In the past wells were important not only for their drinking water but because they were thought to possess certain healing qualities. In Catholic times cults grew up around some wells said to be particularly effective in fighting disease and pilgrimages were organised from far and wide. When the Reformation came the new religious authorities condemned all such practices as idolatrous but, especially in Wales, the pesantry continued to use these healing wells in their efforts to get rid of their illnesses. Right up until the last years of the nineteenth century these wells continued to be used by many. Such holy or healing wells have played a central role in the life of the ordinary people for centuries and examples of the practices they indulged in when visiting these wells have been recorded from the sixteenth and right up to the beginning of the twentieth century. The wells were used to combat rheumatism, eye diseases and complaints associated with scurvy.
Rag wells were particularly common in Glamorganshire and, in fact, appear to have been a peculiarly Glamorgan phenomenon in South Wales. (In Gwent for instance, no examples of rag wells are recorded.) Rags would be dipped in the water of the well, the affected part of the body would be bathed with the rag, and then the rag hung on a nearby tree. Sometimes the rags were not dipped in the waters of the well but only hung on the tree for luck. At other times pins were thrown into the well.
At Taffs Well, eight miles from Cardiff, people had to wade through running water to reach the well which was situated practically in the bed of the River Taff. This did not apply in the summer months when the level of water was very low. In the nineteenth century a rude hut of sheet iron had been built over the well which was said to cure rheumatism and other ailments. A ‘primitive’ custom of the place was that, when women were bathing, they hung out a petticoat or bonnet whilst male bathers hung out a pair of trousers.
At Sandford’s Well, near Newton Church, Porthcawl, people would flagellate themselves in an effort to atone for their past misdeeds. Any running water taken from this well was firmly believed to stay pure and wholesome for the next twelve months. If any was spilled while being carried this was a sure sign of bad luck to come. If two people were standing at the well together they had to make the sign of the cross before washing, no doubt a relic of Roman Catholic rites and practices.
Below is "The Magical Well of Newton" - by Alun Morgan
The well near the church at Newton was once called Sandford’s Well after a little-known Norman knight, but later, like the church, it was dedicated to St. John, the Baptist. The well’s peculiar property of seeming to be empty when the tide on the nearby beach is in and full when the tide its out, made local people believe that it had magical properties; and the water itself was thought to have healing properties.
The water has been analysed in recent years and found to be no better (even possibly a little less pure) than water elsewhere; and it is now known that the inflow of water from underground springs is affected by subterranean passages with fissures that act like valves. These passages are connected with Newton beach, where the fresh water bubbles out; and the incoming tide forces up the pressure in the fissures. The result is that there is a time lag of some three hours within the well itself making it appear to act contrarily to the tides. For a long time, however, this apparent phenomenon had ‘puzzled all the country and all men of great learning.’ Blackmore himself was intrigued and wrote; ‘It comes and goes, in a manner, against the coming and going of the sea, which is only half a mile from it: and twice a day it is many feet deep, and again not as many inches. And the water is so crystal clear, that down in the dark it is like a dream. He goes on: ‘The children are all a little afraid of it… partly because f its makers name… and partly on account of its curious ways, and the sand coming out of its “nostrils” when first it begins to flow’.
Many strange events have taken place around this well. People scourged themselves there to atone for their sins; and it was thought that running water taken from the spring would remain pure and fresh the whole year. If water was taken away and spilled this indicated bad luck; and two people were not to wash at the well without first making the sign of the cross.
It was once thought that there had been a church on the site of the well but this had, along with several cottages, been engulfed by the advancing sand. There is a local legend that one day the sea would return to this area and when this took place it would be possible for a ship to be moored near Clevis Hill. To prepare for the forthcoming event a sycamore was planted near a cottage on the top of the hill. Once a very high tide sent the sea rushing in as far as St. John’s well and it was thought that the prophecy was about to be fulfilled. Thankfully Newtonians have been, up to the present, spared the final outcome of such a prophecy.
The Legends of Porthcawl and the Glamorgan Coast
Author: Alun Morgan
Author: Alun Morgan
Illustration by Margaret Wooding
Author: Alan Roderick
Illustrations by Bozena Roderick