Filled with legends and myths, Glastonbury (pop. 8,800) is a popular destination with both Christian and pagan New Age aficionados. Glastonbury is said to be home to the Holy Grail and the centre of the mystical land of Avalon, where King Arthur is buried.
The Holy Grail
It is said that Joseph of Arimathea, a rich Judean merchant associated to Mary, visited Britain a few years after Christ's death. The story has it that he took the Holy Grail (the chalice of the Last Supper containing Jesus's blood, and said to give eternal life to the person who drinks from it) with him and left at Glastonbury.
The legend also says that Joseph had already visited Glastonbury earlier with Jesus as a child. It is in belief to this legend that British poet William Blake wrote in 1804 his 'Glastonbury Hymn', more famously known as 'Jerusalem', that has later become one of Britain' most patriotic hymn (the music was composed by Hubert Parry in 1916).
Joseph would have started the conversion of Britain in the 1st century and founded the country's first church in Glastonbury then.
Glastonbury Abbey is said to have been founded in 63 AD, and calls itself, the oldest above-the-ground church in the world. There is no archeological evidence of ant building prior to the 5th to 7th century though. Ine, King of Wessex, ordered a stone church to be built there in 712.
The abbey church was plundered by Danish Vikings in the 9th century, then reach its zenith in the 10th century. It was destroyed by fire in 1184. In 1191, a priest claimed to have found the remains of Arthur and Guivenere and their bones were place in a High Altar in a new church in 1278. More pilgrims flocked and in the 14th century Glastonbury Abbey was only surpassed in wealth by Westminster Abbey.
Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536 and Stephen Whiting, the last abbot of Glastonbury, was hanged three years later for resisting the dissolution.
The ruins of the 12th century abbey can still be visited, the prime attraction being the tomb of King Arthur and his wife.
Glastonbury Tor is a natural (not man-made) 160m-high conical hill. The word "tor" comes from Celtic language to describe such a hill. On top of the hill stands the roofless St Michael's Tower, the only remains of a medieval church.
The Tor is associated with Gwyn ap Nudd, who is Celtic mythology was first Lord of the Underworld, and later King of the Fairies.
The hill was believed to be a gate to to Annwn or Avalon, the land of the fairies, or the land of souls that had departed this world.
To add to the supernatural atmosphere of Glastonbury, it is said that the iron-rich, reddish waters of Chalice Well have healing properties. The sprng has been flowing for million of years. It was already used by prehistoric Celtic tribes and is one of the oldest continuously used holy wells in Britain.
Held 3 days in June each year since the 1970's, Glastonbury Festival has evolved from a hippy gathering to a big-scale music festival featuring everything from world music, jazz, pop, rock and non-musical activities such as theatre. Advance bookings are necessary, and tickets cost about £100 for the 3 days.
How to get there
Glastonbury lies 45km southwest of Bristol and 10km south of Wells between the Mendips and the Quantocks hills.
National Express buses connect Glastonbury once a day to London (4h14, £23 economy return) or twice to Bath (1h, £8.25). There are more frequent regular buses from Bristol (1h30min, bus No 327), Bath (1h, bus No 327 and 403) and Wells (15min, bus No 163, 377 and 977).