Glastonbury: England’s Mirror in Microcosm

When I first came to Glastonbury in a late November’s afternoon in 2008, I thought I had been transported into the sixteenth century.  Momentarily, I felt enfolded by the past and comforted by a feeling of great age and mysticism that matched the wide plain, the ancient hills and the village staggering its ancient path down the steep incline that leads to Glastonbury Tor.

I was wrong.

As an Australian, I came with the colonial’s sense of great age and respect for tradition, tempered by a generous dose of skepticism.  Surface values only charm for a moment, so I have learned that only trudging the streets and listening to the locals will provide the real spirit of a village.  My sardonic sense of place was initially overridden by Glastonbury’s charm but, as I came to know this ancient and holy town, I found my anger grew as I saw that the village represents the historical and conceptual decay of my vision of England.

The ancient origins of Glastonbury are so clear that only an insensitive clod could ignore them.   The traces of the inland sea is celebrated in the Glastonbury Museum, and institution that reveals the town’s iron age past and the settlers who clustered beside its shores with their stilted structures, boats and the petrified remains of shells.  The Celts are here as well, in Wearyall Hill and its thorn trees, and in the celebration of wood, water and stone that greets the traveler anywhere they care to wander.   On the Tor, the enigmatic carved landscape reminds those with eyes to see how Glastonbury first became a vast temple to the gods and the spirits of the land.  To walk through the remains of Glastonbury Abbey is to be reminded of the medieval past as well as Henry VIII’s grandiose hubris in its destruction.   Sometimes, a ruin encompasses history more fully than any restored structure can.  As I walked its simple streets, the ages rolled away and I could follow the village’s march through the ages.  Even the wars have their memories: in churches, memorials and towering modern sculptures in shocking apposition to the veneer of age that covers everything.

So why was I angry?  The 21st Century screamed at me with all the manifest flaws that are cracking English culture.  Glastonbury is hip!  Glastonbury is part of the scene!  Glastonbury is out there!  Glastonbury is a place of every “ism” that I can recall, spin-doctored into a crass exercise in moneymaking and catering.  The whole experience is a flawed, godless and essentially tasteless concoction that tastes better under the whipped cream of style that tries to sweeten Glastonbury’s skewed values.

The Celtic deities are gone, except in places like Glastonbury where they are re-birthed in a tasteless melange that ties to channel mysticism.  For instance, the Well on the edges of the Tor has an obvious decorative cover, modeled on Celtic interlace, where people come to meditate on their connection with …..(something or other).  While I don’t mean to trample on another’s beliefs, sitting self-consciously around a decorative cover that looks like a shield and concentrating on the burble of an underground river left me cold.  Perhaps I lack a deep, spiritual link with the earth.

On the other hand, the holiness of Glastonbury is easily felt and I came to the conclusion that the happy accident of the Glastonbury experience doesn’t belong to any particular religion.  What upset me was the ill-informed sacrilege of the many pilgrims who are encouraged to come to its holy precincts and find what they seek in life.  To my mind, money has nothing to do with this experience, but money fuels Glastonbury, not only as a tourist centre but also as a spiritualist, cultish place that appears to revel in its difference.

One quickly became used to people with dreadlocks, or dressed in flowing cloaks or any number of eccentric forms of dress.  There is no self-consciousness here.  The Thorns and Wearyall Hill is draped with hundreds of ribbons for prayers and, although I longed to free this venerable descendant of the first tree from its colourful plumage, I cannot find it in me to argue with the prayers of the obviously sincere.  But the quaint storefronts of Glastonbury are bizarre mixes of magic, witchcraft and the downright odd, including crystals and jewelry, much of which is imported from Bangkok and the East, and brings incredible prices for the delectation of gullible tourists.

You can buy a magician’s staff in Glastonbury.  You can buy an Indian headdress or a Shaman’s prayer wheel, although what American Indians have to do with Glastonbury defies the imagination.  You can study Tantric sex, astrology, necromancy, soul catchers, the Tarot, sand divination and all the Asian religions.  When I described Glastonbury as a melange of beliefs that was exactly what I meant.  One bookstore sells grimoires, which made my blood run cold, while all tastes and beliefs are covered – the good and the bad.  I’m not decrying academic freedom but, for such a small village, the range of information and classes is vast.  Okay, it’s fun to attend a pagan class on the mistletoe, as I did, but its bloody dangerous to take it all seriously – as many do!

Of course, there are lovely people among the locals of Glastonbury.  I met more than my share and luxuriated in their friendship and warmth.  They shrugged at what had been made of their town and continued to live in the Somerset Way, buying “scrumpy” by the gallon, blue cheese and homemade preserves from the farms.  They welcome the peculiar strangers, knowing that these pilgrims bring money to a town that has little employment for its young people.  And so a weird mix exists here – on one side, Somerset practicality and on the other, the ardent oddness of the pilgrims.

I came on a pilgrimage of my own, and I fell in love with a town that is unique in its oddities.  I fell badly for the ordinary people who struggle in these hard times, yet can still welcome a stranger from across the seas who possesses a cynicism and practiced ability to see below surface values.  In this matter, I treasure Glastonbury and celebrate her past that is so rich and rare, and needs no noble dress to clothe her beauty.

Still, if you want a magician’s staff, classes in Tantric Sex or organic paper that is made in slave-labour factories in Thailand, then Glastonbury is the place for you.  If you hunger for a sense of place where all the eras of English history are there to be seen on the streets and in the fields that surround it, then Glastonbury will more than fill your needs.  And if you love art, music, sculpture and the wonderful flavours of the nicest people, then you’ll find also find it here.

Bon appetite!!!!!!