Last Photographed: Tuesday 1st December 2009
Glastonbury Tor is a naturally occurring hill that rises to a height of 158m. It dominates the the surrounding Somerset landscape and is visible from distances of up to 20 miles. The Tor is situated on an elevated area of land that originally formed a virtual island on the flat, flooded plain of the Somerset Levels. This 'island' remained connected to the mainland by one narrow strip of land - the current route of the Shepton Mallet road.
St Michael's Church
The visual impact of the Tor is increased by the ruined tower of St Michael's church that crowns its peak. The church was originally built in the 12th Century, but destroyed by an earthquake in the 13th Century. The later church that replaced it was built in the 14th Century and survived until the dissolution in 1539AD, after which time it fell into decay. Little is known about the relationship between the church and the abbey to which it belonged, but it's believed to have been a site of pilgrimage. It was also the site of the execution of Richard Whiting, the last abbot of Glastonbury Abbey.
The Tor's visual character is further augmented by the distinctive terraced earthworks that surround is upper slopes. Conventional archaeologists propose that these were once strip-lynchet farming terraces. This theory fails to explain why such labour-intensive landscaping should have been necessary when Glastonbury suffered no shortage of farmland in medieval times. The theory is further undermined by existence of terraces on the North-facing slopes, the sun-free aspect making that side of the Tor a very poor and unusual choice for agricultural activity.
An alternative theory suggests that the terraces form a ritualistic labyrinth through which neophytes ascended in some form of ceremonial activity. The assumed date for this is usually Neolithic. The slight archaeology conducted on the Tor offers no conclusive evidence regarding this mystery, but most academics accept that the maze theory can not be ruled out. They are, however, often reluctant to credit the theory, largely due to its associations with the neo-pagan/new-age movement.
I personally feel that the maze theory offers a far more plausible explanation for the terraces than the ill-considered strip-lynchet theory. Glastonbury is known with certainty to have been a site of spiritual significance for the best part of 1,500 years. Given the striking nature of the landscape, it seems highly likely that such significance would have extended back into pre-history. In the absence of any better explanation for the terraces, the labyrinth seems to offer a reasonable explanation for their origin.
Whilst the existence of a pre-Saxon Christian community at the site of the abbey is largely speculative, the Tor offers concrete archaeology to support the existence of such a site at its summit, with excavations conducted in the 1970s revealing signs of occupancy between the fifth and seventh centuries AD. This may have been a tribal stronghold, but the religious associations of the site make it more likely that it was an early Celtic Christian monastery. If this was the case, it would lend weight to Glastonbury's status as one of the earliest sites of Christian worship in Britain.
Further archaeology at the top of the Tor revealed the existence of Saxon remains, including two possible monastic cells. Further monastic buildings were certainly constructed during the medieval period to the West of the church. A royal charter of 1172AD makes reference to the "monastery of St Michael on the Tor".
St Collen was a Welsh saint from the 7th Century AD. The medieval "Life of St. Collen" recounts how he became abbot of Glastonbury, and eventually retired to a hermitage at the foot of the Tor to live a life of greater austerity. The story continues:
And as he was one day in his cell, he heard two men conversing about Gwyn ab Nudd, and saying that he was king of Annwn and of the Fairies. And Collen put his head out of his cell, and said to them, "Hold your tongues quickly, those are but Devils."-- "Hold thou thy tongue," said they, "thou shalt receive a reproof from him." And Collen shut his cell as before.
And soon after, he heard a knocking at the door of his cell, and some one inquired if he were within. Then said Collen, "I am; who is it that asks?"
"It is I, a messenger from Gwyn ab Nudd, the king of Annwn, to command thee to come and speak with him on the top of the hill at noon."
But Collen did not go. And the next day behold the same messenger came, ordering Collen to go and speak with the king on the top of the hill at noon.
But Collen did not go. And the third day behold the same messenger came, ordering Collen to go and speak with the king on the top of the hill at noon. "And if thou dost not go, Collen, thou wilt be the worst for it."
Then Collen, being afraid, arose, and prepared some holy water, and put it in a flask at his side, and went to the top of the hill. And when he came there, he saw the fairest castle he had ever beheld, and around it the best appointed troops, and numbers of minstrels, and every kind of music of voice and string, and steeds with youths upon them the comeliest in the world, and maidens of elegant aspect, sprightly, light of foot, of graceful apparel, and in the bloom of youth and every magnificence becoming the court of a puissant sovereign. And he beheld a courteous man on the top of the castle, who bade him enter, saying that the king was waiting for him to come to meat. And Collen went into the castle, and when he came there, the king was sitting in a golden chair. And he welcomed Collen honourably and desired him to eat, assuring him that, besides what he saw, he should have the most luxurious of every dainty and delicacy that the mind could desire, and should be supplied with every drink and liquor that his heart could wish; and that there should be in readiness for him every luxury of courtesy and service, of banquet and of honourable entertainment, of rank and of presents: and every respect and welcome due to a man of his wisdom.
"I will not eat the leaves of the trees," said Collen. "Didst thou ever see men of better equipment than those in red and blue?" asked the king.
"Their equipment is good enough," said Collen, "for such equipment as it is."
"What kind of equipment is that?" said the king.
Then said Collen, "The red on the one part signifies burning, and the blue on the other signifies coldness." And with that Collen drew out his flask, and threw the holy water on their heads, whereupon they vanished from his sight, so that there was neither castle, nor troops, nor men, nor maidens, nor music, nor song, nor steeds, nor youths, nor banquet, nor the appearance of any thing whatever, but the green hillocks.
It's very likely that the backdrop of the Tor was a later embellishment added during translation by the monks of Glastonbury to increase the status of the abbey, but the early association of the Tor with the Celtic underworld is still interesting.
The abundance of fresh springs around the Tor adds further weight to its likely spiritual importance during Neolithic and/or Celtic times. Wells and springs were often considered sacred, and the existence of both Chalice Well and the White Spring at the foot of the Tor would surely have seemed significant to our ancestors.
The Chalice Well - or 'red spring' is an iron-rich water source with a distinctly reddish tinge. The iron oxides of the water are believed to have reinforced the surrounding sandstone, thus slowly revealing the Tor as the surrounding, softer stone was eroded away. Local mythology bestows the waters with healing powers, and Christian legend holds that the chalice from the last supper was buried here, causing the water to be coloured with the blood of Christ. Excavation has show the well-head to be of medieval origin, but the existence of yew trees in the gardens that house the well have caused some to speculate regarding the existence of an ancient processional avenue. Such speculation is, as far as I can determine, unfounded, if not beyond the realms of possibility.
The White Spring rises in close proximity to the Red Spring on the opposite side of Wellhouse Lane. It finds its way to the surface through an entirely different rock strata, becoming imbued with calcium and obtaining a whitish quality. Originally, the source of the well was located at the end of a small valley at the base of the tor. This was considered a local beauty spot, and local legend holds that the ruins of St. Collen's cell were still visible there. This valley was unfortunately destroyed when it was back-filled in order to create a header tank for a reservoir that briefly contained the waters of the White Spring before feeding them down to a pump house on Magdalene Street. Today, the reservoir building is privately owned and used as a meditation space, after a brief history as a cafe. At one time, it was possible to enjoy a virtual balloon ride around the Tor from within its walls!
These two water sources are given added significance by their colours. Red and white are often associated with Gwyn ap Nudd, the fairy lord of Annwn so famously banished from the Tor by St. Collen. Given the location of the springs, symbolic significance has been attached to them as markers for the entrance to the Celtic otherworld.
The Hollow Hill
Another popular local legend is that large caverns or caves exist within the Tor. The legend is fuelled by the following facts:
- The existence of the header tank behind the White Spring has provided fertile ground for rumours of access tunnels that run deep into the Tor. Some form of tunnel is likely to exist behind the reservoir, but actual facts regarding its nature and access arrangements prove tantalisingly elusive.
- A tunnel is known to run from the abbey towards the Tor, and this has given rise to rumours of underground caverns and hidden treasure. This tunnel was uncovered during building work in the 70s and rapidly in-filled. Again, facts are sparse, and this tunnel may be nothing more than a medieval water conduit. The geology of the Tor allows for the possibility or soft pockets of rock that might easily have been eroded into caves.
- Speculation has taken many forms. Some believe that King Arthur lies buried in a cave within the Tor. Some believe treasure from the abbey lies hidden within. Some believe the journey through the maze culminated in a descent from the top of the Tor into the caverns below, marking a journey into the underworld that was both symbolic and actual. Such ideas are entirely fanciful, but the lack of solid facts provides fertile ground for the growth of myth and legend.
The Standing Stones
A number of theories postulate the existence of Neolithic monuments around the area of the Tor. Some believe that the stone to be found nestling behind the bench on the lower ascent is in fact a broken megalith. Others believe that the Tor itself was crowned with a stone circle or other monument. Yet another theory holds that Stone Down lane was once a processional avenue (a theory at least slightly supported by the existence of stones in this area on old maps, although their nature is unclear). In all my research, I've yet to find any conclusive evidence to support the existence of a single monument. Speculation abounds, but facts are notable only by their absence.
Gog and Magog
The twin oak trees of Gog and Magog are still visible in their dying days for the modern pilgrim interested enough to make the journey. Their significance and the fate of their peers is described by Rev L Smithett Lewis in "St. Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury" (1955):
They are almost the last remains of an ancient Druidic grove at the foot of Stonedown (a name which bespeaks its Druidic use). From them ran also an avenue of oaks which led towards the Tor. This grove and avenue were shamefully cut down about 1906 to clear the ground of a farm! The trees were immense. They were all sold to Messrs. J. Snow & Son, timber merchants of Glastonbury. Mr. Curtis of that firm remembers five boys standing in one of them called Magog when he was a boy. The real Magog was cut down and so probably was the real Gog. Magog was eleven feet in diameter, and more than 2,000 season-rings were counted. Besides the two trees still called Gog and Magog, there are, by an ancient narrow road, now a lane, the remains of five other immense oaks. The biggest of all (possibly the real Gog) is cut down and prone on its side, and looks from the road across a field something like a shed. In hedges there are two other giants just dragging out the last flicker of life, and there are fragments of two other dead monarchs (doubtless some of those that were cut down) in hedges.
Again, the existence of any druidic grove or avenue is speculative, but speculation is the life-blood of Glastonbury! Sadly, these the two remaining great oaks show less sign of life every year, and their end can't be far away now.
As well as his reputed burial in the grounds of the abbey, another story exists connecting King Arthur with Glastonbury. The mediaeval "Life of St. Gildas" recounts how King Melwas of the "Summer Country" abducted Guinevere and held her captive. Arthur lay siege to Melwas in his stronghold, and Gildas intervenes to secure Guinevere's release. The story is almost certainly a later distortion designed to add prestige to the abbey, but it's another layer to the tapestry of Glastonbury legend that adds to the town's mystique, regardless of its objective truth. Some have speculated that the pre-Saxon remains at the top of the Tor might be evidence that a Celtic king did indeed make his stronghold here.
The Fair Fields
Another interesting piece of history speaks to us of the Tor's use during medieval times. A charter exists signed by Henry I in 1127AD granting the abbot the right to "to hold a fair at the monastery of St. Michael on the Tor in the island of Glastonbury". The field at the base of the Tor is still called Fairfield. Opposite it runs Cinnamon Lane, which may have been the site where ancient spice merchants sold their wares. Basketfield Lane can be found running around the rear of the Tor, and the spring at its foot was once known as the Pack Spring - the spring where the pack horses were unloaded and watered.
Glastonbury Tor Today
It's always worth a walk up the Tor. The views from the top are spectacular. Nestled in the foothills of the Mendips, Wells and it's cathedral can be clearly seen some five or so miles away. Further out, looking to the West, the Severn estuary can be discerned in the far distance. To the East, on a Summer's evening, lights can be seen illuminating Glastonbury Festival six miles outside the town at Pilton. After heavy rain, flooding covers the levels to the South, giving some slight impression of how the ancient landscape must once have looked.
Although the spirit of Glastonbury has largely been hijacked by new-age entrepreneurs seeking to make a profit from its rich history, and neo-Pagan shamans seeking to gain credibility from the uniform of spirituality, the real sense of history and mystery is still there for those who have the patience to dig beneath the surface a little. The Tor can provide a welcome break from the chaos of the town and allow a little breathing space for the modern pilgrim seeking a little perspective.
Despite the commercialism and the new-age veneer, Glastonbury retains a real sense of magic that's hard to dismiss - and the Tor's the best place to connect with it. From the top of this strange hill, it's easy to imagine the Isle of Avalon of legend, surrounded by water, hidden by mists and covered with trees. It's hard to imagine that our ancestors would have failed to attach special spiritual importance to the place. And it's easy to imagine them working their way through the maze by torchlight, awaiting initiation into whatever mysteries lay at the top.
Neolithic circle-builders, Celtic druids, Romans pantheists, Celtic Christians, Saxon Christians, Norman Christians, New-age hippies.... it's easy to see a line of continuous worship here stretching back into pre-history. Although little is really known, what we do know is enough to weave a sense of myth and legend that lends Glastonbury and its Tor an atmosphere far greater than might be created by mere facts. The real magic of the place is its unique ability to breathe life into the question when we look over the landscape, back through time, and ask "what if....?"