Monday, May 26, 2008

Holywell: In the Footsteps of Frederick Rolfe

Over the weekend I have been in Holywell in Flintshire in North Wales following in the footsteps of Frederick Rolfe, Baron Corvo who came here for a couple of years at the end of the 1890s and caused a fair amount of mayhem. As well as wanting to visit the Holy Well of St Winefride where Rolfe painted numerous banners for use in processions through the town, I was also interested in tracking down and photographing some of the places Rolfe lived and visited himself.

Holywell today (pronounced Holly-well by everyone) is a sad and depressing little place. There is a tangible air of deprivation. Although the High Street is much the same as that of any other small town in the UK, if you know what to look for you can see that there is relative poverty here: too many obese and disabled people wandering the streets as a proportion of the whole, too many older people in proportion to younger, poor clothing, just a few too many drunks at 11am in the morning, just a few too many of the shops and plots around the town are abandonned or derelict. Rather more directly telling than my impression of deprivation is that there are a number of small initiatives visible in the town which are clearly some form of local governmental response to the deprivation: a 'skills and learning cafe' in the old town hall for example.

Anyway, we were fortunate to have warm and sunny weather and all the people we met were charming and helpful. The Hotel Victoria, where Rolfe stayed, was easily found as it is on the way into the town from our Travellodge accomodation. It stands in the middle of a circular road looking decidedly the worse for wear. I was glad I hadn't thought to book myself in there. The Hocheimer's house, where Rolfe stayed a while with the publisher of The Holywell Record and his wife, is sadly no longer with us; Bank Place is still standing but only from number 5 and there is a rather derelict looking gap where the earlier numbers would have been. No. 3, the Hocheimers', I'm sure would have been hard up against the back of the shops which front onto the High Street. Bizarrely the small terrace of cottages is then interrupted again by the Holywell ring road, a new road which just ploughed through the middle of Bank Place, on the other side of the road is a large new supermarket which has the last few houses of Bank Place standing in the middle of its car park. Sadly the same road seems to have done for The Greyhound Inn too, another of Rolfe's habitations.

The Well itself is in a beautiful setting although the set-up seems a little strange. It is no longer possible to drive down Well Street from the Catholic Church to the shrine but one can do it on foot. Instead one drives down 'the hill' (Greenfield Road). The setting is lovely, the old shrine buildings are backed by huge trees like a curtain of vivid green. You will notice from all the pictures of the old shrine that it has those very tall vaulted arches with a building on top. It appears that the original entrance was at the level of the building at the top and that one then made one's way down to the spring and the bath. Today you approach from the waterlevel and there are a series of tents to one side for changing, inside the arches the place seems in very bad repair indeed, the walls are covered in ex voto graffitti, which is charming, but the stone work is broken and rotting. the spring - a very active one with constantly moving surface water, is contained in a stone pool and allowed to run out to fill the bath outside.

The other place which was rather easy to find was the Workhouse. As we drove into Holywell there was an enormous, boarded up and instutional looking building and we both looked at each other and wondered aloud if that could be it. The newsagent was able to confirm that up until just a couple of years ago it had been the local hospital and that before that it had been for many years the Workhouse. A very overbearing and typically grey looking place - not inviting at all, a chapel at one end and completely boarded up.

We also took a short drive to Pantasaph. There is a story about Rolfe pitching up here on foot, pretty much derelict himself, and offering to clean the calvary on a hill somewhere in the vicinity of a Franciscan Friary. The Superior of the order at first agreed and then baulked at the idea when he discovered that Rolfe was to be using a secret medieval recipe. Here we found a beautiful Friary and a convent (the latter had just recently been developed into housing by the look of it). The Friary is also the National Shrine to Padre Pio and has a wonderful open air altar and worship area. At the back of the Friary is a path which leads you to the bottom of a wooded hill through a stone arch. Imagine my excitement when the two signposts there tell you to go right to the 'grotto' or left to the Calvary. In fact, the path to the left zigzgs up the hill with sucession of Stations of the Cross at each turn, each contained in a small brick 'house' and, according to later researches, these were present in Rolfe's time. The path winds up through the wood until at the very top is a large Calvary. I'm no expert but my hunch is that this isn't bronze at all but actually cast iron. The inscription dates its donation to the Friary in the 1870s so it wasn't that old at all when Rolfe was there. A nice touch is that the final Station (Jesus is Laid in the Tomb) is inside a half buried chapel which is directly in front of the calvary so as you approach it, the huge tall cross of the Calvary appears to rise from the centre of the chapel roof. This little chapel too was present when Rolfe arrived.

It was an amazing weekend with a lot now to process and a good number of contacts made to be followed up in the next few weeks.

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