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Oct 2023 - Altarnun

Altarnun in Autumn

In Search of St Nonna

Whether St Nonna really was the mother of St David of Wales, or whether she was an expression of the earth deity that was imbued in this site long long before the arrival of the new religion - or indeed both - is an interesting historical debate.  But even the name - Altarnun - implies something of the religious-feminine at the heart of this village.   

Under the tutelage of Churchwarden, John, we started dowsing in the seemingly oversized church, dedicated to St Nonna - and also known as The Cathedral of the Moors.  On entering the building, the first item of significance is the relocated font, with its remarkable ancient sculpting of four male heads and some fire-breathing dragons.  The font is in three sections, all from different periods, but it is the formerly hinged top basin which is of most interest.

Like many other such features, the font appears to have been moved (and in this case after having been hidden underground in the churchyard during the puritan interregnum) from a site closer to the north wall, to a more visible and accessible spot near the main south door.  However, unlike so many other Victorian makeovers, which resited the symbolic holy spring to a waterless and sterile place, here it sits directly above crossing water lines, is all-but on the centre of the main ley running diagonally across the nave, and is very close to a section of the Venus celestial grid.  Someone clearly knew an appropriate place  to put it - and, arguably, might actually have had better insight that the church founders!

Energetically, the church feels light, clean and well-balanced.  There are most of the usual elements present, with a comfortable ambience of male and female inputs.  A dowsable rising vortex in the nave is matched by a gentler down-spiral between the rood screen and the altar.  Overall, the sense is of a place at peace with itself, rather than the some of the more excited environments to be found elsewhere.  The balance of energy is slightly skewed towards the divine feminine by the presence of the section of the Venus grid, which runs through what is now the Lady Chapel.

Perhaps the most outstanding physical feature of this religious sanctuary is the collection of 79 carved mediaeval pew-ends.  Still signed off by their creator, Robert Daye, these marvellous pieces of the wooden artistry display many images of angels, but also a considerable amount of naturalistic adornment - implying that they were crafted at a time when the old and the new ways were still in transition.  The augmentation of shields, flags and emblems probably indicates that the carpenter-sculptor was also aware of the need to satisfy all quarters of the community.

The tangible link to St Nonna herself comes in the shape of the few precious shards of stained glass to have survived the puritan defenestration, which are now repositioned and re-assembled in the east window, behind the altar.  The woman with the long golden hair in the image (or the image of St John, as one historian has suggested) could have been an early mediaeval representation of the church founder.  Dowsing by group members certainly indicated the former, but the facts, as ever, were open to interpretation.

Although the first use of what is now St Nonna’s as a site of spiritual interest dates  back in the Bronze Age, my own dowsing indicated an initial Christian input in the late 6th Century.  The first structure of the new religion appears to have been a wooden place of worship in the 9th or 10th Centuries - and the first stone structure was erected here in the 11th Century.    

After a further session out in the churchyard, and a BYO lunch in the company of the enthusiastic Franciscan vicar, Tony, we headed off up the road to find St Nonna’s holy well.

Various previous dowsing forays in this direction had failed to find it, as until recently the spring and pond had been almost completely reclaimed by vegetation.  However, enter stage left Tony, the energetic new incumbent.  The site is now accessible to most questers - and something of a dowser’s paradise.   

First, the academic stuff.  The water in the pond dowsed as 7/10 – drinkable, but partially affected by agricultural runoff.  However, the water coming out of the ground (at 40 gallons a minute) was dowsed as being deep-seated primary water.  This is just the sort of health-promoting information-carrying fluid for which ‘real’ holy wells are renown.

The water flows into a stone basin, and then out into a small pond, constructed in the 11th Century.  The crossing point of the main earth energy lines is in this pool.  This implies that while the water coming out of the spring is naturally pure, it is further enhanced by the deliberate location of the pond.  For good measure the ley running through the church also runs through the pond.  To what extent this is a natural geological feature and how much it has been intentionally modified by human activity is an interesting field of study in itself.

Most holy wells seem to be located over the crossing points of water, and earth energy and also a ley.  The degree of precision in the overlap of these flows seems to affect  the ‘power’ of the site .  Some are inherently precise, as in say Chalice Well at Glastonbury - while others are less exact, and could be termed ‘holyish’.  St Nonna’s Spring is in a different category again, and it opens up even further the debate about the definition of just what makes a Holy Well ‘holy’.

For good measure, right at the end of our field trip, it was suggested that we take a look at the possibility of there having been buildings associated with the spring/well/pond.  This idea was fuelled by the presence of a quantity of stone on a corner of the field containing the pond.  There appears to be no missing or demolished walls or farm buildings in the vicinity, so do these building materials relate to a former stone structure near the well?  Our dowsing indicated that there had been at least two rectangular structures on a platform close to St Nonna’s spring.  These were originally erected in wood, but later replaced by similarly sized stone rooms.  An intriguing piece of subsequent dowsing also indicated that they may have preceded the establishment of the early church by a few decades - so, was St Nonna’s well actually the original sacred location in the area?  It was getting late and starting to drizzle - and you can only dowse accurately for so long.

Many thanks to Helen Fox and Stuart Dow for such a well-researched and well-organised outing, which was clearly much enjoyed by those attending.

Thanks too, to Churchwarden John and to Tony the Vicar for their encouragement and participation.

Nigel Twinn

Tamar Dowsers, October 2023

Image courtesy of Annie Holland


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