Oh beautiful yet bizarre Glastonbury. I’ve been in and out of this village on backpacking trips since 2008 and haven’t been back since 2013. Glastonbury is a small village and civil parish located in Somerset England at the dry end of the low-lying Somerset levels 23 miles south of Bristol. The 2011 census stated it had a population of 8,932. The town has been inhabited since Neolithic times and there are evidence of timber trackways such as “Sweet Track” laying history in the area. The Glastonbury Lake Village was a bustling Iron Age Village located right next to the River Brue and Sharpham Park 2 miles to the west dating to the Bronze Age. Glastonbury was home to the Glastonbury Abbey that controlled the tow for 700 years. Many historic structures remain in the town from the Tribunal, George Hotel, Pilgrim’s Inn, Somerset Rural Life Museum, and the Church of St. John the Baptist.
Glastonbury was known as a center for commerce especially during the Middle Ages. This enabled the construction of the Market Cross, Glastonbury Canal, and the Glastonbury & Street railway station. Today it is considered a New Age community attracting spiritual people from all walks of life especially within the New Age Movement and Neo-Paganism much attracted to the legends of King Arthur, Joseph of Arimathea, the Holy Grail, and Glastonbury Tor.
Legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea stuck his staff into the ground and it mysteriously blossomed into the Glastonbury Thorn. There is legend of a landscape zodiac surrounding the town although no evidence of this exists. It is home to the Glastonbury Festival held in the neighboring village of Pilton that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
During the 7th millenium B.C.E. Glastonbury was inundated by floods caused by sea level rise that caused Mesolithic peoples to occupy seasonal camps on higher grounds in the area. Archaeological evidence of dated flints have helped archaeologists date occupation from the Mesolithic and Neolithic of the area. The Neolithic inhabitants exploited the reed swamps for the natural resources constructing wooden trackways through the area – “Sweet Track” trackway located to the west of Glastonbury dates to being built around 3806 BCE according to dendrochronology and is one of the oldest engineered roads in Europe. It was the oldest until the 2009 discovery of a 6000 year old trackway in Belmarsh Prison. The road extended across the marsh between the then island at Westhay and a ridge of high ground at Shapwick for approximately 2000 meters and was part of a network of tracks once crossing the Somerset Levels. It was built of crossed poles of ash, oak, and lime driven into the waterlogged soil to create a walkway of oak planks laid end-to-end and was built along the route of an earlier track known as the “Post Track” dating from 3838 BCE.
The Lake Village was built around 300 BCE and had around 100 inhabitants from 5-7 groups of houses each for an extended family with sheds, barns, and dwellings made of hazel and willow covered with reeds surrounded by a wooden palisade. The Village was occupied until the Roman period ca. 100 C.E. after which it was abandoned due to water level rise as it was built on a morass artificial foundation of timber filled with brushwood, bracken, clay, and rubble.
This evolved into the settlement that came to be called “Glastonbury” around the 7-8th century as “Glestingaburg” referring to Anglo-Saxon names for a person or kindred group settled in a fortified place. It is believed the founder of the town was named Glast, a descendant of Cunedda. There is reference to it being first called Ineswitrin or Ynys Witrin according to William of Malmesbury’s “De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie”. Centwine was the first Saxon patron of the Glastobury Abbey 676-685 C.E.
Legend has it that Saint Collen came to Glastonbury as one of the first hermits to settle on the Tor before the Abbey was built by Saint Patrick. Collen had struggles with the local faeries living in the area and was summoned by Gwyn ap Nudd at the summit of the Tor upon arriving entered a hovering mansion and King Gwyn’s armies, courtiers, and palace folk who attempted to lure him into the Otherworld. Collen dispersed the apparitions with holy water. According to Druidic mythology, this palace was made of glass and was able to receive the spirits of the dead who depart from the Tor, a passageway to the Otherworlds. This was why the chapel then church of Saint Michael was built on the Tor as Saint Michael was the chief patron against diabolic attacks which the monks believed the Faerie King Gwyn caused. The Tor was named after this palace of glass for the dead.
By the Middle Ages the town was largely dependent on the Abbey but also became a center for the Wool Trade until the 18th century. A Canal was built for trading connecting the Abbey to the River Brue. The dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 saw the execution of the remaining Abbot and his monks.
The town was revived in 1705 C.E. being granted a charter of incorporation and was dependent on an economy of trade relying on the drainage of the surrounding moors, an opening of the Glastonbury Canal and became a local parish part of the hundred of the Glaston Twelve Hides until the 1730’s when it became a borough of its own. By the 19th century it had many troubles caused from the Glastonbury Canal drainage and competition from the new railways causing a dip in trade and depression set in its economy. The Canal was closed in 1854 and dismantled, being replaced the same year by a railway. A wharf was built for the railway and used until 1936 when it was filled in. the Main line to Glastonbury closed in 1966. Industrial production of woollen slippers, sheepskins, boots, and shoes became the mainstay but saw folding manufacture in 1993 converting to form Clarks Village – a purpose-built factory outlet. In the 19th-20th century tourism became the mainstay accompanying the rise in antiquarianism associating the Abbey and mysticism of the town.
Many Archaeologists believe that the Monks of the local Abbey connected the fables of King Arthur, the Holy Grail, and Joseph of Arimathea with Glastonbury to meet the challenges of a financial crisis caused by a devastating fire burning the Abbey. This was perpetuated by writing of historians such as William of Malmesbury, Venerable Bede, Gerald of Wales, and Geoffrey of Monmouth. In 1191 the Abbey’s monks claimed to have found the graves of King Arthur and Guinevere to the south of the Lady Chapel of the Abbey Church. The remains were later moved and were lost during the Reformation. In modern times this led to the four year study by Archaeologists stated “we didn’t claim to disprove the legendary associations, or would we wish to” and “that doesn’t dispel the Arthurian legend, it just means the pit excavated (where Arthur is said to be buried) he rather over-claimed.” It is however believed a hoax to substantiate the antiquity of Glastonbury’s foundation and increase its renown. The Glastonbury Zodiac came from a 1934 artist rendering by Katherine Maltwood suggesting the landscape formed a map of the stars on a gigantic scale formed by features in the landscape such as the fields, roads, and streams situated around Glastonbury. She claimed the Temple was created by Sumerians in 2700 BCE. Ian Burrow, Tom Williamson, and Liz Bellamy, scholars studying this myth from 1975-1983 used landscape historical research concluded contradicted the idea. For example the eye of Capricorn she labelled was a haystack, the western wing of the Aquarius Phoenix was a road laid in 1782 to run around Glastobury, the Cancer boat consisted of a network of 18th century drainage ditches and paths and there is no support of the theory that a “temple” in any form existed. Today Geomancers claim Glastonbury to be the center of several ley lines.
Below is a list of places I visited and reviewed. I hope to have this expanded to a complete list of resources and places of interest within the next few years.
Sites of Interest:
- Blue Spring
- Chalice Well
- Chocolate Love Temple
- Glastonbury Abbey and Gardens
- Glastonbury Experience Courtyard
- Glastonbury Labyrinth
- Glastonbury Methodist Church & Font
- Glastonbury Tor
- Glastonbury Tribunal
- Goddess Temple
- The White Spring
More to come …
Glastonbury & Surrounding Area, a set on Flickr.