In Search of St Peter’s Well (Ffynnon Bedr), Ruthin

Janet Bord (janet.bord@boyns.net)


As part of a long-term project to research in depth all the saints’ wells in Wales (around 800), I have recently had a look at what is known about St Peter’s Well in Ruthin, only a short walk from where I live.  The following account presents all the information I have discovered so far, and I would of course be interested to hear from anyone who can throw any further light on this fascinating but largely forgotten aspect of Ruthin’s past.

Probable location


St Peter’s Well has long since disappeared and no trace remains.  It was probably in a field to the east of Castle Park Farm (field reference SJ126574), east of the Corwen road south of Ruthin Castle, and south of a lane (Lon Speiriol Isaf) linking that road with the A525 to the east.   Determining the exact location of the well has proved problematic, as will be explained.


The history of the well


The earliest reference to the well dates from around 1700, in this intriguing description from Lhwyd’s Parochialia:

Fynnon Bedr, Lately so-called, nicknamed fr: one Peter Jones who found it.  This is frequented in June & July.

Ruthin church is dedicated to St Peter, and the joint feast day of Saints Peter and Paul is on 29 June, so the reference to visiting the well in June and July would suggest that people were celebrating this feast day in the late 17th century, and that the well really was named for St Peter and not Peter Jones.  Perhaps a local person of this name was involved in improving or maintaining the well when it was adapted for use as a simple spa at the end of the 17th century?  Judging by its content, this brief description appears to date from the time when the well was still being visited at a time special to the saint, though perhaps without any understanding of why people congregated there at that time, its value solely as a place of healing having started to take priority.  Alternatively, perhaps the person who wrote the Ruthin entry for the Parochialia, possibly the town’s priest, knew very well that the well was named for St Peter but did not wish to associate the church with popery.  Congregating at holy wells in order to venerate the saint was a survival of popish practice, and was generally allowed but not condoned, hence possibly the writer’s reason for giving his own explanation for the well’s name.  


The next description of the well dates from 1756, when it featured in Diederick Wessel Linden’s Treatise on the Three Medicinal Mineral Waters at Llandrindod, and when it was clearly notable as having been used for healing purposes.    

     In this same County [Denbighshire], there is also another medicinal Spring, near Ruthyn;  which, I am credibly informed, was in great Repute some 25 or 30 Years ago[i.e. early 18th century];  and was prescribed in several Disorders, not without good Success, by Dr. Foulks, an eminent Physician, who resided about that Time at Ruthin.  This Spring is about a Quarter of a Mile South of the Town, and is known by the Name of St. Peter’s Well.


     The Well is in the high Road, surrounded by the Lands of Richard Middleton, Esq;  of Chirk-Castle, Member of Parliament.  It is walled in;  and there is a Bason erected, into which the Water springs forth.  But at present, as the Use of it is quite discontinued, the Bason is much out of Repair;  and other adventitious Water, devoid of all medical Contents, runs in and commixes with it:  So that I found it utterly impracticable to make any Experiments on it that were solid and conclusive.  [However Linden continues with details of an experiment he made using the well water.]

Fifty years later, in 1805, an account of the well was included in a guidebook, but it reads as though the information was taken from Linden’s account:

…and St. Peter’s Well, in the same county, about a quarter of a mile from Ruthin, is reckoned a very fine medicinal spring.  At the recommendation of Dr. Fowkes, (an eminent physician at that place) it was secured by a wall built round it, and a bason placed to receive the water:  these afterwards went to decay, and the spring was neglected.

The entry for the well in Lewis’s Topographical Dictionary (first published 1833) also adds no further details:  

A chalybeate spring, dedicated to St. Peter, was formerly in high repute for the supposed miraculous medicinal efficacy of its waters, but is at present neglected:  it is strongly impregnated with some mineral, and, if due care were taken to prevent its admixture with other waters, it might still be found highly beneficial.

However this description does for the first time speak of the water as ‘miraculous’, suggesting that it was by some people believed to have qualities that were not simply medicinal.  The reference to the water’s ‘admixture with other waters’ suggests that most of this description was derived from Linden.  It appeared in the entry for the parish of Llanrhudd, which adjoins Ruthin, and Revd Elias Owen, a local folklorist who made a study of a number of North Wales wells, also located the well in Llanrhudd.  This is because St Peter’s church in Ruthin was a daughter church of St Meugan’s in Llanrhudd, and Ruthin parish was cut out of Llanrhudd’s ecclesiastical parish.  The late 19th century Ordnance Survey map shows the secular parishes, with the well just inside Ruthin parish,  not far from both the western boundary with Llanfwrog and a little further from the eastern boundary with Llanrhudd.  The mid 19th century tithe schedule treats the two parishes together, as ‘Ruthin and Llanrhydd’.

Descriptions of the well


Revd Elias Owen wrote two accounts of the well at the end of the 19th century, by which time it was long out of use.  Owen had been shown the former location of St Peter’s Well by a friend living in Ruthin:

ST. PETER’S WELL.  This Well stood in the Parish of Llanrhudd, in a field on the side of the road that goes to Corwen.  After you pass the Castle, you come to a road that leads from the Corwen road to Llanfair road, you will find the site of this Well in the field on your right hand as you proceed from the Corwen road along the lane that takes you to Llanfair road. 

His other description of the well’s location is:

     It stood in a meadow, and was in a straight line drawn from the Castle [Park] Farm, and the Railway, and was about one hundred yards from the Line.  The meadow is on the right hand side of the first road, after leaving Ruthin for Corwen, that connects the Corwen & Llanfair highways.

Sadly Owen’s drawn plan of the location has been lost.   His statement that it was 100 yards west of the railway line locates it on the edge of a field which slopes uphill from the valley meadows.  But it is unlikely to have been on the field boundary, since Owen states that the well ‘stood in a meadow’, which suggests it was further west in the large flat valley field, which was two fields in Owen’s day.  An aerial view of all the fields between the Corwen road and the railway line shows no sign that there ever was a well there.  Unfortunately Owen did not indicate how far into the field from the lane the well was situated, so it is difficult to accurately pinpoint the location.  Nor did he actually see the well, only ‘the spot, where the well stood’, but the friend who showed him the location, also described how the well had appeared:

It was about three yards square, the bottom paved, and the sides lined with stones;  steps descended into the well.  [His other description says there were two steps.] There were several paths leading to the well, & my informant thought that at least one of them, that leading from Ruthin was paved.  The other paths were in the direction of Tyn-y-Wern [to the south], and Llanrhudd [to the east].  Since the meadow was badly drained, most likely, all the pathways had stones imbedded in them, as otherwise the well could not, in rainy weather, be reached.  It may be stated that sixty years ago [c. 1840] the excellent roads in those parts did not exist.

The paved paths described by Owen sound feasible, since the existing B-road heading south from Ruthin did not exist in 1840, as noted by Owen.  But maps and aerial photographs show no sign of any paved paths leading to a spot in the fields west of the railway.  However a late 18th century estate map does show what appears to be a track heading south from Lon Speiriol Isaf into the meadow, before making a short turn east and abruptly ending.   An early 19th century plan of the area also shows this track, with what appears to be a building at its southern end.   There is no record, or memory, of the purpose of the track or building, and it is just possible that St Peter’s Well was at the end of the track.  As noted in Owen’s description, the meadow was badly drained at that time, and it seems likely that a paved access would have been created to serve a popular well.  However this location is rather more than 100 yards west of the railway line – but maybe Revd Owen simply made an inaccurate guess as to the distance from railway to well site.

Evidence in the field names


As has been shown, all the published references to the well have been relatively vague, and later ones have simply used information from earlier sources, most often Linden, without providing any contemporary information of value, apart from the fact that the well was no longer in use.  In 1895 the Denbighshire Free Press published an article on the ‘Collegiate and Parochial Church of St. Peter’s, Ruthin’, extracted from a church publication, S David’s Weekly, which contains a reference to St Peter’s Well, after discussion of the presence of White Friars in Ruthin.

     The name of the large field, Cae Gwynach, on the Corwen road, where the volunteers recently encamped, is said to stand for Cae Gwyn Fynach (i.e. ‘The White Friar’s Field);  and in the south end of it once existed the Holy Well, Ffynnon Bedr, a chalybeate spring – of course miraculous.

I will discuss field names shortly, but the most important fact revealed in this description is that the well was, at the end of the 19th century, said to be at the southern end of a named field, this field’s location being verifiable from the tithe map and schedule.  According to the tithe map dating from earlier in the 19th century (November 1856), if properly interpreted (the handwriting is poor) the field names to the south of Ruthin include Cae gwnach, Cae gwnach bach, and Gwinnydd.  One field name has been transcribed (in the Cynefin project) as ‘Gwinnydd Mr Peters’.  The appearance of the name ‘Mr Peters’ is interesting, in view of the reference in the Parochialia to Peter Jones, and also of course the well’s dedication to St Peter.   However on examining the tithe entry for myself on the Cynefin website, I came up with an alternative reading.  The handwriting on this tithe schedule is appalling as well as being very faint, but it appears to me that what has been interpreted as ‘Mr Peters’ actually reads ‘St Peter’.  


The quotation above turns Cae Gwnach into Cae Gwynach and then interprets this as having been short for Cae Gwyn Fynach, translating this as White Friar’s Field.  However, mynach/fynach means ‘monk’;  ‘friar’ is brodyr;  and anyway the adjective should follow the noun, i.e. Mynach gwyn.  So there are two obvious problems with the supposed field name Cae Gwyn Fynach, if indeed it ever did take this form.   It is certainly a moot point whether its name had anything to do with Ruthin’s early ecclesiastical history.    There was briefly a priory of Augustinian Bonhommes (White Friars) in Ruthin in the 15th century, but their short stay makes it unlikely that they would have been remembered in a field name.   ‘Cae Gwynach’ must be the same as the tithe map’s Cae Gwnach, and ‘Gwnach’ may indeed mean ‘white’:   According to Sir John Morris Jones, ‘In the spoken lang. [language] and frequently in MSS, we have gwnnach for gwynnach “whiter”’.   Gwinnydd may possibly be a variant of gwynnach;  in addition gwinydd means ‘vintner’,  gweinydd means ‘minister’;  and gwenith means ‘wheat’.  Some of these options have religious connotations:  gwyn/gwen means ‘white’, but can also mean ‘holy’, and ffynnon wen is a general term signifying a holy well.  Gweinydd can also mean ‘attendant’ or ‘minister’ in the religious sense;  although as gwinnydd is here used in an agricultural setting it seems more likely to mean ‘wheat’, as in this old Welsh riddle:  ‘Beth sydd y ffynnon wen lefrith sydd yn y cae gwenith?   Buwch flith.’  (What is a white well of fresh milk/In the middle of a wheatfield?  A cow.) (Although to let a cow into a wheatfield would not appear to be a very good idea!)   However, as noted earlier the handwriting in the tithe schedule is virtually illegible, and I think it most likely that the word is not gwinnydd but gwernydd, meaning ‘meadows’.   This would mean that the field name Gwinnydd Mr Peters (according to the transcription of the tithe schedule on Cynefin) was in reality Gwernydd St Peter, which of course translates as St Peter’s Meadows. 

The tithe map shows no field named Cae Gwyn Fynach, nor even Cae Gwynach, but several named Cae Gwnach.    The newspaper item referred to a large field, whereas the tithe map of 40 years earlier shows the relevant area, bounded by the Llanfair Road, Lon Speiriol Isaf, and the Corwen road, to contain around nine fields, four of the names including the word gwnach and one, nearest the presumed well site, gwernydd.  (There was another Gwernydd close by, just to the south of the present-day Scott House.)  Presumably a number of the field boundaries were removed before 1895 to create the pattern of larger fields still seen today.  On balance I think the names, though degraded over the years, point to the whole area having a close link to St Peter’s church.   The College of St Peter owned many acres of land, most probably including all the meadowland under discussion.


However, although the well was said in the 1895 article to be at the southern end of the field, this does not agree with the location as described by the Revd Elias Owen, who clearly located it on the southern, not northern, side of Lon Speiriol Isaf.  It is therefore disappointing that the names of the fields on the southern side of Lon Speiriol Isaf, as shown on the tithe schedule, do not reveal anything useful about St Peter’s Well or its location, being ‘Gwern fawr’ (the most westerly field), ‘Terfyn bach’ (the middle of three fields), and ‘Terfyn mawr’ (the field through which the railway later passed).

Water courses

There have been considerable changes to the water courses in the area of the meadows south of Ruthin over the last 150 years or so.  All that can be seen now is a stream in the field to the east of the Corwen road, and running parallel to it, immediately south of Lon Speiriol Isaf; a muddy field corner across the lane;  and a drain on the other side of the Corwen road taking water into the river.  At one time the muddy field corner did seem to be a likely contender for the location of St Peter’s Well, but I am certain now that this was not the correct location.

 The late 18th century estate map shows a stream, leat or drain crossing the meadow to the south of Lon Speiriol Isaf, probably carrying water away from the land of Ffynogion a short distance to the south (the name suggests it was a watery place).  This stream went under Lon Speiriol Isaf and then flowed in a westerly direction on the north side of the lane, through the muddy field corner and then through a culvert under the Corwen road, the water soon afterwards flowing into the River Clwyd.   Since the meadowland was drained, there is now no trace of this stream, although it could still be seen around 50 years ago.  I think it must have passed very close to St Peter’s Well, although whether the well was to the west or east of the stream is now impossible to determine.

Revd Elias Owen noted that the well water ‘drained to the river Clwyd’, and although he stated that this is what happened after the well had been filled in, presumably it also happened while the well was in use, because it must have had a strong inflow of water from its spring for it to have been of any use, and the water had to flow away somewhere.  Therefore it seems likely that the well was close to the now-disappeared stream, probably linked to it by a short drain.  In his mid-18th century description, Linden describes how, now that the well was disused, other water was finding its way into the well and mixing with the spring water.    This other water may have come from the nearby stream.   But Linden’s comment that by the 1750s the well was no longer in use, may explain why it does not appear on later maps, for example the estate map of 1770.   

From all the information that I have managed to find, it seems clear that St Peter’s Well was somewhere in the now-drained meadow to the south of Lon Speiriol Isaf, although it is unclear whether it was at the end of the now-disappeared track leading south from the lane, or between that track and the eastern field boundary, and if the latter, it is not possible to determine on which side, west or east, of the now-drained stream it was located.  I am pleased that, with the help of others, I have been able to narrow down the well’s location this far, but it is sad that the early 19th century landowner saw fit to completely eradicate such an ancient and once-significant feature of the Ruthin landscape

Customs and traditions

The custom of using water from saints’ wells for baptisms has been practised for at least 200 years, although this was not the reason for which holy wells were originally created.  It was guessed in the middle of the 19th century that this must be how holy wells were customarily used.  I have never heard of water from a holy well being used for washing the church.  In times past water from a saint’s well would not have been used in this way, and to do so is a misunderstanding of the original significance of such wells.  But, if in fact it did happen at Ruthin (although it seems unlikely that quantities of water would have been carried so far when there must have been a well much closer to the church), the custom must have started at a time when the well was still in active use, being abandoned when the well fell into disuse.  Based on Linden’s information, the well was out of use by the mid 18th century, over 100 years before Owen was writing.  It is possible that the water was in reality never used for baptismal purposes nor church-washing purposes, but these were only supposed later on to have been the uses to which it was put.

Conclusion

Today Ruthin’s holy well is all but forgotten.   Before the Reformation in the 16th century, it would have been known to, and probably visited by, every resident, as part of their customary religious observances.  Following the Reformation, those who continued to visit would have done so clandestinely, for fear of censure at still practising the old religion, and so ever fewer people would visit, until the time came when someone realised that the fine quality water could be put to good use by adapting the spring and creating a basic healing spa, such as was happening throughout the British Isles.  Most such spas failed to bring in enough customers to make a profit and were soon abandoned, which clearly is what happened at Ruthin, and thereafter the well was left to gently decay until it was deliberately filled in, thereby obliterating not only the well itself, but also all memory of the customs and traditions involved in Ruthin’s pre-Reformation devotion to St Peter.

My thanks go to local historians Roger Edwards, Brian Hubble, Timothy Morgan and Gareth Evans, who quickly came to my aid following the appearance of the first version of this paper.

Sources


Edward Lhwyd (also Lhuyd), Parochialia – Being a Summary of Answers to “Parochial Queries in Order to a Geographical Dictionary, etc., of Wales”):  Part I – North Wales;  Part II – North Wales (continued), South Wales;  Part III – North Wales and South Wales (continued) (London: The Cambrian Archaeological Association, 1909, 1910, 1911), vol.I, 147
Diederick Wessel Linden, M.D., Treatise on the Three Medicinal Mineral Waters at Llandrindod, in Radnorshire, South Wales (London: J. Everingham and T. Reynolds, 1756), 321
W.C. Oulton, The Traveller’s Guide;  or, English Itinerary, vol.1 (London: James Cundee, 1805), 31
Samuel Lewis, A Topographical Dictionary of Wales (London: S. Lewis:  1st edition 1833;  2nd edition 1844;  3rd edition 1845;  4th edition 1849): Llanrhudd 
Revd Elias Owen, ‘Local Antiquities – No.4.  Holy Wells’, Ruthin School Magazine, no.19 (April 1889), 82-3 – piece written anonymously, but clearly by Owen (description 1)
Revd Elias Owen, ‘St Peter’s Well, Llanrhudd’, in his unfinished manuscript The Holy Wells of North Wales (c. 1899: unpublished), National Library of Wales MS NLW 3290 D (description 2)
No author named, ‘Collegiate and Parochial Church of St. Peter’s, Ruthin’, originally published in S David’s Weekly, reprinted in Denbighshire Free Press, 24 August 1895
Revd Elias Owen, Old Stone Crosses in the Vale of Clwyd (first published 1886;  reissued 1995 by Clwyd County Council Library & Information Service), 173 (water used for baptism and church-washing)
David Gareth Evans, The Foundations of Ruthin 1100 – 1800 (Worthenbury: Bridge Books, 2017), 17-18, 38 (information on White Friars/Bonhommes)
J. Morris Jones, A Welsh Grammar, Historical and Comparative (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1913), 89