Since the beginning of recorded history, people have identified certain places as special - or sacred. They may have been the places where the ancestors were buried - or where spirits and gods and goddesses lived.

Even today, we can visit places where we feel close to something spiritual - even if we can’t put our finger on what that something is.

Springs were especially sacred to early peoples.

Water, in those days, did not come out of the tap - and the places where water bubbled out of the earth were seen as places of healing and renewal.

People threw offerings into the waters in the hope of gaining the favour of the god (or, more usually, the water goddess) who lived there. Interestingly, we still have an echo of this - how many of us can resist tossing a coin into a well?

As Christianity came into contact with the native religions in Britain, the missionaries wisely took the ancient beliefs into account.

Rather like St Paul and the "altar to the unknown god", they taught their converts that they had unknowingly been finding the Christian God there all along.

Sometimes, they would introduce them to Mary - and the well might be called Ladywell - or St Mary’s well.

Or, as in Holywell, North Wales the story of St Winefride grew up around a spring.

Engraving of St Winefride's Well (14690 bytes)

Engraving of
St Winefride's Well

Winefride was a young woman who refused to marry and who, for her pains, had her head cut off. It rolled down a hill and, where it stopped, a spring appeared.

The story has it that her uncle, St Beuno (pronounced By-no), miraculously restored her to life.

The well remains a place of pilgrimage for many who go to bathe in the pool built over the spring and to pray in the chapel.

St Beuno gave his name to a Jesuit House not far from Holywell. This attracts a different kind of pilgrim - those in search of retreat and renewal using the Spiritual Exercise of St Ignatius (founder of the Jesuits).

It is also famous as one of the houses in which the Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins lived and wrote some of his most famous poems.

The story of St Winefride was used as inspiration for a Brother Cadfael novel by Ellis Peters: "A Morbid Taste for Bones". It is based on the historical event of the transfer of her bones to the Abbey of Shrewsbury where they were venerated as saintly relics.

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