This past week I took a little trip to Somerset in the southwest of England, and spent my first day in Glastonbury, seeking King Arthur and ancient magic.
It was absolutely beautiful, properly warm and breezy, and clear cloudless skies when I hopped off the bus. Now, there are three main things in Glastonbury that one must see (presuming that you come for the town itself, and not for the music festivals in July and August): the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, the Chalice Well, and the Tor. I spent about six hours in Glastonbury, and saw all three.
Glastonbury Abbey has many legends associated with it, including that it was the first church in England, founded by Joseph of Arimathea himself. But it’s probably most famous for being the site at which some enterprising monks claimed to have discovered the bodies of Arthur and Guinevere. The abbey was one of the wealthiest in England, until it was dissolved by Henry the Eighth.
Now, I’ve never cared much about the “historical Arthur.” I’m considerably more compelled by the mythological Arthur, the one who lives in stories and poems. So, you see, it doesn’t really matter to me whether the “real” remains of Arthur were found here or not. The point is, people have believed that they were for hundreds of years. It’s a powerful place, a place of calm and pilgrimage, and you can feel it in the very air.
As lovely as the ruins were, I had a great time wandering through the Abbey grounds as well, communing with nature and all—
At any rate, after that, I went and ate lunch at the End of the Rainbow cafe. The name of which, by the way, should give you a sense of Glastonbury. It is the biggest hippie town in the country, with goddess temples, sound and past life therapies advertised, and every sort of New Age esoteric or occult phenomenon represented that you can imagine.
Now, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at some of the things I saw. I love magic and legends so much, probably more than most—but I love them in a literary way, not a life-choice way. To each their own, however.
But one thing I kept thinking, as I saw all the happy little hippie children running all over the place, was what kind of effect the stereotypes of the place you grow up in has on your as a person. I knew, even as a small child, that people from Alabama were thought by many to be racist, ignorant, and unintelligent—and I know that a lot of who I am has formed in defiance of those stereotypes, but with a strong knowledge of place and history.
But what would my life have been like if I were born in Glastonbury, if the stereotype of my home was a place of magic, alternative lifestyles, and yes, oddballs? I’m glad for my background and how it has affected the person I’ve become—but I wonder…
After lunch I visited the Chalice Well, sometimes called the Blood Spring because of the high iron content in the water, which makes everything it touches a bright red orange. It was another peaceful place, especially with all the flowers beginning to bloom.
The real, visceral power of a place like this, like the Abbey grounds and the Tor, struck me as almost painfully juxtaposed against the new (and seeming, to me, more artificial) mysticism that the town has embraced. But I was heartened to see some of the actual people of Glastonbury, the Somerset natives who put up with all the “newcomers” (as they call the new age sector) lounging in the Chalice gardens and standing in the healing waters. It’s such an odd mishmash of a place—but it seems to have its own harmonies as well.
My last site of the afternoon was Glastonbury Tor, the medieval tower that literally towers over the area on a high hill. It is a hill, although that word does not fully describe how long and steep the walk up to the top is, nor how vast the views are from the zenith.
All in all it was a gorgeous day. I even got a little sunburned on my face, which was a happy ailment indeed after the horrors of no-sun-February.
The funniest part might be how the day ended, however. As I was following the signs to the Street Youth Hostel, which, contrary to what the name suggests, is apparently three miles out of Street Village, along dark unpaved country roads, I met a farmer boy on his tractor (I say boy, but he was probably my age). He asked where I was going, and laughed out loud, saying I’d never get there before dark and I’d probably break my ankle in a hole or something. Now, I wasn’t arguing, because I was already pissed off that there hadn’t been any sort of note of this sort on the YHA website, but I didn’t really have another option but keep going.
Except then my new friend James told me that his dad would be along in a second in the Land Rover and he’d be happy to give me a lift for the last mile and a half since they lived near there anyway. So, disregarding all I ever learned about getting into cars with strangers, I hopped in the Land Rover and made it to the hostel as dusk set in.
I love how the kindness of strangers pops up every where, even on the most deserted country roads of Somerset at sundown on a random Wednesday in March.