Whitebells, St Keyne, the NHS, and a woodpecker

The last couple of days’ walks have furnished material for the last few posts here. I still seem to find it hard to settle down to any serious reading.

The last couple of posts have mentioned St Keyne’s church. I took this picture the other day of a well just by the main entrance porch to the church. It’s covered over with a grill, but through this it’s possible to see a set of stone steps leading down into the dank darkness below. I don’t know if there’s any water there.

This is not the same as St Keyne’s holy well in the countryside near Liskeard. There’s some information about it at this site, which quotes its legend from Richard Carew, antiquarian and High Sheriff of Cornwall, presumably from his Survey of Cornwall published in 1602:

‘The quality that man or wife whom chance or choice attains first of this sacred spring to drink thereby the mastery gains.’

I haven’t visited it myself. I do own a book given me as a wedding present the day Mrs TD and I got married, 25 years ago this summer: Secret Shrines: In search of the Old Holy Wells of Cornwall, by Paul Broadhurst. According to his account of this well, St Keyne lived towards the end of the fifth century, so about a century before St Augustine is said to have brought Christianity to England.

She was one of ‘the fifteen sainted children of the illustrious King of the Brecon Beacons’, and blessed with ‘bewitching loveliness’. Nevertheless she wandered about Wales and then Cornwall, ‘safe from insult or wrong-doing’ by ‘the strength of her purity’, performing thaumaturgical marvels wherever she went.

One such miracle was performed in Somerset, commemorated in the place-name of Keynsham (near Bath). There she turned all the serpents that were infesting the place into stone. A footnote suggests this could be an allegory of the erection of monoliths or crosses to neutralise ‘unbalanced energies’. We could do with some of that power during the current crisis.

Image from Broadhurst's account of St Keyne's Well

Image from Broadhurst’s account of St Keyne’s Well, about 100 years ago

When she retired to Cornwall she made her home near the well that now bears her name. She planted several different types of tree by it, and endowed its water with ‘peculiar virtue’ by her blessing. Robert Southey has a poem about it (full text HERE), telling the tale of a traveller who’s stopped to take a refreshing drink from it, and is told by a local householder that the saint often drank from and blessed this well, and ‘laid on the water a spell’:

‘If the husband of this gifted well/shall drink before his wife,/A happy man thenceforth is he,/for he shall be master for life.’

But St Keyne’s wish had been for equality for women. The man’s tale therefore continues:

‘But if the wife should drink of it first,/God help the husband then!’

Asked if he was drinking this water before his wife, the traveller says he left her by the church porch as soon as they were wed: ‘but i’faith, she had been wiser than me/for she took a bottle to church.’

Serves him right.

Broadhurst goes on to say that the local custom of drinking this well water for luck persisted into early modern times. The well was then rebuilt in granite, as it had begun to deteriorate.

Gate post

Here’s another picturesque gate post

I’ll end with some more images from the last couple of days’ walks.

Today I saw a great spotted woodpecker, furtively shielding himself behind a tree trunk high up when he saw me. Then a jay, standing by the side of the lane; it took off into the trees at my approach. The same trees where the other day a man told me he was engaged in a stand-off with a squirrel.

White bluebellsThese white bluebells (whitebells?) grow profusely in the wood above our house (soon it will be a violet-blue haze of proper bluebells).

As I went to cross a stile to access a footpath that crosses a field, I noticed this delightful little message. Our health service has been under unprecedented pressure during this virus outbreak, and the people have started posting images of rainbows in their windows, not just to thank NHS workers and other carers and services, but as a message of hope. How nice that someone thought to put this little rainbow on a stone in such a remote (but fairly well-trodden) spot.


NHS stile

Here’s a shot of the stile with the painted stone just in front and to the left, on a step

NHS message

19 thoughts on “Whitebells, St Keyne, the NHS, and a woodpecker

  1. Thanks Simon. I know that NHS is not ideal, but one of the most stressful things about living in the US right now is hanging onto your job by a thread, and knowing that if you get laid off, you lose your health insurance with very few options. a.) COBRA (a temporary and expense self-buy); no insurance, so that if you get sick, they will basically leave you to die in the emergency roomparking lot, or the “Obamacare” we have now, that Trump is STILL doing everything he can to sabotage.

    They want to replace it with these “bargain basement” plans that would barely cover anything. It is virtually certain that medical bankruptices will soar.

    Sorry to be a downer, I am trying to just take one day at a time. I hope the Republican party is destroyed in the next election

    • Maureen: our NHS isn’t perfect, and under the Tories has been viciously underfunded for 10 years, but it’s still fantastic. Under huge strain now, of course, and the so-called ‘austerity’ cuts now show up glaringly.

    • It probably isn’t any comfort to you, Maureen, but amongst my friends here in Australia there is real concern about the US failure to provide health care for everyone. We hear stories that break our hearts…

    • It’s frustrating hearing tame ministers spouting the Cummings mantras every evening on the press conferences while dodging questions about their failure to act promptly. As for ‘herd immunity’ – sums up their view of humanity. Our daughter works in the NHS (and so do I and Mrs TD on occasion) and it makes me sick how the workers in it are expected to risk their lives – and those of their families – while those supposedly in charge dither and bluster and smirk

  2. Both my nephew and my nephew-in-law are RNs (i.e. registered nurses), and while here in California, we haven’t hit out peak yet, I’m scared to death for them.

    On a brighter note, I love these proxy rambles in the Cornish countryside. It was my favorite locale when I visited England twenty or more years ago. Coincidentally, a company that I sent my dna to for testing came up with a revised and more precise analysis/map of my ancestry. I guessed I had over 90% British Isles ancestry on my father’s side (and that was true), but I now show as 5% Cornish! I was very excited to see that.

    • Paula – people who care for the sick are putting themselves at risk for our sakes. They deserve better support from the politicians. How exciting to find you’re part Cornish! My Celtic blood comes from Ireland. I’m glad you like these rambling posts.

      • Well, I have Irish and Scottish (mostly Scottish, actually) ancestry, too! I think the only Celtic blood I don’t have is Welsh…and Manx? But I was really excited to see that Cornish percentage.

        In my dna map of the UK, I have dark areas in Scotland and the counties on that border, Northern Ireland, and Cornwall. I have lighter areas in the Republic of Ireland and the Southeast of England. The middle (Midlands?) is completely white. I come from the edges! So, appropriately I live on the edge of a continent now. Itchy feet in my blood (o.k. that’s a weird mixed metaphor)? Keep moving west. As H. L. Mencken said: “It’s like the whole country is tilted west, and everything loose rolled into California.”

  3. When I was a child living in St Agnes, we were always being warned not to go wandering in the fields in case we fell down an old tin mine that hadn’t been filled in properly.
    We were never warned about any wells!

  4. I’m pleased that people enjoyed seeing my NHS stone,more Art work on Coosebean to Newmills ,also in the Woods. nearby.
    John Rowe.

    • John: so it was you! Thanks so much for getting in touch. Were you responsible for the fairy houses/hospitals on the trees? We passed a friend on one of our walks and her little girl & boy were thrilled by them. What a great tribute your stone was. What’s the significance of the number on it?

      • Hi.
        Yes I’m responsible for all the Fairy Houses, 8 in total, also the painted rainbow trout at millbrook coosebean.
        The numbers 1255 are my son Lee’s lock code.
        12 letter is L and 5 is E.
        He died almost 3 years ago
        From Miloma a rare type of Cancer aged 45.
        We also have Blog JRandSue.

        • Thanks for confirming that, John, and for your art works. They cheer us up every time we see them. And the newish one with St James on the front. Sorry to hear about your son. Will look for your blog.

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