Readers of my last post will be aware that I have just moved house, and will hopefully forgive the lack of posts over the last couple of weeks. To begin with, of course, we weren’t able to engage with the town and surrounding area as much as we would have liked because of the tedious but necessary business of unpacking, spring cleaning the house for a nice fresh start, and generally getting very tired and achy! However, the particular bonus of this house is the view from the study, which is on the top floor. It has windows front and back, giving panoramic views of the town of Glastonbury and the surrounding countryside.
One way, the view includes the iconic Glastonbury Tor, with its medieval tower of St Michael (all that remains of the church which used to crown the hill). A site of pilgrimage since at least medieval times, the Tor continues to draw modern day pilgrims and visitors, who climb it for a variety of reasons – spiritual, sightseeing or artistic. Since we have been here, I have never seen the Tor without people on it. Even at night, the lights of people’s torches (and, at Lammas, a fire spinning display) are visible, and when the Sturgeon Moon rose last week there were dozens of people on the Tor to witness the moonrise.
Below and to the right of the Tor, the view takes in the rooftops of the town – mostly red pantiles – and the gardens of the townhouses, built on land which, a century or two ago, used to be orchards. The tower of St John’s church rises above the rooflines, and at the moment a pair of peregrine falcons is raising a brood of chicks on the tower – the young’s raucous cries echo across the town when the parents arrive with food. They are so loud, even at this distance, that for a couple of days I thought one of the neighbours had a particularly noisy parrot! It’s such a privilege to see these amazing birds soaring above the town.
Further to the right again is Wearyall Hill, where Joseph of Arimathea is reputed to have planted his staff in the ground, which grew into the Holy Thorn, a thorn tree which bloomed twice a year – at Christmas and Easter – and whose successors still grow at various locations around Glastonbury. Sadly the successor which grew on Wearyall Hill has now been removed due to persistent vandalism.
Beyond Wearyall Hill are the Polden Hills, where the modern A39 main road follows the ancient ridgeway to Avalon. During the catastrophic floods in the winter of 2013/14, my usual commute across the Levels was under several feet of muddy water, so I drove along the A39 instead, looking out across floodwater as far as the eye could see, with only the odd tree or rooftop sticking up above the water. It gave an insight into how these marshy lowlands might have looked before sea levels fell, and the land was ‘improved’ for farming.
From the other window, the sweep of the Mendip Hills runs east to west in the distance. From this window, we can see dramatic sunsets – the skies in this part of Somerset are particularly striking, which I have always attributed to the conjunction of the open flatlands of the Levels and the way the light reflects off the Bristol Channel.
In between the unpacking and cleaning, though, we have managed to wander into town from time to time. Glastonbury’s High Street is not typical of a small town in a rural county – for ‘normal’ shopping, you need to go a couple of miles down the road to Street, which as well as a ‘normal’ high street has the country’s first shopping village, built on the former Clarks shoe factory site. Glastonbury’s retail offering is something else entirely – crystals, books on esoteric subjects, tie-dyed clothing, Buddha statues, candles in all the colours of the chakra rainbow, Goddess figurines, Green Man car stickers, herbs and incense. Buskers can include dreadlocked drummers, haunting folk singers, or jazz saxophonists. At the Tuesday market, you’ll find the fast food outlets selling not hot dogs but vegan falafels. It’s lively, chaotic, a bit ‘lived in’, and there’s something unexpected around every corner. I’ve been walking – and photographing – the Glastonbury Mural Trail, which I will be writing about in a future post, and it has taken me to parts of the town centre I never knew. And of course when the current heatwave abates a little, we will climb the Tor again (and take binoculars to try to locate our window!).
I mentioned Joseph of Arimathea and Avalon in passing above – Glastonbury is full of history, legend and myth, and a huge amount has been written about the various themes associated with it (Avalon, King Arthur, Joseph of Arimathea, Gwyn ap Nudd, the Holy Grail, the Glastonbury Zodiac, the Goddess, Nolava, the Chalice Well, Bridget, and Glastonbury Abbey as a site of Christian pilgrimage, to name just a few). This isn’t the place to add to that, although I’m sure I will be touching on aspects of it in this blog from time to time – it’s impossible to live in Glastonbury and not engage with the various strands of spirituality and legend which are the town’s raison d’être and, frankly, why would you not want to?! Glastonbury is unique, crazy, enchanting, infuriating, but never boring. If you would like to know more about Glastonbury* and its vibe, I recommend Vicki Steward’s excellent blog, Normal for Glastonbury. She has recently produced a book, also called Normal for Glastonbury (available as an e-book and in print), which pulls together a selection of her blog posts – her portrayal of Glastonbury life is humorous and well-observed, and makes a very good read. Again, highly recommended. And no, I’m not on commission!
* When I talk about Glastonbury, I mean the town in Somerset – not the world-famous festival, which in fact takes place in a field a few miles away. If you watch footage of the festival, you can see the Tor in the distance, behind the Pyramid Stage.