Secret Shrines: In a Dark Sea Cave....
by Paul Broadhurst
Holywell Bay near Newquay in Cornwall is famous today for its desert expanse of fine sand and the amethyst quality of its sea, surging and swallowing on the edge of what has been called 'the sweetest bay in England'. It is here that hordes of summer visitors come to prostrate themselves before the Sun God and frolic in the waves, restoring the elemental balance that is the essence of life. The whole scene encompasses a delicate equilibrium of Earth, Air, Fire and Water that condenses in the popular imagination as Sand, Sky, Sun and Sea, and leaves the human spirit revitalised and charged with a primitive potency.
The first time I stumbled across Holywell, it was the middle of the summer and overflowing with humanity in all its diversity. Still, the spirit of the place struck deep to produce a delicious headiness that whispered that this was indeed a magical place. Walking up to the eastern end of the beach, not a soul invaded the silence that smothered the sound of distant babble, for the sunseekers were gathered in the centre of the bay, the swimmers contained by bathing markers because of the rocks and strong currents. The tide was on the ebb, and I knew that the place I sought was further round, cut off by the foaming sea. I decided to sit it out, take the opportunity to soak up the elements, and muse about the penetrating natural sanctity of the spot. I comforted myself that this exhilarating experience was not simply the first symptom of some strange madness, for others had felt this way stretching right back into unrecorded history. The holy well that is a unique subterranean jewel in the rock of the cliffs proclaims its fame by giving its name to the bay visited every year by thousands of holidaymakers, most of them completely unaware of an actual 'holy well'. The chronicler Hals tells us that people frequented the well 'in incredible numbers' in his day, 'from countries far distant'. It seems, then, that this place has always exerted a powerful attraction over people, sometimes those who must have gone through tortuous trials to reach it, travelling on foot through strange lands to visit the fabled holy places. And its most powerful pull was on the crippled and infirm, those whose sufferings were infinitely more acute than the usual pilgrim, yet who believed in its supernatural qualities so vehemently that they were prepared to risk their lives.
The receding tide beckoned provocatively. I walked into the welcoming waves, enchanted by some invisible sea siren whispering a mystic promise in the gentle breeze. I caught my breath as the cold sea surged around, sucking the sand from around the feet in an attempt to dislodge my delicate balance and insinuate its superiority. I continued, feeling for the hidden rocks and the undersea valleys carved by the currents, as grey boulders and the dark entrances to sea-caves reverberated with the muffled crash of the surf. I almost felt that I was out of my depth, as the level of the sea rose and fell around me, sharpening the exhilaration of intimate contact with the natural forces. Then, around the corner, was a small rocky cove, freshly washed by the sea. I arrived on dry land again slightly shaky, clothes dripping from my own elemental baptism.
At the foot of the cliff I could just make out rough steps carved into the rock, leading up to some dark recess. The entrance to the cave was dripping with emerald mosses that made the ascent very slippery, and I wondered how those crippled pilgrims of the past must have coped with such obstacles. The steps led to a formation of unearthly beauty which can only be described in poetic imagery, for the essence of it lies in the realms of the supernatural. In the private gloom of this dark sea-cavern, a series of hollow steps sculpted by Nature cascade with water that drips from the stalactite roof. The distilled drops hang like glass baubles for a moment from the calcareous deposits stained by minerals from the cliff above, white, blue, iron-red and malachite green.
A natural basin, enamelled in pink and white, brims with water that still has a briny tang, and is connected to another similar receptacle, leading up to a dark chamber in the womb of the Earth. I could just squeeze into this tiny cave, sitting there in a puddle, lost in wonder at the primeval majesty of the natural architecture. A curiously formed pillar connects ceiling and floor, full of weird faces formed by the folds of dripping deposits, strange eyes peering out from the abstract designs like the images that loom up from a psychologists' ink-blot. It was through the space formed by this primeval pillar that mothers passed their deformed or sickly children, resulting, it is said, in the healing of the disease. Cripples also left their crutches in this hole at the head of the well, and in my imagination, gnarled hands thrust crude supports into the blackness of the cavernous chamber where I sat.
It is not surprising. then, that this unique natural shrine excited the imagination of people down the centuries, who came here to cure all manner of disease and deformity with the aid of the miraculous waters, in a cave that must have struck simple folk as of unearthly wonder. The historical legend of this well tells us that in 995 AD, Alchun, Bishop of Holy Island, took up the corpse of St Cuthbert, who was once abbot of Lindisfarne. In escaping the ravages of the Danish invasion, he and his monks resolved to transport the saint's relics to Ireland, but were driven onto the north coast of Cornwall where they settled and built the church at Cubert. Told by an oracle to take the sacred bones to Durham, they left, but not before the relics accidentally touched the well, communicating healing powers to the waters. But people would have venerated this place long before Christianity, the primitive mind being a thousand times more receptive to the natural power flowing through it. This would appear to be a prime example of the new religion usurping the potency of a truly pagan shrine for its own ends.
Since that first day when I crawled, dripping, into that underworld cave, I have returned many times, captivated by its remarkable power to connect prehistory with the present. Once, in the middle of winter, I battled against a biting wind to find the cave completely changed. I thought for a moment that it had all been some fantastic dream that had got mixed up with reality. All the huge boulders that I had scrambled over had gone, and smooth, silken sand stretched away up to the cavern. But there it was. A recent storm had deposited tons of sand in the cave, burying the vast rocks beneath a mountain but leaving the well untouched. As the tide recedes, the waters lose their salty flavour and become sharper, purifying themselves before being inundated once again as they have been every day for thousands of years.
And that is one of the fascinating aspects of this solitary and secret shrine. Other wells linger amidst the places of human habitation, affected by the atmosphere of those who visit them, storing impressions in the subtle ether of their fabric. This well, built by the very forces that shape the planet, is purified daily by the incessant sea, all taint of the confusion of human thought washed from its rocks by the pull of the Moon, to emerge cleansed and renewed, the very purpose and proof of a holy well.
Some confusion exists about the legendary associations of this well, as the ruins of another were discovered about 1916 not far away along the valley. This was restored in 1936 and christened Cubert Well, and stands at the base of a rocky outcrop like some castellated Victorian folly. The Rev. Lane-Davies, in his guide to Cornish wells, claims this as the famous well that give its name to the bay, accusing other writers and the Ordnance Survey of being mistaken. It seems the impressive spectacle of the well in the cliffs is far too pagan for the Reverend to acknowledge its potent and primitive power. But the fact is that you cannot get more pagan than a sacred spring, whatever the bishop might think! - Paul Broadhurst.
Polwhele's early History of Cornwall (quoted by R.C. Hope in his The Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England, 1893) makes it clear that the sea-cave well was the one which attracted so many pilgrims. He says; 'In this parish ( St Cuthbert ) is that famous and well-known spring of water, called Holy Well, so named, the inhabitants say, for that the virtues of this water were first discovered on All Hallow's Day. The same stands in a dark cavern of the sea cliff rocks, beneath full sea-mark on spring tides. The virtues of the waters are, if taken inward, a notable vomit, or as a purgent. If applied outward, it presently strikes in, or dries up, all itch, scurf, dandriff, and such-like distempers in men or women. Numbers of persons in summer season frequent this place and waters from countries far distant. It is a petrifying well.'
J. Meyrick, A Pilgrim's Guide to the Holy Wells of Cornwall,1982) suggests that both sites 'attracted many thousands of adherents over the centuries' and proposes that the valley site, with its restored 14th century chapel, is more likely to have been where the monks dwelt, whereas the cave was the actual healing well, the resort of cripples and mothers with sick children. Certainly, both places are worth visiting. - Mark Valentine
Text © Paul Broadhurst (1986)
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