Aside from its mythological origins, Glastonbury Abbey can claim to be the country’s oldest Christian foundation, dating back to the seventh century and possibly earlier. Enlarged by St Dunstan in the tenth century, it became the richest Benedictine abbey in the country; three Anglo-Saxon kings (Edmund, Edgar and Edmund Ironside) were buried here, and the library had a far-reaching fame. Further expansion took place under the Normans, though most of the additions were destroyed by fire in 1184. Rebuilt, the abbey was later a casualty of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s, and the ruins, now hidden behind walls and nestled among grassy parkland, can only hint at its former extent. The most prominent remains are the transept piers and the shell of the Lady Chapel, with its carved figures of the Annunciation, the Magi and Herod.
The abbey’s choir holds what is alleged to be the tomb of Arthur and Guinevere. The discovery of two bodies in an ancient cemetery outside the abbey in 1191 was taken to confirm that here was, indeed, the mystic Avalon, and they were transferred here in 1278. Elsewhere in the grounds, the fourteenth-century abbot’s kitchen is the only monastic building to survive intact, with four huge corner fireplaces and a great central lantern above. Behind the main entrance to the grounds, look out for the thorn tree that is supposedly a descendant of the original Glastonbury Thorn said to have sprouted from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea. Big-name concerts and drama productions take place in the abbey grounds in summer – check the website for details.