The legend goes something like this. A prince called Caradoc was harassing a girl called Winefride. She told him to get lost so he cut off her head. Where she fell a spring started up- a spring with miraculous healing powers. Just then Winefride's uncle Bueno came out of church, saw what had happened, stuck her head on and brought her back to life.
What is it with the Celtic cult of the severed head? Why do severed heads and springs go together the way they do? The spring is an entrance to the Otherworld and you plant it round with death's heads to strengthen the connection- something like that? Or is the head a totem and expected to spout oracular wisdom the way the earth spouts water? No, there's meaning there but as with most things Celtic its all a bit sideways and glancing and elusive. A bit Dylan Thomasy. And the logic- though that's entirely the wrong word- is the logic of dreams.
Winefride and Bueno were real people. Both saints. Sainthood was easily come by in the 7th century. If you belonged to a princely family and pursued an ecclesiastical career they made you a saint as a matter of course.
In it's day Holywell was one of the greatest shrines in Britain. Henry V walked here all the way from Chester to give thanks for his victory at Agincourt. The wellhead chapel is a lovely thing..
And then came the Reformation and the shrine was closed. Only it wasn't, because the British catholic community refused to let it go. Holywell was far from the centre, it was tough to police and so the pilgrims kept on arriving, in spite of harrassment by the authorities, in spite of the danger of arrest and lynching. A couple of "inns" in the vicinity served as safe houses and had chapels attached to them for the saying of Mass. Defoe was here in the 1720s and wrote
"The priests that attend here are very numerous and appear in 'disguise'. Sometimes they are physicians, sometimes gentlemen, sometimes patients or anything as occasion presents..."
It's a story of dogged perseverance and occasional heroism strung out over centuries. A remarkable secret history that makes you feel good about the human race.
And the catholics are still in charge today- hooray- and still running the place as a shrine. You enter through a shop full of devotional tat. We were there on a dreary Sunday afternoon and there was a continuous stream of pilgrims/tourists. At the door to the shop you can pick up a plastic bottle with a holy image on it, which you fill at the pump.
I drank the water, I lit a candle, I addressed my thoughts to Herself.