Arthurian England Part 7: Sacred Springs and Holy Wells (Part 1)

The holy spring at St. Clether's still dressed as it would have been in Celtic times.

The holy spring at St. Clether’s still dressed as it would have been in Celtic times.

England is dotted with holy wells and peaceful chapels. Many of the holy wells date back to pagan times when they were associated with a local deity or water spirit. There was a tradition of “dressing the wells” on feast days, i.e. decorating them with flowers and leaving simple offerings and/or tying a ribbon to a nearby tree to symbolize a petition, traditions that still take place. When Christianity came, these spots were natural places of contemplation for hermits and other holy people. Today, they are still places of pilgrimage for Christian and pagan alike, and are fiercely protected by the local people.

St. Clether’s

The holy spring feeds into a lake and a babbling brook below.

The holy spring feeds into a lake and a babbling brook below.

We visited four such places on my Arthurian trip to England. By far my favorite was the first, St. Clether’s in Cornwall. The walk to this spring is past an old stone church with an ancient graveyard where bluebells blossom among the headstones. Then you walk along a path with gorse on one side and a barely visible brook below (you can hear it easier than you can see it). There are real cuckco birds in the trees and on a warm summer’s day, the breeze sounds like the trees are talking.

The inside of St. Clether's as taken through the door. You can go inside. I just like the framing of this shot.

The inside of St. Clether’s as taken through the door. You can go inside. I just like the framing of this shot.

St. Clether’s itself is a small stone chapel. The spring is around the side in a small niche. When we were there it was dressed with offerings of flowers and symbols of fertility. On the inside, the chapel is plain and beautiful. The stone altar looks like a dolmen, and has a simple cross  with a candle on either side on top. Benches for contemplation line the walls. The peace and quiet inside was like nothing I’ve ever experienced.

I can see how one could grow closer to God there. I really didn’t want to leave. If it got wi-fi service, I could live there. It is lovely maintained by Vonda Inman, who wrote a lovely book called The Guardians of the Well, fictional stories about St. Clether’s over the centuries. I’m currently reading it and loving it. All proceeds from the sale go to the upkeep of the site. There is some video of St. Clether’s on my YouTube page.

St. Nectan’s Faerie Glen

On the way to St. Nectan's

On the way to St. Nectan’s

The second sacred site we visited is St. Nectan’s. This is one place where the journey to get there is just as cool at the site itself. You spend quite a long ways in the woods, walking parallel to (and in some places, over) a babbling brook. There are so many amazing photo opportunities, I can’t even begin to describe them. All the while, you’re surrounded by the sound of the water and the birds calling in the trees. (I kept thinking of the Kevin Costner version of Robin Hood. “You take the one on the right.” “Which one’s the one on the right?” “Oh, we’ll just jump out and grab them.”) As you get closer, you start seeing still stone cairns that pilgrims have built in the water.

Stone cairns built by pilgrims.

Stone cairns built by pilgrims.

Then, just when you think you can’t walk any farther, you reach the gift shop/café, where you have to get a ticket to see the faerie pool. That is also where you can view the ancient hermitage (which I forgot to do – you’ll see why in a minute). You go down a slippery set of stairs and then you’re at the most spectacular waterfall, which empties out into the pool.

The holy waterfall at St. Nectan's

The holy waterfall at St. Nectan’s

As you approach the waterfall, there are curtains of ribbons on each side, left by pilgrims. Word of warning: the rocks leading into the pool are very slick. I should know. I fell in! (I prefer to think of it as being baptized by the faeries.) I went back up to the café to dry off, but my tour mates stayed and took photos. They all waded into the water, and the photos they took ended up full of orbs. It is crazy to see how many. And my blessing dunk in the water is why I forgot to visit the hermitage. That’s okay, I’m sure I’ll be back someday.

Offerings left at the waterfall by pilgrims.

Offerings left at the waterfall by pilgrims.

Next week we’ll explore the holy sites of St. Madron and St. Crede.

Have you ever read about or been to these or any other sacred wells/springs? Have you seen or heard of the tradition of well dressing still taking place today? What do you think it means? Do you think it should continue?