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A Pilgrimage to Glastonbury

January 29, 2011

On a beautiful spring morning I journeyed across the Polden Hills in Somerset on a pilgrimage to Glastonbury. All was still and only the song of the dawn chorus broke the peace of the land, or rather the dawn chorus was part of the peace of the land. I seemed to be travelling in a world of green, for all the trees were filled with those first fresh leaves of the year. There was not the slightest breeze, all was still. There was no sign of life in any of the cottages as I passed by. I felt at ease in the quietness of the world.

Glastonbury Abbey


An hour or two before, when it wasn’t even light, I had left behind the marshes of the Somerset Levels, the ‘Sad Sedgemoor’ of Thomas Hardy’s poem The Trampwoman’s Tragedy, where so many west country men had died on that July day of 1685, when the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion had come to such a bloody conclusion. That battle had been fought mostly in the dark and I almost sensed the rattle of the muskets and the crash of the cannons as I wandered by. It was to these same Polden Hills that the luckless Monmouth had fled after the rout, on an escape across southern England that was to lead only to the executioner’s block in the Tower of London. But my journey was without hurry and absent from fear.

Sometimes when I walk in this solitary way my feelings are interrupted by memories of music. Like most people I have my favourite composers and beloved pieces. This day it was Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, that beautiful composition which brings together two of England’s greatest composers, spanning the centuries in a collective work of genius. It seemed very appropriate on this lovely morning and I fancied I could hear the music all around me in the still of the air. As I was walking towards the ruined abbey at Glastonbury the religious overtones of the music seemed to uplift my spirit and carry me on to a plane far removed from the prosaic and materialistic modern age. I felt in harmony with an older time and much the better for that.

From a round hilltop on the edge of a wood I caught my first glimpse of Glastonbury Tor rising magical and unearthly out of the great wet plain before me. Once upon a time Glastonbury was an island, the Avalon of British myth, where King Arthur was taken to die – or perhaps to live again. Glastonbury is to this day a strange and ethereal site, somehow not quite of this world, a place where real life and dreams seem to mix. In all my times there I have felt myself healed somehow, refreshed and inspired. For the religious it is supposed to be one of the holiest locations in England indeed, if you accept the claims of those who have fall under its spell, the world. It was to Glastonbury that Christ was supposedly brought by his uncle Joseph of Arimethea. It is said that Joseph planted his staff on the green slopes of Wearyall Hill and watched it transform into the magical Glastonbury thorn tree, which still blooms every Christmas. Historically, there may be a grain of truth in all of this, for Joseph was a renowned merchant and there was certainly trade between the west country and the middle east two thousand years ago.

I headed into centre of the town, wandering through the remnants of the great abbey of Glastonbury, a place of pilgrimage for two thousand years or more. Since the Dissolution it has lain in ruins, but very atmospheric ruins at that. In its day, Glastonbury Abbey was possibly the finest ecclesiastical site in England, worthy of the pilgrims who would walk hundreds of miles to see its splendour and to pay homage to the remains of the saints buried there. Legend decrees that the original wattle church was built by the carpenter Jesus himself on his visit to the island. It was this tradition that inspired William Blake to write the poem which begins ‘And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green’. This original building was incorporated into a later building which was destroyed by fire in 1184. Most of the present walls date from after that time.

And in the very heart of the abbey is the grave of King Arthur and his wife Guinevere. Or so they say. Now it is more than possible that a warrior king of the Dark Ages might be buried in such a hallowed spot. It makes a lot of sense. But the finding of King Arthur’s bones in medieval times came at a time when the abbey needed money rather badly, and the best way for an abbey to ensure a ready supply of solid income was to make themselves a focus point for pilgrims. And what might pilgrims want to see quite as much as the last resting place of a legendary and romantic king? All that is known for certain is that in 1190 the monks excavating the site of the original abbey, after the disastrous fire, found a leaden cross sett into a stone slab with the Latin inscription Hic jacet sepultus Inclitus rex Arturus in insula Avallonia (here lies King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon.) Below this were discovered two bodies in the trunk of a hollowed oak tree. The man was very tall with a number of wounds to his skull; the fair hair of the female body crumbled to dust when touched.

In the presence of Edward I, the bodies were reinterred in front of the high altar, and the site of this grave is marked to this day. Now, cynics have suggested that the discovery of Arthur’s body was very convenient for the clerics who were hard-pressed for money to rebuild the fire ravaged building. But if the Arthur burial was just a commercial gimmick, I find it strange that the monks did not exploit it more at the time. Medieval Glastonbury was advertised across Europe more for its saintly relics than as the resting place of the once and future king. It may sound an incredible con on paper, but when you are there, amongst those sacred stones, looking through the great arches of the old abbey up to the mystical Glastonbury Tor, it is not so hard to believe. In the quietude of that early morning I could almost hear the chanting of the long-vanished monks. Such is the spell of this ancient and evocative site.

The monk’s stratagem certainly worked, for Glastonbury remains a place of pilgrimage to this day. People travel from all over the world to visit the town, albeit now mostly members of the new age community. As I walked up the street I passed a number of shops selling crystals, dowsing rods, and books on magic. The heart of these new beliefs, which have by and large replaced the old Christianity (though that too has its locations here in the shape of Christian retreats), seems to be based on a reverence for the land and the planet, and no harm in that. Both faiths seem to meet in the peaceful gardens around the Chalice Well, supposedly the place where Joseph of Arimethea hid the Holy Grail, the cup Christ used at the Last Supper. Whether the Grail was a real cup or something more symbolic is debateable. Local scholars argue that it might be a clue to an understanding of life itself. The Chalice Well flows its daily spring of twenty-five thousand gallons of chalybeate water across the beautifully kept garden, and drinking its liquid with its rich iron taste is supposed to be very beneficial to health.

To sit in the gardens is to experience a feeling of great peace, despite the rumblings of modern traffic. High above is the mighty tor, the keystone of this spiritual landscape.

Chalice Well Gardens


I supped the waters of the old spring, waters that are supposed to travel here from many miles away, perhaps even from the distant Mendip Hills, and soaked up the tranquillity of a place that stands at the heart of British legend, that has inspired great writers such as Blake and Sir Thomas Malory. Perhaps, I considered, there is a Grail and I was within yards of it, as I smelled the flowers and sipped the water. Certainly, over long decades, Glastonbury has always called to something in me that might be my soul.

Refreshed from my rest I climbed the tor, capped with its old church tower. It was on the summit in 1539 that Abbot Richard Whiting, the last master of the grand abbey was butchered for refusing to accept the destruction of his way of life. But the top never feels to me as though it hosts bad memories, only imparting to me a feeling of permanence and peace. I have stood there so many times, alone and in company, and in all weathers. The view is wonderful, all across the levels of Somerset to the Polden and Mendip Hills. In the far distance is Cadbury Hill Fort, the Camelot of Arthurian fable. I have seen this high ground surrounded by water after flooding, reminiscent of what it must have been when it was a true island, perhaps really the Avalon of myth, for Avalon only means apple, and apples grow there still. All around the tor are earthen terraces, perhaps man made, forming a kind of rising pathway that people still thread their way around in order to summon up magic, or take as a life journey. Some journeys around its course have culminated in memorable storms, as though threading the maze of paths has let loose the wild energies of nature.

As I descended I recalled the story of the Welsh saint Collen who in the Dark Ages lived in a lonely cell at the foot of the tor. It is said that one day a messenger came to him from Gwyn Ap Nudd, lord of the underworld, bidding Collen to meet his master on the peak. Equipping himself with holy water Collen clambered up the tor to find himself in a magnificent hall of gold, filled with angelic beings and beautiful music. Resisting the temptations of the underworld Collen flung the holy water across the hall and the illusion faded away, leaving the saint alone upon the summit of the hill. This brings to mind the legend that Arthur and his Knights sleep within the hill, waiting for a time when England might be imperilled. There are many local stories of people who have followed the rushing chalybeate waters deep inside the tor and come out mumbling of the wonder they have seen. For me the wonders of Glastonbury Tor lie all around in a splendid and sacred landscape.

I descended into the meadows beneath the tor to visit the great oaks of Gog and Magog. The sun was hot and I sought a quiet stretch of a meadow where I might lie down and rest, for I had had an early start and quite a long walk.

There is a lot to be said for dozing in quiet corners of the English countryside, especially on balmy summer afternoons when the bees hum above the flowers in the long grass, and there is scarce a breeze to disturb the high flight of the skylarks. Lying on the dry ground I felt so pleasantly tired that I easily drifted into that wondrous state between sleep and consciousness, when the mind seems to float free above the earth.

All care and responsibilities seemed to vanish for a while, as the workaday world with all its entrapments and restrictions faded away.  I looked up into the deep blue of the sky and felt warmth and a glow, my head reeling with the heady scents of nature, and only natural sounds all about. Time seemed irrelevant and I felt that I might lie there for eternity. I thought of Saint Collen finding a hall of gold on Glastonbury Tor.

Glastonbury Tor


Perhaps it was this feeling of absolute ease that he experienced, which became translated in legend into a more obvious temptation, the scattering of the holy water a necessary way of dragging himself into a harsher world.  In the first still moments of the evening I put on my knapsack and began the long walk home, seeing the tor looming out of the mist for many miles as I lingered by any gateway that offered me a view.






2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 3, 2011 3:44 am

    I used to make an annual pilgrimage in summer to Glastonbury from Yorkshire. It was essential for me to sleep in my car in the lane directly beneath the tor, spend most of the day in the well garden and, at midnight, journey up to the tor. The tor at midnight is a truly magical place. Folks of all nationalities congregate up there bringing various instruments and playing them (or just themselves and listening). Everyone gets on well and the atmosphere is of peace and harmony.

    I haven’t managed to go for quite a few years now though (Munro bagging in Scotland takes up all my time now) and am very worried about going back… maybe everything has now changed and nothing is as it was… a worrying thought!


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