Memoirs of a Young Traveler- Glastonbury

My last day in England it was finally the cold, cloudy, rainy day that I was looking forward to when I originally decided to go to England. Lizzie told me that it was the only time she actually wished for it to rain on someone’s holiday. The rain made it a perfect day to go to Glastonbury.

Lizzie was on her way to a meeting in Southwest England and was able to drop me off in Glastonbury on her way. I was excited.

Once a year I pull out my DVD of Mists of Avalon, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s interpretation of the King Arthur stories. I delve into the realm Camelot and Avalon and the fabled connection the realm has to the Abbey at Glastonbury. I jump into this world that was believed to be perfect, wrought with fighting and incest. And yet, despite all of its problems I always wanted to live in that world. Even with the magic of Avalon and Merlin the world seems so much simpler.

We drove through town to find a place for Lizzie to drop me off and I immediately realized the trip was going to be a little different than I intended.

My first stop was Glastonbury Abbey. Today it isn’t so much of an abbey as it is ruins of an abbey. The history of the site is remarkable. In its heyday long before the middle ages, Glastonbury was one of the most powerful religious sites in England. But, times changed. The abbey slowly fell out of favor and then ultimately a fire destroyed the original structure. Years later, during a dig around the abbey two bodies were uncovered. Abbey officials claimed the bodies belonged to King Arthur and Guinevere. Some suggested it proved the existence of Camelot but little factual evidence exists to prove the bodies did in fact belong to the two mythical figures.  With the bodies long since vanished today it is believed it was simply a ploy by the abbey to increase the number of pilgrims and visitors.

Like many things in England the grounds of the Abbey are huge. The ruins still poke up through the ground and protrude from the earth, incredible and beautiful. Even in a destroyed state you can tell it was once one of the most impressive buildings in the country. A reconstructed and decorated Abbot’s cottage shows what life in the Abbey was once like. A little sign pokes out from the ground marking the supposed location of Arthur and Guinevere’s grave. An herb garden lies hidden behind a hedge (I don’t think I’ve ever seen an herb garden that large and well planned).

These are the normal things about the Abbey. The things that make it a simple historical stop and museum on a tour of the country. Then, you see the people dressed in pre-medieval clothing who are not re-enactors but simply employed by the site to wander around. Believe it or not, this dress-up is one of the more normal things about Glastonbury.

After wandering around the Abbey, and getting blown around a bit by the wind, I stopped by a little bakery and grabbed a bite to eat. Then I headed to a bench just outside of yet another ancient church. As I sat there I realized how odd Glastonbury really is. The smell of incense wafts through every little shop and through the streets. People in flowing dresses and brightly colored shirts with flower wreaths in their hair. Hemp bags and men in long hair. Individuals sitting on corners playing what I’m almost certain were lutes (only cool if you’re Sting). And, then people I’m certain were on any number of illegal substances. As I sat eating my lunch, a man sat across the street from me, at first it looked like he was talking to me under his breath from across the street. But then, when I stood up and moved, I realized he was still carrying on this conversation with himself. And yet, despite the sad sight, it fit into what Glastonbury seems to have become. A mix of earth loving hippies and mystical freaks. People who look like they’re trying to live their lives trapped in a Renaissance Festival. What should be a place pulling visitors interested in history and mythology, like myself, has decided to choose cheeky and corny for money over history. That is sad.

After lunch I made my way over to Glastonbury Tor.

The Tor. It’s the reason for the earth loving hippies and so-called pagans track to Glastonbury. It’s a giant mound that many believe was once an important site for those devoted to the Mother Goddess and early British Paganism.  As Christians took over England they built a church on the top of the mound in a direct attempt to prove they had crushed paganism. Today the only remnant remaining from the church is a tower. People climb the Tor. Some for the view, some to feel “connected” to the earth, some for the history.

The fields leading up to the Tor are dotted with sheep. You feel rural. You feel British. Opening gates and walking through fields that farmers have opened up for people to reach the Tor.

It was a windy day. The Tor is high. I climbed the steps, getting more and more windblown the further up I got. There were benches scattered up the path to the Tor for people to pause and to sit and look at the view. I was preparing to finish a quick flight so that I could take a breather and pause from resisting  the wind. And then it happened…the biggest gust of wind thus far…and I was on all fours, climbing up the last 3 stairs until the next bench. I sat on the bench holding onto it tightly and ducking my head down because of the force of the wind. So close to the top of the Tor and yet I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it to the top. I decided I didn’t want to go blowing around England like a plastic bag. As I sat, waiting for the wind to die down, I looked out at the amazing view. The lush green grass, the rolling hills, it was all England.

So I slowly descended. Getting pushed by a group of snooty French children and trying to balance myself against the wind so that I didn’t fall down.

Glastonbury was a perfect way to experience my last day in England. A great mix of the Christian England we’re so familiar with and the pagan England that has long since been forgotten…

…Even if Glastonbury is one of the strangest places I have ever been.

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