Meanwhile, we return to Ynys Cybi, St Cybi’s island or Holy Island. Bingley in his 1798 Tour in Wales notes that the dividing channel between Anglesey and Holy Island is generally passable without boats except when the tide is in. Very soon after this visit the road and rail links sprung up to provide easier access to the growing port, so fortunately we no longer venture over in fear of being cut off by rising tides.
For a place so sparsely populated in medieval times it lived up to its name as Holy Island, it appears to have been an area of small scattered settlements which, in addition to Cybi’s main church was served by so many small chapels distributed around the island.
Even in the mid-18th century these chapels had long since fallen into disuse and had either vanished or had little remaining. John Price in his Short Account of Holyhead (1783) wrote
The other chapels are Capel y Lochwyd in Holyhead mountain, now in ruins. Capel y Gorlles in the East End of which was a famous spring called Ffynnon y Gorlle, Capel Lilo, called by some Ilo, near Llech Nest, now converted into a farm house. Capel Gwyn Geneu, in the hamlet of Creceryst, applied to the same use. Capel St Ffraid, built on an artificial barrow or tumulus by the seaside.
From accounts it seems possible however, that each of these was associated with its own well and at some stage soon we will deal with each in turn. Of course to this list we can add the church and well of St Gwenfaen at Rhoscolyn, which is also on Holy Island. The fact that Price specifically identifies Ffynnon Gorlas as a “famous spring” in the mid 18th century implies it had a long history and remained identifiable and of local note even then.
Ffynnon and Capel y Gorlles, now more commonly written as Gorlas, lies about a mile to the north west of Holyhead on the road to South Stack in the village now called Llaingoch. The origin name Gorlas is lost, it is probably a personal name, although in its modern spelling it can be read as a green (or blue) bog. The well is traditionally presumed to have been at the east end of the chapel. Over the following years passing antiquarians regularly noted the presence of either chapel or well. The majority probably merely parroting these earlier reference works maybe without having visited the site. Very much as many do now, not really adding anything useful to the description or the history.
Thomas Pennant in his 1780s Tours in Wales did visit, reporting that
“I took a walk from the town to the top of The Head in search of other antiquities. In my way I saw the ruins of Capel y Gorlles one of several which are scattered about this holy promontory”
Angharad Llwyd in her History of Mona quotes from the journal of John Lloyd who travelled with Pennant. Saying “in the evening we passed by the ruins of Capel and Ffynnon y Gorlles.”
Thus at the end of the 18th century the ruined chapels of holy Island represented antiquities sufficiently interesting to earn their place on the antiquarian’s tour itinerary
Carlisle, however, was more scathing, in his Topographical Dictionary of Wales (1811) he writes
There are the remains of three chapels in the parish (Holyhead) namely Capel Lochwyd, Capel y Towyn and Capel Gwyngeneu; they were, I believe, Roman Catholic Chapels, of no great note
In 1870 The Cambrian Archaeological Society held its annual meeting in Holyhead which was accompanied by a tour of the sites of the area. Ffynnon Gorlas was a landmark on their tour then, although the speaker notes that the site of the chapel was by then lost and that there was never any structure around the well.
Just in passing, I couldn’t omit this account from the North Wales Express on the 16th August 1889
Into the twentieth century and the Anglesey Antiquarian and Field Society formed in 1911 undertook in its early years the invaluable task of having local volunteers visit and report on the state of various antiquities each year to ensure their upkeep and identify problems.
The observer for the Holyhead area was a Mr J Morris Jones who reported in 1913 that Ffynnon Gorlas (was) in fair condition, the trough being an interesting feature.”
Sadly the following year, 1914, he reported “The well is in fair condition, but the trough is demolished.”
We have no description from before or afterwards of the trough or its usage. This enigmatic reference does not help to determine whether the trough was a key antique feature of the well or merely a passing modification. Unfortunately he limits his report to this discussion of condition without providing a more detailed description of the site.
Over the following few years although Mr Jones continues to file his reports he makes no mention of ffynnon Gorlas. Whether the loss of the trough means that he no longer considers it important, or whether his time is limited we can’t be sure.
We should note that while he reports on the well there is no mention of the Chapel implying again that all trace has been lost.
A brief report in 1940 states that the well is still in use as a water supply for the local farm – the first actual account of such use that we have met, although it is confirmed in this subsequent account. The next detailed account appears in 1998 when it was investigated by Ken Lloyd Gruffydd of Cymdeithas Ffynhonnau Cymru. His description, which includes detailed plans, implies something substantially greater than anything gone before. (Ken’s drawings can be seen here.).
The well has four sides and is surrounded by a high wall probably erected to prevent people seeing the bathers or to keep animals out. There was a door in the wall and a flight of stairs descending into the water. The bath measures approximately 10 feet square but is not completely symmetrical. It is built of dry stone with flat stones around the top though few survive. Many of the stones have fallen into it and it is now muddy with cattle trampling it.
We can’t be sure how much of his plan was physical structure and how much a recreation of how it must once have been. In his opinion the stonework dated possibly to the 17th or 18th century although the foundations it was built on were possibly much older.
He spoke to the then 92 year old owner who told that the well had been used on a daily basis before tap water came to the area in the 1930s. Even after that time a few people had visited the well to bottle and take water away to cure diseases. This practice had been followed by nuns from a local convent into the 1950s.
So, between 1870 and 1990 we jump from a well which has never had any structure to one with substantial walls and building on what might be medieval foundations. This leaves us with various options. We might suppose that the august antiquarians of 1870 either visited the wrong (or a different) site. Perhaps we could surmise that in 1870 the well did indeed have a structure around it, but at that time it was so modern and associated with the well’s current usage so that they didn’t feel it important enough to note, being interested only in earlier building. Or maybe the structures noted by Ken weren’t as old has he believed and dated from post 1870. What is beyond doubt is that at some time the well has been built to the degree that it has a stone surround and possibly a neighbouring room.
Researchers for Gwynedd Archaeological Trust visited around 2010 as part of a CADW funded project investigating the potential and need for scheduling Holy Wells for future protection..They record that
The well is located in an overgrown area in a very wet field which is currently used for pasture. The area to the north and west of the well is drier and is the location of a paved track discovered during excavations in 2005. All that was visible of the well during the visit was 3 sides of the main reservoir which are of dry stone construction. The north western and south-western walls are both approximately 5m in length where as 7m of the south-eastern wall was visible. Accurate measurement was not possible due to thick bramble growth.
This well was one of twelve recommended in the report for scheduling, noting that
The well is totally overgrown and in need of attention… vegetation is actively damaging the structure of the well. A number of trees are now growing on the walls of the structure and should be removed as part of any management and maintenance scheme.
Shrub invasion was so bad that they were unable to obtain photographs of the stonework.
So nine years on from this account, this is how I found it. A further nine years of tree and bramble growth obscures the well completely. Clearly no attempt has been made to put in place any form of maintenance plan. I struggle to see anything more than the top of a possible stone wall.
Ffynnon Gorlas – in the centre of the picture below
It is difficult now to see anything other than a continual degradation and eventual loss of the well, although of course the source of this once “famous spring” will survive beneath everything. Then again, we aren’t completely sure about the reason for its fame, though having been associated with a chapel we must assume it has had some significance as a holy well in its time. With the lack of early description and subsequent conflicting reports it is difficult to know what is worth saving underneath all that growth. The primary issue would seem to be one of access, the well lies on private farmland with no public right of access. It would appear that the land owner has no incentive or interest in saving the well I was lucky I think to get to the well without being apprehended and didn’t like to stay around the site too long.
Like Ffynnon Cybi, and others that we are still to report on, Ffynnon Gorlas is one of the wells of Holy Island that are fast fading out of memory.
Below – as I learned from experience in the (archaeological) trenches, one stone is a chance, two might be coincidence but three make a wall!
Anglesey Antiquarian and Field Society. Annual Reports 1913 and 1914
Archaelogia Cambrensis (1870) Report of the 24th Annual Meeting of the Cambrian Archaeological Association, Holyhead
Bingley, William(1798) A Tour Around North Wales
Carlisle, Nicholas (1811) Topographical Dictionary of Wales
Gruffydd, Ken Lloyd (1998) Ffynnon Gorlas, Ynys Cybi. Llygad y Ffynnon, (Nadolig 1998) Newsletter of Cymdeithas Ffynhonnau Cymru
Llwyd, Angharad (1833) A History of the Island of Mona
Parry, Iwan George Smith and David Hopewell (2011) CADW Scheduling Enhancement – Holy Wells. Gwynedd Archaeological Trust
Pennant, Thomas (1781) Tours in Wales
Price John (1775) A Short Account of Holyhead in Bibliotheca Topographica Britannica Volume 5.
Ffynnon Gorlas SH23368240