of the trees, yet it is difficult to explain why that should be so. It was simply a well-worn path where none of the trees were ancient or particularly remarkable… apart from the undeniable feeling that they were…

We had already walked a good bit further than expected when we saw the clootie tree. Standing slightly apart from the rest and festooned with offerings, it marks the place of the Wishing Well, a wide circular pool with a spring bubbling up at one end, and the entrance to the Holy Well. The Holy Well itself is about a hundred yards away, hidden in thick undergrowth across the spring and the deep mud through which, unprepared and unsuitably shod, we were not about to go wading. There is a small, stone cistern there, half hidden in the trees, and had we been wearing our boots we would have followed the branch in the trail to see it.

The Holy Well is dedicated to St Madern, which may be a Christianised version of a much earlier name. Little is known about the saint except that he was a hermit in Cornwall with connections to Brittany. It is possible that, like many of the early local saints, he did not exist at all…or at least, not in the way he was adopted by the Church. St Madern’s well is also called Madron Well, after the nearby village. But is that the only reason for the name?

‘Modron’, the divine mother of Mabon, whose name comes from Maponos, ‘the Great Son’, is the Welsh version of the old Celtic goddess known as Dea Matrona in the Gaulish lands of Brittany…. And that is one ‘connection’ right there. Dea Matrona was a Mother goddess, often depicted, like Isis and the Virgin, holding her Son to her breast. Mabon is, in some tales, said to be one of King Arthur’s warriors, and his mother may have been a much earlier personification of the personage known to the Arthurian Romances as Morgan Le Fay… which might explain the magic in the trees…

Although the circular stonework of the Holy Well is only around a thousand years old, the sanctity of the site goes back to pre-Christian times, and much of the magic still preserved in folklore tells a decidedly pagan story. One of the legends of the well tells of a man named John Trellie who was paralysed from the waist. The story was reported in a seventeenth century account and tells how John was cured by bathing three times in the well and spending three nights on the grassy hillock beside the well known as St Maderne’s Bed. The bed was remade every year… and this sounds much more like a pagan goddess ritual than a Christian rite, although the Bishop of Exeter was pleased to confirm the truth of the cure.

John was not the only one to seek healing here and the rite required the sufferer to bathe three times naked in the water, walk three times around the well and sleep for three nights on the ‘bed’. They would then tear a strip from their clothing, dip it in the well and tie it to a tree and, as the cloth perished and rotted away, so would their illness disappear.

Another less-than-Christian tradition saw maidens cutting straws into inch long pieces and affixing them at the centre with pins to make an equal-armed cross. Throwing them into the water at Beltane, they would count any bubbles that rose from them…each bubble representing one year before they would wed.

The twin wells feel to be very much a place of feminine mysteries and the spirits of wood, earth and water take precedence here. The overlay of the later patriarchal religion seems a fragile mask, no more than an attempt to gather the site within the fold of the Church… at least officially. The reverence of the Mother at the ancient Holy Wells was widespread, right up until the Reformation when such practices were frowned upon and forbidden… though that did not stop the old traditions from being remembered and observed. Was the chapel too a later addition, adding its presence and the stamp of authority, or did it have a different story to tell? We walked on, waiting to find out…

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