St Winefride’s Way – 14 miles – 1-2 days – St Asaph’s Cathedral (Denbighshire) to St Winefride’s Well (Holywell, Flintshire).
St Winefride’s Well is a holy well surrounded by a chapel, which has been known since at least the Roman period, and a site of pilgrimage since about 660 when Saint Winefride was beheaded there by Caradog who attempted to rape her. The well is one of the Seven Wonders of Wales and the town bills itself as the ‘Lourdes of Wales’. St Winefride’s Chapel was built around 1500 and encloses three sides of the well. Its construction was paid for by Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII and is the only well to have survived the Reformation as a place of public pilgrimage. St Winefride’s relics were destroyed in the reformation but a finger-bone was saved, half of which is today preserved at Holywell, while the other half is in the possession of the Catholic Church at Shrewsbury.
Henry V is reported to have walked bare foot to Holywell from Shrewsbury in 1416. This was the year he was preparing for his second and greater invasion of France that followed the Agincourt campaign. Edward IV made a pilgrimage to Holywell, and Richard III gave alms to maintain a priest here. St Winefride is among the saints placed to watch for ever over the tomb of the first Welsh King of England, Henry VII, in his chapel at Westminster. James II visited on 29 August 1686 with his Queen, Mary of Modena, to pray for a Stuart Prince of Wales.
When you arrive there, most pilgrims use the outer pool, though it is also possible to bathe in the inner pool. They traditionally immerse themselves in the water three times. This is a reminder of St Beuno’s prophecy that Winifred would be able to grant her petitioners’ requests, if not at the first time of asking, then at the second or third. (The triple request is also reminiscent of Celtic legends – three wishes, three curses, the three times that the lady of Llyn y Fan Fach was beaten by her husband.) Near the pool is Beuno’s Stone, on which the saint is said to have sat to teach his niece (or to have stood to say farewell to her). Pilgrims kneel on the stone to complete their devotions.