The cult of a 7th-century Welsh princess
Earlier inhabitants and pilgrims no doubt washed in the spring. You can still plunge if you wish, but we have also constructed a detached bathroom a few yards from the former chapel. St Winifred was a 7th-century Welsh princess, sworn to a life of chastity, who was brought back to life by her uncle St Beuno. Legend has it that she had been decapitated by an angry suitor as she ran away to take refuge in a church. In the 12th century her body was taken to Shrewsbury Abbey, where many pilgrims came to benefit from her healing miracles. St Winifred was much loved by people in this area, so there is good reason to believe the tradition that this well at Woolston was dedicated to her; a lesser sister to the older and more famous St Winifred’s Well at Holywell in Flintshire. Whether or not any of this is true, the well here has been venerated for centuries, and is still visited by pilgrims and Landmarkers today.
Secluded and special
The innermost of the three pools is the medieval well chamber. The little building above is the medieval well chapel, itself a remarkable survival preserved since the Reformation as a Court House and then as a cottage. Meanwhile, the well itself was enlarged to form a cold bath (your own hot, more private bath is a stone’s throw from the cottage), first for a local squire, and later for the people of the area. Their behaviour became so riotous that it was closed to the general public in 1755. After that it returned to nature, whose spirit was probably worshipped here long before Christianity. It is on the edge of a hamlet and hard to find (and sometimes harder to heat), approachable only by public footpath, which takes you in the direction of a fragment of the old Shropshire Union Canal. Once here, secluded in the woods, acceptance of the miraculous is easy.
‘I’m not really ready to leave this small, simple oasis but I suppose life must go on and we are already late.’
From the logbook
A late 15th-century timber chapel
St. Winifred's Well consists of two separate elements: the well itself and the little building over it. The spring of clear water has no doubt had a chamber of sorts around it for centuries, but the structures around it surviving today date from the late Middle Ages. What stands today at St. Winifred's Well is a very rare survival of a late 15th-century timber chapel, made all the more precious by its association with the well itself, with pilgrimage and the healing of the sick.
Certainty as to its nature emerged slowly. The building has been a cottage since the early 19th century and in secular use since the early 17th, so that alterations and repairs have occurred. An article by a local historian, Adolphus Dovaston, in 1886, quoting the notes of an 18th-century antiquarian, apparently provided authoritative written evidence conclusively ruling out the existence of a chapel on the site. A holy well there might have been, but the building was put up as a Court-house "over a well made for a bath for the Jones of Sandford". The medieval trusses incorporated in the building were, so argued Mr Dovaston, re-used from West Felton church.
On the other hand, a Survey of the Lordship of Oswestry of 1602 referred to Woolston Chapel; and the previous owner of the Well told of 16th-century graffiti found on the posts of the wing, found when removing old plaster.
It was only as we began to strip down the structure in preparation for its repair that its true nature emerged. First of all it became clear that the two main trusses, with their cusped struts, were not reused from somewhere else. They fitted their position and the rest of the timber frame very happily. All are typical of the late 15th century.
Then the moulded wall plate encircling the building appeared, again confirming this as one integral structure. The presence of an original doorway with decorated lintel at the west end and another door in the south wall for the priest (slightly to the east of the existing doorway) confirmed that this was an ecclesiastical building, not a dwelling. Details at the east end also indicated the existence of a retable, or altar back.
Examination of the frame confirmed that the projecting wing is also part of the original structure. The dressed stone supporting it appears to date from the 17th century and it was thought that the whole wing might therefore be an addition. However, it too has a chamfered wallplate consistent with the dating of the rest of the building, and the entrance to it is clearly marked in the interior of the chapel itself by a more elaborate moulding on the wallplate.
Due to later alterations the position of the original windows is not clear. It is likely that there would have been at least one in the south wall, and more than probable that there would have been at least a small window in the east end to light the altar. The dating of the whole building has since been confirmed by dendrochronology to c.1485.
Examination of the chapel's frame showed that at some period quite early in its history it suffered a period of deterioration and neglect. This would of course fit in well with the history of religious upheaval in the 16th century and with the suppression of pilgrimage and well worship as a result of the Reformation. That the well was still visited is born out, however, by the presence of graffiti of that period.
The history of Woolston's Well after the Reformation is typical of many such buildings, except in its survival. The next phase in fact follows Dovaston's theories quite happily but with the building of a court-house being a repair and re-use of the existing chapel rather than the putting up of a new structure. Many such buildings were put to a secular use at this period and the holding of a manorial court would be entirely in keeping with its long-established local importance.
Evidence of extensive repair in the early 17th century was found throughout the building. The insertion, or rather addition, of a bay window at the east end was no doubt part of this phase, as was the new stonework under the wing, partly no doubt to provide extra support, but also related to the creation of an additional pool.
Dovaston's antiquarian had said that the Court-house stood "over a well made for a bath for the Jones' of Sandford", who were granted the manor in 1613. Again, the adaptation and enlargement of a holy well to form a bath occurred elsewhere, at Ffynnon Fair in Flintshire for example; cold bathing was considered good for the health in the 17th and 18th centuries, so that in effect this was simply a rationalisation of the early belief in the healing qualities of water.
The private bath later became a public bathing place much frequented by local people. Ale houses apparently grew up nearby and no doubt revels and wakes were held there, as at many wells. Such promiscuous behaviour shocked local worthies and in about 1755 the use of the well was suppressed. This may have been the result of a new landlord who came into residence at Sandford in 1757 after a long period of absenteeism. The Court-house continued in use until 1824 after which the chapel was converted to domestic use, in which it has remained until the present day. To this phase in its history belong the inserted chimney and bread oven, the insertion of bricks in the frame instead of the traditional plaster infill and the pigsty which is now the bathroom.
In 1928 the cottage was bought from the farmer who owned it by Rev. Frank Taylor, Vicar of West Felton, who was concerned about its condition. He renewed the roof in about 1930. He used to come and sit at the chapel to read and compose his sermons. In about 1932 he gave St. Winifred's Well to his niece, Mary Taylor, who in 1936 became Mrs Ashby. The Ashbys planted the trees around the building and formed the large pool by damming the stream. They in turn handed the cottage on to their daughter, Margaret Phythian-Adams. She in turn sold it to the Landmark Trust in 1987.
The Landmark Trust bought St. Winifred's Well in 1987. Repairs were carried out under the supervision of the architect Andrew Thomas by a local building firm, I J Preece.
Having carried out a detailed examination of the building, to achieve an understanding of it, work was begun on the repair of the timber frame. The 19th-century brick panels were removed, so that all decayed joints could be repaired, with new timber pieced in as necessary. The bricks were then for the most part put back.
In the gable ends of the chapel and the whole of the wing, however, the upright posts of the frame are very thin, and the bricks projected in an unsightly way.In these cases the brick infill was replaced by split lath and a traditional daub, consisting of lime and sand, cow hair and a few handfuls of dung.
The 1930 roof was taken off. Because the original roof structure had sagged and bent in places, the solution in 1930 had been to lay a new structure on top, building it up until it was entirely level and straight. This detracted from the appearance of the building as seen in old photographs.
Landmark decided instead to repair the original roof structure and provide a new roof cover of random slates, laid to the earlier, steeper, profile, irregularities in level included.
New windows have been fitted, their design copied from old photographs and drawings. New oak floorboards were laid. The interior of the building has been left as simple as possible.
It was possible to fit a kitchen into the wing, but it was clearly impossible to fit in a bathroom as well. We did not want to add onto the building at all, and so a bathroom in a separate building was inevitable. To this end, the old pigsty was brought into service.
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