Yesterday, Phoebe and I set off on an adventure. Our quest was to find Cae Thomas’ Holy Well near Llanveynoe. Rumour had it that this beautiful natural spring was to be found somewhere in the mystical Olchon Valley of the Black Mountains on the border between Herefordshire and Wales. So far no-one we knew had been able to find it. Local folklore has it that the water has special healing properties and is particularly good for rheumatism and strengthening weak eyes and this was good enough incentive for me. Perhaps it would be good for my gammy hip and maybe I’d even be able to read the small print on labels after a draft of the elusive water.
So, armed with an OS map and a sketchy description from on elderly guide book on the Holy Wells of Herefordshire, we set off. Phoebe was as excited as me and had prepared a bag of provisions – a bottle to put some water in, some extra strong mints and a bag of jelly babies – excellent emergency rations!
We drove off up Long Lane in the direction that leads away from civilisation and into the mountains. I love this route – turn right at Bob Shop, through Michaelchurch Escley and then dipping down into the valley of the River Monnow. The verges of the narrow lanes spilled over with wildflowers – purple vetch, the magenta of rosebay willow herb and the frothy cream flowers of meadowsweet, to name but a few. Amongst these, waved the golden fronds of tall grasses bleached by the August sunshine. We passed quaint cottages with flower filled gardens, tumbled down stone ruins, glossy red post boxes set into garden walls, each turn in the road unveiling a scene more beautiful than the last. Rounding a bend, the imposing ridge of Black Darren reared up in front of us. Round another bend we were treated to a lovely view of the craggy end of the Cat’s Back Mountain, also known as the Black Hill, made famous in Bruce Chatwin’s novel.
Now entering the Olchon Valley and crossing the Olchon Brook, we kept a beady eye out for anything that might resemble the description in the book.
‘Ooh, hang on, that tiny little gate might be promising. It’s not big enough to get a tractor through and why else would you have a gate only big enough for pedestrians going into a field?’ I asked Phoebe. She thought it looked like a good bet too. I squeezed the car off the narrow lane into another gateway, hoping that we wouldn’t meet an irate farmer wondering what we were up to. But I needn’t have worried – there was not another soul about. We went through the little gate and hearing the sound of running water, thought that we must be onto something. Going through another small gate, we found ourselves at a beautiful waterfall flowing into a pool. We sat and enjoyed this lovely place for a few minutes. Phoebe was keen to fill her water bottle, but I was sure that we hadn’t found the right place. So near and yet so far. How frustrating.
We started making our way back towards the car to try again further along the road. I pondered about the little gate and then something made me stop and turn around. This time I noticed another gate off to our left. Not a small gate this time, a full size farm gate, but it was propped across a gap that again wasn’t big enough for vehicles. Phoebe got really excited by this and ran back ahead of me. I heard a shout as she disappeared round the corner.
‘This is it Mum. I can see the enamel cup hanging from the tree with the initials carved into it, just like it said in the book!’ We had found it at last. I negotiated the broken wooden gate and immediately, the atmosphere changed completely. It was serene, peaceful and welcoming. The vegetation was somehow different here too – short neat grass, soft moss and shamrocks, gave the impression of a magical garden. A three-limbed ash tree grew out of a rock above a little pool, into which the spring was merrily gurgling. The water in the pool was crystal clear and very inviting. The ancient enamelled cup hung from this tree, left there by some thoughtful person who would like others to enjoy the spring. With great reverence, we took it in turns to have a drink from the cup, and to bathe our eyes and feet. The water from the spring was the sweetest and freshest I’ve ever tasted. We stayed and enjoyed the atmosphere of the Cae Thomas’ Well for a while before saying a little prayer of thanks for such a lovely place and hoping that it always stays as unspoilt as this.
We returned to the car, feeling refreshed, soothed and very satisfied that we had accomplished our mission to visit such a beautiful and magical place.