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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.