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Glastonbury's Past

The area around Glastonbury in East Somerset has always had something of a mythical property. It has drawn pilgrims and inquisitive visitors for at least the last two thousand years. Learn a little more about it here...

Approaching St Michaels Tower atop Glastonbury Tor

In ancient times the higher ground around Glastonbury would have been an island in the Somerset Levels, set amongst the waters of the Bristol Channel that were flooded most winters following the rise in sea levels prompted by the retreat of the ice sheets in post-glacial Britain. This gives creedance to a name also associated with Glastonbury - The Isle of Avalon.

Along with the areas of Brent Knoll, Bleadon Hill and the Isle of Wedmore to the northwest, the settlement at Glastonbury is thought to have been linked by ancient wooden trackways stretching from the Polden Hills across the (flooded) low lying valley of the River Parrett.

There are known to have been lake villages at Glastonbury and Meare, about four and a half miles to the northwest. This area and the whole of the Somerset Levels must therefore be considered as an area that was once (frequently) submerged that has now been reclaimed, drained and utilised by man. This indicates clearly that the look of the ancient landscape differed greatly from that we see today.

There are a number of interesting areas to explore in and around the town of Glastonbury area, including:

Glastonbury Tor

Glastonbury Tor stands over five hundred feet (518 metres) above the surrounding land and is visible from miles around. It lies alongside the A361 between Street and Shepton Mallet. It is, despite appearances to the contrary, a natural hill that has been artificially shaped or terraced. Some historians even suggest that the terraces are the remains of a labyrinth or maze used as part of a ritual procession to the summit. The top of the hill has had a number of settlers over the centuries: There are traces of Neolithic tools dating from the New Stone Age and there is thought to have been a small refuge here used by celtic saints such as St. Collen (pronounced Cothen) in the mid 5th century. This was followed in the early 1100s by the chapel of St Michael de Torre. It is currently topped by the 13th century church of St Michael, built after its predecessor was toppled by a powerful earthquake on 11th September 1275. The tower is now under the stewardship of the National Trust who periodically repair its roofless structure.

The Tor may be approached by two recognised routes:

The first path known as the Ceremonial or Long Route is thought to follow the traditional path of pilgrims to the Tor. It is accessed from the corner of Well House Lane opposite the Chalice Well Gardens. It takes between six and seven hours to complete and works its way along the spine of the Tor.

The second path follows a short, steep route accessed from the top end of Well House Lane via a kissing gate. It winds its way around the conocal section of the Tor to St. Michael's tower at the top. Recently the last few yards of the path have been concreted in an effort to encourage visitors to avoid the steeper, more direct, routes which could lead to erosion.

Glastonbury Abbey

Glastonbury Abbey dates from at least the seventh century. With the arrival of the Saxons, who had by now been converted to Christianity, King Ine of Wessex is said to have erected a stone church, the base of which forms the west end of the nave of the Abbey. This church was enlarged in the 10th century by the Abbot of Glastonbury, St. Dunstan, who became the Archbishop of Canterbury in AD960.

Following the Invasion of 1066, the Normans added extensive buildings to the existing Saxon Church. These were built to the east of the older church and away from the ancient cemetery. The Abbey grew rapidly over the next twenty years so that when the Domesday Book was commissioned in 1086, to provide records and a census of life in England, Glastonbury Abbey was the richest monastery in the country. The great Norman structures were consumed by fire in 1184 when many of the ancient treasures were destroyed.

One story goes, that in order to raise extra funds from pilgrims to rebuild the abbey the monks, in 1191, dug to find King Arthur and his Queen Guinevere; and bones from two bodies were raised from a deep grave in, the cemetery on the south side of the Lady Chapel. These bones were reburied, much later, in 1278 within the Abbey Church, in a black marble tomb, in the presence of King Edward I.

The Abbey was rebuilt and by the 14th century was one of the richest and most powerful monasteries in England. The abbey also controlled large tracts of surrounding land and was instrumental in major drainage projects on the Somerset Levels. The abbey was suppressed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII and the last Abbot Richard Whiting (Whyting) was hung, drawn and quartered as a traitor on Glastonbury Tor in 1539.

The ruins are now a grade I listed building, and a Scheduled Ancient Monument and are open as a visitor attraction.

The Chalice Well

The Chalice Well lies at the foot of a small narrow valley between Glastonbury Tor and Chalice Hill and is another part of the rich Glastonbury landscape. It is among the best known and most loved holy wells in Britain. The area of the well was secured for posterity by Wellesley Tudor Pole who purchased the land in 1959 to 'safeguard and protect this place'. The Chalice Well Trust was established to enable visitors and pilgrims to receive inspiration and refreshment from the waters and gardens.

The Blood Spring has flowed non-stop for at least two thousand years and today brings vistors from far and wide eager to drink its waters and seek peace and inspiration.

A legend states that the waters represent the blood of Christ issuing forth from the place where Joseph of Arimathea washed the cup used by Jesus in the Last Supper.

The Glastonbury Thorn

The Glastonbury Thorn lies on Wearyall Hill overlooking the town. It is a Middle Eastern hawthorn that flowers twice a year and is said to mark nthe place where Joseph of Arimathea thrust his staff into the ground while visiting the area.

Bride's Mound

Less visited than many other sites around Glastonbury, Bride's Mound lies in an area known as the Beckery. It was one of the seven islands within the Glastonbury Abbey Estate. The other six were Avalon, Godney, Marchey, Meare, Nyland and Panborough. The mound is currently quite overgrown but as such has abundant flora and fauna, so a walk to the former site of Bride's Well is worthwhile. Archaeological excavations have unearthed the remains of a chapel dedicated to Mary Magdalene and it is thought that St. Brigid stayed here in the 5th century.

Glastonbury and Meare Lake Villages

Evidence from timber trackways such as the Sweet Track show that the Glastonbury area has been inhabited since Neolithic times. Glastonbury Lake Village was an Iron Age village, close to the old course of the River Brue and Sharpham Park approximately 2 miles west of Glastonbury, that dates back to the Bronze Age.

Discovered in 1895, Meare Lake Village is the site of an Iron Age settlement on the Somerset Levels. In prehistoric times there were two villages situated within the now-drained Meare Pool, occupied at different times between 300 BC and 100 AD, similar to the nearby Glastonbury Lake Village. Investigation of the Meare Pool indicates that it was formed by the encroachment of raised peat bogs around it, particularly during the Subatlantic climatic period (1st millennium BC), and core sampling demonstrates that it is filled with at least 2 metres of detritus mud. The pool at that time was at least 2 miles long by 1 mile wide.

The villages were built on a morass on an artificial foundation of timber filled with brushwood, bracken, rubble and clay. The two villages, east and west, within Meare Pool appear to originate from a collection of structures erected on the surface of the dried peat, such as tents, windbreaks and animal folds. There were 50 to 60 hut sites in each of the villages.

Clay was later spread over the peat, providing raised stands for occupation, industry and movement, and in some areas thicker clay spreads accommodated hearths built of clay or stone. More recent studies have shown that the villages were formed by laying dried clay over the Sphagnum Moss of the bog. Little has been found of walls or roofing material, which has led to speculation that the huts were in fact tent-like structures, which may have only been occupied on a seasonal basis.

The lake villages in the area were connected by tracks such as the Sweet Track through the peat bog, and include the Honeygore, Abbotts Way, Bells, Bakers, Westhay, and Nidons trackways. The purpose of these structures was to enable easier travel between the settlements.

Mythical Glastonbury

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of myths about Glastonbury and there is not enough space to give every myth its airing here. Some of the more interesting ones are that Glastonbury Tor lies at the convergence of the St Michael Ley Line, which goes in a straight line from St Michael's Mount in Cornwall, through Burrow Mump and the Tor, to Avebury. Another ancient myth states that Avalon, where the sea met the land, was the meeting place of the dead; the point where they passed to another level of existence, and the Tor was the home of Gwyn ap Nudd, the Lord of the Underworld, and a place where the fairy folk lived.

What was the true significance of Glastonbury in ancient times? We may never know!

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