IT HAD ALREADY BEEN A LONG DAY. A long walk through the Glastonbury countryside had taken me to the ancient oaks known as Gog and Magog. I was in Glastonbury nursing a broken heart, and the walk brought about a release of the anger at least. But my time in the Chalice Well Gardens had brought the loss home, and with it a pain which was almost visceral in its intensity.
I left the gardens in a light rain and started back to my B&B on the slopes of Glastonbury Tor. Then I remembered the White Spring. The front door was open to the well house, and so I passed the steps of Berachah Guest House and covered the few remaining yards to go inside.
The White Spring creeps to the surface just east of the Red Spring, and directly across Well House Lane from Chalice Gardens. There’s typically at least a handful of people filling containers from one, the other or both springs. At times the street is lined with cars.
Known as the White Spring, it comes from an aquifer closer to the surface than the Red Spring, and is colorless. For nearly a thousand years, people have been coming to Glastonbury, seeking the answers to the mystery of the Isle of Avalon, the mystical final resting place of Arthur, and countless other legends. Parts of the area around Glastonbury were indeed once an island, formed during the parts of the year when the land was inundated with the advancing waters spawned by the Atlantic Ocean and the Bristol Channel, in the land known as the Somerset Levels. Once a series of islands and marshes, eventually much of it was drained.
Though arguably it’s the water that still draws people to Glastonbury, only now bubbling up from the depths of the earth.
In the shadow of Glastonbury Tor, it’s easy to believe that for thousands of years, people have been coming to these springs. Water is the foundation of life, and clean water could be hard to find in ancient Britain. If there was indeed a mystical connection between ancient man and Glastonbury, it’s easy to understand why. The springs brought life.
With the foundation of Glastonbury Abbey, a spiritual component was added to the mystique of Glastonbury which has remained to this day. Though many locals frown upon the hippie, dippy, mystics which swarm the village, others have embraced Glastonbury’s seekers since before Henry VIII had the abbot dragged to the top of the Tor and gutted.
Following the dissolution of the monasteries, a bit of the spiritual still held on in Glastonbury. While other springs popular in 18th century Britain promised scientific cures, the waters of Glastonbury achieved miracles. It didn’t draw the swarms of rich tourists that the movers and shakers of the town wanted, but it did bring those who could less afford the finest of medical treatment at the time. It drew those looking for a miracle.
Those seeking the magic of Glastonbury today have two distinct choices. There’s the formal ambiance of the Chalice Well Gardens, and the mystique of the White Spring.
One of the earliest descriptions of what the Vale of Avalon looked like, the small valley nestled between the Tor and Chalice comes from a local teacher, George Wright.
In 1896 he wrote “And what was Glastonbury like then? One thing that clings to me was the beautiful Well House Lane of those days, before it had been spoilt by the erection of the reservoir. There was a small copse of bushes on the right hand running up the hill, and through it could be, not seen, but heard, the rush of running water, which made itself visible as it poured into the lane. But the lane itself was beautiful, for the whole bank was a series of fairy dropping wells – little caverns clothed with moss and vedure, and each small twig and leaf was a medium for the water to flow, drop, drop, drop into a small basin below. This water contained lime, and pieces of wood or leaves subject to this dropping became encrusted with a covering of lime. For a long time I attended those pretty caverns with affectionate care, and Well House Lane was an object of interest to all our visitors”
Originally a waterworks, the structure which now covers the source of the White Spring acts as a spiritual church without denomination or creed, where you’re free to have your own mystical experience, however you see fit. Within reason.
You know you’re entering a magical place when part of the directions you’re given at the door warns of naked flames, deep water and faerie portals. “Enter at your own risk” the warning reads. There is no charge for admission, though donations to cover the cost of candles should you wish them are accepted.
Children and dogs are welcome, it’s wheelchair and handicapped accessible, because Glastonbury still welcomes the sick and the infirm.
Finding it open can be a bit tricky, as since there is no charge for admission, no staff is paid. It’s operated and maintained solely by volunteers. It’s spiritual, don’t expect linear time to be observed.
It’s also closed at times for private services, which can be arranged with a couple of weeks notice. Music isn’t discouraged, as long as your instruments don’t disturb the other visitors. So drums and electric guitars are frowned upon, except drums are welcome as part of private services for short periods.
Because the purpose of the temple of the White Spring is for quiet reflection. Even extended conversations are discouraged, as the vaulted ceilings echo and amplify voices. What sounds like a whisper in one part can be clear as day across the room. It’s a place where you can be lost in your own thoughts, or look inward and outward for your connection to the divine.
In short, it was exactly where I needed to be.
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THE WELL HOUSE WAS BUILT IN 1872 when Glastonbury was hit with a cholera outbreak, and it was decided they needed a good water source. The natural caves where the spring came to the surface were cleared out and the structure built over the top. In reality, there is more than one spring emerging in the well house of the White Spring, including a small stream of the Red Stream, celebrated across the road at the Chalice Well Gardens. The spring water contained a high calcium content, and so over time, as water pipes began to block, Glastonbury stopped using water from the springs and had it instead pumped in from another town.
Over time the well house was forgotten and fell into disuse. Then sometime after 1980, doors were built into the building to allow people to get to the reservoir inside, shops and cafes sprung up and tried to make a go of it there. But people were really only interested in the water, now believed in the new age community to be a source of the divine. So once again the White Spring became a place of pilgrimage, if indeed it ever stopped being one.
Then in 2004, the well house was taken over by the Companions of the White Spring, whose idea was to create a sacred space. They pooled their talents and raised funds to create something magical, and to care for it going forward.
Their work was done out of love, and it shows for what they’ve created is a candle-lit sanctuary for those who prefer that the mysteries of their spirituality remain mysterious. Its dark, subterranean feel provides an alternative to the formal, sunny gardens of the Chalice Well and its companion Red Spring.
The changes made at the end of the last millennium were scrubbed from the walls, bringing them back to their original stone. The floors were uncovered as well, and what remained is amazing, with bowed floors, high arched ceilings. It’s like a cathedral built on a smaller scale, with a cave for a sanctuary.
The three domed vaults of the ceiling and mirrored bowed floors give the illusion of the hull of a boat. With the continual sound of running water, it feels, with your eyes closed like you’re at sea.
In late 2009, the Companions of the White Spring built a series of pools, using the principles of sacred geometry. The temple pool is only two foot deep, but the healing pool reaches a depth of four and a half feet, which allows you to be completely immersed in the waters of the White Spring. Those who do so often find it a mystical and magical experience.
Some sit quietly and gaze into its waters, others cry and mourn the loss of loved ones. Others pray for a miracle. There are those there together in love. There are those who are there alone. We all go to these places for our own reasons. Glastonbury can be teeming with tourists, but it seems that once inside the darkened hall, a hushed tone falls over everyone.
Within the building, which the Companions of the White Spring refer to, appropriately enough as a temple, small shrines have been built. These are meant in offering to the ancient spirits thought to permeate the area, the King of the Realm of Faery – Gwyn ap Nudd, Herne the Hunter, St. Michael, the Lady of Avalon, and the guardian of the temple, Brigid.
Those who believe in ley lines find a special significance in both the Red and White Springs. According to Mano Warren, a healer who works in Glastonbury, both the line of Michael and Mary pass through Glastonbury. Speaking with the BBC, she put forth the view held by many, that both lines intersect at the Chalice Well. The Red Spring is thought to be the masculine force in alchemical terms, while the White Spring embodies the feminine.
It’s hard to dismiss the idea of ley lines out of hand, though it’s easy to see that a load of shit has been written about them and the British landscape over the past 150 years. And yet it’s easy to believe that there’s something at work here, some force that has kept much of the countryside of Britain enchanted for so long, while much of the world has lost its magic spell.
My time in the Chalice gardens felt like a funeral and I walked over to the White Spring to mourn for lost love and let it die. That’s where it happened. My time inside there felt sacred. It was the second time I’d felt that way in my life. I dipped my head under water and came out baptized. There really isn’t any other word for it. Actually there are, it’s whatever spiritual moment where something inside you changes and the next moment you are reborn. All the shit you’ve carried around with you all your life is gone. Unless you choose to pick it back up again.
It was cloudy and overcast, occasional light rains, what the Irish might call a soft day. I picked up a couple of tea candles at the door and tossed in a donation. Then I left the light outside and descended the three steps into the temple. Walking into the darkness of the well house of the White Spring was like stepping into a sacred cave. It takes your eyes a moment to catch up to the sudden darkness, and in the meantime your hearing comes alive. The sound of running water and hushed voices echo around the interior. It smells sweet and wet, like a grassy field right after the rain.
As my eyes got used to the darkness, I saw the place come alive in candlelight and shadow, which danced on the walls and ceilings. You couldn’t make out the shape of the room, and I never even grasped the truth that it wasn’t carved into the Tor, that there was actual architecture at play. The center is dominated by a large, circular pool, which is fed by the springs flowing into the back of the building through multiple portals.
I saw three robed figures wading into the pool, a man on the left, a dark haired woman on the right, a fair haired woman in the center. The man and woman flanking the fair haired one each had one of her hands in theirs. They stopped, reached over and the blonde lady’s robe came off and she stepped naked further into the water, and my mind reeled.
It was something out of a dream, a moment which under normal circumstances I would have felt didn’t belong to me. Except we were all here for the same reason, though we all were looking for something different.
We were searching for the sacred, for the divine, for a connection to something larger than ourselves. We sought something ancient, something which can’t be touched but only felt. We were searching for magic to heal us.
I walked around the space, looking for a place to sit, to think. I passed people sitting alone, a couple of couples, one whispering softly to each other, the other kissing deeply. The naked woman walked further into the pool, then as her companions each took one of her hands again, she disappeared into the water.
I found a place to sit and let the darkness of the place overcome me and closed my eyes. I thought of my love, I thought of the love that filled me to overflowing. I made myself as still as I could be and felt my heart pumping in my chest. I remembered that we said we shared a heart, and I listened for her voice in there, but heard nothing.
The sense of loss was overwhelming and I cried. I felt like Alice swimming in a sea of tears, the sound of rushing waters deafening to me now, the moisture permeating the air, my skin absorbing it through my pores. It felt as though every tear that fell from my eyes was replaced by another from the spring, so I might cry forever.
Eventually my eyelids opened and through my bleary eyes I once more saw the flickering of candles. I looked to my right and saw water rushing from a split in the wall, falling onto a shelf, which cascaded down to another shelf and into the main pool.
I stood and walked up to it, approaching the source. Here it seemed I came face to face with the rushing waters of time, that which can never be slowed down, that which can never be stopped. For even if I blocked this portal into the Tor, the water would find away around the obstacle and past me. I couldn’t stop time, I couldn’t even slow it down.
I found the two candles in my pocket, lit one for me and placed it on the stone shelf next to the rushing water. I lit the other, thought of and placed it on the shelf next to mine and hung my head low.
I watched the two candles burning there though, and I knew it was now. I knew there would never be a moment where this loss felt right, and so with our lights burning together for the last time I turned to leave. To let our last moments of light play out together, alone with each other beside the rushing waters.
I could see the entrance to the temple from there and the light beyond, which shone bright and white as though illuminating life outside, a light to go into from the darkness of my soul.
The expanse of the pool was to my left and on a whim I dipped my fingers into the waters and splashed them onto the back of my neck. The feeling was electric, as though where the droplets touched my soul sprung back to life.
I stopped and turned to face the pool, to look down into its waters. It was blackness, the only light reflections from the candles surrounding it, dancing upon its surface.
Without thinking, without conscious thought at all I plunged my head fully into the darkness, pulled into its depths by an unseen force. I expected to hear silence, or the muffled sounds we hear when we go under water in the bath tub or a swimming pool. What I heard instead was a roar. Not coming through my ears, but springing up from inside me. It was a cry for life, a cry for air. It was as though the spirit within me was rising up from the depths and clawing for the light.
I pulled my head from the water and as I broke the surface I felt instantly the pain falling from me, and back into the pool. My eyes opened wide and I drew what felt like my first free breath in days. My first thought was “my fucking god that was cold.”
And it was. The water stays a frigid 10-11 degrees celsius, which is 50 degrees for those of us who never made the change jump from fahrenheit. I realized that for the first time in days I’d had a thought that didn’t involve her, that wasn’t of abject pain. I realized that there was still life.
My spirit roared back into my body and I felt a smile grow upon my face. I felt my heart lighten and my smile grew. It hit me as I moved towards the door what happened. I’d been reborn, baptized.
I was what the Christians call an unwashed soul. I’d dabbled in Christianity my whole life. Hell, I believe much of it. I still believe Jesus taught us the way people should live and love. That was his message after all, love one another. It’s what I’d believed ever since I heard the tinny voice of John Lennon coming over the AM radio singing “all you need is love.”
I was filled with love now. I had nothing to spend my love on, but I knew somehow I’d find something. Not romantic love. That died as I slipped my head into the pool, along with every other part of me which was flawed, which just didn’t fucking work for me.
I found all those aspects of myself, all that had held me bound in chains for a lifetime felt just … gone. I felt like an empty chalice, ready to be filled again. I didn’t know with what, but I knew it was out there, someplace.
I was born again that afternoon in the well house of the White Spring. Those ancient waters renewed me and brought me back to life, and in the process washed away all that had left me broken and brittle.
In that temple dedicated to ancient gods, I found the death of my dreams, the death of my soul, and a new life was born as my head lifted from that pool, a pool made of the very essence of life itself.
We are made primarily of water, we live on a planet which is mostly covered with water. Water flows along its surface, it falls from the sky, it bubbles up from its depths. When we’re in our mother’s womb we’re surrounded by it. When our heart breaks it pours from our eyes. In the heat of passion it seeps from our pores.
And when we need new life, when we need to be reborn, we find it in water as well.
I took a breath and started for the door, and once more, as though for the first time, stepped into the light.