Ffynnon Fair, St Mary’s Well, lying in open country, half a mile or so to the north of Llanbedrog was apparently once an important local feature. I place it now in Llanbedrog, although a little to the north east we find a farm, and site of an old mill, called Cefn Llanfair suggesting there may have been a St Mary’s Church there at one time to which the well may have been linked. To see it now, a brick and concrete block secured with a manhole cover from which water pours into the surrounding ground, this is difficult to imagine. But this is often the fate of a spring neglected when its powers are forgotten. Even a century earlier Fardd described it as being “crumbling and vulnerable with only few then knowing about it”. Curiously it still features on the OS Map. A name In gothic script to tempt the casual visitor and then to disappoint them if they should try to find it. At least, in this case, the spring is still flowing, the ground around it is very wet and an old metal bath collects water presumably for animals in the field.
But it wasn’t always such a sorry sight. Fardd describes it as having been a three cornered structure its shape “something like that of a Welsh harp”; a spring which never dried up and water that was capable of curing any sore on either person or animal. But it was a cure that depended on the cure-seeker’s belief; it wasn’t going to work for just anyone. The sufferer had to approach the well, kneel before it and affirm their faith in it before bathing to be able to hope for relief.
Not only was this a powerful healing well, its abilities extended further. A victim of a theft could approach the well to discover the identity of the thief. The method was to throw a piece of bread into the water and to name a suspect. If the suspicion was correct then the bread would sink; if not then you could continue the process naming new suspects until the bread sank and true culprit was identified.
Now comes the difficult part. The practise with the bread seems so good that in recent accounts it is associated two wells in the parish, Ffynnon Fair here and also that of St Pedrog himself, Ffynnon Bedrog.
Now this raises several possibilities:
- Confusion and misreporting, the story has been heard concerning one well, but as memories, and even the wells themselves, fade from view, then the tellers of the stories forget which well they relate to as easily as they forget where the wells are.
- Success of the method, if it works in one well, or at least is believed to work, then the custom spreads and is repeated in the neighbouring well.
- Are there really two different wells, or is it that the location of the real well has been forgotten and the stories from one well attached to each of two rival contenders.
The primary problem is that neither well appears to attract the writers of the earlier Victorian period, Any such customs at the well would obviously have been prevalent a long time before this, and may only just be clinging on in living memory by the end of the nineteenth century. So our earliest source of readily accessible information is Fardd and this can hardly be considered as a completely accurate record.. John Rhys in 1893 also relates the story, saying he got it from Fardd. The only problem here is that he assigns the legend to “the big well at Llanbedrog” without giving a name to it. Marie Trevelyan in 1908 provides the same story, relating it to “the well at Llanbedrog” without naming the well.
The first occurrence of the story that it was Ffynnon Bedrog that was used in this way that I can find is in the Lives of the British Saints. The authors here identify St Pedrog with St Petroc , a Cornish Saint with minimal connection to North Wales, hence their references to particular this well are limited. The sources they use are unclear. It certainly seems possible in their hurry, and particularly not being interested in Ffynnon Fair, since it wasn’t relevant to the saint under consideration, they have conflated the two wells at this stage. However many subsequent accounts take their record as authoritative and repeat the story. Francis Jones in his book states quite happily that the custom of divination with bread took place at both.
We have to note that Ffynnon Fair appears marked on all the OS maps of the last 100 years. Ffynnon Bedrog only makes its named appearance on the most recent maps. This in itself doesn’t imply anything in particular, it may just be due to improvements in knowledge or mapping, but may be taken to imply that Ffynnon Fair was the more important of the two.
Were there even two holy wells close to Llanbedrog? The Royal Commission on Ancient Monuments visited and recorded two in 1964, but reported very little other than the condition of each and that Ffynnon Bedrog was known locally as “the wishing well.”
So in summary, was this Ffynnon Fair an important well for curing all ills and for the detection of thieves?
1893 – Rhys states that Fardd told him that it was “the big well at Llanbedrog”
1908 – Fardd says it was Ffynnon Fair
1913 – Baring Gould and Fisher say it was Ffynnon Bedrog
1914 – Ffynnon Fair is marked on the OS Map
1954 – Francis Jones records the same story for both wells
1970 – Ffynnon Bedrog makes its first appearance on the OS Map
So I am afraid we have to leave this story slightly hanging. Given the current level of information available the balance may be just slightly tipped in favour of Ffynnon Fair and this is the assumption I shall make for now while I hope for someone to provide a counter argument in favour of another well.
Obviously we left Ffynnon Fair in search of Ffynnon Bedrog, but despite our best endeavours failed to find it. I have a deep suspicion that the location marked on the map is wrong; but hopefully more will follow in a subsequent piece.
John Rhys (1893) Sacred Wells in Wales. Folklore Volume 4.
Myrddin Fardd (J Jones) (1908) Llen Gwerin Sir Gaernarfon
Marie Trevelyan (1908) Folk Lore of Wales
Sabine Baring Gould and John Fisher (1913) Lives of the British Saints
Francis Jones (1954) The Holy Wells of Wales.
Wellhopper acknowledges information from the AONB Team at Gwynedd CC which helped to find Ffynnon Fair.
SH 3113 3293