A week of relaxation in a beautiful countryside location, exploring Glastonbury’s myths and legends.
Our base for our week-long caravan holiday was the Orchard Farm campsite a few miles south of Glastonbury. A really peaceful rural location for us to unwind in, and for much of the week we were the only occupants in our quiet corner of a working apple orchard.
Perhaps the most well-known and most striking feature on the landscape is the 500 foot high conical hill known as the Tor. With its mythical connections to the Avalon of the Celts and Druids, to Arthurian legends, to ancient Goddess fertility cults and even to UFOs, it seemed the obvious place to start our exploring. Easy to get to, at only a 5 or 10 minute walk from the town centre, although we had to pace ourselves carefully for the significant climb from the main road to the summit. Once there, the views for miles in every direction were stunning!
At the bottom of Glastonbury Tor, we stopped for a while to explore the Chalice Well Gardens. Also known as the ‘Red Spring’ or ‘Blood Spring’ because of the red iron deposit the water leaves on everything it touches. There are legends connecting the spring to Joseph of Arimathea, and the cup used at the last supper.
The centre of town revolves largely around the ruins of the former Glastonbury Abbey. The earliest Christian monastic site in Britain, and at the height of its powers the wealthiest abbey in England. There are mythical links to Arthurian legends, and to the Holy Thorn believed to be descended from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea. Our tickets included a free short historical tour of the ruins, by an expert local historian.
A short drive from the centre of town finds Wearyall Hill. According to legend, this is where Joseph of Arimathea first landed in Britain with his twelve companions and founded the first church in Britain. They were ‘Weary all’ after their boat trip, hence the name. Joseph planted his staff into the ground on the hill, where it took root and turned into the Holy Thorn which flowers twice a year in May and at Christmas. A thorn tree still stands on the slopes of the hill, adorned in ribbons for prayers or wishes.
A Holy Thorn tree also survives in the churchyard of St John’s, in the town centre. It is from here that a cutting is taken every Christmas and sent to the Queen.
Also in St John’s churchyard, a miniature spiral path modelled on the labyrinth found on Glastonbury Tor. Whether as a spiritual tool or just for fun, visitors can often be found walking the path.
Somerset Rural Life Museum is on the edges of the town centre, close to the road leading to the Chalice Well and the Tor. A beautifully presented modern museum on the site of what was formerly the Abbey Farm. There are several galleries of exhibits to explore, and the centrepiece of the site has to be the magnificent 14th century Abbey Barn.
One of the lesser known attractions in Glastonbury is tucked away along a small alleyway off the main street outside the abbey. St Margaret’s Chapel was once part of a small medieval complex which served as a hospital for people visiting the abbey, and later as alms houses for the poor. The chapel and garden now provide a quiet place for contemplation, and the site has special meaning to Christians, Sufis and followers of Magdalene.
The Tribunal, formerly the Abbot’s Courthouse, is now occupied by the local Tourist Information Centre. There is some speculation that the current stone façade may have been obtained from the Abbot’s former lodgings in the abbey grounds somewhere in the 1700s.
A few doors down from the Tribunal is the George and Pilgrim’s Inn. During the 1400s when visitor numbers to the abbey were increasing dramatically, the George Inn also known as the Pilgrim’s Inn was created as a house for paying guests. It’s still in use as a pub, restaurant and hotel today.
But what else is there to do in the immediate area? Less than an hour’s drive took us to the nearest seaside resort of Burnham on Sea. A long sandy beach, with a dog-friendly section at the far end of town!
In the small market town of Street, only a few miles away from Glastonbury, we found the Clarks Village. Adjoining the headquarters and former factory site of Clarks Shoes, this designer outlet shopping village is really well presented, and all of the flower beds and baskets were in full bloom when we visited. Yes, we bought some shoes – a bargain, apparently!
After the retail overload, something for the boys! The Fleet Air Arm Museum at RNAS Yeovilton was only 15 minutes drive from our campsite, and has long been on my wishlist of places to visit. Several exhibition halls covering naval air power from the early days of spotter balloons right through to the present day. There’s a realistic full-size mock up of an aircraft carrier in their ‘Carrier Experience’, featuring several aircraft my father would have worked with during his National Service on HMS Eagle during the 1950s – particularly poignant for me to visit in July and remember all he passed on to me. And to top that, one more item crossed off the Bucket List – I’ve been inside a Concorde!
Concorde 002, one of the original engineering prototypes, has to be the star attraction of this fascinating museum.
So, a lovely week away in the South West. I feel I should also give credit to a book I picked up from the Gothic Image shop next door to the Tribunal (but also on sale in almost every other gift shop in town), and which inspired all of our activities during our week away:
Glastonbury, Maker of Myths
ISBN: 978 0 906362 73 0
by Frances Howard-Gordon