Bubbling up from the base of Glastonbury Tor are two springs which arguably give Glastonbury much of its renown. The sacred, the myths and legends of what is often called England’s most holy ground has its epicenter in the flowing waters found here.
It’s long been my belief that the truth of a place can’t be found in facts, but in the landscape of the collective mind. When a place inspires those who find themselves there as Glastonbury does, there has to be more than meets the eye. And certainly more than can be verified as authentic history. History is a record of what was. Myth is a living, breathing and changing thing.
Chalice Well, one of Britain’s most ancient wells and the flowing heart of Chalice Well Gardens, tap into what is known as the Red Spring, or the Blood Spring. Located in the outskirts of Glastonbury, a nice walk of about ten to fifteen minutes from the center of town, both the Red Spring and its neighbor, the White Spring lie between Glastonbury Tor and Chalice Hill, in a small valley known as the Vale of Avalon. It’s easy to miss it by car, as there is no carpark, no glaring signs. Inside, the gardens surrounding the Red Spring are a sanctuary and place of pilgrimage, a quiet spot in a busy town, where it’s still possible to feel the magic of the place, and if legend and custom are correct, find healing.
Chalice Well Gardens, has the official designation of a World Peace Garden, and operates under a universal spiritual premise of ‘Many Paths, One Source.’
There’s a small booth at the entrance where you pay your fee and buy an empty plastic bottle if you forgot to bring your own. If the garden is closed, or you don’t want to pay the fee, there’s an outlet on the wall outside the garden to fill your bottles. It’s constantly busy it seems, as is the one across the street from the White Spring. It’s not just the long hairs, the constant presence in Glastonbury of what might be called hippies, or at least a distant descendent of them. People forget the hippies were a political movement, not just wanderers.
Once inside you’re in Wonderland, a cacophony of beautiful living things await the eye, all threaded by the red ochre tendrils of the Red Spring winding its way through. People tend to pick up on the hushed tones and quiet vibe of the place, and so you find something rare in a tourist attraction … peace and quiet.
Though its been here since prehistory, there are no records of the well until William of Malmesbury mentions it in writing in the early twelfth century,
Archaeological evidence fills in the blanks a bit, telling us that it has been in almost constant use for at least two thousand years. Flints from the upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic eras, as well as a sherd of Iron Age pottery found close at hand, are all the evidence science can muster to back Chalice Well’s reputation as a sacred site since since antiquity. Evidence of use in subsequent eras is also scant, though Roman and medieval sherds have been found here.
About 9,000 years ago the seas rose and the valleys and low lying ground around Glastonbury became inundated. It was during the Mesolithic era that these lands first saw settlement. At first it was simply seasonal camps on the high ground. These people found natural resources in the reed swamps, and began to build some of the world’s earliest known roads across the flooded ground. The Sweet Track, consisting of wooden planks laid end to end and built about 3807 BC, just west of Glastonbury, is significant not just because it was a road, but because it was engineered, and not just a well traveled path. Crossing the marsh between what was then an island at Westhay, and a ridge of high ground at Shapwick, it stretched over a mile in the lands known as the Somerset Levels.
Nearby, Glastonbury Lake Village, an Iron Age settlement sprung up near the old path of the River Brue, about three miles northwest of town, and close to modern day Godney. Around a hundred people lived communally in five to seven groups of houses, each the home of an extended family. Around the village they built a palisade for defense. It was first occupied circa 300 BC and was in use for about 400 years, till early in the Roman occupation.
A bronze age settlement came along just west of Glastonbury at Sharpham Park. So even if Glastonbury itself didn’t yet exist, there is plenty of evidence that people were coming to the area in ancient times.
The Red Spring climbs from a deep aquifer in the lower level of the Pennard Sands, at a steady pace of about 25,000 gallons a day. That’s a lot of water. It’s said to have never gone dry. The name comes from the reddish color of the water, which is due to iron oxide deposits it picks up along its way to the surface. The water is warmer than the surrounding air.
Springs with peculiar characteristics like this are thought to have had special significance in ancient times. A spring near Stonehenge which turns objects submerged in it pink, is thought by some to have been the catalyst for man’s early interest in the landscape there. Which eventually led to dragging in stones and finally, really big stones to build what we see today.
The springs at Glastonbury didn’t inspire any long lasting evidence of its position as a sacred site. There are no stone circles, nothing sculpted into the terrain. The famed Glastonbury Zodiac, the heavens laid out in the ancient landscape is now known to be nothing but fantasy. To believe that is was sacred requires, appropriately enough, faith.
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I’m sitting at my desk, here in the midwest of the United States. What I’m writing about it now memories, blurry, hazy and sometimes they feel quite unreal. In front of me is a bottle without a label, sacred water from the sacred spring.
In The Way of the Sacred, a book by Aldous Huxley, he talks about the way things become holy. He tells a hypothetical story about a tribe on an island which comes across a tennis shoe. It’s obviously not something found in nature. It’s not like anything they’ve seen before. It has to be a gift from the gods. And so it’s venerated and eventually becomes holy. It becomes part of the spiritual makeup of a people.
I first came to Glastonbury nearly twenty years ago. It was always a dream of mine since I was a kid. I didn’t even research it before I came, instead just bringing my childhood fantasies without any of my adult skepticism. I wanted to see it as a mythological place. I wasn’t disappointed.
My next visit was just a couple of years ago, at the beginning of a love affair. It was even more magical then. I brought back from that trip a bottle of water from the spring, which had sat unopened for the last couple of years.
This visit had become a pilgrimage when that affair went sour and I found myself lost. It wasn’t that there weren’t any other places I could have gone, that I even wanted to see. But I needed to be in Glastonbury today.
I take my water from the spring and splash some on the back of my neck. It gives me chills and not from the cold. I realize like Huxley’s fictional tribe, my bottle of Glastonbury water has become my tennis shoe, my sacred. Is there a power in the water like so many believe? Perhaps, and perhaps it’s all in my head.
But isn’t that the purpose of every pilgrimage? To seek? The finding of answers isn’t so important. What you usually find is that the answer to a question is usually a new question, and so you keep looking.
That day at the Red Spring I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I knew I was looking. I knew the pilgrim was on the move.
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Wells and springs were often thought to be a bridge from the underworld to the surface, which might have represented a chance of eternal life, which might have some bearing on the later legends of the holy grail and its role in the mystical fabric of Glastonbury. But we’re dealing with prehistory here. For that theory to be true requires faith that the earlier beliefs of the British people found their way into the earliest days of the Celtic Church.
That’s certainly a plausible thought, as the church has always been known for assimilating the beliefs of the people who were being absorbed into the new religion.
Others put the creation of the well in the hands of those often misunderstood but increasingly venerated class of iron age society, the Druids. It’s a common belief that the Druids were all priests. In fact it was simply a denotation of a class of professionals, which included, in addition to priests, lawyers, poets, doctors and teachers.
What the priests appear to have taught was a belief in life after death, in particular reincarnation. As such the thread between a Druid well and waters that bring eternal life becomes a bit more substantial.
Druids first spring up in writings dating from about 200 BCE, though the most famous description of them was from Julius Caesar, a hundred and fifty years later. Under Roman occupation, the Druids were suppressed during the reigns of Tiberius and Claudius. By 200 BCE there were no more mention of them. Considering the modern day interest in Druidism, one would think that a longer lived class of people would be chosen to be venerated. Four hundred years is a drop in the bucket of time when it comes to religions.
The druids were, after the nobility, the most important members of early celtic society, and in some ways more so. Unlike the Knight’s Templars who have enjoyed a similar resurgence, the Druids weren’t warrior priests, which gives them a more peaceful and pastoral appeal. Druids had their own weapon however, excommunication. Being responsible for the connection to your god meant that in addition to being responsible for religious ceremonies, they also had the power to decide who could and couldn’t take part. Which gave them the power to decide whom the gods had abandoned.
Unfortunately, all the instruction given to Druids in learning the craft were done orally. So nobody knows exactly what they were taught, what they knew or what they believed. Most of the writings we have about them were written after all, by their enemies. Quite often they were based on reports of soldiers returning from Britain, Ireland and Gaul. And it’s likely that beliefs varied from place to place.
Even the stories of human sacrifice, the infamous wicker man has been called into question. It’s thought that stories of cruelty highlighted the barbarity of the people, and it was quite likely fictionalized to show that they were a people who were deserved of conquering. There are those that speak of a nobility to the Druids as being a way to show that Rome was indeed the most powerful force in the world, to overcome the Celts and the magic of the Druids.
Once again, to believe in the way of the Druid, as so many do today, requires an incredibly amount of faith. Imagination helps as well. There is no evidence to support the idea that the Chalice Well was built by Druids. But it doesn’t stop people from believing.
Other new age types believe that the flowing water of springs are a gift from the Mother Goddess, an essential ingredient that brings life to the planet – a boundless source of life force.
I first heard about the Red Spring and Chalice Well because of its association with Joseph of Arimathea and the Holy Grail.
The legend has many strands and variation, but it goes something like this.
As those who are up on their Christianity remember, Joseph of Arimathea was the fellow who went to Pilate during the crucifixion to barter for the body of Jesus. Succeeding in that, he laid him to rest in a tomb built for himself. Joseph was believed to have been an uncle of Jesus, a tin merchant whose business brought him to England’s shores. Which isn’t as far-fetched as you’d think.
Some believe that in Jesus’ missing years, before he started his ministry, he traveled with Joseph to Britain. Hence the idea found in Blake’s famous poem, Prelude to Milton or as it’s better known, Jerusalem … “And did these feet in ancient time / Walk upon England’s mountains green? /And was the holy Lamb of God /On England’s pleasant pastures seen?”
As the story goes, following the crucifixion, Joseph brought the Holy Grail with him to England, where he intended to start a church. He also brought a staff, cut from a hawthorn tree which was used to create the crown of thorns.
Upon arriving in Glastonbury across the flooded Somerset Levels, Joseph disembarked from his boat, looked around and in what later became the grounds of the Chalice Well, he thrust his staff into the ground, which miraculously burst into bloom. And so was born the Glastonbury Thorn. He proclaimed “this is where I will build my church.”
Since then the holy hawthorn blooms twice a year, in spring and at Christmas. There is evidence of an ancient church on the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey. Unfortunately it doesn’t appear ancient enough to have been built by Joseph. And so the story of the oldest Christian church in Europe, one of the oldest in the world, turns to vapor.
There is still a descendent of the Glastonbury Thorn growing in Chalice Gardens. Glastonbury Abbey has their own holy hawthorn as well, so if one was to use legends a basis of authenticity, the one in the abbey would be a more likely candidate. The Glastonbury Thorn is now found all over. There’s even one in the garden of H’s house.
Of the two most famous descendants, neither is original. The first mention of the Glastonbury Thorn in history has it growing in various locations in the town. It was much later that these two most well known specimens were planted. Afterwards they’ve been burned, hacked and chopped down, becoming over the years a political symbol as well as spiritual. But there are always new saplings ready to take their place, so that each Christmas, a new cutting in bloom is presented to the queen.
Then there’s the grail.
The grail was said to be the cup that Jesus used at the last supper. Somehow Joseph, who wan’t there according to all accounts, managed to locate where they dined that night, found the exact cup he used during supper, and used it to catch his blood when he was on the cross. Which makes for a busy day, considering in the short time Jesus was on the cross, he would have had to have located the cup and paid his visit to Pilate, and then hoof it to Golgotha.
Legends have it that Joseph dropped the grail into the well for safekeeping, and the waters miraculously ran red. Hence the moniker of the Blood Spring. It seems rather curious that he’d do so however, knowing he was cleaning it of the holy blood. Others say he washed it in the well, or stashed it in a cave within the well, or someplace nearby. The washing in the well is important, as it becomes the reason the Red Spring runs red. Why he would feel the need to hide a cleanly washed cup is a very good question. Particularly as at the time, it’s likely nobody who hadn’t spoken to Joseph would have known who Jesus was.
But this is not only religion, which often makes little sense, but legend, myth and ancient tourist advertisements. Combining these elements often leads to one having to engage in mental gymnastics to make the pieces fit. But salvation is big business in Glastonbury, and even in the literature from Glastonbury Abbey, you see that they have no desire to shatter anyone’s beliefs. When faced with overwhelming evidence that you’re believing a fantasy, you’re allowed, nay encouraged to continue in your belief.
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Pilgrims come to the Chalice Well. You get the feeling it’s an ancient rite, but in reality it really only kicked in during the 18th century.
We’re drawn to wells. There are so many stories about them. There’s the Biblical story of Jesus and the woman at the well. But there are menacing strains as well. Countless tales of people ending up at the bottom of a well, like at the Red Lion in Avebury. Or H’s threat to throw me in the well in her house as an act of retribution, for an affront many years ago. In America, when it was still wilderness, mothers would tell their children stories about the terrifying things which hide at the well, to watch, wait and devour.
Perhaps it’s the water we’re drawn to, the fundamental life force of the mother goddess some say. We’re made up mostly of water. The planet is made up mostly of water. You can go a week, two weeks easy without food. A few days with no water and you’re dead. Some wells become sacred. The Chalice Well is one of those.
Following World War I, a well cover was given as a gift, which found its way into the Glastonbury iconography. It was designed by Frederick Bligh Bond, and is based on the Vesica Piscus, a symbol going all the way back to Euclid, essential to gothic architecture, and venerated by both church and masonic orders. To the Irish and the Welsh, wells were known to be one of those places where the inner worlds and outer worlds overlap. Or as others frame it, the underworld and the world up top. The symbol echoes that. Bisected by a sword which could harken to Arthur’s Excalibur, it helps to cement Glastonbury’s place in Arthurian mythology. The Glastonbury thorn is represented. It’s weaving together symbols to tell a story.
In Bligh’s own words … “typical of many early diagrams, all having the same object – the rendering of spiritual truth by means of the purest, most intellectual system of imagery conceived by the mind, namely, truth which is ‘aeonial’ or eternal, of which geometry is the best interpreter, since it can figure for us with remarkable suggestiveness those formative principles upon which the Father has built his Creation, principles which shall endure when heaven and earth have died.”
Glastonbury has been a town split down the middle for centuries. The division stems in large part from Chalice Well itself.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, springs became big business in Britain. Nearby, Bath underwent a growth surge, driven in large part by tourists flocking to the famous springs from which the town takes its name. There were residents in Glastonbury who wanted a piece of that action, and so the Red and White springs became tourist attractions. For a while it worked, bringing in tens of thousands of people to Glastonbury. These people spent money, when they could find something to spend it on at least. Today downtown Glastonbury is besotted with book stores, gift shops, witch and magic shops, coffee houses, pubs. It’s the British equivalent of Salem in a sense. But at the time it was just another village with incredibly muddy streets, and not enough pubs.
There were those who loved the flow of tourists. There are some who bitched incessantly. And there were some who bitched and happily pocketed the revenue.
Things haven’t changed in Glastonbury. One wonders if there were throngs of hippie types back in the heyday of the springs? Hippies no, but something perhaps more real. Hippies choose their lifestyle. The dregs which lived on the street in 18th century Glastonbury were poor and downtrodden by class, circumstance and fate. They came because there was something that separated the springs at Glastonbury from the more famous ones in Bath. And that was the miraculous.
Towns with springs being offered up to the great gods of tourism in the 18th and 19th century pushed the medicinal angle. The scientific. The age of reason was still fresh in people’s minds, and so rational explanations for the ability of a hot spring to improve health were pushed.
This wasn’t the case in Glastonbury. For one, they simply couldn’t come up with a valid medicinal angle to lay claim to. More important, tourism here began with a miracle. And so people didn’t come for their health. Quite often then came as a last resort. The end of the line. From the beginning, Glastonbury saw more than its share of the poor, the crippled, the needy. The people of Glastonbury did their best to rise to the challenge, and charities began springing up. Perhaps it was a desire for a cosmetic benefit, to get the needy off the streets so as not to frighten away the tourists who brought cash.
For a while it worked, and then Glastonbury lost favor. Partly it was declining interest in taking the water as was the fashion for a while. Then there was the hassle of travel. Glastonbury wasn’t as conveniently located as Bath or Wells. It was in the backwaters of Somerset. So the throngs stopped coming. The shipments of water from the springs stopped shipping. But the dregs on the street, who came looking for a miracle remained.