The Holy Wells of West Penwith, Cornwall
by Laurence Hunt
The West Penwith peninsula is justly famous for its prehistoric stone circles, quoits and standing stones. The area also has a large number of early Christian sites, including a fair number of holy wells. The list below is thought to be complete though details of any omissions would be gratefully received. Most details are given for those wells of which sufficient remains to make a visit rewarding. For the intending well-hunter the Ordnance Survey Landranger map, sheet 203, of the area is essential - or even better the new second series l;25,000 Pathfinder sheets - Land's End and Newlyn (SW 32/42) and St Ives and Penzance (SW 33/43). Standard grid references are given to aid the location of the wells on these maps.
Approximate Location of Featured Wells
1. Alsia Well (SW 393 251)
This delightful spring is situated on Lower Alsia Farm near St Buryan. It is at the lower end of a field, in a hedge, a short distance south-west of a public right of way from Alsia to Bosfranken - the old church path to St Buryan.
The well is enclosed behind metal railings and consists of a small stone-lined recess in the hedge with a granite capstone, and a copious supply of clear, cool water. Adjacent is a slate slab with the words 'Alsia Well' carved on it. Although by no means impressive, this is a charming little well, especially when seen in Spring or early Summer when surrounded by wild flowers.
A cross is supposed to have once stood nearby and the water is reputed to have cured rickets, particularly in children. It has also been used as a divining well by girls, the number of bubbles rising from a pebble or pin when dropped in signifying the number of years before a lover would be found.
2. Boscaswell Holy Well (SW 377 348)
From the small square at the bottom end of Lower Boscaswell take the lane leading south-west towards the Geevor tin mine. After passing a few new bungalows the track swings right and in the centre of a grassy area in front of another bungalow will be found the rather sorry remains of the well.
There was once a chapel here and until fairly recently the well was in a good state of preservation, but it is now dry and the protective cairn of stones which once surrounded the well and the steps that led down to the water are completely ruinous and overgrown. A pipe is still visible from which the water presumably once flowed. The nearby activities of the Geevor Tin Mine are believed to have led to the drying up of the water supply. Villagers still recall when the well was used to cure eye complaints. It was also famed for its leeches. Today it is untended and unvisited, its rather pathetic condition heightened by the continual noise from the nearby tin processing plant.
3. Collorian Holy Well (SW 523 347)
This natural spring is at the end of the lane that leads north-west from Whitecross to Collorian on the left just before entering the farm. It consists of a stone lined hollow in a bank with a steady flow of water issuing from it and flooding a considerable plot of ground in front of the spring, making access difficult. There are a few shaped stones lying about but the spring is surrounded by lush vegetation and many remaining stones could be partly buried and hidden.
This was primarily a curative chalybeate spring, and has no dedication, although there was once a chapel of St Thomas nearby.
4. Gulval Holly Well (SW 485 317)
This was one of the most famous wells in Cornwall, being used to enquire if an absent friend was alive, or ill - depending on whether the spring bubbled or went cloudy. Nothing remains of the well today, although the site is marked by a manhole cover in the field to the south of the church, just over the wall.
5. Lelant. Abbey Well (SW 542 369)
An imposing edifice, although not necessarily of any great sanctity. It is situated in the grounds of the old house known as the Abbey, on the left of the A3074, just before the rise up into Lelant village, when coming from Hayle. The area around the well had just been cleared on my visit revealing a structure built of large granite blocks, on one of which is inscribed the date 1612.
A horizontal slab bisects the inside of the well and was presumably used for resting pitchers and buckets, or possibly for an image of a saint. The history of the well is uncertain but the house was once connected to Syon Abbey and it may be solely because of this that the well is considered holy.
6. Lelant. St Euny's Well (SW 536 387)
Situated at the end of a short path leading towards the coast from the coast path between Carbis Bay and Lelant, and signposted from the Carbis Bay end. Now known as a wishing well, it consists of a rock cut basin and a small spring, the water flowing into the basin and then down the cliffs. There is no building - or signs that there ever was one - and the site attracts many holidaymakers (and their litter) in summer.
7. Ludgvan Holy Well (SW 505 332)
Once a very famous well but now nothing remains at all. It had the unusual reputation that anyone baptised in its water would never be hanged.
8. Madron. Holy Well in Bone Valley (SW 456 333)
A large building once existed here but today all that remains of the well is the spring in a field on the east side of the lane between Heamoor and Newmill. No history or legends have survived.
9. Madron Holy Well (SW 446 328)
Signposted off the Madron to Lanyon road, ½ mile west of Madron village. Reached down a delightful winding path through a copse after passing over a couple of traditional Cornish stiles. This is probably the most famous well in the area and is still much visited. Rags are still hung from the surrounding trees and bushes. Water runs from the simple circular stone-lined well to the nearby ruined chapel where it fills a simple baptistry before being piped by a leat to the causewayhead Reservoir which feeds the Morrab Garden fountain in Penzance.
The chapel measures about 24 feet by 16 feet, is roofless and has an altar at the opposite end to the baptistry. There are simple granite seats down the sides. Wild roses grow on the chapel walls making it a beautiful sight in summer. There are many stories of cures that have taken place here, the most quoted being that of John Trelill, a cripple for 16 years, who washed in the water and was cured, early in the 17th century.
A new path has recently been made to the well avoiding muddy ground, and the chapel and well are both kept in good condition and are well worth visiting.
10. Morvah Holy Well (SW 402 358)
Most easily reached along the coast path from Portheras Cove. Where the path drops down into a small valley directly north of Morvah village there is, in the corner of the adjacent field, an ugly concrete shed which covers a derelict pump which once pumped away the water from this well. The ground all around is boggy and many shaped stones are lying around under the vegetation. A chapel once existed here as at Chapel Jane, Zennor but its outline can no longer be discerned. A rather sorrowful site in a splendid coastal setting. Little seems to be known about the history of the well although villagers can still recall when the water was used in the church for baptisms.
11. Nanceglos Holy Well (SW 452 313)
By the side of the road between Madron village and Trengwainton House. A spring within the grounds of the House gushes forth through a chute into a granite trough in a large walled enclosure. To what extent this is a holy well is not known since its history is unrecorded, although the present structure is likely to be the work of the occupants of the House. The water is known for its purity and the well is often referred to as a wishing well.
12. Nanquidno Well (SW 363 292)
A natural spring at the end of the lane leading to the hamlet of Nanquidno past Land's End Airfield. Known locally as the 'Baptistry Well', little is known about its history although a cross once stood adjacent (now moved into the hamlet) suggesting that it may once have been regarded as holy.
13. Penzance. Castle Horneck Well (SW 463 302)
On the outskirts of Penzance where a lane that runs to the hamlet of Castle Horneck meets the A30 is the site of a well of considerable repute. Nothing now remains of the well, but during the last century an irregular little building covered a chalybeate spring by the roadside here, and the water was used for sore eyes.
14. Sancreed Holy Well (SW 418 293)
¼ mile west of Sancreed church, through the farmyard opposite the church and follow a path which swings north to a small copse with a few tall Scots pine trees (most, sadly, have been felled recently). An enchanted site (despite the nearby pig farm) with a very impressive well, reached down a flight of steps. There is room to stand upright underground, next to the water. Adjacent to the well are the remains of a chapel; the walls are about 4 feet high and several carved stones are lying around. A modern cross stands nearby. On a misty winter day, or a sunny day in early summer when the whole area abounds with wild flowers, the site is very atmospheric and has an air of sanctity lacking at other more famous sites. Whilst it is good to see that the site is well looked after it would be a shame if it were kept too tidy as this would lessen the impact of the site.
15. Sancreed. St Euny's Well (SW 399 289)
Reached by taking an overgrown track leading westward onto Tredinney Common from the Iron Age settlement at Carn Euny near Brane, two miles west of Sancreed. As this path begins to widen, after about 100 yards, the well is immediately on the left. The site is often choked by vegetation and on my first visit I actually fell in it because it was so overgrown. It consists of a flight of steps leading down to a clear spring in a stone lined recess with a large granite capstone. Another smaller well lined with four large granite slabs lies a few feet to the north west and carved stones from the chapel which once stood here may be seen in the surrounding undergrowth.
The holy well (the one with the steps) once had a great reputation for healing, and sickly children were brought for many miles to be cured, especially on the first three Wednesdays in May. It is known that services were held at the well chapel during the 18th century and the site has only been neglected since then. The stonework of the well is still in a good condition however and a copious flow water still runs from the well.
16. St Ives Holy Well (SW 515 408)
The holy well of St Ia who gave her name to the town. Located by the side of Porthmeor Hill, below the graveyard overlooking Porthmeor Beach. It consists of two rectangular recesses in a granite wall each containing rather stagnant looking water, and surmounted by a plaque which states that water from the well was used as the main water supply for the old part of St Ives until 1843. Although in a lovely situation overlooking the sea and in excellent condition, the well tends to attract litter and looks rather out of place when surrounded by cars and holiday makers in the summer.
17. St Just Holy Well (SW 373 317)
Nothing now remains of this well which was once situated in a field to the north of the church. The site has been drained and water from the spring is piped straight to the brook at the bottom of the valley.
18. St Levan Holy Well (SW 381 219)
By the side of the path that leads from the church at St Leven to the beach at Porth Chapel. A rather uninspiring structure in a dramatic coastal setting, consisting of a low granite walled enclosure adjacent to the spring. The water does not look very fresh and the walling has been strengthened by using rather excessive amounts of cement. The remains of the chapel which gives its name to the cove are to be found nearer the beach, partly cut into the hillside next to the path.
19. Zennor. Chapel Jane Well (SW 434 383)
There are several ancient wells and springs in Zennor parish but the only one which undoubtedly deserves the name holy is the one adjacent to the ruins of Chapel Jane on Gurnard's Head. Although the chapel is quite distinct, and its low walling well preserved, it can be difficult to find, particularly in Summer when the vegetation is high. It is best found by proceeding out onto Gurnard's Head down the lane beyond the Gurnard's Head Hotel at Treen, and, once on the headland, working one's way eastwards along the path which follows the cliff edge. The chapel is near the edge of the cliff overlooking Treen Cove. No building survives over the spring but water still emerges from the hillside a short distance east of the chapel and plunges over the cliff.
As with many of the Penwith wells, the well itself is unimpressive (unlike the far more imposing edifices further east in Cornwall) but the setting is superb and well worth the finding.
Quiller-Couch, M. and L., (1894); Ancient and Holy Wells of Cornwall.
Lane-Davis, A., (1970); Holy Wells of Cornwall.
Maxwell, I. S., (1976); Historical Atlas of West Penwith.
Meyrick, J., (1982); A Pilgrim's Guide to the Holy Wells of Cornwall.
Russell, V., (1971); West Penwith Survey.
Text & Illustrations (except Madron baptistry) © Laurence Hunt (1985)
Designed & Maintained by Richard L. Pederick (© 1999) | Created 04/01/00