I've mentioned that when my present wife and I moved to Britain we settled first in Somerset; more specifically in the town of Glastonbury. There was nothing random or accidental about this, we had chosen the destination after reading Marion Zimmer Bradley's 'Mists of Avalon' , an Arthurian fantasy novel set in and around that area.


Glastonbury, for those of you who only associate the town with the gargantuan Folk Festival of that name, is lousy with legends. Amid the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey is a tomb reputed to have contained the bones of Arthur and Guinevere.. Down at the end of one street, after you pass by the shoe factory , is the Chalice Well Gardens, home of a natural spring near which Joseph of Arimathea is rumored to have buried the original cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper. Or it might have been the Chalice of an altogether different and older legend, the mystical object sought by Arthur's Knights, the Chalice of the Grail.


Beyond the Gardens rises the roughly conical hill called 'The Tor' , crowned by St. Michael's tower, all that is left of a small stone church that once stood there. There's a great deal more but you get the general idea.


We had come to rent a cottage on the street with the shoe factory, sight unseen; a lady with whom we had stayed on out first visit had sent us a local paper with the ad when we were still in Manhattan making plans. Imagine if you will our feelings when after a long and uncomfortable plane journey followed by a train and a bus trip we found said cottage- actually two smaller cottages combined into one, both of them with a facade made out of plundered stones from the ruins of the Abbey. Just a few minutes walk down the street was the Chalice Well gardens, and when we walked through to the backyard, there was the Tor, rising over the surrounding hills like a sentinel.


I don't know if I can easily convey the sense of living in a dream where everything seemed 'meant', fated, predestined. I was in my forties, my wife fourteen years younger. We had no jobs, no work permit, a six-month visa based on being respectively an artist and a writer, and not much in the way of savings. The odd thing was, we fit right in.


There was of course a quotidian community, the butcher the baker the candlestick maker, and an assortment of local farmers. When we began to meet our neighbors, however, it became evident that there was a sizable population of people like ourselves, people who had felt drawn to this town, this place for a variety of reasons. We found that it was common to speak of Glastonbury as though it was an entity; people said that only certain people were able to stay, that the 'energies' around Glastonbury made life unbearable for some and impossible for others. There was no real Spiritual consensus- one encountered anything from Indian mysticism to primitive Christianity to outright Paganism, all tolerantly co-existing. Belief in re-incarnation was common – it was a local joke that you could shout 'Merlin' at the top of the High Street and take bets on how many people turned around.


It would be easy to characterize the Alternative community at that time- the late 'Eighties – as a young Hippy enclave, but there were elderly ladies and men who had settled in Glastonbury drawn by the legends and history surrounding the Well and the Tor, and who viewed the antics of the young with tolerant amusement. We met a few of them when we began to visit Chalice Well gardens, and they made us welcome as though we had been 'expected'. No one tried to proselytize or convert us to their beliefs, and there was a general feeling that we all were part of the same spiritual experience and it didn't matter how one chose to express it.

What made the difference was the Garden itself. Coming from America, and especially Manhattan, we had no preparation for the special regard the British have for growing things in the soil. All of the cottages on our street had a back garden, and my totally urban wife whose horticultural experience heretofore had been restricted to growing pot in a window box, now found herself with an extensive bit of English soil to cultivate. She threw herself into it with abandon, and soon made friends with the Head Gardener at Chalice Well, who was glad to share tips and plant samples. When he found that I was looking for work 'off the books', he sent me to a local Landscape firm who put me to work digging, weeding, and building ponds and stone walls.( see banker mason)


Thus we survived and found a home, and in due course the Great British Government granted our appeal for Settled Status, along with permission to work. Coincidentally, the Head Gardener decided to find fresh fields to cultivate and I was offered his job, to be shared with another chap. Let's call him Steve.


Steve was from North Wales, a graduate of a horticultural college and hardheaded as only a Welshman can be. He was quite bemused at first by the various sects and cults who visited the Gardens; I'll never forget the look on his face when about a dozen folks trooped in one day wearing white robes with aluminum pyramids on their heads, chanting something incomprehensible in unison.


Then there was the Well itself. It originated in a spring which fed into a circular stone well closed with an iron grating and an elaborately fashioned lid. From there it meandered through the garden, ending in a waterfall at the far end which fell into an reddish hued double pool in the shape of a Vesica Pisces. There were at the time various theories as to why the water of the Chalice Well colored everything it touched red, but it was Steve who sent off a sample to the nearest laboratory which determined that the color was caused by algae absorbing the high iron content. This did nothing to endear him to the more fervent believers.


In fact, working in the Chalice Well Gardens was akin to having a job in a circus. The crowds see the glitter and the glamour while behind the scenes are the roustabouts and trainers and the fellow who has to clean up after the lions and elephants. Steve and I mowed the lawns, pruned and planted the beds, and repaired paths and seating areas. At this time I was also working as a stone carver in a local reclamation yard ( see banker mason ) and one day the custodians of the Gardens asked me to make a copy of a little stone angel, a corbel from the old Abbey, which had once lived above a stone seat until stolen. There was only an old black and white photo to work from, but I found some stone the right size and made as exact a copy as I could, treating the stone to give it a patina of age . Steve and I installed it and mortared it in place using some old weathered stones we found to compliment it, and there it rests to this day. It gave me an odd feeling to see the offerings of fruits and flowers people began to leave around it.


I came to believe that the aura of Glastonbury was at least partly the result of the concentrated belief of all the people who year after year came in search of spiritual sustenance. After all, stone was merely stone, water was just water – wasn't it logical that so much belief concentrated in one place could by itself produce something akin to an electric charge fed into a battery? That would explain places like Lourdes, and indeed Chalice Well also had its share of miraculous cures and visions. I had a photo someone had taken of my Autistic son (see An American Story) age five and a half standing motionless looking down into the opening of the Well.. Mind you, he was known up and down the street as the little stranger who would enter your house, take off his wellington boots without a word, go into your bathroom and stand staring into the toilet bowl as it flushed with the same rapt attention, but who was I to ruin the photographer's holiday? Besides, there was something about the Gardens, especially in the early morning before the crowds arrived, the way one can feel walking into an empty cathedral, an air of hushed expectancy, of energy held in check. The trouble was, it was an energy that could be used in other ways.


As gardeners one of our less enviable tasks was to scrub down the reddish algae before enough accumulated to form a problem. It was, among other things, extremely slippery. Once a month, even the Well itself needed cleaning. We would raise the secret lid on the old valve alongside, and with a gush of tinted water the Well would empty, whereupon we unbolted the grating , lowered a ladder, and climbed down. Alongside the circular chamber of the well itself was an adjoining five sided chamber where the actual spring gushed forth, quite a respectable flow of water. No one knew who had built it; it could have been Roman for all I could tell. The legend was that once the chamber had stood above ground, and that gradually the land had raised around it. From doing landscaping work I knew that this was possible, and the reason why archaeology involves so much digging. In any case it was an eerie place, the walls dripping and the large squared stones encrusted with mineral deposits. Then at the bottom of the Well itself were the things people threw into the water.


Mostly money , of course, and I have to admit that one of the perks of the job was gathering up the coins, laboriously sorting and cleaning them and taking them to the bank. We told each other that presumably whatever spiritual blessing they represented had nothing to do with the coins themselves. I suppose the same sort of thing takes place in any public well or fountain after hours. But this was Chalice Well, and sometimes there were...other things.


Steve, the hardheaded rationalist, was nevertheless a Celt to the core, and once when we brought up a black diamond faceted crystal he refused to touch it. There were little figures, also, that had been abused in various ways. It sounds like nothing to tell it; after all, they were only dolls, but encountering one while delving through the slime in the semi dark with the drip drip drip from the ferns overhead was like encountering a venomous spider. Anything of this nature we brought to the Guardians (that is what they were called) to be 'cleansed.' From time to time, we were told, a local Clergyman would come and perform an exorcism at the Well. All this was quite matter of fact, the way you'd call in a plumber to clear the drains.


Is it always the case that when belief and faith are concentrated in one place there is a dark side? I don't suppose anyone really knows, but it seems likely. I do know that when the time came to leave Glastonbury for Wales where we now live both my wife and I heaved a sigh of relief.

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