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Entries about landscapes

Those blue remembered hills

Cardingmill Valley

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Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

A.E. Housman

The hills of Shropshire are part of my own childhood memories, as my grandmother lived in Shrewsbury and we visited often. There were often family picnics in nearby Cardingmill Valley, and a recent mini holiday in the area gave me the opportunity to rediscover this beautiful spot.

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It’s perhaps hard to imagine that these wild-looking hills have any association with human industry, beyond perhaps sheep farming. But the clue is in the name. In 1812 a carding mill was built in the valley. Carding is the process of combing fleeces, to prepare them to be spun. At first the wool, once carded, was sold to the women of the local villages who would spin the yarn in their own cottages. But in 1824 a George Corfield bought the mill and expanded it. He built a factory there and installed spinning jennies and hand looms to manufacture cloth. However there wasn’t the concentration of woollen industry activity here that was found elsewhere in the country, such as Yorkshire’s West Riding. So George diversified into clothing manufacture.

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The 1880s saw him diversifying further, making ginger beer and soda water in one part of the factory, and setting up a tea room in another. People in Britain were starting to use the new-found wealth and leisure time that industrialisation had brought them to explore the countryside. Church Stretton, the town at the foot of the valley, was developing into a spa town and marketing itself as ‘Little Switzerland’.

Meanwhile a reservoir had been built in Townbrook Hollow, and a later one followed in 1902 in New Pool Hollow. The mill was demolished in 1912 and the factory was turned into an hotel and café. Later it was converted to flats, and a ‘Chalet Pavilion, was imported from Scandinavia to be used as a tea-room for day-trippers. Tourism was firmly established as Cardingmill Valley’s main industry!

Today the valley is protected by the National Trust, who charge for parking (£5 all day in 2021) but not for admission. In return for your parking fee you get well-maintained walking trails; rangers on hand to answer questions and deal with litter (an unfortunate necessity); and a small visitor centre and café. There are a number of marked trails ranging from easy strolls through the valley to lengthy hikes on the hills.

With limited time we settled on one of the shorter trails, to the reservoir at New Pond Hollow. This is a gentle climb up a side valley, with a flight of steps cut into the hillside just before arriving at the reservoir.

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Once there we decided to lengthen our walk a little by following the path along one side of the reservoir and through the woods above the stream that feeds it. We crossed the stream higher up and found that the path then emerged out into the open for the return stretch. Here are some of the photos I took on this pretty walk.

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I also shot a few clips of video in an attempt to capture the tranquillity of this place. Do please watch with the sound on!

Back at the visitor centre we rewarded ourselves with ice creams before we had to leave to continue our journey to Shrewsbury. It had been a brief but lovely visit to my own ‘blue remembered hills’.

Posted by ToonSarah 11:09 Archived in England Tagged landscapes walks shropshire national_trust Comments (11)

The largest stone circle in Britain

Avebury

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The stone circle, Avebury

I find it a little odd that Avebury is not as well known, nor as visited, as nearby Stonehenge. Personally I find it just as impressive and in some ways more atmospheric. Its henge (circular bank and ditch) encloses the remaining stones of the largest stone circle in Britain, built during the Neolithic period (c. 2850 BC – 2200 BC). The circle is so large that over time people have built their houses around and among the stones, so that today it seems almost as if the somewhat unearthly stones are slowly encroaching on human space.

This aerial photo, from Wikipedia, shows clearly how the henge encircles the village:

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Attribution: Detmar Owen, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

There were originally over 100 stones in the main outer circle. Many have been lost, but about 30 still remain. The position of lost stones is today marked with smaller pyramid-topped concrete posts to give an indication of what the complete circle would have looked like. The missing ones suffered various fates – used as building materials by the villagers, or broken down and buried, perhaps because they were in the way of village development.

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The stone circle
~ you can see the concrete posts marking the location of missing stones

Within that main circle were two inner ones – the north one with 27 stones (of which only four remain) and the south slightly larger with 29 stones (with five remaining).

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The north inner stone circle

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The south inner circle

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Significance

This was clearly a significant site for the people of that period, and the surrounding landscape is dotted with others – avenues of stones leading to other sites, the man-made mound of Silbury Hill, burial mounds such as West Kennet Long Barrow, and more. Together with Stonehenge these form the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site.

The English Heritage website about Avebury concludes that:

‘The impression gained is of a landscape being shaped for rituals that involved inclusion, exclusion and procession.

If this is correct, then the various monuments may have been built as public ‘theatres’ for rites and ceremonies that gave physical expression to the community’s ideas of world order; the place of the people within that order; the relationship between the people and their gods; and the nature and transmission of authority, whether spiritual or political.

The length of time over which the Great Henge and its two avenues were built is so long that it suggests the community’s relationship with its environment may gradually have altered. Changing rituals may have been the driving force for the building of new monuments and for their eventual abandonment around 1800 BC.’

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More images of the outer stone circle

There have been some at times rather bizarre alternative suggestions about the construction of Avebury, especially during Victorian times. These include the idea that both Avebury and Stonehenge were built by the Phoenicians (many Britons of that period believed these ancient seafarers first brought civilisation to our island). It has also been proposed that it was constructed to commemorate the final battle of King Arthur, and that his slain warriors were buried here. Yet another Victorian pseudo-historian argued that it was Native Americans from the Appalachian Mountains who once crossed the Atlantic Ocean to build the great megalithic monuments of southern Britain. All very fanciful, and none of them given any credence today.

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The stone circle, Avebury, and view over the Wiltshire downs

Visiting Avebury

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Lichen on a standing stone

Avebury is free to visit but parking is charged for, in a somewhat odd arrangement that sees the car park owned by the National Trust while the site itself is owned and managed by English Heritage. We stopped here on our way home from Wells and only had time for a slow walk around most of the circle, taking photos as we went. In any case, the onsite museum was closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

My main aim on this visit was to capture in photographs the slight eeriness of the site, in which I hope I have succeeded, but in future I’d like to visit the museum and also make time for stops at some of those other sights such as Silbury Hill.

Posted by ToonSarah 06:42 Archived in England Tagged landscapes england history archaeology Comments (15)

Where the Mendips meet the sea

Brean Down

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Looking back towards the 'mainland' from Brean Down

On the coast of Somerset between Weston-super-Mare and Burnham-on-Sea, a long finger of land juts out into the Bristol Channel – the Mendips’ last hurrah before disappearing beneath the waves. Brean Down rises high above the beaches on either side, a two-kilometre-long ridge of limestone and an obvious place to build a fort – or several. Certainly Iron Age man thought so, as there is evidence of a fort and field systems from that period. The Romans built a small temple here, and much more recently, between 1864 and 1871, another fort was constructed at the very tip of the promontory.

Today the land is under the protection of the National Trust. As with most of their open countryside there is no charge to walk on the land, but you pay for parking. We visited on a rather dull September morning during the Coronavirus pandemic and found the car park quite busy with dog walkers and with ‘staycationers’ such as ourselves.

A three-mile walk leads you up onto the ridge, along its western edge to the fort, and back along the eastern side. It starts with a steep climb up a long flight of steps. There are small stopping areas at intervals where you can pause to admire the view – surely no one will guess that you’re really stopping to catch your breath?!

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The steps up Brean Down, and old post box at the foot

Once at the top the path is undulating, crossing grassland closely cropped by sheep and goats that live here. Walking out towards the far point you have wonderful views west along the coast and across the Bristol Channel to Wales. Apparently you can see the remains of the Romano-British temple somewhere along this stretch but it eluded us.

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Trees on Brean Down

The coastline here is famous for the wide expanse of sand (some say mud!) revealed at low tide. The Bristol Channel has the second largest tidal movement in the world (second only to the Bay of Fundy in Canada); according to the National Trust website, the distance between high and low water can be as much as 0.75 of a mile (1.2 kilometres). This made for some interesting photo opportunities in today’s changing light, but is a challenge on sunny days for anyone wanting to swim!

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Views of Brean Beach from Brean Down

Brean Fort

Our walk brought us eventually to the remains of the fort built here in the 19th century. This was one of the Palmerston Forts (named for Lord Palmerston, the then Prime Minister), designed to protect Britain from invasion by France – an invasion that never came. As I explained in my post about Spitbank Fort, in the Solent, Napoleon III was strengthening his navy at that time, and the memory of past threats from that quarter were still fresh. But the invasion never came and the forts were never used for their original purpose.

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Looking down on Brean Fort

Although in ruins the walls of many of the fort’s buildings still stand and there are signs to guide you as you explore. I felt it had a slightly haunted atmosphere, despite the presence of other visitors here and there. Maybe I was sensing the ghost of Gunner Harris, who one night in July 1900 inexplicably fired a carbine into the ventilator shaft of a magazine storing gunpowder. The resulting explosion caused huge damage to the fort and killed Harris. There was some speculation that this might have been suicide – Harris was known to be sullen, with a bad temper, and was in trouble because he had left the fort without permission the previous day. At his inquest the jury returned the verdict that, ‘the explosion was caused by the deceased firing a carbine down a ventilator and that at the time he was temporarily insane.’ Whatever the reason, Harris had effectively dealt a fatal blow not only to himself but to the fort. It was closed down soon after, decommissioned and its guns sold for scrap in 1901.

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Brean Fort

However the building has been put to various uses both before and since then. Marconi had used it in 1897 to test his new wireless transmission equipment, setting a new distance record of 8.7 miles (14 kilometres) for wireless transmission over open seas. For a while it was used as a café (what a great spot to stop for a coffee that must have been!) before being rearmed during WW2 with anti-aircraft guns. The site was used to test bouncing bombs and other secret weapons. You can still see the length of rail employed to launch the bombs. A sign at the fort explains that the tests didn’t always go well. On one occasion the bomb, along with the trolley carrying it, flew off into the Channel, did a sharp right turn and came back inland to land in a local farmer’s chicken run!

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Bomb launching rail, with Steep Holm Island beyond

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Bomb launching rail, and window in the barracks

This is a great spot to take a break, sitting on the old walls with a view out to Steep Holm and Flat Holm islands. The former is English while the latter, lying just beyond it, is in Wales (its Welsh name is Ynys Echni). Both islands were also fortified under Palmerston's scheme. Flat Holm has had a lighthouse since the early 18th century (this is a treacherous area for shipping) but the current building dates from the early 19th and is today automated, running almost entirely on solar power.

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Steep Holm Island from Brean Down

The return walk

After exploring the ruins of the fort and enjoying the view out to sea, we retraced our steps but on the eastern side of the headland. The path here is a little lower and more sheltered, but even here trees struggle to grow.

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On Brean Down

There were some pretty wildflowers and views across the wide sands of Weston-super-Mare below.

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Wild flower

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Lichen

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On Weston-super-Mare beach

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Sparrow near the café

At some point this path passes the banks and ditches that mark the site of the Iron Age fort, but this too, like the Roman temple, we managed to miss!

Beyond the top of the steps we had climbed at the start the path curved back on itself and we were able to descend a more gentle slope down to the road, the car park and the café. Here we bought cold drinks and hot pasties to enjoy at a table overlooking the beach – a good reward for our efforts!

Posted by ToonSarah 01:57 Archived in England Tagged landscapes trees coast history ruins views fort seas Comments (6)

Britain’s answer to the Grand Canyon

Cheddar Gorge and the Mendip Hills

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Cheddar Gorge

Cheddar Gorge

Cheddar Gorge cuts into the southern edge of the Mendip Hills in Somerset. At 137 metres deep it is hardly the Grand Canyon, but it is pretty impressive nevertheless! Unfortunately (in my view) its lower end is marred by touristic over-development, but as you travel up the gorge it becomes wilder, thankfully.

The southern side of the gorge is steepest and the most developed. There are several cave complexes within it. Some are usually open to the public, but we visited during the coronavirus pandemic and the caves were closed – a bonus in some ways as it meant the gorge was much quieter. On the other hand, it would have been interesting to see where Britain's oldest complete human skeleton, known imaginatively as Cheddar Man and estimated to be 9,000 years old, was found in 1903.

There are several cafés strung out along the side of the road, all also closed when we visited, and of course a shop selling the famous Cheddar Cheese. This was open but we didn’t go in.

While there is some development on the northern side too, it’s mainly restricted to a handful of shops by the car park at the foot and a sprinkling of houses, some of them rather attractive. Paths lead up between the houses to the open land above, which is owned by the National Trust. The most distinctive feature here is the so-called Lion Rock, and unlike some such features you see around the world, I think this one does look a bit like the animal for which it is named! I found photography here quite challenging because of the contrast between the sunny upper slopes and rocks, and the deep shadows lower down.

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Lion Rock, and early autumn colour

Tricky lighting in Cheddar Gorge

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Towards the top of the gorge the scenery becomes wilder. The road climbs steeply – it’s a popular challenge for cyclists and was used as part of the 2011 Tour of Britain race. There are several places where you can pull over and park to admire the view or go for a walk. There are a lot of rock-climbing routes and we saw several small groups just embarking on ascents, but they were still at the stage of sorting their equipment so I couldn’t get any interesting photos of them. But the light was better here for photographing the scenery, and we came across a number of the feral goats that graze the slopes, including a young kid and his (her?) mother.

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In Cheddar Gorge

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Mother goat and kid

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Goats in Cheddar Gorge

Deerleap

Instead of returning the way we had come, back down Cheddar Gorge, we continued to climb up into the Mendip Hills before turning south on a network of minor roads to the small carpark at Deerleap, from where I had read good views were to be had. Sure enough, the view from the car park itself was good, but even better from the public footpath that starts from here. We could see for miles across the Somerset Levels below, with the former island of Glastonbury Tor, which we had visited yesterday, clearly visible.

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View of the Somerset Levels and Glastonbury Tor from Deerleap carpark

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More views from the footpath

But we found more than just views, wonderful as these were, as the path led us across the fields to an area set aside as a nature reserve, with wildflowers dotting the grass.

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Late summer flowers on the Mendips

It must be lovely at the height of summer and was still a pleasant spot even in late September, especially on this sunny day. This gentle walk was a great way to round off our morning before returning to our base in Wells for lunch and an afternoon exploring the city.

Posted by ToonSarah 01:58 Archived in England Tagged landscapes animals flowers england views glastonbury cheddar_gorge Comments (16)

And did those feet …?

Glastonbury

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Glastonbury Tor

Long, long before it was home to one of the world’s most famous music festivals, Glastonbury was a place of pilgrimage not for music fans but for those seeking a more mystical experience. The ruined abbey is associated with Joseph of Arimathea, who is said to have arrived in Glastonbury and stuck his staff into the ground, when it flowered miraculously into the Glastonbury Thorn. There are also links to the Holy Grail and King Arthur. On the edge of the town Glastonbury Tor rises above the Somerset Levels, it too associated with Arthurian legend.

All of this has led to the town becoming a magnet not only for tourists but also for New Agers, hippies and followers of various Pagan cults. On its streets, everyday shops rub shoulders with those selling crystals and tarot cards, while tourists in practical anoraks and walking shoes mingle with local farmers in wellies and with more recently arrived and more colourfully dressed residents.

Glastonbury Abbey

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Glastonbury Abbey - the ruins of the Great Church

Glastonbury Abbey was founded in the 7th century on a site previously occupied by both Roman and Saxon settlements. It was enlarged in the 10th century and destroyed by a major fire in 1184, but subsequently rebuilt. By the 14th century it was one of the richest and most powerful monasteries in England, but like other such places in Britain it was dissolved by Henry VIII and fell into ruin.

Those are the basic facts, but many myths have grown up around the abbey. In medieval times a Christian legend claimed that it had been founded by Joseph of Arimathea in the 1st century. Joseph was a follower of Christ who undertook his burial after his crucifixion. The legends tell how Joseph travelled to Britain, bringing with him the Holy Grail – the cup from which Christ drank at the Last Supper. It is said that he pushed his staff into the ground while he lay down to sleep and it miraculously took root and became a leafy, flowering thorn tree.

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The Holy Thorn

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The Holy Thorn and St Patrick's Chapel

The thorn tree that can be seen in the abbey grounds is said to be a cutting from the direct descendent of this tree which grows on nearby Wearyall Hill. The abbey’s website tells the story in more detail:

‘By the 1530s, not long before the Dissolution of the Monasteries, three thorn trees grew on Wearyall Hill (sometimes known as Wirral Hill) about 1km south-west of Glastonbury. The trees were very unusual because they flowered twice - once in the spring around Easter, and a second time at Christmas. Not surprisingly, they were seen as holy thorns. In the Civil Wars of the 17th century Puritan soldiers cut down the only remaining thorn because they saw it as an object of superstition. However, local people had kept cuttings, and it is from these that the thorn now growing in the abbey grounds is believed to descend. It continues to flower around Easter and again at Christmas.

The holy thorn has become part of the legend of Joseph of Arimathea. According to this story, when Joseph arrived in Glastonbury with his twelve companions he climbed Wearyall Hill, whose name derives from his proclaiming 'we are weary all'. He planted his staff in the ground whilst he rested. The following morning the staff had taken root, and it grew into the miraculous thorn tree.’

Some versions of the legend say that the risen Christ accompanied Joseph on his journey to Britain. It is thought that this is what inspired the opening lines of William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’:

‘And did those feet, in ancient times,
Walk upon England’s mountain green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England's pleasant pastures seen?’

I should add though that some scholars find this an unlikely source for Blake, arguing that the tradition that Jesus accompanied Joseph of Arimathea to Britain only arose in the early 20th century.

Visiting the abbey

Much of the abbey is in ruins although a couple of buildings are still intact. We visited on a cool but bright September morning, great for photographing what remains of the arches, windows and other features.

Near the entrance is St Patrick's Chapel which was founded by Abbot Richard Beere in 1500 and is still used for worship today. One of the many legends associated with Glastonbury is that St Patrick is buried here. This legend recounts that it was from Glastonbury that Patrick set out to convert the Irish and that he returned here at the end of his life to die. Hence the dedication of this chapel to the saint.

The chapel was restored in 2009/2010 and the wall paintings and stained glass, which I loved, date from then despite their traditional appearance. They include two depictions of St Patrick - one in the stained glass behind the altar which shows him standing above a snake (he is popularly held to have banished all snakes from Ireland) and the other a wall painting showing him with a wolfhound.

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Images of St Patrick

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In St Patrick's Chapel

From here we went to explore the ruins of the Great Church. In places these still stand quite tall and it is easy to imagine how impressive the building must once have been. In other places there are simply lines of stone in the grass, marking the foundations.

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The ruins of the Great Church

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Arthur's tomb

In the centre a rectangle is marked out and a sign identifies it as the site of King Arthur’s tomb. It reads:

‘In the year 1191 the bodies of King Arthur and his queen were said to have been found on the south side of the Lady Chapel. On 19th April 1278 their remains were removed in the presence of king Edward I and Queen Eleanor to a black marble tomb on this site. This tomb survived until the dissolution of the abbey in 1539.’

Today the authenticity of this find is disputed, with most historians suggesting that it was a publicity stunt undertaken to raise funds to repair the Abbey, which had been badly damaged by the fire of 1184. Nevertheless, the link with Arthur persists to this day and draws many to visit Glastonbury.

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The Great Church from the monastery ruins

We walked through the ruins of the monastery, none of the walls rising to a height of more than a foot or two, to reach the much more substantial Abbot’s Kitchen. This is the only surviving part of the Abbot’s house and is a sign of how different the abbot’s life would have been to that of the monks. While they lived a life of abstinence and poverty, he had a magnificent house, as befitted the abbot of the second richest abbey in the country (eclipsed only by Westminster). His kitchen needed to be able to cater to the many great visitors who came to the abbey, including Henry VII for whom a special apartment was added to the house.

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The Abbot's Kitchen

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Gargoyle on the Abbot's Kitchen

This is considered to be one of the best-preserved medieval kitchens in Europe. It has four great fireplaces, one in each corner, and a central chimney to draw out the smoke. Its high ceiling allowed the head chef to stand on a raised gallery to supervise the work of the rest of the cooks and servants as they prepared feasts worthy of their VIP guests.

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In the Abbot's Kitchen

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The ceiling of the Abbot's Kitchen

Between the kitchen and the entrance area lies the Lady Chapel. This is somewhat more intact than the Great Church (most of its walls still stand) and it’s easier to visualise the original structure.

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The Lady Chapel

The walls would once have been painted in ochre, red, blue, green and white, with gold leaf details. Some traces of paint still remain around the carved arches. The abbey website says that the paintwork ‘almost certainly dates to 1184-99 - probably to 1184-89’.

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Carvings on the Lady Chapel

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In the crypt below the chapel is a well known as St Joseph’s Well. This was in existence long before the chapel was built, and may date back to Roman times, but (perhaps because of its age) it became incorporated into the various legends linking Joseph of Arimathea to Glastonbury. It was consequently a place of pilgrimage right through to the 16th century, when many miracles and cures were said to have taken place following offerings made here.

Glastonbury, the town

After leaving the abbey we walked through the town, enjoying the atmosphere and taking a few photos of the more interesting characters on the streets.

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Seen in Glastonbury

In non-COVID times I might have been tempted to browse some of the shops, but as it was I just went into one to buy a pretty birthday card for my sister.

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Sign in a Glastonbury shop

Glastonbury Tor

Our destination was Glastonbury Tor which lies to the east of the abbey. To get there we followed a path past some houses and then up and across the fields, climbing steadily.

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In a garden on the way to Glastonbury Tor

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Seen on the way to Glastonbury Tor

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Seen on the path to Glastonbury Tor

This terraced conical hill has long been associated with tales of King Arthur. It is thought that the Ancient Britons called it Ynys yr Afalon, leading to a belief that this is the fabled Isle of Avalon of Arthurian myth. Certainly it was once an island, rising above the shallow sea that used to cover what are now the Somerset Levels. It was crowned by a church, St Michael’s, built from wood in the 11th or 12th centuries, and some other Saxon buildings, possibly cells for hermit monks. That church was destroyed in an earthquake in 1275 and replaced by a stone one, of which only the tower remains – the remainder of the church was demolished during the dissolution of the monasteries.

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Glastonbury Tor

As to the links with Arthur, some say that this is the likely hiding place of the Holy Grail, making the Tor a place of pilgrimage for centuries. Other stories grew up around the tor too, perhaps because there is something mystical in the way it rises above the plains, especially on a misty day. Some have said it holds the door to the land of the fairies, others the door to the land of the dead.

But for most visitors to Glastonbury the hill represents something much more simple – the challenge to climb it and the reward of great views when you do. I have made the climb several times in the past, when my legs were much younger, but on this occasion I decided it was enough to have climbed halfway and I left Chris, who had never been here before, to finish alone.

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Token hung in a tree, and carved stone near the point where I gave up the climb!

The Somerset Levels

After lunch in the town we drove a little to the east, to a nature reserve on the Levels, and had a rather windswept walk. The hides were closed because of the pandemic so we couldn’t get very close to the birds we saw out on the water. Nevertheless, I got a decent collection of photos, and the dragonflies were far more obliging than the birds!

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At Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve

Later in our stay in Somerset we had a lovely short walk near Deerleap, on the southern edge of the Mendip Hills, and I took some shots of the wonderful views across the Levels towards Glastonbury Tor, so I will finish this entry with one of those images.

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View of the Somerset Levels and Glastonbury Tor from the Mendips

Posted by ToonSarah 03:35 Archived in England Tagged landscapes churches england history ruins views abbey legends glastonbury street_photography covid_19 Comments (11)

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