In search of Saint Aelhaiarn’s Well

Created on: 26 November 2021

Saint Aelhaiarn (al-high-arn) was a Welsh Confessor who lived in the 7th C. He had two brothers, Llwchaiarn and Cynhaiarn. The family was descended from the ruling dynasty of the Kingdom of Powys at that time which traced its lineage back to Vortigern. Aelhaiarn and his brothers were cousins and disciples to Saint Beuno, founder and abbot of Clynnog Fawr, and the leader of an evangelical mission across Wales. The brothers accompanied Beuno out of Powys to Edeirnon, now in the south of the County of Gwynedd. Later they continued northwards to the Llyn Peninsula. Aelhaiarn was one of the seven people raised from the dead by Beuno, along with Beuno’s niece Winefride. According to legend, Beuno would walk out from Clynnog late at night to pray on a flat stone in a nearby river. The curious disciple Aelhaiarn followed Beuno once and when Beuno heard the rustling of bushes nearby he prayed that should the one stalking him have good intentions they would reveal themselves. If they instead meant ill an example would be made of them. Mischievous curiosity was evidently not taken to kindly because suddenly wild animals began to ravage the one in hiding, tearing him limb from limb. Beuno went to inspect the carnage to find that it was his beloved cousin. He gathered together all the pieces of the body which could be found but was unable to fix the shattered brow. The quick-thinking Beuno took the iron head from his pike staff and put it in place of the brow. With this he was able to resurrect Aelhaiarn, who’s name commemorates this event. Aelhaiarn translates as “iron-eyebrow”. His feast day is commemorated as the 2nd November but is unfortunately no loner observed by either the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church. Upon Aelhaiarn’s death his countrymen in Powys came to Clynnog to claim the body. The brothers in Clynnog wished to bury him there and an argument ensued. At dawn the following day there were two coffins on two biers. One was taken back to Powys while the other was kept by the monks. This mimics the miracle which occurred following Saint Teilo’s death, who’s reposed body became three and was each buried separately.

Aelhaiarn is venerated at Guilsfield in Powys and at Llanaelhaearn in North Wales. While reading about his life in Sabine Baring-Gould’s extensive collection, The Lives of British Saints, I found out that there is a holy well dedicated to him in Llanaelhaearn. Curiously, following this the book claims that a holy well is also located near Guilsfield. Having been born and raised here, and having a lifelong interest in local history, this came as a surprise. Initial online research bore little fruit. Baring-Gould claims that the well was visited by parishioners on Trinity Sunday and at the time of writing this tradition continued. He wrote in the 1870’s but the tradition has long been dead because my Father, who has always been a resident of the village, said he had never heard of it. Baring-Gould tells us that the well lies “a mile and a half from the Church… in a lovely secluded dell”. I decided to speak to one of the oldest men I know, a neighbour only a few houses away who has lived here for over 90 years. He had knowledge of the well, though I do not know if he ever visited it himself. My neighbour gave me a vague location for the well which matched the description from the book. The wife of the village’s old vicar also seemed like a potential source of information. Again I was given a similar location. This was enough for me to set off and investigate.

I walked out of the village towards Arddleen, turning left down a lane to pass by the car park at Gaer Fawr hillfort. Beyond there the lane comes to a steep incline at the top of which is a stone cottage. Stopping at the bottom of this slope I heard running water. Climbing a fence along the left of the road I saw a large pipe dribbling water out down into a brook running through a glade well below the road level. The pipe extends under the road and out of a tall stone wall. Realising this, I climbed back across the fence to cross the road and descend into the heavily overgrown woods on the right side. There were signs of a stream but little water running. Following the small dry bed, it forked off in two directions. The left led me to a steep natural rock face. This is down a slope to the right of the road, and only about 50 feet directly from the road. This I took as a potential location of the well as it does lie in what can be called a “secluded dell”. Going back to the fork I followed the other route up through the woods. Rotten fences, brambles and rocks make it hard-going however fortunately the next point of interest was not far away. A deeper bed could be found higher up, and two small “drop-offs”. Beyond this the bed became much less clear, so I marked down the more prominent drop off as a second location to remember. Higher up the bank the woods meet a field, and at the edge of this meeting point lies a tumbled down stone structure. The stones are not natural rocks but are cemented together. The whole structure is a mess but through the rocks a hole, perhaps only a few feet and perhaps many more in depth, can be seen. I took this to be a rabbit, or even badger burrow, but the signs of human rockwork around it was significant to me. Marking this as a third point of interest, I walked back along the edge of the woods. I noticed standing in the sloping field a pump. Upon examination it looked very old and rusty, but was most definitely a water pump. From here I realised I was in sight of the stone cottage I had seen from the road. Thinking it best to ask someone local to the well for guidance I decided to march up the field towards the house. Nobody answered the door, no lights were on and no cars present. With only scant furnishings visible I believed the house to be uninhabited. The drive of the cottage rejoins the lane I had stood on initially and further along I could see a farm. Trying my luck, I walked up the lane, through the farmyard and to the house. Ignoring the angry collies barking at me, I knocked on the door and met an old lady. As it happens, she knows my Father because her son had been a friend of his. I explained my hunt for the well to her and asked if she could offer advice. I was told that the farmer who had lived in the stone cottage had used it for water but that since then the ground had slipped down, resulting in the sloping field between the cottage and the woods, and that the well had collapsed. This, then, surely meant that the crumbled stone structure was the well. For as long as she remembers, over 80 years, the parish has not used it for pilgrimages. Thanking her, I returned home.

I found out that a man, Mark, living in Guilsfield has an interest in local history, and being a distant relative through marriage I contacted him. He told me he gave up looking for the well when online searches proved fruitless, but was keen for me to show him. We visited the locations and took photos. Mark has contacts with a Welsh Government group, Coflein, which tracks historical sites, and is also involved with local archaeological groups. Coflein have it listed on their website as “Trinity Well”, explaining our lack of online search results. They have a location marked on a map and give a small description, and believe the well lies at the rock face and is without human interference like any articificial structure They did admit, however, that investigations on foot had been very brief. A third visit, this time by myself, following a period of rainfall, gave me another change of opinion. When I went up there, the collapsed stone structure did have water running from it. Admittedly it was only a trickle, but it was a source of water nonetheless. Going to the old lady again for confirmation, she said that it is not at the bottom of the hill, where the rock face is, but is at the end of the field of the cottage, though it is now “gone”. Unfortunately the lady was not as excited about the well as I was, and asked me not to “muck about” or “do anything” to it, which I assured her was never my intention. Before becoming a further nuisance I left.

As of yet Mark and I have been unable to settle on the location of the well. The rock face is backed by Coflein however I wish to follow up on  multiple sources including the claim that the well is indeed a natural rock face because currently Coflein’s own website is the only mention of this we have found. The rock face also is not running any water, whereas the collapsed structure is. This is a very important aspect to the investigation as it may be symbolic of the state of faith in Christ and His Saints in this region of the country. The lady nearby has implied the collapsed structure is the well but is not cooperative enough to provide many explicit details, leaving us to dig further into sources on local history and find an answer. I hope to soon conclude this matter so that Aelhaiarn’s Well can again be used for his veneration and for fuelling the faith.

Owain Williams

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