St. Winifred’s Well-1300 Years of Pilgrimage
There are many holy wells in Wales as there are in other Celtic lands. The one I know best is St. Winifred’s Well in the North Wales town, aptly named Holywell. I had taken a night ferry from Dublin to Holyhead, finding that the bus did not go directly to Holywell. The bus driver left me off in the dark, hours before dawn, at a train station from which I backtracked to Holywell the next day. It was an example of the adventures and inconveniences a traveler dependent on public transportation can experience--- but one worth doing.
The town of Holywell was a great introduction to Wales. I had an early breakfast with locals, shopped, and again had coffee before connecting with friends who showed me around Wales and took me on to England. At the time I had never heard of our first stop, St. Winifred’s Well. It is far more than “just” a wayside well. The gardens, chapel, well and bathing pool create a lovely oasis, a spiritual place, a place of beauty. It has also been a place of pilgrimage and healing since the 12th Century. In fact, it is said to be the place of the longest continuous pilgrimage in all Great Britain.
As with Brigid, Winifred was venerated through stories of her ability to heal. Legend has it she was a 7th century princess who refused a powerful prince who then beheaded her. Her uncle restored her to life, and she became a virgin martyr and a 12th century saint.
The chapel overlooking the well was built in the 15th century, however the site is ancient. In historical time, the first royal visitor was King Richard I in the 12th century. Henry VIII saw that much of the early structures were destroyed but it held on to symbolize the resilience of Welsh Catholicism until more recent times when it was restored by the Jesuits. Royalty and peasants alike visited through the centuries, for healing and thanksgiving. Fertility was also promised by the cleansing waters of its spring.
As my friends and I walked around the star-shaped stone-wall framing the inner well, we looked down into the depths of the well and felt pulled to the spirit of Winifred herself. After a long, reflective silence, my friends began to sing. Their angelic voices echoed throughout the stone enclosure as they sang a vibration of deep peace and love that moved not just myself but the other visitors. Two American siblings standing alongside me were moved to tears. The Celtic Spirit that I so love was evoked and blessed the trip we were beginning that day. We called our excursion a blessing of the waters, but it was ourselves that were blessed.
Moments later, the sun shown on the pool and bathing area. We basked in its rays as we meditated and then relaxed with our feet in its waters. Earth, fire, water, air: all the elements aligned in harmony.
May you find a few moments in the week ahead to find a place of pilgrimage, a place of deep water or a place of reflection where you can experience healing and thanksgiving. It need not be in faraway Wales. It may be in your own back yard or a nearby park.