I’m off to Glastonbury – not the music festival, the town itself. As it doesn’t have a railway station, I’m taking the coach – and as it’s a seven hour trip, I can bring something chunky – The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
It’s the story of King Arthur, but told by the women – mainly his half-sister Morgaine (Morgan le Fay), his wife Gwenhwyfar, and Viviane, the Lady of the Lake. And at over a thousand pages, it should keep me engrossed on the coach.
I’ve been really lucky with the hotel – this is a short break, and my coach home will be leaving very early in the morning, so I booked as close as I could get to the coach stop – the George and Pilgrim Hotel. I didn’t realise that it was built in 1475 to accommodate wealthy pilgrims, so it’s all exposed timber, arched doorways and spiral staircases – good thing I’m travelling light, as there’s no lift. I’m staying in the ‘new’ part of the building – only 250 years old!
Next morning I wake up to the sound of a bell tolling. Thinking it’s from the church next door, I start counting to see what time it is – 10, 11, 12 – surely I haven’t slept away the whole morning? But the bell keeps tolling. I keep counting, and when it gets to 100 the church bells start to ring. Whatever I’ve been hearing doesn’t stop, but gradually fades away.
It’s only 8 am. On my way down to breakfast I meet a member of staff, and ask her which part of the hotel is haunted. She laughs, then says it all is. People are more likely to see things in the older part, but odd things happen everywhere – and they often hear a bell tolling in the kitchen…
Glastonbury has an unusual atmosphere, and it’s something that seems vaguely familiar. It takes a while for me to pin it down, but eventually I realise it feels a lot like St John’s, Newfoundland. But the energy there is more raw, so you don’t know whether to get creative or get drunk – here, it’s been harnessed, focussed for spirituality, for a long, long time.
There’s definitely something here that people react to. Talking to various locals I hear of people who’ve come here, stopped taking their medication, and got better – or worse. One tells me that people come to his shop looking for spare parts for time machines. He’s also had one man ask for a crystal with a chemical formula he saw in a dream – turns out there was such a crystal! The man never came back, so maybe his time machine worked…
The weather is surprisingly good, so I want to go up Glastonbury Tor – but first I need a new memory card for my camera. If you ever go to Glastonbury, make sure you bring all your supplies with you. I try two pharmacies, a post office, a newsagent, an art supply shop and tourist information (who suggest getting a bus to another town!) before finding a computer store which sells memory cards. I’m not the only one with this problem – I hear another woman lament “Dozens of places where I can buy crystals – nowhere I can buy knickers?!”
On to the Tor. It’s the highest point for miles around, and I’m walking up the steepest route, but the view is worth it. Recent floods have left nearby fields looking like lakes, and it’s a lot easier to picture Glastonbury as the island it once was, as it’s described in The Mists of Avalon. There are quite a few people here already, including some children who are trying to play hide and seek (though the only place to hide here is the one room of the tower on top of the Tor) and a lot of photographers – taking pictures of the tower, the Tor, the valley, the clouds. I take a photo of my own shadow, stretching away down the hillside.
I make my way down the less steep slope, and on to Chalice Well. I didn’t really know what to expect from this – but I loved it. It’s a garden, but it’s landscaped so it’s almost like a series of rooms, with several water features – pools, streams, an iron-rich spring flowing from a lion’s mouth – and seats where people can rest, contemplate. There are ammonites set into the stone walkways, little carvings of angels set in niches, and a view of the Tor, with a bright moon visible high above in the afternoon sky.
Then I get to the Well itself – and if there is anything special about Glastonbury, this is where it comes from. There are other people there; we look at each other, smile – but no-one says a word. The feeling – I still can’t put it into words. I feel relaxed, but invigorated. I want to hug the whole world, and apologise to anyone I’ve ever hurt. And I never want to leave – but I am also feeling a little overwhelmed. I mention this to a lady in the gift shop – she smiles, says “We get that a lot”, and suggests I try some apple juice, which helps.
Back at the hotel, I take photos of this wonderful old building. The walls are decorated with murals, copies of Arthurian themed paintings, by local artist Yuri Leitch. There are images of the Tor carved into plaster, images of the Round Table, the Green Man. Later I find that a couple of the rooms (the Nun’s Cell, the Confessional) seem to have lots of little white orbs hovering around them in the photos – something I’ve heard of, but never seen before.
Time for tea. I choose a table (beneath a mural about Morgan le Fay) and order a steak and otter pie. It’s not actually made with otter (that’s the name of a local ale) – but when it arrives it’s so big that I ask the waitress if there’s a whole otter in there. She laughs, then says “No – but it does weigh more than my dog!”. It’s a bowl filled with a full dinner – steak, potatoes, vegetables and gravy – with a big puff pastry pillow on top. I abandon all thoughts of dessert, or even a pint of cider, and tuck in. It’s lovely. My floaty feeling is soon gone, replaced by a feeling of wanting to curl up and snooze. I was going to read a little more – but post-pie drowsiness prevails.
Next morning is grey, with a light drizzle – perfect weather for visiting the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. There’s a good little exhibition centre before you enter the abbey itself – I love it when these places have things you can touch, like bits of sculpture. They even have some vestments (not to be touched) – the embroidery looks very good for something so old. Paper and pencils are available if you want to sketch, and there’s a lot of material for children. For some reason there’s also the jawbone of a whale.
The damp weather means I have the ruins to myself. It also gives a suitably mournful atmosphere. Doves perch in a broken archway, until a crow swoops down – and suddenly I can feel a poem coming on. Apparently Henry VIII stayed at my hotel to watch as the abbey was destroyed. In a way, I almost prefer ruined churches, but I wish I could have seen this one while it was intact – it was one of the wealthiest in the country and, judging by what remains, it must have been stunning. Some traces of the original paint remain, so there’s a picture of how the Lady Chapel was probably decorated. There are little wooden flaps which you can lift up to touch the medieval tiles beneath. There are signs showing where the high altar once stood, and where monks found what they believed were the bodies of Arthur and Guinevere.
There are two ponds and a small nature area behind the abbey, so I spot fifteen species of bird in as many minutes, as well as squirrels, and one stealthy cat. Apparently there are badgers here – persuaded (somehow) to move from their former home, which was undermining the ruins.
The drizzle finally stops, so I go back into the town. Most of the shops here are goddess-oriented, but one, the Wild Hunt is decidedly masculine – not so many girly accessories, and more pictures of the Horned God. I wander around the crystal shops – and there are a lot of them. I have already told myself I can only buy one crystal, so I don’t know how many shops I browse in before choosing a charming little labradorite bear.
In my room I scribble down some notes for a poem. Then I head down to the bar. Just a light meal this evening – tempting though the pies are, it’s an early start in the morning so I mustn’t oversleep – and I want to get back into The Mists of Avalon.
Avalon has helped (schemed?) to make Arthur king, on the understanding that he will defend the old religion – but Christianity is starting to take hold of the British Isles, and Avalon is starting to drift away from Glastonbury, possibly to be lost from our world forever. Will Arthur keep his promise, or will Morgaine, his sister and a priestess of Avalon, have to put someone else on the throne?
This is a classic. I really enjoyed it, even though it’s a sad story. It has a huge cast, covers several generations and is beautifully written. Clearly, a lot of research has gone into this; the world feels authentic, and the dialogue rings true. All the women feel like people you actually know, with their own insecurities and inconsistencies, torn by conflicting loyalties of family and faith. And all the characters are acting with the best intentions, in many cases out of love – but we already know the Arthurian story is a tragedy. However, in spite of this, the book manages to end on a hopeful note.
My only criticism of this book is that the male characters aren’t as fully developed as the female ones. Also, it is very critical of Christianity, which might be an issue for some readers. It is really a book for women rather than men, but that doesn’t mean it should be dismissed as chick-lit. One day, when my niece is old enough, I will give her a copy of this book.
It’s still dark when I creep out of the hotel next morning, and it’s cold waiting for the coach. But as I leave Glastonbury the sun rises, and I drift off to sleep listening to harp music.