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.

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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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Sawley Abbey, Lancashire

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The ruin of Sawley Abbey stands within the Forest of Bowland, an officially designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in Lancashire. I may be biased because it’s my home county, but I believe it would be a tall order to find another region of England which has as much variety to offer visitors in terms of open rural landscapes, miles of exhilarating beaches, buildings of historical interest, quaint chocolate box villages and not forgetting bustling towns and cities. Anybody familiar with this neck of the woods doesn’t need an official label to point out the beauty of this part of the shire.

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Situated close to the lovely town of Clitheroe, the Abbey was founded by a Cistercian order of monks in 1146 under the patronage of the extremely wealthy De Percy family of Northumberland. It was smaller than many of its contemporaries such as nearby Whalley Abbey  and Furness Abbey (link to my blog below). By all accounts the brothers of Sawley were not a happy bunch, complaining of poor crop yields and marshy land, and they didn’t reap the great material benefits enjoyed by many of their counterparts at other sites. Another gripe was that Sawley, due to being close to a busy road (nothing has changed there!), was an obvious resting place for travellers who had to be offered hospitality, this eating (pardon the pun) into the Abbey’s resources.

Like almost all Abbeys and monasteries in England and Wales, it was dissolved (torn down) in or just after 1536 when Henry VIII set up the Anglican Church and smashed – both metaphorically and literally – the Catholic Church in England. Many of these ruins are in the north of England. Most were not destroyed completely, as it was said that the King wanted people to see them, witness his power, and understand that he had authority, not Rome. Over time, much of the stone from these ancient sites was used by landowners and local people for new building projects.

The larger structures are long gone but visitors can still get an impression of the scale, stature and the space the Abbey occupied within its beautiful pastoral surroundings. It is now managed by English Heritage. No staff members are on site, but a local key holder opens and locks up daily.

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Nine centuries later, the ruin is still accessed via the extremely busy A59 road, and I can vouch that life and limb have to be risked when crossing. Visitors will also spot lots of four-wheel-drive vehicles pulling steel containers often crammed with sheep. This is the countryside, so it is to be expected, however I always find this upsetting and it is sure to cast a shadow over my day. Once the treacherous dual carriageway has been traversed, a side road leads to where lovely stone cottages line the short road up to the Abbey precinct. I didn’t take any photos of the desirable residences, as people were milling around outside and I thought it a bit rude to photograph them and their homes – and possibly a bit weird….or envious…. or all three.

A stone wall encloses the site and once inside I was fascinated to see some of the interesting architectural features displayed on natural stone shelves along one length of the perimeter.

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Below are some well preserved sections of the original floor. Imagine the painstaking work involved in lining up all of those stone blocks!

 

 

Although I was the only soul around for most of the hour or so I spent a Sawley, at one point a family with boisterous children entered. It seems that the site also doubles as a playground, unfortunately. I found a quiet nook where I could sit, relax, shiver a little despite the deceptive sunshine and enjoy the emergence of spring.

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Manchester Cathedral: Stained glass and gargoyles:

 

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Two of my favourite things are stained glass windows and gargoyles. I decided to spend a quiet hour on a rainy Sunday afternoon in a spot where there are some splendid examples of both.

Manchester Cathedral, or the Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St. Mary, St. Denys and St. George to give it its full title, stands at the north eastern edge of the city, near to Victoria Station and to the border with the city of Salford. Cathedrals are mostly grand imposing buildings, designed to command attention, to make their presence felt; Manchester’s feels like it’s tucked away behind a screen of shops and a mock Tudor pub, its grounds a haven for lunching office workers and, at the weekends, huddles of teenaged goths. World renowned Chetham’s Music School -home of the Cathedral choir -is adjacent.

Ask anybody to tell you what they associate with Manchester and their replies will probably include some of the following: Oasis; New Order; The Hacienda ; premier league football; the Peterloo Massacre; The Smiths; a certain coconut-covered custard tart; ‘Madchester’; ‘The Village’ and, more recently, the northern quarter. The cotton trade, early trades union movement and political activism might also feature……………..and rain. The city is synonymous with it. It’s unlikely that anybody will mention the Cathedral.

Visitors rarely arrive here by accident –  unless they take a wrong turn when visiting the Christmas Markets or heading towards Harvey Nicholls . Most would have sought out this almost hidden gem, perhaps pulled by the promise of the gorgeous windows which are – in my opinion – the big attraction. The Cathedral is not a crowd puller and this is to its credit. A trickle of sightseers drifts in and out, leaflets and maps in hand. Admission is free, where the same, sadly, cannot be said for most other British cathedral churches, perhaps an admission – or exploitation – of their change of status from spiritual centres of the community to local visitor attractions.

From the outside it is not possible to appreciate the aesthetic impact of the stained glass windows. Yes, most churches have at least one or two, usually depicting biblical scenes whose subjects have been attributed suitably anglicised features: haloed blond martyrs fail to fend off marauding beasts, and blue-eyed virgins gaze longingly into the distance, hoping to be swept up into the sky by a heavenly wind. We’ve all seen lots of examples, and one is usually much the same as another. Not so in this case.

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All having been added during the last 50 years to replace originals destroyed by war time explosions, the stained glass windows of Manchester Cathedral form an intensely colourful folk-art collage. Non- traditional designs, vibrant and engaging, are apt in a city which prides itself on modernity, openness and progression, not to mention diversity.

Remembrance goes hand in hand with reconciliation within the design of my favourite ‘fire window’. Situated in the chapel dedicated to the Manchester Regiment, the window designed by Margaret Traherne pays tribute to lives lost. The orange flames represent the blitz, but as fire destroys it also clears the way for new beginnings. The glass used in this window, significantly, was created Germany. On a sunny day the flames come alive as the light pours through the glass. Today the rain patters against the panes.

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The spirit of inclusion and the celebration of the colourful spectrum we find in nature and in all life is evident in this building. Art work depicts the community which the Cathedral serves and welcomes into its fold. This space feels unpretentious and welcoming.

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Back outside, look up and you will see the marvellous array of gargoyles and grotesques which adorn the stonework and guttering. The word gargoyle originates from an old French word meaning throat, hence the verb ‘to gargle’. Technically, to qualify as a gargoyle there must be a spout for the purpose of channelling water away from the building. The non-gargling varieties are more accurately described as grotesques or chimeras and were added to places of worship for decorative effect and to ward off evil spirits from the buildings, evil spirits being prevalent in the mediaeval mind-set.

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I’ve been fascinated by gargoyles for many years and enjoy photographing them, though I don’t do that as much as I used to. Fantastical in appearance, comical, terrifying, grimacing and gurning, the rows of stony faces tell stories of a world long past. This is the post- industrial north and some are exceptionally grimy and grim. Each one seems to have its own personality and it amuses me to imagine their discussions about the passage of time:

 

Dragon: “It’s a bit glum for the time of year.”

Beast: ” Yep! Where’s all this rain come from? It’s more like November!”

Dragon: “It reminds me of that washout of a summer we had in 1546. My spout got blocked with moss. It played havoc with my waterworks and no amount of gargling would clear it. I flooded in the end”

Beast: “I remember it well. We all suffered. That rising damp really gets into the mortar! The serpent on the east wall took such a battering by the storms that his forked tongue dropped off. “

Dragon: ” I know, poor sod. You can’t make out his features now. ‘Erosion’, I’ve heard those surveyors call it. We’re all losing our looks. Mine started to go downhill in the 1700s.”

Beast: “I sometimes feel like we’ve been forgotten about. Even the evil spirits don’t come up like they used to back in the day. Health and safety regulations……….”

 

Now we have new cathedrals made of glass and steel, temples to the gods of commerce and celebrity. The nearby football museum rises like a glass obelisk. Across the city, Manchester Hilton looms on the distant grey skyline. The Cathedral will witness other grand designs have their moment and will still look on, sagely, as, in time, they too disappear.  

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Furness Abbey

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Furness Abbey, or what remains of it, is a Cistercian Abbey just outside Barrow-in-Furness, Cumbria. It was built by a community of monks in the 12th century and dissolved by Thomas Cromwell about 400 years later. Like other religious buildings which were destroyed during Henry VIII’s ‘Dissolution’, parts of it were left intact as a reminder of the power of the king.

I have this fascination with ancient English buildings, especially ruins. There is something about them; an atmosphere; some connection with the past. I love to visit them and to soak up my surroundings.

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Whalley Abbey in east Lancashire is one of my very favourite places, so I had high expectations of Furness, which had been described to me as being even more splendid.

I discovered a local bus service would take me from the train station at Dalton-in-Furness and drop me off half a mile from the entrance to the Abbey. The stop for this bus was, according to the Abbey website,‘outside the station’; that wasn’t true, but it was only a short walk away outside the tiniest town hall I’ve ever seen, in which resided the tourist information centre. The two staff members seemed a little surprised to meet an actual tourist and although helpful, were not particularly knowledgeable. One of them went online and found me the numbers of three local taxi firms. We’ll come back to that later.

After leaving the bus I enjoyed the short walk (it didn’t even seem like half a mile) along a peaceful lane to the Abbey entrance. As I strolled along I could smell the wild garlic mixed in with the roadside vegetation. Some farm animals grazed and lazed in a small field.

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As Furness Abbey is owned by the English Heritage this means the admission price is higher than at similar sites not owned by them, and that their people are on hand to give information and sell you merchandise – whether you want these things or not. The entrance was inside a modern brick and glass annexe. I paid my admission fee and was invited to buy an information booklet. I declined, but was then made to wait whilst the young man flicked through the aforementioned booklet, summarising its main points. The poor soul had clearly been instructed to go through this script with each visitor and dared not deviate from it. Still within the entrance area was an interesting display and collection of artefacts, archaeological finds and photographs illustrating the Abbey’s history.

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Furness Abbey ruins were impressive. I spent some time sitting in the blazing heat just contemplating how magnificent the structure must once have been. The experience was marred slightly for me by quite high levels of noise coming from outside the Abbey site; some adjacent farm land was being used by picnicking families and what looked like a children’s summer camp,  and two motorcyclists performed seemingly endless circuits of a surrounding road. I guess ancient remains must defer to the here and now. Being in a more isolated location, Whalley Abbey in Lancashire is much more serene which is why it is also a popular retreat.

Nevertheless, Furness Abbey held its own and had some interesting little features such as troughs of wild herbs planted amongst the ruined stone walls.

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Due to some structural instability, investigations and reparation work were being carried out and part of the main church building was surrounded by scaffold. This will be in place until 2016. I hope to go back and enter the ancient church, scaffold free.

When I’d looked around and spent some quiet time I decided to use the taxi numbers I’d been given to get back to the station. This turned out to be a waste of time: the first one-man enterprise was in Manchester; the second wouldn’t be free for two hours and the third didn’t even answer. This was to be my first encounter with unreliable single driver taxi firms in Cumbria, though not my last. The bus arrived just at the right time for me to head home whilst reflecting on my day.

 

Conishead Priory, Cumbria: a magical place

Conishead Priory, home of the Majushri Kadampa Buddhist Temple and learning and meditation centre, has experienced several incarnations in its own right. On a hot day in August in a secluded corner of the temple’s wild flower garden, it is easy to experience a sense of nirvana.

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Built on the original site of a 12th century Augustinian priory, the grade 2 listed Victorian gothic house was for hundreds of years home to many generations of Cumbrian aristocracy. It has also been a hydro-hotel, described as the ‘paradise of Furness’, a convalescent home for miners and was used as a hospital in World War II.

The Priory is about 2 miles from Ulverston Station. On their website, Conishead Priory recommends travelling there by taxi and even provides an ample list of local taxi numbers. Based on prior (no pun intended!) experience of poor taxi services in parts of Cumbria l had looked up a few more for good measure. Onthe fourth attempt I got through to a chap who sounded quite put-out that I had disturbed him, but said he would be with me in 10 minutes and was good to his word, though surly with it.

I was surprised at first that the Priory house was not older; I had misunderstood the blurb and had thought it was 12th century, but that was the when the original Augustinian building was erected. The existing house is early Victorian. Tours are available but I didn’t partake.

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A short walk across the car park leads straight into the gardens and outdoor dining area. The café is situated inside the conservatory. Monks and visitors alike sit and chat, appreciating the vibrancy of the garden and enjoying food together. The café offers a selection of vegetarian sandwiches, snacks, homemade soups, cream teas and cold drinks and ice creams.

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The gardens are beautiful in a very understated and natural way, not artistic or flamboyant, but tranquil and vibrant without trying too hard. I particularly enjoyed walking in the wildflower garden (as wildflowers are my favourites) and the many and varied pots on the terrace.

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The pleasant stroll to the beach is by way of a path which is a bit steep at the start and probably not suitable wheelchairs or prams. Follow the signs through the wood to the pebble beach; although it’s an inlet, you can see out to open sea.

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In one sense, the temple seemed so strangely incongruous in that English-country-house setting, yet it is perfectly at ease there. It wasn’t as large as I had expected and not as ornate. It’s modern and airy and has some religious art and beautiful displays. On entering, I was welcomed and given the choice of removing my shoes or covering them with the disposable covers provided. Everybody is made welcome, Buddhist or non-Buddhist alike.

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After more peace and quiet time spent looking out over the lawns behind the temple, I decided to call a taxi in plenty time to get back to Ulverston Station. After four unsuccessful attempts I managed to book a taxi which arrived about 20 minutes later.

Conishead is well worth a visit and I would defy anybody to not find something there that appeals to them, be it the grand house, the beach, the temple or the wonderful gardens.

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