Even in our world of smartphones and Satnav, there are still some places where the fabric of reality has worn thin, where the past seems much closer than the present, and you feel as if you could easily slip into history like the heroine of a time-slip romance.
One of those magical spots, close to where we spend our family holidays in Cornwall, is the ancient Holy Well and Chapel at Madron. I first happened across it after turning off a country road in search of a picnic spot, and it is exactly the sort of place it seems appropriate to find by accident rather than design.
The entrance to the Chapel and Well is marked by a stone erected by the Cornish Ancient Sites Protection Network and accessed via a winding path which weaves through wildflower hedges and stunted trees twisted with ivy. Climb over the ancient moss-covered stone steps and before long, you will see the fluttering ribbons of a Clootie Tree.
Clootie (or cloth) Wells are places of pilgrimage in Celtic areas, usually natural springs with an ash or whitethorn tree growing beside them, where strips of cloth are tied to the branches as part of a healing ritual. At Madron, the Clootie or wishing tree grows next to a small stream, and is some way away from the actual spring head, the holy well itself, which can only be accessed by a hidden and very boggy path best tackled wearing wellington boots. The well has been restored using old stones, though it’s probably not too dissimilar to the original stone basin.
Accounts vary, but once at the well, the ‘patient’ would strip naked and enter the water three times, walk round the well clockwise three times and then rest (sometimes overnight) on a nearby hillock named St Maddern’s Bed. A piece of cloth would be torn from their clothing (near the afflicted area) or a cloth would be dipped into the healing water and used to wash the affected body-part. This cloth would then be tied onto the tree, and as it rotted away, the ailment would disappear. Some now believe Madron water has unusually high radiation levels which could be connected to its restorative powers.
“[There was] Not a disease… that was not wholly or partly healed by faith in the miraculous water: the maimed and wretched, the diseased and discontented came in troops… till the wild moor was peopled with the multitude and echoed with countless prayers and wishes put up for health and riches and every good gift: then the water ran supernaturally clear and rose and bubbled and whirled when any offering was thrown into it, while Saint Maddern in the niche close by, stood smiling in mercy.” Tales of the West (1828) John Carne
Folklore accumulates around every Clootie Well rather like lichen grows on the overhanging tree branches. Offerings of bread, pins, coins and pebbles were cast into the water as gifts for the local Saint or guardian spirits, or in appeasement of mischievous piskies. A May Day tradition (still observed at Madron in 1879) was for young women to visit the well before sunrise, performing a ceremony to divine when they would marry. Two grass stems or straws about an inch long were fastened into a cross-shape with a pin and then dropped into the water. Any rising bubbles denoted the number of years the girls had to wait to wed.
These days the votive offerings at Madron range from the divine to the frankly bizarre; wishes written on paper and tied to the tree with ribbons (my daughters love to do this), scraps of fabric torn from clothing, religious artefacts, pieces of scanty underwear and all manner of strange tokens and trinkets with (presumably) personal significance.
Walk a little further along the path, and you’ll find the roofless remains of a simple C12th chapel, with a doorway to the North (unusual in Christian churches as it was later considered the devil’s door), a stone altar to the East and a font in the South-West corner, which was originally fed by the same spring as the well. The chapel is surrounded by trees; and is a tranquil, out-of-time sanctuary which tempts you to sit, to reflect and pray (even if that isn’t your usual cup of tea). Rest a while and listen to the wind in the leaves and the ravens croaking as they circle above the chapel, and then send up a prayer. I try to make a pilgrimage here every year to tie a wish on the Clootie tree and say a prayer in the chapel, and some of those wish-prayers have even come true…
The story of Madron Well & Chapel encapsulates the successive ebbs and flows of culture and belief in Ancient Britain – from Celtic to Roman to Anglo-Saxon, from Pagan to Christian. Madron village is named for Saint Maddern, whose feast day is 17th May – though like so many early saints, his story is obscure. He has been associated with the ancient and obscure British King Madan, but it is more probable that Madron/Maddern was a monk and hermit who settled here, possibly after travelling from Brittany in France to develop his missionary activity. He is said to have built and blessed the little chapel to baptise converts from paganism – and then through the ages became associated with the miracle cure of physical ailments. The village church, consecrated in 1336, is also dedicated to St Maddern.
But dig a little deeper, and this history becomes even more involved and intriguing; ‘Goddesses in World Culture’ lists ‘Modron’ (who appears in the Welsh Text Cullwch and Olwen) as a mother goddess, possibly a local adaptation of the Roman mother goddess Matrona, later Christianised as the Welsh saint Madrun. Madrun was variously recorded as a Cornish widow, a Queen of Gwent and/or granddaughter of King Vortigern, who ruled after the Romans withdrew from Britain around 400AD.
It seems likely that whichever Christian first built the little chapel near Madron Well, the spring itself was already a place of religious significance to local people. The Matrona / mother goddess was popular during Roman times, but when patriarchal Christianity arrived, the old customs had to change – and so maybe the name-association with Saint Madrun/Madron/Maddern was used to ‘transform’ the cult place to the new religion. When Christianity first came to England there were no churches; instead, monks preached by carved stone crosses which were often placed at sites which were already regarded as sacred in pagan worship. Later on, churches would be built nearby. On the road from Madron to Boswarthen, there is still a wheel-headed wayside cross – possibly to show pilgrims the way to the well.
Whatever the name of the presiding deity, this little woodland has been a place of worship and pilgrimage, whether Pagan or Christian, for at least 1500 years and almost certainly for much longer. It’s no wonder that all those centuries of accumulated wishes and prayers have left their psychic mark on the area, imbuing Madron Chapel with a spiritual, otherworldly, slightly eerie quality.
So watch out for the cool breath that tingles the nape of your neck when you walk through an old building, or the feeling you could turn the corner of a shaded path and step back in time… You don’t need a Hogwart’s time turner or Claire Beecham Fraser’s stone circle to access the past, for echoes of it still whisper all around you, if you take the time to listen.