Heritage of Wales

Tom Pert with students at Blaenavon (Image: Blaenavon11 2008_005 / NPRN: 0 / Source: RCAHMW) Paxton Tower; Nelson Monument. 2004. (Image: DI2006_0799 / NPRN: 32666) Rhosgyll Fawr, Llanystumdwy. House of largely seventeenth century date. Undated. (Image: CD2005_601_013 / NPRN: 55839)

Episode 3

Ffynon Elian Cursing Well

Richard Suggett and Eddie Butler go in search of the well, using historical records and the owner of Cefnyffynnon Farm, an expert on the tradition of the well, to help them. They visit the Methodist chapel, from where the congregation went to demolish the well, and try to locate the site of the cottage to which the spring was diverted. Their final destination is the grave of the last keeper of the well, Jac Ffynnon Elian, who eventually disclaimed the well and became a Baptist.

  • Cefnyffynnon Farmhouse: home of the keeper’s of the well. 
(Image: DS2001_053_001 / NPRN: 32271)
  • Ffynnon Elian in 2010. (Image: DS2011_053_002 / NPRN: 32271)
  • Aerial view of St. Winefride's Chapel. (Image: DI2007_0671 / NPRN: 32328)

Wales is full of wells associated with healing, many of medieval origin. The tradition of healing wells was reinvigorated in the 18th century partly because of the interest in spas and partly because of parish patriotism, as each parish claimed to have a well with special powers. None more so than Ffynnon Elian which was associated with hurting as well as healing.

Ffynnon Elian is sited on the Denbighshire/Caernarfonshire border, in the parish of Llandrillo-yn-Rhos and was part of a farm called Cefnyffynnon. Up to about 1775 the well was known only for its healing properties, and the parishioners even tried to promote it as a bathing place, no doubt influenced by the popularity of Holywell. In the later 18th century however, the well acquired an ambiguous reputation as a place where wrongs could be righted, and by the early 19th century it was well-known as a cursing well with numerous stories circulated of the tragedies connected with it.

The keeper of the well lived at Cefnyffynnon Farm, apparently rebuilt from the profits of the well as the keeper was paid a substantial fee to impose or retract a curse. The intended victim’s name or initials were written on a piece of slate which was then placed in the well to an accompaniment of curses and imprecations directed against the person, their property or cattle. The well worked by power of suggestion - people were understandably anxious, if not terrified, if they heard they had been cursed there and could apply to the keeper to be taken out of the well. Those who enquired if they had been cursed were usually replied to in the affirmative, and it seems that slates with every possible permutation of initials were kept at the farmhouse. Curses were invariably found and cancelled – at considerably more than the initial cost of imposing a curse.

The well resulted in a law and order problem as hundreds, if not thousands, cursed their neighbours. The magistrates seemed powerless as the well was on private property and no obvious crime had been committed. In 1828 however, the congregation of the adjacent Rehobeth Methodist Chapel took matters into their own hands and destroyed the well, planting potatoes on the spot. An enterprising villager, John Evans (alias Jac Ffynnon Elian), diverted the spring water to his own garden, opened a well and continued in business for another 30 years. Tried for fraud in 1831, he was imprisoned for six months, but continued after his release. Towards the end of his life, in the 1850s, he confessed to a minister that the well had been a hoax and became a Baptist. Jac wrote his confessions but died before they were published and is buried in the graveyard of Ebenezer Baptist Chapel. Remarkably, the spring at Ffynnon Elian has proved irrepressible, and supplies salubrious water to the nearby farmhouse. The full story of the well is available in A History of Witchcraft and Magic in Wales by Richard Suggett (2008).


Bringing a North Ceredigion Metal Mine to life

Metal mining was once a major mid-Wales Industry. Royal Commission Investigator Louise Barker and Heledd Fychan explore the remains of Ystrad Einion metal mine, where a new animation project aims to bring the mine back to life.

  • An underground water wheel, operating drainage pumps and a winding drum is one of the hidden treasures of Ystrad Einion mine and unique in its survival. (Image: DI2010_0140 / NPRN: 33908)
  • The above ground remains at Ystrad Einion.  Here we see the circular buddle pits and the crusher house, important elements in the process of recovering the metal ore. (Image: DS2011_075_002 / NPRN: 33908)
  • Ystrad Einion metal mine from the air. (Image: DI2010_0200 / NPRN: 33908)

Tucked away in a quiet corner of Cwm Einion in North Ceredigion, lies one of Wales’ hidden industrial gems, Ystrad Einion metal mine. Mining for lead, silver and other metals had been carried out here in a small way since the 18th century, but the main period of activity came in the final decades of the 19th century, when seeing an opportunity to make money, Lancastrian entrepreneur Adam Mason leased the land and sank over £3000 in state-of-the-art equipment.

This was a relatively small mine, a report of 1891 notes just 11 miners working at the site, nine men labouring underground and two lads, aged between 13 and 18 above ground. It also proved spectacular unprofitable and looking back we can now see that Adam Mason and his high technology arrived at Ystrad Einion too late. The ores were becoming exhausted, mining costs were increasing, and British production was being threatened, and eventually destroyed, by cheap foreign imports. The mine was finally closed in 1903, when much of the machinery was sold or scrapped.

Ystrad Einion metal mine is accessible to the public, and the results of new on-site interpretation work will be in place by Summer 2011.

The Royal Commission’s work at Ystrad Einion has been carried out in partnership with Ceredigion County Council and their PLWM project, together with the Welsh Mines Preservation Trust.


Barclodiad y Gawres, Anglesey

RCAHMW investigator Toby Driver and Heledd Fychan join George Nash and Andrew Beardsley in investigating whether the pecked stones of Barclodiad y Gawres have further secrets to reveal.

  • Barclodiad y Gawres - Detail of carved pillar stone with lozenge, zig-zag, spiral and wavy line decoration on west side of tomb entrance. (Image: DS2010_580_007 / NPRN: 95545)
  • Barclodiad y Gawres, entrance passage. (Image: DS2010_580_002 / NPRN: 95545)
  • Barclodiad y Gawres, looking out of the tomb down the entrance passage. (Image: DS2010_580_003 / NPRN: 95545)

Barclodiad y Gawres is a Neolithic chambered tomb set on a crag at the highest point of the Mynydd Cnwc headland overlooking Trecastle Bay. The tomb was excavated in 1952-3 and has since been consolidated and presented for public access within a modern glass-topped mound.

The prehistoric tomb, built between 5-6000 years ago and older than the Egyptian pyramids, was originally covered by a great turf based mound some 27m in diameter. On the north side was an inturned forecourt from which a 7.0m long passage led into the irregular central chamber. Three smaller chambers branched off this central space producing a cruciform plan. These smaller chambers at least were roofed by great stone slabs, only one of which survives. The west chamber had a smaller annex within which the cremated remains of two men were found. The end stones of the east and west chamber and three of the stones in the inner end of the passage were decorated with abstract pecked patterns of zig-zags, lozenges and spirals, in a tradition of megalithic rock art common among the tombs of the Boyne Valley in Ireland, including the famous Newgrange, and chambered tombs in Brittany and Spain.

Traces of a long lasting fire were found during excavations in the central chamber. This had been quenched by a 'stew' or magical potion, followed by a quantity of limpet shells and pebbles. However, alternative explanations offered for this unusual deposit of largely inedible mammals and fish is that it is faeces from an otter who may have been resident in the derelict tomb.

Due to recent vandalism the tomb is unfortunately kept locked, but through new photographic and laser-scanning technology it will soon be possible to see the glories of the prehistoric carvings inside the tomb once again. Research in 2005 and 2006 by a team from Bristol University discovered further pecked prehistoric rock art on Stone 7, in the left hand or eastern recess of the chamber, showing that this ancient tomb still had new secrets to reveal.


Brynmawr Welfare Park and Lido

  • Volunteers at work, summer 1931. (Copyright of the Archives of the International Voluntary Service). (Llun: ... / NPRN: 411741)
  • Group photograph of International Volunteers, summer 1931. (Copyright of the Archives of the International Voluntary Service). (Image: ... / NPRN: 411741)
  • The Swimming Baths completed, summer 1932. (Copyright of the Archives of the International Voluntary Service). (Image: ... / NPRN: 411741)

During the Great Depression, the iron town of Brynmawr experienced one of the highest rates of unemployment anywhere in the United Kingdom. Home to the Quaker-led ‘Brynmawr Experiment’, an initiative designed to retrain the unemployed with new skills such as furniture manufacture, the town was also the focus of a project by the International Voluntary Service, a Swiss pacifist organisation, and the Welsh Student Self-Help Council. These groups brought international attention to the impact of economic hardship on the people of south Wales.

The construction of the Brynmawr Lido between 1931 and 1932 was undertaken by the people of Brynmawr and a group of volunteers that included citizens of several European nations including Switzerland, Norway, Spain, and Belgium as well as students from the universities of Leeds, Oxford, Cambridge, London, and the four university colleges of Wales. It was the first scheme of its kind in Britain and the very first recreational project undertaken by the International Voluntary Service, which, during the 1920s, had established itself through projects responding to natural disasters such as floods or avalanches.

It was to be this record of international voluntarism that ensured the completion of the Lido. Money for the project was limited and when the time came to purchase concrete to make the baths water-tight, none was available locally. Fortunately, international awareness of the Brynmawr Lido was such that the small French community of Lagarde donated the sum needed to do so. The year before, Lagarde had suffered from a devastating flood and volunteers (including several Britons) had helped to reconstruct the village using money fundraised in the Netherlands. It was the remainder of this money that was sent by Lagarde to Brynmawr. To commemorate the gift, the Mayor of Lagarde was the guest of honour at the opening ceremony of the Brynmawr Lido in 1932.

Although the Lido was demolished in the 1980s, the water fountain that once formed part of the baths was rescued and restored as part of a community project led by local Councillor Terry Hughes. The site, which lies within the Welfare Park, was opened in June 2010 and features a audio-visual display detailing the history and legacy of the Brynmawr Lido and the people who built it.