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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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