St.Mary’s Well and Crogfryn Lane , Llanrhos

Ffynnon Santes Fair (St Mary’s Well) and Crogfryn Lane

  Wells were often thought of as special places,presumably because they were a source of clean water. In pre-christian (i.e.Celtic,Roman) times,they were said to be the homes of a variety of gods. Springs,rivers and lakes were also thought to be inhabited by deities.Old and ancient artefacts,such as brooches and swords, have often been found at the bottom of such places,having been thrown in as a gift or sacrifice to such deities. In 601,after a conference in Italy,(the Council of Trent),Pope Gregory instructed his missionaries to destroy any non-christian statues and myths connected with wells,(such myths had resulted in some wells becoming popular local shrines,often reputed to have healing powers – which could have a scientific/biological reason due to the presence of certain mosses,etc.),while ensuring that they became hygienic, Christian-orientated places(1).In Wales today,over 400 wells have been identified as having saints’ names (2). The well which we know today as Ffynnon Santes Fair (in English:St Mary’s Well) is located a couple of hundred metres to the west of St Hilary’s Church,Llanrhos. Why is the well dedicated to St.Mary,not St.Hilary? The King who had the original church built there was Maelgwn Gwynedd. (It is likely that the church was built there because the well was nearby,thus giving it a ready supply of clean water and a tradition of being sacred.) Maelgwn was the first ruler of a brythonic North Wales,his father,Cadwallon,having expelled the last of the gaels (Irish), from north Wales and Anglesey. He was known for the large number of churches whose construction he paid for,both locally and outside his kingdom. He is also considered to have thought highly of the recitation of poetry and epics. Maelgwn’s stronghold was on the Vardre,a few hundred metres west of the church and well. There are two “contenders” for the Church’s name : St Eleri (English:Hilary) of Gwytherin,and St Hilaire (Hilary) of Poitiers,France.(3) St Eleri (died 670) was the son of a southern Scottish king,Dingat, who was deposed by a Northumbrian king,Edwin. The family fled to Gwent,but Eleri studied  under St Asaph in Llanelwy (English:St Asaph),and then later established a joint monastery-convent with  Gwenfrewy (English:Winifred),his cousin’s daughter. St. Hilaire (died 368) was a proactive defender of the belief that Jesus was the same as God,rather than inferior to God;this was made official at a conference in Nicea,Turkey,in 325,and is known as the Nicene Creed. St.Hilaire also has the reputation as the foremost Latin writer of the 4th century,and has villages named after him in Cornwall and Wales. As St.Eleri was born after Maelgwn died,it is more likely that it was the popular,and contemporary,French St.Hilaire whose name the church adopted,rather than the Scottish/ Welsh,but later St.Eleri. The name “Mary” appeared centuries later,when,in 1350,an agreement was made between the monks of Maenen Abbey and Edward III resulting in the church coming under the control of the monks. They re-dedicated the church to their patron saint,the Virgin Mary;and hence,St.Mary’s Well(4). So why is the church still called St.Hilary’s,but the well called St.Mary’s? In 1534,Henry VIII decided to take away the power of the Catholic Church,based in Rome. As well as the monasteries being demolished,other links with the Catholic Church were also broken. This included re-dedicating churches, destroying well-shrines and,indeed,prosecuting people for continuing to worship at wells(5). So it seems that the church re-assumed the name of St.Hilary,but the well became forgotten,with the name of Ffynnon Santes Fair vaguely remaining in local memories. In fact,the well does not appear on the map of 1889,but does appear from 1900 onwards,and was the principal water supply until mains connection in 1908,then being rendered obsolete(6). It was actually brought to light again,literally, following the floods of 10th June 1993. The area itself,unlike the low-lying nearby area of Llandudno,was not flooded,but such was the volume of run-off from the adjacent fields of the Vardre and Bryniau that a clearing of debris around the footpath which runs alongside the well was necessitated. It was during this clear-up that the well was rediscovered. Some 50 barrowfulls of builders’ waste from the adjoining housing estate were removed and a trench was dug out,revealing the well as it is today(7). Alongside the well runs a public footpath,registered on the 1889 map. The path is probably much older,connecting the Vardre with St Hilary’s church;indeed,its existence might even be earlier again. The fact that the wood nearby is called Crogfryn Woods,again shown on earlier maps,suggests that the  well could have been a strategic place for travellers,and pilgrims,over the centuries,rather than merely a source of clean water. The nearby road today called Crogfryn Lane was built as a link road between the B5115 and the A470,which was built in 1985. The road takes its name from Crogfryn Woods,which it cuts through. A popular idea is that this is “Hanging Woods” (Welsh “crog”:English “gallows”),especially with a local legend of a “Devil’s Oak” nearby,where there is also a cemetery! Yet there are no records of any gallows, or of hangings having taken place there. However ,”crog” also means “hanging” in the sense of “crucifixion” and “cross”. The Christian feast day “Gwyl y Grog” is “the Day of the Cross” in English (March 6th,October 12th,September 13th or 14th,depending on the specific incident being worshipped). A more technical name for these days is “Holy Rood Day” . A “rood” is another word for a crucifix (Saxon:”roda”,Old English:”rod”). More commonly-known is the “rood screen”,which is the screen,often made of finely carved wood,semi-transparent because of its intricate tracery,upon which the “rood”,the figure of Christ on the cross,was positioned. The rood screen would divide the ordinary congregation from the clergy celebrating the mass,so that they could only partially see what was happening,especially when kneeling,but would have a full view of the crucifix. A result of the counter-reformation in the 16th century was that rood screens were removed as a visual impediment to the congregation,thus allowing a full view of the service. Outside,a stone crucifix,usually medieval in origin, was used for four main purposes,and was known as Croes Uchel or Croes Eglwysig,or a High Cross in English. They were:

  • outside a church as a status symbol
  • a status symbol of the patron of the church
  • visual aids to contemplation
  • for pilgrims, and travellers in general, as a way marker and a place of rest .As High Crosses were often built on or over existing ancient or pre-historic stone markers,this was a logical positioning.

Therefore,Crogfryn Lane,and  Crogfryn Woods, probably owe their names to a cross (“crog”) which was on the hill there (“bryn”,mutated to “fryn”). Did it stand on the spot now occupied by the defunct crossroads signpost in the defunct lane that lies 50 metres to the north,200 metres to the south of the church? Or perhaps the stone base of that cross is still lying somewhere nearby,waiting to be uncovered…! All in all,the close proximity of St Hilary’s Church,St Mary’s Well,Crogfryn Woods/Lane and the location of the seat of  early Welsh consolidating power,the Vardre,suggests that this has been an area of considerable importance in the past. Kevin Slattery, October 2014.

  1. John Weston,Data Wales 2003.
  2. Frances Jones,Holy Wells of Wales,1954.
  3. Betty Mills,A Churchyard Diary,2009.
  4. Fiona Richards,The Creuddyn Grange,2013.
  5. John Weston,Data Wales,2003.
  6. Chris Draper,Walks from Llandudno,2010.
  7. Ken Davies,Ffynnon Santes Fair,1994.

Web Design North Wales by Indever