Buxton, Derbyshire – taking the waters with the goddess of the sacred grove

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420The Romans called it Aquae Arnemetia but we know it as Buxton, a former spa town in the beautiful county of Derbyshire. Arnemetia was a deity of the Romano-British empire and her shrine, or sacred grove, was located there. Derbyshire is well known for its natural springs and wells and their restorative properties, and many of us will be familiar with the Buxton Spring brand of bottled water. At 300m above sea level, Buxton is the highest small market town in the country. This, along with the warm spring at a constant temperature of 28 degrees, made it an ideal location for a Roman settlement

The Peak District National Park is one of the most stunning areas of England, rivalled only (in my own humble opinion) by the Lake District. It is a popular destination for walkers and cyclists as well as those like me who are happy just taking in the sublime views. Buxton is the main town in the western Peak District and is less than an hour outside Manchester, very easy to get to by car or, in my case, by train. What better way to spend a lazy Saturday than to head to the sacred grove and raise a glass (well…. a bottle) of the finest spring water to toast the goddess?

I hadn’t been to Buxton for many years. It had been included in numerous family day excursions to the region when I was a child and after that as the final stop on the homeward bound journey of some brilliant Peak activity holidays in the late ‘90s. I was struck by how little the town had changed, and that is one of Buxton’s many charms; a feeling of timelessness. Yes, it has many of the well-known chain shops found in most town centres, but overall these are discreetly ‘tucked away’ inside a couple of shopping arcades which are themselves blended into the genteel townscape. I wondered to myself (as I so often do after an hour spent ambling around a lovely place so easily accessible and a comfortable distance from my home) why I didn’t come here more often.

I’d had an early start to my day and was ready for a spot of brunch, so was delighted to happen upon Hydro Café on Spring Gardens. This town centre establishment has won local awards for the quality of its fresh home-cooked food, and takes pride in its ‘alternative’ options. I treated myself to a full vegan cooked breakfast, and wasn’t disappointed. Spring Gardens is the main shopping street and includes a few of the usual names along with some independent retailers. There are three ‘outdoors’ shops on this smallish high street, which came as no surprise to me, considering the wealth of opportunities in the region for walking, climbing and hard-core cycling.

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Next, I headed off in search of history. My first stop was St Ann’s Well, a free-flowing source of mineral water which has existed since before Roman times. When the invaders arrived in Buxton a pagan sacred site already existed at the location of the geothermic spring. Water from the well was later piped and channelled into a bath house underneath what is now the nearby Georgian crescent. The Romans dedicated the site to the goddess Arnemetia. Apart from a couple of occasions when it has had to be stopped for essential maintenance, the spring has flowed uninterrupted since mediaeval times. Daily, people call by to fill their bottles and enjoy the mineral-rich water, so I stayed for a little while to imbibe the goddess’s gift. The well was later rededicated to the Christian Saint Ann and a chapel was built at the site, but it was destroyed during the reformation of the 16th century. Derbyshire is famous for its well dressings, a custom of beautifying well sites by adorning them with flowers. The custom springs (no pun intended) from the pagan tradition of making offerings to water deities and it is still going strong as a secular local tradition. I have seen several dressed wells in other parts of Derbyshire, but will be sure to revisit St Ann’s Well again next year to see it in all its floral glory.

Buxton’s splendid Georgian crescent is currently under renovation as part of a grand scheme to bring it and the former pump room back to their former grandeur, so it was off limits today. Constructed in the 1780s, it emulated the style of the famous crescent at another spa town, Bath.

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The pump room was smaller than I had expected it to be, but it was easy to imagine (with the aid of some photographs on display) its former elegance and its popularity amongst the Victorian gentlefolk of Derbyshire. Like the crescent, the pump room is part of a multimillion pound restoration project which will be completed in 2019. Built at the end of the 19th century, it was a dual-purpose venue. A flight of steps leads down into a small immersion pool where visitors would have bathed in the mineral-rich waters, whilst the area above and surrounding the pool served as a social space for afternoon tea. I’m not sure how I would feel about being on display during my aqua therapy session!

SAMSUNG DIGIMAX 420 It was interesting to see a scattering of coins on the floor of the pool, as this mirrors the discovery made when the original Roman bath (found beneath the crescent) was excavated. It was thought by the archaeologists that the Roman coins found on the floor of the original bath were possibly offerings to the goddess.

A short walk away is Buxton Pavilion Gardens and adjacent to them is the famous Opera House, a venue for a wide range of musical and artistic performances. I decided to take a leisurely stroll through the Gardens, a very popular spot for locals and visitors alike. Offering rides on a mini train, a park area for children, areas to sit and relax, beautiful horticultural displays and various water features it is easy to see why. There was even a Punch & Judy show which was going down very well with the young and not so young audience; I’ve always found this particular entertainment a bit sinister, but it was good to see the tradition continuing.

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I was less pleased to see two adorable donkeys, saddled up and waiting to take small paying customers for rides around the Gardens. It was a very warm day and they didn’t look like they were having fun. As I approached I caught the conversation between their owner and an Australian chap who was talking about the sadly too common ill treatment of donkeys around the world. This seemed like the ideal opportunity for me to ask if these two enjoyed giving rides; their owner assured me that they loved coming out and it was only for a few hours at the weekend. She seemed genuine and I hope it was true, though they did look bored to me – not that I’m an expert on donkey body language. After petting the gorgeous creatures, I made my way to the Pavilion.

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It was a great stroke of luck that my visit had coincided with an Arts & Crafts Market. Many such events take place there regularly throughout the year; on looking at the various leaflets I had picked up from the tourist information stand I was impressed by the wide range of arts and cultural activities which are held in the town.

Finally, I left Buxton with a bag of hand-crafted delights and a few ideas for my next visit, which I feel sure won’t be too far off.

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Glastonbury – the site of Avalon and all things magical

Every year, for five days in June, the attention of many music fans in the UK and beyond is on a festival held on farm land near Glastonbury in Somerset. Now an iconic event which has become woven into the fabric of British culture, the Glastonbury Festival has morphed from its hippie roots into a spectacle attended annually by well over 100,000 enthusiastic spectators. Wellington boots have become synonymous with ‘Glastonbury’ due to the frequency of heavy downpours which coincide with the event, but unlike the sodden earth, spirits are not dampened and the music plays on. To many, ‘Glastonbury’ is just that: an annual musical mud bath, now part of the mainstream and attended by the industry’s greats. No longer alternative or counter-cultural, it is half a century, and a mile and a half – as the crow flies – from its roots in the small west-country town where its conceptualisation sprang up from the mystical ground.

There is much more to this place than music and mud. Read on……..

Glastonbury is steeped in history, myth and legend. It is reputed to be the location of Avalon, the magical site of the court of King Arthur, the knights of the round table, the Lady of the Lake and the wizard, Merlin et al. The Arthurian connections are celebrated (and marketed) all around the town, amongst them a restaurant called Excalibur and various shops whose names offer a nod. It is not hard to understand why people from all over the world flock in their thousands every year to soak up this ambience. Glastonbury is unique!

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The Abbey ruins to the south of the town are nothing remarkable in themselves; little of the shells remain compared with many similar ruins to be found around the country. Apart from the impressive wildlife area and interesting sculptures by local artists, the feature which stands out and makes this place so irresistible to tourists is the simple marker which indicates the supposed site where King Arthur himself might be buried. The remains of the church have been made safe and developed into a beautiful space where wedding ceremonies can be held in the former crypt. St Patrick’s Chapel, a tiny Norman structure within the Abbey precincts which contains exquisite decoration on its walls, is also still in regular use by Christian worshippers. Another fascinating inhabitant of the Abbey is the Holy Thorn, supposedly planted by Joseph of Arimathea as a cutting from the tree from which the holy cross was made.

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The Joseph of Arimathea connection continues. This disciple of Jesus is said to have brought, in secret, the Holy Grail – the chalice from which Christ and his disciples drank at the last supper and many ‘Grail’ seekers are convinced that the much-celebrated vessel still lies hidden. Near to the foot of Glastonbury Tor – a legendary and ancient hill overlooking the town – lies Chalice Well, probably my favourite place on this magical map. As the reputed site of the concealed Holy Grail chalice, it is naturally a place of great intrigue and attracts many visitors. The focal point is the well head, reputed to be the place where the chalice is hidden far below the surface. This spot is a popular gathering point for reflection, meditation and group ceremonies such as the Lammas harvest gathering which took place at the time of my visit. The well feeds into an underground water course which flows into a much-revered spring, the Lion Head, from which iron rich water emerges. There are several legends which attempt to explain the slightly red colour of the spring water, including perhaps the obvious which suggests it is symbolic of the blood of Christ represented by the wine drunk at the Last Supper from the chalice. The water flow never diminishes and the temperature is apparently always constant.

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People of all faiths and none visit the site which feels very peaceful and spiritual without there being any clear affiliations with any belief system. In the beautifully tended gardens the staff and volunteers who run the site are welcoming and open. Some live within the grounds where there is also guest accommodation which can be booked by groups and individuals. Irrespective of visitors’ views on the legends associated with the chalice and the well, this feels like a special place.DSCF4182DSCF4195DSCF4183

The mysteries of Glastonbury don’t end there. The chalice is not the only secret in the depths of the town’s natural landscape; lay lines – or dragon lines as they are locally known – criss-cross the landscape like a supernatural grid of occult cables, esoterically powering the town. They are believed to be magnetically charged, and points at which the earth’s primal vibration can be tapped into. Those who believe in this hidden energy network claim that they are the reason that Glastonbury has become the focal point of so much spiritual activity throughout the ages from the ancient deities and spirits as old as the earth whose names are now lost in the mists of time, through to the disciples of Jesus.

So…… what of Glastonbury today?

My first thoughts when I arrived in the town were that it was almost exactly what I had expected, but smaller. Vibrant, eccentric, quirky and fascinating are words that describe both place and people. An exciting array of shops lined the main street and more were tucked away in the little courtyards leading off it: crystals, cauldrons, lotions and potions, straight off the pages of Harry Potter but for grown-ups, obviously represents a modern-day continuum of the tradition of magic and healing which is Glastonbury’s heritage. It was easy to distinguish the visitors – who tended to be mesmerised by the street scene, or clicking away with their cameras – from the locals, who were lucky enough to experience this enchanting place as part of everyday life.

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During my short stay I was undeniably aware of a feeling of positive energy in and around the town. I can’t say with any certainty if this raised vibration emanated from the earth’s magnetic forces, or whether it was down to the strong and happy spirit of its residents and visitors. I was taken aback each day by the friendliness I encountered and the natural ease with which people smiled and greeted friends and strangers alike. In my home town, if a beaming stranger approaches, initiates conversation and offers compliments, one of several things might be happening, none of them usually good or welcome. Not so in this town. It takes a little bit of time to adjust to this wonderful revelation that people here are just happy. It is not a coincidence that a significant number of the local population has chosen Glastonbury as their home, having moved here from elsewhere. On the other side of the coin, it’s also clear that not all of those who have come here to seek their personal Holy Grail have succeeded in finding it. There is a slight shadow of a dark cloud behind the rainbow and if you look closely enough you will see the folks who are running, or searching for something elusive to fill a space beneath the shimmer and sparkle. Too often, a flamboyant appearance and larger than life smile can be a fragile disguise.

At the end of the first day, after spending a peaceful couple of hours in the Abbey grounds we decided to head back up High Street to find somewhere to have dinner. It was still only eight o’clock and I was quite surprised to find the area almost empty. Shops were closed and only two cafes were still serving meals. A bench outside the Co-op store appeared to be a sort of meeting place for the sharing of banter and canned beverages of the alcoholic variety, and one of those gathered must have read my expression and decided to add his own thoughts: “It’s boring here, isn’t it? Glastonbury’s crap!” I couldn’t agree with his statement, but it struck me as quite poignant that this was a place where the trends were reversed compared with most towns in the UK: this was a micro society so utterly ‘alternative’ that the small mainstream minority lived in its margins, disconnected.

As the sun set, the vibrant shop fronts faded to grey, finally becoming shadows of their day time selves. Undoubtedly, in homes and hives around the town, there was an eclectic buzz of activity, as minds and souls plugged into currant of the lay lines, but in the centre of town it was time for lights-out.

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