Oct 17, 2008

Winifred's Well by John A. Shaffer

This meticulously researched book will be a source of delight to antiquarians and lovers of Wales everywhere. There are many accounts of the circumstances leading to St Winifred's canonisation but few people will be aware of the struggle at the beginning of the last century to save the well that bears her name from industruial despoilation. Likewise only a very select few can claim to have visited the enormous underground lake from which the spring originally flowed.

Mr Shaffer's quest began after the chance discovery of a statue of St Winifred in the most unlikely of places.... a public park in Hudson N.Y! His determination to investigate all aspects of her story subsequently led him to embark on a trip to Wales where he was invited by local cavers to visit the underground lake. But this is not an adventure story nor is it primarily a work of historical exposition. Indeed the work takes on the aspect of a pilgrimage as theauthor considers the spiritual significance of St Winifreds Well and other sites like it.

It deserves to be mentioned that the volume is graced with a fine collection of photographs from the authors personal collection. These serve to illuminate and enliven the text throughout.

Mr Shaffer generously consented to answer a number of questions about the book for Americymru. His responses are reproduced below.

Q. What would you say was your main motivation in researching and following up this story as thoroughly and relentlessly as you did?

"I’ve always shaped my travel into something more like pilgrimage than tourism. I’ve visited St. Columba’s Iona, Nicholas Ferrar’s Little Gidding, and touched the healing soil at El Santuario de Chimayo. Places are powerful for many different reasons; this one attracted me in a very personal way and wouldn’t let go. I had a compelling sense that things of importance remained to be told."

Q. Some people take the view that the Welsh have a special relationship with their past. There is the famous R.S. Thomas line: "It is not possible to live in the present, at least not in Wales." During your stay in Wales did you experience any sense of this?

"That’s an interesting question. My book moves freely between the Wales of today, a century ago, and the remote past. That structure seemed very natural, and not a day went by without a surprising and visceral sense of the interconnections. So maybe Thomas was right. He was quite aware of the timelessness of sacred places."

Q. Nov 3rd is St. Winifrede's Day. There are many other Saints Days in the Welsh calendar ( St Dwynwen, St Teilo, St Illtud to name but a few). Do you feel that they are unduly neglected in the present day? If so what relevance do you feel these traditions have for a modern audience?

"Wales may have more long-ago saints than any comparable acreage in the world. Either the Welsh were exceptionally holy, or their descendants had unusually generous memories! My sense is that we are finally outgrowing the unyielding rationalism that stripped so many modern lives of wonder. We can hear about St. Dwynwen resuscitating her frozen lover and notice the divine compassion in her story instead of the improbable details. We are enriched."

A Note on St Winifred

St Winifred's feast day is November 3rd. Born in the 7th century, she was the daughter of a Welsh nobleman ( Tyfid ap Eiludd ). Her religious devotion was profound and it was her ambition to becomea nun. A suitor named Caradog became enraged at her continued indifference to his advances and decapitated her. Her head, according to legend, rolled down a hill and at the spot where it came to rest a healing spring appeared. Later her uncle Bueno ( also a saint ) restored her to life and she later became Abbess of Gwytherin and ventured on a pilgrimage to Rome. Caradog meanwhile did not fare well at the hands of Bueno who cursed him causing him to "melt into the ground".

Upon her death she was initially buried at Gwytherin but her remains were subsequently removed to Shrewsbury in 1138. Here they were interred in a shrine which attracted pilgrims throughout theMiddle Ages, Although this shrine was destroyed by Henry VIII during the reformation the structures surrounding the well at Holywell were not. The well at Holywell had acquired a reputation as the Welsh 'Lourdes' and since the attraction was deemed to be more medical than spiritual , wholesale destruction did not occur.
St Winifred's Well can claim to be sole British shrine to attract pilgrims consistently since the early Middle Ages This unbroken tradition is unique in the British Isles.

St Winefred has been adopted as the patron saint of virgins and, somewhat bizarrely, of payroll clerks. Literary references include:-

Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems and Prose (Penguin Classics)

Ellis Peters, A Morbid Taste for Bones

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