I want to share with you a sweet little legend about a sweet little well that’s hidden in an almost magical woodland in the very corner of south west England.
It’s called the Well of Saint Keyne and my aunt took me there on a drab Christmas Eve morning. On the way she told me of my great grandfather and how he restored the stonework many decades ago.
The well is wholly camouflaged behind a row of ferns and moss covered rocks and tucked neatly on the corner of two narrow laneways. There is a gap in the shrubbery and stone steps invite me down to the fount. It is but four feet tall, with an arch doorway and heavy handed masonry.
The spot is overgrown with creepers and fronds and more moss, yet somehow it is perfect. It is enchanted. The brickwork is grey, the day is grey, but it is alive with a hundred shades of green and the songs of birds and rain drops which tumble from the leaves of overhanging elms.
Normally the well is filled by a natural spring below. When I visit, it is overflowing with misty floodwater that has saturated the whole of Cornwall. Opposite the well is a plaque.“Rebuilt by Liskeard Old Cornwall Society AD 1936.” I look down and imagine my great grandfather laying the stone upon which I stand.
There’s another message at the well. A verse engraved in stone. It’s hard to make out.
“Saint Keyne was a princess who lived about 600 AD. She laid on the waters of this well a spell thus described by Carew in 1602 AD. ‘The quality that man or wife whom chance or choice attains first of this sacred spring to drink thereby the mastery gain.'”
And so the legend goes that immediately after a wedding ceremony, newlyweds race from the church to the well to be the first to drink from the enchanted well. Whoever drinks first gains the upper hand in the relationship. Or as my aunt explained, will forever “wear the pants in the relationship.”
The husband usually wins, primarily because he doesn’t have to wrestle with high heels and a large white dress. But one bride famously did outsmart the legend. She had her Maid of Honour fetch a flask of the elixir before the wedding and as soon as the priest announced the pair “man and wife”, she grabbed the flask and sculled it. “Ha!” she cried, “Now kiss me.”
The story of Saint Keyne is pretty fascinating as well. She was a holy woman of royal blood who lived in the late 5th century. She was also incredibly beautiful. She went around the countryside founding sites and churches, performing good deeds and miracles, and rejecting dozens of distinguished men who asked for her hand in marriage. She lived in the area for a while and the locals loved her so much that when she left, they named a church and the well in her honour. Around the well, she planted four trees – an oak, an elm, a willow and an ash. The elm and ash trees remain. It’s not an entirely happy ending though. History has it she died a virgin.
Now, I must remember to ask my aunt to fetch a flask for me one day…
In the meantime, read this – Poet Robert Southey recounts the legend with much eloquence than I ever could.
The Well of St Keyne
A well there is in the west country,
And a clearer one never was seen;
There is not a wife in the west-country
But has heard of the Well of St. Keyne.
An oak and an elm tree stand beside,
And behind does an ash tree grow,
And a willow from the bank above
Droops to the water below.
A traveller came to the Well of St. Keyne:
Pleasant it was to his eye,
For from cock-crow he had been travelling
And there was not a cloud in the sky.
He drank of the water so cool and clear,
For thirsty and hot was he,
And he sat down upon the bank,
Under the willow tree.
There came a man from the neighbouring town
At the well to fill his pail;
On the well-side he rested it,
And bade the stranger hail.
“Now, art thou a bachelor, stranger?” quoth he,
“For an if thou hast a wife,
The happiest draught thou hast drunk this day
That ever thou didst in thy life.
“Or has your good woman, if one you have,
In Cornwall ever been?
For an if she have, I’ll venture my life
She has drunk of the Well of St. Keyne.”
“I have left a good woman who never was here,”
The stranger he made reply;
“But that my draught should be better for that,
I pray you answer me why,”
“St. Keyne,” quoth the countryman,
“many a time Drank of this crystal well,
And before the angel summoned her
She 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 if the wife should drink of it first,
God help the husband then!”
The stranger stoop’d to the Well of St. Keyne,
And drank of the waters again.
“You drank of the well, I warrant, betimes?”
He to the countryman said;
But the countryman smiled as the stranger spake,
And sheepishly shook his head.
“I hastened as soon as the wedding was done,
And left my wife in the porch,
But i’ faith she had been wiser than me,
For she took a bottle to church.”