Glastonbury – home of myth, legend and ancient culture. Encircled by pre-historic tracks leading to a hill which was once a sacred island. Not to mention its place on St Michael’s ley line. All neatly topped off by accusations of 12th century fraud and commercialism on a scale with today!
To visit modern Glastonbury is to float through an incense-scented kaleidoscope of religions, faiths, myths and solid facts, each jostling for your attention. And, of course, your money.
How did Glastonbury reach such legendary status? Let’s wade through the fragrant clouds of burning perfume and dive down into the mists of time.
The town of Glastonbury sits neatly on the St Michael alignment, a ley line which runs diagonally from St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall across the country to Hopton in Norfolk. Its name derives from the proliferation of sites dedicated to St Michael along its length.
In pre-history, Glastonbury Tor rose above the Somerset Levels from a wetland fen. Indeed, it would have appeared to ancient man as an island. Tracks towards the Tor were constructed over the marshes from around 3838BC so we know without doubt that the area was used.
Artefacts have also been excavated from the Tor. This of course shows that the Tor itself was visited. However, Iron Age habitation of the hill is not proven.
There is however irrefutable evidence of a late Iron Age village below the hill. Significantly, the houses were raised above the swamp on wooden poles.
Historians suppose that the colossal effort of constructing and maintaining the homes was worth it due to the protection offered by the surrounding swamp. Tools and decorative items have been found in the swamps. These items were most likely offerings to Iron Age Gods. Nowadays the settlement is known as Glastonbury Lake Village.
There is obvious terracing running up the 500 ft high Tor. This may be either terraced agriculture, cattle tracks, defence, a spiral walkway or even a labyrinth. All the offered explanations have more naysayers than believers.
An island of glass
The Tor was surrounded by a huge lake two thousand years ago. The lake was known as “Ynys-wydryn”, Celtic Welsh for the Island of Glass. Celtic folklore tells of the enchanted isle of Avalon, mythological meeting place of deceased heroes.
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Arthurian legend of 1136 tells that King Arthur was carried to an island called Avalon during the 6th century. The location is unknown but Arthur subsequently died. Glastonbury Tor is understandably amongst the contenders to claim the name Avalon.
Later, we’ll mention what monks at Glastonbury Abbey found to bolster that claim!
A church dedicated to St Michael was built on the Tor summit in the 14th century. Only the roofless tower still remains. Predating this were various wooden buildings, probably churches or monk’s lodgings. The last of these collapsed in an earthquake in 1275.
Glastonbury Tor today
Today, the hill with the tower at its crown often rises above the mists. It remains a sacred space to many who climb to the summit. Pagans and Christians happily share the hilltop with tourists these days.
Climbing the Tor is above all a pilgrimage and we stood spellbound one evening as the sun dropped below the horizon. Part of a crowd of fellow pilgrims, and yet alone with our thoughts, we soaked up the atmosphere. The gentle drumming transported us back through the millennia. The truth and the legends merged into one endless moment.
The climb to the top is mainly steps with a rough path beside them. The steps have been cut to prevent alternative tracks being made. There are benches at intervals, although stopping and admiring the view is irresistible anyway.
Parking is not permitted at the base apart from three disabled parking bays. Otherwise, there is a park and ride. Or, of course, you can walk the half mile from the town centre, which feels much more like a pilgrimage.
Glastonbury Abbey was founded in 712AD. There are Christians who claim that it superseded a previous order founded by Joseph of Arimathea when he brought the Holy Grail to Glastonbury in the first or second century AD. Moreover, that a youthful Jesus had accompanied Joseph in a previous visit. The Abbey was then claimed by the Anglo-Saxons and then later by the Normans.
Glastonbury Abbey was enlarged in the 11th century. However it was destroyed by fire in 1184. The local economy suffered; the surrounding town had grown fat in the wake of the Abbey’s wealth.
Trade, food and accommodation for travellers were particular money spinners. Glastonbury had housed and fed pilgrims and those wishing to be healed. Kings had been brought to Glastonbury Abbey to be interred. The relics of saints summoned the faithful.
And there were also ongoing claims that the legendary King Arthur had been active around Glastonbury, bringing in those who wished to be closer to him. But, the catastrophic fire in the Abbey resulted in those who were seeking God, King Arthur, and healing going elsewhere, taking their cash with them of course!
King Arthur’s grave?
The monks, at this difficult time, either had a stroke of luck verging on the miraculous, or they committed forgery and fraud. Working with previous legends in mind perhaps, in 1191 they excavated a particular area of the Abbey. There, proclaimed the monks, they found and exhumed the graves of King Arthur and his Queen Guinevere! The crowds flocked back – and have never really waned to this day.
There are many scholars and historians who can reveal the fraud nowadays. The caskets containing Arthur and Guinevere disappeared during the dissolution of the monasteries however. After that, the caskets have never been found.
Did the monks find Arthur and his Queen? No, they almost certainly did not.
But did we stand, deep in thought, at the supposed place of Arthur’s burial? We certainly did! Everyone needs some myth and mystery in their lives.
Today, you can walk amongst the ruins of what once was the richest Abbey in the kingdom. There is certainly plenty of solid factual information. And your imagination will, without a doubt, add walls and ceilings. Listen too for the hint of evensong on the warm breeze. And is that the scent of apples fresh from the orchard baked in the softest of pastries?
The Healing Springs and Holy Thorn
Flowing from beneath the Tor are two springs – one red, one white. Seemingly the stuff of myth and legend but this is fact.
The Red Spring
The Red Spring, said to denote the divine feminine, flows into Chalice Well. Christians claim that the water turned red when the Holy Grail touched it. Science however tells us that it is rich in iron oxide causing the reddened colour. One day, the Pagans, the Christians and the scientists may finally agree!
We love the legends and myths though. Understanding the science behind the story does not diminish its relevance or reverence. Besides that, every story which has survived the millennia has elements of truth alongside imaginative metaphor.
The Chalice Well garden is obviously designed to be a contemplative landscape. A World Peace Garden. Time stands still here. The gaudy commerce of the high street is centuries away from this place of commune with nature. Shallow pools of the ruddied water are an invitation to dip the feet into history.
The Red Spring has always been revered as restorative and sacred. The chilled flow is certainly an exercise in mindfulness. There was no visitation, no revelation. But there was a deeper, spiritual connection to the earth in that moment.
The White Spring
The White Spring rises nearby, just round the corner in Well House Lane. The whitened water contains healing masculine energy, apparently. Volunteers maintain the Well House as a water temple.
The temple was unfortunately closed when we visited though we were still able to fill our water bottles from the spring. This was an informal walk back along the centuries. No carefully tended garden here. It was easy though to ignore the modern trappings of road and bricks and to drink the water with reverence as the ancestors would have (albeit out of plastic bottles).
There was a steady stream of people coming to partake of the water. Most were also keen to connect with fellow travellers and pilgrims and we had several friendly and enlightening conversations. An offshoot of the Chalice Well flows opposite. “Sip that one!” advised a friendly stranger, “But not too much!” The red water can be a little rich for the stomach, apparently.
Did we experience any beneficial effects? Well, many years ago, a doctor – a man of science – told Trudi that if you believe in something, it will work. And it’s true.
The Holy Thorn
Legend has it that when Joseph of Arimathea arrived in Glastonbury, he struck the ground on Wearyall Hill with his hawthorn staff whereupon it sprouted roots and grew.
The Holy Thorn was burned as a superstitious icon during the Civil War, subsequently being replaced several times. Furthermore, in its lonely spot, the tree has often been a target for vandals. Sadly, the landowner removed the last one in 2019.
Sceptics will of course point to the number of hawthorn trees which grace our countryside high up into the inhospitable hill tops. But the Glastonbury thorn is a particular hybrid which flowers twice yearly and only grows in and around Glastonbury.
Catholics regarded the winter flowering of the Holy Thorn as a “Testimony to Religion, that it might flourish in persecution”. It is indeed a pity that mankind’s intolerance has blighted a town which accepts all who do no harm.
The town itself, of course, grew as a result of the Abbey’s popularity. The George Hotel and Pilgrims’ Inn, built in the late 15th century to accommodate travellers, still stands to this day.
We particularly recommend that you visit this time capsule, which is supposedly haunted! The Tribunal is a 15th century merchants’ house. This now holds the tourist information centre and Glastonbury Lake Village museum. Additionally, a 14th century tithe barn houses the Somerset Rural Life Museum.
Travel routes were improved to aid commerce and tourism. The canal was important until the railway reached the town. Sheepskin products, woollen slippers then leather boots and shoes were main industries along with tourism. The latter is the survivor.
Today, Glastonbury is a heady mix of old buildings and ancient monuments. Shops and galleries sell to tourists and pilgrims of countless faiths and beliefs. Much of the commerce still revolves around spirituality and healing, or the hospitality services required by the customers, as of course, it has throughout the centuries.
Celtic and Pagan spirituality blended with Christianity is still vibrantly alive. Likewise, Arthurian legend breathes on.
A town of two stories
We found Glastonbury to be a “town of two stories”. Hobo Gav, for instance, delights in the book stores and feels that Glastonbury is a meeting place for lost souls and seekers. It is, without doubt, a town of light and dark – Yin and Yang working together.
Trudi on the other hand is more at peace in the Abbey, atop the Tor and by the natural springs. The town seems gaudily commercial to her, although we both very much enjoyed a foray into the George and Pilgrims’ Inn and a few of the shops.
Gav is never one to pass a labyrinth without at least a greeting. In the churchyard of St John the Baptist in the high street there is a small grass labyrinth. Its placement within the churchyard is typical of the spirit of acceptance and tolerance of Glastonbury.
Practicalities for motorhomers
Glastonbury sits between the A39 and the A361. The routes towards the town are suitable for motorhomes and there are numerous campsites in the area.
Driving a motorhome through Glastonbury can certainly be an interesting experience, particularly in the height of summer and definitely during the Glastonbury Festival weekend! Some roads are quite narrow, and moreover, tourists tend to overspill the pavements.
You probably won’t be able to park in the high street but there are several car parks close to the town centre, some with allocated spaces for motorhomes.
Alternatively, travel to the next village of Street (about a mile away) and use the dedicated motorhome parking bays at Clarks Centre. After that, catch a bus to Glastonbury.
Some other books about Glastonbury that we love…
The Isle of Avalon makes for essential reading before you visit Glastonbury. It will help ensure you don’t miss anything during your visit. See it as a type of tour guide.
Glastonbury: Avalon of the Heart by Dion Fortune is another favourite. Like all her books, this is deeply spiritual and although much of it is based on her own speculations, she draws upon the myths and legends and puts together what might be called the definitive ‘spiritual’ guide to Glastonbury.
Walking Around Glastonbury Tor tells of all the footpaths up, down and around the Tor, ensuring that you don’t miss a thing such as the ancient oak trees called Gog and Magog situated down a narrow lane. A wonderful little guidebook if the Tor is the main reason you’re visiting Glastonbury.
Additional Resources about Glastonbury:
Read more about Glastonbury and a ‘pilgrimage in a day’ from the British Pilgrimage Trust: https://britishpilgrimage.org/portfolio/glastonbury-pilgrimage-in-a-day/?mc_cid=836900cb7d&mc_eid=a9cc5819ff