I’M SITTING OUTSIDE AT THE MOCHA BERRY CAFE, talking to Vickie Steward, author of one of the most eclectic blogs out there, about one of the most eclectic towns in Britain, Glastonbury. Normal For Glastonbury is the blog, and Vickie has the enviable job of documenting the goings on in this peculiar little place. A woman stopped by to talk spin classes with her … crossing the street are two men and a women who look like they just stepped out of one of the more tacky renaissance fairs. Behind them is an occult bookstore. Behind that is one of the oldest churches in Christendom. Behind that is a strange little hill which has been a focus of the area since Neolithic times.
It wasn’t my intention to come to Glastonbury on this trip. Events conspired to pull me here.
Vickie sees what I”m seeing and when I turn to look at her again she says “normal for Glastonbury.” It’s a phrase she repeats a few times while we’re there.
Across from us is a fellow who looks eerily like David Gilmour of Pink Floyd when he smiles, a conspiratorial sort of smile that both him and Gilmour appear to share.
David Gilmour … replaced the original guitarist/vocalist for Pink Floyd, Syd Barret who flamed out in the late sixties. Co-created one of the most eclectic and successful bodies of work in the history of music. Also flies a World War I style Sopwith Camel for fun.
Can you imagine how much that would bend your mind … walking across the Glastonbury landscape and a Sopwith Camel lands in the field in front of you, and out steps the lead guitarist for Pink Floyd? But yes, it would feel fairly normal for Glastonbury.
As far as I know it’s never happened. But that’s never stopped mythos from growing up attached to Glastonbury like barnacles to a ship. Even when they try to escape the legends, the legends stick. I’ll paraphrase Ivanka Trump because it’s been that kind of year … it doesn’t matter if something is true. If people believe it, there’s no reason to correct them.
This style of alternate realities is normal for Glastonbury.
A four year archaeological study done by the University of Reading made amazing new discoveries which raises the importance of the historical sites which remain. But in the process, they also debunked much of the Glastonbury myth. And yet even the head of the study couldn’t bring himself to fully dismiss its colorful legends, saying “We are not in the business of destroying people’s beliefs … A thousand years of beliefs and legends are part of the intangible history of this remarkable place”
Glastonbury is tucked away into a little used section of Somerset, on the fringe of the Somerset levels, which at one time at least, connected the town for part of the year to the sea. There certainly was a fair amount of trade in the area in ancient times, and Glastonbury exported its myths along with its tin. Home to Glastonbury Abbey, it’s now believed that the monks there created a legend to help fund a rebuilding project. The legend created outlasted the abbey by several centuries now.
In short, Joseph of Arimathea, uncle to Jesus of the New Testament, used to trade with the merchants in Glastonbury, and even brought a young J.C. with him on one of his trips. This made England the only European land trodden on by his holy feet, making it according to William Blake at least, the new Jerusalem.
Following the crucifixion, Joseph converted to the new religion, came back to Britain, stuck his staff into the ground – made from the same tree used in the crown of thorns – and it magically burst into bloom. He declared that here he would build his church and thus was started the first Christian church in Europe. He may or may not have brought the holy grail with him, but King Arthur and his queen Guinevere were most certainly buried here. Though the evidence disappeared along the way.
There’s also St. Patrick to contend with. Say what you will about the monks of Glastonbury – they aimed high.
The abbey grew quite wealthy, which captured the eye of King Henry VIII. When he split with the Catholic church he took down the abbey, made off with anything of value and had the abbot disemboweled on the summit of the Tor for good measure.
The Tor … a conical hill overlooking Glastonbury, so distinctive in its shape that the instant you see it you know it. Even without the ruined tower atop it, it would trigger an ancient memory. Were the ancients here? Absolutely, but there’s no evidence they did anything of note.
The springs at its base just feel right. Here you come into contact with Glastonbury’s ancient past in a serene and quiet setting. The metaphysical opposite of the Tor’s windy summit. But aside from some pottery shards and animal bones, there’s no evidence it was ever particularly important.
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And certainly no evidence that the Grail is in the well either.
So why do people still come to Glastonbury?
Well in my case I came to talk to Vickie and restock my supply of black frankincense from a local shop, Star Child. The best frankincense I’ve found. I managed to stretch my last supply for eighteen months. It was then I was last in Glastonbury.
I won’t bore you with the details, but there was an issue with prescription medication which did strange things to my head. To be specific, it woke up a little man who kept talking to me and saying the craziest shit. I was there to find true love, and instead I was, appropriately, shown the door. Like countless downtrodden souls, I found myself drawn to Glastonbury.
As my wits slowly came back to me, I found something like a soul. I wasn’t sure I had one before, but it came to life in Glastonbury. The same places that has drawn pilgrims for centuries healed me. And nobody is more surprised than I am about that. I’m not particularly a believer in much of anything. But there’s some seriously powerful shit going on in this town.
In Glastonbury the pagan, the mystic, the occultist, the Christian and the music junkie all bump into each other and say “hello.” Or “merry meet and namaste motherfucker.” About twenty years ago after my first trip there, I wrote it’s where old hippies go. They’re still there, some a bit older, others were young hippies when I first visited. They’re still there too. The youngest tend to sleep on the benches along High Street.
Glastonbury draws the seeker. A variety of paths are represented, and you can even choose your accommodation based on your path, or at least your esoteric interests. All your pagan holidays are represented, and you won’t have to practice your faith alone, no matter what that is.
In the Victorian era, Glastonbury tried to cash in on the spa craze which swept Britain. Suddenly the mythic springs were the center of attention, and perhaps that’s where Glastonbury failed. Unlike Bath or Wells which became quite wealthy at the time, Glastonbury never really took off.
This is what Vickie wants to talk about. Evidently I made this point in something I’d written, and it seemed obvious to me. The springs, like Glastonbury in general drew people seeking a miracle. The possibility of a miracle had been written into its ethos. So the crowds that flocked to Glastonbury were those most in need, not those most financially able to travel. So the riches the townspeople dreamt of never came to pass.
And to some extent, it still holds true. After all, when I was shattered, I found myself there.
It’s important to come back here after you’ve healed. My mind couldn’t be in a better place today. The town looks different than it did through shattered eyes. It feels like home, my own history is now etched into its fabric, even if only I can see it.
If you see a ghost, if you see a UFO, if you touch the divine, when that moment starts to fade, so does that unshakable belief that what just happened really happened. It’s why we come back to the scene of the crime. To remember. Glastonbury it can be said, is very forgiving. It lets you remember gently.
Can’t say why, can’t say what really happened … but something there fixed in me what was broken. Perhaps it was the wind on the Tor, the mist in the valley below. Maybe it was the water from the springs, the walk through the Glastonbury zodiac. Maybe the hand pulled ale at the Pilgrim and George. I don’t know. It’s a mystery to me, but one I find myself drawn to explore each time I find myself on that holy and spectered isle.
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Author’s Note: I’ve written a fair amount about Glastonbury over the past couple years. The magical aspect of the town can infuse even the most jaded visitor with a sense of wonder.
There are those who come to Glastonbury as tourists, see the sights and move on. I’ve done that, but I’ve also seen it as a pilgrim of sorts – lost, torn and frayed. It’s how countless pilgrims have come there over the centuries, looking for healing. For me it was accidental, but what happened isn’t unlike a typical Glastonbury experience.
If it’s what you’re looking for, you’re likely to find it.
I’ve since edited as much of the personal from some of these articles as possible. But there’s a bit that remains. Because the story of Glastonbury is as much what takes place in the heart, as through the eyes.
Climbing Glastonbury Tor in Search of the Divine
Hanging out amongst the spirits at Glastonbury’s George and Pilgrim Hotel
A Visit to Gog and Magog in the Glastonbury Zodiac, and A Spell For The Protection From Anger
Searching for the sacred at Glastonbury’s Chalice Well, the pilgrim and the grail quest meet in a place of legend
A Baptism at the White Spring of Glastonbury
Deconstructing Glastonbury and the Author Finds Himself In A Pagan Ritual on The Tor