Cover of the Chalice Well at
Much legend surrounds this ancient sacred well. It is said that Joseph of Arimathea settled in Glastonbury during the 1st century AD and founded the first Christian settlement here. The chalice of the Last Supper that he is supposed to have brought with him gives its name to the holy well. If the legend about Joseph's community is correct, then the obvious place for it would have been in the vicinity of Chalice Well, which is the main natural water source in the area. The well itself is said to have an output of 25,000 gallons (120,000 litres) a day, and its water has a very high iron content, giving rise to the brownish-red encrustation of the stones over which it has flowed for many an age. To give an idea of its importance in this century, in the drought of 1921-22 it was the sole provider of fresh water for the entire town.
Little has been carried out in the way of archaeological excavation, and rightly so, due to the beautiful and peaceful setting of the present-day Chalice Well gardens. These are visited by many thousands of people from all parts of the world every year, many coming to drink of the well's unique water.
Regarding the well's Celtic connections, in a trench about 12 feet below the level of the present well the substantial root of a yew tree was unearthed. After accurate examination by Leeds University the tree was pronounced to have been alive from c.300 AD, and together with the fact that its remains are in line with several other living yew trees further down the gardens, this indicated that there may well have been a sacred pathway to the well in very early times. This would be in accord with the Celtic reverence for both the yew tree and the well itself. It is believed that at the time when the excavated yew tree was alive, the well was a prolific natural spring emerging directly from the ground at a point lower than the present-day well.
The well-structure of today dates from two different periods. The shaft is from the twelfth century and is built from stone taken from Glastonbury Abbey, which was destroyed by fire in 1184. From excavations of hewn wooden water-conduits it is thought that the well supplied the rebuilt Abbey in the mid-thirteenth century.
Above, and integral with the well-shaft is a pentagonal stone chamber, built during the 18th and 19th centuries, which is though to have acted as a basic water purifier before the water travelled downhill to the pilgrim's bathing pool in the gardens, and then on to the pump room in the town itself.
Today the well has a fine wooden lid with a wrought-iron design known as 'Vesica Pisces', (see front cover photograph). This is a very ancient symbol which was later adopted by Christians, as the central oval resembles the Sacred Fish. The well-cover was given as a peace offering by friends and admirers of the Chalice Well at the end of the first world war.
During the excavations mentioned earlier, when the yew tree root was discovered, several flint tools were found from the the Palaeolithic era, (remnants of a Goddess-centred habitation close to the spring?), as well as Iron Age, Roman and Mediaeval pottery shards at different depths in the ground.
The actual 'fame' of the well did not become widespread until the mid-1700's when a Somerset man made public an account of an unusual dream he had had, in which he was instructed to drink the well's water for seven successive Sundays. This he did, and found that his chronic asthma was cured immediately. Thereafter many thousands of people flocked to Glastonbury, and soon a 'book of cures' was compiled, with official accounts recorded as to the authenticity of each one.
Today the well is still visited by many people from near and far, who come to drink the water for its curative properties, or to meditate and replenish themselves in the peaceful garden surroundings. The water nowadays flows underground from the well itself, emerging at the sculpted lion's head (see photo) set into a low wall further down in the gardens. It is here that one is recommended to drink the crystal-clear water.
- © David James