in addition to London Olympics-induced nostalgia, I just started a Bernard Cornwall book about the Arthurian legend, The Winter King, which immediately took me back to visiting Glastonbury and the tor, as well as all of southwest England. the tor was even featured in the Opening Ceremony, as the 204 participating nations placed their flags on the side of a miniature tor. coupled with the Olympics highlighting all sorts of places in England, like the Newcastle United stadium hosting the USA v. NZL women’s soccer match, makes me very much want to re-visit England (*coughbeccacoughtaracough*).
I’ve been to Glastonbury Tor twice and, frankly, would go again if someone handed me a ticket to the UK. the first time I was sixteen and had just spent three weeks in France with some high school peers. whatever thoughts I have on the France experience (perhaps something on that one day; perhaps not), getting to see England and playing passenger to my mother as first-time-UK-driver were no inconsequential element of that trip. (“left!left!left!left!left!” “HEDGE!” and, really, do British hedgerows really need to be that close on all rural roadways? yeah, probably.) while I’m sure I have some images of Glastonbury Abbey somewhere (another future blog post?) I’ll focus on the tor here.
“Tor” is a local Celtic word signifying rock outcropping or hill, as exceptionally illustrated by the one in Glastonbury. archaeological excavations unearthed evidence of inhabitants dating from prehistory; there is evidence of a 5th century fort on the site and the current ruins of St Michael’s Church (the tower) date from the 13th century, which was restored in modern times. an earthquake felt as far away as London and Wales destroyed most of the church in 1275 and a replacement church (from the 1360s) survived until the Dissolution of the Monasteries (in 1539). the last abbot of the church (along with two of his monks) were hanged, drawn, and quartered on the Tor because he refused to swear allegiance to Henry VIII.
some speculate the Glastonbury Tor is part of a zodiac calendar with formations dug around ancient hedgerows and tracks (though much of the area proposed as said calendar was under water at the time of said calendar’s design). the tor straddles one of the most important ley lines in Britain, the St. Michael line that runs from St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall up to Avebury; the St. Mary’s line also runs through the Tor, creating a “vortex of energy” where they cross.
others believe it provides access to the Underworld or realm of the faeiries; some that represents the final location of the Holy Grail. allegedly, Joseph of Aramathia brought it here and buried it in a cave beneath the Tor, from which two springs formed (presumably including the Chalice Well that you can still visit at the foot of the Tor.) job done, he planted his staff and a thorn grew up (Bernard Cornwall took a rather speculative eye to this myth in Winter King).
one of the more perplexing mysteries of the tor are it’s seven, roughly symmetrical, terraces. several theories seek to explain their utility — farming, grazing, defensive ramparts, or (my favorite) a labyrinth. labyrinths were around during the Neolithic period while the tor was occupied and one can transpose the design of one such labyrinth onto the remaining ramparts but, even if that theory proves true, it seems likely its been used in other ways (e.g. farming, cattle grazing, defense) in the intervening centuries.
as Bernard Cornwall’s story reinforced for me, Glastonbury is closely linked with the Arthurian legend. the Tor was alternately known as Ynys Wydryn (Isle of Glass because at the time the plain surrounding the tor flooded and made it an island) and also Ynys yr Afalon (Isle of Avalon). in 1184 a fire destroyed much of a nearby church and during the rebuilding of the church, a “double oak” coffin with an inscription identifying Arthur was found and preserved. under the supervision of Edward I the remains were re-interred and preserved (at least until the Dissolution of the Monasteries).
whatever it was in past, it remains a truly remarkable awe-inspiring site to rival Stonehenge — and without the restrictions on access you’ll find at the site 45 miles to the east. the views (on a clear day) from the top are incredible — if your eyes are particularly good, I think yo we didn’t go to the Abbey on my second visit, but if my next trip to England involves any sort of Arthurian myth-type exploring, I wager both the tor and the Abbey will go on the list.