County of Somerset, England: King Arthur's Isle of Avalon, Glastonbury Tor and Abbey and the Pop Festival
A steeply rising mound of earth, topped by an ancient church tower, the Tor is the highest point of the ancient Isle of Avalon. It was truly an island, surrounded by the waters of the Severn Estuary before an irrigation system transformed the land into the fertile ‘levels’ which exist today. The inhabitants of Avalon lived in houses of timber construction, on tall poles lodged in the water. They moved around in boats and are sometimes referred to as lake dwellers.
Glastonbury Tor dominates the countryside for miles around. From the Polden Hills (a ridge between Taunton Vale and the Somerset Flats), from the Mendips, from wherever you are in that area, look to the east and you will usually see it, sometimes reaching through a mist echoing Arthurian legend.
A good walk to the top gives you amazing views over the Somerset countryside, North to the Mendips, the city of Wells beneath them, round to the east to Pilton (site of the Festival), to views of the coastline south along to Brean Down at the end of the Mendips. At your feet are the towns of Street and Glastonbury itself.
Glastonbury Tor and Surroundings
Church Tower and Surrounds
The tower atop the Tor is all that’s left of a church. Reportedly, there were three attempts to build a church on the spot but all fell or were destroyed. It was decided that fate was against them so no further attempts were made and just the final tower remains.
Let your imagination go, soak up the mystery. Sometimes on an Autumn day, mists hide the wider vista and you can imagine King Arthur riding through them to set right a wrong. Sunny days make you glad to be alive as you survey the miles and miles of beautiful panorama.
You can attain the summit by several paths, depending on how strenuous a climb you can tackle. The hill and steep steps to the east are my favourite. It’s an easy initial walk but gather your strength for the final climb; the broad steps are deceiving but a few benches on the way offer you a chance to catch your breath. If you have the opportunity to make this walk, take it! You will not be disappointed.
The AbbeyClick thumbnail to view full-size
The Abbey sits sheltered at the foot of the Tor, and forms the focus of the town. The site of King Arthur’s tomb, the history of which you can read below, is part of the Abbey. What a shame we can no longer see the original tomb.
There remain only ruins of the Abbey, though the main chancel walls rise high, better preserved than the rest. The foundations, marked by low stone walls, give you an idea of the form and size of the whole site, sitting at the foot of the Tor, sheltered and forming the focus of the town.
The site is beautiful, wooded and tranquil. You can sit in peace and survey the sacred site, wondering at the history it holds.
Transcript of the Plaque
Joseph of Aramathea and the Glastonbury Thorn
Joseph of Aramathea is connected to the Abbey. He purportedly sailed across the flooded Somerset Levels and planted his staff in the ground where the abbey now is. From his staff a thorn tree grew. One story says he brought the young Jesus with him on his travels.
The original tree was hacked down but cuttings had been taken and this tree is said to be one of the cuttings. It is known as the Glastonbury Thorn.
The Glastonbury Thorn
Glastonbury itself has the local reputation of being ‘ethnic’. Walk along the main street and explore shops selling crystals, dream catchers, healing potions and colourful, flowing garments. You’ll rub shoulders with many hippies, young and old. There is a hint of heady substances in the air. That’s a slight exaggeration but you get the picture. It has a laid back air. Myths and legends are always close by.
Guinevere, King Arthur's Queen
Legends of King Arthur
‘King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table’; those words evoke stories of mystery, legend and daring-do. Several sites around Somerset purport to be the original Camelot, the castle and court of King Arthur.
Arthur is buried at the Abbey, alongside his Queen consort Guinevere, lover of Sir Lancelot who was a Knight of the Round Table. Their love affair was said to be the cause of Arthur’s downfall. So many stories have been woven around this larger than life character. There is no proof that he existed as a King although there was a leader of the southern area of England, covering an area from present-day Kent to Cornwall, who was revered and respected. His Round Table was wisely devised so that no knight had an exalted position at the table, making each equal to any other.
Tales of Uther Pendragon, father of Arthur, and of the magician Merlin, many based in Wales and in Tintagel, Cornwall, tantalise our imaginations. Arthur pulled the sword from the stone, fulfilling a prophecy which said whoever could do this would be a future king of England. The sword, Excalibur, which had magical powers, was later thrown into the waters of a lake by Arthur and received by the Lady of the Lake, her hand emerging from the depths.
The so-called original Round Table hangs in Winchester Cathedral, Hampshire, so it appears Arthur’s fame is fairly widespread. Such is the stuff of legends.
Nearly every year since 1971 the Glastonbury Festival has taken place at Worthy Farm, Pilton. A local farmer, Michael Eavis, opened his fields and invited popular bands to play for the weekend. He sold tickets and it was popular. So much so that it has grown into an internationally renowned festival, tickets sell out within minutes of issue and the sea of tents can be seen from the top of the Tor, covering eight or more fields. Thousands of people arrive each year.
The weekend of sound can be heard over a wide area too! Well known musicians mix with local talent and everyone has a great time. You can also have a ‘Sunday Only’ entry ticket which is cheaper of course but the prices are all relative.
Traffic, Security and Enjoyment
Roads are blocked when people arrive in their camper-vans, with their tents, or just with what they stand up in. Locals are allowed an allocation of tickets. The spirit of the festival is astounding even though some locals are not too keen as, unfortunately, there are always visitors, albeit a minority, who abuse the local environment and town in various ways.
The security is phenomenal; huge temporary metal fences are erected to surround the grounds. Traffic is policed. We locals make sure we travel the back roads in order to get to work or appointments on time. Otherwise we can be stuck for hours!
Glastonbury Festival itself spans four days, Thursday to Sunday, but people start arriving mostly on the Wednesday and don’t start to leave until the Monday. The roads can be affected from Tuesday to Tuesday!
It is a time of revelry, muddy camping and high spirits in every sense of the word. Well known and more obscure musicians contribute to an eclectic mix of tastes. In 2014 Dolly Parton wowed the crowds and boosted her record sales. We’ve had the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and many more musical bards over the years.
The short period of the festival aside, I love this area for its tranquility, beauty and varied landscape. The people are gentle, the landscape is beautiful and the sea plays an important, if not fickle, part in its history. Indeed, there is history a-plenty with churches, castles, peat moors and ancient tracks across the moors.
You cannot fail to find something to please.
© 2014 Ann Carr