SACRED waters, prehistoric monuments, a cathedral, and exotic Christian folklore: the Glastonbury Water Way has it all.
This route, devised last year by the British Pilgrimage Trust (BPT) to provide a modern pilgrimage route in Somerset, links the ancient holy springs of Bath, via rivers and streams, to the mineral outflows at the foot of Glastonbury Tor, a place of pilgrimage for more than 10,000 years.
Its 55 miles offers five or six inspiring days of watery contemplation and encounter. And, while nothing beats the full experience, it can also be split and walked at a contemplative pace in three two-day sections: Bath to Frome, with an overnight stay at Freshford; Frome to Wells, overnight at Doulting; and Wells to Glastonbury, overnight at Glastonbury, allowing a day to look around, including the half-day loop to visit Wearyall Hill and Bride’s Mound.
BATH is a natural place to start this pilgrimage: the thermal springs come from deep in the earth to relax the body and prepare the muscles for walking. After touching the stone font at Bath Abbey, I am on my way along the canal, and, soon enough, I am drinking from a flowing spring.
istock Wells Cathedral
Shortly after, I arrive at Warleigh Weir, a popular wild-swimming spot. It’s busy; so I get in and get out quite quickly. At Freshford is the confluence of the rivers Avon and Frome. Swimming from one riverbank to the other, when I reach the middle I can feel the difference in temperature between each river. That night, I rest near Freshford.
Not long into the next day, I hunt for the hidden forest well of Ela, which I eventually discover by parting ferns and following the disguised trickle through damp mud to its source. The sense of accomplishment seeming disproportionate. After this rugged affair, the route encounters the thoughtful curation of Iford Manor, with its world-class Peto garden, featured in the new film adaptation of The Secret Garden (Features, 23 October 2020).
On this route, pilgrims are never far from the chance to swim, and I soon come to a another place of joyful splashing, Tellisford Weir. The first Wild Swimming Club in the world was founded near by in 1933.
Next, St Mary’s, Orchardleigh, is an unexpected highlight: moated and at the end of a lake ,one can imagine a hermit living here; accordingly, I spend a while enjoying the silence.
The next town, Frome, is a good place to bed down for the night. It makes a feature of its sacred water: the well at St John’s gushes forth, and its water is funnelled down an open channel through the high street. Don’t miss St John’s “Way of the Cross”, carved in the churchyard.
MY PILGRIMAGE continues along the Mells stream through evocative woodland. St Mary Magdalene’s, Great Elm, has a beautiful, quiet simplicity to it. Next, Mells Church is grand for such a small village. Siegfried Sasson is buried here.
After Mells, the route joins the beautiful East Mendip Way, passing by Cranmore Tower with its panoramic views, before a short diversion to the Holy Well in Doulting, which has a particularly elegant basin and a great flow, and is where St Aldhelm once bathed and prayed. His 1300th anniversary was marked in 2009. When I arrive, locals are collecting drinking water in huge vessels. It’s a historic village for an overnight stop-over.
istock Glastonbury Tor
Walking up over Ingsdon Hill, you get your first view of Glastonbury Tor. The medieval churches of Croscombe and Dinder follow, and, before long, Wells Cathedral appears.
The moat around the Bishop’s Palace makes an elegant threshold. The palace gardens are where the holy wells are to be found. I put my hands in the water, and feel a connection to the vast underground river that these wells draw from. Inside the cathedral cloisters, one can both see and hear the river in an underground chamber known by some as the “dipping hole”.
LEAVING Wells, I ascend Worminster Down, the home of the dragon depicted in Dinder Church and in a floor tile at the Bishop’s Palace. Glastonbury Tor is prominent now, and soon I reach the Gog Magog oak trees, which mark the entrance point into the sacred landscape of Glastonbury.
Climbing the tor, I feel an inexplicable sense of belonging. On the other side, at the foot of the tor, I enter the cavern of the White Spring for another immersion. Simply listening to the crashing white noise of the water is cleansing, but one must also get in and let the candlelit darkness and devotional atmosphere help you overcome the cold.
istock Frome’s medieval high street, with its sacred water
Next comes a calming antidote: the world peace garden of Chalice Well, where the Grail is supposed to have been found. Then it is a small step into the town via the tranquillity of St Margaret’s Chapel, and I finally enter the Abbey, making my way to Joseph of Arimathea’s Holy Thorn; the (supposed) grave of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere; and, finally, the site of the high altar.
This pilgrimage has been themed around water, but kneeling at the ruined altar points me to something greater. It is a feeling I hope to recall when I next need to find my flow.
Guy Hayward and Nick Mayhew-Smith are the authors of Britain’s Pilgrim Places: The new guide to sacred landscapes from the British Pilgrimage Trust, published by Lifestyle Press at £19.99 (Church Times Bookshop £17.99); 978-0-954476786.
To walk this route visit britishpilgrimage.org/portfolio/glastonbury-water-way. The website makes available Google Maps and GPXs for smartphone navigation, and waypoint info for holy places, as well as accommodation, camping, and food. For a deep understanding of the history of devotional practice along this route, 100 other routes, and 600 holy places across Britain, consult Britain’s Pilgrim Places.
Setting the soul free
Nick Mayhew-Smith suggests six other inspiring pilgrim routes to try:
Tracing the earliest years of British Christianity, this epic route wraps around southern Scotland from Carlisle to South Queensferry. At Whithorn, it pays homage to St Ninian, who carried the gospel to the southern Picts, winding along a coastal landscape that retains its wild Celtic spirit.
Converging on Durham Cathedral’s pilgrim shrine, this newly devised network of paths celebrates some of the founding figures of Christianity in the north. A total of six routes and a gathering of famous saints light up a beguiling sacred landscape.
This bracing coastal path weaves together two ancient Roman strongholds, at Caernarfon and Holyhead/Caergybi, on Anglesey. Prehistoric monument builders, vanquished druids, and the Celtic wonder-worker St Cybi make up a colourful cast.
- St Kenelm’s Way and Trail
Two pilgrim routes wind their way from St Kenelm’s, at Romsley, in the Clent Hills, past the enchanting ruins of Hailes Abbey to arrive at Winchcombe. Medieval legends abound on these parallel paths, which take in two holy wells devoted to St Kenelm which are still flowing.
Towering above the flat landscapes of East Anglia, Britain’s oldest Celtic stone church at Bradwell-on-Sea is a worthy magnet for pilgrims. Named after St Peter, the church’s dedication, the route also pays homage to St Cedd, who laboured here in the seventh century.
Underscoring the rich pilgrim traditions of Britain, this route runs along the south coast from Southampton to Canterbury. Rediscovered by Will Parsons, co-founder of the British Pilgrimage Trust, the Old Way has been expertly revived with comprehensive online resources.
Visit britishpilgrimage.org for details of all routes