A parallel universe exists in Glastonbury, and not just during the Festival. There are two visitor's guides, the official Glastonbury Guide (pounds l.50), and the Glastonbury Alternative Visitor's Guide (pounds l.95). The first is for those who like their town guides to say things such as: "Glastonbury is now a thriving market town of over 9,000 inhabitants, and caters for its visitors with an attractive variety of shops." The other guide is more given to remarks such as: "Among the 'alternative community' here, these 'interesting times' are seen as a great opportunity to empower ourselves individually and collectively, to reconnect with the earth and each other". Thanks for help in its production go to, among others, Tigger, Brun, Gwydion McPagan and the Heathens. (No one in Glastonbury has names like Doris and Brian.)
Somewhere to stay? The Glastonbury and District Accommodation Guide lists everything from "ground floor suite with twin bedroom, sitting room, bath and WC" with Mrs Moss at Primrose Cottage to "caring and supportive environment with aromatherapy, massage and counselling available" with Malgosia and John at the Arcturus Vegetarian B&B. We booked in at the Shambhala Healing Centre (choice of Egyptian, Tibetan or Chinese bedroom, vegetarian meals, seven-seater Jacuzzi and "wood burning sauna") where our impressive Egyptian Room was so huge you could have buried 10 pharaohs in it and still have had room for a camel race.
Shambhala was a good choice, as it turned out to be at the very heart of the planet, as a Crystal Star in the courtyard indicated, though I have to admit to merely tripping over it on the way in with our luggage. "It's generally accepted," said Tiara, who teaches Reiki and makes gorgeous scrambled eggs, "that Glastonbury is the heart shakra in the Buddhist system of beliefs, which makes it the heart of the planet, and this house is a sacred site at the very heart of Glastonbury... I don't know too much about it as I've only been here a few months. Isis, who owns the house, could tell you more but she's away in Egypt giving a workshop."
Leaving the possibility of a holistic massage (pounds 25) or a rebirthing session (pounds 35) for later, we set out to climb Glastonbury Tor. This hill may be only 520ft high but it still dominates not only the town, both geographically and spiritually, but the flat landscape of the Somerset Levels all around. From the top there are views down the Vale of Avalon in which Glastonbury nestles, south into Dorset and as far west as the island of Steep Holm in the Bristol Channel. Rising from the top today like a beacon is a tower, all that remains of St Michael's Church, built in the 14th century and restored in 1804.
The presence of the tower is just a part of the turbulent and sometimes mysterious history of the Tor. Its ribbed shape made by ridges which swirl up the side of the hill is said to be due either to the existence once of a maze, or more prosaically of terraced farming. The latter seems unlikely with several thousand acres of prime flat, arable land all around, while the maze believers say that it was once a serpentine path that twisted up to the summit where the Great Goddess was worshipped, in about 4000- 200BC. This links it to the building of nearby Stonehenge and the powerful Avebury stone circles in neighbouring Wiltshire. It is said that the top of the Tor marked the entrance to the underworld, which may be why in Christian times a church was constructed here and dedicated to St Michael, destroyer of the powers of darkness. This was built in the 14th century, only to be largely destroyed in an earthquake.
Facts, romance and legend all intermingle in Glastonbury, where the Holy Lamb of God may just possibly have been on England's pleasant pastures seen. Joseph of Arimathea, the disciple who is said to have placed Christ's body in the tomb, is known to have been a rich merchant who had land holdings around Glastonbury. Some say he was a close relative of Christ's mother Mary, and it is feasible that he brought the family to visit his Somerset landholdings during the blank years of Christ's life. And did he plant his staff on Weary-all Hill from which the Glastonbury Thorn is said to have grown? And did he bring the chalice from the Last Supper here and bury it beneath the waters of the Chalice Well, causing them to flow red? True or not, the Chalice Well Gardens are one of Glastonbury's delights, visited both by Christian pilgrims and by locals who dunk their crystals in its iron-rich waters which splash down through several acres of lovingly tended gardens, with shaded bowers and seats in the sunshine, where birds sing, butterflies flutter and signs remind you that "this is a place of quiet reflection".
The pure water is thought to flow from under the Mendip Hills to the north of Glastonbury, before surfacing here at a constant rate of 25,000 gallons per day, every day, even during severe droughts like the one experienced by Glastonbury in 1921-22 when only the Chalice Well Spring continued to flow. Perhaps it's as well that the source is unknown or tankers with "Yorkshire Water" on the side might appear in the night.
Walking from the Well to Glastonbury Abbey, we stop off at the Monarch Tea Rooms in the High Street, one of the few still open in the late afternoon. The New Age cafes and shops show a commendable disdain for capitalistic endeavour by not opening till 11am and closing again at 4pm, presumably allowing time to fit in their chanting, crystal workshops, aura readings, sound therapy, deep-tissue release, energy breathing and tantric sexuality workshops. "There are half-a-dozen cafes in the High Street," the owner tells us as he rustles up some tea and toast, "but this is the only one serving ordinary cafe food. The rest serve ... and don't get me wrong, I'm a vegetarian myself, but they do veggieburgers and tofu and don't seem to realise that all some folk want is a slice of toast and a cup of tea."
Such simple fare was obviously not to the tastes of Glastonbury's abbots, if the splendid 14th-century Abbot's Kitchen is anything to go by. This is the best preserved building on the Abbey site. It remains the finest of its kind in Europe, virtually intact from its stone floors right up to its vaulted and domed roof. While the monks were restricted to one meal a day, albeit with an allowance of at least a pint of wine each, the Abbot and his guests had their meals prepared here, in a kitchen big enough to swing an ox in, or at least to roast one whole. Freshwater fish for fast days came from Meare Pool, a lake several square miles in size which was three miles to the west but still on the Abbey's own vast grounds. It was one of the richest in Britain, thanks partly to the legend of the founding of the first Christian Church in Britain here, St Mary's, in AD 37 by Joseph of Arimathea.
The Abbot's oxen diet would not be to the taste of the majority of today's Glastafarians, who were busy protesting about the arrival of a branch of McDonald's when we visited. The cashew and mushroom quiche at the Rainbow's End Cafe might be more their cup of herbal tea. But to show they haven't lost their sense of humour, this vegetarian cafe also offers the solution to the BSE problem. A notice behind the counter announces their Adopt- a-Cow scheme: "Don't kill the cows. Bring your mad cows here and we'll give them a job in the kitchen."
Tourist Information Centre, 9 High Street, Glastonbury, Somerset BA6 9DP, tel: 01458-832954 or 01458-832949 for accommodation bookings.
The Shambhala Healing Centre, Coursing Batch, Glastonbury, Somerset BA6 8BH, tel: 01458-831797/833081. Bed and breakfast pounds 25 per person per night, Egyptian room pounds 27.50.
Glastonbury Abbey open daily except Christmas Day from 9.30 (9am June- August) till 6pm or dusk if earlier. Tel: 01458-832267.
Chalice Well Gardens open daily March-October 10am-6pm,
November-February lpm-4pm, tel: 01458-831154.
The Glastonbury Festival takes place on June 27-29. Tel: 01839-668899. On a different note, the Second Classical Extravaganza is being held at Glastonbury Abbey on 15-16 August, with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra (Tickets pounds 20 from 01458-832020).Reuse content