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?

On Site in England: The Next Best Thing to Going Back in Time

The area of my trip.

Where I’ll be for the next 2 weeks

By the time you read this, I’ll either be in the frantic final throes of packing or blissfully winging my way across the Atlantic. That’s because I have the opportunity of a lifetime: taking a tour of England that is all based around Arthurian legend!

I’ve been dreaming about taking this tour since I first heard about it a few years ago. The leader is the guy who helped Marion Zimmer Bradley research the Mists of Avalon (which is what inspired me to write my books). We will have special guests on parts of the tour, including internationally renowned Arthurian scholar Geoffrey Ashe, modern-day Bard Kevan Manwaring, and other scholars on mythology and ancient sacred sites. Poor Mr. Ashe has no idea what he’s in for – a whole lot of questions about how to attack and defend a hill fort, plus anything else I can think of. His is a brain I can’t wait to pick!

Anyway, since I’m going to be gone two weeks, there will be no new posts here until June 16, which is our two year blogiversary! After that, I’ll do a series on sites from my trip and things I learned about the legends. Here’s a preview, by way of the itinerary of my trip:

Glastonbury Tor

Glastonbury Tor

Day 1: Travel to London, then to Whewell on the way to Glastonbury (which will be in all three books of my trilogy).

Day 2: Tour Glastonbury, including Wearyall Hill and the Holy Thorn, drinking from Chalice Well, climbing the Tor and visiting Glastonbury Abbey.

Day 3: Visit Cadbury castle, one of the sites thought to be home to Camelot. (This is one of the settings in book 2.) See the ancient Druid oaks of Gog and Magog.

Day 4: Travel to Cornwall, stopping at the holy well of St. Clether. Tour Tinagel castle and Merlin’s Cave. (I can’t wait for you guys to see where we’re staying in Tintagel. It’s breathtaking!)

Day 5: Visit the faerie glen of St. Nectan, the village of Boscatle and Rocky Valley (which has two Bronze Age carvings in a Cretan labyrinth).

Day 6: Head to Penzance and St. Michael’s Mount. Quality time by the sea.

Day 7: Take in the stone circles of Boscowen-un and the Merry Maidens, along with the stone monoliths called The Pipers. Visit the holy wells Madron and Sancreed.

Day 8: Visit haunted Bodmin Moor and the area made famous by Daphne Du Maurier. (I’m very excited about this because I want to write a gothic fantasy someday and am hoping to get the thread a of plot based in local legend.) Spend time in Dartmoor and Marlborough.

Sunrise at Stonehenge on the Midwinter Solstice by Mark Grant (Souce: Wikimedia Commons)

Sunrise at Stonehenge on the Midwinter Solstice by Mark Grant (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Day 9: Journey to Stonehenge for private access inside the stone circle to witness a real Druid sunrise ritual. Meet J.P. Reedman, who I interviewed, and whose book, Stone Lord, I reviewed. Visit Avebury – the largest stone circle in the world – West Kennet long barrow – the largest burial mound in Europe – and Silbury Hill.

Day 10: Travel back home, no doubt in awe and incredibly grateful for all I’ve seen.

This trip includes several items on my Bucket List. There are no words for how excited I am. I can’t even believe this is really happening. This is invaluable research for my books, a precious networking opportunity with Arthurian scholars and just plain fun for a geek like me. I won’t have Internet access while I’m there, but you’ll get plenty of photos and stories when I get back. I hope you all have fun while I’m gone. I’d tell you to behave, but I know my readers better than that!

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?