Caught by the River

Sacred & Absurd: Votive Offerings at the West Penwith Holy wells

1st April 2016


Sacred & Absurd: Votive Offerings at the West Penwith Holy wells
A photo book by William Arnold
Published by Antler Press in an edition of 50. Black & White.

Review by Ian Humberstone.

A rag, a glove, a shoe, a clunky old key, a ceramic toad kitted out in human clothing – all hang pendulously from branches, suspended by strands of fraying ribbon or string.

There are messages too, laboriously etched into wooden tablets and left propped up against tree trunks, or hung idly from lower branches. ‘Dragon seeds fall on fertile ground’ one announces; ‘time less beauty’ another.

These cryptic objects are to be found close by the site of holy wells along the Cornish peninsula – each offered up to the landscape in a contemporary form of wish-fulfilment, each tracked down and captured by photographer William Arnold in Sacred and Absurd: Votive Offerings at the West Penwith Holy Wells.


The images, which are beautifully rendered using an antique folding camera, depict a contemporary turn taken by an age-old practice. For centuries, rags and tattered pieces of cloth have been left close by the site of holy wells as votive gifts to the well’s saint, commonly affixed to a nearby tree, or pricked on the barbs of a bush – though the practice has always varied from place to place.

At St. Oswald’s Well in North Yorkshire, for instance, it was once believed that a piece of cloth, taken from the bed of a sick person and cast into the sacred waters, would float only if its owner were to survive their illness; salvageable rags were hastily fished out and pinned to a briar in gratitude.


Today, many of these old wells have lost their colourful garb, but ‘rag’ or ‘cloutie’ customs remain strong in the Celtic areas of Britain, with West Penwith being something of a bastion. Here, the old rag tradition has not only survived, but augmented to encompass a dazzling variety of votive gifts.

Wristbands with mushroom motifs, pentagrams, doll effigies, sweet wrappers, fortieth birthday bunting: it is endless and, often, bizarre.

No matter how odd, each object pictured in Sacred and Absurd has a personal meaning – a singular intent known only to its depositor. These mute items encourage us to wonder, to compose backstories in our mind’s eye.

A child’s toy soldier dangles precariously by its legs. Who left it here – parent or child? What was their wish? In a place where the reverent mingles with the irreverent, the sacred with the absurd, it is perhaps unwise to draw any hasty conclusions.

Traditions change, but the human instinct for pilgrimage is alive and well in West Cornwall.

Sacred & Absurd can be bought directly from Antler Press, priced £5.00
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Black Dog Traditions of England is the latest work by Ian Humberstone and David Chatton Barker, collectively known as Folklore Tapes. Find out more here.