St Winefride’s Well, Holywell, Flintshire

Was it everything I said?

I can’t resist a good well. I’ve listened to all sorts in my time, from secret springs in woodland grottos to echoing concrete baths with creaky taps. But never anything remotely like St Winefride’s well. As a well, it was on a scale beyond anything I’d ever seen before; as a shrine, it was a similar experience to visiting Knock, the main Marian shrine in Ireland. 

Votive Candles

I loved St Winefride’s well. I loved the damp-infused stone of the intricately carved pillars and the emerald green of the water. I loved the votive candles and the collection of discarded crutches and walking sticks. But I didn’t get much listening done. The problem was that one of the guides just would not stop talking. It was all good and fitting stuff: history of the well, problems with funding and maintenance, visitors that lacked the appropriate piety, his aunt’s bad back and so on. He’d pinned a couple to the bench in the main well house. They were discussing the state of the A55 and the man looked over at me, desperately trying to draw me into the conversation: “What did I think of the A55?” he enquired of me.

I knew what he was up to. Get the guide’s attention on me so that they could do a crafty runner. The stakes were high. How could I get out of it? I waited for inspiration, but none came. Then… something… a glimmer of a plan formed in my mind… yes, that was it! “Sorry” I said, in an accent not native to anywhere on Earth, “I don’t speak English.”

Saint Winefrede's Well

The man’s face fell and the guide scowled. I then had to keep up the accent, which kept mutating, for the rest of the visit. Back in the shop, the guide scowled at me again. I realised that I was carrying a guide book in English. Rumbled. 

Back in the car, I mused about it all. Was pretending that I didn’t speak English a reasonable ploy to get out of small talk with a stranger? Perhaps not. But it did underline to me how much I dislike pointless conversation and would – clearly – do almost anything to avoid it. I’m not saying that anyone whose conversation is sub-Oscar Wilde level should never speak, but there’s something to be said (pardon the pun), for thinking a bit more about what we say. Does this really want to be said or am I just saying it to fill a space? Are my words welcome to others? Or do they make others desperate to get away from me? And really, what this all boils down to is listening. Yet again, my experience has taught me the importance of listening – not just to the land, but to other people and to the words we say to them.

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