In his great novel A Glastonbury Romance John Cowper Powys stated that, ‘No sacred pool, in Rome, or Jerusalem, or Mecca, or Thibet, has gathered such an historic continuum of psycho-chemical force about it’.
Chalice Well Gardens lie at the base of Glastonbury Tor and the adjacent smaller dome-shaped Chalice Hill. The place is a great example of how much mythology has become connected to Glastonbury. Supposedly Joseph of Arimathea had brought the Holy Grail there. In one version of the tales the Grail was a chalice. In another it was represented by two vials containing blood and sweat from Jesus. These had either been left in the well itself or buried in Chalice Hill. There was a link between the sacred artifacts and the red coloration of the well water. There was a chamber beneath the well that had been the place of Druid sacrificial rites. Arthur’s half-sister Morgan Le Fey was also somehow involved due to her association with the Isle of Avalon.
These tales cannot be traced back very far, even to the time of the Abbey. Although Chalice Hill does look like an inverted cup, the name is a recent development from chilk or chalk. Chilkwell St, on which the entrance to the gardens is situated, is a reminder of this. As for the underground well-head, it is only underground because of a significant silting of the valley that had occurred after the Tor and Chalice Hill had been deforested in the early Middle Ages. It had originally stood above ground. It seems unlikely to date from Druid times although exactly when it was built is not entirely clear. Archaeology had unearthed a stump of yew dating from the Roman period. There are yew trees in the gardens to this day. These famously sacred trees have an established connection to places of the dead. To find them near a “blood spring” and in the vicinity of a hill considered to be a possible entrance to the underworld seems significant. It seems obvious that the ancients would have felt the place to be important.
The obvious focus of the site is, of course, the well itself. The well-head is covered by a lid bearing a vesica piscis design created by the mystical archaeologist architect Frederick Bligh Bond in 1919.
Water is not accessible to drink from the well head itself but midway through the garden a carved lion head gushes forth the red-tinged water that has drawn pilgrims through the ages. Glasses are left in place for easy access.
The water then re-emerges in the area known as King Arthur’s Court, an area of powerful energy and tranquility where the relaxing sound of flowing water is a constant backdrop.
The waters finally reappear in the lower garden where the vesica piscis design has been repeated in recent redevelopments.
Rather than criticizing its modern mythology it might be better to try and be open to the qualities of a location that could attract such beliefs. To wander and to sit in peace in the gardens is to experience a very distinctive repose and inspiration.
In 1959 the remarkable mystic Wellesley Tudor Pole, following a lifetime of strong associations with Glastonbury, set up the Chalice Well Trust, thereby securing the site for future generations to appreciate.
Chalice Well Gardens are open throughout the year with hours varying due to daylight length. In recent years the great dates of the natural calendar, the solstices and equinoxes and the days between such as Mayday, are commemorated with simple celebrations that attract considerable numbers of pilgrims from around the world. One of the great blessings of a Glastonbury Christmas is visiting there on Christmas morning, one of the occasions when entry is free.