The landscape of Glastonbury, both real and imagined, historic and present, has been mined by scholars, mystics and pilgrims for centuries. The most recent of celebrations linked to Glastonbury is, of course, the Glastonbury Festival, a five-day music festival held annually (albeit intermittently) since 1970.
It was no surprise to me that a sassy, rhinestoned Dolly Parton stole the show at the 2014 Festival. She shimmied across the stage, charming the audience (which exceeded the crowd for the headliners Arcade Fire and Metallica), and brought her own blend of country to this corner of Somerset. Unfortunately, I was not part of the muddy, sodden masses singing along to “9 to 5” in Pilton (the village adjacent to Glastonbury that hosts the festival), instead viewing the streamed-live concert from the comforts of my living room in Oxford.
But even without the feel of mud oozing up beneath my feet, my mind easily veered off into reflection on the lure of Glastonbury. Settlement in this part of southwest England stretches back into the last period of the Stone Age, with Iron Age and Bronze Age villages located to the northwest and west of Glastonbury. This was a watery area in prehistoric times, and the dramatic shifts in topography are quickly discernible upon climbing Glastonbury Tor, one of the most famous hills in England. The conical-shaped hill is natural, and prior to modern drainage techniques, it was an island among the flooded Somerset Levels.
The terracing on the hill, however, is not natural, but owes its existence to the shaping hands of unknown Neolithic people, around the same time as the construction of Stonehenge. Much like that famous landmark, countless theories exist as to why the hill is terraced; the most common being that the terraces create a maze to guide pilgrims to the peak of the hill. (Although one could also imagine that the terraces served as stages of some kind…)
Stretching up 518 feet, the Tor provides not only a healthy walk, but an incredible view – and I don’t think it is just my propensity for fanciful thought which perceives walking up this particular hill to be much more than exercise. Even when numerous tourists clamor about in various stages of climbing, there is a palpable sense of silence – and weight – that envelops the visitor to Glastonbury Tor. As I walked, I felt both solitary and connected – a dichotomy that made perfect sense at the time.
The craggy stone silhouette of St. Michael’s Tower, dating from the 15th century, is only the latest of churches that attempted to harness the power of this hill looming over the Somerset landscape. Archaeological investigations point to earlier church buildings on the summit – perhaps as many as four previous churches, one of which was destroyed by a powerful earthquake in 1275. The National Trust took over management of the Glastonbury Tor in 1933, but interest in rehabilitation and restoring the Tower dates back to 1804.
Beneath Glastonbury Tor is the Glastonbury Abbey, where the mists of myth and legend swirl about with an intensity that hasn’t wavered over many centuries. First established as a Benedictine monastery, around 670-678 AD, the Abbey replaced an earlier “pagan” religious site. The abbey is linked to two key figures: Joseph of Arimathea and King Arthur.
Joseph supposedly brought the Holy Grail to Glastonbury, and later, King Arthur came to the Tor searching for the Grail. The abbey was partially destroyed by fire in 1184, and during reconstruction, the monk discovered a double oak coffin, some 16 feet underground. Inside the coffin were the remains of a man and a woman with blonde hair. (No, this is not where I re-introduce the Dolly Parton connection.) Inscribed on the exterior of the coffin were the words “Here lies buried the famous King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon.” The caskets were lost during the chaos of the Dissolution, but the belief that Arthur’s final resting spot was in Glastonbury persists.
And the faithful continue to gather for a myriad of reasons in Glastonbury – whether to pursue spiritual guidance, or to meditate on the landscape and its nuanced uses and meanings. Or perhaps they gather in farm fields, stirred into a frenzy by music, sporting flamboyant blonde wigs, and singing lustily along to “Jolene.” Magic is where you find it, after all.
Janie-Rice is an intrepid architectural historian with a double first name. She enjoys dark chocolate, old dilapidated buildings, and darting around English country houses in all sorts of weather. She’s a proud native Kentuckian and a farmer’s daughter. Visit her at www.gardenstogables.com and on Twitter at @GerbBrother