‘The story goes that one day the devil came to the Tamar from the Devon side and stood rubbing his chin and considering. ‘No,’ said he, ‘I won’t take the risk. Yonder every person is made into a saint and everything into a pie. I do not feel qualified for either position.’
It is true that you can find a saint around almost every corner in Cornwall. And there are roughly 200 holy wells in the region dedicated to one or another of them. The beautifully untouched Inney Valley between Launceston and Camelford holds a particularly special example. The medieval chapel and holy well of St Clether is thought to once have been the resting place for the bones of the saint that founded it. As a result St Clether’s Chapel became a place of pilgrimage, drawing people to it in search of healing. Today, still only accessible on foot, it remains a wonderful haven of peace and tranquillity. A perfect escape.
So, who was Saint Clether?
Saint Clether was a Welsh man also known as Cleder or Clederus. He is believed to be one of the 24 children of Brychan, a legendary King of Wales. According to some sources Clether’s siblings included Minver, Teath, Merryn, Winnow, Endellion, Keyne, Issey and Morwenna – names very familiar to us in Cornwall.
Not much is known about his life but sometime in the 6th century Clether arrived in Cornwall and chose the site of a natural spring as his hermitage. After his death it is said that Clether’s followers kept his bones as holy relics and that they immersed them in the well. This gave the water special healing powers and pilgrims began arriving from far and wide hoping for a chance to wash in the waters.
St Clether Chapel and Holy Well stands on the edge of the rather bleak Davidstow Moor, part of Bodmin Moor. It is the largest holy well chapel in Cornwall, built of greenstone with granite mouldings at the doors and windows, and originally served as the parish church for the area. In all likelihood the well, like so many others in Cornwall, was already considered important in pre-Christian times. Ley-lines are said to pass through the present-day chapel in two directions. A well-house or some sort of chapel is thought to have been built here as early as the 4th century.
The giant granite altar in the chapel is monumental! It is thought to be original, perhaps even dating back to the time of St Clether. But the chapel building that we see today was first built nearly 600 years ago in around 1450. At this time the saint’s bones were kept in a niche inside the chapel, close to the altar.
One of the most unusual features, which is certainly unique in Cornwall if not in the whole of the UK, is the channel which runs from the holy well outside under the chapel wall and into the building. The channel allows the the water to pass behind the altar and then out under the opposite wall into a stone basin outside. This small basin was once used for baptisms and for pilgrims to bathe.
By the 18th century the chapel and well had fallen into serious disrepair. The roof had gone and the whole site was overgrown with trees and undergrowth. A new parish church was built nearby. It was only due to the fund-raising efforts of Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, who campaigned to save the site from disappearing entirely, that restoration work began in 1898.
“The chapel, which has been in ruins, was situated in a bog and almost inaccessible until the bog was drained in November 1897. Thorn trees and briars grew out of the walls and obstructed the entrance so that it was difficult to make anything out of the mass of fallen stones and tangled undergrowth.”Rev. S. Baring-Gould
Baring-Gould also claimed that the only part of the chapel in situ was the altar, although the Quiller-Couch sisters reported that this too had fallen in their 1894 book on holy wells.
When the chapel was rededicated in 1899 the newspapers reported an unexpected addition to the program of events.
“A couple of poor parents arrived with their babe and begged to have it christened then and there in the Holy Well water. This was done and the child named Clether.”
At the reopening ceremony “all the neighbourhood were present” and there was a procession with a cross from the parish church consisting of the masons, carpenters and workmen who had helped with the restoration. Hymns were sung and Baring-Gould gave a sermon on the life of St Clether.
The effort that Rev Baring-Gould and his community put into restoring the holy well and chapel can not be overstated. Rather than see a beautiful relic disappear into ruin they saved this timeless place so that we can still love and appreciate it today.
“Before leaving the Holy Well the visitor should look around at the scene. There is not a house in sight, nothing to break the spell of antiquity which broods over the place. This is how the pilgrims saw it. They came here full of faith in the powers of the water. confident that they would obtain relief from their ailments.”W. Revill, Old Cornwall, 1962
A Quiet Haunting
According Alex Langstone in his book on the folklore of Bodmin Moor St Clether’s Chapel has a ghost. Apparently the well and chapel’s saviour, Rev. Baring-Gould, formed such an attachment to the place that after his death he decided to hang around.
“The chapel is said to be haunted by Baring-Gould and several ghostly impressions have been seen over the years; it is though that his spirit rests peacefully here at this place that he so lovingly restored.”alex langstone, From granite to sea, 2018
All was peaceful when I visited however and the only ghostly apparition I saw was the silent, statue-still grey heron I spotted at the river in the valley.
Visiting St Clether
A visitor to the well in the 1960s reported that “hedge-cut walking sticks” could be collected at the stile near the modern parish church to help walkers to the chapel. That tradition is a thing of the past but you should be ok without one, unless you are particularly unsteady on your feet. To reach the footpath to the well you still have to cross the graveyard, and from there is an easy and picturesque track to follow through the valley, if a little uneven in places. It is roughly half a mile to the chapel.
The chapel is privately owned but is usually kept open.