Halkyn Mountain steps down from the hills of the Clwydian range to the reedy foreshore of the immense Dee Estuary, where steep wooded valleys now shelter this edge of North Wales. At the seaward end of the Greenfield Valley are Greenfield Dock and medieval Basingwerk Abbey, whose ruins are now in the care of Cadw (Welsh Heritage).
Higher up, the valley is scattered with the remains of brass, textile and copper mills – all reminders of the rich industrial history of this part of Wales. The 70-acre Greenfield Valley Heritage Park links these sites.
Saint and sinner
Further up the valley, as it narrows at Holywell, stands St Winefride’s Well which has been a place of pilgrimage for nearly 1,400 years. The oldest continually venerated shrine of any British saint, it once attracted believers from all over the country.
Its origins as a shrine lie in the story of Winefride, daughter of a Celtic noble, who in the seventh century spurned the advances of a princely suitor called Caradog. Angered by her rejection, he beheaded her as she fled towards the safety of her uncle’s church.
The story goes that where her severed head came to rest, a powerful spring burst from the earth. Her uncle, Beuno, prayed over her remains and, miraculously, her head became re-attached and she rose, restored to life. The pair sat on a nearby rock to reflect on events; today Beuno’s Stone forms part of the atmospheric shrine here.
Word of the miracle spread; the spring became a place of pilgrimage to which the ill and infirm were drawn for prayer and, they hoped, for cure. Centuries later, Henry V gave thanks here for his victory over the French at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.
In around 1500, Henry VII’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, commissioned the remarkable Gothic crypt and chapel that still shelter the shrine. Even the Protestant Reformation of the church only dented the well’s reputation, and pilgrims continued to visit, as they do today.
Taking the waters
Every year thousands of people make the journey to what has been called the Lourdes of Wales. Those travelling from the north would once have arrived at Greenfield Dock where the Holywell Stream, which rises at St Winefride’s Well, flows into the Dee Estuary.
To believers the architecture of the shrine is window-dressing to the main purpose of their visit, to call on St Winefride to cure their ailments. Petitioners immerse themselves in the small pool, or take the waters flowing from the ground where the saint’s head came to rest.
The apparent efficacy of their faith is illustrated by the countless discarded crutches, letters of testimony and papers of thanks for prayers answered that have accrued over the centuries. Some are displayed in a small museum on the site.
Winefride is thought to have gone on to become abbess of a convent at Gwytherin, a remote site in Denbighshire where she later died. In the 12th century, her remains were moved to Shrewsbury Abbey, but disappeared in Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century. At Holywell, however, she remains a potent presence.
How to get there
St Winefride’s Well is 18 miles north-west of Chester. Regular buses to Holywell run from Mold, Prestatyn, Rhyl and Chester.
Find Out More
St Winefride’s Well, Holywell,
Flintshire CH8 7PN
Open daily 9am-5pm (Oct-Mar 10am- 4pm, closed 25-26 Dec). Adults 80p, children 60p, students 20p. Regular services, bathing by arrangement.
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Dolphin, Holywell, Flintshire CH8 8HE
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