The other high point
May 10, 2005

St. Madron's Holy Well in Cornwall is only a few miles inland from Penzance, but a whole different world from the bustling tourist centers along the coast. It wasn't featured prominently in my Green Guide, but I'd read about the well elsewhere and had it high on my wish list. My companions indulged me, and I think they were glad they did: an Episcopalian, an agnostic, and a wibbly-wobbly sort who's agnostic leaning towards pagan, we were all moved by this place. It's been holy since pagan times, taken over by the Christians, and still remains holy to both Christian and pagan. There are a couple of small churches nearby, one a St. Madron's church which we didn't get a chance to visit, and one called St. Grada—small, lovely, peaceful. But the well itself, and the ruined baptistry surrounding it, exist a mile north and a whole 'nother universe apart. 

It's a half-mile, so they say, from the church to the gate leading to the well, and a quarter mile in to the ruined baptistry. Pastures surround the location, and the gate opens onto a tree-lined path. We progressed through dappled shade along the rough path, delicate wildflowers in white and pink and yellow leading the way. Maybe it's the screen of trees that shuts off all noise except the chirping of birds, the occasional movement of wild things in the overgrown brush on either side, but it's like stepping into another world, so different from the one we know—centuries older, maybe a millennium or two. We hushed in response, the sound of our quiet passage seeming unnaturally loud. We could hear the wheels of our own thoughts spinning in our heads.  

It hadn't rained for several days, but the path was still damp, quite muddy in spots, sunken beneath water in places. Sometimes we had to scramble over rough stiles that crossed over the path of the winding stream. These were crudely cut blocks of gray stone—one to step up, a flat one to scramble over, one to step down—that we found at many of the countryside sites in Cornwall.  

The waters of the well, so they say, bring healing and also give mystical insight into the future. Puritan fanatics tried to smash it during the Civil War, but it still burbles with fresh, pure, clean water. We visited on a Saturday, the end of April, but the waters are supposed to be their most potent on the first three Sundays in May. Maybe we got some residual from the build up to May, who knows?  

After the second stile and down a bit, there's a stand of trees where people who've been cured by the well leave an offering—traditionally rags tied to the trees, but we saw all sorts of things. We left our offerings before the fact. All I had on me was a crimson velveteen scrunchie for my hair, one I was particularly partial to. I must say it looked lovely wrapped around the broken end of a branch. 

A real presence abides in that place, a sense that something potent moved through those trees. It didn't feel at all silly looking back on that crimson scrunchie. It felt damned good, a real uplift of the spirits, elated even. No guarantees of anything, no promises made, but for me a sense that I had made some kind of wordless promise; I gave up something to the spirit of the place. 

I'm not exactly sure why that particular bend in the stream became the location of the rag well offerings because it is around the path and down a bit from the actual well site. But I do know that the stream forked at this point, and in pagan beliefs, at any rate, forks in rivers are magical places. As are forked trees—ymp trees, they're called, where the branches split in a Y low enough on the trunk for a human to walk or climb through easily. Some of those crowded in that grove, too. Forks represent transition points, places where the energy (or magic) changes directions and, some believe, give a surge of power.  

The actual well is enclosed by a roofless box of ancient stone, the ruins of the baptistry, steeped in age, covered in moss. An altar, strewn with wilted wildflowers, sits at the other end of the enclosure. The well itself is in another, smaller box, a catch basin for the waters before they flow out and into the stream. A cold, absolutely clear, surprisingly gentle stream for such a volume of water—and again, I felt such a sense of presence there. Even if you don't go in for the mystical stuff, the thought that for thousands of years humans have been coming to this spot for prayer and offerings is simply mind-boggling. Maybe that's all the presence is at Madron, those innumerable human lives and energies that have intersected with this place—but whatever it is, it's potent. We sat on the rough stone benches for the longest time, drinking it in, letting the peace invade our souls and smooth out the jangles. I was healed, although I hadn't been aware of being sick. 

I snapped a few pictures, but it seemed a pretty futile (and maybe sacrilegious?) endeavor. I couldn't escape the realization that no film, no picture could ever capture the enveloping green peace of this place, surrounded by trees, accompanied by the trill of songbirds, the plash of water on stones, the gurgle of it running in a channel, the fresh smell of greenness all around. At best, these photos may jog some memories years hence, open the door to the soul memory left behind by St. Madron's Well. 

Copyright © 2010 P.J. Thompson