The 2 Holy Wells of Holywell Bay, Cornwall
Having covered a few of the holy wells in Cornwall, no writing would be complete without exploring the holy well at Holywell Bay, Cornwall. In fact, there are two holy wells at Holywell - clearly a place named after the well itself. The church at Cubert at the top of the hill one mile from the sea is linked to these wells by the legend of St Cuthbert, but has no known holy well of its own.
As these holy wells are so close to each other, it's only right they should share some space - so here it is, the holy wells of Cubert and Holywell, near to Newquay Cornwall.
Although Quiller-Couch, in 1894, believed that the sea cave holy well was St Cuthbert's or St Cubert's, that is the name also used by the well on the golf course halfway down the hill. So, two holy wells, both close to each other, either could be St Cuthbert's/St Cubert's. The Old Newquay Society refer to the holy well on the golf course as Trevornick Well, as it is on the land of Trevornick Holiday Park (ex Trevornick Farm) but this might be an attempt to clear things up rather than that they discovered an old name.
Even though the sea cave and holy well have been written about since pre-1700 (Robert Hals), most people never know about the holy well in the cave on the beach, even regular holidaymakers drinking in the local pubs. All the locals know though.
Holywell Bay Sea Cave Holy Well:
St Cuthbert's Well, St Cubert's Well
The holy well in the cave at the northern end of Holywell Bay is the very first holy well in Cornwall I ever visited. At first the instructions sound a little scary as they refer to the cave being accessible only at low tide, however, I found that at low tide the water was nowhere near the cave so there's quite a large window of opportunity if you want to visit this holy well. I would, however, say that it is vitally important that you know when high and low tide are when on a beach. Always explore between high tide (when the water is fully in) and low tide (when the sea has fully receded) thus ensuring the Ocean is always going away from you!
The cave was very easy to find and to access. On the left hand side there were neat "steps" in the rocks - they must have been carved centuries ago to ease access and are now covered in green algae and iron oxide, making them quite slippery. The steps lead up and round to the left. The height of the sand does change over time, with storms sweeping sand in and out on a regular basis, however, on the day I visited this holy well the top of the steps was about 4-5' above the sandy cave floor, so there was no danger (having negotiated the slippery steps in the first instance). Another regular visitor to the cave found one day that the sand was so deep only the hole was exposed - the winter storms sweep the sand in and by summer it's often back down to its usual level.
At the top of the steps, just to the left, there is an opening, large enough for a small adult to creep inside. Inside there are a multitude of colours and water seeping from the rocks. At the base of this hole, or mini-cave, there is a pool of water, the bottom of which has been slowly formed over centuries of dripping water. The water was about 8" deep.
I did take some photos on the day - unfortunately it was on my very first digital camera and the photos were uploaded to the hard drive of the PC I owned at the time (about 15 years ago) - so I suspect I will never find them again as they were probably lost when that PC was replaced. If I do ever discover them I'll upload my photos, or will take some new ones next time I visit later this year.
You will really need a torch to experience everything this cave has as the opening is pitch dark so a torch will help you to see the water trickling through the rocks from above and explore the different colours of the cave.
Mabel Quiller Couch, in her book of 1894, visited Cubert and Holywell and documented this holy well in her book "Ancient Holy Wells of Cornwall". What she said in her book is:
The Legend of the Sea Cave Holy Well
Through time legends are passed down through the generations, stories of long-gone visitors, saints, magic and miracles.
The sea cave containing the holy well at Holywell Bay is no different, and here is its story:
In 995 AD a Bishop visited from the Holy Island - this Bishops name was Alchun. He brought the body of Saint Cuthbert (c. 634 – 20 March 687) with him, who he had carried from Lindisfarne where St Cuthbert had been an Abbot of Lindisfarne and one of the most important medieval Saints of northern England.
They had intended to carry the Saint's relics to Ireland, but their ship was blown to the north Cornish coast instead, where they settled and built a church dedicated to St Cuthbert, which is the church at Cubert, at the top of the hill and one mile inland from Holywell Bay.
An oracle instructed them to return the relics to Durham, but as they were leaving the relics touched the sides of the well, passing magical curing powers to the water.
The truth of this will never be known unless some new ancient manuscripts are deciphered or discovered that explain more. Aldun was certainly a Bishop and took the body of St Cuthbert away in 995, as the Hoevden Annals, Volume 1, tell us on page 81 where it is written:
"In the year 995, Aldun^ the bishop, removed the body of Saint Cuthbert from Cestre9 to Dunholm.10"
The feast day of St Cuthbert is 20th March.
ST. CUTHBERT'S, OR ST. CUBERT'S WELL Is in the parish of that name in the north of Cornwall, by the Bristol Channel.
Hals (1685-1735) says of it :
*A famous and well-known spring^ of water called Holy Well (so named, the inhabitants say, for that the virtues of this water were discovered on All Hallows' Day).
The same stands in a dark cavern of the sea-cliff rocks; beneath full sea-mark on spring-tides drop down or distill continually drops of water from the white, blue, red, and green veins of those rocks ; and accordingly, in the place where those drops of water fall, they swell to a lump of considerable bigness; and there petrifying to the hardness of ice, glass, or freestone, of the several colours aforesaid, according to the nature of those veins in the rock from whence they proceed.' These stalactites are hard and brittle as glass.
It must have been a well of very wide repute, as Hals tells us that people frequented it in *incredible ' numbers in summer, * from countries far distant '.
Mabel Quiller-Couch had read Mr. John Cardell Oliver's book "Guide to Newquay" of 1877, as she then goes on to quote from his volume:
Mr. J. C. Oliver, in his excellent Guide to Newquay, gives us this reliable account of the well in its present condition : —
'About two miles to the south-east of Crantock
St Cuthbert's, or St, Cubert's Well. is at Holy Well, a long unbroken beach, bounded on either extremity by fine cliffs, but having a coast-line of wild and desert sandhills, the loose surface of which is continually shifting and drifting. The only signs of vegetation upon this desolate sea-shore are a few thinly-scattered sea-rushes, either struggling to retain their hold or half buried by the drift.
'This sandy dune runs inland a considerable distance towards Cubert, and thence across to Perran. During a strong breeze off-shore the drift of loose sand is perfectly blinding. But that which gives to Holy Well its chief interest, at least in a legendary point of view, is the holy well itself, which will be found situated in one of the caverns of the eastern cliffs. It is a somewhat curious place. After passing over a few boulders the mouth of the cave will be reached, where steps will be found leading up to the well.
'This rock-formed cistern is of a duplicate form, consisting of two wells, having a communication existing between them. The supply of water is from above ; and this water, being of a calcareous nature, has coated the rock with its earthy deposits, giving to the surrounding walls and to the well itself a variegated appearance of white, green and purple. Above and beyond the well will be seen a deep hole extending into the cliff.
*The legend respecting the well is, that in olden times mothers on Ascension Day brought their deformed or sickly children here, and dipped them in, at the same time passing them through the aper- ture connecting the two cisterns ; and thus, it is said, they became healed of their disease or deformity. It would seem that other classes also believed virtue to reside in its water ; for it is said that the cripples were accustomed to leave their crutches in the hole at the head of the well.
'This well has Nature only for its architect, no mark of man's hand being seen in its construction ; a pink enamelled basin, filled by drippings from the stalactitic roof, forms a picture of which it is difficult to describe the loveliness. What wonder, then, that the simple folk around should endow it with mystic virtues ? "
— T. Q. C.."
Hals and Tonkin
William Hals started compiling his History of Cornwall in 1685 and finished 50 years later; Hals died in 1739. Thomas Tonkin started writing his Histories separately and in a different style in 1702.
In "The Parochial History of Cornwall" published in 1838 and based in most on the previous work of Hals and Tonkin the sea cave holy well was mentioned on page 273:
"In this parish is that famous and well-known spring of water called Holy-well (so named the inhabitants say, that for the virtues of this water was first discovered on Allhallows-day). The same stands in a dark cavern of the sea-cliff rocks, beneath full sea-mark on spring-tides; from the top of which cavern falls down or distils continually drops of water, from the white, blue, red, and green veins of those rocks. And accordingly, in the place where those drops of water fall, it swells to a lump of considerable bigness, and there petrifies to the hardness of ice, glass, or freestone, of the several colours aforesaid, according to the nature of those veins in the rock from whence it proceeds, and is of a hard brittle nature, apt to break like glass.
The virtues of this water are very great. It is incredible what numbers in summer season frequent this place and waters from counties far distant."
In 1838, Davies Gilbert, building on the works of Hals and Tonkin said of the sea cave:
"The Holy Well, if it may properly be so called, (it being nothing but a little water dropping out of the cliff under Kelsey, in a small cove made by the sea, to be come at only when the tide is out,) has been much frequented of late, and several strange cures attributed to it. It is a water that petrifies of itself, as may be seen by the incrus- CUBERT. 293 tations on the rock over which it runs ; and these incrusta- tions make the ascent to it very slippery and dangerous."
The Kelseys is the name of the cliffs above the cave when walking from Holywell to Porth Joke.
Francis Frith Collection
Francis Frith & Company were the world's first specialist publishers of photographs and postcards of villages and towns across the United Kingdom.These photos, due to their age, are all in black and white.
- 1914: A photographer from the company visited and photographed the sea cave in 1914, taking two photographs (66697 and 66698), the second of which has better exposure. Photo 66699 isn't labelled as such, but looks to me like it was taken from inside the sea cave and looking out.
- 1937: In 1937 three views of the holy well on the golf course were added to the collection, but none of the sea cave.
- 1965: Photographers again visited Holywell Bay, but no photos of either of the holy wells was added to the collection
The Francis Frith Collection have compiled many collections of their photographs into books, I've had a look through all those which might be relevant and can't see that any of these holy well photos were included in their collections, although they do have 110 photos in total for Holywell Bay.
Holywell Bay Golf Course Holy Well
Some facts about this holy well on the golf course:
- Meyrick referred to a Valley site, which matches the topography of the golf course site.
- Officially re-discovered in 1916, it had been known about prior to this date
- Restored in 1936
- Tidied up by Newquay Old Cornwall Society in 2012/2013 and referred to as Trevornick Well.
The Holy Well on Holywell Golf Course
This holy well at Holywell Bay is quite easy to find and safe to visit. It is on the golf course at Holywell Bay, next to the Trevornick Holiday Park. You can access it from the beach and across the golf club, or by following the public footpath that crosses Trevornick Holiday Park. Cross the park as far as the ponds, then turn left after/alongside the ponds until you reach a pond on the golf course. Next there's a small wood and some steps down - where you'll find the holy well, which is quite large, built of stone and easily accessible.
This is where a good Ordnance Survey map is invaluable as it gives you information and confidence.
As this holy well is on the site of Trevornick Holiday Park - which until the 1960s was Trevornick Farm, one name for this holy well is Trevornick Well.
The Newquay Old Cornwall Society have recently tidied up the area around this holy well and inside the structure, to ensure it's safe and accessible to visitors.
Don't hesitate to visit this well - you won't be told off for trespassing through the camp or across the golf course - although stick to the paths and the official public footpath so you don't get lost or get whacked by a golf ball.
Clearing Up the Confusion
Some people may not care of the names of the wells - and are happy just to visit and enjoy them, to take photos and share those memories with friends and family. I'll admit to being in this camp a lot of the time, but where details can be flushed out it's better, for others, to have a full knowledge of the details.
So here are some pieces which will help to clear up the riddle of the names - and if you've got another reference then post a comment below with the details so I can update this section with new facts.
There are many books written on the subject, but many of the authors are building on the previous work are others. The main books and writing on holy wells used here include:
- History of Cornwall, Polwhele, 1803-1808 and 1816 in 7 volumes.
- Legendary Lore of the Holy Wells of England, RC Hope, 1893 (who quotes a lot from Polwhele's book)
- A Pilgrim's Guide to the Holy Wells of Cornwall,1982, J Meyrick
So what do they say:
History of Cornwall, Polwhele, 1803-1898 and 1816
Polwhele is clear that it is the sea cave that pilgrims visited. He says:
"In this parish ( St Cuthbert ) is that famous and well-known spring of water, called Holy Well, so named, the inhabitants say, for that the virtues of this water were first discovered on All Hallow's Day. The same stands in a dark cavern of the sea cliff rocks, beneath full sea-mark on spring tides. The virtues of the waters are, if taken inward, a notable vomit, or as a purgent. If applied outward, it presently strikes in, or dries up, all itch, scurf, dandriff, and such-like distempers in men or women. Numbers of persons in summer season frequent this place and waters from countries far distant. It is a petrifying well.'"
A Pilgrim's Guide to the Holy Wells of Cornwall,1982, Meyrick
Meyrick is of the opinion that both of the Holywell wells were visited, he says "attracted many thousands of adherents over the centuries". Meyrick was of the opinion that the valley site (Trevornick Well) was where monks and pilgrims would stay when they visited and that this was a restored 14th century chapel.
A magazine devoted to studying history, published in 1891 had both wells listed:
ST. CUTHBERT : ST. CUTHBERT'S WELL. In this parish (St. Cuthbert) is that famous and well-known spring of water, called Holy Well, so named, the inhabitants say, for that the virtues^ of this water were first discovered on All Hallow's Day.
The same stands in a dark cavern of the sea cliff rocks, beneath full sea-mark on spring tides.
The virtues of the waters are, if taken inward, a notable vomit, or as a purgent. If applied outward, it presently strikes in, or dries up, all itch, scurf, dandriff, and such- like distempers in men or women. Numbers of persons in summer season frequent this place and waters from countries far distant. It is a petrifying well.
And a second entry for:
CUBERT : ST. CUTHBERT'S WELL.
There is a hollow in the rock on the coast south of Creek which at high-tide is always filled by the salt water, but at low-tide the water is always fresh ; it is said to have the power of curing diseases. The dropping water forms a stalagmite.
So they listed a sea cave twice, at different locations - which I will put down to them not having visited either of them and being based in London so probably just reading the publications of others. Or maybe the second one, at Creek, isn't at Cubert at all as there are a couple of holy wells at St Just creek and at Frenchman's Creek.
As the cave is on the beach it's hard to get a marker to show it correctly. The cave is further along the sandy part of Holywell Beach.
With Holywell Bay being at the bottom of the hill and the golf club holy well being half way up the hill, at the top of the hill is the village of Cubert, where you'll find Cubert Church. With a church dedicated to St Cuthbert being built around about 1000, the current church is from the 13th century.
There is no known holy well at the church.
St Cuthbert's Church
Cubert is probably named after a Welsh missionary called St Cubert (died 775 AD) - however, past writings has declared that the name comes from St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne (634-687 AD), a Saint whose body was brought to the area around about 995 AD in an attempt to prevent Danish invaders getting their hands on it. After settling and establishing the church, he was then returned to Durham - and St Cuthbert's relics allegedly touched the water in the well during their departure by boat, causing the stories of the holy wells.
The truth has been lost in the mists of time.
The current church in Cubert was first built in the 13th century, with additions in the 15th century. In 1846-49 GE Street restored the church. Originally the church was dedicated to St. Cubertus, which was changed to St Cuthbert in the 14th century. The holy well on the golf course is dedicated to St Cubert.
The tower has a well-preserved inscribed granite stone, (1.3m x 0.5m) possibly from the 6-8th century, set into it. An inscription on this stone reads
"CONET[O]CI / [F]ILITEGE [R]NO / MALI".
which means [the stone] of Conet[o]cus, son of Tege[r]nomalus. This stone can be seen on the West side of the outside of the tower.
In conclusion, I hope you've enjoyed this piece on the holy wells of Holywell Bay and Cubert Church and I hope it sparks in you a great new hobby of searching for holy wells where you live and visiting them.
Holy Wells of Cornwall:
More Holy Wells in Cornwall:
- 6 Holy Wells Near Newquay Cornwall
Discover 6 holy wells near Newquay Cornwall, have a great free day out and fun exploring old legends.
- St Just Holy Well
Discover the St Just in Roseland holy well on the south coast of Cornwall, near St Mawes.
- Polperro Holy Well, Cornwall
As with many other holy wells, the holy well at Polperro in Cornwall ceased to be used many years ago. However, you can still visit the well -
Holywell Bay as a Film Location:
- Summer in February, Film, 2013
Holywell Bay was one of the locations in Summer in February, released in June 2013 - a true life story of love, loss and tragedy within the artistic colony of Lamorna Cove 100 years ago.