by Alex Langstone
The highland granitic expanse of Bodmin Moor covers much of North East Cornwall, covered with hundreds of ancient archaeological sites; standing stones, cairns, stone circles and hut circles, the moor attracts visitors who want to explore the ancient landscape, climb the highest hills in the Duchy and enjoy the vast wide-open rugged vistas across moor, heath and valley.
Not so well-known is the old town, from whence the moor takes its name. Bodmin has a long and distinguished history. St Guron founded a monastery here in the 6th century and shortly afterwards St Petroc arrived and took over the holy spot, where the church now stands. Today the town still boasts the largest parish church in Cornwall. The church is dedicated to St Petroc and is largely 15th century. Interestingly the church still contains the ivory casket of St Petroc, which held the relics of the founding saint at least since the 12th century. The relics were stolen in 1177 and taken to St Meen’s Abbey in Brittany. Henry II intervened and the relics were returned in the ivory casket that can still be seen today! This historic event is commemorated every year at the Bodmin Riding ceremony held at the beginning of each July.
The town’s name comes from the Cornish “bod” (dwelling) and “monegh” (monks). A direct reference to the importance of the settlement in its early days of ecclesiastical power. It is very likely because of this religious status the early town enjoyed that the many ancient holy wells, most which pre-date Christianity, have survived around the quaint and historic former county town.
Priory park contains a few remains of the medieval Priory including the Holy Well of St Petroc, which is the first and most pleasing of the town’s Holy Wells we shall visit.
The most splendid of these ancient sacred wells is that of St Petroc. This beautiful old well is situated at the edge of the town’s Priory Park, close to but hidden from the town’s football club. The well is sited in a hollow, beneath a copse of Oak, Ash, Holly and Hawthorn. The water level is normally very high, covering most of the seventeenth century granite arched well basin. A statue of the Virgin was found here during restoration work, and now resides in Buckfast Abbey. This Holy Well was originally dedicated to St Guron, but over the centuries has, for unknown reasons, had its dedication swapped with the well by St Petroc’s church. This site still exudes a sense of mystery and is a natural spot for peaceful reflection.
Scarlett’s well, is another of Bodmin’s peaceful and secluded holy wells. A mineral rich healing well situated by the beginning of the Camel trail on the edge of town. The site is set back into an Ivy clad bank, where a spring gushes forth from the hillside and flows into a granite trough which holds the water briefly before it continues its flow towards the bubbling stream which meanders along the valley floor towards the larger River Camel and beyond to the Atlantic Ocean. This site is very beautiful and peaceful. The well was once part of the Priory of Bodiniel and has many stories of healing and miracles associated with it. The well and its immediate vicinity is reputed to be haunted by a lady dressed in white. This ghost has been linked to Victorian times, but it is undoubtedly a much earlier ancient folkloric echo of the goddess of the sacred spring.
St Guron’s well sits in the churchyard of St Petroc, by the lofty parish church. A fine granite well house completely encloses the sacred spring, (originally dedicated to Petroc) but the waters can be accessed below where the holy spring water issues from the mouths of two impressive gargoyles. The water is contained in an animal drinking trough, before it disappears beneath the modern roads of the town centre.
Other town centre wells include the Bree Shute well which was also known as the eye well, and Cock’s well. Bree Shute was famed for curing sore eyes, and a plaque above the well still reads Eye Water. A modern doctors surgery now sits opposite this healing well, a continuation of the wells curative powers maybe?
Cock’s well is now unfortunately dry, but was once renowned as a drinking well, it sits on the corner of Chapel Lane and Dennison Road. The name of this well maybe a corruption of Couch’s well, as nearby Couch’s Lane leads from the well up to the historic Bodmin family home of the Quiller-Couch’s. An interesting piece of local history for sure and one with particular meaning regarding Cornish holy wells.
There are several lost holy wells around the town. There was the Bodmin Holy Well, which was situated about a mile away from Scarlett’s well in Fairwash Combe. Thomas Quiller-Couch has this to say about this ancient sacred place:
“A mile or so above Scarlett’s well in the Fairwash Combe, is the clear and perennial fountain, still giving its name to the field in which it is situated. The well is not now, if it ever was, enclosed by any masonry; but the limpid stream runs into a granite trough, the overflow irrigating the grass below. It had great repute among the dead and gone of Bodmin; still the aged retain some remembrance of it, and tell me how in their youth they used to frequent the Holy Well to divine their future by rushes from the marsh below tied crosswise (with a now forgotten verse) put to float on the water. On a recent visit I searched for votive coin or pin, but found none. Hydromancy is dead in this generation.”
from Ancient and Holy Wells of Cornwall by Thomas Qullier-Couch 1826-1884.
The Well of the Holy Rood, another lost holy well is reputed to have been in the grounds of the Holy Rood chapel on a wooded hill overlooking the east side of town. This leafy modern cemetery contains many mature trees along with the picturesque 16th century Berry tower which is all that remains of the Holy Rood chapel. An ancient Celtic wayside cross stands by the tower.This was moved here in 1860 from its original site on Cross Lane at the junction of Berry Lane. The site of the Holy Well is now, unfortunately lost.
The lost holy well of St Nicholas was sited in grounds of what is now the Pencarron Club, opposite Bodmin central Railway Station at top of Nicholas Street, and the final lost well of Bodmin is St Leonard’s Well. This holy well was directly behind St Leonard’s Chapel in Upper Bore Street. Research is currently ongoing regarding these lost holy wells, and I shall hopefully be able to report more fully on them soon.
Above: Medieval wayside Celtic cross at Berry Tower
Bodmin Town Council have produced a fantastic Well Trail leaflet, which takes the walker on an historic trail of discovery through the ancient town. All of the wells discussed are visited and much of the towns colourful history is discussed. The leaflet is free and is available from Bodmin Tourist Information Centre. Let’s hope these wells are given the full protection they deserve and that Bodmin Town Council and others continue to look after them so that future generations can continue to enjoy and benefit from their cultural, social and spiritual history.
Ancient and Holy Wells of Cornwall by T. Quiller-Couch. C. J. Clark, London. 1894
Secret Shrines by Paul Broadhurst. Pendragon Press. Launceston. 1997
Bodmin’s Well Trail by Bodmin Town Council, where a PDF of the excellent well trail guide can be downloaded.
Fentynyow Kernow by Cheryl Straffon. Meyn Mamvro Publications. St Just. 2005.
This article was first published on the author’s website here www.alexlangstone.co.uk