A Day Out With Elspeth in Glastonbury

Since I last was in that area, I’ve been saying that my spirituality is more Glastonbury than Canterbury – or Walsingham. For me, Glastonbury isn’t representing the Pagan and New Age, but the place where Christian heritage and those broad earth faiths meet. I love that the tall towered parish church shares the same high street with the woo woo shops. My own metaphorical shop sells votive candles and crystals. Aren’t candles wide and inclusive?

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But would I still say that my spirituality is better represented here than the traditional and official established church and its own way of doing holy sites?

I wonder too about that other East Anglian equivalent to Glastonbury – the great lost abbey of Bury St Edmunds. It sits on the same leyline. So why have I not felt any presence yet? And did I in that Somerset market town?

Being told by a sign that you are now in the Isle of Avalon sounds romantic doesn’t it, even if the sign appears as you’re in the industrial area. I was grateful to disembark the long bus journey (there’s no trains for some miles) and went into the first shop I saw: “Chocolate Love Temple” – this must be a good start. It embodied all of Glastonbury’s character – a small independent selling vintage clothes, spiritual accoutrements, and chocolate. One piece of the latter a little larger than a 50p was £3, because of its containing a rare healing plant from India!

But I don’t think that means Glastonbury is full of overpriced charlatans. I got very angry at the English Heritage book on Glastonbury which was so rude and dismissive of the best known type of tourist and inhabitant here. I’m more keen to know why have these been excluded when it was through woo woo means that Glastonbury abbey was excavated?

I note that the latest book on Frederick Bligh Bond, the master of works who was sacked by the C of E when his method of discovery was discovered, is no longer in the abbey shop.

Not every shop in Glastonbury is a new agey one, though there are many which are – I can’t think of a another place like it. Every day really is a mind, body spirit fair here on the High Street. One area reminded me of Charles Manning’s amusements in Felixstowe, except with healing crystals and goddess images where Manning’s ice creams and crazy mirrors are.

I tried to find the Tor but instead learned what a greedy lot the abbey are/were. The abbey’s large tithe barn well outside today’s considerable precinct gathered the produce of others in a wide catchment. Today, you can only get in and out of the abbey by one small gate, presumably to ensure you pay your entrance fee. Staff seem to know little about the site, which is unusual for a museum where normally there’s competition to work lower than your skills and education because of the passion and knowledge you have. I asked about the exaggerated length of Bury St Edmunds abbey quoted by the museum’s abbey model.   (I didn’t imply “you are wrong” – more I am curious as to why 505 has become 570ft). They all said they didn’t know but perhaps someone working during the week (implying that people with knowledge didn’t of course work at weekends) might know if I emailed. The museum’s not big and if you know about abbeys, this gives little specific insight. And it doesn’t explain the interesting bit about how those hippies got here and what has made Glastonbury (and not Canterbury) remain a place of spiritual pilgrimage.

I hoped to escape towards the Tor from the far end of the ruins, as any other Close I know has 3 or 4 entrances. By Church House, the Anglican retreat centre, there was barbed wire; and round its entrance, vociferous Private signs.

Glastonbury abbey’s quick to tell you that they’re not funded or part of any group – hence quite a high entrance charge – but they still want you to ask their permission for any service or commercial photographs. I think if you’ve the privilege of caring for a much loved spiritual site, you cannot be that controlling about worship here. Their idea of “rescuing the ruins” is to put irritating modern chrome and viewing platforms in. You get little real idea of the church and its outbuildings if you don’t already know about abbeys.

The roads flanking the abbey other than the high street are mostly pretty ordinary architecturally, but it did amuse me that the names of businesses and guesthouses stuck on them definitely reflect the new age of Glastonbury.

The street towards the Chalice Well had some older cottages. This well is all for world peace – at a price, judging by their entry fees. The Tor itself is further than maps suggest, although I was very tired the day I visited. I’m not sure if there’s something special or ominous about the lady shaped ridge – is it the execution of the last abbot or the alleged hidden caves of the faerie king? I definitely believe the theories that it’s deliberately shaped for spiritual purposes. I am not happy with the National Trust owning it – a secular trust which supports modern scientific practices more than the Tor’s spiritual and often esoteric significance. And how can a holy Tor ever be someone’s property?!

I wondered: could I live here, or at least, stay longer? There’s much on offer if you want to be healed or train in esoteric ways, including some rather pricey guest houses and treatments which I thought clashed with the spirit in which they are supposed to be offered. Despite the famous festival, the rest of the year there doesn’t seem to be any arts to watch – the nearest cinemas are about 5 miles away in small towns, and only one, provincial, theatre. Bristol’s nearly 30 miles away – which is the nearest city, and Bath’s not even direct by bus.

I’d like to spend unfettered time here, but I think that the spirituality of Glastonbury is not quite where I am. Hippy not hipster, and often mature years rather than younger faces (except serving in the cafes), many I saw were in festival dress and the words used for their offerings felt as alien to me as if it were another culture, as often faith seems to those not in it.

I want something in the median – perhaps my idea of Celtic Christianity, the synthesis, which is open to all that Glastonbury offers, but finds a wiggly path without the extremes and immersive cultures of either users of incense. Or womb steamers.

But I find myself researching and thinking about how spirals – often in labyrinth form – are part of Glastonbury and in the title of my novel which came out on Mary Magdalene day – someone that Glastonbury likes as much as I do.

I sense I’m not yet done with Avalon.

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