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Derwen Through the Ages

In March and June 2018, ISABEL STEWART explored Derwen and its environs
Derwen is a very small, quiet village some six miles from Ruthin. It has a mediæval church, an old lead mine, a quarry, the remains of an Iron Age Hill Fort, a mediæval well and beneath the village a lovely U-shaped valley through which the river Clwyd runs. Millions of years ago, when most of the land was covered by sea, the lead mine was being formed. Boiling hot water spouted out of black smokers on the ocean floor containing many minerals, in this case mainly lead, which spread over the sea bed and, over millions & millions of years, the land rose above the sea and the lead was eventually discovered and mined. The U-shape valley was probably created during the various Ice Ages and I believe a great lake near Melin y Wig burst through its barrier and caused a catastrophic flood gouging out the valley. The Iron Age hill fort and lead mine are on private land but I have visited the site and seen the prehistoric post holes. It must have been a hard life but worse was to come for later Derwen residents. The quarry, Craig Lelo, like the lead mine, brought in local employment. Limestone had capped the hill top and was a very good source of wet stone, the remaining rock being used for making roads. The mediæval church escaped the reformation and later Victorianisation and still supports a rood screen & balcony. An old carved Celtic preaching cross, which may pre-date the current church building, was where travelling friars gave outside sermons. Ffynnon Sara is an ancient well believed to heal arthritis and cancers. It was probably frequently visited as it is alongside an ancient pilgrims’ track. The early 1800s were known as the “time without summer”. Only now we know that the cause was when Mount Tambora, a volcano in Indonesia, erupted and threw masses of gas and ash up into the stratosphere blocking out the sunlight. The local residents of Derwen only knew that the crops failed for three years and many people died of starvation. One thrifty lady knitted socks, a common task all the women did, but she did so from dawn to midnight every single day. As well as his work, her husband  took over all her usual tasks. These socks were sold weekly at the Ruthin market and with this
money they were able to pay the exorbitant prices for the small amount of food available. Today the village school is now a beautiful private house, post office, bakers, public house are all things of the past and the church is now in the hands of The Friends of Friendless Churches but Derwen is still a thriving friendly village with plenty of young families. Ffynnon Sara Ffynnon Sara is a very old well situated on the outskirts above Derwen, on the minor road from Claddnewydd leading to Melin y Wig. It is beside an old Pilgrim Route which linked St. Winefride’s shrine to St. David’s and would have been a most welcome site for the weary traveller. It was probably once a holy well connected to the Vale’s mother church eight miles away, at Llanynys, and from the sixth to the 17th century was known as Ffynnon Pyllau Perl. (Pearl Ponds). The well is bath shaped, lined with stone, with three steps leading down into the water, all set within a pleasant grassy area shaded by trees. The water bubbles out of the ground into the well and the overflow joins the Nant Mynian stream. A 17th century map indicates a long-vanished cottage near the well. The well’s name was changed around this time and it is said that a lady living in the cottage was perhaps the custodian of the well and maybe it was named after her. The more likely explanation is that it may have been dedicated to St Saeran of Llanynys. Ffynnon Sara was believed to have healing powers, curing cancers, eczema and rheumatics. Pilgrims left pins behind in the well as a token of thanks (Google gives an interesting account of such pins). In the early 1970s, the rector sensitively restored the well and landscaped the area. No mention is made of any pins discovered or any other artefacts of interest. For pilgrims, the hedgerows would have been a great source of delights and relief. Berries and plants would be picked as they walked along: blueberries, blackberries & raspberries, St. John’s Wort flowers containing red hypericum oil to sooth sores and muscle pains, nettles and dandelions infused in hot water acting as a tonic, wild fennel helping digestion, vitamin C from rose hips and plenty more.