Hidden away in the depths of Cornwall is a rainbow-coloured sea cave, once heralded for its ‘healing waters’.
Throughout the 17th and 18th century, the grotto – known as St. Cuthbert’s Cave – attracted a large number of visitors. It’s located in Holywell, named after the cave’s supposed healing powers, with pilgrims, cripples and sick people historically making their way to the cave to drink from its waters.
However, while William Hals’ History of Cornwall documented ‘incredible’ numbers visiting the cave in a bygone era, tourists visiting Holywell today have become less aware of its hidden wonders.
St. Cuthbert’s Cave gets its vibrant red, green, blue and yellow colours from mineral deposits. Inside, the spring water was once described as the ‘elixir of life’ in writings from the 19th century, said to contain ‘life-healing’ minerals from the cave’s limestone.
Back in 1877, John Cardell Oliver’s Guide to Newquay described the cave:
It is a somewhat curious place. After passing over a few boulders the mouth of the cave will be reached, where steps will be found leading up to the well.
This rock-formed cistern is of a duplicate form, consisting of two wells, having a communication existing between them. The supply of water is from above; and this water, being of a calcareous nature, has coated the rock with its earthy deposits, giving to the surrounding walls and to the well itself a variegated appearance of white, green and purple.
Oliver explained ‘that in olden times mothers on Ascension Day brought their deformed or sickly children here, and dipped them in, at the same time passing them through the aperture connecting the two cisterns; and thus, it is said, they became healed of their disease or deformity’.
If you were to go in and take a swig for yourself, the water has been described as tasting like ‘cereal milk’ – as long as it’s more like Frosties than Krave, we’re golden. It forms shallow pools within the cave’s basins, later trickling onto the outside beach.
These waters didn’t just appeal to a certain subset of society. ‘Other classes also believed virtue to reside in its water,’ Oliver wrote. ‘It is said that the cripples were accustomed to leave their crutches in the hole at the head of the well.’
This well has nature only for its architect, no mark of man’s hand being seen in its construction; a pink enamelled basin, filled by drippings from the stalactitic roof, forms a picture of which it is difficult to describe the loveliness. What wonder, then, that the simple folk around should endow it with mystic virtues?
St. Cuthbert’s Cave is slightly different from similar ‘holy wells’ in the UK, in that it doesn’t remain intact. By virtue of being next to the beach, the tide comes in and washes everything out twice every day.