The Search for Bride's Well
by Cheryl Straffon & Caeia March
Bride (pronounced Breed) was one of the principle Celtic goddesses, and was celebrated throughout the pagan Celtic world as the Goddess of healing, smithcraft and poetry. She is particularly associated with wells and her main festival was that of Imbolc (February 1st) which celebrated her return to the land, seen in the lactation of the ewes and the first flowers of Spring. She was so important a Goddess that the Christian church could not suppress her. Instead they turned her into St Bridgit or Brigid, and she became one of the most revered saints of the early Celtic church. Legends and customs associated with her can be found in most Celtic lands, in particular in Scotland (where Brides Well can be found on the Isle of Lewis) and in Ireland, where she is still venerated until this day.
As a pagan Goddess, Bride has particular resonance for us, and since Imbolc 1992 we have found that she has played an important part in our lives and in our researches. It has always puzzled us that she appeared to have no particular place in the folklore and mythology of Cornwall, despite Cornwalls strong Celtic traditions. Our researches and personal journeyings have however over the last years revealed to us her presence in Cornwall in a very exciting and original way.
For a time now we have both been interested in the 5th - 7th century links between Cornwall (then part of the kingdom of Dumnonia) and other Celtic lands, principally Ireland and Wales. It appears that early potters came from Ireland to Wales and then on to Cornwall, probably landing in the Tintagel area and settling initially along the valley of the River Camel . There are the well-known maze carvings on the walls of Rocky Valley near Tintagel which are undated but could easily be from this period. There is also a little-known link between them and Ireland, for on a rock in the Wicklow Hills (now in a museum in Dublin) was found another maze carving, the exact mirror image of the Rocky Valley ones (Rocky Valley is a left-handed and Wicklow Hills a right-handed labyrinth carving) . We would suggest that both carvings may have been made by the same peoples, who left their mark in their homeland of Ireland, and travelled to Cornwall where they carved its mirror image as a thanksgiving for their safe arrival.
There are other clues to the links between Ireland and Cornwall from this time: many of the early saints were supposed to come from Ireland and Wales, and several of the names are common to the three countries and nowhere else. For example, Saint Breaca who gave her name to Breage in Cornwall was supposed to be born in East Meath in Ireland and educated at St Brigids convent nearby. So if the Celts did travel trade-routes here they must have brought their legends and beliefs with them. One of the principal beliefs would have been of the pagan Bride, given a thin veneer of Christian nomenclature as Saint Brigid. There was a shrine to her at Kildare in Ireland tended by 19 priestesses (later nuns), and St Brides Bay on the coast of Wales, where the Irish migrants would have landed, was named after her. As they moved across Cornwall on the old route through Launceston and on into Devon, it seemed to us unlikely that they would not have left some mark behind of her central presence in their lives.
For us the breakthrough came when we started work on our books, for Caeia research on the Cornish myth of Tristan and Iseult  and for Cheryl a book on the Goddess in Cornwall . It was our hypothesis that Iseult may have been a localised version of the Goddess Bride that set us searching for some evidence of her presence here. As Bride was the Goddess of poetry (creativity) and smithcraft (workmanship) as well as healing (inner and outer work) this was not without significance for us.
While researching the possible trade routes across north Cornwall we chanced on a listing on the OS map (at SX 3500 7962) for St Bridgits Well. Here was the missing link we had been seeking! However, there appeared to be no source material on this well at all: no books listed it, not even Meyricks comprehensive collection of over 130 Cornish wells  and there was no information on it in the Sites & Monuments Register of the Cornwall Archaeological Unit. The name was the clue we had been seeking, but for all we knew the well itself may have been a muddy hole in the ground or simply a lost tradition. However, on a beautiful early Spring day in February 1993, Brides month, we travelled through the snowdrop-filled lanes of North Cornwall to the spot given on the map, and discovered we were entering the private estate of Landue near Lezant. Now Lezant is Cornish for holy place, and Landue probably means sanctuary, so our surmise was that we had stumbled upon the site of a very early holy well around which a sacred settlement had grown. Confirmation for this came later (in Meyrick) in the discovery that a chapel to St Bridget is also recorded there. On our way, we had stopped at the cross of Holyway (SX 2727 8232), another clue to the route followed by the early migrants. Traced further eastwards, one comes to Bridestow in Devon - literally Brides Place. So it seems we had found the early route from the Rocky Valley through the Camel Valley, Landue, and on to Devon. Perhaps the Irish/Welsh Celtic migrants were only following a well-known trade route of their ancestors from the sacred lands of Ireland to the sacred sites of Dartmoor?
But what of Bridgets well? A special delight was to await us. By the kind permission of the owner of the estate, we followed a secret path through a bower of trees surrounded by snowdrops and early daffodils, to a beautiful well. The old gate was kept in place with shining white quartz stones, and when we gently removed them and opened the gate the water was clear and fresh. The midday sun shone through the trees straight into the well, with all the stones glistening deep red and brown. It was an enchanted place!
We thanked Bride for bringing us there and showing us the well, a well hidden for so many years, yet quietly cared for and looked after. Talking to the owner a little later, she told us that in fact a number of other wells in the area were also called by the local people Bridgets Well. Now there are no others listed on the map or in the SMR, so this is likely to be a very old folk memory of the importance of the area as a settlement on the trail, a trail we were now beginning to call Brides Way. And so our search was completed. It had taken us a full year to track down and discover the presence of Bride in Cornwall, and the route taken by the Celtic forbears who brought her here from Ireland. There is further research to be done on other possible significant places along the way, and the links between the Insular Celts and their Continental cousins. But for the moment we were happy to have discovered the gift of Bride in Cornwall, and her special place in our lives.
|1.||Charles Thomas, And Shall These Mute Stones Speak?, University of Wales Press, 1994.|
|2.||Nigel Pennick, Mazes and Labyrinths, Robert Hale, 1992.|
|3.||Caeia March, Reflections, Womens Press: (to be published), 1995.|
|4.||Cheryl Straffon, Pagan Cornwall - Land of the Goddess, Meyn Mamvro Publications, 1994.|
|5.||J. Meyrick, A Pilgrims Guide to the Holy Wells of Cornwall, Meyrick, 1982.|
17 October 1994
Thanks for The Search for Brides Well. Its really great that your researches have uncovered her well in this way, and we certainly feel that your account should appear in Source. One or 2 points:
As OBrian pointed out, what may be the oldest extant reference to the saint is that contained in an early genealogical poem on the Fothairt [dated by Kuno Meyer to the 6th cent. - i.e., within the lifetimes of those who could have known Brigid, whose traditional obit is given as c. 525 - TGH]. There is no doubt that the enormous cult of Brigit, as well as many of its features, must have benefitted from the coincidence of the saints name with that of the Celtic goddess...However, Macalisters thesis - that the Christian saint was an avatar of the goddess, who as head of a community of virgins at Kildare was converted together with her community to the new religion - must always remain outside the realm of proof. - Donncha Ó hAodha (ed.), Bethu Brigte, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies 1978, p. xxv. - while Ronald Hutton, The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles, Blackwell 1991, esp. pp. 153-4, suggests that the problem of the goddess Bride is by no means as clear, or the evidence as satisfactory, as Ross, Green, and others have accepted them as being.
And whereas many of our readers, like ourselves, will be familiar with the Bride=St Brigid equation, there will be many others who arent, and will simply be confused. As Source is not an earth-mysteries magazine - for want of a more exact generic! - much that earth-mysteriographers would assume to be common knowledge, cannot be so assumed for our purposes. Thus, a reference (references would be better) to discussions of the Bride/St Brigid identification has to be a desideratum here.
(My own view is that St Brigid was an historical woman, an abbess during the early, fluid period of the establishment of Celtic monasticism; whose cult absorbed many of the features of the goddess - indeed, the (hypothetically) wide distribution of the goddess cult may be one of the reasons for the early and wide-spread nature of the saints cult. I think the goddess/saint identification is ultimately untenable, because the Vitae of St Brigid are early (tho not early enough to be historically reliable in every detail); and because, already in the 7th cent. we have an account of a developed cultus (Cogitosus, Vita) centred upon Brigids bodily relics. The developed cultus presupposes, following the criteria established by modern hagiographers, a considerable time for this development to occur - thus taking us nearer to the time of the historical Brigid - and also occurs at a period long before the cult of false or invented relics was a possibility in these islands.)
(With regard to the last sentence of your first para: I presume you know of St Brigids cult in Wales? This was highly developed, and of long standing; with numbers of churches named for her, at least 8 holy wells, and a developed legend telling of her visit to Wales - she floated across the Irish Sea on a turf! Some work has been done on these dedications, which suggests - as Prof. Bowen noted - that though her cult appears in Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Devon, Brittany, Cumbria and Scotland, and most likely it belonged originally to the areas which were colonized by the Irish in the fifth and sixth centuries A.D., and spread subsequently over all the Celtic lands, her wide-spread popular cult begins in these lands only in the 11th century - so that wells & church & chapel dedications cannot be definitely used as evidence of cult in the dark age period - cf. E.G. Bowen, The Settlements of the Celtic Saints in Wales, Univ. of Wales 1956, pp. 97-9.
i.e. - the areas were settled by the Irish in the dark ages; but it was only in later times (in Wales, the Viking and post-Viking periods) that Brigids cult was established. Prof. Bowen later devoted a study to the problems presented by Brigid dedications in the Celtic lands: E.G. Bowen, The Cult of St. Brigit, Studia Celtica VIII/IX, 1973/4, pp. 33-47.)
Im sorry if all this is a bind; but - editor yourself - Im sure youll understand my dilemmas over this article - knowing your readership seems to be half the battle!
If you would prefer not to alter your article in any way (which I would of course understand), perhaps Source could publish it as a letter - this of course removes much of the onus of editorial responsibility, and permits readers to take from it as much or as little as they require personally - articles require documenting references for all facts or opinions which cannot be assumed to be common knowledge!
1 December 1994
Many thanks for your letter and your interest in our article. We are both on writers deadlines for our forthcoming books, so do not really have the time to reference the piece with as much detail as you need, so suggest you publish it as a letter. However, I (CS) would just like to answer your points in brief:
Hope this is of some help. Sorry about the detailed referencing, but we just wouldnt have time before your next deadline.
Cheryl & Caeia
At this point (7 December) TGH could, if he wished, answer the points raised by Cheryl; who, in turn, could then reply as ably as before with further counter-arguments: but the fact is, in the areas of knowledge here under consideration, there are few certainties, but rather a fragmented, amorphous, heterogeneous mass of information, which each one investigates and interprets to the best of her or his capabilities, but which in all probability will never be susceptible to such treatment as will yield interpretations liable to be found acceptable to all researchers. From this data, Cheryl and Caeia have drawn one set of inferences, and from the same data, Roy Fry and TGH have drawn an alternative set. Both sets are arguable, and both have been, by others than the four of us. RF and TGH both understand and respect the interpretations of CS and CM, without being convinced by them; while CS and CM remain unconvinced by the interpretations of RF and TGH, though they fully understand and respect them. All four of us recognise the value of new interpretations of given data, and are not afraid of confrontations by interpretations or conclusions which differ radically from our own; but we are sure that a position of mutual respect and openness to others considered opinions is the one best calculated to maximise the results of research, and to provide the most complete and thorough overall picture of a complex and obscure object of study. Only by such an approach can we hope to understand, as fully as is possible at this remove of time, our common past; which the four of us recognise still to have signal messages for our present and future.
Cheryl Straffon, Caeia March, Roy Fry & Tristan Gray Hulse
Text & Illustrations © Cheryl Straffon & Caeia March (1995)
Designed & Maintained by Richard L. Pederick (© 1999) | Created 22/11/99