St Nona

St Nona's holy well

In her later years, St. Nona, mother of St. David, came to Cornwall from Wales to spend time with her sister Wenna. St. Wenna lived at Morval, a few miles inland from Looe. On a beautiful day in spring, the two saintly sisters set out to walk the lanes between Morval and Polperro. Bluebells and pink campions filled the floor of the woodland and Nona relished the beauty of nature all about her. Nona and Wenna hitched up their skirts and crossed the Looe River, then climbed up a steep hill. Midway up the hill was a well. It was four feet high; covered with a flat stone lintel and an arched roof. Inside, at the far end was a round granite basin, with decorative carvings all around it. The basin was full of fresh sparkling water that entered unseen from the back.

‘This is the Piskey’s Well,’ said Wenna, ‘and I can tell you a tale about it. The Celtic people called it Piskey’s Well. They believed the well was guarded by one of the fairy folk. This piskey gave away gifts of health and good fortune to those who respected him and the virtue of his well. The local people revered the Piskey Well. Not only could it offer them their greatest desires, but they knew the piskey could show great anger to those who desecrated its virtue. The well was well protected:  the stone font inside could not be moved for great misfortune would fall to anyone who attempted to take it.’

One day, a farmer decided to put the basin to a more practical use than piskey promises. He would use it as a watering trough for his prize pigs. The farmer took his oxen to the well and chained them to the font. They strained and strained but could not move it. The farmer relented a little and got them each a drink from the well. He was not about to give up however, and after much huffing and heaving, the oxen started to move slowly up the steep hill, with the basin slowly following on chains. When it was near the top, the basin suddenly broke free and rolled down the hill, rested a moment and took a sharp turn to the left and back to its place in the well. Three times the farmer tried to move the basin up the hill to his cart and three times it rolled back again. On the third time, as the oxen followed it down, they fell dead in defeat. From that day on, the farmer suffered a lifetime of misfortune and he became both dumb and lame. No one since has felt the slightest wish to move the basin from the Piskey’s Well.

‘I wish for this well to be dedicated to me,’ said Nona. ‘It shall be known as St. Nun’s Well of Pelynt and I shall also guard it well as the piskies.’ Nona was delighted with her well and set about praying for its virtue. She prayed for 40 days and after that time it became a Holy Well- although some say the piskies still linger there today.

Whilst staying in Cornwall, St Nona founded a monastery at Altarnun and travelled back across Bodmin Moor to visit her well in Pelynt many times. Sadly, with all her good intentions spared, Nona was soon called onwards from her time in Cornwall to Brittany. Somehow the little well became quite forgotten, perhaps because it was situated in the side of a steep hill, accessed only by lost steps and out of sight from the nearby road. It was left to a farm family owning the land, to cut down a huge oak tree that for many years had been growing from the roof of the well and dislodging the stones from the arch with its roots. They cut down the tree for firewood, and as they were clearing away its branches, found - to their great delight - a well. The farmer and his family rebuilt St. Nun’s Well’s stony structure and cleaned out the mouldy cell inside: and who knows, perhaps it was St. Nona who encouraged them in this task of restoration. The oak tree regrew and shades the well to this day , green moss clothes the walls inside, the basin is still full of sparkling water that enters the well unseen, and as for the piskey... who knows? 

retold by Anna Chorlton

  • Looe Valley