“Once upon a time, as all good stories begin, St Nonna, the reputed mother of St David happened upon this pleasant place . . .”The Cornwall Village Book, Cornwall W.I., 1991
The moorland village of Altarnun nestles in a river valley. Idyllic, secluded and peaceful. The ancient church, often called ‘the cathedral of the moor’, is dedicated to St Nonna and towers above the cluster of houses and babbling stream. But who was St Nonna and what was the ‘magic’ that drew people to this quiet place more than 400 years ago?
Saint Nonna & Saint David
The Welsh saint, variously known as St Nonna, St Nunne, St Nun, St Nonnet or St Non, is said to be the mother of St David, the patron saint of Wales, and a well bearing her name can be found near St David’s Cathedral in Pembrokeshire.
There is another theory as to this lady’s origins however. Rev. W. S. Lach-Szyrma, a 19th century Devonshire curate, folklorist and science-fiction writer, had different thoughts regarding her heritage. He wrote:
“His mother [ St David’s], St Nonna, is remembered at St Nunn’s well [in Wales] and at Altarnun, the altar of St Nonn, where probably she was buried. It is said she was no nun, but a famous beauty of the period – a Cornish girl and daughter of a Cornish chief – with whom King Cereticus [Caractacus] fell in love and whom he married and who bore him a son, the famous Bishop St David.”
Whether on not St Nonna was actually from Cornwall is unclear but according to local legend she is said to have arrived here in Altarnun sometime in the early 6th century and founded a small chapel or religious community in this quiet spot on Bodmin Moor.
(There is also speculation that the nearby Davidstow moor gets its name from connections with that saint.)
The settlement became known as Altarnon – or ‘the Altar of Saint Non’. And although nothing of St Nonna’s original church, which was said to be her burial place, now remains, it is said that Altarnun’s old vicarage may have been built using salvaged stone from that forgotten nunnery.
There is also a sacred spring nearby that was named for her and this well can still be found in fields close to the church. It is said that there was once a channel that took the water from the well into what was the ancient chapel built by St Nonna though no evidence of that remains.
This sacred spring has long been thought to possess special healing powers.
Its waters were once said to be able to banish insanity.
Historic Treatments for Mental Illness
For people in the 17th century (and in many others centuries) mental illness was something to be fearful and ashamed of. It was often seen as the work of the supernatural, caused by a curse, a possession by the devil or even an astronomical event. It was very common for families to hide sufferers away from the world or to seek out what we would now consider to be cruel solutions to the problem.
Treatments ranged from herbal drinks to incarceration and very often much more robust practices such as bloodletting were tried. Most ordinary people couldn’t afford a physician, and even if they could his ability to effect some kind of ‘cure’ was limited, and so sufferers turned to cunning folk, herbalists, astrologers or in many cases the church for help.
The church and its clergymen offered various solutions for what was commonly believed to be the work of the devil or some kind of satanic possession. These ministrations included everything from enthusiastic prayer to anointing with holy oils and water. In some places full body emersion in a sacred spring, a well that had been blessed by a saint, was thought to be just the thing to bring a person ‘back to themselves’.
In the same way that other wells were thought to cure everything from infertility to rickets and from skin conditions to whooping cough, St Nonna’s well was said to imbue the bather with the cure for madness.
Bowsening in St Nonna’s Well
” . . . other curative appliances were in use of a no less violent kind. There were surprise baths like the ‘bowssening pool’ near Launceston where the patient was plunged without warning into ice cold water and held there until he was nearly drowned.”The Scotsman, 27th October 1894
Bowsening (sometimes spelt bowssening or bowsenning) is a custom associated with wells in eastern Cornwall. It refers to the tradition of submerging a person fully in water to relieve them of various ills. It was once believed that a watery immersion in the pool of St Nonna’s well would return a person who had taken leave of their senses to their right frame of mind.
According to E. C. Axford St Nonna’s was once at one time “one of the most famous Cornish wells”.
And it is from the Cornish historian Richard Carew that we have our most lengthy description of what happened in this place in the 17th century. Carew describes the tradition of bowsening at St Nonna’s well in his book ‘The Survey of Cornwall’ published in 1602, a time he readily points out “when devotion much exceeded knowledge”.
The description brings into focus the brutal nature of this treatment.
This was not a simple quick emersion, the sufferer would be repeatedly dunked in what must have been freezing cold water even in summer, until they no longer struggled against their captors.
The patient would then be taken to Altarnun’s church and prayed over. If they recovered their senses they were let go, if not the whole process would be repeated again and again . . .
“Because the manner of this bowsenning is not so unpleasing to hear as it was uneasy to feel, I will deliver you the practice as I received it from the beholders.
The water running from St Nunn’s well fell into a square and close walled plot . . . upon this wall was the frantic person set to stand, his back towards the pool, and from thence with a sudden blow to the breast tumbled headlong into the pond where a strong fellow took him and tossed him up and down, alongst and athwart the water, until the patient by foregoing his strength had somewhat forgot his fury. Then he was conveyed to the church and certain masses sung over him; upon which handling, if his right wits returned, St Nunn had the thanks, but if there appeared small amendment he was bowssened again and again, while there remained in him any hope of life for recovery.”Richard Carew, The Survey of Cornwall, 1602
According to the folklorist Robert Hunt a dunking on 2nd March, St Nonna’s feast day, was doubly beneficial as the powers of the waters were greatly enhanced that day.
Fortunately however, it seems that bowsening became regarded as a primitive and cruel practice and was gradually forgotten. Perhaps its effectiveness was called into question too . . . we can only hope.
Forgotten Powers & a New Legend
“the waters of St Nonna [were] nothing more than a hazy legend in the history books.”Paul BRoadhurst, Secret Shrines, 1991
It is not clear when the last bowsening ceremony took place at St Nonna’s well. There are no other accounts of the practice in recent memory and by 1896 the pool was reportedly, according to the Quiller-Couch sisters, overgrown, full of grass and weeds and overhung by an thorn tree.
For many years the well and its tragic past was forgotten.
Writing in 1900 Arthur Norway explained that the spring was dry and the well “almost destroyed”, he also bemoaned the idea that as a consequence of this there were more “frantic people” in Cornwall!
Then in 1934 the glebe land around St Nonna’s well went up for sale and it may have been at this point that it was bought by Morley Brown, a man who became obsessed with the legend of the site and with returning the well to its original condition.
It was by this time just a damp depression in the field. Brown called upon the help of a local dowser called John Tryner to help him to find the old underground watercourse that fed the well. Apparently day after day the men dug deeper and deeper with no success then what Brown saw as a miracle happened.
“with a hole twenty feet deep and still no result, they were on the point of giving up when the rain came, days of it, filling the rivers and springs; and finally one morning it was discovered that the water had itself taken to its ancient course and that once again the old well was filled.”Paul BRoadhurst, Secret Shrines, 1991
The old bowsening platform was uncovered deep in the mud and the whole site tidied and made something of a beauty spot, which it remains to this day.
During the lockdown in 2021 a group of locals led by the church and the nearby Wesley Museum cleared the site again. And the pool has become a haven for wildlife and a peaceful retreat. It appears that this special place holds no memory of the brutal practice that was once carried out here.
“All of us need to escape from this worldly madness, and to find peace, and rest. We trust that here you will find such peace, as St Nonna did, and that you will take it with you wherever you go.”Morley Brown – Paul BRoadhurst, Secret Shrines, 1991
Finding St Nonna’s Well
The well is in fields less than half a mile from the church. If you walk up road, with the church on your left, on the hill, just before a sharp bend, you will see some metal gates on the right. Go through these and a lane leads down to a kissing gate. Go through the gate into the field and the well is in the bottom right hand corner surrounded by a low wall. (There are often sheep in this field so please keep any dogs on the lead.)