There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 2 May 2014

Glastonbury: 12 Questions with the Answer 'No'

This post is not about the Glastonbury festival, it's about the town of Glastonbury. I have nothing against the festival, in fact I am all for it, but this post is not about it.

Last May, Day 18 of the South West Odyssey took us over Pennard Hill and, we looked down on the festival site and the half completed Pyramid Stage, before walking on to finish at Glastonbury.

Glastonbury Festival site from Pennard Hill (May 2013)
Our route took us over Glastonbury Tor, so this post is not about that either - I wrote about it last year. But I cannot ignore it, partly because it is visible from all over the town and partly because the tor is a strange and some would say mystic place, and 'strange and mystic' are the two words that best characterise Glastonbury.

The tor is visible from all over town
Glastonbury (May 2013)

I arrived on the 2nd of May, it was not a date I chose, merely one that fitted between other commitments. Had I arrived a day earlier I could have enjoyed the town's Beltane festivities. Glastonbury is that sort of town.

At first sight the main street looks like that of any small Somerset town with a mixture of old stone and brick buildings,….

Glastonbury High Street

…. a small market place, though I had clearly not arrived on market day….
Glastonbury Market Square

…. and a large parish church.
St John the Baptist, Glastonbury

But it also has the ruins of a once prosperous Abbey which, along with the tor, have made Glastonbury a town about which many questions can be asked, all of them with the answer 'no'.

I started in the Abbey.

The first church on the site was built by Joseph of Arimathea who was the uncle of Jesus as well as the donor of his tomb. He arrived with a bunch of disciples in 63AD and they lived a life of great piety and simplicity. He planted his staff which grew into the thorn tree that can still be seen at the Abbey to this day.
Joseph of Arimathea's Holy Thorn Tree, Glastonbury Abbey

Sadly for this story the very brief biblical mentions of Joseph say that a) he was a good man and b) he had a spare tomb. Nothing else is known about him.

So, Question 1: Did Joseph of Arimathea found the first church in Glastonbury? Answer: no.

Question 2: Individual thorn trees do not live two thousand years but is it possible that the current tree was been grown from a cutting of a cutting of……. the staff of a wandering ancient Palestinian? Again, no.

In another story Joseph was a tin merchant and regular visitor to these shores. On one trip he brought along his young nephew, the future Messiah.
Joseph of Arimathea among the Rocks of Albion
William Blake

Question 3, as posed by William Blake: 'And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England's mountains green?' No they didn’t.

Saint Patrick visited Glastonbury in the 5th century and observed that when the first Christians arrived a church already existed that could have been made by no mortal hand.

Question 4: Did St Patrick come to Glastonbury? No.

The Lady Chapel, Glastonbury Abbey

Question 5: Did the first Christians find a miraculous church ready and waiting for them? No.

The first church was probably built in the 7th century by the local Celtic population. By 658 when Cenwalh, King of Wessex brought Somerset under Saxon control, there was already a thriving monastery. It was further endowed by King Ine who ordered the building of the first stone church in 712.

Inside the Lady Chapel, Glastonbury

The wealthy monastery was a great prize to the invading Normans and in 1086, according to the Domesday Book, Glastonbury was the richest abbey in the country. Unfortunately the church burned down in 1184; only a single wooden statute of the infant Jesus in his mother's lap survived. This was clearly a miracle, doubly so when the wooden infant was seen to clap his hands. Sadly, the much venerated statue was lost several centuries ago.

The remains of the monastery, Glastonbury Abbey

Question 6: Did a wooden statute of the infant Jesus clap its hands? No.

Despite the pilgrims, and money, brought in by the clapping Christ child, the Abbey needed more money for its ambitious building programme. Excavating in their own graveyard, the monks were amazed to find coffins labelled with the names of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere.  The bodies were reinterred by the high altar, the pilgrims flocked to Glastonbury and the money rolled in.

Question 7: Were Arthur and Guinevere buried in Glastonbury Abbey? No. The shameless and cynical marketing ploy is not a new invention.

And on the same subject, Question 8. Is the tor the actual site of the legendary Isle of Avalon? No.

The Tor as seen from Glastonbury Abbey
All that is known of Arthur from contemporary sources (and in this instance contemporary means four centuries later) is that he fought at the Battle of Badon and was killed at the Battle of Camlann. Neither of these battle sites have been identified but it is conjectured that Arthur was a Romano-Celtic kinglet resisting Saxon incursions. The rest of what we 'know' about Arthur comes from Geoffrey of Monmouth (1110-1155) who claimed to be writing history, but nobody believed him even then, and from Thomas Mallory (died 1451). The distinction between fiction and non-fiction was not well established then, but Mallory never claimed not to be writing fiction.

The current site marked as the burial place of Arthur is in the ruins of the Abbey Church a few metres in front of where the high altar once stood. The ‘actual’ burial site was lost during the dissolution of the monastery, so this picture is of a fake of a fake.
Alleged Grave of King Arthur, Glastonbury Abbey

The Dissolution of the Monasteries came to Glastonbury in 1539. Today the site is green and calm with the sad, dignified beauty that only ruins can have. What is left are only fragments of the fine buildings that once stood here, but they are well preserved and interpreted, the vestiges of the old walls being made clearly visible in the grass.

The remains of the transept, Glastonbury Abbey

The medieval chapel of St Patrick, standing behind 'Joseph of Arimathea’s thorn tree,' was built to serve a set of alms-houses lining the monastery wall. The alms-houses have gone, but the chapel has recently been restored with modern stained glass by Wayne Ricketts and brightly coloured murals in medieval style.

St Patrick's Chapel, Wayne Ricketts windows
Outside is a bronze of Sigeric by Heather Burnley. I like the sculpture, though I do not know the story it represents, nor do I understand why Sigeric has been so honoured. Educated and ordained at Glastonbury he went on to be Archbishop of Canterbury, but his main claim to fame was to have advised Æthelred the Unready to pay off the Danes to stop them ravaging the countryside. Unsurprisingly, the Danes took the money, went away, and then came back for more. ‘Unready’ is a mistranslation of ‘unræd' meaning ‘ill-advised’. Well done Sigeric
Sigeric by Heather Burnley, St Patrick's Chapel, Glastonbury Abbey

The 14th century Abbott's kitchen has survived and reopened last month after extensive restoration. It is tricked out with a plastic meal while plastic pigs and fowls rotate on the spits.

The Abbot's Kitchen, Glastonbury Abbey

The visitor centre/museum is light and well set out. Glastonbury Abbey enjoys its myths and they are all rehearsed, but properly acknowledged as myths. For the true believers you have to venture outside.

The streets of Glastonbury were busy with school parties from France and Germany, tourists from all over the world and local people, a significant number of whom could be said to stand out. Glastonbury is the gathering place for those who believe, in Joni Mitchell’s words, that 'We are star dust, we are golden.' They may be busy trying to 'get themselves back to the garden' but the New Age flummery has a hard business edge.

Many shops have stickers warning that they are protected by witchcraft. One, called the 'Cat and Cauldron,' has a board outside promising 'tarot card readings today.'

The Cat & Cauldron, Glastonbury

Question 9: Do tarot cards, horoscopes, crystal balls or any other method of divining the future actually work. No, they don’t.

There are shops called The Mystic Garden, Moon Mirrors,.....

The Mystic Garden and Moon Mirrors, Glastonbury

Lilith, The Goddess and the Green Man, Enlightenment, Natural Earthling......

Natural Earthling, Glastonbury

.... and even one called Get Real which, like the others is an invitation to do the opposite.

Get Real, Glastonbury
Question 10: Could I be healed, assuming I needed healing, by the power of crystals, the realigning of my chakras, the adjustment of my aura or by any other therapy that cannot explain how it works? No.

I did not have time to visit the Chalice Well. The well is surrounded, I have read, by beautiful and peaceful gardens popular with neopagans – and other people. The waters of the spring gush red and as Glastonbury is associated with Joseph of Arimathea, who once (allegedly) guarded the Holy Grail, and King Arthur, whose knights sought it, any fool could work out that this is where the Holy Grail is secreted.

Question 11: Are the waters of Chalice Well red from the blood of Christ, or possibly from the rusty nails of the cross? No, they are red because they come through from a stratum of iron ore under Pennard Hill.

Question 12: Will the Holy Grail be found somewhere in the Glastonbury area. No, no and thrice no.

For a reality check you can visit the Glastonbury Lake Village Museum hidden in the recesses of the tourist information centre, at least you can if you turn up on time. I arrived as it closed so I never got to see it. It contains artefacts from a crannog excavated a few miles north of the town, though the site has now been re-covered to preserve it. Glastonbury’s Iron Age inhabitants were neither stupid nor unsophisticated, yet they were further 'removed from the garden' than the town's modern inhabitants, many living lives that were nasty, brutish and short. They were, though, the real people of Somerset and the ancestors of many of us.

I am a devout sceptic, but not a cynic, and I hope I have not given the impression that I dislike Glastonbury. The town has its own style and in a perverse way I admire the new age traders, while maintaining my belief that they are clueless. There is room for everybody in this world and if Glastonbury has rather more than its fair share of oddities, then good luck to them.


  1. I live in Glastonbury and I work in a crystal shop here. I don't believe everything that is said about the place - it is just a town. There are a great many people here who are aware of that. Those who don't usually end up burning out and failing.
    Despite my spiritual beliefs, I am a logician at heart. I KNOW that crystal healing etc is all in the mind (but the brain is a very powerful organ, let's not forget), but that is not to say that there isn't room for it.
    I found your article highly offensive (not least because you name-dropped my mother-in-law's shop, clearly without knowing a thing about it). I am one of those "new age traders". You admire me in a "perverse way"? I wish I could say the same about you. I just think that you're perverse.

  2. Also, the market square IS used for markets - twice weekly.

  3. I'm a professional tarot reader who predicts the future. According to my clients, I'm correct 99% of the time, that's why they keep paying me. So I guess you're wrong... lol. If you don't know about such things, then you really shouldn't be writing about them. There are many things wrong with this article, perhaps you should just stick to talking about food and pretty buildings.

  4. Glastonbury,is a place of pilgrimage,a special place that has captured the soul and spirit of human mind since the dawn of mankind,the people have made the myths and legends of Avalon,ever since first clapping our ancestors hands in delight thousands of years of habitation carry the stories,Glastonbury is a unique town,love it or hate it,that is your own personal view,whatever you find and discover upon a visit to Glastonbury is always enlightening and usually opens a crossroads in one's life..the Tor is well worth the walk up,sometimes if you're lucky drinking the white spring and red spring will help you clear your mind and truely open your mind to breath the air upon the it did me as I as a 5 year old child looked up in awe.Glastonbury is,has always been a healing place.the shops make the high st colourful as do the inhabitants,it's a lovely vibrant,cosmopolitan fun town,quite unique and steeped in myths,legends,history of Britain..and I'm proud of Glastonbury and all that live and surround our sacred isles..Amen..M..