Somerset town: The spirit of Glastonbury

Glastonbury Tor and town (c) Woolfenden

Glastonbury Tor and town (c) Woolfenden - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Glastonbury is a kaleidoscope of colour, culture and beliefs. Andrea Cowan looks at what makes this Somerset town such a magical melting pot

Chalice Well decorated for Beltane in May

Chalice Well decorated for Beltane in May - Credit: submitted

A walk down the High Street gives a not-so-subtle hint that Glastonbury is no ordinary market town. From shops such as ‘Man, Myth and Magik’, and ‘The Goddess and the Green Man’, to the vegan restaurant, Excalibur, to the courtyard housing the Library of Avalon and Goddess Temple, it’s a vibrant concoction of history, legend and religion bustling with a diverse mix of people.

To get beneath the skin of the area, you need to look at its rich history. Glastonbury has been a place of sacred pilgrimage for several thousand years, dating back at least to the Bronze Age. The Tor, by its prominent, physical presence has always drawn people to the area.

Glastonbury is reputed to be the birthplace of Christianity in England. It is suggested that Jesus may have visited the area as a young man, brought by his uncle, Joseph of Arimathea. After the Crucifixion, Joseph is said to have returned and built the first Christian church, on the site of what later became Glastonbury Abbey.

It is no surprise then that the woven connection between pagan and religious beliefs is intrinsic to the area. Two thousand years ago Glastonbury was the site of a Druid college and a perpetual choir, making music 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Sophie Knock, a Natural Health Practitioner based in Glastonbury

Sophie Knock, a Natural Health Practitioner based in Glastonbury - Credit: submitted

The choir may no longer exist but druidism is alive and well. I met with the Archdruid of Avalon, Dreow Bennett who runs the Bardic College of Ynys Witrin, the ancient name for Glastonbury.

Drawn to Glastonbury at 17 years old and after a series of circumstances including two years of training with a wizard on the Isle of Wight, Dreow received the title of Archdruid of Avalon in 2005.

“It is a philosophical way of life rather than religious,” he explains. “Our first allegiance is to the land. We follow tenants set down by sages over the ages.”

Dreow is increasingly involved with interfaith work; he has participated in a church wedding service, whilst the mayor and local vicar have attended a ceremony to celebrate the spring equinox. For natural health and flower essence practitioner, Sophie Knock, it is Glastonbury’s unique energy field that aids her work.

The 50 ft dragons ready for the procession through the high street in celebration of Samhain (c) Van

The 50 ft dragons ready for the procession through the high street in celebration of Samhain (c) Vanda Lloyd - Credit: submitted

“Through ages of healing, teaching, spirituality, working with nature co-creatively, connecting with the cosmos and the higher forces ‘a field’ has been created here,” she explains.

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“According to physicist Rupert Sheldrake, the universe is made up of different morphic fields - interacting vibrational fields of energy which hold information and can thereby be accessed and tapped into.”

Sophie harnesses this energy, which influences the flowers that she collects for her essences, combined with spring water from Chalice Well.

This connection to nature resonates throughout the town, from the Green Man to the Goddess. Kathy Jones, a Priestess of Avalon, has been instrumental in raising the profile of the Goddess.

Kathy Jones, a Priestess of Avalon and co-founder of the Glastonbury Goddess Temple

Kathy Jones, a Priestess of Avalon and co-founder of the Glastonbury Goddess Temple - Credit: submitted

She is co-founder of the Glastonbury Goddess Temple; opened in 2002 and believed to be the first of its kind in Europe for 1,500 years. A wonderful, serene space, it is available to visit every day.

Increasing interest has led to the opening of the new Goddess House in Magdalene Street, with a holistic Natural Health Centre, a Goddess Educational Centre and workshop spaces. It will host this year’s Goddess Experience Week from June 10 - 16 and the internationally- renowned Goddess Conference in August, attended by visitors from all around the world.

Myths and legends enhance Glastonbury’s rich tapestry – and this includes dragons. Artist and founder member of the Glastonbury Dragon Celebrations, Yuri Leitch, explains: “Glastonbury is situated upon a great Ley Line known as the Michael Line (modern Druids call it the Great Dragon Line); Michael of course is a dragon-slayer.

“St George, another dragon-slayer, was celebrated in Glastonbury every year in olden days. There was a St George chapel in the Abbey and in St John’s church, and our wonderful 15th century hotel is the George and Pilgrim. Wherever George is ‘there be dragons’!”

The Glastonbury Dragon Celebrations take place twice a year, for Beltane (May Day) and Samhain (feast of the dead), and feature a red dragon representing summer and a white dragon for winter.

The colours also represent the two sacred springs below Glastonbury Tor - the Chalice Well and the White Spring.

This year’s Beltane celebration begins on April 29 with a Dragon Conference and ends with the traditional Glastonbury Maypole event at Bushy Combe on Bank Holiday Monday. There is a May Fayre on the Sunday with the Dragon Procession along the High Street.

Yuri continues: “At last count we have over 90 faiths, cults and traditions in Glastonbury and somehow we all get on.

“If we can’t achieve peace in this sacred isle, at the heart of the world, we can’t anywhere.”

Places to visit:

Wearyall Hill

It is here that Joseph of Arimathea is said to have placed his staff in the ground, which then sprouted and became the Holy Thorn, the descendants of which still blossom today at Christmas. A cutting of the Holy Thorn is sent to the Queen every year just before Christmas for her festive table.

Glastonbury Tor

The iconic landmark hill, which was once an island, has huge spiritual significance.

Glastonbury Abbey

The Abbey is set in 37 acres of peaceful parkland in the centre of the town. According to Arthurian legend, King Arthur and Queen Guinevere are said to be buried in the grounds.

Chalice Well

This is one of Britain’s most ancient wells, set in beautiful landscaped gardens at the foot of Glastonbury Tor. Joseph of Arimathea is said to have buried the Holy Grail here.