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Climbing Glastonbury Tor in search of the divine

“Avalon will always be there for all men to find if they can seek the way thither, throughout all the ages past the ages. If they cannot find the way to Avalon, it is a sign, perhaps, that they are not ready.”
― Marion Zimmer Bradley, The Mists of Avalon

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I came to Glastonbury to find God.

A lot of people have had the same idea. From prehistoric to pilgrims to shamans to those who ride in on their brooms, people have been doing it for millennia.

What I’m pondering as H. navigates the labyrinth of small roads that is Britain, is why Glastonbury? There are theories though scant evidence that the Tor, the tall hill which dominates the landscape, was considered sacred in prehistoric times. Glastonbury, along with a bevy of other locations vie for the title of the Isle of Avalon, and it’s possible that if nothing else, the town’s mystic vibe infused the Arthurian legends with that particular shade.

One of the most famous legends states that Joseph of Arimethea, uncle of Jesus came here following the crucifixion and started the first Christian church in Europe. Some even claim his divine nephew joined him during his missing years.

My theory about the Tor? It’s the shape. Conical with those confounding terraces and a ruined tower that’s crowned the top for about a thousand years now, it just looks like a place where you’ll find god. Seeing Glastonbury Tor rising up before you is like being in the path of a mystical beacon, casting its light for miles around.

H. tells me of her own mystical experience at the Tor. It’s sunrise and the valley below is shrouded in mist, so it’s like being above the clouds. “It was easy to imagine,” she says, “how it must have looked from the top when the Tor was pretty much surrounded by water. It was simply magical.”

“So it was originally an island?” I ask.

“More of a peninsula than an island. This flatland is the Somerset Levels, and until a couple of thousand years ago the ocean reached this far inland. As the water receded, the ocean was replaced by a lake, and when that receded the area still flooded from the five rivers that wind through the area. There is evidence the Romans worked to drain the area, work which was continued by the monks at Glastonbury Abbey. The original name of the Tor, nys-witrin, means isle of glass to the ancient Celts.”

“And the last Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey was ritually disemboweled on the summit of the Tor?” I ask, never one to pass up the gruesome.

“Correct. Richard Whiting was his name, and he was hauled into London to be interrogated by Oliver Cromwell himself. In fact Cromwell not only interrogated him, he also tried him and acted as judge and jury. He was then sent back to Glastonbury for a show trial. He was dragged up the Tor along with two of his monks for the slicing and dicing.”

“So the church on the top, the tower of St. Michael, or what remains of it was originally part of Glastonbury Abbey?”

St. Michael's Tower at sunset atop Glastonbury Tor

St. Michael’s Tower at sunset

“Probably, and originally it was fairly substantial, which meant that the Tor was used for public religious ceremonies and fairs, along with private, monastic pursuits. And it’s likely that it wasn’t the first church on the Tor. It’s hard to say though for if there was a more ancient site atop the Tor, the foundations of it were destroyed when St. Michael’s went up.”

“A Saxon church was there before, yes? Till an earthquake brought it down?”

“Late thirteenth century I believe. Likely it started off as a hermitage, then grew into a small monastic community. They’re found the remains of a few wooden buildings. When it was rebuilt in the next century, it was in stone. That lasted till the sixteenth century when it was brought down during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.”

“Except for the tower?”

“The tower was in pretty bad shape too, parts of it crumbling away entirely. You can see where it was rebuilt in the 19th century by the brickwork. They put a stone floor in last century because the dirt floor was constantly being dug up by wackos looking for the Holy Grail.”

I pondered that for a moment. The first time I had come to Glastonbury it was due in no small part to my own quest for the Holy Grail. Which likely started in the eighties, and consisted mainly of me reading a few books on the subject and smoking an awful lot of dope, whilst watching the film Excalibur. By the time I first visited Glastonbury and walked up the Tor, it was 20 years later and my interest in the grail had waned. But I was still compelled to visit Glastonbury. I asked why she thought the Tor holds a power over people’s psyches.

“It’s the labyrinth inside of the Tor. Everybody knows about the labyrinth on the surface of the Tor, but there’s a legend that there’s one underground, mirroring the one above ground.”

“And you believe this?” I asked?

“Sometimes.”

I love H., truly I do. And I was tempted to ask if she also sometimes believed in the legend of the Celtic god of the underworld, Avalloc, who lived within the Tor, which was a meeting place for the dead, as well as a portal where they could pass to another level of existence. Or the legend of Gynn Ap Nudd, the Welsh lord of the underworld, king of the faeries who lived in a glass castle beneath the Tor. Like H., I want to believe in the legends, because we want instinctively to believe that there is more color to this world than we can see.

What we do know is Glastonbury Tor enters the written record in the 13th century recounting how St. Patrick, following his time in Ireland, came to Glastonbury with a group of fellow hermits, and found a ruined chapel in the forest that stood on its slopes. Believing it to be a chapel built by Joseph of Arimathea, he built a chapel of his own on the summit. The story is unlikely to be true, and quite likely created to give a bit of pedigree to the story of the early medieval church on the Tor. Religion was big business in Glastonbury, and it’s likely the monks living there wanted a cut of the action.

Though apparently never really much of a permanent settlement. There is evidence of human occupation on the Tor since neolithic times, and included settlements by both the Celts and Romans as well.

It’s the seven terraces encircling the Tor which helps to give it its distinctive shape. They might be neolithic in origin, the remains of an ancient labyrinth. They could also be the remains of a Celtic stronghold in the fifth century a.d., The could be what’s left of Iron Age defenses. A more mundane answer is they were built for agricultural purposes. Planting crops seem unlikely, as they completely encircle the Tor and there would have been little use in building them on the shady sides. It’s also possible that they were flattened by grazing cows.

In short, archaeologists have as many facts to back up their beliefs as those who see it as ancient runways for alien space craft.

Stepped path climbing Glastonbury Tor

The path up Glastonbury Tor

The Tor disappears as we wind our way down into the village of Glastonbury. There are two routes up the Tor, unless you count the ritual path. The first is a trail which begins where the spring that feeds Chalice Well flows outside of the garden wall. It’s a longer trek, and H. takes a side road which climbs a good distance up the Tor’s 500 or so feet, until the summit is above us on the right. There is a long line of cars alongside the street, so we’re assured of company when we reach the top.

It’s an easy enough path, paved and stepped, though deceptively steep from the bottom. I have a problem with my left ear, far too long to go into here, and when there’s a steep drop off to my left, I can be plagued with vertigo. It hit about halfway up with a vengeance. I’m trying to walk with my body leaning to the right, roughly at the same angle as the hill. Which is no mean feet. I hand the camera off to H. who is all but skipping up the hill and snapping away at the approaching sunset. I’m nearly bowled off the path by a gaggle of little kids, who run past at a breakneck speed.

I try to stand upright and get my bearings. I look to my left and it’s not all that steep. If I did topple over, I’d likely just roll down a few yards. Not very graceful, but far from fatal. My mind understands this, but peering over the side reminds my body of where we are and it once more resumes its awkward angle and I soldier on.

View from Glastonbury Tor at sunset

View from Glastonbury Tor at sunset

I meet the kids’ parents a few steps up, who look at me and smile sympathetically. I’ve smoked for decades now, and the path is steep enough that I feel every cigarette I’ve ever smoked. To add insult to injury, I see H. at the top, rolling one even as I fought for balance and breath below her. There are maybe ten to twenty people up here at any given time, with new groups coming up and going down almost constantly. There are a few sitting with their backs to the stone of St. Michael’s tower, facing the sunset and obviously in it for the long haul. They seem oblivious to the tourists milling about, who seem oblivious to the incredible sunset playing out before us, except to get a quick shot with their camera phone then turning around and heading back down.

I park myself on one of the stone benches inside the chapel, which is deceptively small once you get inside it. The doors, windows and ceiling are open to the elements, and as my breathing slowly returns to normal I watch a patch of sunlight streaming in through the window and onto the stone, slowly fade with the setting sun. On the other side of the chapel are three photographers, tripods anchored in the ground and discussing gear, while the sunset goes on unnoticed. Eventually they go to their cameras, take two or three shots and pack up.

The wind is manageable today, though on others it can be fierce. It’s chilly, bordering on cold but surprisingly warm for mid January. You can only take so many photos so eventually I content myself to warming up against H., and the few people still milling about pay us little notice. There can be few sights as beautiful as your lover’s face bathed in the light of a setting sun on top of Glastonbury Tor. Even if there’s a good chance you’re standing on the very spot where the unfortunate abbot and his accomplices had their guts plucked out.

Darkness on the Tor is no less magical. The lights of Glastonbury flicker on, and soon the whole of the Somerset Levels is sprinkled with lights, which from this height looks quite like fairly lights twinkling below us. And it’s time to go. I think of the path up and dread going down in near darkness. I remember the other route is much easier, and H. reads my mind and tells me she’ll pick me up at the base of the path.

View of Glastonbury Tor at night from the path

View of the Tor from the path down

“I found myself on the roof of the world
just waiting for to get my wings
Strange angel in the changing light
said Brother, you forgot something;
My heart beat from the inside out
so lucky just to be alive!
Can you tell what I’m talking about?
any day now the Sun’s gonna rise

I just found god where he always was

Mike Scott, The Waterboys, Glastonbury Song

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The magic doesn’t fade as I start down the path. On the contrary, it increases and I realize it’s because I’m out of earshot of the people at the top. Finding god is a solitary pursuit, and it occurs to me that I”m on the slopes of Glastonbury Tor, under the stars, alone. Most people don’t travel alone, and so never realize what a treat it can be to find yourself someplace mystical and magical, with no other humans to distract us. The quiet voices in our head have a chance to be heard that way and the chorus to the Waterboys’ Glastonbury Song come to mind … “I just found god where he always was.”

And I find myself taking my place in a long line of seekers who have walked these slopes. How many over the millennia? Hundred of thousands? Millions? Could I be following in the footstep of Jesus, for Christ’s sake, another wanderer who like me, found himself on the Tor a long, long way from his home?

There were no revelations. I wasn’t sucked into the bowels of Glastonbury Tor and didn’t come face to face with the King of the Underworld. The misty figure of Arthur didn’t walk besides me, Merlin didn’t whisper his incantations in my ear. The Lady of the Lake didn’t hurl Excalibur end over end my way. UFOs didn’t hover above me. I saw no witches on broomsticks circling the Tor.

What I did feel though was an absolute certainty that there are more mysteries in this world than one could imagine. Somewhere in those mysteries lie illumination, still waiting to be discovered. And whatever gods inhabited this place in the dim and distant past, live there still.

I came to Glastonbury to find god. And though I didn’t catch his or her name, I did.

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  • Gayle June 20, 2017, 10:58 am

    I had the chance to visit the Tor 10 years ago. It was everything that I had imagined – mystical, magical, sacred. The only downside was my English friend sitting there reading a trashy newspaper (“I’ve seen all this before,” he said) as if he was in a doctor’s waiting room while I was getting a pap smear or something and the group of 6 young French people chattering away, oblivious to the scene around them, eyes firmly fixed on each other, laughing noisily and almost totally ruining the whole experience for me. They could just as easily sat somewhere else to socialize – why here? I ignored them the best I could and drank in the quiet, the distant blue hills, the calming tinkle of cow’s bells (yes, actual cow’s bells!) for the brief time I had. Despite the distractions and the short duration of my visit on the top of the Tor, I will never, ever forget it. I wish I could have seen it at sunset, when the other world comes closer. Thank you for sharing your experience in this wonderful place!

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