Arthurian England Tour Part 4: Glastonbury Tor and Chalice Well

View from the base of the Tor

View from the base of the Tor

For anyone who has Avalonian leanings, loves Arthurian legend or perhaps took reading The Mists of Avalon a little too seriously (I’m guilty on all three counts), climbing Glastonbury Tor is like journeying to Mecca or the Vatican. It’s the ultimate sacred spot.

Part way up the Tor. Jamie's dogs, Lady and Blue, are leading the way

Part way up the Tor. Jamie’s dogs, Lady and Blue, are leading the way

I’ve spent years reading about the Tor in fiction and non-fiction, visiting it in meditation and writing about it. Finally, a few weeks ago, I actually got to be there. When I first saw it from the road, I couldn’t believe how tall and imposing the Tor is. Eventually, I figured out I always pictured it from the top, not what it would look like from far away. It’s easy to see why it’s a sacred site for Christians and neo-pagans alike.

I made it to the top!

I made it to the top!

The day we climbed the Tor, I was so excited. It is quite a trek to get up there, but it’s worth it. Many, many uneven stairs await at the bottom. Sometimes your climbing is so steep, it feels like you’re going to fall off. One of our tour members, Maureen, has vertigo, so she was more crawling than walking, but she was determined to make it. While on the hike up, you can see the terraced path that winds around the Tor (it’s clearer in some places than in others). I’m of the belief that it was a labyrinth used for ritual purposes. Given that it took us an hour to reach the top just using the stairs, I can’t imagine how long it would have taken to wind in and out of the labyrinth.

Chalice Hill from the top of the Tor

Chalice Hill from the top of the Tor

Once you reach the top (you will be out of breath, I promise), there is a clear view of Chalice Hill to the west (it’s now private property, so you can’t climb it :(), Wearyall Hill to the south (it was closed to the public while we were there), Penn Hill to the east and of course, the village below. You can even see to Wells. Our guide told us that there is some evidence that there was once a ring of standing stones on the summit, which makes me very happy, since that’s how I’ve always pictured it and how I’ve portrayed it in my books.

The compass-like marker at the top of the Tor

The compass-like marker at the top of the Tor

The summit of the Tor is much smaller than you may think. I wonder what the size of the original church on top was. It couldn’t have been too big, considering the space they had to work with. Of course, St. Michael’s tower (sadly defaced with people carving their initials all over it) is all that remains. (It’s a nice place to hide from gale force winds, by the way!) Also at the top is a beautiful stone and metal marker that is engraved on the top like a compass, showing all the ley lines and points of interest nearby and how far away they are. It really brings home what a confluence of power the Tor is.

Our group at the summit of the Tor

Our group at the summit of the Tor

We stayed long enough to take photos and meditate. On the way back down, we stopped and each sat on the “healing stone” which has several miraculous cures associated with it. Then it was on to Chalice Well.

The Chalice Well gardens are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. When we were there, they were holding some kind of healing retreat, so there were white tents all over. One of the women who had been there before said it marred the beauty, but I didn’t mind. The gardens are one of the most peaceful places I’ve been. I’d be there all the time if I lived there. More flowers than you can imagine greet you at every turn, along with stands of yew, pine and oak, as you move inward toward the Red Spring. There are many places for quiet contemplation along the way.

The Red Spring

The Red Spring

Chalice Well with its iconic covering

Chalice Well with its iconic covering

The Red Spring is so named because waters (from a natural spring that has never run dry) are high in iron, staining the stones they touch red. Legend says it is stained red from Christ’s blood because the Grail (or at least a cruet of His blood) was stored in it by Joseph of Arimathea. Others say the color represents lifeblood and female menstrual blood.  The water comes out of the earth from between Chalice Hill and the Tor. It’s visible in a few places (including a beautiful flower cascade fountain at the entrance), but is only safe to drink from at the lion’s head. We drank from it and everyone was fine. It’s warm, so that makes it taste funny, but other than that, it just appears to be water. Personally, I hope it really is healing like people say. There is a place with a special Vesta Pisces cover where you can hear the waters below ground and mediate.

View of the Tor from Chalice Gardens, in the place where Marion Zimmer Bradley's ashes are scattered

View of the Tor from Chalice Gardens, in the place where Marion Zimmer Bradley’s ashes are scattered

After the Red Spring, Jamie, our tour guide, pulled me aside and told me he was sorry Marion Zimmer Bradley wasn’t still alive because he would have introduced us. (He knows what an impact Mists had on me, in many ways.) He then pointed to a tree and told me at its base is where he personally scattered her ashes, according to her will. Then he told me to look up. Her final resting place is forever in sight of the Tor. It is where she requested and is the most fitting place in the world. He then gave me a few moments alone. Despite feeling silly, I cried and thanked her and told her what an effect her writing had on me. In some ways, it was more personal than meeting her would have been. I will forever hold that moment, and the memory of the view from where she rests, in my heart.

Flowers at Chalice Well Gardens

Flowers at Chalice Well Gardens

The White Spring is somewhere nearby. It is the other than runs in the valley between the Tor and Chalice Hill. It’s color is supposed to represent mother’s milk or semen. We were supposed to visit it, but never did for some reason.

One of the fountains at Chalice Well

One of the fountains at Chalice Well

By the end of the day, I truly felt like I had been to Avalon. Between these places and the wild orchard and garden behind Glastonbury Abbey (seriously, it looks like someone went into my head and planted Avalon’s orchards in real life), I have no doubt that this is sacred space. Each person needs to believe what he or she wishes. But I know I have found my spiritual home.

The orchards/garden behind Glastonbury Abbey look like Avalon to me.

The orchards/garden behind Glastonbury Abbey look like Avalon to me.

Have you ever been to Glastonbury Tor? What was your experience? Do you want to go? What have you read/heard about it? What do you believe about it and the sacred springs?

Avalon Part 3: Avalon in My Books

My vision of Avalon. See bottom of this post for explanation of this image. Image created by and copyright held by the author. Please email before using.

When I originally conceived this series of Avalon posts (part 1, part 2), I planned to include a deleted scene from my first book to give you the back story. But now I’m saving deleted scenes for after the book is published – as bonus material – because, well, they were deleted for a reason. And then when I wrote out the back story in its entirety, I realized I had a partial synopsis for another potential book on my hands, so I can’t give you as much detail as I really want to. Without that detail, it be seen as similar to that of other authors. But here’s what I can say:

The Avalon in my books has its roots in the enigmatic island of Atlantis. Its leaders and priests saw the disaster that was to come just in time to load up a few ships with people and supplies. After a perilous journey, one group landed on the western coast of what would come to be known as Britain.

There they did their best to replicate their lives on Atlantis, but found that their power was not nearly as strong. Still, they did what they could, learning from the native people, raising stone circles along the ley lines and carefully preserving the ways of their homeland. This mix of native and Atlantian beliefs eventually formed the religion of the Druids. (This is only for my books, not my true belief in the origins of Druidism.)  As the population grew and some of the people became restless, groups set off to form new communities in other parts of Britain and as far away as Brittany.

Even the beginning of the Roman occupation meant little change for the descendants of Atlantis. But slowly, they began sensing a threat. The Romans were jealous of the power the Druids held as judges and priests, and became increasing hostile. So, the Druids retreated to a small island called Mona, just off the coast of the kingdom of Gwynedd (Wales).

In 65 AD, everything changed. The Roman governor, Paulinas, who was well-known to be poisoned by a desire for power, was greatly angered by what he viewed as blatant disrespect to Rome. In a fit of madness, he ordered his army to attack the small island. Hundreds of heavily armed soldiers stormed the sacred isle and slaughtered the defenseless priests and priestesses living there. The battle, if a one-sided attack could be called such, became known as the Rape of Mona. (This whole paragraph is based on historical events.)

But as with the destruction of Atlantis, a few of the priests and priestesses survived. They split up – some went north and taught the tribes of the Picts, while the rest went south – in order to assure that if one community was attacked, others could continue to pass on the old ways. Those who went south separated into two groups, the men following the Archdruid to the Temple of the Stars, the women following the newly elected High Priestess who founded Avalon in the marshy area of Somerset called Glastonbury.

By 491 AD, nearly a century after the Romans left Britain to fend for herself, the inhabitants of Avalon were so many generations removed from Atlantis that few really cared about their ancestry. But it was a requirement that all students of the isle, whether they were to be consecrated priestesses or receive instruction only, learn the history. Still, few realized the Lady of Lake bore the responsibility of guarding precious artifacts from Atlantis. The others were the responsibility of the Archdruid and his community of men who lived in their own sacred space east of Avalon.

I can’t tell you who from Arthurian legend figures into life on Avalon or who is involved with the Archdruid, but suffice it to say many characters you wouldn’t normally think of are associated with this back story. And you’ll begin your discovery of Avalon and its inhabitants, mysteries and intrigue on the very first page. I can’t wait to make it available to you.

Explanation of image: I have such a strong mental image of Avalon that I could probably draw you a map, if I was so inclined. But I decided instead to try to show you what it looks like through Photoshop. In the foreground is the lake, with the boat that transfers you to and from the isle. Directly beyond are the small cluster of houses that make up the living and working quarters. Behind them are gardens where herbs and food are grown, and the famous apple orchards of Avalon. To the right, you see the Tor, base ringed by a small inland lake and tip ringed with standing stones (Stonehenge was the easiest thing for me to use; I don’t actually picture the stones exactly like that). Out of Tor runs the white spring. Chalice Hill is in near the top of the image, with the red spring flowing out of it. Where the two springs meet is a grove of yew trees. Beyond Chalice Hill are the Mendips, a mountain range that protects the small strip of Avalon not protected by the lake from the rest of the world. And yes, if you look closely, the mists are there as well.

Avalon Part 2: Glastonbury

Map of the Somerset area. Click to enlarge.

The area around Glastonbury has been inhabited since at least 4000 BC. With the exception of four hills, this area of Somerset is relatively flat. Ice ages and subsequent floods formed an inland sea or marsh around the base of the area’s highest hill, known in local parlance as the Tor.

Glastonbury Tor

Glastonbury Tor – The Tor rises 518 feet above the surrounding plain. Seven man-made rings are carved into its side, giving it a terraced or labyrinth-like appearance. It is believed these were made by Iron Age people, possibly for farming or to allow a great number of people to meet in a central place at once, perhaps for a sacred ritual.

The real-life mists of Avalon

The Tor has long been believed to be an opening between heaven, earth and the underworld. Some believe that like many of earth’s holy places (Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, etc.), it sits on intersecting lines of mystical energy called ley lines, which are thought to attract magic and powerful spiritual forces.

For those who have read The Mists of Avalon, the mists are real, although they rise naturally at dawn and dusk, not through magical means. However, Glastonbury is protected/separated from the outside world by a man-made earthwork called Pointer’s Ball.

There is archeological evidence that the Tor was occupied in the early part of first millennium, possibly for military purposes, and that a hill fort once occupied the site. That fits with the Arthurian story that Glastonbury is where either Meleagant or Mordred (depending on the version) held Guinevere hostage after kidnapping her.

The white spring

Christian lore holds that Joseph of Arimathea, made wealthy in the tin and silver trade, visited Glastonbury with his nephew Jesus. Alternately, Joseph was said to have fled to the isle after Jesus’ death with either the Holy Grail or two cruets, one containing Jesus’ blood and the other water from his side. When he buried the cruets, the red and white springs (see below for more) flowed from their sacred liquids. Joseph is also credited with either transplanting or miraculously growing a hawthorn bush in the area that blooms (according to some legends) only on Christmas day.

Joseph is said to have built the first Christian church on the Tor, probably a hut made from sapling branches. This evolved into a monastery somewhere between 600-800 AD that stood on the site until King Henry VIII dissolved England’s monasteries in 1539. Today, all that remains is a single tower, known as St. Michael’s Tower.

White Spring – The white spring has its source somewhere under the Tor. It is named for the white mineral deposits (calcite) it leaves on the cave as it emerges from the Tor. It is thought to have healing powers and is said to represent the life-giving forces of milk and semen.

Chalice Well

Red Spring/Chalice Well – The red spring has its source in Chalice Hill, the area’s second highest hill. It is named for the iron in its waters, which turns everything it touches red – including rocks and  tree sap. At Chalice Well, the spring that maintains a constant temperature of 52 degrees (11 Celsius). It is considered sacred and represents blood, which has associations with both life and death. Both springs rise to the surface in the valley between Chalice Hill and the Tor.

Today, Glastonbury is an eclectic town that attracts tourists, locals, Arthurian legend enthusiasts, Christians and pagans alike. What it may once have been can only be guessed at, but everyone seems to agree there is something unique about the site. Exactly what that is is up to you.

If you’d like to learn more, I recommend:

Next week I’ll share with you the back story on Avalon in my books.

Have any of you been to Glastonbury or are you planning to go? If so, please share your stories below. (And I’d love to see photos if you have them!) Do you think this is location of Avalon? Why or why not? If not, where do you think it is?

Avalon Part 1: Myth and Legend

Photo courtesy of Peter Pracownik

Happy New Year, everyone! This time of year always makes me think of Avalon. Maybe that’s because I was first introduced to it (via the Mists of Avalon) during January. Whatever the case, it took root in my imagination and has been growing there ever since.

Avalon has been part of Celtic mythology and Arthurian legend for almost as long as the legends themselves. Also known as the Isle of Apples or Isle of Glass, it’s most popularly seen as a sort of Otherworldly paradise like the Welsh Annwn or the Irish Tír na nÓg. It was said to produce abundant crops that didn’t need tending and to be a place of never ending summer (much like Camelot in the musical version). Tradition says it was inhabited by nine queens or priestesses known for their mystical and healing abilities. King Arthur is said to have been taken there (in some versions by Morgan) after receiving his mortal wound from Mordred at the battle of Camlann. Some say he never died, but sleeps there still.

But one thing no one can seem to agree on is where Avalon is located. Locations in France, Spain, Italy, the Mediterranean, the Orient, and even somewhere near the Garden of Eden have been put forth over the years. In more recent times, many writers (and a few scholars) have attempted to connect Avalon with the island of Atlantis, or at least the survivors of its great tidal wave and destruction. (I happen to like this theory, but its only just that.)

Today, popular opinion names Avalon’s real word location as Glastonbury in Somerset, England, thanks to a “grave” discovered in 1190 by a group of monks. According the legend, the grave contained the bones of two bodies, a very tall man, and a woman, whose blonde hair was in tact when the monks opened the casket. The grave marker is said to have borne the inscription, “Here lies renowned King Arthur in the island of Avalon” or “Here lies buried the famous King Arthur with Guinevere his second wife in the isle of Avalon.” This discovery has long since been discredited as a hoax arranged by the monks of an abbey on the site to bring in pilgrims (and thus, revenue), but the connection remains in popular consciousness.

This is the first in a three-part series exploring the holy isle. Next week we’ll take a closer look at Glastonbury and the remarkable geographic features that have fed the continuation of its association with Avalon.

What legends associated with Avalon have you heard? Do you believe it exists? Why or why not? This is by far my favorite part of Arthurian legend, so I’m anxious to get a conversation going.