In the past people brought pins, effigies and sacrifices to holy wells: a cockerel could cure epilepsy, or stop a baby crying at night. Some pilgrims came on crutches, later leaving the sticks as proof of their cure. Others came for love, or to punish their neighbour, and perhaps to feel the eels in the well tickling their ankles as evidence their prayer would be answered. Different wells had different specialities: Ceredigion’s were good for eye complaints, while many of Glamorgan’s wells were effective against skin diseases. Wart-curing wells were seemingly everywhere. At many springs, people would collect water to use later, either for healing or for curses. At some you could pay the well’s custodian to work the magic for you.
I’ve had dreams about holy wells for years. In one I am in a sunlit glade, water oozing through the mossy earth and forming glistening puddles on the forest floor. I trace the shining rivulets, feeling the water seep between my toes, until I find the source: a cavernous chamber, with water trickling over an ancient stone. There are other people here, quiet voices and an air of reverence. Suddenly time bends and I am everywhere at once: deep down inside the well, outside in the forest, and up above the treetops, teetering on a high wire, looking down at the silvery channels below. Water oozes, swells and tumbles, glittering and giggling, gleaming like quicksilver.
In another dream I am in an ecclesiastical building, its weathered door groaning open to reveal a circular, raised pool in the middle of the room, shadows dancing in its depth. I put my hand in to feel the intoxicating cold tingle, and cannot be persuaded to leave.
In yet another (and there are many) I am in a vast bath house, the water bubbling, hot and fierce, out of the ground and forming an azure pool in which swimmers circle endlessly. I join the current, looking out at the mosaics and arches that surround the pool, breathing in the steam and feeling the warmth seep into my bones.
The water always feels like home: even the coldest dream-springs ignite a fire of recognition in me.
In my waking life, I follow the echoes of those dreams. I buy books on sacred springs and hunt them down when travelling. When I find one I dip my fingers in the water, sometimes tasting it (against the advice of many seasoned well-goers, who recommend filtering) and occasionally I collect a bottle to take home. I have been known to drop a pin or a flower into the well as a token of thanks, but who I am thanking, I don’t really know.
Water bursts freely from the ground all over Wales. It seems that not so long ago, most people had a local holy well, but today only some of these have been preserved or restored. One of my favourites emerges from under a ruined chapel on the footpath between Parkmill and Ilston on Gower. It’s in a verdant, wooded glade where the air is loaded with the scent of wild garlic in the summer. The spring bubbles prettily out from the chapel’s edge and trips off down the valley. If you could understand its song, it might tell a tale of how pagan wells were Christianised, and the spirits of those places just shrugged and got on with it, continuing to work their magic for the pilgrims under a new name.
The pilgrims still come today – not just crackpots like me who love getting to know the shy and retiring wells, but also the hundreds who visit places like St Winifrede’s well at Holywell (the “Lourdes of Wales”), or Glastonbury’s beautiful Chalice Well, where the holy grail itself is said to lie submerged.
According to legend, the grail caught Christ’s blood – Christ who said salvation was “living water” and “a spring of water welling up to eternal life”. In the tarot, the suit of cups (represented as grail-shaped chalices) corresponds to the element of water, which in turn represents love.
In the Qur’an, water represents God’s benevolence, God’s mercy, and paradise. It says (with a fair amount of scientific accuracy) that we are made from water, and that “he who created the heavens and the earth … his throne was upon water”.
Darwin agrees that’s where we started, long before we got around to hauling ourselves out of the primordial soup and slithering about on land.
In my dreams, water feels like love. I like the idea that I can swim in it, absorbing a womb of warmth, a great sea in which I may one day blissfully dissolve.
Wales, then, is a land overbrimming with love: it bursts forth at every opportunity. In St David’s, a spring erupted in the spot where St Non gave birth to Wales’ patron saint, forming St Non’s Well, which today is a well-tended place of pilgrimage. Placed on the stonework that surrounds it I have spotted flowers, ornaments and – heartbreakingly – a pair of children’s shoes.
Some years ago, I started dreaming about a specific Welsh spring. While none of my other dreams related to an actual place in the waking world, this spring was clearly located behind Margam Park. In the dream I headed up the hillside to find a little stone building that housed a bathing pool. It was so specific that I searched for the spring in books and on maps, and in the park itself, but drew a blank.
I gave up my quest until I stumbled on a book called Sacred Springs: In Search of the Holy Wells and Spas of Wales by Paul Davis. Flipping through it, I saw with a jolt a picture of a bath house at Margam, hunkered down under a low stone roof. It wasn’t identical to the one in my dream but it was remarkably similar, so as soon as I could I took a search party – husband, son and a bewildered foreign homestay student – over to Margam to find it.
We searched up on the hillside above the park, but after an hour or so of slipping and sliding through muddy woods, and inadvertently crashing a music festival, I decided it was time to quit. Only at my husband’s insistence did we take the car up the hill instead of back to Swansea, to explore a little higher – and suddenly, down a narrow lane, there it was, its roof only just visible behind the greenery. The monks’ bath house, an ancient spring repurposed by the Abbey.
Its entrance had been boarded up “due to vandalism” but someone had ripped the boards away so that it was easy enough to step inside. Here, in the gloom, the water gushed and echoed passionately. The bath – a great, square opening in the floor, was deep, limpid and strangely calm despite the rush of water. I imagined the shock of its coldness closing around me, the feeling of it embracing me from head to toe. Dream and reality briefly touched. The water hurried on.