Phil Cope
Publication Date: 
Monday, September 16, 2013
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The border country between Wales and England is a fertile place in many senses. Settled for millennia, one of the few links we have with early man here are their surviving pagan, pre-Christian wells. Sacred wells have played an important part in the culture and landscape of the region, and continue to do so. Following his books on wells in Wales and Cornwall, Phil Cope journeys up and down the borderlands, and through history from pre-Christian times through Roman and early Christian times, the medieval Age of the Princes in Wales and on to Victorian and the contemporary period.

His discoveries are recorded in striking and atmospheric photographs which are accompanied by the remarkable histories of the wells, and the legends attached to them. Wronged suitors, magic horses, Dark Age battles, the reign of King Arthur, and innumerable decapitations feature among the vividly magical tales. Alongside them rests a different kind of magic in the healing wells of the Christian saints, some of which are also sources of prophecy. As the centuries past healing mutated into health and the development of the spa, until, in the twentieth century a full circle was turned and wells once again acquired a pagan significance.

Richly illustrated in colour throughout the wells from Cheshire to Monmouthshire, from the Dee to the Severn are here displayed in all their glory, be they in remote countryside or city centre.

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Review by Angela Graham

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This is a labour of love done by a man who has the skill and determination to accomplish his task to a very high standard. Phil Cope sets out to document the significant water sites of the border between England and Wales, in the process recovering many places that are on the verge of being forgotten and presenting more familiar spots, such as St Windefride’s Well in Holywell, Flintshire, from a fresh perspective.
Phil is well-qualified in this field, having previously published Holy Wells Wales: a photographic journey (Seren Books, 2008) and Holy Wells: Cornwall (Seren Books, 2010) - and he is literally in the field on our behalf, up and down the borders, accessing out-of-the-way places and capturing them in luminous photographs which, page by page, build up into a repository of evidence of the importance of water over place and time.
There is a meditative feel to the book. It is not a work of scholarship but rather an invitation to admire and to consider water and the meanings we bring to it. He seeks not so much to analyse the history of the wells and springs (though historical outlines are given) as to challenge us to attend to their beauty. He includes much poetry to encourage reflection and the book makes another sort of reflection inescapable: it acts as a mirror of our treatment of this precious resource. As we treat water, so we treat ourselves, perhaps?
For me, the most beautiful photograph in the book is the “Hospital Fountain”. This Edwardian-looking piece of tiled art was originally sited in the Cottage Hospital, Malvern and moved to the modern Malvern Community Hospital in 2011. One needs to see it to appreciate the reverence evident in the simple design, and this reverence is present in the simplicity of Phil’s photographic lighting and framing.
A useful bibliography is included of books on wells and border folklore (though I would have liked to see details of Phil’s own books included) and the map of the well sites is fascinating – a new way of looking at the conjunction of Wales and England
In 2008, the National Library of Wales purchased Phil’s collection of photographs of The Holy Wells of Wales for the nation. Make sure you see them and look out for his current enterprise, no less than a photographic mapping of the holy wells of Scotland.

Angela Graham

08/10/2013 - 10:44