North Petherwin is as obscure a place as anywhere in southern England. It’s not that it’s hard to find, just that it is on the road to nowhere very significant. It’s the sort of place that you remember from a signpost rather than a passing vista. Such places are often hidden treasures, especially for the dowser seeking the less disturbed parts of our hectic social environment.
As with so many of the lesser-known Cornish Celtic Saints, the origins of St Patronus (or St Padern) can only murkily be discerned through a mist of myth and half-recorded history. It has been suggested by some that North Petherwin is the oldest Christian settlement in Cornwall, although doubtless there will be a howl of protest from Launceston to Land’s End about such an assertion. What appears indisputable is that this village, with its over-sized church and ancient holy well, has an early foundation – and has doubtless been in continuous human occupation for many millennia.
Our guide, Terry Faull, a historian who has written books on holy wells and who now resides in this tranquil part of East Cornwall, is a good friend of the TDs. With his rustic staff and holed-stone pendant, Terry looked very much the part to lead us on our visit. We started the afternoon’s expedition by hearing a condensed history of the area and its significant features.
Our first dowsing task was to try to determine if the churchyard, in which we were standing, had indeed the ancient foundation of its reputation. The consensus seemed to be that the current footprint had been expanded on two sides to provide more space for graves, while some of the older parts, now guarded by spiky and stinging vegetation, had been squared off somewhat over the centuries. The original ground-plan was more of a crude oval - the tell-tale signature of the Celtic ‘lan’ or enclosure - indicating an early foundation indeed. The site of the church is also situated on a raised mound, still visible in parts, indicating the sequential re-use of a pre-Christian sacred site.
The church itself proved to be an excellent laboratory for both the experienced and the novice dowser. The major features, such as the font and the altar appeared to have been moved as the structure has been progressively expanded in line with the burgeoning wealth of the parish. Unlike many churches that were only extensively refurbished in Victorian times, the moving of the font and altar here appeared to date back into the 18th, or even 17th centuries. For the architectural historian there are Norman columns and relocated original building features, while for the more philosophical, the appearance of a carved Green Man in the restored wooden frieze around the ceiling indicates a continuity of Celtic tradition, which transcended the Roman takeover. The church is traversed, corner to corner, by a prominent ley line. We sought out the previous locations of some of the features, together with the floor plan of previous buildings, but to do this justice would have been an all-day task in itself - and there was much to see and sense in this intriguing village.
Having sampled the flavour of our visit, we processed down a green lane, past a pilgrim path and into the Millenium Wood (part of the South West Forest initiative). Terry acquired this substantial stand of trees a couple of years ago, along with his home - itself part of a former nursing home, carved out of redundant farm buildings. Such is the nature of change.
In a clearing in the young copse Terry has had constructed a classic seven-circuit labyrinth, with the assistance of TD member, Annie Holland. Many walked the meditative path in the heat of the June sunshine, while others sheltered gratefully amongst the young trees. The labyrinth was sited by Annie, using her dowsing experience, on the appropriate energy lines, but it has since drawn in other energies.
This is an evolving experiment, to which we will hopefully return in years to come. Terry has marked the walls of the form with young beech trees. Assistance with pruning them is being provided by local rabbits.
The next stop on our tour took us across a couple of fields and down a formerly important path, to the location of the local Holy Well. Now beleaguered in a hedge bank in an agricultural no-mans land - and shielded from both misuse and use by a modern iron grid - this was once a very significant site. Not only does it have the classic water and energy spirals one might expect, but down the path we had followed also runs a strong ley. The path dowsed as having been used by humans for many thousands of years, and by animals for thousands more before that. By comparison, the remnants of the granite cobbles, cut and laid by the destitute men, women and young children of the parish in return for poor relief, before the introduction of the workhouse, seem strangely modern. This path is known as Firestone Lane from the sparking of the horses’ hooves clacking across the stone sets.
The annual procession from the church to the well has been re-established in recent years by the local school, providing the link for this arcane tradition to continue into the virtual world of quantum cyberspace. In so doing, future generations will still have the opportunity to reconsider these timeless features, long after the world we know now has passed into legend.
The water from the well dowsed as 8 out of 10 on the scale of drinkability - good job really, as Terry’s own supply comes from the same source. The visit ended with a pause for saffron cake and welcome water - energised by the subtle vibrations of unfathomable age and made all the more revitalising by the benefits of 21st century refrigeration.
Many thanks indeed to Terry for our fascinating tour of his village - and for the many insights he gave us that one would not find in a guide book.
Terry Faull’s latest book, Secrets of the Hidden Source (In search ofDevon’sAncient and Holy Wells) is published by Halsgrove ISBN 1-84114-354-5 and is also available online from the British Society of Dowsers.