Authenticity, Sacredness and Plastic Bags

Last week was awash with celebrations – a birthday, an anniversary, a day out, a tie-dye party and BBQ and a good friend staying for the weekend. Between all that and the inevitable exhaustion, I had no time or energy for blogging but I’ve been itching to tell you about the day out.

Last Tuesday, for my partner’s birthday, we visited the gorgeous Virtuous Well over in Trellech.

Kirsty Hall, photograph of The Virtuous Well, Trellech
Kirsty Hall: The Virtuous Well, August 2008

Once one of the major towns in medieval Wales, Trellech is now a small but archaelogically fascinating village about a 45 minute drive from us. We’d discovered the well quite by accident the previous week after a visit to Tintern Abbey and we decided to go back with a picnic because we’d fallen in love with the place and we wanted to find the standing stones that had eluded us the week before.

The Virtuous Well or St Anne’s Well is a Christianised well almost certainly built over a Celtic sacred spring. It’s a lovely place; it’s in a field just off a country road but it feels about a million miles from anywhere. You can walk down into the well and sit on little stone seats while you soak up the atmosphere. There are little alcoves where you can leave offerings – on the first visit I picked buttercups from the field, this time we brought sweet peas from our garden.

The water contains iron, which may be responsible for its reputed medicinal qualities. The water was thought to be especially good for ‘complaints particular to women’, which would make sense if the woman in question was anaemic from endless pregnancies and breastfeeding.

Above the well, people have festooned a tree with fabric offerings.

Kirsty Hall, photograph of fabric offerings at The Virtuous Well, Trellech
Kirsty Hall: Offerings at The Virtuous Well, August 2008

This is a very old British custom: tying pieces of cloth called clooties or clouties onto trees beside sacred wells is believed to have Celtic origins.

Originally people would leave pieces of clothing that had been soaked in the well water in the belief that their ailment would pass from them as the cloth rotted. These days, a more eclectic variety of (mostly) fabric offerings are left. I noted a plethora of ribbons and strips of torn cloth interspersed with more unusual items including scarves; a pair of underpants; socks; a martial arts belt; a ceramic medallion; hollow blown eggs; a hand-crocheted flower; numerous hair decorations; strings of beads; shoelaces; knotted plastic bags; the remnants of a balloon; bright yellow fruit netting; a Tibetan prayer flag and even a cuddly toy. They were all knotted and tied together in what I felt was a genuine outpouring of decorative and sacred expression.

Kirsty Hall, photograph of fabric offerings at The Virtuous Well, Trellech
Kirsty Hall: Offerings at The Virtuous Well, August 2008

Kirsty Hall, photograph of fabric offerings at The Virtuous Well, Trellech
Kirsty Hall: Offerings at The Virtuous Well, August 2008

Kirsty Hall, photograph of fabric offerings at The Virtuous Well, Trellech
Kirsty Hall: Offerings at The Virtuous Well, August 2008

Kirsty Hall, photograph of fabric offerings at The Virtuous Well, Trellech
Kirsty Hall: Offerings at The Virtuous Well, August 2008

Kirsty Hall, photograph of fabric offerings at The Virtuous Well, Trellech
Kirsty Hall: Offerings at The Virtuous Well, August 2008

I read one review of the well that decried the modern cloutie rags because some of the fabric is man-made. But I loved them all. There’s a raw honesty to this sort of spontaneous folk installation that I find very appealing.

While it might be better if people thought ahead and brought biodegradable offerings, I love that people aren’t constrained by what might be thought as proper but instead offer the item that they are moved to leave. While many of the offerings have obviously been deliberately chosen, I suspect that many people find the well by accident and leave what they have on them in an instinctive response to the existing offerings. It certainly explains the hair ties and beads.

And really, who cares if it isn’t ‘authentic’? It’s far more important to me that this place is still in ceremonial use. And who gets to define authenticity anyway? Perhaps the person leaving a sock was genuinely trying to heal their foot? Perhaps the grimy, slowly rotting underpants were originally part of a fertility ritual! There was no graffiti on or near the well and there was no rubbish lying around. Everything that had been left had been done so neatly, carefully and reverently. Sure, some of the offerings could be seen as irreverent but the way they were placed suggested that they weren’t. Surely authenticity isn’t something that’s set in stone but is, instead, a reflection of what people actually do.

Should I have gone and removed all the artificial objects from the tree in a futile longing for some sort of sacred or environmental purity? I don’t have that right. And I simply don’t want to. If folk customs such as leaving rags at wells are not to fade into obscurity then I think we need to accept that they will change and that some people will leave cotton Tibetan prayer flags while others will leave neatly tied plastic bags. And taking the long view, perhaps one day future archaeologists will unearth ‘inauthentic’ plastic beads and fragments of polyester ribbon that have fallen from the tree and been buried in the earth and they will know that this was once a sacred well. For all its wonderful qualities, cloth made from natural fibres is in pretty short supply in archaeology, especially in somewhere as damp as Britain.

The well, in all its splendidly inauthentic authenticity, is a very special place and one we plan to return to regularly. On our first visit – when we couldn’t find the very large, extremely phallic and quite hard to miss Harold’s Stones – it really felt as though we were meant to find the well instead. If we’d visited the stones as we’d planned, we wouldn’t have had time to visit the well and might never have returned to discover this little gem.

Oh, and one last funny thing – when I was checking on Flickr to see if there were any other photos of the well, the first image to appear on my screen happened to be this photograph of my friend Ally, taken by another friend, Camilla. Having found the well by sheer coincidence in the first place, I laughed and laughed…

About Kirsty

I am an artist & purveyor of mad obsessive projects based in Hebden Bridge, England. My work involves the accretion of large numbers of small objects - pins in fabric, knots in string or hundreds of envelopes - to make sculptures that deal with fragility, loss, repetition, obsession and time.

22 Comments

  1. great post! And super photos.

    [Reply]

  2. great post! And super photos.

    [Reply]

  3. The eggs were there when we visited in April- did you find the stones and the tump? I made friends with a pony there- it was a lovely day out .

    [Reply]

  4. The eggs were there when we visited in April- did you find the stones and the tump? I made friends with a pony there- it was a lovely day out .

    [Reply]

  5. Thanks Kate, I’m glad you liked them.

    [Reply]

  6. Thanks Kate, I’m glad you liked them.

    [Reply]

  7. I figured someone had added them at Easter. We didn’t see the tump but we did visit the stones, which was also fun. I did a bit of a rude dance around them with a bottle of cider!

    [Reply]

  8. I figured someone had added them at Easter. We didn’t see the tump but we did visit the stones, which was also fun. I did a bit of a rude dance around them with a bottle of cider!

    [Reply]

  9. Pingback: Authenticity and its discontents « Cat Vincent’s Oddities and Mutterings

  10. Beautiful photos.

    In Mediterranean countries, people leave little tin votive plaques of feet and so on at shrines in thanks for healing (a custom that goes back to ancient pagan times) – the sock and the underpants seem similar. The trees at the Chalice Well in Glastonbury also have offerings on them; I think it looks pretty.

    [Reply]

  11. Beautiful photos.

    In Mediterranean countries, people leave little tin votive plaques of feet and so on at shrines in thanks for healing (a custom that goes back to ancient pagan times) – the sock and the underpants seem similar. The trees at the Chalice Well in Glastonbury also have offerings on them; I think it looks pretty.

    [Reply]

  12. Wow– you really captured some wonderful details at the well. It is a magical place!

    [Reply]

  13. Wow– you really captured some wonderful details at the well. It is a magical place!

    [Reply]

  14. Hi Kirsty, are you happy for MetaPagan (Pagan blog aggregator I co-run) to link to your blog-posts? Not all of them, just the ones that might be of interest to Pagan peeps. The feed looks like this. You can also post your own contributions if you have a Delicious account.

    [Reply]

  15. Hi Kirsty, are you happy for MetaPagan (Pagan blog aggregator I co-run) to link to your blog-posts? Not all of them, just the ones that might be of interest to Pagan peeps. The feed looks like this. You can also post your own contributions if you have a Delicious account.

    [Reply]

  16. Pingback: Recent Links Tagged With "plasticbags" - JabberTags

  17. Its a great post and useful also because today everybody want to buy shopping goods online.
    Thanks for such an helpful post.

    [Reply]

  18. Its a great post and useful also because today everybody want to buy shopping goods online.
    Thanks for such an helpful post.

    [Reply]

  19. Hello kirsty. I’m glad you and others like ur sacred well here in Trelleck, Monmouth. The eggs you noticed are left on the tree’s as an offering at the Sabbat of Ostara. I’m glad also you didn’t remove any of the offerings to our Black Goddess Annis, who is the Goddess of the sacred well; as the offerings , both Christian and pagan are sacred offerings. The well and the whole area is very sacred and tells the story of the Divine Drama.. that of the Goddess and the God. the Well is of female energy, that of the Goddess, the womb. the three Harold stones some 4mins walk away, are aligned to the winter solstice and the three stones symbolise the AWEN, the triple rays that represent the Equinoxes and the Solstices. The rays face outtowards the sacred Mound, the symbol , like that of Glastonbury Tor, of the Goddess and her womb. Just ahead of the mound, is the Druidic altar, that also faces North in the Churchyard of our Parish Church of St Nicholas. The altar represents the Goddess and “woman”, for in the old days, woman was the altar, the origin of all things. I hope that is of help to you and hope you visit the sacred well again. I am pleased to say the well , and also the Harold Stones are often used ceremonial by both us Witches, Druids and our brothers and sisters of the Christian tradition. I led personally an interfaith ceremony at the Harold Stones at the Litha Sabbat (Summer Solstice) in 1994, which was broadcast live on BBC Radio Wales. The area is truly magickal and my husbands family are all from the area, and the tales of the area are very powerful and truly inspiring to us as a Celtic people. Anyway, thanks for promoting our sacred well and do visit it often!

    Blessed Be.

    Julian Riley BA.Th
    High Priest of the HomoMoot
    http://www.sorchartarot.com/hommoot
    homomoot@aol.com

    [Reply]

  20. Hello kirsty. I’m glad you and others like ur sacred well here in Trelleck, Monmouth. The eggs you noticed are left on the tree’s as an offering at the Sabbat of Ostara. I’m glad also you didn’t remove any of the offerings to our Black Goddess Annis, who is the Goddess of the sacred well; as the offerings , both Christian and pagan are sacred offerings. The well and the whole area is very sacred and tells the story of the Divine Drama.. that of the Goddess and the God. the Well is of female energy, that of the Goddess, the womb. the three Harold stones some 4mins walk away, are aligned to the winter solstice and the three stones symbolise the AWEN, the triple rays that represent the Equinoxes and the Solstices. The rays face outtowards the sacred Mound, the symbol , like that of Glastonbury Tor, of the Goddess and her womb. Just ahead of the mound, is the Druidic altar, that also faces North in the Churchyard of our Parish Church of St Nicholas. The altar represents the Goddess and “woman”, for in the old days, woman was the altar, the origin of all things. I hope that is of help to you and hope you visit the sacred well again. I am pleased to say the well , and also the Harold Stones are often used ceremonial by both us Witches, Druids and our brothers and sisters of the Christian tradition. I led personally an interfaith ceremony at the Harold Stones at the Litha Sabbat (Summer Solstice) in 1994, which was broadcast live on BBC Radio Wales. The area is truly magickal and my husbands family are all from the area, and the tales of the area are very powerful and truly inspiring to us as a Celtic people. Anyway, thanks for promoting our sacred well and do visit it often!

    Blessed Be.

    Julian Riley BA.Th
    High Priest of the HomoMoot
    http://www.sorchartarot.com/hommoot
    homomoot@aol.com

    [Reply]

  21. Pingback: Meadow « Kirsty Hall

  22. Yep! I was agreed, I’ll keep in touch to your blog. This blog is so usefully, Thanks for the posted ;)

    [Reply]

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