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Seven Wonders of Wales
St. Winifred's Well

It is but a short journey by road from Chester to Holywell, in Flintshire and the next wonder of Wales. On your way, along the "bottom-road," you may wish to stop briefly at Flint, on the shores of the Dee, to visit the much-slighted castle, the first of Edward 1st's chain of imposing fortresses by which he controlled his conquered principality, and where Richard II was forced to abdicate to Bolingbroke in 1399. The castle was one of James of St. George's masterpieces. The massive Dongeon is completely separate from the rest of the castle; with its own water supply, it could serve as an independent, easily defended stronghold. Flint was the first Borough in Wales to receive a royal charter (in 1284, the date of the infamous Statute of Rhuddlan that brought English Law to Wales).

Just four miles uphill from Flint is Holywell (Treffynnon), the town of the Holy Well (one of the Sacred Places of Wales). The well itself, originally formed from a mountain spring, is housed below the town on the side of a steep hill in the shrine of St. Winifride (Gwenffrwd or Gwenfrewi), regarded as the finest surviving example of a medieval holy well in Britain.

The legend of St. Winifred is responsible for the erection of the present shrine on a site chosen originally chosen by St. Beuno for a chapel. When a local chieftain named Caradoc attempted to rape Beuno's niece Gwenffrwd, she ran to the chapel for sanctuary, but though she failed to reach the doors, her refusal to submit to her pursuer caused him to cut off her head in his rage. The head rolled down the hillside, a spring miraculously appearing where it came to rest in a deep hollow. Beuno reattached Gwenffrwd's head, and she lived to become an abbess and later, a saint. The would-be rapist Caradoc, meanwhile, fell dead under the saint's curse.

The well formed from the spring then became a place of pilgrimage visited by the rich and poor and famous, including Richard 1st, to pray for his Crusade; Henry V (both before and after his famous victory at Agincourt), who came on foot from Shrewsbury; and King James II, who came here to pray for a son (a prayer which, in bitter irony, was granted by the birth of the ill-fated Old Pretender).

About 1490, Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Vll, had a new two-storied chapel built over the star-shaped well, which is covered by an ornate vault and surrounded by a processional passage. In the courtyard outside there is a long bathing pool fed by the spring. Just below the surface of the ice-cold water you can see the stone of St. Beuno upon which he is said to have taught Winifred or upon which he bade farewell to her. In the garden below the well are a number of stones believed to be stained with Winifred's blood or covered with a fragrant red moss reputed to be miraculously renewed each year.

St. Winifred's Well is the only shrine in Britain that has an unbroken tradition of pilgrimage since the early Medieval period. It was visited in 1774 by the well-known literary critic (and prude) Dr. Samuel Johnson on his journey around North Wales. The learned doctor remarked on the indecency of a woman bathing there, yet the popularity of the shrine continued to attract pilgrims. Over one thousand visitors came to the well during the first year of a new hospice opened in the 1880's. Since then, following centuries of Protestant neglect, the shrine has received a new lease of life, mainly from visits by considerable numbers of Irish immigrants residing in Liverpool (less than hour's road journey distant) or Manchester.

For those inclined to believe in such, the waters at Holywell contain miraculous healing powers. These waters came from an unfailing spring, gushing prodigiously from the earth, producing three thousand gallons a minute at a constant temperature of 50 degrees. Because of extensive mining operations, however, on nearby Halkyn Mountain in the first quarter of this century, the author's great uncle, a Holywell surveyor and civil engineer (whose first name was Caradoc, ironically), warned the Holywell Town Council that the waters feeding the spring were likely to be diverted and that the well would dry up. This is what consequently happened, so that today's pilgrims see a bubbling spring fed from the town's municipal water supply forced through a cleverly concealed pipe at the base of the well.

While in the vicinity of the well, you might want to visit the Greenfield Valley Heritage Trail, on the site of one of the first industrial valleys in Wales. The pathway leads down the hill past the remains of mills, factories and ponds, to the sad ruins of Basingwerk Abbey, founded in 1131l by the Earl of Chester under the Order of Savigny. The Abbey became Cistercian in 1147, and before being dissolved was the home to many notable Welsh authors and historians. It is most likely the place where Sir Gawain spent the night before crossing the Dee to visit the Green Knight. Plundered mercilessly at the Dissolution; some of the Abbey's remains are found in countless Flintshire churches (including a magnificent roof at Cilcain and stained glass at Gresford).

Another item of interest in the neighborhood is Wat's Dyke, a line of tactical earthworks built under King Athelbald of Mercia from 716-720 to block designs of the Welshmen from Gwynedd upon his territories (and his cattle!). The Dyke was a forerunner of the more well-known and much longer Offa's Dyke which has marked the virtual eastern boundary of Wales since its construction fifty years later. At the Parish Church of St. Peter, located near the Chapel of St. Winifride, you can see the little hand bell that was carried about the town and rung to announce services in the church situated in a hollow from which the bells in the tower could not be heard in the streets, high above. From Holywell, you can take the "top road," the fast, modern highway to return to Chester or Wrexham.

Next Stop: Llangollen Bridge


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