Sacred England - GLASTONBURY: England's Jerusalem - Sample 2

Rate this item
(0 votes)
The Traveller's Guide to Sacred England - click to read a sample

The Traveller's Guide
to Sacred England

A guide to the legends, lore and landscape
of England's sacred places

John Michell

Click here for sample one
Click to order

Sample two:

GLASTONBURY: England's Jerusalem

Ynis Witrin, the Glassy Isle, was the old British name for Glastonbury, and in earlier times it was indeed an island, rising dramatically above an inland sea which has since given way to the marshes and flat meadows of Somerset. The landscape is dominated by Glastonbury's conical hill, the Tor, surmounted by a church tower.

Pilgrims are drawn toward it from afar, and as one approaches one becomes aware of a peculiar change in the atmosphere: The light intensifies and takes on a quality unique to Glastonbury. It can scarcely be described, but the experience is unforgettable. Glastonbury is a famous sanctuary, a place of magic and legend, and the cause of its reputation is soon apparent to visitors. There is a natural enchantment to the place that has affected people in all ages and makes it appropriate for Glastonbury to be called the English Jerusalem.

Modern Glastonbury is a small country town, population 7000, brick built and architecturally undistinguished. Its ancient treasures are well hidden. One can drive through Glastonbury in a few minutes without being aware that behind its long, straggling High Street lie the ruins of a great abbey built upon "the holiest ground in England." It is the resting place of saints, the first Christian shrine in England, and the center of a network of sanctity that links prehistoric sites far across the countryside. Here is Avalon, island of the blessed dead, gateway to the spirit realm. Legends of all ages have their settings in the surrounding landscape, where secluded spots by streams, groves, and hills are haunted by the memories of ancient saints and heroes. Every generation adds to the stock of Glastonbury lore, for the spirit of the place links past with present, and its mystical attractions are as powerful today as they have always been. Thus the legends of pagan gods, Christian visionaries, and Arthurian knights, for which Glastonbury has long been famous, are constantly augmented by fresh experiences and discoveries relating to the mysteries of Avalon.

The longer one spends at Glastonbury and the deeper one's reading about it, the more fascinating it becomes. There are stories of people who have gone there for brief visits and stayed on for the rest of their lives!

GLASTONBURY ABBEY: Joseph of Arimathea in England

A medieval gateway on Magdalen Street leads to a green meadow that is the heart of Glastonbury. There stand the gray stone ruins of what was once the greatest religious house in England. It is a charming spot even to those who do not know its history, but its supreme importance as a place of pilgrimage is due to its unique foundation legend which, if literally true, makes Glastonbury the site of the world's first Christian church.

The locus of that legend is the delicately sculptured, late twelfth-century building at the west end of the abbey, the Chapel of St. Mary. It is also called the St. Joseph Chapel because it is on the spot where St. Joseph of Arimathea, the uncle of Jesus, is said to have built a church of wood and wattles shortly after the Crucifixion.

The story of St. Joseph is that he was a tin merchant who traded with the Cornish miners, and on one of his visits to western Britain he was accompanied by his Nephew. That is an old belief among the Cornish, immortalized in William Blake's poem, ("And did those feet in ancient time / Walk upon England's mountains green?"). Later St. Joseph returned to England as a Christian missionary, leading a party of twelve from the Holy Land. Navigating the Somerset waterways, he landed at Pilton, a few miles east of Glastonbury (where a modern banner in the church commemorates the event). He then proceeded to Wearyall Hill, overlooking the site of the abbey, where he planted his staff – which miraculously burst into leaf and became the sacred Glastonbury thorn tree. The local king, Arviragus, made him a grant of land, and there the missionaries settled, dwelling in circular cells in a ring around the wattle church.

Whatever the truth of the matter, there is no doubt that in very early times, long before the Roman Church was known in England, the paramount sanctity of the Celtic Christian shrine at Glastonbury was generally acknowledged. Before the fire that destroyed the abbey in 1184, the library at Glastonbury contained documents with reference to its foundation. These were inspected in about 1130 by a scholarly monk, William of Malmesbury, and incorporated in his work On the Antiquity of the Church of Glastonbury. Later chroniclers added to it, but the original text bears witness to the unique history of the place. Citing ancient records, William stated that "the church at Glastonbury did none other men's hands make, but actual disciples of Christ built it." Further, he wrote:

The church of which we speak is commonly called by the Saxons the Old Church on account of its antiquity. It was the first formed of wattles, and from the beginning breathed and was redolent of a mysterious divine sanctity which spread throughout the country. The actual building was insignificant but it was so holy. Waves of common people thronging thither flooded every path; rich men laid aside their state to gather there, and men of learning and piety assembled there in great numbers. . . The resting place of so many saints is deservedly called a heavenly sanctuary on earth.

At medieval church councils, where the question of precedence was important and was keenly disputed, the Abbot of Glastonbury was allowed priority over all other delegates on account of the antiquity of his church's foundation. Nor did he have to rely upon the legend of St. Joseph; documentary evidence, referred to by William of Malmesbury, proved that the Old Church had been rededicated in the year 166, at the behest of King Lucius, by legates of Eleutherias, the thirteenth pope after St. Peter.

Glastonbury and Her Saints

St. Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, by tradition responsible for converting the Irish to Christianity, ended his days as Abbot of Glastonbury. When he died at the age of Ill, his holy relics became Glastonbury's greatest asset. They attracted, many pilgrims from Ireland, including St. Bridget, who settled not far from the abbey at Beckery, and priestly scholars and philosophers from throughout Celtic Christendom. St. David of Wales arrived in Glastonbury with a retinue of bishops, intending to reconsecrate the church, but he was warned in a vision that the site had already been dedicated by Jesus Christ Himself to His Virgin Mother, so St. David fulfilled his mission by building an oratory to the east of the Old Church.

Groundplan of Glastonbury Abbey

Undisturbed by Viking raiders, the Glastonbury monks accumulated an awesome collection of saintly bones and mementos, causing their shrine to flourish as a popular place of pilgrimage. Saxon governments followed the British in respecting its sanctity, and the shrine continued to prosper under Norman rule. The autonomy of Glastonbury, as a place too sacred to be subject to secular control or taxation, was confirmed in the Domesday Book. By that time the abbey estates had expanded far beyond the original twelve hides of land (1440 acres) granted by Aviragus to St. Joseph, but the land surrounding the abbey was still known as the Twelve Hides, and within its boundaries the abbot enjoyed absolute sovereignty. His Church of St. Peter and St. Paul had grown from St. David's oratory east of the Old Church to become the largest and most richly endowed in England.

Destruction by Fire and the Finding of King Arthur

The most precious of Glastonbury's relics were the remains of St. Joseph's original wattle church. In the seventh century the old structure was preserved within a timber building roofed with lead. Its interior was filled with sacred objects and, according to William of Malmesbury, it was held in such religious awe that no one dared keep watch there at night or commit an unseemly act in its vicinity.

On the night of May 25, 1184, the glory of Glastonbury suddenly departed. A fire swept through the abbey and spread to the Old Church, which was reduced to ashes. Efforts were made to locate some of the most important relics, such as the bones of St. Patrick and St. Dunstan, and the present Chapel of St. Mary was built on the sacred foundations of its predecessor. Architecturally, the abbey soon regained its splendor, but its reputation as a place of pilgrimage was much diminished. Then it was restored a few years after the fire by the dramatic discovery, sixteen feet below the surface of the burial ground to the south of the abbey, of two ancient oak coffins containing the bones of a large man and a woman with strands of golden hair still attached to her skull. Also found was an inscribed leaden cross, identifying the bodies as those of King Arthur, whose traditional place of burial was Avalon, or Glastonbury, and Queen Guinevere. The place of honor where they were later reburied, at the center of the abbey church, is marked today by an inscription.

The Fall of Glastonbury Abbey

From the twelfth century to the sixteenth century each successive abbot added to the magnificent range of abbey buildings. Still intact is the octagonal Abbot's Kitchen, built early in the fourteenth century, which stands in the abbey grounds and is now a museum. Beyond it, at the corner of Chilkwell Street and Bere Lane, is the abbey's tithe barn, built in about 1420, where produce from the abbey estates was garnered. This splendid, well-preserved timber and carved-stone building in the ecclesiastical style is open to the public as a museum of rural life. Its nobly worked fabric testifies to the medieval wealth of the abbey.

With the growing tendency toward centralized government in England, the independent power of the Church began to be seen as an anomaly. Areas of economic independence, such as Glastonbury under its abbots, were no longer tolerated. In 1539 the last Abbot of Glastonbury, Richard Whiting, was visited by agents of Henry VIII, who sought an excuse for confiscating his possessions. Nothing serious could be found against him, but he was accused of concealing abbey treasures, arrested, and brought to trial. His sentence was to be hanged, drawn, and quartered, and on November 15 Whiting and two of his monks were taken to the summit of the Tor, where their bodies were suspended on gallows in full view of the countryside. Parts of the abbot's body were distributed for exhibition in various cities as a warning against disobedience to the authorities.

Lost Treasures of Glastonbury and the Restoration Prophecy

The seizure of its assets and the dispersal of its monks reduced the abbey to an empty shell, and it soon fell into ruin. Its stones were sold off in cartloads for local construction purposes; many of them can still be found in buildings in and around Glastonbury. More completely lost are the manuscripts, reliquaries, and other treasures which Abbot Whiting was accused of hiding. No doubt he actually did so. Glastonbury underground is honeycombed with tunnels and crevasses, mostly sealed up and uninvestigated. Monks are notoriously fond of secret hiding places, and it may well be that objects of great intrinsic and historic value are awaiting their future revelation in Glastonbury's hidden recesses.

The Glastonbury cross, which marked the burial place of King Arthur, passed into private hands at the Reformation and was then lost. In 1981 it made a tantalizingly brief reappearance. Council workmen excavating a site near Waltham Abbey in Essex dug it from the ground and, not knowing what it was, gave it to a local man with an interest in antiquities. He took it for identification to the British Museum but refused to leave it there. When ordered by the courts to return it to the owner of the land where it had been found, he chose to go to prison rather than comply. After a few months he was released, still retaining the secret of the whereabouts of the Glastonbury cross.

Surpassing all other hidden treasures at Glastonbury is the sacramental vessel that St. Joseph was said to have brought with him from the Holy Land. It was the cup used at the Last Supper, and it had held the blood of Christ that dripped from the cross. This most sacred of objects, the Holy Grail, is said to have been buried at Glastonbury with the body of St. Joseph on Chalice Hill, which lies between the abbey and the Tor. It is traditionally believed that one day the Grail will be rediscovered, and then will follow the fulfillment of ancient prophecies that identify Glastonbury as the place of a spiritual and cultural renaissance. The power of those prophecies gives the country around Glastonbury its special character as the Holy Land of England.

The Stonehenge Connection

In one of the traditional Welsh bardic verses, the Triads, Glastonbury is named as one of the old perpetual choirs of Britain. "The choir of Ambrosius," or Stonehenge, was another, and a third was at the place now called Llantwit Major in South Wales. At these sites choirs of holy men maintained a constant liturgical chant which varied over the seasons and cycles. This was in times long before Christianity, when an archaic priesthood sanctified its society by keeping human activities in tune with the rhythms of the cosmos. Thus the traditional sanctity of Glastonbury goes far back into pagan times.

Another ancient link with Stonehenge is demonstrated in the planning of Glastonbury's religious buildings. St. Benedict's Church, on Benedict Street, two hundred yards west of the abbey, has the same orientation as the abbey and lies on the extension of its axis. The same axis line, continued eastward, passes through the archway to the abbey house and along a road called Dod Lane that becomes a footpath over the flank of Chalice Hill. Sixteen miles further east the line goes over a hilltop church, St. Michael at Gare Hill, and thence toward Stonehenge.

Dod Lane, which falls on the line and was a straight trackway up to a few years ago, is a form of Dead Man's Lane. Its name suggests that it was part of an ancient spirit path by which the souls of the dead passed from the old temple westward to Avalon and the other world.

Groundplan of Mary Chapel

Glastonbury's foundation myth provides another link with Stonehenge. After the fire of 1184, the monks rebuilt the Chapel of St. Mary on the foundations of the previous building, which contained, and preserved the dimensions of, St. Joseph's wattle church. From that clue, together with the legendary grant of twelve hides of land made to St. Joseph's party, one can reconstruct the original foundation plan of Glastonbury.

The figure shows the plan of the St. Mary Chapel and the scheme of geometry which develops from it. The width of the chapel, 39.6 feet, means that the side of the outer square is 79.2 feet in length, and the area contained by that square is equal to one ten-thousandth part of 1440 acres. There are 120 acres in one hide of land, so 1440 acres is the area of the twelve hides of Glastonbury. In this diagram the twelve hides are represented on a scale of 1:10,000.

Comparison of this diagram with the plan of Stonehenge (page 104) shows that the two are essentially the same. Here once more the Stonehenge-Glastonbury link is hinted at. Its meaning can only be surmised, but it prompts the suggestion that Glastonbury Abbey was once the site of a temple, similar to Stonehenge and of much the same period, about 2000 B.C. It is recognized that many Christian legends are restatements of earlier pagan traditions, and it may be that the legend of St. Joseph's settlement at Glastonbury echoes a previous tale of Glastonbury's foundation by Druidic saints or divinities.

The Tor and its Labyrinth

The summit of Glastonbury Tor, the highest spot on the Isle of Avalon, is reached by the Pilgrim's Path along its spine. It offers a magnificent view of the countryside for miles around; on a clear day one can see the mountains of South Wales. Other landmarks are indicated on a plaque by the ruined tower which crowns the Tor.

The tower is all that remains of the Church of St. Michael, which in the fourteenth century replaced an earlier church on the site. Excavation in the 1960s exposed the foundations of an extensive monastic settlement alongside the church. In the early days of Christianity, when the Tor was covered with trees and undergrowth, Celtic hermits occupied cells on its summit and slopes. Traces of prehistoric settlement have also been found, and the survival of a few ancient stones on and around the Tor indicates the sanctity of the place in the age of the megalith builders. As an object of pilgrimage, the Tor is as popular today as it has been for thousands of years.

Glastonbury Tor

In certain lights it can be seen plainly that artificial terraces have been carved around the sides of the Tor. It has recently been shown that these terraces form a huge labyrinth that encircles the hill and leads to its summit. The date of this work is unknown, but it is certainly prehistoric, and the symbolism of the labyrinth suggests that it was designed as a ritual pathway related to the ancient religious mysteries.

In walking a labyrinth, an initiate prepares to enter another world, and the discovery of the figure on the Tor recalls old legends of a hidden entrance to the hollow interior of the hill. Over the centuries many stories have been told of people who have found the entrance and gained access to the Tor's inner chambers, where the ancient mysteries were once celebrated. A former abbot of Glastonbury, St. Collen in the seventh century, is said to have retired to a hermit's cell at the foot of the Tor, where his contemplations were several times disturbed by a strange visitor who demanded that he ascend the hill and pass through a tunnel within it to meet the king of the underworld. Finally he agreed. Armed with a flask of holy water, the saint followed his guide into the bowels of the Tor and confronted Gwynn ap Nudd, the Celtic Lord of Hades, in the midst of his demonic court. A few words were exchanged, then St. Collen produced the holy water and dashed it over the king and his demons, who promptly vanished – whereupon the saint found himself alone in the hillside.

The inside of the Tor does indeed contain passages and chambers, formed by the underground waters which well up beneath it. Sacred springs once issued from its flanks, and today it conceals a reservoir that supplies the district with water.

The St. Michael Pilgrimage Path

The establishment of a Christian church on the Tor is attributed in the annals of Glastonbury to the founders of the abbey and to St. Patrick. Its dedication is to St. Michael – more properly, the Archangel Michael – who is depicted in a carving on the tower weighing the souls of the dead. Beside it, representing the female principle, is a carving of St. Bridget milking her cow.

St Bridget

As the leader of the heavenly hosts, the bearer of light, the slayer of the dragon, the revealer of mysteries, and the guide to the other world, Michael is the Christian successor to pagan deities with similar functions, such as Hermes, messenger of the gods, and the Celtic light giver, Lugh.

St. Michael's shrines are commonly set on high places, where beacon fires once blazed on the days of festival. At such places the electric forces of the atmosphere make contact with the magnetic powers of the earth, producing strange effects whose causes are unexplained by modem science. Balls of light emanating from the Tor are often seen hovering above it, giving rise to legends which vary with the times, from tales of fairies and demons to modern reports of unidentified flying objects. Thus the reputation of the Tor as a place of magic and enchantment is not a matter of convention but has its roots in human experience and the mysteries of nature.

St. Michael on the Tor is one of the stations in an alignment of Michael shrines that extends along the spine of southwest England to its western extremity by the Land's End in Cornwall. It corresponds to the path by which, according to legend, Christ once proceeded from Cornwall to Glastonbury, and which his avatar will one day tread again; on which account the country people were careful to be hospitable to unknown travellers.

Burrowbridge Mump

In very ancient times the path appears to have provided a pilgrimage route from the west to the great temple at Avebury. Eleven miles southwest of Glastonbury, the road to Taunton skirts another prominent St. Michael's Hill, also topped by a ruined church, known as "the Mump" at Burrowbridge. From the church on the Mump, Glastonbury Tor is visible behind intervening hills. That alignment, from Mump to Tor, extends eastward precisely to the southern entrance of the Avebury ring, touching two of the enormous stones of the main circle. It continues on for a few miles to the church at Ogbourne St. George, dedicated to another dragon-killing saint who is said to represent the earthly aspect of St. Michael.

Close to the Glastonbury Tor – Avebury line stand the churches of Stoke St. Michael and St. Michael, Buckland Dinham; westward from Glastonbury, also near the line, is St. Michael's Church at Othery. Traveling further west, one's eye is drawn to the high rock on the western edge of Dartmoor, where the church of St. Michael, Brentor, offers a distant landmark to ships off the coast. Near the terminus of the line, slightly to the south of it, is the famous island rock of St. Michael's Mount (page 185).

The ancient rockpile on Bodmin Moor called the Cheesewring marks the direct course of the St. Michael line.

Stretches of old trackway near Avebury and the Pilgrim's Path along the axis of the Tor fall onto the line, as does the axis of Burrowbridge Mump. Indications are that this alignment of pilgrimage stations, dedicated to an archaic deity whose attributes were assumed by St. Michael, was planned in remote antiquity, in times long preceding the age of the megalith builders. Today it provides a useful guide to modern pilgrims, leading them to the sacred high places and many of the obscure shrines of southwest England.

The Chalice Well and Garden Sanctuary

In the valley between the high eminence of the Tor and the gently rounded Chalice Hill – natural symbols of the male and female in nature – lies the most beautiful of Glastonbury's goddess shrines, where the indwelling spirit of the place can be experienced in tranquillity. At its center is an ancient holy well, fed by a spring of pure chalybeate water from the depths of nearby hills. Long ago, in its natural state, the spring issued from the ground to form a stream that washed away the silt of the valley. A well house was built over it in the Middle Ages, but soil accumulated around it and it became buried. An excavation was made through its roof to form the present well shaft that leads to a stone chamber. The water never fails. Flowing at a rate of some thousand gallons an hour, its overflow comes to the surface below the well and passes through stone channels before disappearing again underground. Much valued for its sacred and healing properties, its fame has long drawn pilgrims to Glastonbury. The patina it leaves on the stone is a rich gold, and its blood-tinged color associates it with the lunar waters of the goddess.

Around the well is a simple country garden, set among the apple orchards of Avalon and sheltered by the ancient yew, the tree which flourishes at sacred spots. Daily access is afforded by the Chalice Well Trust, founded in 1958 by the Glastonbury mystic Wellesley Tudor Pole, who gave relief to many sufferers during World War II by his institution of the daily silent minute. Another such, Frederick Bligh Bond, designed the present well cover with its symbol of the vesica piscis, two interlinked circles that represent the merging of the worlds of spirit and matter.

At the entrance to the garden is Little St. Michael's House, belonging to the Trust, wherein is the Upper Room, a sanctuary furnished with objects of Glastonbury craftsman ship. A turning off Chilkwell Street gives access to the garden. At the gate is a small building for the reception of visitors and the sale of booklets relating to Glastonbury; the garden beyond is always peaceful and refreshing, intended as a resting place for pilgrims, especially those visiting the St. Michael shrines to the west.

Gog and Magog, the Oaks of Avalon

Certain trees, as they grow large and old, attract legends and veneration. Several of various species in the Glastonbury area are of impressive age, rooted in pre-Christian days of the Druid religion. Their sites may be even older, for it was an ancient practice to replace sacred trees in decay with saplings of their own seed.

Gog and Magog were ancient giants of Britain in the time of Brutus the Trojan, and their names have somehow attached themselves to a pair of great oak trees which are a feature of Glastonbury's legendary landscape. The trees are said to be more than two thousand years old, and in their gnarled and twisted limbs the mystic's eye descries faces and figures and simulacra of all the forms in nature. Once there were more of them, but their venerable companions were massacred by a farmer early in the present century. They formed part of an avenue leading toward the Tor, and legend has extended it even further: A local belief holds that an avenue of contemporary oaks once lined a causeway from the Tor to King Arthur's castle at South Cadbury. An old Glastonbury record says that King Arthur laid siege to the Tor, where a rival chieftain had his stronghold in about 500 AD. If so, he would have marched there along the legendary causeway, shaded by the companions of old Gog and Magog. As well as being worthy objects of contemplation, these trees are worth visiting for the sake of the walk, which leads by a National Trust footpath through beautiful scenery from Wick Hollow, across the vale called Paradise, to the foot of Stonedown, where stand Gog and Magog.

The Lake Villages and the Tribunal Museum

In the great days of Glastonbury Abbey, travel in the district was mostly by water. The abbot possessed an ornate barge from which he could inspect his estates, navigating the rivers and artificial watercourses that intersect the flat country around the Isle of Avalon. Much of it was formerly covered by a shallow lake, from which rose island hills. At Meare, 3 miles northwest of Glastonbury, the Abbey Fish House, built early in the 1300s, stands on the former banks of a large pool, now drained, which provided the abbey with fish. Local legend identifies it as the place where King Arthur's sword, Excalibur, was offered to him by the Lady of the Lake.

The Tribunal

In prehistoric times this area was inhabited by numerous village communities, dwelling on the islands or in houses raised on timber piles from the bed of the lake. The villages were linked by wooded causeways, stretches of which have been preserved by the peaty soil of the district and are now being investigated by archaeologists. Current researches are illustrated at the small museum south of West Hay near the Sweet Track, a causeway over a mile long which is dated to about 3800 B.C. and is thus recognized as the oldest stretch of road in the world. The lake dwellers are found to have enjoyed a rich and varied diet through hunting, fishing, and agriculture. They were also masters of many crafts, including carpentry, bone carving, pottery, weaving, and metal work. Their houses were of wood and wattles in the same style as St. Joseph's original church. Avalon, one of their sacred isles, was where they buried their dead. Another, at Godney, is sanctified today by a small, simple church. The road there from Glastonbury, a turning off the road to Meare, passes the site of one of the lake villages.

Many of the objects found beneath the causeways and villages of the lake people are exhibited in the ancient Tribunal on Glastonbury's High Street, a picturesque fifteenth-century building which was the courthouse and administrative center of the Twelve Hides. Information is available there on current excavations and where to see them. In summer, when wild roses are growing among the willows which line the waterways of Glastonbury's moors, this beautiful, historic landscape invites exploration.

Some Sacred Features in the Glastonbury Landscape

The Glastonbury Zodiac. In 1929 a young artist, Kathryn Maltwood, was lodging in Glastonbury, engaged in illustrating The High History of the Holy Graal, which describes the adventures of King Arthur and his knights. The origin of this romance was said to have been an old Latin manuscript discovered in the library of Glastonbury Abbey. Walking the countryside after reading the book, Kathryn Maltwood recognized many of the landmarks around Glastonbury as the scenes of episodes in the Arthurian legends. The key to their understanding, she felt, was in the landscape itself.

One summer evening, gazing from a Glastonbury hill toward the legendary site of King Arthur's castle on Cadbury Hill, she noticed in the shadows moving across the landscape the outlines of gigantic effigy figures. It suddenly occurred to her that the tales of King Arthur were based on an astrological pattern, formed by natural and ancient artificial features in the local countryside. Working from maps and aerial photographs she commissioned, she identified a circle of astrological effigies and other figures which seemed to be referred to in local folklore and place names. Their outlines were marked by streams, tracks, contour lines, and boundaries, and their relative positions were in accordance with a map of the constellations.

Kathryn Maltwood's idea was that the zodiacal figures were roughly sketched by nature and had been given more precise form thousands of years ago by the ancient Sumer people of Somerset. No proof is attached to her thesis, but its poetic, visionary quality appeals to many, and it provides a useful synthesis of the various mythological themes which have settled upon the Glastonbury landscape. Guidebooks with descriptions and maps of the Maltwood zodiac can be obtained at Glastonbury bookshops, and guided tours are offered throughout the summer.

The Great Yew of Dundon.  Five miles south of Glastonbury, off the road through the village of Street toward Somerton, is Dundon's wooded hilltop, surrounded by the earth ramparts of an ancient British settlement. To students of the Glastonbury zodiac it forms the head of the Gemini figure, Below it, on a grassy knoll, stands the village church. The church dates from the thirteenth century, and over the years it has gained some interesting memorials, but the main attraction is its atmosphere of peace and sanctity. The site is naturally adapted for worship and contemplation, and its qualities were no doubt recognized in Celtic times. Testifying to its early religious significance is the huge and venerable yew tree in front of the church porch. The yew is thought to have stood for more than a thousand years and is therefore older than the present church, Encircled by a wooden bench, the Dundon yew is a natural place of council for village elders.

Jan Christiaan Smuts, the South African leader, lived nearby after his defeat in the Boer War. In 1949 he returned to Dundon on a visit to his daughter, Mrs. Clark, whose house was in Street. Once more he walked through the churchyard, and his comment is recorded in a framed text on the west wall of the church: "As an old man I am glad to have had again this glimpse of Paradise."

St. Andrew at Dundon is one of the quiet corners where the ancient enchantment over the Glastonbury landscape can still be experienced.

King Arthur's Camelot.  Standing on Glastonbury Tor and gazing across the wide landscape, one grows aware of the natural kinship between the Tor and other hilltops of the district. This is reflected in the local mythology; Arthurian associations adhere to many of the prominent landmarks visible from the Tor. The King Arthur to whom the legends refer lived in about 500 AD., but the legends themselves are rooted in far earlier times. Behind the Arthurian tales of battles and alliances between the hilltops of Somerset can be heard an echo from primeval times, when the hills were seen as elemental forces engaged in a mythological drama throughout the course of the year.

One obvious natural relationship is between the Tor and the high plateau 11 miles to the southeast, called on maps Cadbury Castle. Its proper name is Camelot, for that was what the locals called it when questioned by John Leland in 1542. On top of it, they said, was King Arthur's palace, and in a cave below the hill he still lies sleeping, awaiting the call to save his kingdom in time of peril. On certain winter nights the king and his retinue are supposed to ride across Camelot and down an old track to drink at a spring beside Sutton Montis church. At other times a band of ghostly knights is seen below the hill on the lost causeway to Glastonbury Tor.

The evidence of excavations at Cadbury Castle in the 1960s was in accordance with the legends. The four great ridges of earthworks surrounding the hilltop were found to have been heaped up over many periods from prehistoric times. A town within the ramparts had apparently been stormed by the Romans and for a time abandoned. Ancient wells around the hifi and evidence of a central shrine hint at its occupation by hermits and holy men. Then, at about the time King Arthur flourished, a great timber hall was erected on the hilltop. The ramparts were heightened and capped with stone, wooden walls were added to them, and strong gatehouses were built. Cadbury Castle at that time could lodge and protect an army. No other such stronghold of Arthurian times is known in southern England. Its traditional identification as Camelot could hardly be a mere coincidence; here, surely, is the site of King Arthur's court.

Camelot Today.  Its steep earth ramparts covered with dense woods and undergrowth make Cadbury Castle as impregnable today as ever. The only way up to it is by a steep and (in winter) muddy path, which joins the south end of South Cadbury village street just past the church, opposite the inn.

On a fine day the ascent of Cadbury is well worth the effort. Antiquarian explorers and family picnic parties are sometimes to be encountered, but one is mostly there alone. The upland meadow and its surrounding woods shelter many types of flower, bird, and animal life, and the view from the site of King Arthur's palace is endlessly delightful. Small villages with churches, set in wooded parkland, cluster around the foot of the hill, while Glastonbury Tor beckons in the distance. At Camelot one is at the center of the legendary landscape of the quest for the Holy Grail.

Click here for publication & purchase details
Gothic Image book list

Sample one from this book:

Chapter 1. The Making of the Sacred Landscape
Another book by John Michell

Login to post comments

Gothic Image Tours


Gothic Image Tours is a small company which has been specialising in tours to ancient and sacred sites since 1980. These tours offer a unique opportunity to visit some of the most beautiful and powerful places in England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Each place has a tale to tell and these are related to us at the very place of their origin by authors and researchers who are experts in the fields of history, myth and legend, folklore and earth mysteries. Gothic Image Tours are organised from a flourishing bookshop and publishing enterprise based in Glastonbury.