Hello, it's good to see you here, thank you for dropping in. It's hot and sunny here, no rain since Sunday and although the combine harvesters have been out and the fields have been cropped, the farmers are watering the land because it's too hard to plough. We are gently pootling our way through the school holiday, trying to keep up with The Mathematician's busy schedule of holidays, festivals and visits before she leaves us later this month.
Back in the Spring a friend of mine asked me if I would like to go on a trip to St Winefride's Well with her. "The one in Shropshire or the one in North Wales?" I asked. "The one in North Wales," she replied. She had wanted to visit it for ages, so three of us set a date to visit in May but circumstances overtook us and we couldn't go, we set another date in June and those arrangements also fell apart but eventually, on the first Friday in July, we made it to Holywell. Oh My Goodness. I honestly believe those first two arrangements were meant to fall through because our visit was greatly enhanced by glorious sunshine and baking heat. In fact, it was an amazing day which left its impact on all of us.
I didn't know anything at all about St Winefride so I had to do some research before we visited. Her name was Gwenffrewi (pronounced Wen-FROW-ie) and she was a beautiful young Welsh noblewoman who lived with her parents in the early years of the seventh century AD. She had been a devout Christian since she was a little girl and planned to become a nun. One day, while her parents were attending a church mass presided over by her uncle, St Beuno, Prince Caradoc rode by and called in at the house to ask for a glass of water. He really wasn't a very nice man and, finding Gwenffrewi by herself, he tried to rape her but she escaped from his clutches and ran to the church, calling to her uncle and father to help her (I may have added a bit of dramatic licence there). Caradoc caught up with her just outside the church door and, angrily drawing his sword, decapitated her. Her head rolled down the hill, there was an earthquake and a spring burst out of the ground where it landed. St Beuno rushed outside, just too late, and cursed Caradoc so that the ground beneath him opened and the Devil rose up and dragged him down to Hell. St Beuno then picked up Gwenffrewi's head, placed it back on her neck and led his congregation in prayer for her, which restored her to life. Gwenffrewi then devoted her life to God and became the abbess of a convent at Gwytherin, where she eventually died and was buried. She is always depicted with a scar on her neck.
The spring at Holywell became known as a place which had miraculous healing powers almost immediately and was already an established pilgrimage site in the twelfth century when her bones were moved from Gwytherin to Shrewsbury Abbey, and it has remained so ever since. In 1415 King Henry V walked from Shrewsbury to her shrine at Holywell to give thanks for his victory at Agincourt and in 1687 King James II and his wife Mary of Modena went there to pray for a son (successfully, he became The Old Pretender). The buildings survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII, possibly because of a connexion to his grandmother, Margaret Beaufort, under whose patronage the current well house and chapel are believed to have been built.
So, I thought that my friends and I would be visiting an interesting historical site with some rather lovely 16th century buildings; I did not realise that we would be visiting a very active site of Catholic pilgrimage, the Lourdes of Wales, which receives about 36,000 visitors every year. Culturally, I felt a bit out of my depth.
On arrival, we were informed that a priest was available on the site to hear our confessions but we chose not to do that. However, we did attend the fifteen minute service of prayer at the shrine, which is inside the well house, although we graciously refused the invitation to kiss the holy relic. Ah, I need to tell you about St Winefride's Finger: in 1852 a monk was looking through the Register of Relics in Rome when he came across a small finger-sized bone which is known as St Winefride's Finger, although we don't know which bone it actually is. The bone was chopped in half, half was retained in Rome and the other half was sent to Shrewsbury Cathedral, where it was chopped in half again and half (really a quarter) was sent to the shrine at Holywell. It is this fragment which all pilgrims were invited to kiss, and please be assured that the priest wiped it carefully between each pair of lips.
The well house is stunningly beautiful inside and over the centuries, pilgrims have carved their names and initials into the stone pillars. From the well, the crystal-clear water runs outside into a pool in which "respectful bathing" is allowed and we saw people of all ages paddling, walking or swimming. In the pool sits St Beuno's stone, on which pilgrims can sit or stand and ask St Winefride for help three times, because apparently, she may not act the first time. Also from the well (not from the pool!) a pipe carries the holy water to a pump from which visitors can fill a glass or a bottle - in fact, we were each given a plastic cup by the custodian when we arrived so that we could do just that and "take the waters".
There is a small exhibition centre which displays these crutches, left behind long ago by pilgrims who had been healed by the water. There is also a pilgrimage museum, but it is not open every day and it was closed when we were there.
Above the well house there is a chapel which is locked but the custodian will lend you the key if you ask. There were people using it to pray when we asked to come in and they were reluctant to admit us, even more so when we declined their invitation to pray with them, but we explained that the custodian had suggested we follow them in and we promised to be quiet and respectful. They locked us in and prayed loudly and long until we very quietly turned the key and left them.
We stayed in the precinct for several hours. We enjoyed tea and scones in the new tearoom, we took the waters and we cooled our feet in the pool, respectfully and thoughtfully. Although the shrine is right beside a main road, it feels like a secluded, special place. Honestly, if you are in the area, I highly recommend a visit - even the Best Beloved is keen for us to go together. Entry costs £1 (free if you are a member of Cadw), there is a small car park on the opposite side of the road and if you would like somewhere to stay overnight, you can stay in the convent (which is, I think, where St Winefride's Finger is looked after).
There are about twenty recorded variations of Gwenffrewi's name. In Latin it is Wenefreda, in England we would call her Winifred but in the nineteenth century Winefride was settled on simply because it was thought to look Gothic and Gothic was very fashionable at that time. I think I like to call her by her own name, Gwenffrewi.
See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x