Highlighted on the earliest Ordnance Survey map of the region in 1878 and described much earlier by Thomas Pennant (1796)—almost as legendary as the fairies themselves in some parts—this ancient tree was obviously a place of great repute in the mythic history of the people in previous centuries. Animistic relationships with the landscape were still deeply embedded in the daily lives of our peasant communities all across the country when Pennant wrote about this place. In his antiquarian history of the area he described the great mansion of Downing Hall and in its grounds the ruins of Molandina Abbey. “Above this,” he wrote,
“is a spreading oak of great antiquity, size, and extent of branches: it has got the name of the Fairy Oak. In this very century a poor cottager, who lived near the spot, had a child who grew uncommonly peevish; the parents attributed this to the fairy, and imagined that it was a changeling. They took the child, put it in a cradle, and left it all night beneath the tree, in hopes that the tylwydd têg, or fairy family, or the fairy folk, would restore their own before morning. When morning came they found the child perfectly quiet, so went away with it, quite confirmed in their belief.”
Nearby, and in the same grounds of the mansion, Pennant told there to be an even older and greater oak tree that “has in it furrows so deep, and of aspect so uncommonly venerable, as to render its shade as worthy of the solemn rites of the Druids.”
Pennant, Thomas, The History of the Parishes of Whiteford and Holywell, B. & J. White: London 1796.
From the Chester ring road head into north Wales along the coast road (A548) from Connah’s Quay for about 13 miles taking you through Flint. After 12 miles turn left into Holywell town (Treffynnon). At the western end of the town go down the Greenfield-Mostyn road back towards the A584 taking you down a hill. After 500 hundred yards you arrive at the holy well/shrine and pilgrimage centre on the right-hand side; there is parking on the opposite side of the road. There is a small entrance fee, but as well as the famous healing well and bathing pool, they have a gift shop, toilet facilities and a late medieval/Gothic two-storey structure that is built over the polygonal, vaulted well chamber, whilst at the side (at the corner of the hill) stands another Gothic chapel from 1500.
History and Legend
According to the well known legend, a young Welsh girl called Winefride or Gwenfrewi, was the daughter of patrician parents, Thenith (Thewyth) and Gwenlo, who lived at Bryn-y-Castell (Treffynnon) at the beginning of the 7th century AD. She was a very religious girl who was known for her kindness and charities to people in the area that was then called Tegeingl (after the Decengle tribe). Winefride grew up to be a very beautiful young woman which troubled her because she had no wish to marry, only to live a life of chastity and serve God as only she knew how.
One day a local chieftain from Hawarden (Penarlag) called Caradoc ap Alyn came hunting in the area. He became very thirsty so stopped off at the house where Winefride lived with her parents. However, on this particular day her parents were attending the local church where St Beuno, her uncle, was conducting a service. Prince Caradoc soon began to seduce her so she ran to the church but with the prince in hot pursuit. When he caught up with poor Winefride, she again resisted him so he took his sword and beheaded her. Her severed head fell to the ground and rolled down a hill and where it came to rest a spring of water gushed forth from the ground. Her parents and uncle came rushing out of the church at which point St Beuno cursed the evil prince, who was calmly wiping blood from his sword, causing him to sink into the ground — never to be seen again. St. Beuno then placed the severed head back into place, restoring Winifred to life again but leaving her with a thin scar round her neck.
Later, Winifred was entrusted for her education to St Beuno whom sent her to various holy men including St. Elerius at Gwytherin near Llanwrst. Here she became abbess of a convent that had been founded by Elerius, with his mother St. Theonia as first abbess; and it was here for the next 40 years that Winifred lived out her life. She was said to have died at Gwytherin in either 65o or 670 AD. Her body was first interred in the churchyard there, however in 1138 her relics were transferred to Shrewsbury Abbey. Sadly however, her shrine there was destroyed in the 16th century and now only a few relics remain with a finger-bone being housed at a convent in Holywell.
Mythology and Folklore
The holy well and shrine of St. Winifred at Holywell became a place of pilgrimage during the middle-ages and many miracles of healing were wrought there. The sick were cured of infirmities of the legs and body; crutches were left at the well and many were cured of leprosy, eye complaints, loss of hearing, being not able to bear a child, mental illness, palsy and lung disorders etc. During the Reformation the holy well suffered much, but from the 17th century onwards pilgrims were returning to the holy place and, more recently it has become the Welsh Lourdes and still pilgrims come in droves from all over Wales and beyond. The vaulted Gothic structure covering the well shrine is richly carved with bosses depicting various characters including St Beuno, Earl Stanley, Lady Margaret Beaufort, biblical characters, animals and an abbot of Basingwerk abbey, but there is also much recent graffiti too. A tall statue of St Winefride looks down over the well while candles burn all around. In the larger bathing pool outside, a stone lies at one side — this is claimed to be where St. Beuno sat whilst teaching his young niece. Red stains on stones at the front of the well-basin were long taken to be the martyr’s bloodstains, but now these are thought to be iron oxide pigmentation on the lichens. Today the people still come either to bathe in the special pool, throw coins in the well, or fill bottles with holy water from a tap on the wall. Faith in miracles of healing is still much in evidence here and may it continue to be for many years to come. Everyone is welcome here, you don’t have to be a Roman Catholic!
Bord, Janet & Colin, Sacred Waters, Paladin: London 1986.
David, Christopher, Saint Winefride’s Well – A History and Guide, Gomer Press: Llandysul 2002.
Edwards-Charles, Thomas, Saint Winefride and Her Well – The Historical Background, Holywell 1962.
Heath, Sidney, In the Steps of the Pilgrims, Rich & Cowan: London 1950.
Jones, Francis, The Holy Wells of Wales, University of Wales Press: Cardiff 1992.
Go north on the A5026 from the town of Holywell for about 3 miles; at the hamlet of Lloc take the turning first right towards Trelogan village for another mile – the ancient cross stands in the corner of a field at the junction of 3 roads at the turning from Whitford to Trelogan, halfway between Whitford and Sarn. The cross can also be reached via Pantasaph from the A55.
The cross probably dates from 1000 AD and is said to be the tallest wheel-headed cross in Wales, standing at 11 feet 3′ in height. The metal fence surrounding the cross spoils the monument quite a bit, but it is there for security reasons. It is richly decorated on all sides and on the cross-head. Much of the decoration is Celtic in origin, but there are also Viking influences here, probably Northumbrian. On the south face there is a human figure standing on a serpent that has associations with the Norse god Odin; also a three-legged horse that may also be connected to Odin. The north-west face has Celtic pattern-work in the form of the letter “X” and below that another figure (naked) holding a spear. The north-east face is rather eroded, but there is some Celtic-style decoration. There is more knotwork and chainwork elsewhere on the cross with other animal figures. The wheel-head has a distinctive central boss and a four star-shaped cross radiating from the boss.
Folklore and Legend
The cross is also called ‘The Stone of Lamentation’ because penances were carried out at the cross in the Middle Ages. This act would have concluded with weeping and the ‘act of contrition’ by pilgrims visiting the site whilst making their way between St Winifred’s Well and St David’s. Legend says that St Cwyfan, a local 7th century Celtic saint preached on this site and set-up the cross – hence the name, Maen Achwyfan. One local legend tells us that Queen Boudica fought her last battle against the Romans close by in the fields called ‘Cydio ar Leni’ or ‘The fields of the seizing legions’. During the Middle Ages the monks of Basingwerk Abbey preached at the cross and also set up a chapel for pilgrims just to the south at Whitford.
Allen, J. Romilly, “Celtic Crosses of Wales”, in Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1899.
Owen, Rev. Elias, Old Stone Crosses of the Vale of Clwyd and Neighbouring Parishes, Bernard Quaritch: London & Oswestry 1886.
Sharkey, John, Celtic High Crosses of Wales, Carreg Gwalch: Llanrwst 1998.
Westwood, J.O., Lapidarium Walliæ – The Early Incised and Sculptured Stones of Wales, Oxford University Press 1879.