Holywell has been a place of pilgrimage for 1,300 years – kings including Richard I, Henry V and James II have visited to seek blessings and give thanks. The legend of St Winefride tells of how she, being devoted to God, turned down the advances of Caradoc, a local prince. In his anger, he cut off her head, which rolled down the hill. Where it came to rest, a spring rose. When her uncle, St Beuno, found her, he joined her head and body, prayed to God and miraculously revived her. She went on to be abbess at the community at Gwtherin and the spring that rose where she was beheaded became associated with miraculous cures and a destination for pilgrims. In the 15th Century Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, donated money for a chapel to be built over the well.
Today you can visit St Winefride’s Well, admire the vaulted ceilings of the chapel, bring your bottles to fill with the healing water and, at set times of the day, bathe in the pool fed by the spring. Entry to the site in early 2022 is £1 via the shop and visitor centre, and there are two small changing rooms if you want to bathe: http://www.stwinefrideswell.org.uk/. There is also a small museum which should re-open when Covid restrictions are fully lifted in Wales.
A little further down the hill you can find the Up a Yard Jamaican café – a good place to warm up if you’ve had a dip on a cold day: https://upayarduk.wixsite.com/upayard. This year (2022) the old Anglican church of St James next to the chapel is being renovated to become, in addition to a place of prayer, a community hub, café and training centre to skill up local people in this area of high unemployment.
Holywell has more to offer – following the road down towards the Dee Estuary, you can find paths into the wooded Greenfield Valley, once filled with mills and factories – their ruins remain to be explored, along with four pools that once provided water for the waterwheels that drove the machinery. Walk further and you come to the start of the pilgrimage route that runs from Holywell across north Wales to Bardsey Island, and the picturesque remains of Basingwerk Abbey standing between the trees. There’s a café nearby, and a walk back up the valley along an old railway line. Up on the wooded valley side the traces of the northern end of the 9th Century Wat’s Dyke remain. The dyke runs south and west to Maesbury in Shropshire and a long-distance path follows its route: https://www.watsdykeway.com/.
The area is often bypassed as visitors aim for Llandudno, Conwy, Anglesey or Snowdonia, but it is well worth stopping to explore. Close to Holywell is some beautiful countryside, including Llyn Brenig to the south, where Osprey’s nest in the spring. A visit to Holywell is a visit to one of the historic ‘Seven wonders of Wales’, which are all to be found in the north of the country and also include sites such as the spectacular Rhaeadr falls, Llangollen Bridge, Snowdon and the Overton Yew trees. You can find out more here: https://www.visitbritain.com/gb/en/7-wonders-wales to start your exploration of this too-often overlooked area.
For pilgrim and weekend visitor alike, St Winefride’s guesthouse, run by the Bridgettine sisters of the convent there, offers a warm welcome, economic price and a quiet place of retreat, with meals provided, a visitors’ lounge, and the capacity to cater for organised pilgrimage groups. There’s easy parking and the guesthouse, built in the 19th Century when the profile of Holywell was raised as the ‘Lourdes of Wales’, is five minutes’ walk from the shrine. You can check availability and contact the sisters via their website: https://www.bridgettine.org/st-winefridersquos-guest-house.html
Article written by Richard Kipling.