Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Cornish Wells: Old and Not So Old

It would have been a crying shame to spend time in Cornwall and not to visit any holy wells. As I’ve said before, coming across wells that are new to most people is very unlikely – though not unknown – but such are the numbers there that plenty are new to me. Ms Formerly Aldgate saw some of those I’ll describe with me, while for others I took pity on her and went to see them alone.

Two of this set look very similar to one another: St Just’s Well at St Just-in-Roseland and St Cybi’s at Tregony. There are other wells that share the same sort of construction, built into a wall with a single slab of slate forming the roof, so this is a recognisable type. St Just’s was restored relatively recently (and the path to it laid out with gravel chippings so it gets less muddy than previously) and the old stone surround that you can see in this picture replaced with granite uprights, so that curiously it now looks more archaic than it used to. The Tregony well has an old parish boundary stone in front of it.

St Cyor’s Well at Luxulyan was also restored by the local Old Cornwall Society in 1995. Now, in respect to other sites Old Cornwall Societies have a lot to answer for – but such drastic actions are long in the past. There’s no sense of that kind of well-meaning fakery at Luxulyan, although the very neat stone enclosure around the (now sadly dry) well has the deliberate air of a small public garden. The fifteenth-century well-house, which is a fine example of another type of well structure, has become more a sort of shrine with flowers, tea lights, and a statue – possibly supposed to be St Cyor, though it looks like St Francis to me.

The well at Veryan, called either St Symphorian’s or more simply the Holy Well, is another grand structure but of a different kind. Here, the restoration of the well (also now dry) accompanied the Coronation in 1912, and it looks a bit like a village War Memorial. It was carried out by the then Vicar of the parish, Samuel Trist, and the fabric seems to have been assembled from fragments from elsewhere, making it hard to work out what’s original and what’s additional.

Also at St Just in Roseland is a second well, which you can find in the churchyard – itself an astonishing place, laid out as a tropical garden. It’s never been claimed as a ‘holy well’ per se, although it’s obviously intended to look like one. The construction is of brick and stone with rougher stones piled over the roof, creating a grotto-like effect, and it was probably also the work of the Vicar who was responsible for creating the gardens in the early 1900s.

My favourite find was St Rumon’s Well at Ruan Lanihorne. I’d never seen a picture of this, and although Cheryl Straffon came here for her book Fentynyow Kernow in 1998 she only mentioned the chute where the water emerges, not the well itself. That lies on private land – I tried to find someone to ask before I went traipsing about, I really did, but failed. This structure is clearly of the ‘grotto’ type. The large semicircular arch is not an old Cornish well-form, though it closely resembles St Ann’s Well at Chertsey, which we know dates to the mid-1800s, and the Dropping Well at Hackfall which is probably 18th-century. Instead St Rumon’s Well has neat stone walls and, mounted along the rim of the arch, a set of quartzite blocks whose striking appearance is now partly obscured by moss. The water doesn’t originate within the well, but runs into it from the west and then out at the front. I’ve since heard that it was rebuilt at some point to keep butter and milk cool, but the fabric is very elaborate for that purpose alone.

In his groundbreaking 1982 survey Holy Wells of Cornwall John Meyrick records a tradition that the Well of St Rumon was actually in the centre of the village rather than here. While looking around I came across another old well against a wall and opposite the church, still full of water and with a broken wooden door. I wonder whether, perhaps, this was the original holy well?

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