Friday, March 29, 2019

Glastonbury Memories, Part I: The Old Town

Sometimes a place you have only visited once lives in your memory so vividly you can close your eyes and be there again, visually, in sound and in texture.  One such place for me is the famous, historic town of Glastonbury, on the Somerset Levels, south-east of Bristol.

Glastonbury is of course one of Britain’s and the world’s centres of magical and New Age thinking, with its (probably spurious) connection to the King Arthur legend. It was theorised to be the ancient “Isle of Avalon,” as 1500 years ago Glastonbury Tor was indeed an island in marshy lakes upon the Levels. In 1190, the monks of Glastonbury reportedly discovered the burial place of King Arthur and Guinevere, which cemented the place’s mythic association ever after (as well as raised large sums for the rebuilding of the abbey, which burned in 1184…) This is so commercially convenient one cannot help doubting the verity of the discovery, doubly so as the bodies were relocated twice in following centuries and of course can no longer be produced. Modern Glastonbury is however imbued with the same spirit, and lives and breathes the mythology and alternate spiritualities of the age. Nowhere else boasts the density of magic shops and traders living off the magical mythos as Glastonbury Highstreet.

Underpass to the Assembly Rooms, looking back at the George & Pilgrim, opposite.

I spent just one night there in the November of 2012, but managed to get around a few of the sights. I was on foot so did not find my way out to the ancient trees of Gog and Magog, nor did I get up to the Tor, but these things remain for a future expedition.

The weather was damp and grey. I left Sunderland about 5 that morning, sharing a cab with friends from the just-finished conference at the university, through to Newcastle airport, where we parted company, they for connections overseas, I on Easy Jet down to Bristol. The flight was sold out, and I remember boarding the old fashioned way, via steps, in a chill drizzle before daybreak, getting an aisle seat rather than my usual window, and the flight being rather bumpy.

Bristol seemed a cold, damp, hard sort of place, but maybe it was just the weather; the trip, from the city bus depot out across the green country, grew more pleasant and the sun peeked through a few times. Glastonbury was so small I almost missed it, and that’s a fact! I hauled my baggage to the ancient George and Pilgrim Hotel, from whose second floor windows Henry VIII is reputed to have watched his soldiers despoiling Glastonbury Abbey in 1539, and found myself in one of those amazing, quaint places without a straight line or a true right angle anywhere in the architecture, and was somewhat awed by the passage of the ages in this place.

I was in town to meet friends and catch the first performance in a tour by a band from Australia I follow. They went on that evening at the Assembly Rooms, itself an old building but still new compared to the ecclesiastical buildings of the town. I took a walk in the rain that afternoon, wandered near and far, and committed everything to pixels, as always. The second day I made a pilgrimage to the Chalice Well Gardens at the foot of the Tor – more about that in the next part.

The thing I remember most was the damp and chill, and the way it seemed so right – it went with the greenery and the old moss-grown stone, and the bare trees of the season were the symbol of all things arcane and mysterious. The town was well-patronised even in the poor weather, shops all did brisk trade. I wish I could find my journal of the trip, I recall writing while taking a snack at a small eatery just along from the Church of St John, on the corner of High St. and The Archer’s Way – hot chocolate in a pint cup! Or was I writing on a digital notebook? I believe I was… According to Google, there’s a fabric crafts gift store there now.

On the highstreet you find meditation centres cheek by jowl with boutiques and bookshops, sellers of herbs and essential oils, magical giftware, the full gamut of modern mass-market arcana. I was a little under the weather and bought pure peppermint oil at a magic shop just off the main street. The town knows where its livelihood is! But beside commerce, there is a genuine spiritual element, from the historic ruins of the abbey and the still extant Abbey House, to the Shekina Yoga retreat on Dodd Lane, on the slope opposite the gates of the medieval complex. One walks by on the way to a lesser-used track up over the hills to the Tor, and one just cannot do so without turning the prayer wheels by the gate. I never realised there was a traditional meditation labyrinth in the gardens of the Church of St John until I used Google Earth to check the lie of the land, but there it is!

The foothill above Dodd St., looking over rooftops to the Church of St John on High St., and the Somerset Levels beyond.

Prayer wheels at the gates of the Shekina retreat.

Many other places are likely as aware of their underlying spiritual connections, and Glastonbury’s is unashamedly commercial, but that makes it no less an amazing experience to visit.

I shall certainly visit Glastonbury again, there’s so much still to do, many would say I barely scratched the surface. Perhaps a week would be enough to do it better justice. I would imagine things would be much more expensive in the good weather, though, so risking whatever providence brings in the later months may well still be the way to go.

Watch out for the next installment!

Mike Adamson

Artwork adorns the walls of the dining room of the George & Pilgrim Hotel on High St., celebrating the town's connection with the mythology of the islands.

Magic is everywhere!

This was the weather -- grey, cool, in every way a British autumn.

The Tor, shot telephoto from the carpark of Glastonbury Abbey.

I took this one the afternoon I left Glastonbury for Brighton. Note the low sun angle and the streelight glowing, and the time on the clock -- 2.05pm! And the day will be a lot shorter come winter...

Hill St., looking north past the ancient gates of the Abbey House.

The gates of Abbey House, seen from Dodd St., on the slope up past the Shekinashram toward the Tor.
The abbey ruins, from the carpark.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...