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ON GLASTONBURY TOR, a Strange Adventure
from Rushing to Eva,
a Pilgrimage in Search of the Great Mother
by Mary M. Leue

 

... Approaching Glastonbury from hilly country on the east, I suddenly saw, rising up from the plain below me at a great distance, a strange-looking, conical hill surmounted by a tower of some sort which I at first could not account for. It aroused in me very strong feelings of attraction, and I almost went off the route I was on to strike out directly for it, when it didn't seem as though my road led directly to it. I wanted to go there! In fact, it riveted my gaze!

Fortunately, the road began to curve, and I realized it must be the Tor itself, and that I was approaching it - and Glastonbury itself. Arriving in the town proper, I very quickly found a wonderful B&B at St. John's vicarage in Chilkwell Street, not far from the Chalice Well and the Tor -and close to the main street as well. It was about three in the afternoon.

First I headed for the Gothic Image bookstore, so enthusiastically suggested to me by my new acquaintance back home, Alice Howell, a Jungian analyst and astrologer whose personal advice and recommendations concerning this part of the pilgrimage had been so helpful to me in planning what to visit in the British Isles and France. Alice had seemed to understand exactly what I was hoping to do on this venture, and I had taken pages of notes filled with her information concerning what might be called "metaphysical" or mythological sites and contacts - particularly traditional "Goddess" sites and stone circles. Jamie George, one of the proprietors of the bookstore, was indeed an extraordinary fellow, as Alice had said. We hit it off at once. I found a number of books to buy, and he even sold me one on display which was the last he had, by pulling it down off the cardboard poster to do so, because he knew how much I wanted it. I also signed up for his "sacred tour" to be conducted on the following afternoon.

Then I walked along Chilkwell Street until I came to the enclosure that held the Chalice Well gardens, and the well itself. The lady at the ticket window who took my money seemed sincere, and invited me to look at their books as well. The atmosphere in the gardens can only be described as holy. There was about the entire place a sense of quiet and peace that was almost palpable. I felt as though I were in a cathedral. I walked slowly through the series of little terraced garden spaces separated by trellised archways which enclosed the catch basins that received the water from the well. At length I came to a garden, as I moved up the gentle slope of the hillside, which had a low wall in it containing a spigot shaped like a lion's head, from which water flowed into a glass set below it on a flat stone. The water looked somehow lambent, like glycerine, and it was clear to me that it came right from the Well itself. I took up the full glass and drank it all. The water had a sweet taste and the same soothing quality in the throat that honey does.

A young couple had come into this last garden with their young son, evidently to meditate, and I joined them for a few minutes, seated on one of the benches set there for the purpose, lulled by the peace in that place. The pulmonary congestion I had been recovering from by taking penicillin seemed to have gotten worse during my travels, and I was glad to rest for a while before tackling the Tor, which I could clearly see looming high in the air above the garden where I sat, the tower of the ruined chapel of St. Michael on its pinnacle.

Coming finally to the last enclosure and to the Well itself, which was set into a stone terrace surrounded by overhanging trees, I admired the intricate design on its cover, which was in the shape of entwined circles whose intersection creates a shape known as a vesica piscis, considered by early Christians as a fish in shape and a symbol of the Christ. The entire design has also been considered to symbolize the entwining of male and female elements or functions, similar to the Chinese yin-yang symbol, and also the entwining of the two worlds, outer and inner, or "above" and "below." The water in the Well was dark and mysterious-looking as I crouched by it, peering into its depths, wondering if it might also be a "scrying well" which would reflect back some vision of the other world to me! I saw only the physical shape of its earthly form. I felt like staying there to see if I could wrest its secrets from it, while sensing equally a sense of lèse majesté inherent in my curiosity.

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Chalice well cover

At the same time I was also eager to discover what it was about the Tor itself which gave it its reputation, and to dowse the top. I have since learned that the Tor has mythological significance that stretches far back into the distant past of human history. It has been called a portal between the two worlds variously spoken of as the "outer" and the "inner" or the "above" and the "below" - but of this fact I was only vaguely conscious at the time. Since then, I have read whatever I could lay my hands on to understand more fully what I encountered there. But I am getting ahead of myself.

It was now somewhere around three-thirty in the afternoon, and I was anxious to get to the top of the Tor before sunset, so off I set, climbing slowly up Well House Lane as it rose rapidly between high hedges to the gate in the fence that kept the sheep which grazed on its slopes from straying into the town. Two young women came through the gate going downhill toward the town just as I was about to go through, going up. We smiled and greeted each other. "Why don't you go around instead of just going up the 'tourist' path?" one of them suggested in a friendly manner. I thanked her, commenting that it seemed like a good idea, and that I would. She pointed off to the right of the hill, to the steepest, "downhill" side of the Tor (or so it turned out to be when I surveyed it later on from above), where I could vaguely see a sort of level, grassy track about four feet across which seemed to run around the curve of the Tor, disappearing from sight around the bend. We parted with smiles, and I climbed the steep slope to the spot on it where the track had its origin, diverging at this point from the well-worn path which led directly upward toward the top. The direct route seemed feasible to me, but strenuous, in view of its extreme steepness, and it seemed more pleasant to take the more level, right-hand track, as I was already out of breath.

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..........The tor..........................St..Michael's tower

I began my "alternative" trek, following the grassy track around the slope until it completed its curve, and I could begin to see what lay ahead. Lo, it suddenly vanished, just petered out completely, leaving nothing by a sheer declivity below me which dropped steeply all the way down to the fence at the foot, with fields and houses on the other side, down in the level ground of the valley itself. Oops, I thought, this isn't the right one to get to the top. Hmm. I wonder why she thought it would get me there. I stopped and looked around me. Aha. Above me, about fifteen feet up the slope was another grassy track about the same width as the one I was on which seemed to continue on in the direction I had been going. Good, I thought. I can take a short cut and get onto the right track.

Scrambling up the steep bank, I again found myself on level ground, and followed this one to where it too disappeared around the curve. Lo, when I got there, this one too petered out, and again, there was a sheer drop below me - this time with the scraggly bare branches of a tree and ugly-looking rocks to fall onto, should I attempt unsuccessfully to go ahead without a path! My latent vertigo began to seethe quietly inside me. Added to this liability (a tendency to residual acrophobia) and the fact of my rather poor physical condition, I suddenly realized - a bit late - was the fact that the cheap jogging shoes I was wearing were the same ones that had created so much difficulty - terror, actually - for me in climbing even a fairly little "fell" with Anna in the Lake District the previous February, their smooth, synthetic soles worn smooth by age giving me no more grip on its steep, grassy slope than if they had been made of glass! Truly, this was a Glass Mountain for me, just like the ones I read about as a child!

Determined to ignore this inner warning - my pride refusing to give it substance - and seeing yet another level path at an distance above me equal to the one I had come from, I scrambled up this nearly vertical slope on my hands and knees, puffing a bit and grasping for whatever handholds and footholds I could find among its tummocks and wiry root clusters. My bag felt heavier and heavier, weighed down as it was with books from the store as well as my dowsing equipment, but I managed to reach the next level with much effort of will.

This track was much shorter as well as somewhat narrower than the lower levels had been, but climbing the bank to the next one, which I could see clearly above it, felt to me like the best way to avoid being overwhelmed by my vertigo, so up I scrambled, shoving my heavy bag before me. This track was even narrower, about a foot wide, but at least it was (more or less) level. Reaching it, puffing heavily, my heart pounding, was reassuring for the moment in the sense it gave me of a safe place on which to stand, but did not provide a reliable starting point from which I could begin to resolve my predicament, because it did not seem to go anywhere! Ahead of me it sloped downward toward the steepest part of the hill, leaving me with no foothold at all on the side of what felt nearly like a grassy cliff face. Behind me, it seemed to lead more gently downhill, but even as a possible way down (and out of my dilemma), seemed not to be an option, vanishing as it did into the side of the hill only a few yards away. I was faced with a two-pronged choice - barring just sitting where I was and waiting for someone to rescue me, which for one who had been trained in mountain- and rock-climbing as a child was no option! What I mean is, it didn't occur to me at the time as an option. It is only as I write this that I realize it might have been! So I had only two choices: to continue up the slope to the top or face my terror of falling and go down the way I had come. Neither seemed viable. I began to breathe heavily, frozen into immobility by the conflict, the short, puffing breathing called hyperventilation which is part of the panic reaction. My heart pumped, my legs trembled, and I felt weak and shaky.

I decided I really had no choice but to go upward, no matter how frightening and dangerous it might be. I was already more than halfway to the top. I knew that there were other tracks above me, and that there was a top! In fact, I could see the tower high above me, looming indifferently against the late afternoon sky. I sat down on the path to rest and try to quiet my body's reaction. Below me the valley spread out to the west, flat as a table. The sun, invisible as a sphere, illuminated the grey cloud pall which covered the sky with a diffuse glow. A miniature plume of smoke spiraled upward from the chimney of a tiny house close by the foot of the Tor. The tree whose branches had seemed so menacing to me was now too far below to seem real. I was sitting on the side of a giant entity - I could not call it anything more specific - so huge as to be unfathomable in human terms, yet totally real! And I had chosen to put myself there! I felt almost as bereft in identity terms as I had during a bad LSD "trip" I had taken without a guide back in 1974 - bereft, in the sense of suddenly finding myself outside of the familiar world whose parameters I felt equipped to handle, thrust without warning into one in which they simply did not apply, and no way to get back! Or on the occasion, during the summer of my fourteenth year, when we were cast adrift at sea on a leaky, forty-year-old cruising sailboat some thirty miles from shore, in the middle of Massachusetts Bay without rudder or engine during a near hurricane - our first family cruise! Yet, not quite. On those occasions, I had had no "space," no interstice in the on-going process to drop into for a respite, even a brief one, as I now had. In that sense, this experience was more like the insane but intermittent terror I had felt during labor! Again, this is an insight I didn't have at the time, but it is true nevertheless.

The thought came to me that if I continued to sit there much longer, I would eventually have to cope with the problem of nightfall in addition to my other woes. As it was, I had at least half an hour before it would begin to grow dim. I rose and, gritting my teeth, began to climb the slope above me. The path at its top seemed very far away.

I felt increasingly hampered by my bag, which tended to slip downhill if I let go of it heedlessly, so decided to lay it down in a little bare spot above where I was going to climb to, bring myself up to it, then pick it up again and repeat the process. This way, also, I would have two hands for my own climb each time. I searched for tiny footholds between grassy tummocks, or places offering resistance to slipping by their position above one of the occasional wiry root clusters which grew on the slope. My fear was twofold - of losing my footing and beginning to slide back down with gathering momentum which I would not be able to arrest because of a lack of anything to hold onto which wouldn't just pull out of the earth - but equally of either becoming too weak physically or by panic to make it to the next resting place! But since I had no choice, I went up. And made it to the next level, which was barely perceptible as a track - short, narrow and outward sloping - but still, a respite! Pausing only briefly this time to catch my breath and wait for my pumping heart to quiet a little, I gritted my teeth again and tackled the next slope, which was so steep now as to seem vertical, to all intents and purposes.

I truly cannot describe in detail what happened from this point upward. I think there were two more levels I had to climb, stressed nearly to the point of losing both bladder and bowel control, before I finally reached the top of the last bank and crawled over the edge on hands and knees, sobbing with relief, onto the flat surface of the summit! I simply remember a continuous scramble - scrabble might be a more accurate term, since the footholds and handholds were so minimal, so unreliable in character that it seemed as though the only thing keeping me from flying outward and down to my death was my upward momentum! But make it I did, at last.

I was grateful that at least there would be no witnesses to what felt like my folly, my ineptitude - even, my ignorant lèse majesté! I remained on my hands and knees for some minutes, panting, recovering my sense both of my equilibrium and my self. Finally, I got up, picking up my bag, and began looking around me. Now I could see the valley stretching out on all sides, flat, with hills rising here and there at a distance. All this had once been covered by water, and Glastonbury had been called Ynis Witrin - the Crystal Isle or the Isle of Glass, a title which, according to John Michell (The View Over Atlantis) reflected its ancient, pre-Christian image as a place of visions and mystical happenings, a gateway to "the other world."

According to the earliest accounts we have of its significance, the Tor has been referred to as Caer Siddi, the spiral fairy castle of Welsh tradition concerning King Arthur also called the "Fortress of the Revolving Door," antechamber to the Celtic Underworld known as Annyn and ruled over by the mythic king of the fairies and of the Underworld Gwyn-ap-Nudd - or, according to some traditions, to King Avallach. Arthur was said to have entered Annyn and attempted to seize a magic cauldron (probably Ceridwen's!) from this spiral castle with the aid of three shiploads of companions, only seven of whom are said to have returned. This tale is also connected to the worship of the Earth Mother Ceridwen, whose magical cauldron was the source of regeneration and transformation. According to Geoffrey Ashe, the Tor once contained an initiatory maze cut into its sides which, properly threaded, would lead the initiate to its center, where he would imbibe a draught he would find there in a magical vessel. This tale, in turn, became a part of the Grail tradition during early Christian times. Thus, Glastonbury became a constant place of pilgrimage - as it is today - as an important religious center throughout its long history.

For me, standing on the summit of the Tor, having undergone an ordeal as severe as any I had experienced during my lifetime, the notion of an Isle of Glass or Crystal had also (as I mentioned above) strong connotations of the fairy tale theme of the Glass Mountain, the climbing of which has been so impossible a task for the hero or heroine as to warrant supernatural intervention.

I took out my wire coat hangers (for dowsing earth energy lines) and began walking toward the ruined chapel, attempting to locate lines of energy. I could find nothing. Circling the entire surface of the Tor with my rods, I searched for the lines. Nothing. Taking out my pendulum, I walked about the tower, resting my hand on one after another of its stones at a level of two to three feet, waiting for it to gyrate. Again nothing! I have since read that the energy starts somewhat higher than this on the chapel, but my state of mind at the time was not very joyous or my own energy level very high, owing both to my exhaustion and to the unresolved lung infection for which I had been taking penicillin for several days. At the time, the only thing I felt was a strong sense of defeat - the defeat of the female energy for which I sought, or perhaps a strong male energy; at any rate, some evidence of life there. My impression was that indeed, St. Michael had killed off the dragon, at least on top, although I certainly had no feeling of its lack on the slopes of the Tor!

The sun was setting as I shakily descended by the well-worn "tourist" path, slid through the gate and came down Well House Lane, accompanied by the sound of rushing water coursing downhill which was intermittently audible from out of the grilled openings of the underground sewers built to carry off the abundance of flow from the Tor. My legs felt very weak, and I felt a great weariness and malaise throughout my body. Arriving at the vicarage [where I had taken a B&B room], I let myself in, went upstairs directly to my little room and fell asleep almost at once.

It was completely dark when I awoke. Immediately I became aware of an inner change. I stretched, yawned, and felt a great sense of well-being and satisfaction. My chest no longer hurt. I felt completely rested. Something profound within told me that this was the effect of the water I had drunk from the Chalice Well. Actually, I was astounded at the change, coming as it did so soon after the total oppression of my experience on the Tor. I certainly had had no conscious expectation of any such event, even in the act of drinking the water. The act had been done for its own sake, rather than with any result in mind. And indeed, the drinking of that water had been an act of great significance for me, hard to define. It had had to do both with the sense of holiness of the site and with the taste and feel of the water itself, again undefinable in its origin, yet palpable to the sensibilities. The feel of the water had lingered for some time afterward, a kind of balm, of velvety sweetness not strictly physical in nature.

I also felt ravenously hungry and went out in search of supper. The only place I found open was a Chinese take-out, so I ordered myself a feast and took it back to my room. Actually, it wasn't very good, as Chinese food goes, but I was feeling so good inside myself, that scarcely mattered. I read myself to sleep by nine with one of the books I had bought at the Gothic Image. ... ...

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And here's a poem I wrote about revisiting the Tor on the anniversary of VE-day in 1995.

ENGLAND, 1995
 
Fluorescent yellow fields of rape aflame with outrageous beauty poison the English countryside;
 
A pall of thick brown molasses hangs over London;
more subtly over other places;
Motorways free their drivers' sharp competitive
urges to be first in the pack - even mine!
 
No one seems to see the delicate beauty of Britain's
newest immigrants: the soft, brown eyes searching for recognition;
 
"The center cannot hold," said Yeats. It seems true.
And yet ... and yet ...
 
In Harrington Gardens, near the Gloucester Road tube stop,
Bosnian John's funky St. Simeon Hotel
cordially welcomes me home to a tall, skinny four-bed room I can still afford;
John's watery tea warms my early morning stomach.
 
English hospitality in countless places still extends the
warm open arms that keep alive my grateful promise to return;
 
The Tingle Stone, ancient Gloucestershire rebirther,
still responds to my joyous touch as I lean, blissful, against its gnarled, sunlit side;
 
The magic of the Tor still lives on in its dark and water-loud hillside caves, inhabited now by shaggy young soothsayers,
 
And on its top, near St. Michael's Tower, supports a timeless ten-foot beacon
lit now by one of the country folk, at sunset's ending,
Flaming out over the dark valley below,
to the sound of our clapping, on the night of VE Day -
 
Oxford and Cambridge Universities still work their special early morning magic amid their dreaming spires;
 
Perhaps, after all, it might be true that
there'll always be an England.
I do hope so.
 
It may even be that the Countenance Divine
Never did shine forth upon those clouded hills,
Despite Blake's fervent hopes and poetic eloquence;
But something of that shining holiness still lives on
among her daily folk.
 
................................................May, 1995.
 
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