We'll begin with a brief description of the landscape surrounding Glastonbury, which will give us a better idea of where it is, and more importantly, why it is where it is.
The Somerset Levels comprise a large area of reclaimed land that was drained under the guidance of Dutch engineers in the 1700s. It has flourished into fertile water meadow, still segmented by the Dutchmen's Rhines1 and ditches. From the air it looks like an immense patchwork quilt. To the West lies the Bristol Channel and the Atlantic; to the South, a range of gentle but imposing hills, the Poldens; and to the North and East, another range of hills, the Mendips. In essence the Levels are contained within a gigantic 'U' of hills with the sea cutting off the 'open' end. There are many farms on the Levels, and there is also a living to be made from the legion willows that populate the banks of the rhines. Pollarded annually, these willows produce switches, or withies, which can be used to weave anything from baskets to fences. There are also a small number of peat farms, which are progressively destroying the few peat bogs left in England. Orchards are literally everywhere, the area being famous for its cider production/consumption.
Presiding over all this is Glastonbury Tor, around the base of which clings Glastonbury town. With a population of around 10,000 souls it is at best a medium-sized town for Somerset. Rising above the town is the Tor proper, a sweeping promontory of grass-covered sandstone. At the very peak of the Tor, standing like a gnomon, is a single tower, all that remains of St Michael's church, destroyed by an earthquake in 1275.
At the base of the Tor is the Chalice Well - a fresh water spring that has been flowing for approximately 65 million years. The Tor wasn't there when the spring was young and dinosaurs came to drink. It was a rolling sandstone plain in those days, punctuated by watering holes and rivers. The well was running, and as it ran the iron-rich waters percolated down through the porous sandstone. Imagine, for a moment, the pattern a spill of water onto a thick mattress would make in three dimensions. At the top you would have a roundish stain where the water enters the mattress. Below this, in the mattress itself, the water would spread as it sank, so that when it finally came to a halt the base would cover a greater area than the apex. Remove this spill intact from the surrounding mattress and you would end up with a rough cone.
Now picture the sandstone plain as the mattress, and the constant percolation of the well as the water spill. Because the waters of the well are iron-rich they imbue the sandstone with a strength that the neighbouring sandstone cannot match. Thus over the years as the non-iron treated sandstone plains have eroded away, the iron rich sandstone cone has seemingly arisen out of nothing. Indeed, it might be possible to produce a three-dimensional map of ancient wells and springs of the locale by marking the positions of mumps2 and tors on the Levels. The well that produced the Tor has gradually eased its way down the side of the Tor and settled at the bottom, where it is now surrounded by the Chalice Well Gardens. Glastonbury Tor is not the only Tor on the Levels, but it is certainly the biggest and most spectacular. It has also seemingly retained its watery character. Some have described it as the hump of a whale breaking through the Levels, others have commented on its teardrop shape, and all have noticed the tiers that roll down the sides, resembling waves. Paradoxically it is the Tor's watery origins that later made it such a haven from flooding.
Glastonbury has as many myths about its name as it has about every other aspect of its existence.
Glaestingburgh is Celtic (although the 'burgh' is almost certainly Anglo-Saxon). Glastonbury is the modern version of this name. It means settlement (Burgh) of a people known only as the 'Glaestings'. Glaesting was the name of a man who supposedly chased a pig all the way from the Midlands to Glastonbury. He finally caught the pig on the Tor and, liking the spot, moved his people here. There are a couple of other pig-chasing legends in the area, primarily around Bath and Wells.
It gets simpler if you break the name down into three parts.
Glas - Some have ascribed the 'Glas' in Glastonbury to be a direct reference to the 'Castles of Glass' in Celtic mythology. However, in Brethonic Celtic, The word 'Glas' describes the colours blue, green and grey. During the Iron Age the area surrounding the Tor and the shoulder of land upon which it sits were either water-rich marshes or full-blown lakes. The main colours available to any observer sitting on the Tor would be the green of the grasses and reeds, and the blue or grey of the sky, both of which would be reflected by the water, depending on the weather.
Ton - Town, or occasionally stone (which may be a reference to the sandstone of the Tor being occasionally exposed).
Bury - Borough or 'burgh'.
It's all guesswork however, and the true meaning is unlikely to emerge.
Glastonbury Abbey lays claim to being the most ancient (above ground) Christian church in the world. The myths surrounding early religion in Glastonbury are simply too numerous for a Guide Entry to cover. For those interested, there are many complete books on the subject. Only the ruins remain today, thanks to Henry VIII's efforts against the monasteries, but they are impressive nonetheless, and stand within some delightful park ground. The original stew pond (where the Benedictine monks would keep carp to net for food) has been renovated, and is once again full of carp, who will vie with the ducks for bread (this is great entertainment - keep in mind that the ducks can reach the bread faster than the carp, but the carp are more aggressive than the ducks when they reach the bread simultaneously).
There is a succession of abbots reaching back to the 7th Century. The last Abbot of Glastonbury was hung, drawn and quartered on the Tor, his severed head being placed above the gates of his abbey, an early victim of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. A shame really, as previous to this incident, he had been reported as doing rather well. The trial that resulted in his death was widely believed to have been fixed. A line from Thomas Cromwell's Remembrances attests to this belief:
The Abbot of Glaston to be tryed at Glaston and also executed there with his complycys.
Although the Abbot was actually tried at nearby Wells, Cromwell was evidently not a man who enjoyed surprises.
More of the Abbey can be found in the Mythology section.
The earliest evidence for human habitation is the Sweet Track3, which at 6,000 years old is the most ancient road in Europe. Although the Sweet Track is not actually in Glastonbury, it is quite close, and it isn't too far fetched to imagine that both regions were inhabited at the same time. 'Road' is a bit of a misleading term. A long row of poles have been hammered into the marsh, each of which results in a 'V' projection. Into the 'V' was dropped a split trunk, to form a secure pathway for its users. It stretched for well over a mile, and was in use for approximately ten years (abandoned, perhaps, due to a rise in water levels). As a point of interest, a jadeite axe head was recovered near the track. The jadeite has been traced to the Alps, showing a wider trading range than many people supposed existed.
4,000 years pass by before our next stop. Again, we're not on the shoulder of land that supports the Tor, but close by, at the so-called 'Lake Villages'. The name suggests a sophistication of building comparable to the contemporary La Tene culture of the continent, which constructed stilted villages in the middle of lakes proper. Our marsh dwellers, however, did not go to these lengths and instead laid down massive foundations on wetland, using split trunks and hurdles as a building base. These were very close to open water though, as some of them had jetties from which canoes could be launched. These villages were possibly built on the marshes to give access to the game available there (including, in those days, beaver and pelican). They were thought to be seasonally inhabited.
Skipping forward to today, the people are impossible to describe outside the context of the town, so we'll do that next.
The town, as has previously been mentioned, is small, totalling a population of approximately 10,000 people, which can swell to four times that number during the Glastonbury Festival. In Glastonbury, however, there is no such thing as Glastonbury Festival. It is referred to as the Pilton Festival, as it takes place a few miles away from the town, at Worthy Farm in Pilton. The festival is the main reason that so many people have heard of Glastonbury. Previous to the 1960s, the town didn't have many tourists. The poet, artist and visionary William Blake had been there, and the region inspired his hymn 'Jerusalem', primarily because of its supposed links with Joseph of Aramathea (who legendarily brought the Holy Grail to Glastonbury), and also, one imagines, because of its frequent magnificent cloudscapes which, when viewed from the Tor during a sunset, can be awe inspiring.
The high street is filled with alternative bookshops and crystal emporiums. There are that many that if you closed your eyes and threw a bread roll you'd definitely hit one (if not three, counting ricochets). Books to 'Heal Your Life' always sell well, as do the ranges of 'therapeutic' minerals and crystals. These are said to contain healing properties, and should be treated with care, regardless of the inference that the properties have so far survived being blasted out of the bowels of the earth, smacked about with geology hammers, carted about in trucks, rolled around for hours in a polisher and, in many cases, having been cooked in an industrial oven to bring out the colours. For those of you willing to invest a little effort, there is a quarry at the foot of the Mendips in which you can find lumps of amethyst, some of which are too large to carry.
There is a strange polarisation about the town. On the one hand, you have the population that are descended from people who have lived in the town (and environs) for generations, and on the other hand you have the population which have lived here since the 1960s. It wouldn't be too unfair to say that the most they have in common is the town in which they live. The locals call the newcomers 'hedgers' or 'hippies' and (to paint with a sweeping brush) essentially view them as the reason their sons/daughters can't get a council house. The newcomers (again, painting with a sweeping brush) refer to the locals as 'rednecks' or 'carrot crunchers' and essentially accept that the reason they can't get a council house is that the locals have bought them all, and the council hasn't built any more4.
There does, however, exist a truce. Regardless of Mr Blake's comparisons, this is hardly a new Jerusalem. Other than the odd 'hedger' getting roughed up on a Friday night, and in spite of the annual antagonistic pieces in the local rag prophesying blood in the streets every time the festival is due, it is still a quiet rural market town, with, for Somerset, more than its fair share of cosmopolitan pursuits.
You would be hard pushed to find a town that had more mythology attached to it than Glastonbury. The air is quite thick with it. There is barely a patch of ground within a two-mile radius of the town that doesn't have its own story. We'll start with the Abbey though, firstly because it is so rich in mythology, and such a catalyst in the town's history, and second, because it is pretty hard to beat in an alphabetical ranking.
The most widely promulgated myth about Glastonbury and the Abbey is that Joseph of Aramathea visited the place, carrying with him the Holy Grail. Chalice Well, a name which alludes to the Grail, was thought to have been originally called Calke Well, or Chalke Well5, the name being later adapted to suit the legend. When traced back there is no mention of Joseph of Aramathea until the 13th Century, when he is reported as arriving carrying two cruets, one of which contained the blood of Jesus Christ, the other containing some sweat of the same. This likely looks like a borrowing from the French Romances. Again, from the 13th Century, arises the myth of Joseph and the thorn tree. Joseph, having trekked all the way from the Mediterranean, is supposed to have planted his thorn walking stick on Wearyall Hill (actually a continuation of the Tor). Flying in the face of all botanical likelihood, it blossomed right away, and continued to blossom every winter. There are winter-blossoming thorn trees on Wearyall Hill, but it is more likely that the myth is an explanation of their presence, rather than their presence being proof of the myth.
With Joseph comes a link with that old showman of myth - Arthur, King of the Britons. Arthur, after his death at the hands of his son, was said to have been ferried off to Avalon and interned there. The name Avalon has been linked numerous times with Glastonbury, and a few other sites in Europe. The name has variously been associated with the abundant orchards around the Tor, and also a couple of Iron Age demigods of the Underworld. No one is completely sure of the translation. The association with Arthur, again, was not made until the penning of the 13th-Century French Romances. It is also, possibly, a reference to the Tor once being known as the 'Isle of the Dead', which could be a reference to Iron Age burial practises in the area. After all, it's hard to dig a grave in a marsh, and you wouldn't want bodies floating around the place. Perhaps they were hauled to dry land and buried. It would have been easier, however, to put the bodies in the crown of a tree and let the numerous raptors6 dispose of their remains. This method was widely employed in Bronze Age times, and may well have carried through the Celtic invasions.
The bodies of Arthur and Guinevere were said to have been discovered by the monks of the Abbey in 1191. They were discovered under a large leaden tablet inscribed in Latin - Hic iacet sepultus inclitus rex arturius in insula avalonia or 'Here lies buried the renowned King Arthur in the Isle of Avalon'. The fact that 'Arthur Fever' was sweeping the country, as it periodically does, and that the monks of the Abbey were in desperate need of funds at the time, is of course purely coincidental...
Another persistent myth is that of the Glastonbury Zodiac, an astrological zodiac of gargantuan proportions said to have been carved into the land along ancient hedgerows and trackways some 2,000 years ago. There are only ten figures in this zodiac, as opposed to the more usual twelve, and most of them do not conform to the characters we would recognise today. There are charts of the zodiac available to buy in the high street, some of which include aerial photographs of the figures, the most convincing of which is man with a beard, holding a sword above his head. His main features are made up of clumps of trees, his outline formed by field boundaries. Unsurprisingly, it is supposed to represent King Arthur. It is a charming idea, and someone has clearly spent a lot of time poring over maps and crosschecking aerial photographs to support it. Unfortunately, it failed to occur to that person that the vast majority of the land said to be covered by the zodiac was, at the proposed time of its construction, under several feet of water.
There is much more than this, but to cover it all in the detail it deserves would be a multi-volume task. All that can be done is to recommend a visit. It is beautiful in winter as well as summer, and the view from the top of the Tor has to be one of the most striking in the country.