Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Saint Winefride's Well

Inside Saint Winefride's Well

It looked like an outdoor paddling pool, children splashing, some sitting on the edge, dangling their feet in, the adults standing around, talking, laughing and 2 grimy tall tents at the side, red and yellow, like elongated wimples. Changing huts, reminding you of old coloured postcards, the colours, the yellow and pink, all wrong, while faces of people look grey and grainy, in their fluorescent pink tops. This may have been how the world was then, the colours shown were the colours seen, we cannot know, for even green of leaves, dark pine green, soft green of willow, grey-green olive, we assume always to have been that colour.

And there was another colour, the turquoise of the well water, and the blues and greens of the stained glass chapel window where Saint Winefride sat by the pool and a man, possibly her uncle Saint Beuno, was there as well, one finger raised as if he's talking and the turquoise pool beside their feet.

To reach the outside paddling pool and the well inside the chapel we go through the entrance building, buy our tickets, pass through an area full of information which I cannot linger in, I want to reach the well itself, touch the healing water, I walk across the grass trying to look leisured casual while a fierce longing for the water takes me to the side chapel with its deep and glowing blue coloured window, the two figures who could be anyone you might think – look at those green hills behind them, on a summer's evening they have come to sit a while beside the water and the man seems to be saying something for he has his finger raised as if to emphasize a point. The rounded hills fall away behind them docile in their wrap of evening light.

The pump sticks. A man comes to help me, it's stiff he says, and works the lever so that the water flows again, the water from the healing well, coming out in a tap, that I've placed my bottle underneath. I thought I was being too greedy trying to fill the bottle I say. His wife comes over. Oh no she says we often come here, I've got several big plastic water bottles here, would you like one, we have an extra one, go on -
But I decline. I've filled my small bottle with well water and that's enough I think.
I ask the couple if it's alright to dip my feet in the outside pool. The children have left now and the pool is empty.
Of course the woman says.
I slip my shoes off, sit on the edge.
The water is ice cold.

The well itself is inside a building that seems to have been made to house it, with carved vaulted roof, a star-shaped enclosure for the well, heaped with stones, the water moving as if simmering, a pot on low heat and the water rippling, calm as any deep part of a river, moving over stones you cannot see perhaps but they are there, the water fingers stones and the touch-ripples slip up to the surface the slow dark notes of riversong.

How much do you think is in there? the child asks me.
I always underplay even when I try to compensate. Coins glint on the heaped stones in the turquoise water.
Oh – ten pounds maybe?
I think about twenty pounds he says, with confidence.

By the doorway of the entrance room, with all the information which I didn't stop to read, I remembered seeing a rack of walking sticks and crutches. I'd assumed they were there to be used by people who found it hard to walk.
But there are carvings in the vaulted stonework round the slipping, shifting waters of the well – shaped like a star -
T M Carew Esquire, cured, October 1831. Autumn is good too, for healings oh yes, when the leaves turn red and yellow and change shoots the air with that bright chill, that current of longing -
And in 1748 too, the carving is less precise, harder to read, more worn -

The sticks, the crutches, were left behind by the people who were cured, the attendant says and smiles and people fill their water bottles at the pump and drink the water and it isn't icy cold at all, it's tepid, but my feet after being in the pool, they're dancing...

The bus terminus was in the town of Holywell. It's quite a walk from here, the driver said, to reach the well. How long do you think it might take? He thinks a little then says maybe 15 minutes, and we smile and thank him. Perhaps he thought we were heading for the well because we found it hard to walk.

We turn off into the street, did not notice the time portal – the street is almost empty, it reminds me of Aigues Vives, that drowsy quiet in the sunlight, shutters drawn against the heat. I park my bicycle beside the café and its outside tables in the shade, men drinking beer and talking politics, they smile a welcome at me as I sit down, order a coffee, and there is nothing happening in the streets, except one woman walking a small dog.

There's a café here too, in Holywell 

and people sitting outside in the shade and a red lion sculpted on the outside of a wall, its mane a round red frilly circle round its face, a mane like a sea-anemone, its face surprised or startled or maybe, just a glare, its mouth another circle and the cafe serves us coffees and home made scones, for prices preserved - like the lion and the buildings and the customers at tables and the few inhabitants who walk past - in this other time.

We sit on a bench on the other side of the street in the sunshine because summer has arrived it's rushed in, with its choir of ruffled sunbeams, its retinue of rays, its feathers of rippling regal light and we are eager to be there, to welcome it. We ask the girl who brings our coffees if she doesn't mind us sitting on the bench across the street in sunlight rather than the cafe table shade and she says of course and she has brought on the tray a dish piled with butter, covered with a saucer and we eat the crumbling fruit scones in the dazzling light, reflecting how friendly people are and older people sit on the bench behind us, discuss how the weather seems set to continue like this and no one walks down the street, except the plumed courtiers of the sun, spreading their feathered light over the old buildings which seem to sigh with satisfaction and relax their stones and painted timbers and dream a little as the street goes soft with light a little melting into Dali-time, forgetting rigid rules of clock-keeping, minutes moving into one another and a century or two showing through the flimsy fabric of this one. Time as gauze. Light stitched. The hot street is still empty.

A small wooden signpost points the way to Saint Winefride's healing well. We first see the building, church and chapel – later, the outside pool. Then the abandoned walking sticks. People have been coming here for centuries. I think of the temples of Asklepios in Greek, then Roman times, where people came, hoping to have healing dreams. And they still do, to this day. Cures and healing tend not to generate big news but they have been going on for a long long time, perhaps they've been part of the story of humanity as long as we've been around, like an underground river, mostly unseen, and then sometimes the stories surface, just as the water does in the star shaped well.