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2215: St Winefride's Well, Holywell, Flintshire, North Wales
St Winefrides Holywell (Exterior) Photo: Nabokov
Mystery Worshipper: Torold.
The church: St Winefride's Well, Holywell, Flintshire, North Wales.
Denomination: Roman Catholic, Diocese of Wrexham.
The building: A late 15th century stone vaulted Perpendicular Gothic building of unique appearance that houses the well of St Winefride. There are two floors: the well chamber, a central basin in the shape of a truncated eight-pointed star into which flows a spring of clear water; and the chapel, consisting of a north aisle and an apsidal chancel. Each floor has a separate entrance; the stairway that once linked the two floors is now blocked. The well chamber is enclosed by a low wall with columns that form an elaborately ornamented vault of complex design. The water flows away beneath the surrounding walkway into a rather chilly pool (the water temperature remains a constant 50 degrees Fahrenheit year round) that pilgrims can step into. The only modern touch is a row of brightly coloured tents where pilgrims may change their clothes. The nearby former custodian's cottage now houses a museum.
The church: The legend of St Winefride dates from the 7th century and relates how the young Prince Caradoc stopped at Winefride's house one day to ask for a drink of water. When he tried to force his attentions on the girl, she ran away but was caught by the prince and beheaded. The earth opened and swallowed Caradoc at the spot where the girl's head fell, and a fountain of pure water gushed forth. (Some, however, say that the Romans had known about a well on the site.) Winefride's uncle, a monk named Beuno, happened upon the scene and reattached the girl's head, whereupon she came back to life. Winefride went on to found a convent and lived for another 22 years. Stories of miracle cures experienced by pilgrims who bathed in the fountain began to circulate in the 12th century. St Winefride's Well is often called the Lourdes of Wales and is the oldest continually visited pilgrimage site in Great Britain, despite efforts by Henry VIII and others to put a stop to the "Papist superstition". For years, the shrine has been the focus for visitors of all traditions, not just Roman Catholic. The gift shop is the main draw for non-Catholics because of the vast range of religious items and souvenirs on sale.
The neighbourhood: Holywell, in North Wales, was an important lead and copper mining town in the 18th century. Today's Holywell is a small market town, with many fine old Georgian buildings along the high street. The surrounding area is known for an abundance of birds and butterflies. There are some fine views across the Dee estuary toward Wirral.
The cast: The Rt Revd Edwin Regan, Bishop of Wrexham, was the celebrant and preacher.
The date & time: Solemnity of Corpus Christi, 26 June 2011, 3.00pm.

What was the name of the service?
Procession and Concelebrated Mass for National Pilgrimage to St Winefride's Well.

How full was the building?
Bulging at the seams! Standing room only.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Not exactly. However, it is an open air event so there was plenty of smiling and waving in the general melee.

Was your pew comfortable?
The grass was quite comfortable, albeit rather damp in places. I also sat on the perimeter wall that surrounds the shrine gardens.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Party atmosphere, a gathering of the clans and a general hubbub, the travelling fraternity being present in vast numbers at this occasion.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Printed service sheet and hymn sheet.

What musical instruments were played?
Keyboard, valiantly played. How the lady kept going, as her music was blown about in the breeze, I'll never know!

Did anything distract you?
As we processed behind the Blessed Sacrament, Protestant reformers were out in force channeling, I suppose, Henry VIII, shouting the odds and waving their placards about: "No Popery!" "Down with idolatry." But all we did was to sing louder! I waved a brolly at them in defiance. My attention was also drawn to the nubile, scantily-clad, ample-chested totty of the travelling fraternity, one in particular who had waist-length red hair. Babies squalled. Youngsters ran around throwing water at each other in an attempt to cool off in the baking surroundings.

t Winefrides Holywell (Grounds)
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Where do I start? The Blessed Sacrament procession formed up outside the church of St Winefride in the town centre. We wended our way down toward the well gardens, pausing every now and again for the Stations, singing as we went all the old Latin favourites: Tantum ergo Sacramentum, O Salutaris Hostia, Pange linqua gloriosi, etc. The bejewelled monstrance led the way, flanked by acolytes, censer, and the clergy in procession. As we walked, we were gently bathed by the scent of wild garlic and lime trees in the valley, commingling with the incense. Once we arrived at the shrine, the mass itself was nice and folksy!

Exactly how long was the sermon?
10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – Using his notes, the bishop was amusing and interesting.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
How do you view the mass today? Is the Sacrament relevant in your life?

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The old Latin hymns took me back to my school days when we had benediction in the school chapel. Also, one of the hymns was to the tune "The Ash Grove". It made me smile to remember it also accompanied "The Mayor of Bayswater", a rather risqué rugby song!

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
From my vantage point sitting by the wall adjacent to the main gate, a steady stream of people in and out caused me some discomfort because the metal gate would bang against me. And the people were only going out to have a quick ciggy!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
At the end of the service, before the bishop's final blessing, we were informed by the bishop's chaplain that if we were thirsty after all the singing, we would find refreshments at the shrine cafe.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
As I made my way back to town, I accosted a smiling cleric who reminded me of Friar Tuck. "Have you been up to the school?" he asked. "If you're quick you might find some refreshments left." I hastened up to the school and found cakes, sandwiches, scones – a veritable feast! However, it had all been removed to the kitchen area where ladies were washing up. I asked politely if I could have a sandwich as I was very hungry. A lady with her hands in the washing-up water gave me a frosty look, making me feel as though I should not even be there. I was minding my manners, though. This pilgrim was hungry and there were plenty of leftovers. I did manage to get a sandwich after all.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – This was a one-off occasion for me and for many, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes.

t Winefrides Holywell (Well)

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The scent of wild garlic and the smell of the lime trees along the Greenfield Valley.
 
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