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Britannia's Magical History Tour
Stop 6: Glastonbury, Somerset
Glastonbury Tor, from the west
An otherwise unremarkable town, Glastonbury has attracted attention far out of proportion to its physical size, natural beauty or economic importance. Next to the town and providing its most distinctive natural feature is the strange, humpbacked whale-shaped, Tor (an old west country word for hill) which stands out from the low, surrounding landscape like a sore thumb.

On its summit is a tower (see photo above), the mortal remains of the fourteenth century chapel of St. Michael, which gives the Tor a mysterious, gothic appearance. In the middle ages, dedications to the archangel Michael were usually for the purpose of protection or purification. That seems appropriate, in this case, since the top of Glastonbury Tor was traditionally believed to be the entrance to the Celtic underworld, Annwn. The renowned Arthurian historian, Geoffrey Ashe, has said, "The Glastonbury landscape is weird, the enchantments of mist and sunset transform it from one day to another, and its final secret remains elusive."

Glastonbury is more than just an unusual landscape, though. It is a numinous place, a place that has a "feel" to it. It seems to have a unique ability to produce wonder and to attract speculations. Of all the places traditionally having associations with King Arthur, none can equal Glastonbury in the profusion or persistence of its Arthurian legends. Some say that:

  • Arthur made his headquarters near here, atop Cadbury Castle in South Cadbury
  • Arthur came to rescue his abducted queen, Guenevere, from the clutches of the evil King Melwas on Glastonbury Tor
  • Arthur's magical sword, Excalibur, was forged in the Isle of Avalon, a name which has come to be associated with Glastonbury
  • Sir Bedivere returned Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake from Pomparles Bridge, just south of the town, where the River Brueruns, today.
  • the Holy Grail was secreted in Chalice Well, located in a gardenat the base of the Tor
  • the Biblical disciple of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, is said to have landed by boat on Wearyall Hill at the outskirts of the town, bringing with him the new Christian Gospel and the Holy Grail.
  • On landing at Wearyall Hill, Joseph planted his staff into the ground and from it grew the famous Glastonbury Thorn, a tree indigenous to the Middle East which blossoms each year around Christmas.
  • Joseph of Arimathea and his missionary party were granted 12 hides (about 120 acres) of land by the local British king Arviragus
  • Arthur was brought to the Isle of Avalon for the healing of his mortal wound, received in his final battle with Mordred at Slaughter Bridge in Cornwall
  • Arthur's burial place was discovered in 1190 on the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey
  • Arthur is sleeping under the hill at Cadbury Castle, awaiting the time for his return

    Apart from the Arthurian legends, Glastonbury Abbey was, for centuries,an important center for scholarly and religious pursuit. It officially became a Benedictine monastery in 673 AD, but had been functioning, some believe, for centuries before that. It had attracted much royal patronage and fame, and had accumulated great wealth in land, gold, religious relics and books.

    Legend has it that Glastonbury is the cradle of British Christianity, being the first place on the island visited by the missionary "apostle", Joseph of Arimathea. While in the area, Joseph is said to have constructed Britain's first "church" out of wattle and daub next to the present day site of the Lady Chapel on the abbey grounds. The building was accurately and affectionately called the "Old Church," but was destroyed in a cataclysmic fire in 1184. It was called the "holiest earth in all England", and, as such, was an object of veneration and pilgrimage.The discovery of the grave of King Arthur by the Glastonbury monks in 1190 did much to enhance the attraction value of the abbey.

    The resulting pilgrim trade was important to the life of the abbey and town of Glastonbury in the middle ages, and remains so to this day. To accommodate middle class pilgrims to the abbey, a hostel was built in the latter half of the fifteenth century, adjacent to the abbey grounds. It stands on the High Street, today, as the George and Pilgrims Inn. You can spend a comfortable night there for around $80-100 per night. Be sure to try the grilled kippers for breakfast. They're delicious and they're included in the price of your room. For an inexpensive but delicious Italian dinner while in Glastonbury, try Gigi's on Magdalene Street. It may not look impressive from the outside, but the food is excellent.

    Next stop: Tintagel, Cornwall

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