Friday, 16 August 2019

'Still they come' by Karen Maitland

Clooties hanging on tree above Madron's Well
Earlier this summer, I was travelling on a country lane just north-west of Penzance in Cornwall, when I spotted a sign to St Madron’s Well. I followed a surprisingly well-worn footpath twisting through a woodland of ancient, lichen-covered blackthorn trees and ferns, which seemed to go on for miles. I confess I was on the verge of turning back, thinking I had missed the well, because many holy wells in Devon and Cornwell are simply little springs trickling out of a bank and easily covered by summer vegetation. Then I saw a few rags tied to a tree. As I walked further along the path, the trees around me became festooned with rags, ribbons, single shoes, tiny fabric bags and messages written on cloth in many languages, including Chinese. Some were weather-faded to the colour of fallen leaves, others so vibrant they clearly been tied there yesterday.

Stone stile and walls of St Madron's chapel beyond.
Had it not been for these ‘clooties’, I could easily have missed the well itself which was little more than a shallow pool of clear water, just a few inches deep, surrounded by trees and muddy bog. But further on down the track, I came across mossy stone stiles, standing like the battlements of an enchanted castle, and beyond them was the rough-hewn stone walls of the chapel of St Madron, its entrance guarded by a huge yew tree. Water bubbles out into a baptistry in the far corner, which comes from the same spring as the well in the wood. The baptistry, and the stone altar were covered in crumbling posies of withered flowers, shells, three-armed and four-armed Brigid crosses, and other offerings visitors had laid there. It was evident that this place is as much revered in new millennium as it has been for the last thousand years.

Entrance to the ruined St Madron's Chapel, Cornwall
Those who first sought it out in pre-Christian times dedicated this spring to the Welsh Celtic Mother Goddess, Modron, who some authors link to the medieval Arthurian figure - Morgan Le Fay. When Celtic Christians arrived, they wisely didn’t try to prevent people coming for blessing and healing to this well, but quietly replaced the old goddess with St. Madern or St Madron. But whereas Modron had been a goddess, St Madron or Madern is thought to have been 6th century male Celtic saint, possibly a disciple of St Piran. The chapel probably began life as a cell for a Christian hermit. He or she would have ministered to those coming to the leech well for healing and would have received food or gifts from the supplicants.

Stone altar in St Madron's chapel.
The pagan and Christian traditions practised at this site seemed to have co-existed in peaceful harmony until the Reformation, when Thomas Cromwell ordered the destruction of the chapel. The roof was torn down and the statue, which probably occupied the niche, was removed. But whether from superstition or laziness, Cromwell’s men could not bring themselves to destroy the chapel itself, and the walls, baptistry, stone seats and altar remain intact until this day. It is still roofless, but the canopy of trees provides a far more beautiful roof than either thatch or slate.

Thomas Cromwell and the Reformers may have thought they’d put an end to St Madron’s well, but local people continued to use it. In 1640, John Trelil, unable to stand or walk because of childhood injury to his back, had a dream telling him to seek healing at the well. On a Thursday in May, the day the well’s healing powers were believed to be at their strongest, he crawled to St Madron’s well on his knees, spent the night at the altar in the ruined chapel, bathed in the holy water, then slept on a grassy hump nearby known as St Madron’s Bed, where he began to feel tingling in the nerves of his legs. He returned twice more on subsequent Thursdays and was cured to such an extent that he became fit enough to join the royalist army, though that was perhaps a mixed blessing for he was sadly killed in battle four years later in Lyme, in Dorset.

Baptistry or second holy well inside St Madron's chapel
By the Victorian era, they realised there was money to be made from such places and a keeper of the well charged visitors for access. On Thursdays, during the month of May, ailing children were dipped naked in the well three times and passed around it nine times, then dressed and left to sleep on St Madron’s bed. To effect a cure, the ritual had to be performed in silence. Unwed girls threw crosses and pins on the water counting the bubbles to discover when they would marry. It was also thought that by asking how long you had to live, you would be answered by a series of bubbles giving the number of years.

Today, on the first Sunday in May, people come to stand in a circle and take turns blessing the person next to them with health and peace using a mixture of the water taken from the baptistry and from the well outside. They ask for healing of Mother Earth and provision of water for all people. It would seem that given the current concerns about climate change, Madron’s Well is just as meaningful to people now as it was to our ancient Celtic forbears.
Clooties hanging in the blackthorn above St Madron's Well

1 comment:

Susan Price said...

Lovely blog. There's a similar wishing-tree a few miles from where I live, in the West Midlands, at St Kenelm's. This beautiful little church is still in regular use and was founded in Saxon times. The healing well has probably been in use for longer. St Kenelm was an historical Saxon king of Mercia, but the real one died in his 30s. The folk-lore one was an angelic, saintly little child, murdered by his wicked sister. His head was cut off and where the head fell, the spring sprang.