Pennant and Llandegla

Julie Brominicks (author of The Edge of Cymru: A Journey)

FROM Tommen y Rhodwydd I crossed the country for about two miles to the village of Llandegla, noted for its vast fairs for black cattle. The church is dedicated to St. Tecla, virgin and martyr; who, after her conversion by St. Paul, suffered under Nero at Iconium. (Thomas Pennant, 1778)

I would have loved to see Llandegla in Pennant’s day when no fewer than five drovers’ roads met in the village. The drovers rested here on their way to the London markets, having already walked cattle, sheep, pigs and geese from farms further north and west. The ‘vast fairs for black cattle’ Pennant refers to, took place at a market outside The Crown Hotel. The Crown is closed, but is still there on the A525, looking rather forlorn. It’s where I alight from my bus (the X51) which runs frequently between Wrecsam and Dinbych, but since mid-January 2024, no longer calls right into the village.

Save for the postie doing his rounds, Llandegla is mousy quiet. It’s hard to imagine the smell of muck and sweat and straw and beer. Or conjure up the bleats and grunts, the conversation and shouts, as the animals were led to grazing. Or the sparks and ringing of iron at the forges in the three smithies where animals were shod and farm machinery crafted. One smithy remains – in name only, save for horseshoes around the door. The drovers’ thirst was slaked in sixteen pubs. Imagine that! Now there are none.

But hospitality is still alive and well. The community village shop and café is a convivial hub with photographs of the old cattle days on the walls, a pleasant fug of breakfast-cooking and a good selection of groceries. When I visit, the coffee machine is being repaired, there are frosted pink cupcakes to celebrate Dydd Santes Dwynwen on the counter, and Jasmine – who serves me tea and a traybake – proves to be an excellent source of local knowledge.

I am here to blog for Cyngor Sir Ddinbych about walks from bus stops to interesting places. It is Jasmine who confirms that the circuitous route I will walk to the well, heading north past the church on Llwybr Clawdd Offa along Afon Alyn, then left along lanes back to the village, is a good one. A gentle one, regularly used by villagers, no less. She assures me that the roads are quiet and the verges, in summer, are abundant in wildflowers. And that is indeed the case (though being January, I have to imagine the flowers). I duly meander along the banks of Afon Alyn and down sweetly curving lanes on which the only traffic is a quadbike bumping into a field (and an ambush of wrens).

If you are short of time, you can visit the well directly, which is after all, just at the edge of the village on the banks of Afon Alyn. A sense of something quiet and ancient and sacred awaits you there. Sequestered by a thicket of thorn, the well is a square of water that snares the trees’ reflection. For centuries it has shone between these stones constructed carefully around a spring in an alder grove. The water, albeit leaf-clogged, is clear. Pennant describes it thus:

ABOUT two hundred yards from the church, in a quillet called Gwern Degla, rises a small spring, with these letters cut on free-stone: A. G […]: G.ST. TECLAS’S WELL.

The letters on the stones are no longer discernible, or at least not by me. His description is rather brief. Seems that Pennant was more absorbed by what people did at the well, than the landscape in which it sits. This is hardly surprising, their antics take some beating. Over to Pennant:

The water is under the tutelage of the saint; and to this day held to be extremely beneficial in the Clwyf Tegla, St. Tecla’s disease, or the falling-sickness. The patient washes his limbs in the well; makes an offering into it of four pence; walks round it three times; and thrice repeats the Lord’s prayer. These ceremonies are never begun till after sun-set, in order to inspire the votaries with greater awe. If the afflicted be of the male-sex, like Socrates, he makes an of­fering of a cock to his Aesculapius, or rather to Tecla Hygeia; if of the fair-sex, a hen. The fowl is carried in a basket, first round the well; after that into the church-yard; when the same orisons, and the same circum-ambulations are performed round the church.

At this point I’m going to interrupt Pennant, leave the church and the chickens till later, and dwell at the well a while longer. There have been several only slightly-varying accounts of the ceremony Pennant describes over the years. Phil Cope summarises them in his book The Living Wells of Wales (Seren Books 2019.)

According to Cope you had to visit the well on a Friday night after sunset. He says some accounts report that you had to walk around the well (and then the church) nine rather than three times. A rather concerning addition (from an animal rights perspective), is this:

‘The unfortunate bird would then be pricked with a sharp pin which was thrown into the waters, after which a groat would be paid to the parish clerk.’

Yet more accounts of the ceremony are rounded up on the Well Hopper blog (www.wellhopper.wales/2011/06/13/st-teglas-well-llandegla). Among them is a claim that the well was excavated in the 1930s by Alwyn D Rees, who beneath it found two distinct layers. The lower layer contained a number of white pebbles and calcite, consistent with other holy well sites, while the upper layer contained a large number of 18th and 19th century coins – and wait for it – pins. It’s not looking good for the chickens.

So let’s get this straight. Epilepsy (and scrofula) sufferers hoping to be healed would take a chicken to the well, walk around it three times reciting the Lord’s Prayer, stick a pin in the chicken and then throw the pin in the water. Crikey! They must have bound the fowl’s feet. I for one, would not try sticking a pin in an indignant hen – much less an angry cockerel.

The atmosphere here today is less chaotic, and redolent of those swampy dells you find in Cornwall and Ireland, that seem to have remained unchanged and sacred for centuries. Meanwhile, having brought neither hen nor pin, and nevertheless feeling the need to mark the occasion in some way, I circumnavigate the well three times and recite the Lord’s Prayer – but only once, and quite badly.

Continuing a tradition of throwing metal into water that began in the Iron Age, I toss in a pound coin and it sinks straight away into the leaf mulch. But my offering is neither superstitious nor religious, but rather made from guilty remembrance that me and my friend Katy used to raid the fountain in Shrewsbury shopping centre for twenty-pence pieces and that’s not the worst of it. Before spending our booty on chocolate we would then dry our hands on the clothes in C&A.

Time to head for the church, which is lovely, despite (having shut the outer door behind me before locating the latch of the inner door) a dark moment in the porch with the brooms. The altar window has a pleasing brown tint that reminds me of seventies tea plates. A kitchenette at the back invites visitors to make themselves tea, and a Henry Hoover peeps around the vestibule door.

It is a good place to pause and reflect on the saint to whom both the church and well are dedicated. Tegla. Or Tecla. Or Thecla. According to the New World Encyclopaedia, Thecla was a follower of St Paul and is mentioned in one of the writings of the New Testament where it is claimed, her devotion was ‘rewarded by miraculous signs including several dramatic rescues from martyrdom by fire and wild beasts.’ She was venerated widely in late antiquity and is recognised today by both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. So how did she end up in Cymru? Another theory is that our Tegla was a local saint about whom we now know nothing at all.

Or as Phil Cope writes: ‘Tristan Gray Hulse has argued that “The identity of the Welsh saint Tegla was so far forgotten at Llandegla by the high middle ages that she was apparently identified … with the possibly apocryphal but certainly far more famous first-century saint Thecla of Iconium.”’

I’m afraid those waters of understanding remain a little unclear. Back then, to the chickens. Here’s what Pennant said people did, after circling the well and the outside of the church.

The votary then enters the church; gets under the communion-table; lies down with the Bible under his or her head; is covered with the carpet or cloth, and rests there till break of day; departing after offering six pence, and leaving the fowl in the church. If the bird dies, the cure is supposed to have been effected, and the disease transferred to the devoted victim.

Phil Cope fleshes out the details by explaining that at daybreak, the afflicted person blew into the beak of the fowl. He goes onto include a quote from American journalist Wirt Sykes who wrote a number of pieces about Welsh folklore during his time living in Caerdydd as US Consol.

“The parish clerk of Llandegla in 1855 said that an old man of his acquaintance ‘remembered quite well seeing the birds staggering about from the effects of the fits’ which had been transferred to them.”  

Apparently, this whole glorious and completely bonkers mish-mash of Pagan and Christian beliefs, is an example of ‘scapegoating.’ I knew the chickens would cop it.

Anyhow, I am here on a Thursday morning rather than Friday evening, so there will be no sleeping under the altar for me. Instead I make my way back to The Crown through the exceedingly peaceful village of Llandegla, reflecting, while I wait for my bus, that it was not always thus.