Forays: Madron Well

Today I headed over to Madron.

Madron well is one of my favourite places and yet I’ve never seen the well itself. In a tiny wood in deepest Cornwall, there’s a footpath through a lichen-clad tunnel of twisted tree boughs that leads past a stone stile to a pool, above which hangs a tree festooned with clouties (rags or materials representing wishes or offerings).

2013-07-26 Madron Couttie tree (3)600x400
The clouties on the tree represent visitors’ hopes and wishes. This is ancient healing magic and for it to work, the material must be wrapped around an ailing part before being removed and tied to the tree — as it rots, so the ailment falls away. The fabric must be biodegradable, and it does not have to be large; a thread will do.

This is a wishing pool, but it’s not the well. Beneath the tree sits a stone sign, indicating a baptistry to the north, and the well to the west.

The baptistry lies 50 yards away through an iron gate; four granite walls and no ceiling, beneath a huge cedar. Inside there is an altar and a font that is filled with spring water, which alternates between being silted up and cleared by local caretakers.

The exact age of the original chapel is not known, but the site is often thought to date from medieval times. The first documents relating to the chapel and healing well range from 1590 to 1610 and the cure of a man called John Trelille occurred(1) c.1638-40, when he bathed repeatedly in the stream between well and chapel, before sleeping on ‘St Maderne’s Bed’ — a nearby grassy hillock. Previously unable to walk, after three dips and sleeps, he returned home cured and able to take up the military service that resulted in his death in 1644 (Ed. erm… oops?) Since then, further cures have resulted in its reputation as a healing centre.

(1) Ref: The Saints of Cornwall by Nicholas Orme, p169-171

Although the chapel is also associated with healing, the ‘holy well’ itself lies further south — to the west of the cloutie tree. Often submerged, the path leading into the woods beyond the pool is only visible after a period of dry weather, and even in good conditions it soon vanishes into a mass of head-high brambles, dense bracken and nettles, beneath which lies a bog of uneven depth, interspersed with tree roots and low, overhanging branches.

It’s a slightly worrying walk, in that some footsteps sink down considerably more than others, and reports from other walkers indicate that in parts, the water can be waist deep. Meanwhile, the thicket hums as midges and horse flies rise in clouds from the wet leaves, and today they quickly penetrated my clothes and skin, leaving me peppered with welts. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it. I grew up on the edge of a forest; I’m used to mud, smells, and bramble-pain, and I feel at home under a leafy canopy. Woods, too, are sacred to me.

Having said that, it’s not great to feel a horse fly stabbing one’s forehead; Madron well is only accessible to those who really want to see it.

It didn’t occur to me that there could be any difficulty in finding a well in a wood. My child once buried a 5cm-long toy on a beach that was swallowed by the tide. I swam out thirty yards, dived to the seabed, and dug into the sand to reclaim the toy; I’ve always had the knack of finding things — and I figured, no one could miss an entire well in a tiny wood… could they? Today, after two hours of tiptoeing and clambering, I did not find Madron well.  Or, at least, not to be sure.

The Cornwall Council website provides details and OS maps with the well clearly marked, but the well (pic) is only a hole in the ground, about a metre wide, and periodically it’s been reported as damaged or submerged.

However, since the well feeds the chapel, there must be a water channel, so I followed the stream (in the sense that I tracked and wove my way through the bracken with the squelchiest ground underfoot) which was shin deep for most of the way, until I found a clearing where two waterways converged, and the water became substantially deeper. I stepped back, unwilling to fall in. It’s a holy place, after all.

Was this the well? Looking back, I don’t believe so; I think I was too far north, but the place I found was peaceful and soothing, with sunlight and shade dappling the trees.

I stood for a while, clinging to a branch, watching the eddies and listening to the sucking burble of water through weeds. A long-tailed tit passed by and I could hear the muffled footsteps of folk who’d had the same idea as me, perhaps. I tried to imagine how this might have been a thousand years earlier; was it as boggy then?

When locals depended on the well for water, and believed in its curative powers for their ills, did they look after it better? I imagined soft, drained earth, grass underfoot, and a path on which villagers might have trod with their straw crosses, pins and bowls. Young girls would come to the well in May, seeking divination, throwing straw crosses onto the water, and counting the bubbles as years before matrimony (and the boys, did they too?)

It was good to stand and wonder, to smell the earth, and to feel warm, rough bark under my fingers.

I was still being eaten alive, though, so having arrived via a series of black puddles, face-raking brambles, carnivorous flies, tick-laden bracken, and shoulder-high nettles, I decided to retire injured, via a different way home.

For the way back, I chose thistles.

Is Madron well masked by water and weeds, or was I in the wrong place? I don’t know. The site underwent extensive renovation in 2006, before which it was documented as being submerged. And now? The best way to tell might be to go at a time of year when the foliage dies back, but in the wet season, the water will be substantially deeper and colder. I’ll go back and have another look, but this might be an opportunity to volunteer to help look after the place, and see if I can perhaps go with the people who know. I’ll update this post if I do.   

Fling your veg: