Our bed and breakfast was closed. I had never heard of a closed B+B. At least not home in America, land of 24-7 convenience. But now my five friends and I were in Glastonbury, England in July of 1996, where the signs reading “closed for dinner” were not just for sale in antique stores.
What to do? We had come 5,000 miles by plane, 15 miles by train, piloted ourselves 35 miles by canal barge, and finally took a taxi to get to the ancient ‘Isle of Avalon’. And now, on the very doorstop of our destination we were sitting on our pile of luggage, thinking, and not for the first time, that we were strangers in a strange land.
Eventually we decided to leave the suitcases and pop across the street to the Chalice Well and kill some time until our proprietress showed up.
|Chalice Hill is just below the town name on this 1880’s map. The Tor is to the right. Between them, at the intersection of the two roads, is the designation “Chalice, or Blood Well”|
|Modern Glastonbury, as seen from the top of the Tor. Wearyall hill is in the distance, Chalice Hill to the right|
I was eager to see this, and had studied up beforehand. The well is part of the unique geologic structure of Glastonbury. Up until the 1,700’s the town WAS an island of sorts, with lakes, streams, and marshes surrounding the three narrow hills that comprise the town. They are long Wearyall hill, tall Glastonbury Tor and between them round Chalice hill, named for the legend that the Arthurian Holy Grail is residing at the bottom of the well. About two hundred years ago the land was drained and is now the fertile Somerset Broads.
|From the summit of the Tor: The Somerset Broads. (The landscape, not the figures in the foreground)|
And up until the 20th Century, a unique and magickal experience occurred at the juncture of the Tor and Chalice hill. A spring emerges from the Tor that is rich in calcium and has a whitish tinge. This mingled with a completely separate spring that flowed from Chalice hill and has a reddish tinge due to its high iron content.
So there used to be an accessible island where a red spring and a white spring emerged from separate hills and flowed together.
Think about that.
|The White Spring in 1996 – it deserved better than this|
In 1996 the white spring emerged from behind a large padlocked gate (it was the municipal water supply during a drought in the 1920’s) flowed through a dark and bizarre little cafe and emptied into the sewer system.
The red spring has fared considerably better. A large, well kept garden and a series of splash pools lead up to the well itself, which is now capped by a gorgeous lid with a Vesica Piscis motif.
As soon as we passed the gift shop I felt a distinct sensation: an ephemeral resistance. This was familiar to me. A few times during drum trances I have felt that I was on the threshold of being Everywhere, a part of Everything, throughout Everyone; the Complete. Transcendent. ONE. I had called it “Rubbing the surface tension of God”.
|The entrance to the Chalice Well Gardens|
But now I was feeling it much stronger and without the trance state. Cold sober. Oh boy.
As soon as I digested that two other things became very clear. One, this was positive. It was big, awesomely big and powerful, but positive. Two, I had to be alone with it. Immediately. I had no idea what I would do to my friends if they were around me…
That was my last completely rational thought. Everything that followed was part of an ever-deepening dreamstate. A damping of consciousness and a stoking of Consciousness, if you will. I have pieced together what physically happened from my own fragmented memories, sore muscles, new possessions, a map, and accounts of my friends.
The garden is triangular in shape, with the entrance on a lower side point. The broad bottom area has small lawns and flowers. The narrowing middle section has flowering shrubs and bushes. The apex is a small stand of trees surrounding the Well. The series of fountains and pools bisects the triangle from top to bottom. There are no maps.
|Foliage in the garden. The Tor, with the ruins of St. Michael’s tower photobombing in the background|
A path leads up to the Well of course, but that’s not the way I took. Instead I took a circuitous route, from one side of the triangle to another, slowly working my way up the grade, crossing the path, going behind bushes, walking on the edges of the pools. Later I realized that this was basically a labyrinth walk.
The Feeling grew stronger the closer I got to the top. Now it was a physical pressure. Less like a wind and more like close seats at a rock concert.
My route took me up behind the stand of trees and so I finally approached the Well from the very top of the garden, heading down. The well was open, the lid up and facing me. The grade is steep here and so there is a short staircase to the Well. I gazed down at the beautifully engraved lid and the Vesica Piscis design and the pressure coalesced around me. I could come no closer. (Indeed, one of the many ironies is that everyone else got to see the garden, admire the pools, and touch the Well, while in a way I missed the whole thing.)
|Vesica Piscis pool|
I couldn’t stand up any longer, so I dropped into a full lotus position – something I can’t normally do unless I’ve warmed up & stretched for several minutes. Better. The pressure was warm, comforting, and insistent. It wanted IN.
I looked again at the Well and at the single Pilgrim that was kneeling before her, in profile to me. Strange, I had not noticed him approaching. Average height, white, clean shaven, pleasant but plain features, close cropped flat-top haircut. Dressed in a thin white Tai Chi outfit, with a white belt, and an undershirt. No bag, backpack, or pockets. He was intently focused on the interior of the Well.
There was a moment of stillness.
Then the pilgrim raised his right hand and looked at me for the first time. His hand was making a ‘three’. His expression was a calm smile – a jovial tranquility. This was also strange because I was sure that he had not seen me before that moment. Yet he knew me. What was stranger was that I knew what he meant by the three fingers. My left hand rose (I am left-handed), and slowly, together, we both pointed at him, then we pointed at me, and then we pointed down the Well. Message: There are three entities here: You, Me, and whatever is down this hole.
|My view, from the top of the staircase|
His smile grew. I think I joined him. I think I loved him. Then he rose to his feet in one sinuous motion. The front of his undershirt had a Chinese pictogram on it, and as he turned to leave I saw that the back had a rune symbol on it. I cannot remember what either of these symbols were now.
He left, directly but unhurriedly, closing and latching the small gate behind him. It was only at the last that I saw that he was wearing enormous, candy-apple red Bozo clown shoes.
My mentor! None of my friends – still admiring the gardens below – saw him.
Now. It was time to go. But the position was wrong. The force from the Well was more like an eruption now, and I found that I could not even look at it anymore.
I moved from the lotus to the child’s position: on my knees, bent forward, toes pointed behind me, arms out front, head down. Without thinking I moved to the next asana, a variation called the rabbit. You simply tuck your head down until the top of your head is resting on the ground and your looking at your own kneecaps. It’s a stretch that opens up the back of your neck, which as most of you know is the communication chakra. Bingo. Entry point.
|My perch was at the top of this small staircase|
(Later I would think back to my days living with a woman who channeled spirits. She always started the trance with her shoulders forward and her head down. But when the guide would enter her she would suddenly raise up, head erect and shoulders back, as if the spirit had entered through the back of her neck.)
The pressure entered me. I felt it first in my feet, and then my ankles, and so on. I had thought that I should be dinging every few seconds like an old time gas pump. When it reached the top of my head I winked out, like a light that had been turned off. It wasn’t as though I had left my body, but more like my body had been absorbed. The pressure within me equaled the pressure without and so my body just went away.
And I was Everywhere. Every time. Everybody. One.
I didn’t travel. I didn’t float above with a spirit string trailing back. I didn’t experience anything that related to the physical world or linear time at all. I was passive. I just took it all in. And here is where language fails. What was going on was outside rational human experience. 800 years ago Thomas Aquinas said that any comparison between the physical and the metaphysical will be of two different things because God is Mystery. There are no words for this experience, but here is an approximate breakdown:
There was color; swirling kaleidoscopic Fillmore poster montages – but with more hues than we can see, and more gradations than we can differentiate. There was shape; globular, morphing, geometrical icons – but in more dimensions than we perceive. There was sound; the whole platter from hummingbird to Hendrix to howitzer to Heaven; natural, unnatural, supernatural. And a frequency range from X-rays at the top to a rhino’s belch at the bottom. There was Time – but it kept meeting itself. The universe had a cocktail party and all Time was crammed into one room.
All of this was not beautiful; it was not a pretty show for earth-bound senses. It was overwhelming and strange. It was positive, but it was a mixture of the light and the dark, New Age affirmations from the pen of H.P. Lovecraft.
MORE PAGAN ORIGIN STORIES AT PATHEOS PAGANMy Paganism: Nature, Nurture, or Choice? by John Beckett at Under The Ancient Oaks
How I Found Paganism: The Origin Story of a Druid Priestess by Melissa Hill at Dandelionlady
But there was a form and there was a structure and there was a reason and there was a message. The acid trip was merely the contrails from the freight train of data that was being plunged into my brain. The Boxed Set of God was being downloaded into me. 64 page color booklet included. (This info is something that I cannot, as yet, hook into. I have had some peeks – notably on the one year anniversary of this – but I feel that it’ll be a ‘need to know’ kind of arrangement.)
Mostly though I was just being held by the Goddess. She was all light and all dark and beautiful and awesome and eternal. She had no form, but I also had no form, and so we were together, as One.
Meanwhile, I was also getting some cohesive information, some pictures and words and sounds that all lined up and fit into that narrow little box that we call sense. The words are easy to translate but the conveyance is difficult.
There was a thousand voiced choir singing in perfect sync, each word crystal clear. The choir was mostly women with some men and an age range from fetus to the moment of death, and beyond. What they were singing was something more than language, more than words. Imagine a chorus that produced Virtual Reality with their voices. And there was no separation between the performer and the audience.
I was there in the midst of the chorus, in their minds, in the notes they sang. This ‘language’ was hard for me to grasp but strangely it was not unknown to me. It was reminiscent. I believe that at sometime in our human past we communicated in this way: we broadcasted pictures, sounds, words, and telepathic connection.
I received two sentences that translate. The first was this: “You are chosen, as we all are.” The word ‘are’ is an approximation. It was also ‘were’, and ‘shall be’. Remember, All Time was happening. This I have taken to mean that each life is holy if for no other reason than the immense odds we all beat to be born in the first place. We are all lottery winners!
The second sentence is tougher. “What you have, do.” This again is an approximation. I take it to mean that whatever talents I possess, whatever paths I have chosen, all that I am working on is good. Keep in mind that while I was receiving this information I was kneeling with the top of my head on the ground and that my hands were out in front of me vibrating and shaking as if I was being electrocuted. Especially my left hand, which is my dominant, and the one that I write with. (My friends, who had finally come to the well itself confirm this sight.) So a nice pat on the back from the Gods. I’m doing okay, I’m on the right road, and I’ll do good things. A simple statement, but isn’t that what we are all after in our religious search?
I do not take this to mean that I am perfect, or saintly. Wisdom, after all, is merely lessons drawn from experience, and these experiences can be good or bad. I have, I am, and I will make great mistakes in my life – but it is the perspective and the conclusions and the will to change that will elevate one. Perhaps this is what is meant by the phrase, “It’s all good.”
|The typical ‘postcard’ shot|
At some point in this experience I decided that it was time to go. I remember distinctly that it was my choice to leave. It just seemed to be winding up, so I thanked The Goddess, and said my goodbyes. The kaleidoscope slowly faded and I felt the distance and the linear time kick back in.
During the short journey back to the physical world however I received one more visitation. In blinding flashes and quick succession I received a ‘report’ on each of my dead relatives. Again this was not a picture, or a sound, or any of the senses that we differentiate. It was all of them, and more. I had contacted some of my relatives during the time that I had a channeler as a housemate, and so this flash report was more like an update. Basically they were all having interesting experiences and were all ‘moving on’ at different rates. Again, it was ‘all good’.
I believe that this visitation was from a different realm than that of the presence that entered me. The head trip was from a higher source , if you’ll pardon a direction. The updates on my loved ones were more like several billboards on the road back.
I vaguely remember rolling over onto my side. Fade to black.
I awoke spread out on the luggage that we had left by the front door of the Bed & Breakfast. I was alone. I was groggy but not particularly sore, even though I had been in a neck stretch for something like 45 minutes. (The soreness in my arms and hands, particularly my left hand, did not show up until that night.)
At that time I felt overwhelmed, but not particularly good or bad. That is why I do not say that I was ‘visited’ or ‘enchanted’ by the Goddess. It was more like ‘whalloped’. For me it was not a light or heavy or dark experience. It was a BIG experience.
|‘Our’ Crop Circle (But that’s a whole ‘nother story!)|
Eventually my friends arrived and filled in some of the details. From their perspective I just wandered off when we entered the garden. None of them saw my clown-footed mentor. When they reached the Well they saw me in the head down yoga position with my arms out and vibrating. They paid their own respects to the Well and then noticed that I had fallen over on my side. They left me in peace. Minutes later they saw me rise and stagger out of the garden in classic zombie fashion. I do not remember this. Neither do I recall how I crossed Glastonbury’s busiest street to reach the B+B.
So that’s it: Mugged by the Goddess at the Chalice Well. But that’s not quite the end of the story. There were many other revelations and adventures on that trip, including causing a crop circle to form, but there are some other interesting Well bits as well.
The next day, after a stupendous breakfast, we toured Glastonbury and quickly lost each other in High Street. I ended up at the Abbey Tithe Barn, where I had a delightful conversation with a little old lady at the gift shop. I mentioned that I had seen the Chalice Well the previous day. A conspiratorial look came across her face and she asked me, “Did anything, um, odd, happen there?” I sketched out what had transpired. She nodded and allowed that that sort of thing happens quite a bit. She seemed a little sad that it had never happened to her.
|A “narrowboat” barge, similar to the one we rented|
The nominal Captain of our barge crew was so taken by the town that she stayed for a couple of days and caught up with us near Avebury. She also had a metaphysical visitation experience at the Well that changed her life. It was quite different from mine, but I have heard it said in many quarters that God speaks to each of us in a way that we can best understand.
And comparison of metaphysical experiences, like comparisons with physical ones will always lead to different conclusions. It is these conclusions that cause much of the strife in our world. I’m with Tom Aquinas: God is Mystery, and it’s all good.
More than a year after that England trip I was dusting the Chalice Well postcard on my altar when it occurred to me that I did not remember buying it. I own several of these postcards and I must have purchased them during my zombie walk back to the B+B. I am amazed and a bit embarrassed by this. How did I get through that transaction? I must have looked like hell. I suspect though that anyone who spends anytime at the Chalice Well garden, as an employee or as a pilgrim, has seen many such unsightly transformations.
|Interior of ’13’, showing logo|
I also received many pictures during the time that I was ‘out’. Again the line between senses was blurry, so ‘pictures’ is merely the dominant sense of that slice of the experience. Remember that it was all going on, in All Time, with at least a few senses that we have allowed to atrophy, and I was in it, and of it. But my rational mind has now filed these bytes into the folder marked ‘pictures’.
The clearest picture was of a storefront back in the town that I live in. The store was not open for business yet, as indeed it would not be for another three months, but the sign was up, which in July of ’96 had not yet happened. The picture showed two windows, a bright red door with two windows in it and above it all a large black triple moon cutout as the store sign. Cut into the center full moon, stencil fashion, was the number “13” in a cryptic font.
When I returned from England I went to this place. The sign wasn’t there (yet), but the door was red, and the shape of the place was unmistakable. I tried to peek inside, but there were black mortuary drapes covering the windows completely. A small sign in one of the small door windows said “Not now, Dear.”
|Your humble author, just after this experience|
I hadn’t planned this part. I shifted from one foot to the other, thought of a thousand things to say, rejected them all, Trusted in the Universe, and just opened my mouth. “I’m supposed to be here.” I heard myself say.
Branwen surveyed me carefully from foot to head and thought for a long moment. “Yes,” she said again, breaking into a smile. “Yes, you are.”
I was her first employee, and, in turn, the manager of “13: Real Magick” – the first witchy store in Santa Cruz County. The sign went up the next month, exactly as I had seen it back at the Chalice Well. And we opened on Friday, September 13th.
|The Island of Avalon, from the top of the Tor. Chalice Hill to the right|
P.S. The text above was written in 1998, and remains to this day, word-for-word the hardest thing I have ever written. In 2010 I presented it as a seminar at Pantheacon, with pictures projected on a big screen behind me. (All pics, by the way, are from me, Captain Catherine Blackader Nelson, who has returned to Glastonbury several times.)
Anyway, while researching the slides to be shown with my talk I discovered something interesting. When I was sitting at the top of the staircase looking down at the open Well Lid I always figured that I was looking at the opening of a well shaft that went straight down. Not so.
Worship of the Red Spring goes back several millenia, and it may have been first formally ‘housed’ by the Romans. This pentagonal stone structure in turn was slowly buried by the erosion of the steep hillside above it. In Medeival Times another room was created adjacent to the well house, and it is the ROOF of this antechamber that forms the ‘Well Opening’.
The upstart of all this is that where I was sitting when I was visited by the Goddess was, in fact, DIRECTLY OVER THE ACTUAL WELLSPRING.
UPDATE! I returned to Glastonbury 20 years later, in 2016. As ever the Chalice Well had some wonderful surprises for me. Read all about it HERE.