Glastonbury Water Way – Bath, Frome, Wells & Glastonbury – 55 miles – 6 days. Sacred waters, prehistoric monuments, a cathedral, and exotic Christian folklore: the Glastonbury Water Way has it all. This route, devised in 2020 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, one is on the way along the canal. Soon after is Warleigh Weir, a popular wild-swimming spot (which, in summer, is often busy). At Freshford is the confluence of the rivers Avon and Frome, and if one swims from one riverbank to the other, one can feel the difference in temperature in the middle between each river. Then one can rest in or near Freshford.
Not long into the next day, one can, if inclined, hunt for the hidden forest well of Ela by parting ferns and following the disguised trickle through damp mud to its source. 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. On this route, pilgrims are never far from the chance to swim, and one soon comes to 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, 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. The pilgrimage continues along the Mells stream through evocative woodland. St Mary Magdalene’s, Great Elm, has a beautiful, quiet simplicity to it. On arrival, one realises 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. Locals may be collecting drinking water. Doulting is an historic village for an overnight stop-over. 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. Put your 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, 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 one reaches the Gog Magog oak trees, marking the entrance point into the sacred landscape of Glastonbury. Climbing the tor, you might feel an inexplicable sense of belonging. On the other side, at the foot of the tor, if you arrive during opening hours, 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.
Next comes a calming antidote to primality of the White Spring: the Red Spring, found in 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 one finally enters Glastonbury Abbey, with Joseph of Arimathea’s Holy Thorn, the (supposed) grave of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere and, finally, the site of the high altar. Perhaps there you might reflect on the concept of finding your flow.
[The above description is an adaptation of a piece that originally appeared here.]
Re-engages you with the life-giving element of water
Heals you in sacred springs and bathes you when you wild swim in rivers
Potent, hearty landscape
Deep integration of Christian and Pagan holy places
Holy Places along route listed in our book Britain’s Pilgrim Places: Bath; Frome; Doulting; Wells; Glastonbury.
The 2-day, 23-mile section from Frome to Bath is also known as the Aquae Sulis Way (click link for photos of that section, as they are not displayed below).
The 12-mile, 1 day section from Wells to Glastonbury can be walked in either direction.
The Wells webpage and that of Glastonbury Pilgrimage in a Day has an extended essay introducing you to the history and folklore of the route.
Photos of the section from Frome to Glastonbury.
(The photos of the section from Bath to Frome are found on the webpage for Aquae Sulis Way.)