Sunday, 9 March 2014


Mr Tulip and I have been on holiday, to Glastonbury in Somerset. I was attending the wonderful Majma dance festival, which takes place there every year (this was my 12th festival!), and we stayed on for a few days after that.

The area has been inhabited since Neolithic times, and has a rich and varied history: some of it rooted in fact, some of it rather less so. There's a lot to tell, so this is quite a long post.

Easily the most prominent feature of the area is Glastonbury Tor ('tor' is an old English word referring to a high rock or a hill). At a height of 158m / 518' above sea level, it is clearly visible for miles around.

Glastonbury Tor, picture from Wikipedia Commons

The Tor consists of hard sandstone, which was left exposed when the softer ground around it was eroded. It is topped by St Michael's Tower, which is all which now remains of the 14th century church of St Michael. This church became a daughter chapel of Glastonbury Abbey, and like the abbey was demolished as part of Dissolution of the Monastries in 1539.

St Michael's Tower

The sides of the Tor are formed into seven deep terraces, and there is no definitive explanation of how these were formed. Suggestions include defensive ramparts to protect an Iron Age fort at the summit, man-made terracing in the Middle Ages to make the land easier to cultivate, a medieval 'spiral walkway' created for pilgrims to reach the church on the summit, or the remains of a three-dimensional labyrinth.

An image of the Tor, © The National Trust

These last two possibilities sum up the essence of Glastonbury. It has been a centre for Christian worship and pilgrimage for over 1300 years, but has also been associated with the 'Isle of Avalon' of Arthurian legend (a theory endorsed by the monks of the medieval abbey), Celtic mythology, and a number of other mythological and spiritual chronicles.

Below the Tor, in the centre of the town, are the remains of Glastonbury Abbey. The first stone church was built here in the 7th century, and was greatly enlarged before being destroyed by fire in the 12th century. The Abbey was rebuilt, starting with the Lady Chapel, which was constructed on the site of the very first church.

Interior of the Lady Chapel c1900, picture from Wikipedia Commons

The Lady Chapel today

North door of the Lady Chapel

During the rebuilding, the tombs of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere were allegedly discovered in the cemetery, and the bodies were reburied with great ceremony in front of the High Altar of the new abbey. Unsurprisingly, later historians have expressed scepticism about this story. Medieval monasteries were not above what we would today call 'marketing ploys' to encourage pilgrims to visit, and King Arthur's tomb would certainly be a draw!

The abbey ruins, looking west. King Arthur's tomb is marked by the black posts and chains in the centre

By the time of the Dissolution, Glastonbury was the second richest religious foundation in the land, second only to Westminster Abbey in London. The only building on the abbey site to remain virtually intact, the Abbot's kitchen, demonstrates just how wealthy and magnificent the abbey had become. The kitchen existed purely to prepare food for the Abbot's table, not for the rest of the monks. As it has four huge fireplaces, one in each corner, it's safe to assume that the Abbot dined well.

The Abbot's kitchen

If the kitchen shows the most privileged end of abbey life, St Patrick's Chapel shows the simplest. Built in 1512 and originally an almshouse chapel, it has recently been restored to show how a medieval chapel might have looked, with colourful wall paintings, some of the Abbey's original stained glass, and a simple altar.

East wall of St Patrick's Chapel

The abbey ruins, along with the surrounding parkland, are open to the public. The Visitor Centre contains displays about the history of the Abbey and religious life, plus a scale model of the Abbey as it would have looked before the Dissolution.

The Abbey entrance

Model of the abbey, including the gatehouse (bottom), the almshouses and St Patrick's chapel (beyond the gatehouse), the Lady Chapel (immediately in front of the two towers of the main abbey building) and the Abbot's kitchen (right)

Further evidence of the abbey's wealth can be found nearby, at the magnificent Abbey Barn. This was built in the 14th century to store the grain which the abbey received in tithes from its tenant farmers. The barn now forms part of the Somerset Rural Life Museum. This museum is largely responsible for my involvement in the Historical Sew Fortnightly, as it was here that I bought the pattern for my Glastonbury Bonnet last year.

The Abbey Barn

Barn interior

Outside both St Patrick's chapel and the Abbey Barn are Glastonbury Thorns. Often called 'The Holy Thorn', it is a type of thorn found in the Middle East, and is unusual in that it flowers twice a year; at Christmas and Easter.

Glastonbury Thorn outside St Patrick's Chapel

Legend has it that the first Thorn Tree was the staff of Joseph of Arimathea, and that when he travelled to Britain in the first century AD he came to the Isle of Avalon by boat, climbed Wearyall Hill and thrust his staff into the ground, where it took root and flowered. Sadly the Glastonbury Thorn on Wearyall Hill was cut down by vandals with a chainsaw in 2010, and a sapling grown from its remains and planted in 2012 was also destroyed last year.

The original Wearyall Hill Glastonbury Thorn, picture from Wikipedia Commons

By the way, the name "Wearyall" is from the Norse word for whale, and refers to the shape of the hill. The Wirral peninsular, near my home in Chester, takes its name from the same root.

Wearyall Hill seen from the Tor

Glastonbury became an important centre of pilgrimage (clearly the King Arthur story worked!), and pilgrims need somewhere to stay. In the 11th century a 'hospital' (then a place providing hospitality, not a place for people who are sick) for visiting pilgrims was built, with a chapel attached, not far from the entrance to the abbey. After the Dissolution there were of course no more pilgrims, and in the 16th century the single hall hospital was converted into two rows of almshouses. Stone from the now partially-demolished abbey was used for the alterations. One row of the almshouses was demolished in the 1960s, and now forms the garden of St Margaret's Chapel and Almshouses.

Chapel and almshouses, with the demolished row on the right

For pilgrims and other visitors looking for a little more comfort than a shared hall, the George and Pilgrims Inn was built on the High Street in the late 15th century, and is still a hotel today.

The George and Pilgims Inn

Further up the High Street are the Glastonbury Tribunal, a 15th century merchant's town house which now houses the museum and tourist information centre, and the church of St John's, also from the 15th century.

St John's

Glastonbury Tribunal

Between the Tor and the town lie Chalice Well Gardens. The Chalice Well is situated over a natural spring, and was the original water supply for the Abbey and the town. The water flows at the amazing rate of 25,000 gallons / 110,000 litres / 30,000 US gallons per day, at a constant temperature of 52 degrees centigrade. It has never failed, even during droughts.

The Chalice Well. The cover was made in 1919.

The name comes from the legend that Joseph of Arimathea hid the Chalice of the Last Supper beneath the waters of the spring, after which they flowed red. A more prosaic explanation is that the high levels of iron in the water are what gives it a reddish tinge! Like the hot springs in Bath, 21 miles away, the water is thought to have healing properties.

Red staining from the water

Glastonbury today has a strong 'New Age' feel to it; there are a lot (and I mean a lot) of alternative shops dotted around, with names like 'Enchantment' and 'The Psychic Piglet' (yes, honestly). But if you sit quietly for a while, on the Tor, in the abbey grounds, or in the Chalice Well Gardens, there is a sense of a place which has had its roots in faith, of whatever type, for a very long time.

1 comment: