PILGRIMS have trodden the path to the place known as the Lourdes of Wales for over 1,400 years. And while it’s more likely to be by Saab than by sandals these days, they still flock here seeking guidance, relief or a miracle cure.
But it’s not just the pious who head for St Winefride’s Well in Holywell (pronounced Holly-well), in Flintshire, within sight of the northern coast. The bath house and its well basin, within easy walking distance of the centre of town, is a partially enclosed and architecturally stunning early 16th century edifice that is listed by the Welsh Government as a Grade I scheduled ancient monument. Be aware that parking is very restricted here, and that you’d be better off parking in the town centre, or otherwise catching a bus or taxi from Flint railway station, 8km (5 miles) away.
The monument was erected thanks to the generosity of its benefactor, the Countess of Richmond, mother of English king Henry VII. The monarch was a descendant of the Welsh Tudor dynasty, which had its roots in Penmynydd on Anglesey, and who himself was born in Wales, at Pembroke Castle.
It was possibly this link that led to this site of pilgrimage being the only one throughout the realm to survive the Reformation. The Reformation took hold after his son Henry VIII had acceded to the throne, and was involved in a major spat with the Pope over a divorce he had been denied. He established his own church, as only kings and heads of cults can, and set about eradicating the Roman Catholic church from his kingdom. English monarchs to this day still can’t be Catholics, or any other faith, practising or otherwise. As hissy fits go, it was quite something.
Nonetheless, St Winefride’s Well – or Ffynnon Gwenffrewi in Welsh – survived to tell the tale. Although coming under the auspices of Cadw, the government’s ancient monuments agency, it is today in the spiritual care of the Catholic Church’s Diocese of Wrexham. Groups of pilgrims wishing to visit can be accommodated by the diocese.
The somewhat incongruous plastic changing booths by the side of the exterior pool, in itself an ancient if still more recent construction than the main basin, indicate that people do indeed still come here to bathe in its healing waters. A simple tap on a wall provides ample supply for those who’d rather drink the stuff than bask in it.
Even those of no religious beliefs, or of other beliefs, can’t fail to be impressed by its serenity and its beauty, in particular its star-shaped main interior basin and its intricately decorated ceiling. Candles lit in a corner flicker as a gentle zephyr passes over the strangely twinkling water. Pilgrims gasp for breath as they slip into its chilling grasp.
The on-site museum and visitor centre offer the ubiquitous souvenir and craft shop – doesn’t even the Vatican? – as well as a fascinating collection of religious relics and artefacts. It also relates the tale, fable, or legend, according to your interpretation, of how the well came to be established.
Briefly, St Gwenffrewi – later known as St Winefride – had her head lopped off in anger in 660AD by a warlord known as Caradog after spurning his advances. It was probably where executioner extraordinaire Henry VIII drew his inspiration from! Her severed head ran down the hillside, and a spring rose from where it came to rest. She was however restored to life by her uncle St Beuno, in an amazing bit of Dark Ages plastic surgery, a man after whom a number of churches are unsurprisingly still named in northern Wales. And the rest, as they say, is history. Of sorts.
Further down the valley towards the coast, a short but pleasant walk through the post-industrial peace of the now-verdant Greenfield Valley Heritage Park, lie the imposing remains of Basingwerk Abbey. Basingwerk is actually some 5km away, and historians suspect the abbey might have originally been located there.
Founded by the Cistercians in 1131, it became known originally as a major centre of Welsh literature. However by the 13th century and the incessant wars between Wales and England, the border being just a day’s horse ride away, the monks’ sympathies veered towards the English cause. That, unfortunately for them, helped them not one iota when Henry VIII’s anti-Catholic vitriol and his Dissolution Act of 1536 saw them driven out and their Abbey wrecked. It was the same year that Wales was annexed by England.
The abbey had been used as an infirmary by desperate pilgrims seeking cures in the healing waters of the well, amongst many other uses. Nowadays it’s only the cawing of the crows that desecrate the peace of these silent walls as they throw shimmering shadows on the landscape around them.
This is also the starting point, or the conclusion if you choose to do it in reverse, of the 210-km (130 miles) long North Wales Pilgrims’ Way to Ynys Enlli, or Bardsey Island. Three daunting pilgrimages to Ynys Enlli were said to be equivalent to a single one to Rome, and some still believe the island to be the resting place of 20,000 saints.
It also lies at the western end of the Wat’s Dyke Way, a 100km (61 miles) long distance trail between here and Llanymynech in Powys. It largely follows the route of the mysterious Wat’s Dyke, a bank and ditch construct probably built in about the 5th century to keep ancient warring kingdoms apart following the departure of the Romans.
It was the monks here at the Abbey who first started the industrialisation of this valley, harnessing the power of the stream rushing through it to mill their corn and treat the fleece from their sheep. Little did they think that the whole valley would by the 18th century be a hot-bed of the industrial revolution, fuelled largely through being within easy reach of coal as it lay within the North Wales Coalfield. It was no longer the green field, or maes glas in Welsh, that had given it its name in both languages. Even as early as the 16th century furious locals concerned at the level of pollution had angrily demolished a lead smelter.
There was little that wasn’t produced here, from corn and snuff, to cotton, nuts and bolts, bowls, saucepans and copper keel covers for ships. Holywell – known as Treffynnon in Welsh – saw a rapid growth in population, until at one time it was the largest town in Flintshire. But the early boom was almost inevitably followed by bust, although it was the early part of the 20th century before the rot really set in, and decades later before the wheels of industry stopped turning completely.
Nowadays it all lies strangely silent, but the Greenfield Valley Heritage Park stretched out between the abbey and the well wonderfully encapsulates this history. It offers a truly spectacular walk of a couple of kilometres through woodlands where wildlife once again abounds, but liberally peppered with countless preserved remnants and memorials of its industrial past; factories, smelters, mills, weirs, and graceful mill ponds.
You’ll find much of this valley’s agricultural and industrial history carefully distilled in the park’s museum, as well as cottages, farmhouses and a Victorian school moved here from other locations and reconstructed to offer a realistic view of the past. It really is well worthwhile spending a few hours of your precious time here to re-connect with a spiritual, agricultural, cultural and industrial past that made Wales what it is today.