Last autumn I spent three fascinating days in the company of photographer and author Phil Cope, photographing wells for his new book. Well at least he was photographing, I was more engaged in trying to keep out of range of his wide angled all-encompassing lenses. My role as driver and guide was to try to ensure that he managed to capture as broad a range of wells as possible across the region. Now that the book is available it seems in that respect it was a great success.
Phil soon learned to his cost that the Wellhopper motto is keep on going – dal ati – no matter where you are there is always time to visit one more well before lunch. I think we achieved 25 to 30 wells over those three days covering sites from Wrexham to Holyhead before exhaustion and the gathering gloom finally ended my schedule. I would like to think that I managed to introduce him to a few extra surprise wells and a new story or two during the time.
While I helped to provide the targets it is Phil’s work that brought out the life in the springs in his book Living Wells of Wales. Not only does he manage to capture some superb images of the springs but he also records evidence of the way in which they continue to involve the people who live and work around them. We met a number of interesting and thoughtful people along the route whose stories and pictures also feature in the book. As such the book becomes more than a mere record of the wells it becomes a record of the journey to discover them.
So importantly, the book doesn’t only capture the important holy wells though naturally they form a significant chunk of the book but it looks at spa sites, drinking fountains and water supplies – anything that shows the life force of water. We were driving through the centre of St Asaph at one point when Phil asked me to stop suddenly at a busy junction. He had spotted an ornate Victorian drinking fountain beside the river, something that had never previously caught my attention. But we stopped at the roadside and discovered the grand Mary Short Memorial Drinking Fountain which made the cut and appears in its appropriate place in the book.
Phil brought out his first well book Holy Wells of Wales in 2008 and since then has produced companion volumes for Scotland, Cornwall and the English Welsh borders region. He has also produced stunning images for other writers work including one on the early Christian missionaries in Cumbria, Northumberland and Scotland. and a forthcoming book on St Aidan. He has also featured in many exhibitions. Living Wells of Wales has been produced as an update to the 2008 edition, but is also his most ambitious well project to date in that it contains images of some 300 wells and springs (I think the previous edition managed 48).
The subject matter is divided by region with the primary and most photogenic wells covered in depth with the others added as smaller pictures although with full commentary at the end of each section to document the diversity of each region. Attractive sketch maps of each region identify the rough location of each site.
The text while generally related to the wells discussing the associated history and folklore frequently branches out into topics driven by the author’s pet topics, passionately presented discourses on the need to preserve the fragile history and more importantly the need to preserve access. Phil argues the case that wells and well customs will necessarily adapt over time for the wells to continue to remain relevant. The book includes wells that have been redesigned and new wells that have been brought into use over recent years. While preserving the past is important, preserving the well as a living source is equally vital.
The book documents the continuing loss. We visited the spa well at Trefriw which was up into the mid-20th century a major health resort. While the spa water is still extracted and sold commercially the spa is long closed. However, until recently it was still possible to visit the baths and a small site museum recorded its history. These feature in Phil’s 2008 book, but on our visit this time all this was gone and the book shows the closed gates and padlocked chains that greet the visitor today, together with Phil’s angry commentary on what was being lost.
The book is, as they used to say, interspersed with pieces of poetry from a wide range of writers inspired by the wells; and it brings to life well owners, displaying a deep knowledge and sense of the importance of preserving their wells – well guardians as much as property owners, others who live and work beside the wells and those who support and care for their local sites. Phil is active in seeking ways to boost the interest within communities in their local wells, to investigate for themselves the local histories and to breathe new life into old customs.
Living Wells of Wales tries to be a hopeful book, but primarily it is a call to action. Hope that the wells with our intervention will continue to survive, maybe sometimes in a new guise or with new traditions forming; but can only happen if we make it happen. For many wells it may already be too late – many of the living wells may in fact be already dead – for others there is still time – we should never take water for granted and now is the time to rediscover our wells before it is too late..
Clearly this is not an impartial review, but as a pictorial guide to wells in all their guises it is a useful companion. It’s large size means that it sits better on the coffee table than in your pocket when out in the field, though it does provide grid references to help track down the sites he visits. It is published by Seren at £20 and again, as the saying goes, can be purchased in all good bookshops where such things still exist. It is available from the publisher’s website, sometimes it even seems to pop up in National Trust gift shops and the like and I’m sure that it can always be bought through the evil empire that is Amazon.
All photos by Phil Cope
Ffynnon Gelynin, Llangelynin, Conwy
Ffynnon Saint, Rhiw, Gwynedd
Ffynnon Dyfnog, Llanrhaeadr Denbighshire.