17 May: St. Maddern - A Spring Walk

Far in a wild, unknown to public view,

From youth to age a rev'rend hermit grew;

The moss his bed, the cave his humble cell,

His food the fruits, his drink the crystal well’

From ‘The Hermit' by Thomas Parnell (1679-1718)

Madron is one of my favourite places around Penzance. It’s a very ancient village and is the ‘Mother Church’, of Penzance which means that the parish of Madron existed first, and the original church in Penzance was built as a sort of offshoot.

St Maddern was supposedly a monk and hermit who lived in the parish to which he gave his name. He is also connected with Brittany where there are two further churches dedicated to him and he may have come to Cornwall from there and built the little baptistry which still exists. Non believers were baptised in this tiny chapel and it seems very likely to me that he built the chapel where it is, adjacent to the holy well, (which is actually a spring not a well) because this was already of a place of pre-Christian worship, so appropriating the Pagan place to Christian purposes. I wonder if the ancient healers and old believers in the village took kindly to this foreigner squatting beside their sacred site?

The Baptistry was a ruin as far back as 1654 when William Godolphin described it as ‘roofless with an altar stone at the east end and a green bank at the north end which the parishioners repair with turf and call St Maddern’s Bed’ The spring’s miraculous powers were ‘proved’ in 1638 when one John Trelille who had been crippled as a child, was miraculously cured of his handicap after bathing in the spring and staying the night on St Maddern’s bed. The 17th May is St Maddern’s Day for reasons now lost in time, which is odd because the holy spring is supposed to be at its most potent on the Feast of Corpus Christi in early June.

Madron is a lovely place for a walk, I often go up there in the autumn because it’s a great for sloes. You go up a muddy track through a thicket of blackthorn and goat willow and there you are; bushes hung with hundreds of ‘clouts’, a ruined chapel and an atmosphere that speaks of thousands of years of worship in one form or another.

So I’ve been a’foraging, and put together a salad of leaves which might have been a supper for an eremite such as St Maddern. The picture above shows: sorrel, pennywort, hawthorn leaves, wild garlic, cleaver tops - all gathered at Madron, and baby spinach, lettuce, pea tops, marjoram, thyme, dill, mint, chives, primroses - all gathered in my garden.

‘Plunge thy right hand in St Madron’s spring

If true to its truth be the palm you bring,

But if a false sigil (sic) thy fingers bear,

Lay them rather on a burning share.

From ‘The Doom Well of Madron’ by Henry Jennings published 1855


Choclette said...

Another great post Liz. I didn't know anything about Madron or St Maddern - in fact I don't know your part of Cornwall that well. Will look out for it next time we are down there. So clouts are sloes - my ignorance is beginning to be embarrassing?

Gerry Snape said...

Thankyou for a great post. Can you tell me what the clouts signify,I'd love to know.

Liz said...

The clouts (cloths) are the ribbons and other things people hang on the trees, they are wishes and prayers. There are hundreds on the bushes, of all sorts as well as little dolls and keys and bits of plastic - anything that you can tie on in fact when you make your wish.
I'll post another pic.


Jo said...

This site is just SO interesting!
My understanding of clouts or clouties is that if you had an (bodily)ailment, then you would drink some of the well water, and tie a piece of cloth that had touched that part of the body - as they cloth rotted away, the ailment went (although potentially that could take time I guess - but maybe this was rickets and the such like!) - what is amazing is not only a belief still in this - but this is not one or two people - I havn't been on that walk for years, but there always seem to be hundreds of clouties down there (although it is always quite deserted). I'm sure there are various folk tales referring to this practice?

pebbledash said...

Great post Liz, I learn so much here! Your 'foraged plate' looks delicious. It was lovely to see you on friday, and thanks for the goodies you brought with you!
D x