It took an hour an a half to get to Stonehenge from London and after our 45 minute stay there we drove for another hour and a half to our next stop — Glastonbury Tor, a high hill crowned with an old tower, the only remnant left of a medieval church named St Michael’s. The Tor (Saxon for “hill”) is just east of the town of Glastonbury in Somerset County, a portion of southwest England that lies below Wales.
During the ride our tour guide, David, entertained us with stories about Somerset — its ham, its apples and its most famous food: cheese from the village of Cheddar. He also talked about the time period when the Saxons formed their kingdom of Wessex and fought off the Danes for hundreds of years until England was unified in the tenth century and Wessex then disappeared as a political entity. And then he talked about King Arthur and Merlin and the Isle of Avalon and what happened to this part of the country after the Romans left (around 410 AD) and before the Saxons moved in (about a hundred years later).
David was preparing us for the New Age we would experience at our next two stops: Chalice Well and the town of Glastonbury and its once-famous Abbey, in ruins for the last 500 years.
According to most of the Arthurian legends King Arthur was killed at the Battle of Camlann in 537 AD and his body was whisked away to the Isle of Avalon (derived from the old Welsh word for apples). The general consensus is that this mysterious isle was in reality Glastonbury Tor, which was once an island (about 2,000 years ago) and was probably a peninsula during the time of Arthur.
The story of King Arthur is often intermingled with the legend of the Holy Grail, a chalice filled with the blood of Christ which was brought to Avalon by Joseph of Arimathea, a biblical character who offered his own tomb for Christ’s burial. The two stories get somewhat muddled when it is sometimes forgotten that Joseph and Arthur lived about 400 years apart.
The two legends expanded over the centuries and were very popular in France until brought back to England after the Norman conquest. In my next two postings we will see how the Holy Grail story affected Chalice Well and how the Arthurian legend ties in to the history of Glastonbury Abbey.
About 50 years ago the counterculture came to Glastonbury and there was a renewed interest in Glastonbury Tor when it was determined that a ley line from northeast to southwest England crossed right over both the Tor and several other places, all with churches dedicated to St Michael the Archangel, the Christian version of the ancient gods who dwelled on hills and protected the people who lived below.
Some people say that the terraces that lead up to the top of Glastonbury Tor were built during the time of Stonehenge. The Celts who lived in this area before the Romans came believed in fairies and Gwyn ap Nudd, the King of the Fairies lived atop the Tor. Some people say that Merlin the wizard lived here, too. There are other stories about mysterious tunnels that connect Chalice Well and Glastonbury Abbey with the Tor. And they say that the monks of Glastonbury who found the tunnels went mad.
Some people have climbed to the top of Glastonbury Tor and claimed that they entered another world parallel to ours. Others have sighted several UFOs. A lot of the people who came here in the 1960s are still here. There are about 10,000 people in Glastonbury or nearby villages today. And in late June of nearly every year since the 70s more than 100,000 people come to the Glastonbury Music Festival near the village of Pilton, about three miles east of Glastonbury Tor. Last year they came to hear the Rolling Stones. In recent years they saw Bono and U2, Bruce Springsteen, Nora Jones, Lady Gaga, Amy Winehouse, Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, Neil Diamond, Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen, The Who, Shirley Bassey and many others.
David asked if anyone wanted to walk to the top of the hill. No one was interested and so we drove off to our next stop, Chalice Well, only five minutes away at the western base of the hill near the sprawling grounds of Glastonbury Abbey. That will be the subject of my next posting.