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.

This is a ‘fallow’ year for the festival; a chance for the well-trodden fields to breathe and rejuvenate, but there is much more to this place than music and mud as I discovered last summer.

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 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 the currant of the lay lines, but in the centre of town it was time for lights-out.

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Grasmere Lake, Cumbria

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I was recently given an intriguing book: a paperback version of a travel guide of the Lake District written by the celebrated poet William Wordsworth who was born and resided most of his life in that beautiful part of England. A Guide Through the District of the Lakes was first published in 1810 and revised and reprinted several times before the final version was written in 1835. Wordsworth was strapped for cash and with a growing family, hence the artistic compromise. Wordsworth himself expressed some degree of contempt for this work, admitting that the need for funds had been the incentive behind its publication.

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William Wordsworth

Whilst it’s obviously not in the same league as his poetry, I quite like this book; it’s like a Lonely Planet guide of its time and reminds me of the later Wainwright guides which laid out walking routes across the mountainous pastoral terrain of the north of England, routes still followed to this day. I find it very interesting to compare Wordsworth’s poetry with his – albeit highly descriptive in parts – functional writing.

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Wordsworth made his home close to Grasmere Lake to the south of the Lake District region. Its name is from the old English gress and mere – the lake flanked by grass. Wordsworth first stayed at Dove Cottage, and his final home was at Rydal Mount where he died in 1850. At only a mile long and half a mile wide, Grasmere was not particularly impressive in size, but was Wordsworth’s favourite. The river Rothay feeds the lake, from where it flows on into Rydal Water and then to Lake Windermere.

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Canoes heading across Grasmere and then onto the Rothay on route to Rydal Water. You can’t see it here but one of the passengers was a dog in a life jacket.

A footpath along the west shore of the Lake leads to Penny Rock Woods, another route to Rydal Water

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I really like Grasmere, not because it is spectacular as Ullswater is, or grand like the better-known Windermere, but because it’s mostly quiet, is easily accessible for most people and because the south shore is like a pebble beach and it’s easy to paddle or swim in the water.

What better descriptions could I use than those of Wordsworth himself?

‘In preparing this Manual, it was the Author’s principal wish to furnish a Guide or Companion for the Minds of Persons of taste, and feeling for Landscape, who might be inclined to explore the District of the Lakes with that degree of attention to which its beauty may fairly lay claim’ – William Wordsworth, A Guide Through the District of the Lakes.

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‘I do not know of any tract of country in which, within so narrow a compass, may be found an equal variety in the influences of light and shadow upon the sublime or beautiful features of the landscape’

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‘…at the outlet of the lake, the stream pushing its way among the rocks in lively contrast with the stillness from which it has escaped.’

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‘The presence of a lake is indispensable to exhibit in perfection the beauty of one of these days.’

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‘the smallest rivulet – one whose silent flow is scarcely noticeable in a season of dry weather – so faint is the dimple made by it on the surface of the smooth lake.’

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‘… the lover of Nature might linger for hours’

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‘All else speaks of tranquillity … the clouds gliding in the depths of the Lake.’

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‘It has been said that in human life there are moments worth ages’

… never a truer word has been written 🙂