"And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England's mountain green?
And was the holy Lamb of God?
On England's pleasant pastures seen?"
William Blake, 1757-1837
And did these feet in ancient times walk upon the hills of Glastonbury? The feet Blake refers to belong to Jesus Christ. Did our Lord walk the hills of Somerset two thousand years ago?
Well, it is possible. His uncle was Joseph of Arimathea who owned concessions in the nearby tin mines and there is a chance, however slim, of the infant Jesus accompanying his uncle on a trading expedition. He could indeed have visited the tiny village of Glastonbury....
For this ancient town is one of the centres of Christianity in Britain. It it in fact a vortex of many religions - pagan and Christian - and a well of legends and myth's. This is where King Arthur and Queen Guinevere are supposed to have been buried. This was where Joseph of Arimathea struck his staff into the ground and a 'holy thorn' sprung forth and is said to be the final resting place of the holy grail. Glastonbury is immersed in the mythical, even mystical, idea of Engand. Side by side with the ruins of one of the most ancient of Abbey's is a new age town immersed in crystals and spiritual healing. In Glastonbury you can be at one with nature or god, worshipping the earthmother while a neighbour worships at the shrine of St Dunstan or St Bridget. The very air of Glastonbury fizzles with beliefs and spirituality.
Part of this is due to the fact that Glastonbury is so remote. For most of it's history it was an island surrounded by Somerset marshes. King Arthur's remains were mean't to have been brought by boat to Glastonbury Tor which is a massive hill on the outskirts of town and may be the fabled 'Isle of Avalon'. A lone tower surmounts the Tor with sweeping views of the Somerset countryside. In pagan times this would have been a remote island, surrounded by mists, marshes and forests. It is still a devil to get to being twenty miles from Bath and only four from Wells - the best way of reaching it is by car. On public transport this takes some doing. The #173 bus leaves Bath bus station at five minutes past each hour, it takes a further one and a half hours to reach Wells. Buses between Wells and Glastonbury occur every half hour.A £5 bus pass allows unlimited travel in Somerset for the day and is excellent value. It can be seen as a day trip from Bath, but I think it is best to stay overnight - there are a number of cheap hotels and hostels in the town.
Early building goes back to 650AD when the beginnings of a small church appear. St Dunstan enlarged this church and by the Middle Ages this had become the great Benedictine Abbey. Glastonbury was one of the wealthiest Abbeys in England, its last Abbot, Richard Whiting, played a major part in the administration of Renaissance England. This great monastery drew pilgrims from all over the country. The pilgrims found in Glastonbury what they were seeking spiritually and brought with them wealth which was donated to the Abbey. The Abbey grew in strength and prosperity and around the monastery grew up a picturesque town supporting the the monks with local services of every kind.
Domesday came in 1539. Masterminded by Thomas Cromwell 'The dissoloution of the Monasteries' came into being. All those who opposed King Henry VIII's succession as head of the English church were ruthlessly dealt with. When Cromwells commissioners arrived they thieved all the gold plate, and Abbot Richard Whiting stuck to his guns about the Pope being god's representative on earth not the King. Richard Whiting was marched up to Glastonbury Tor then hung and beheaded. The monks were pensioned off and they reduced the mighty Abbey to dust.
Not quite dust...
The ruins of Glastonbury Abbey stand in the middle of the town. Moody and magnificent they are the highlight of a trip to this mysterious town and should be your first port of call when you arrive. It occupies the centre of town in a huge park - the High Street occupies the western part with it's crystal shops and organic restaurants. The northern road is Chilkwell Street which leads to the Tor and Chalice Well, the eastern road is Beare Street and the road which has the entrance on to the south is Magdalene Street. Here you will find the bus stop to Wells and the car-park for visitors. Glastonbury Abbey is open from 9.00am to 6.00pm and costs £3.50 to enter. Allow at least an hour to do the site justice and make sure you pick up a map of this extensive parkland and it's many ruins.
The museum will be your first stop and it is worth it to have a look at the scale model of the Abbey. But it is when you step outside that you get the feel of what it actually looked like. The ruined nave of the Abbey is absolutely massive (see photo) and stretches for 100ft. Crumbling grey stone greets you with walls still a metre thick. All windows, gates and interiors have gone leaving a windswept shell with grass growing on it's cracked roof. Even it's corpse is still impressive with transept walls over 50ft into the air and covered in carved stone tracery. Looking north towards the nave are the great arches supporting the fanned ceiling, now the walls are ragged and battered by the elements.
A small cross stands where grass now grows in the nave. This cross marks the spot where the tomb of Arthur and Guinevere were buried. They were dug up in 1278 and interred by the monks watched over by King Edward I (he of 'Braveheart' fame) but for a thousand years this is where they lay. For many years they were interred under the altar but disappeared during the sacking of the Abbey. I think that is probably the worst of the crimes committed here. It was at this point that I got angry at the vandalism of King Henry VIII - the closest England has ever got to a dictator. A little recompense came later when I found out that he repented this desecration on his deathbed.
Away from the shell of the church the great park covers the site of the Abbey where the ruins of cloisters can be seen. The medieval herb garden still stands, although very overgrown. But the best thing is the Abbot's kitchen. This was the only building to survive the desecration and stands alone with a pointed roof. Inside were huge fireplaces and hooks where entire oxen were hung. Monks would live a very freugal diet of bread and wine. The Abbots, however, had time and money to entertain wonderfully. Their ingredients were laid out on a table - barley, vegetables, cheddar cheeses, malt hops and fresh meat and fish. These monks had a simple life but a contented one.
I thought on this as I was leaving. The ruins of the Abbey looked sad and forlorn in the fading light. But they were still powerful, a testament to what man can do another in the name of religion.