Glastonbury is a town quite unlike any other, a place where folklore and legends thrive.
Whatever your preconceptions of Glastonbury, they’re probably true. Ordinarily this’d be a fairly mundane little market town, were it not for a high street teeming with psychedelically painted shops, cafés and healing centres bearing names like Man, Myth and Magik, The Speaking Tree, and the Chocolate Love Temple, and an assortment of oddball characters – hippies, druids, knights, pixies (not real ones) – nonchalantly going about their business.
But that’s really only the half of it. With over 70 different faith groups present, it’s little wonder that Glastonbury retains its own unique personality; there’s nowhere else quite like it in Somerset, or, for that matter, the country. Central to it all is the abbey, though there’s plenty more to keep you occupied if you’ve got the appetite and the stamina, including the Chalice Well and, nearby, the engaging Rural Life Museum. Not forgetting Glastonbury Tor, which is within easy walking distance of the town centre.
About halfway up the High Street, wedged between a pair of shops, is the Tribunal. Dating from the early 15th century, this handsomely weathered, two-storey medieval townhouse takes its name (erroneously as it turns out) from the time when it was purported to have been a bishop’s court, though there’s never been any evidence to support this and it was, quite likely, just a merchant’s house.
Today, this venerable old building holds the Glastonbury Lake Village Museum (English Heritage), which recalls the history of the long-since vanished Glastonbury Lake Village, a local Iron Age island settlement discovered by amateur archaeologist Arthur Bulleid in the late 19th century. Among the many items retrieved by Bulleid (most of which were in an excellent condition owing to the preservational qualities of the peat-rich soil), the most impressive was a stash of some Bronze Age bone jewellery.
Rearing up sharply from the iron-flat Levels and visible for miles around, Somerset’s giant mystic hill (518ft) is yet another local landmark bound by legend – among them that the hill was home to one Gwyn ab Nudd, Lord of the Celtic Underworld.
The best way up the tor is via a circular walk starting in the town centre: at the top of the High Street, turn right on to Chilkwell Street then left up Dod Street; cross the field and walk along Stone Down Lane before turning right along a path through a field, where you begin the ascent (in any case it’s all well signposted).
Return down on the exact opposite side, which brings you out near the Chalice Well – you can of course do this in reverse. Although it’s not an exacting climb, a reasonable level of fitness (and some half-decent boots) helps. Crowning the hill is St Michael’s Tower, which is all that survives of the original 14th-century church. But of course you come here for the views, which are stupendous: on a clear day it almost feels as if there’s not a single part of Somerset that you can’t see.
Founded in the 7th century, possibly even earlier, Glastonbury Abbey can lay fair claim to being the country’s oldest Christian site. Enlarged by St Dustan in the 10th century, it suffered a catastrophic fire in 1184, which pretty much gutted the entire complex and necessitated a complete rebuilding job. Following that, the abbey never looked back, casting its territorial claims as far north as Wales and the Midlands, and all the way down to the south coast, becoming an ecclesiastical powerhouse that was second only to Westminster Abbey in London.
The burial place of kings Edmund I, Edgar I and Edmund II, its influence spread far and wide; it’s also claimed that Glastonbury had the largest collection of books outside the library of Alexandria in Egypt. Upon the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, many of the buildings were plundered and stripped, leaving the complex to crumble. Above all though, the abbey remains central to the Arthurian story, which despite the dubious associations, has fired the imagination of pilgrims and visitors for centuries.