Sacred Sites – The Holy Wells of Cornwall

St Keyne's Holy Well

The sacred sites of Cornwall reflect its rich and living Pagan and Christian heritage. Homage to the sacred sites of Holy Wells continues to this day.

Cornwall abounds in sacred sites – stone circles, Neolithic burial mounds and Holy Wells. These last are natural springs bubbling up from the ground, sometimes gushing into a basin or with a stone mantle to protect them. Such wells have been associated with magical and healing powers across all of Europe from Pagan times. But in the UK it is largely only in parts of Ireland, Wales and Cornwall that the mystery has continued right up to the present day.

The Powers of the Holy Well at Madron

Cornwall is particularly rich in Holy Wells; there are around 20 in Penwith alone. Many have become associated with Christian saints, and their magical properties are said to include curing lameness, disease and infertility. Regular bathing in May at Madron Well, near Penzance, was said to cure a child of rickets, and unmarried women could throw an offering into the well to guarantee a spouse within a year.

Robert Southey Immortalised the Holy Well of St Keyne in his Poem

Some Wells have even more specific properties. St. Keyne’s well near West Looe is associated with St. Keyne, a Welsh saint born in AD 461, who travelled widely preaching the gospels and refusing all offers of marriage. It is said that for any married couple, whoever first drank of the waters would hold the power within the marriage. The poet Robert Southey made this the subject of a poem where he describes the husband rushing out of the church to drink from the spring, only to realise his wife had taken a bottle of the spring water into the church with her!

Many of the Well sites are off the beaten track; there are no signs, directions or car parks adjacent to these ancient sites. Yet there is ample evidence that the tradition of visiting a Holy Well in the hope of curing disease or finding love has continued unbroken to this day.

Many Holy Wells have a Cloutie or Clootie Tree

It was the practise in the past to tie a piece of bandage or rag from an ailing supplicant, to the branches of a tree overhanging the Well. This form of offering has continued unabated, although it is not just bandages but ribbons, lace, strips of plastic; in fact anything long, floaty or twirly, that people tie to the trees surrounding the Well. Such trees are known as “cloutie” or “clootie” trees and can be found in several different parts of the country. It is quite a surprise to come across one of these wells, garlanded with hanging offerings that seem like the relic of a bygone age, but which on examination are all quite modern.

Homage to Sacred Sites Continues to This Day

Here is one little area of life where commercial exploitation has not yet occurred, where local people continue to honour, as their ancestors did, the mystery and magic of the natural powers of the earth.