The Glastonbury Way– 3.5 or 7.5 miles.
This is a brilliantly conceived, fully-waymarked, and soon-to-be app-ified 1-day route around one of the most powerfully mystical pilgrimage destinations in Britain. The route now has wonderful interpretation boards, and was launched in May 2021 by Morgana West and her team at the Glastonbury Pilgrim Centre
The researched description below of the sites around Glastonbury results from a collaboration between Prof Kathryn Barush (see her bio at bottom) and BPT’s Guy Hayward. The rest of this collaboration can be viewed here, and refers to places on the route page Wells Cathedral Pilgrimage in a Day.
This pilgrimage reveals the richness of British culture through a place of deep mystery.
The route around Glastonbury centres around two things: healing water, and the overlay of traditions and stories. Glastonbury gives an excellent opportunity for spiritual and mythological dialogue as we introduce spaces of encounter that are layered with significance that cross and transcend religious, cultural and temporal boundaries.
The Goddess Temple is the first formally-recognized space ‘dedicated to the worship of the indigenous British Goddess in all of Her many manifesting forms’ for perhaps 1,500 years, and maybe even ever, to the knowledge of the founders. You can listen to, or read, an interview with co-founder Kathy Jones and author of Spinning the Wheel of Ana here and our virtual pilgrims can explore recorded videos, events, and music here. Not an easy space for some, for others it will feel just right. If you don’t know what to do, or how to behave, just light a candle and be still!
St. Margaret’s Chapel
A place of immense peace. Spend 20 minutes in calm still presence. Virtual pilgrims can view the space here, including their two new icons of St. Margaret and St. Mary Magdalene. A lovely garden lined by calm almshouses.
Holy Thorn/Wearyall Hill
When Joseph of Arimathea arrived in Glastonbury, he thrust his pilgrim staff into the ground and said to his companions, ‘friends, we are weary all’ (hence the name Wirral, or Wearyall Hill). This beautifully-illuminated manuscript page from the first quarter of the 14th century shows Joseph unfurling his garment across the sea (note the fish!) so that pilgrims ‘pure of heart’ might follow him. The staff, which is said to have been made from the wood of the cross, took root and grew into a thorn tree.
Until recently, the tree (confirmed by experts to be a Levantine hawthorn called Crataegus Monogya Praecox) bloomed in May and, more unusually, again around Christmas. As an old local ballad goes, ‘The staff het budded and het grew, An at Chursnas bloomed the whole day droo; An still het blooms Chursmas bright. But best that zay at dark midnight’. For the past hundred years or more, a sprig was cut from the tree to send to the Queen for her table. The tree was hacked down by vandals in 2010 and 2019, but it lives on from its cuttings that have birthed other trees.
Wearyall Hill is also linked to the Salmon of Wisdom, and does indeed resemble the shape a fish. This might be why it is known by some as the King Fisherman’s Castle – he who protects the Grail…
Bride’s Mound, also called the Western Gateway to Avalon
The location of Bride’s Mound on the River Brue made it a popular resting place for pilgrims who would stay the night before the final march into Glastonbury.
The name ‘Bride’s Mound’ is from Brigid, the Celtic Goddess and Catholic Saint, who is associated with fire and water, the colour white. As with so many sites in Glastonbury, there are intertwined layers of history and connection that cross cultural and temporal boundaries. The hagiographies of St. Brigid are pre-dated by Brighde the Celtic Goddess, the Guardian of Springs and Wells, and pagans and Christians alike celebrate a feast on the 1st of February, as winter begins to turn to spring.
St. Brigid’s second-class relics (including a bell and spindle) were displayed in a chapel at Beckery (one of the seven islands of Glastonbury Abbey’s estate, and known as Little Ireland). In a practice that has survived to date, pilgrims seeking healing would remove their bandages and dip them in the holy water of sacred wells, tying a bit to an adjacent tree (called a ‘clootie tree’). The healing was believed to be complete once the rag disintegrated, and while it hung there it was considered a perpetual prayer. There are some shared resonances with the Buddhist practice of hanging brightly-coloured ‘prayer flags’ imprinted with an image of the Lung Ta, or wind-horse, on sacred sites and around Stupas (reliquaries). The wind horses lift up prayers and gallop them to gods and deities. We recommend offering a song at Bride’s Mount, as the voice and breath carries spirit and prayer, yet without leaving a trace, but make sure they are biodegradable otherwise the healing will never complete.
For those familiar with the Arthurian legends, Beckery is the location of the Mary Magdalene chapel that King Arthur was bidden to visit in a dream, and while there had a radiant vision of the Virgin Mary and Christ child. Pilgrims in many world religions often put on a new garment to mark the beginning of a journey of renewal, and this formative moment inspired King Arthur to replace his Red Dragon heraldry with a cross on a verdant green background.
It was once a place of burial, and research on some of the exhumed remains has shown that it dates from the 5th century, which has served to buttress the theory that St. Brigid landed in Glastonbury in 488 AD. Take a moment to breathe and connect to those who have gone before, as this is one of the ‘thin places’ between worlds. The phrase comes from Celtic spirituality and describes sacred spaces where the veil between heaven and earth becomes like gossamer and pilgrims perceive a closeness with the Divine and with those who have come before. Who are these ancient ancestors resting below? What were their lives like?
Joanne Mudhar, a member of the Friends of Bride’s Mound, has drawn on her background as a former small-scale farmer and founder of the Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm to help bring to fruition a proposed Forest Garden adjacent to Bride’s Mound. Forest Gardens, once established, are organic, low-maintenance, and self-watering. The project is a grassroots effort, with many from the community pitching in. From this space of burial will spring new life in the form of edible plants, some medicinal – a resilient and sustainable food source to bring health and energy.
St. Benedict’s Church
Don’t miss the best living descendent of the original Wearyall Holy Thorn that Joseph of Arimethea planted. It grows in front of the main West Door.
St. John’s Church
The dedication of this church, with a venerable history stretching back as far as c. 950, is St. John the Baptist (feast day 24th June), who baptized Jesus Christ in the river Jordan. One of the most famous symbols of baptism and also pilgrimage is the scallop shell, usually shown on images of St. James as a pilgrim, and often attached to bags and hats (even today) to indicate that a walker is on a religious pilgrimage rather than a ramble in the woods. The scallop can also be found in church iconography and baptismal fonts as a symbol of baptism and, moreover, spiritual renewal – see if you can find one!
Pause for a moment here at this place dedicated to St. John and remember his pilgrim journey; ‘the voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’ Speaking of pilgrim paths, take a moment to walk the seven-circuit Glastonbury Tercentenniel Labyrinth in the garden.
Many say that they feel a sense of renewal and peace as they pause in the centre before winding back outward. There are four carvings for reflection at each of the sharp turns: the Virgin Mary and five-petalled rose, St. Bridget and Celtic harp, St. Dunstan and his harp (mentioned above, remember his cell at the Abbey?) and Joseph of Arimathea and the Holy Thorn.
…Won’t you meet me down by Avalon
In the summertime in England
In the Church of St. John…
Did you ever hear about Jesus walkin’
Jesus walkin’ down by Avalon?
Van Morrison, Summertime in England (live),
Gog and Magog
Two biblical beings – an individual and its land – also giants who first defeated a Trojan King. Guardian statues of Gog and Magog can be found at the Guildhall London and hills in Cambridgeshire. But here they are old, old oak trees – male and female – that may have marked the beginning of the oak tree procession to the Tor. Now Gog is burnt from the inside and has a petrified quality, yet still majestic in its presence.
If you have a question for either tree (or both) then do ask, and perhaps imagine making physical contact too as you do. It’s worth mentioning that Tolkien’s tree Ents spoke very slowly – sometimes they would take 3 days to finish a sentence. So you might be waiting a while for an answer and it might come in the language of ‘tree’, but nevertheless you may feel something in your heart.
Take a moment to find a stone – a little piece of gravel outside or a rock collected on a walk and saved in a coat pocket. Close your eyes and take a moment to appreciate the stone’s weight and texture. Is it becoming warmer as you hold it? How old do you imagine it is? How many people have handled it before, or have trodden upon it? How long did it exist before you were born?
Rocks and stones have long been an important part of the material culture of pilgrimage. For some they represent a burden, and are cast away mid-journey, like the pack of John Bunyan’s pilgrim, Christian. For others, they represent a special intention, and are deposited at some sacred or demarcated place along the pilgrim’s way (for example, at the foot of the Cruz de Ferro, or iron cross, along the Camino de Santiago, under which is an enormous pile of stone offerings). Pilgrims have long marked their way with cairns, or little piles, sometimes as a memorial, other times as a signal for others that they are on the right path.
There are two remarkable omphalos, or megalithic ‘Egg stones’ in Glastonbury; one behind the Abbot’s Kitchen at the Abbey and another halfway up the Tor, just below the summit. The Abbot’s kitchen stone has an ‘eye’, or hollowed cavity.
The use and symbolism of these stones remains mysterious. Who placed them here? Were they monuments or markers? Some say they were laid by a dragon, others say that they vibrate to the touch, gathering the sun’s energy at dawn as well as soaking in the last rays at dusk. As Gary Varner writes, Glastonbury guides have long urged pilgrims to touch the rock along the path up the Tor before revealing that it is said to be the portal to an underworld kingdom ruled by Gwynn ap Nudd.
Whether an egg – a place of life – or an augury to a world beyond, these stones are ancient and we can pause to remember all those who have placed their hands upon them in a moment of connection with those who have come before, and those who will come again.
The myths attached to the Tor are various. It has been known as a ‘magic mountain, a faeries’ glass hill, a spiral castle, a Grail castle, the Land of the Dead, Hades, a Druid initiation centre, an Arthurian hill-fort, a magnetic power-point, a crossroad of energy lines, a converging point for UFOs, a place of Goddess fertility rituals and celebrations’. (from Howard Gordon, Glastonbury: Maker of Myths)
A labyrinth is impressed in the hillside of the Tor for circumambulation, which takes about 5 hours (we recommend finding a guide to help), or you can walk up the Pilgrim’s Path along the spine. Some say that the lighting and colours change as the pilgrim progresses up the hill, with the grass and sky becoming more vibrant and intense. The strange, conical form, often rising like an island on a foggy day, has been the subject of much speculation and inquiry. Is it a chamber to another world? A fairy fort? Note the pairing of carvings above the doorway; you can see St. Michael to the left and St. Brigid milking a cow on the right.
St Michael’s Tower, atop the tor, is open to the sky. It forms a spine of towers dedicated to St. Michael (who, being an angel, loves high places) all the way to Mont St. Michel in France – the ‘Michael Line’. The nearest to Glastonbury is Burrowbridge Mound, and St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall is also along this line. On his feast day, torches were lit from shrine to shrine. Being a tall thing on a hilltop, the tower may also attract lightning more than usual. Is lightning a form of spiritual charge? Does it connect heaven and earth, now that we know lightning travels all the way from the sun?
One day, standing in the tower, Kate Barush had a hunch that it was the same arch looking out over the landscape that William Blake depicted in his book, Jerusalem: The Emanation of the Giant Albion (1804 – c. 1820), which has long-been compared to the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, in both form and function. The frontispiece depicts a pilgrim stepping beyond the page into the dark expanse of the book itself, an illusion created through a masterful application of paint. Around the borders are broken chains (Blake invited his readers to cast off their “mind-forg’d manacles” and enter, as pilgrim explorers, the recesses of their own imaginations).
Late in his life a group of young artists called the Shoreham Ancients befriended Blake. One of them, Samuel Palmer, created this etching (c/o the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC) inspired by Milton’s Il Penseroso, ‘Or let my lamp at midnight hour, / Be seen in some high lonely tow’r, / Where I may oft out-watch the Bear, / With thrice-great Hermes, or unsphere’. The tower is reminiscent of the one on the Tor, and if you look closely you can see pilgrims making their way to the top. The roofless-ness also makes it perfect for stargazing!
The tower itself is an ancient symbol of Divine Wisdom and thoughtful isolation. There are medieval resonances in the story of St Barbara imprisoned in a tower where she was converted to Christianity by inspiration. In Milton’s day, the tower was used in emblem books to signify light and vigilance in the face of danger. A 1632 woodcut shows a pilgrim embarking on a difficult and labyrinthine route to a tower (on which sits an angel, helping them along) with a quotation from Psalm 1119.5, ‘Oh that my ways were directed to keep thy statutes’.
The Lonely Tower became an important symbol in Yeats’s poem, the Phases of the Moon. He writes of:
…the candle light
From the far tower where Milton’s Platonist
Sat late, or Shelley’s visionary prince:
The lonely light that Samuel Palmer engraved,
An image of mysterious wisdom won by toil.
You may feel a lot of emotion coming to this place. To many, it feels like coming home. To others, it feels like a place of the heart, or of raw geo power. Cast your eye over the vast flat landscape of the Somerset Levels, prone to flooding, and Glastonbury town.
Chalice Well & Gardens
Enter via the yew guardian trees. Then paddle your feet in the spring in the next compartment of these peaceful gardens. Drink from the lion fountain in the next compartment. Then be still and silent by the Chalice Well, the main event.
The well is attached to the story of Joseph of Arimathea, who was said to have hidden the holy grail there, tinging the water with the blood of Christ. This is in line with other medieval tales of healing relic water containing drops of holy blood, including the famous ‘Thomas Becket water’ of Canterbury collected by pilgrims in leaden phials. The water truly is red due to its very high iron (chalybeate) content. Some of the curative powers of the well were recorded by Matthew Chancellor of North Wootton in 1751, who suffered from asthma.
The Well has long been a place of inclusivity and in 2012, the Chalice Well Trust acknowledged seventy faith groups, welcoming them to a celebration of religious diversity. This is in line with the life’s work of the founder, visionary Major Wellesley Tudor Pole. In his Silent Road, he gives clear instructions for a pilgrimage in place using the ‘faculty of the creative imagination’.
It has never failed to flow, even during the severest drought.
The White Spring
So-called due to its calcite content, just as the red spring is coloured by iron. A most elemental experience to be had here, directly opposite the Red Spring. Be blasted by the white noise of the water gushing forth crashing on the stones and immersion pools (not pictured, but inside the door above in a dark cave). Pilgrims are encouraged to bathe in the water or offer a tune (humming is gentlest). There are altars in the four corners of the cave – to the light god, dark god, light goddess and dark goddess – where pilgrims are welcome to make an offering. The Keepers of the White Spring have some guidelines for using the space here, as well as descriptions of the shrines.
Check the opening times because this is essential. 1.30-4.30pm each day apart from Wednesdays and Thursdays. If you miss the opening hours, there’s access to the water through a pipe in the wall.
To get to the Abbey, pass through the medieval portal on Magdalen Street. You will find yourself in the heart of a very sacred landscape which has fired the imagination for centuries. Pause for a moment and feel the presence of the past.
The ruins are built on the site of the first above-ground church in all of Christendom and the oldest religious foundation in Britain. In the early 20th century the excavator Bligh Bond discovered two lost chapels and the fact that the builders had used the ancient science of Gematria– translating letters into numbers. It has later been noted that the groundplan of Stonehenge and Glastonbury are uncannily similar.
Some eighteenth-century artists who came to sketch the ruins spoke of the stones themselves being imbued with the voices of the monks who chanted there long ago…can you hear them?
The Abbey was set up by 12 priests who were all choristers and it became one of three churches with a perpetual choir, chanting day and night. St Bridget, St David, St Patrick and St Columba came here. Later, St Dunstan, Glastonbury’s local saint turned the Abbey into wealthiest apart from Westminster, and it became a ‘Second Rome’.
And then… the politically-driven leaders of the Reformation must have been possessed by a distorted mysticism: the Abbot Richard Whiting was stretched on a hurdle then dragged up the Tor to where the gallows had been erected. After his head was chopped off, the rest of his body was split into four parts, each taken to Bath, Wells, Ilchester and Bridgwater. Thus Glastonbury itself was symbolically fragmented, like the Abbot’s body, and arguably has been ever since, and it is still trying to re-member itself.
According to legend, Saint Joseph of Arimathea, who gave up his tomb for Jesus, travelled first to Gaul and then Britain in the year 63 AD. In one version of the story, he was accompanied by the child Christ, who built a model church out of twigs (described in a letter from St Augustine of Canterbury to Pope Gregory), and in another Joseph brought the Gospel and the Holy Grail to the island after the Resurrection, to which he bore witness. You can see an illuminated miniature of Joseph collecting some of Christ’s blood in the chalice used at the last supper in this L’estoire del Saint Graal (c. 1316) now at the British Library.
William Blake famously recalled this in his preface to his illuminated book Milton, in a lyric later set to music by Sir Hubert Parry and now known as ‘Jerusalem’, which asks, ‘And did those feet in ancient time / Walk upon Englands mountains green?’ Lesser known than the famous hymn are Blake’s other depictions of the subject, for example this 1809 engraving of Joseph, the sacred artist blazing a pilgrim trail to Avalon (note the ‘Joseph of Arimathea among The Rocks of Albion’ graffito inscribed on the face of the rock itself). The landscape of Glastonbury around the Tor is believed to have been surrounded by the sea, which is reflected in Blake’s pictorial setting. He also created this watercolor of Joseph preaching to the inhabitants of Britain under the thorn tree that sprung from his staff, which we will visit next.
But before we do so, the Abbey has also had other illustrious visitors; for example, Saint Patrick, who was said to have visited in 443. St. Dunstan was appointed Abbot around 943 and reformed the monastic life there. He illuminated manuscripts and played harp within the walls of his 5-foot cell against the old Church of St. Mary. He is said to have been tempted by the devil there and resisted by grabbing his nose with a pair of blazing hot pinchers.
Before leaving, be sure to visit the site of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere’s tomb, said to have been discovered in a hollow oak between two great stone pyramids with a leaden plaque which stated, ‘Here lies buried the glorious king Arthur and Guinevere his second wife in the Isle of Avalon.’
Unity Candle and Silent Minute
Perhaps the true destination of this Way is the brilliant blue Unity Candle lantern? This candle has become familiar to both pilgrims to Glastonbury and more permanent dwellers alike; it is carried into the ceremonial spaces of celebrations, memorial services, festivals as well as talks, workshops, and even the monthly Town Council meetings. The candle was inaugurated by Morgana West and Jamie Evans, on behalf of the Pilgrim Reception Center, who worked together to create an object representative of the sacred landscape and culture of Glastonbury that would engender the town’s commitment to ‘unity through diversity’. When it is not ‘on tour’, it is a constant beacon of welcome at the Glastonbury Information Centre. The candle is infused with the sacredness of the landscape itself, including the Thorn, which is said to have rooted from the staff of the early pilgrim, St. Joseph of Arimathea (see below). It is also possible to have a candle posted from the Glastonbury Information Center, made in exactly the same way as the ‘mother candle’, and includes a taper lit from that flame which allows the pilgrim at home to ‘connect to those other flames burning around the world’. As the website emphasises, it is not strictly necessary to own a Unity Candle as the process of lighting the wick is symbolic of a flame within, which is where understanding, peace, and a pledge of unity is generated.
During the coronavirus lockdown, pilgrims all over the world were invited to join a ‘candle ambassador’ guide for a lighting ceremony and prayerful minute of silence. This was a powerful moment of communitas and connection, as people gather together across time zones to lift each other up, hold space for prayer and reflection, and even, in some cases, remember those who have come before. In this way, the Silent Minute truly transcends temporal and geographic boundaries.
The original Silent Minute was a peace prayer inaugurated by Wellesley Tudor Pole, founder of the Chalice Well Trust in Glastonbury (see above for more on Pole and the Well), during WWII. People gathered across the nation and commonwealth to the chimes of Big Ben, united in prayers for unity and peace. Just as folks have been gathering remotely during this time of pandemic, the original Silent Minute in war-times ‘was observed on land, at sea, on the battlefields, in air raid shelters and in hospitals. With Churchill’s support the BBC, on Sunday, 10th November 1940, began to play the chimes of Big Ben on the radio as a signal for the Silent Minute to begin.’ You can find more information here, as well as a link to the virtual, nightly event.
Whether you have just obtained a candle from the Pilgrim Center, are lighting one at home, or tuning into the Silent Minute in solidarity, you are invited to remember the words that have been attached to it:
‘We ask that the Glastonbury Unity Candle be a constant reminder that we are all part of the One.
May its light remind us to be accepting, loving and open to all those we meet, regardless of different backgrounds and opinions.”
“Let us learn to work together in a creative and non-competitive way to take our world into a brighter and peaceful future, filled with understanding.’
Photo from the Journey of the Glastonbury Unity Candle album, c/o Morgana West, used with permission.
Kathryn Barush is Assoc. Professor and Thomas E. Bertelsen Jr. Chair of Art History and Religion at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California and is the author of the monograph Art and the Sacred Journey in Britain, 1790-1850 (London: Routledge). She received a D.Phil. from Wadham College, University of Oxford in 2012 and has held positions as Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and as curatorial assistant at the Yale University Center for British Art. Shifting the focus to the present day, Dr. Barush’s current book project (Imaging Pilgrimage, Bloomsbury) explores the transfer of ‘spirit’ from sites to representations through a critical examination of contemporary art (including assemblages of souvenirs, built environments, and reconstructions of sacred sites) created after or during pilgrimages with the intent to engender the experience for others. She is also an avid walker and has led a group of graduate student pilgrims along the Camino Ignaciano in Spain. Find her on Twitter @pilgrim_travels
See also Frances Howard Gordon – Glastonbury: Maker of Myths