We’d spent the day circling the far west, taking in clifftop views that brought a tear to the eye, before heading inland to a hilltop and standing on a quoit. From stone circles to standing stones, we hadn’t quite had our fill of metaphysical legends, so we followed the road to Madron.
To round off our trip we were in search of a more modern monument to times gone by. The tradition of a Cloutie tree is a long one that is shrouded in the mystery of witchcraft, and this one even had a well.
The road to the Boswarthan Wishing Well gave nothing away, save for a simple brown sign pointing the way, and the parking area certainly didn’t allude to anything magical. But once out of the car, a little muddy hand-drawn sign led us to a tree tunnel of a path that, with the sunlight dappling through, felt much more appropriate to our expectations.
There were a couple of clearings along the way that, with no helpful signage, we stopped at to search for traces of mysticism, but further along the path it was very obvious what we were looking for. The Cloutie tree branched out over the path and was set in a little convergence of streams – was this the Well site as well?
The tree was a strange sight – disappointing and fascinating! Disappointing in the fact that the tree itself seemed to be nothing special – not a majestic gnarly old oak from ancient acorn, nor exotic or imposing. It was simply a tree on the edge of the path with lower slung branches. However, it was fascinating in its appointment as ‘tree of sacred offerings’. Why had people decided to hang their delicates from its branches? (Yes there were knickers) Who tied the first ribbon to the tree? How long had this been going on for?
The tradition of a cloutie tree is beyond Pagan, with the word ‘clout’ being a Celtic term for cloth. There are two purposes to a sacred site such as this – one of good luck and one of good health. The good luck is gained through leaving a form of offering – although these are usually in the form of a more permanent item of jewellery, or a nail/coin hammered into the tree – a good wish for a significant occasion of birth, death or marriage. This tree follows the tradition of dispelling ill-will. An ailment would be wrapped in a piece of cloth, a strip of which was torn away and dipped in the blessed water of the well then hung from the tree. As the elements slowly degraded the cloth, so too would the ailment fade away.
This seems to have been lost somewhere along the way. The offerings were made of all sorts of random detritus, plastics and inorganic materials that instead will serve to strangle the branch it is tied upon – not in the spirit of the cloutie! We hope the bright red panties were made of silk instead of polyester…
It certainly seemed to be a ‘fresh set’ of clouties, with little in terms of decay, although it is unlikely any older items would’ve survived from the 1960/70s as back then they were considered eyesores and a good number of them cleaned up. We decided to add our own offerings anyway, as a thank you for our time spent there. A hand-crocheted cotton doily is now adorning the centre.
Unsure as to whether this was the site of the well, we wandered further along the path and discovered a small settling of stonework next to a dried up stream. Possibly it was once a small chapel, but not enough was left of it for our inexperienced eyes to decipher. But there was a trough in the corner, clogged with leaves and mud, that could easily have contained blessed water for cleansing the soul. But as mentioned, there wasn’t a lot going on with it that day.
About heel, we headed to our transport, heads full of wondering as to whether our wishes would come true, and slightly unnerved by the man who had taken an off-beat track through the bushes instead of along the path. Oh, and it wasn’t such a random tree after all – Hawthorn is indeed a long-standing representative of magic in the world of flora.
All in all, worth a quick trip if you're staying in a west Cornwall holiday cottage near Madron.
View Boswarthan Wishing Well and Cloutie Tree in a larger map