One of the best known and heavily visited of the Cornish holy wells, and yet most people walk past the original spring, stopping only to look at the later well-chapel. The setting is enchanting. The journey through the copse to the springs is like walking through a portal in the fabric of time. Such is the power of the place that it has enjoyed many centuries of continuous veneration.
The original well is found by turning off of the main path shortly before the well-chapel is reached. This approach is recognisable from the many strips of cloth (or "clouties") which adorn the trees here - votive offerings calling on the naiads to cure the afflicted. This tradition is still quite common in Britain as it is in many other parts of the world. The idea being to tear a piece of cloth from the part of the body which is ill, and as the cloth rots on the tree so the hurt disappears with it.
In 1996 there was great consternation in the local pagan community when unidentified persons took offence at the "heathen" practice and cut down the branches to which the clouties were tied. An act showing great disrespect for the beliefs of those who left offerings. On the other hand, however, some people miss the point and leave all sorts of things - plastic bags, crisp packets, foil wrappers - which can be an eyesore.
A low, circular enclosure of granite stones identifies the old well head in the boggy ground hereabouts, surrounded by blossom trees and guarded by a solitary rowan. Old photographs show that in the early 1900s the water rose into a stone trough some 3 feet long by 1½ feet wide and 16 inches deep. This has long since disappeared.
The well was frequently visited for purposes of divination, especially by maidens on the first three thursdays in May (near to Beltane). Visitors would cross two pieces of straw a fix the symbol with a pin. These straw crosses would be floated on the surface of the water, the number of bubbles rising to the surface being an indication of the number of years of waiting before matrimony. Similarly, straw crosses and pins were offered to the water in return for the granting of wishes. These practices continued at least until the 1930s and are continued today to a certain degree.
A short distance away is the ruined well-chapel which has been dated to the fourteenth century, but is likely to have even earlier foundations. The building measures 7 metres by 5 metres and is now roofless, although it may never have sported a roof. Ivy and wild roses creep over the walls and ferns grow from between the granite blocks. Spring water, from the same source as the original well, is fed into a stone basin in the south-western corner, a low altar stone can be seen against the eastern wall and stone seats line the walls. A classic case of the Christian church hijacking a powerful Pagan site.
Madron well was also much famed for its healing powers. People would come to both the well and to the chapel seeking cures for ailments like skin diseases, colic, shingles, aches, pains, rickets and other crippling diseases. Mothers would bring their sickly children to the well on the first three wednesdays (or sundays) in May (Beltane again) and plunge them naked into the water three times whilst standing facing the sun. The children would then be passed around the well nine times from east to west, dressed and left to sleep on a grassy hillock next to the well known as St. Maderne's Bed. The entire ritual had to be performed in absolute silence and, before leaving, a piece of the child's clothing would be tied to a nearby tree as a thanksgiving. The timing of the rituals around the Pagan festival of Beltane and the importance of the number three indicates a long tradition of veneration and use of the waters here.
One of the most famous stories of healing which is supposed to have taken place here, an account which was ratified by the then Bishop of Exeter no less, concerns a crippled man named John Trelille. John was twenty eight when he came to Madron well, having been paralysed waist down for some sixteen years. John bathed in the waters on the first three thursdays in May, each time sleeping on St. Maderne's Bed afterwards. By the third week he was miraculously cured of his paralysis and able to find work as a labourer. Unfortunately, he joined the army and was killed in battle four years later!
Kathy Jones suggests that St. Maderne, the patron saint of Madron well, is actually Modron Verch Avallach, the Mother Goddess mentioned in the Welsh Triads. Modron was Christianised into St. Madrun which is etymologically identical to the Cornish Maderne. Somewhere along the way the Great Mother Goddess has not only found Christianity but also changed gender! Modron is the Mother of the Fates, and the Water of Life. With such a pedigree, it is not surprising that Madron well is so famed for its healing and oracular powers.
Paul Devereux has shown a concentration of radiation inside the chapel, which is not altogether surprising considering it is made from granite. However, he has also shown that the surface of the water itself gives readings of about twice the surrounding environment. Could these higher than normal radiation levels contribute to the perceived sanctity of the place?
This is a very interesting site because of its long, recorded history of use and its otherworldly atmosphere. If at all possible make the effort to find the old well head as it is here under the rowan tree that the visitor will experience the true spirit of the place. Spending some time here will leave the pilgrim feeling refreshed and at peace with the world when it is finally time to walk back along the avenue of trees from whence they came.
|SW 446 328 (203).|
|½ mile NW of Madron village, 2 miles NW of Penzance.|
|About ½ mile along the minor road heading NW from Madron village take a right turn down the lane for Boswarthen. A short distance along, there is a wide space on the right in which to park. Follow the signposts along the often muddy footpath to the well & chapel.|