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The view towards the site of Ffynnon Wen, which issued from beneath the hillside in the middle distance

One of my favourite Welsh historical blogs is one covering the ancient holy wells and healing wells of north Wales – water sources are, after all, very much bound up in human interaction with the landscape. A recent post on the Flintshire spring of Ffynnon Wen reminded me that there was once a spring of that name just a little west of Brymbo township, and a rather interesting one too, despite very little information ever having been recorded about it. It may have been considered a ‘holy’ spring; but then again, perhaps not, and it is now difficult even to pinpoint its location. Nevertheless it is worth a brief diversion just across the Brymbo border to Minera, township of the mines, to look at the little that is known.

I’ve previously mentioned the mines of John Wilkinson and Robert Burton at Maesyfynnon Wen, raising lead which was then smelted at Wilkinson’s smelt works near Caello, only a short distance away. Maesyfynnon Wen translates more or less as “the pasture of the white spring”, unless you take the view that gwyn in this instance stands for “holy” or “blessed” – not unknown in the naming of wells. The “white” spring would nevertheless have been an appropriate name, as  the Ffynnon Wen giving its name to the area was extremely powerful, as will be seen. It once fed into the upper part of the Clywedog river just after the point at which the latter, as the Aber Sychnant – the “stream of the dry valley” – skirted the north-eastern shoulder of Minera mountain. The wooded gorge of the Aber Sychnant was by all accounts once a place of exceptional beauty; even the 1870s Ordnance Survey shows its slopes covered in trees. Only a few years later, however, it was bare and heavily scarred by industry, and by this time Ffynnon Wen was long gone, its site dry and buried under the tips of the Steddfod limeworks and its successors.

All this industry, and men such as Wilkinson and Burton, had been brought here by the area’s geology. The top part of Minera lies on a limestone outcrop: productive veins of lead ran across the mountain, worked since mediaeval times at least. The natural solubility of the limestone also led the heavy rains of north Wales to find their way underground, and Ffynnon Wen was for many thousands of years the natural point of rising for water across much of Esclusham mountain. Eighteenth century miners found out all about this water when they started attempting to follow the veins deeper into the hill: the mines of the “West End”, in particular, were inundated with water coming from the south-east. This became more apparent after 1757, when the city companies of Chester (who owned much of Minera’s lead-bearing land for charitable purposes under the terms of the will of Owen Jones) let mining rights to three of the city’s businessmen. Richard Richardson, silversmith, Thomas Slaughter, goldsmith and Dr Philip Fernyhough profitably expanded the mining operations, and a day-level was driven in the 1760s in an attempt to dewater the mines then active: it was probably at this point that Ffynnon Wen dried up and was gradually forgotten. The first day-level was followed by others that progressively lowered the water table, culminating in the mid 19th century “Deep” level, driven under John Taylor’s management to a point near Nant Mill, and which finally brought under control the flooding that had plagued the earlier ‘adventurers’ such as Wilkinson.

As the water drained away, the miners discovered some remarkable and spectacular things. Under the mountain the water had cut huge caverns, including one with a subterranean lake, cold and black, that they referred to as Llyn Ddu (it transpired that this was one of the sources of the water that had once risen at Ffynnon Wen). There was even talk of an underground river, eventually confirmed decades after the mines had closed. So with so much water around, how much had emerged at Minera’s former spring? It seems that the mine levels even without heavy rain still discharge some 3 million gallons into the Clywedog each day, all of which water must once have issued at Ffynnon Wen. This was a large spring indeed, a rival in size to Holywell and other famous sites. Such a volume of water, incidentally, would explain why landowner John Griffith of Brymbo, along with his father Robert Griffith and grandfather Gruffydd ap Edward, had been able to operate a mill at Minera on a stretch of stream which these days has little flow. Back in the 17th century Ffynnon Wen would have made it a torrent.

For all the strength of its flow, Ffynnon Wen’s appearances in historical sources are curiously few and far between: Lhuyd, for example, was not informed of it (unless it was represented by, or confused with, the “Fynnonn wen” he recorded on the border of Llanarmon). Perhaps it really was just a “white”, and not a “blessed” spring, and perhaps the remoteness of the spot prevented it becoming a more significant site before progress overtook it. Nevertheless anyone looking to position Ffynnon Wen within the historical landscape could note its location close to Minera church, supposedly built by the township’s miners; the surrounding land’s apparent incorporation into the hafod or summer pasture of the lordship, as discussed by Palmer; or even the presence of an Iron Age fort on a directly adjacent site at Bwlchgwyn, now also destroyed by quarrying. There may be plenty of meaning buried along with the spring itself.