On the southern edge of the Mendips and six miles south of Wells, Glastonbury, famed for its annual music festival, is built around the evocative set of ruins belonging to its former abbey. The town lies at the heart of the so-called Isle of Avalon, a region rich with mystical associations, and for centuries it has been one of the main Arthurian sites of the West Country – today it’s an enthusiastic centre for all manner of New Age cults.
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.
Glastonbury is, of course, best known for its music festival, which takes place most years over four days at the end of June outside the nearby village of Pilton. Having started as a small hippy affair in the 1970s, the festival has become one of the biggest in the country, without shedding too much of its alternative feel.
Bands range from huge acts such as Elbow to up-and-coming indie groups, via old hands such as U2, while performance art, circus, club nights and all manner of shenanigans take place around the sprawling complex. Though tickets cost around £200, they are snapped up almost immediately after going on sale in October.
At the heart of the complex web of myths surrounding Glastonbury is the early Christian legend that the young Jesus once visited this site, a story that is not as far-fetched as it sounds. The Romans had a heavy presence in the area, mining lead in the Mendips, and one of these mines was owned by Joseph of Arimathea, a well-to-do merchant said to have been related to Mary. It’s not completely impossible that the merchant took his kinsman on one of his many visits to his property, in a period of Christ’s life of which nothing is recorded. It was this possibility to which William Blake referred in his Glastonbury Hymn, better known as Jerusalem: – “And did those feet in ancient times/Walk upon England’s mountains green?”
Another legend relates how Joseph was imprisoned for twelve years after the Crucifixion, miraculously kept alive by the Holy Grail, the chalice of the Last Supper, in which the blood was gathered from the wound in Christ’s side. The Grail, along with the spear which had caused the wound, were later taken by Joseph to Glastonbury, where he founded the abbey and commenced the conversion of Britain.
Glastonbury is also popularly identified with the mythical Avalon; the story goes that King Arthur, having been mortally wounded in battle, sailed to Avalon where he was buried alongside his queen – somehow Glastonbury was taken to be the best candidate for the place.