03 June 2011
Glastonbury: A Pilgrim's Tale
The day was cloudy, but the wind was gentle, though it whispered that autumn was just around the corner as it blew. I can remember looking up ahead and feeling goosebumps at the sight of the great mound rising in the distance, topped by a slightly leaning tower from a distant age.
I had not seen this sight in more than twenty years, but the last time left a deep impression. Then, as a college student in the 1980s, my trip to this place consisted of a brief bus stop of a few hours on a trek around England's counties of Wiltshire and Salisbury Plain. You may know the tourist routine: Cotswold villages, Bath, Stonehenge, with a brief pause in Glastonbury.
Now, I fully appreciated that the muddy track through rolling hills and at the edge of cultivated fields is the best way to approach Glastonbury Tor. You leave behind the bustling town, tourist buzz, and New Age mecca by turning down a lane. Then you pass by cottages and make your way along the public footpath that sets out towards the pastures.
Setting out to walk the path in a long spiral up the Tor put me in the mind of pilgrims on a journey to a holy site. It's not the 15th century tower on top of the Tor that's "holy". No, what is so magical about this place is that the hill itself seems alive with the memory of human visitors from long before there was an England all the way to the present moment.
Livestock roamed the hillsides and the farm lands felt weighty, holding the promise of the harvest soon to come. Flowers bloomed and the ever-present mist of the English air. Occasionally we climbed over the barriers between the fences to keep the cattle and sheep on one side or the other. My husband and I chatted happily as we walked, but shared long moments of silence as we just admired the beauty of the gracefully climbing landscape before us. I breathed in the rich smell of mud.
At the base of the Tor, we were met by a raven, black as jet, who "Quorked" brusquely at us. This creature was not just any raven, but a very large and apparently sentient Raven. We snickered to ourselves about the sheer Celtic hilarity of encountering this noisy critter at a liminal place where pasture met the Tor. We decided he must be the Gatekeeper and so asked his permission if we could climb. The Raven must have determined we meant no harm, for he stopped "Quorking" and went back to foraging for seeds.
So we climbed and passed through the gate.
Stairs rose and meandered upward along the steep body of the Tor. It is not long before we felt the wind pick up with no trees to arrest its progress. The way became harder as our muscles and breath adjusted themselves to the effort. There are benches for the weary or pensive to sit upon.
Your payoff for the climb of Glastonbury Tor is a stunning vista of three counties reaching in all directions. There is no wonder that this hill is so significant because of its obvious strategic location. The other layer of significance lies in the Tor's folklore and mythology. The Celtic legends about the place mention the Lord of the Underworld and Fairy King, Gwyn ap Nudd, used the Tor as an entrance to his realm, Annwn. Other Britons may have associated Glastonbury Tor with the Isle of Avalon and the legend of their great chieftain, or King Arthur.
The Romans built fortifications on the Tor with their typical practicality; archaeologists have excavated the remains. In Christian centuries, locals built a church to honor the warrior Archangel St. Michael. Only the tower remains of the medieval church, but the austerity of the open stonework can still inspire, by the very fact that it lifts your eyes to the heavens.*
We remained aloft for some time, just absorbing the vista of red roofed cottages, roads, and farm land. But as we began to descend the other side of the Tor, again something unexpected happened.
We knew about the cows.
Glastonbury Tor is a place where cow herds roam freely, because it is grazing land as well as being a tourist attraction. What we did not expect was a Giant Bull, black as midnight, literally barring our path.
I have never been this close to a bull before. And I can say after this experience I would not want to be a bull fighter. It's not that this particular bull was aggressive, but he stared you down and made you feel like he meant business. He was the Guardian of the Descent, just as the Raven had been Gatekeeper of the Ascent.
The Giant Bull took his time moving, such that we and other visitors that morning had to gingerly walk off the path around him. His harem of cows wandered by us blithely grazing not paying us humans any mind at all. The Giant Bull stood his ground as if he owned the place.
We winded onward and downward, back to a more present reality. My heart and mind felt moved by my visit to the Tor that day.
It is a pilgrim's tale, I freely share with you.
*An excellent history of the Tor is written by a Professor of Archaeology, Philip Rahtz, Glastonbury (London: B. T. Batsford Ltd/English Heritage, 1993). Professor Rahtz covers the mythology and folklore of the historic sites of the town, including the Tor and provides a scientific perspective based upon the excavations as well as documentary evidence on the site.