On the way back to the car after our Glastonbury Tor climb (previous post) we passed the entrance to the Chalice Well Gardens, source of the Red Spring where Joseph of Arimathea is said to have placed the chalice of the Last Supper that also collected the drops of Christ’s blood at the crucifixion – the Holy Grail. I’d taken some German dowsers there in 1988 who were fascinated by the iron oxide-rich water and the powerful responses from their dowsing implements. It’s a lovely space, not just for the well and the water that threads through the site, but for the plants, the tranquil atmosphere and a picnic meadow for summer days (there are some photos at end of post); though tempted to go in we felt we didn’t have time on this occasion, but paradoxically got wonderfully waylaid by something unexpected and also water related!
A few steps further and we were about to cross the end of the steep Well House Lane that comes down from the Tor, but looking up the narrow lane we could see a number of people milling about by an old building. Intrigued we walked up to see what was going on. I then remembered driving up and down this lane after a meandering photography exploration years ago and had noticed then a shuttered, dark and gloomy stone building squatting anachronistically into the bank 50 yards up the hill from this junction. I guessed at the time from its characteristic style that it was some kind of Victorian waterworks.
We reached the building and the people we’d seen, some were filling bottles from taps and pipes in its walls, others, surprisingly, were entering or leaving the building. Display boards by an open doorway into this stone block requested ‘no photography or mobile phones’ and warned of darkness, slippery surfaces and spiritual awakening. We still didn’t know what was in there but the surprising enchantment just visible through the doorway fended off any innate skepticism of New Age wonders.
Entering the building we were astonished; darkness, flickering candles and the roar of fast rushing water were the first sensations that drew us inside, where, as our eyes became accustomed to the ghostly illumination we began to make out the stone vaulted chambers of the interior. The water we had first heard was now copiously apparent, gushing out of the rear wall, flowing abundantly over rocks, into pools and through channels in the gently curved floor, all making the space mysteriously invigorating, and such a dark contrast to the brilliance we’d experienced above here, on top of the Tor just a few hours earlier.
We later learnt it had indeed been a reservoir built in the 1870s to provide a source of clean water after a cholera epidemic in the town. Unfortunately the water from the spring that fed this reservoir was abundant in calcite, not oxide like its red neighbour across the lane; so much lime scale was deposited in the pipes that it became unusable, closing towards the end of the 19thC and water was subsequently piped in from other sources. However, before the reservoir was built the spring that fed it had been a beautiful sight issuing from the hillside; George Wright a teacher in the town wrote in 1896:
“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 verdure, 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”
This is the White Spring and in addition to its natural beauty it was reputed to have been venerated for centuries – a companion and complement to the Red Spring across the road. If you believe in such things as ley lines (I was an avid reader of books by John Michell, Alfred Watkins and their ilk, and remain intrigued) the Michael line runs right through the reservoir building and crosses the almost parallel Mary line at Chalice Well.
I subsequently found out that at some point in the 1980s the abandoned building was sold and it became a cafe for a while, water from the spring being made freely available to all from a tap outside the building. But more recently the site has been acquired by a trust and work has been done by volunteers – the Companions of The White Spring to create the series of pools (using sacred geometry apparently) that flow through the revived structure and where people are free to bathe. The building is now a consecrated temple – although I’m not quite clear what that means. Although I travelled fairly regularly through the town I hadn’t been aware of this change of use as my route took me round the other side of the town, so the transformation was a pleasing surprise.
Amongst the water and candles and drift of slightly awestruck visitors were a few sprigs and twigs of early flowers and hazel branches and some of the types of paintings you might expect to find in Glastonbury (a matter of taste I guess) which were placed at areas designated as shrines. These were in honour of various ‘beings’. One of these was Brigid, who, we learned from a Companion, would be celebrated in a few days’ time on February 1st – the Celtic festival of Imbolc.
This was the same milkmaid who had just made herself known to me on the tower above this spring! I was aware of St Brigid the Irish saint, but knew little of her, or what her connection was to Imbolc and Glastonbury; I felt a quiet but compelling desire to learn more about her once I got back home, but the discovery of the White Spring was an energising delight. More on St Brigid here.
Below are some photographs from the Chalice Well gardens from summer 2019.