Whilst driving down through the country lanes and fields dotted with sheep, I feel I’m entering an advert you see on TV, the kind populated by farmers offering their natural produce from a backdrop of rolling green fields, sunshine and cheerful music. The sky stretches to the distance in a deepening blue, and I feel a sense of escape, something the Festival organiser Michael Eavis may have recognised when he first had in mind the staging of the event near his farm in Pilton. As I pass the site, I remember his comment that Glastonbury, with its natural beauty and landscape, was the ideal place for people to enjoy away from the ‘awful reality’ of their urban, everyday lives. Of course, people come here for the music too, as well as for the rural setting. But music, like landscape has the power to touch places in the soul, to intensify both feeling and emotion. In a similar way, it acts on the senses by shifting them towards a deeper meaning, beyond the intellect and towards the effects of the imagination. As such, the Festival has become an almost religious event of its own, a spiritual ritual attended by thousands each year whatever the weather. The rain-soaked mud baths are just as much a part of its charm as the baking hot summers.
But in our era of climate change and environmental degradation, Glastonbury appears as a glimmer of an oasis in the dark, an idyllic Somerset town of mystical status, a place seemingly immune from change and progress, where both nature and culture work in harmony together. It is a place steeped in the expressions of paganism and Christianity, both intertwined in a town shaped around its historical past and its legends. The high street abounds with shops selling New Age paraphernalia, complete with adverts for meditation retreats and yoga workshops, as well as all manner of other alternative healers. That they stand alongside the solemn architecture of the monastic Abbey and the yearly Christian pilgrimage, is a testament to how these two spiritual traditions can peacefully coexist. They demonstrate how far the landscape is a part of Glastonbury’s cultural life, full of meaning shaping its identity and those of the people who live here.
This strikes me again when I park up to visit the ruins of the Abbey. On entering the grounds you first notice the silence. A few people are around, but they talk in hushed voices, like people do in old churches or at graveyards. I hear a smattering of Italian, the occasional American accent, but mostly quiet voices of reverence and respect. As a ruin, the architecture is quite open to the sky and the elements, and has a gothic feel, the sepia stone worn down over the ages by the wind and rain. I hear a blackbird singing in one of the beech trees that stretches over the outer wall, see a chaffinch fluttering from a nearby hawthorn. Nature’s closeness feels special somehow, the fresh earth and leaf smell, the sunny enclaves and sense of air and lift. It is a place of contrast, between shadow and light, between unquenchable nature on the one hand, and religious order on the other. And as I walk around, I visualise the monks bowing down in contemplation and prayer within these walls, wondering what became of them after its Dissolution in 1539. By all accounts it was a grim end for the Abbot who was dragged up to the Tor to be hung on the orders of Henry VIII. A rather macabre event, and a sad end for a once grand building.
But adding to the Abbey’s mystique is the claim that this church was one of the first in Britain at the very beginnings of Christianity, built around a little wattle church founded by St Joseph of Arimathea in AD63. It is said he journeyed here with twelve missionaries, carrying with him the Holy Grail, which it is said, still lies buried at the foot of the Tor, the site of the Chalice Well. Here, the water flows from a deep spring rich in iron oxide deposits, giving it the reddish hue its famous for, representing for Christians the blood of Christ springing from the ground. Perhaps it is significant that the Abbey is situated nearby, and that both the cleansing waters and the monastery represent something of the spiritual mysteries of Glastonbury. Many of these myths have long since been discounted by rational thought of course, but they continue to endure to this day, as shown by the thousands of Christians who still pilgrimage to Glastonbury every year to join the procession through the high street. They are the myths of inspiration for people, inspiring writers and painters alike, including the poet William Blake, who once wrote the immortal lines of the hymn Jerusalem in 1808: “And did those feet in ancient time/Walk upon England’s mountains green.” People need these stories, these symbolic narratives that are shaped by the very landscape itself.
During the Bronze and Iron Ages, the Tor once rose like an island out of the surrounding swampy marshes, forming the basis of the Isle of Avalon myth which associates King Arthur to this area. It is myth stitched together from many different and often contradictory literary sources, the first by William of Malmesbury writing in his De Gestis Regum Anglorum in 1125. He claimed King Arthur as an historical figure:
“This is that Arthur concerning whom the idle tales of the Britons rave wildly even today, a man truly worthy to be celebrated […] since for a long time he sustained the declining fortunes of his country, and incited the unbroken spirit of the people to war” (Treharne 40).
He went on to became the legendary king of myth through Geoffrey of Monmouth, publishing his History of the Kings of Britain in 1138, bringing us the romanticised Arthur we know today. Thus, two legends become linked by way of the Holy Grail, an object of quest for King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, heroic deeds of the Knight’s journeys into dark forests, of fighting monsters and dragons. They are the ancient archetypal tales that are embedded deeply into the psyche of people, dealing with the human qualities of courage, loyalty and love, as well as the metaphorical inner demons of the unconscious that we all face in one way or another. They once brought hope to people, and still do today, in the idea that others have overcome the wilderness and chaos, and have not only survived, but were victorious. It is said that King Arthur himself never did die, and that one day he will return to battle in England’s greatest hour of need.
Thankfully, you’re not likely to meet any actual dragons on the way to the Tor these days. Maybe a few bramble bushes, a buzzard circling lazily on a jet stream, perhaps a fox if you’re lucky. But real history, as opposed to myth lies about three miles away at the site of the famous ‘Lake Village,’ where an ancient Celtic settlement dating back to 50 B.C was discovered and excavated. These archaeological digs have shown evidence of dwellings built on stilts amid the swampy marshes, back in the days before drainage when the Bristol Channel reached deep into the area. These ancient people would have felt closer to their environment than we are today, navigating their way in dug-out canoes, taking refuge in the inland waters which offered a form of protection from the constant threat of tribal raiding and slaughtering. But far from being a primitive people, they showed themselves to be highly capable and artistic, as evidenced by the artefacts left behind preserved by the peat bogs. A visit to the Glastonbury museum will reveal many pieces of pottery, carpentry and metalwork, as well as objects of adornment made out of bronze, bone and antlers, all showing an artistic sensibility in their beautiful and intricate designs. Such artwork is a constant human need, one inspired by the landscape, the closeness to nature and its changing seasons. And not much has changed it seems, as evidenced by the bloggers of the modern day who throw their words into the wilderness of the internet hoping they’ll be picked up and read. I’m reminded of the ‘ley lines’ theory put forward by Alfred Watkins in 1925, who detailed the paths travelled by the ancient Britons across the land, leading from mound to standing stone, from ancient church to abbey. Generally speaking, archaeologists discount the notion of these lines, believing that ancient Britons were too primitive for such ideas. But I like to think there’s something in the story, something of a psychic energy running through them, even if they were just pathways leading from landmark to landmark through the wild landscape. Just like an ancient text written across the countryside, they would have guided people, helping them to find their way back home.
To end my day, I head up to the Tor itself, which requires fortification with lunch and tea before tackling its five hundred and twenty-five feet. What once was a rough gravely pathway winding up the hill, is now a spiral of steps set into the hillside, which takes away some of its challenge. But it means the Tor survives ‘visitor erosion,’ and the climb is still as invigorating. I pass the Glastonbury Thorn which allegedly came into being as a result of St Joseph thrusting his staff into the ground, which then miraculously flowered. In reality, it is a common type of hawthorn, one constantly whipped sideways by the prevailing wind off the hill. But it attracts attention from both Christians and pagans alike, acting as a symbol of rebirth in its flowering at the darkest point of the year at Christmas. Sadly, it often comes under attack from vandals bearing a grudge, much as it did when it was cut down by the Protestants during the Civil War. But each time it’s replanted, acting as a symbol of defiance, a hardy survivor in the face of all that history can throw at it.
Further on the climb, a couple pass me with their collie dog, playing a non-stop game of catch, and it is exhausting to watch. The dog bounds after every ball thrown down the hill, leaping back to drop it again at its owner’s feet. This goes on all the way up, and I can only envy such energy. But on reaching the summit, everyone stops, even the dog which flops down in a panting heap. Words seem to fail here, leaving us with just air, wind and sky. As you gaze from the top, the rolling hills unfold down in all directions, to the North across to the Mendips and the Bristol Channel, South to the Polden Hills, West to the Quantocks and Exmoor, East towards Wiltshire and Stonehenge. And the lines from a poem by Ted Hughes springs to mind then, who speaks with a clarity in the way only a poet can ~
“This is where the staring angels go through. This is where all the stars bow down”
The Tor recalibrates the system somehow, reminding us that as much as we like to think we can control and shape nature to our whims, it still acts as a powerful force. There’s a sense of timelessness, the feeling that this place will always survive whatever happens. Just like the monks who spent their time up here in the fifteenth century church tower, there’s a feeling of being closer to some higher philosophical truth and pantheistic transcendence. And I find I don’t want to leave. But when I eventually head down, my senses feel alive again and cleared by the wind and the silence.