Holy Well (lost): OS Grid Reference – SW 6602 2053
Archaeology & History
The old church at this headland just above the sea was, said Padel (1988), dedicated to Saint Gunwalloe or Winwalloe in 1332 and is thought to have been the character (a hermit by all accounts) who deemed this well to be ‘holy’. In Alfred Cummings (1875) history of Gunwalloe parish, he devotes a short but singular chapter to this holy well which, according to most accounts, has fallen back to Earth. It was found, said Cummings, “close to the church porch, only a few feet over the precipitous rock…and (was) doubtless the resort in former days of many a lad and maiden.”
Yet even in his day, he lamented its loss, telling that.
“The spring that once bubbled up in its rocky basin is no longer there; sand and stones fill up the well at each high tide, and though occasionally cleaned out for the satisfaction of the wayfarer’s curiosity is yet only an imperfect semblance of its former self.”
Yet remnants of practices and traditions of the well were thankfully remembered:
“That Gunwalloe was considered by the country folk a well of some importance there can be little doubt, for one day in the year, which was called Gunwalloe Day, was set apart for cleaning out this holy well — it was quite at a different time of year to this parish feast — and now only remembered by two old men out of the whole population of the place.
“They fix the time in their memories as the period of tilling barley, for they recollect that on this Gunwalloe Day it was the custom for the men to mend all the cliff roads (doubtless these were useful in days of smuggling when a successful run was a desirable thing), and so strictly was it kept that, if any were found labouring in the fields, a party would go and take them by force, and press them into the service of the holiday makers, who, having mended the roads and cleared the holy well at Gunwalloe, wound up the day with merriment and revelry.”
Such practices are long since gone of course and, so most modern accounts would tell us, the holy well with it. But when J. Meyrick (1982) came looking for the site on the summer solstice of 1980, he seemed a little more fortunate than his predecessors. Located just a few yards from the detached church tower, he spoke with a
“Mrs Wilson, a churchwarden (who) told me that in heavy rain the tower continues to be flooded so the spring is still somewhere about, and curiously enough by the stile to the beach is a small granite trough with rainwater put there by someone no doubt in lieu of the Well and who is to say that the water is not holy! The stream across the dune still meanders a few feet beneath the tower and into this the water from the well would have run, but there seems now no sign of an originating spring in the rocks around.”
The church itself possesses a folktale found up and down the land. “It is said,” wrote Blight (1885),
“that the builders intended to erect the church on higher ground, nearer the centre of the parish, at Hingey; but as fast as materials were brought to the place they were, by some mysterious agency, removed during the night to the present site. And here the church was built, it being found useless to contend with a supernatural power.”
The supernatural agencies that are nearly always responsible for such actions tend to be the devil, fairies or other types of little-people.
- Blight, J.T., Churches of West Cornwall, Parker: London 1885.
- Cummings, Alfred H., The Churches and Antiquities of Cury and Gunwalloe, W. Lake: Truro 1875.
- Meyrick, J., A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Wells of Cornwall, J. Meyrick: Falmouth 1982.
- Padel, O.J., Cornish Place-Names, Alison Hodge: Penzance 1988.
- Quiller-Couch, M. & L., Ancient and Holy Wells of Cornwall, C.J. Clark: London 1894.
© Paul Bennett, The Northern Antiquarian