“Half hidden at the end of secret pathways, stumbled upon near old streams, nestled at the bottom of remote valleys far from modern-day roads and cottages, Cornwall’s holy wells are places of peace and contemplation, and refuge from the strains and pressures of 20th century civilization.” -Cheryl Straffon.
In his book Secret Shrines Paul Broadhurst calls wells ‘old Nature temples’, which he says ‘connect us with the remotest past . . . when mankind lived for forgotten thousands of years in mutual harmony with the Earth.’
People have been certainly been drawn to wells for countless centuries and for a great many more reasons than quenching their thirsts. It is well known that these springs, were thought to cure all kinds of ailments.
Alsia Well was thought by housewives to cure rickets in their children but others visited this well for another reason too. And perhaps they still do.
Of a summer evening scores of maidens might have been seen around it, eager for their turn to see what sweethearts would be united or parted. [This] they discovered by the fall of pebbles or pins. As the article sank near or apart so their future was foretold. And the number of bubbles raised bespoke the number of years before the happy or unhappy issue could befall. Another method of consulting the spirit of the well was by floating bramble leaves on it. – T.Q.C
Nature Temples & Wishing Wells
It is possible the natural springs have been held as sacred, and as sources of mystical power, since the dawn of human evolution. We know that in ancient history many cultures venerated them. This reverence is most likely to stem from the fact that springs are life-giving resources. Providing communities and their livestock with vital clean, fresh water.
Perhaps even early than that societies, or family groups, were either wholly or partly nomadic. Moving their animals from place to place on a seasonal cycle. It is thought that springs could have been regular ‘stopping places’ along their route.
In the Celtic tradition springs were honoured as places where the ancients could come into direct contact with Mother Earth. These bubbling water sources were also thought of as a doorway to another world. People believed they were protected by spirits. It is hardly surprising therefore that so many superstitions and traditions grew up around them.
Long ago wells began to be imbued with mystical powers. The power to heal, to predict the future and to grant wishes.
It is difficult to gain authentic information of the old customs ceremonies and traditions of these holy springs, so quickly and surely does the hand of civilization and progress wipe away the old beliefs and superstitions. – T.Q.C, 1894
As time passed the springs were often enclosed in well houses. These structures were to make access easier but also to protect and honour the site. They became Temples of Nature.
The ribbons and tokens you find at wells to this day show these places are still important to many people. I see each offering is a wish, a sign of faith in something mysterious, beyond our modern understanding.
Note: Alsia is pronounced Ay-lee-ah, a local farmer corrected me!
When I visited Alsia Well, which is hidden in a little isolated valley on the Lands End penisula, I found ribbons in the nearby trees. But there was something more. This was quite clearly a cared for and well-maintained site. The worn track leading to it down the field spoke of frequent visitors. It made me ponder what still leads us here? In our modern, hectic world what still draws us to these special places?