Glastonbury Pilgrimage in a Day – 3.5 or 6.5 miles.
The wonderfully researched description below of the Wells to Glastonbury route 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.
The route was inspired by Frances Howard-Gordon’s book Glastonbury: Maker of Myths.
This pilgrimage reveals the richness of British culture in a place of deep mystery.
The route around Glastonbury centres around two things: healing water, and the rich overlay of traditions and stories. It is an excellent opportunity for inter-religious dialogue as we introduce spaces of encounter that are layered with significance that cross and transcend religious, cultural, and even temporal boundaries.
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. 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?
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.’
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.
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 but a new sapling has been planted nearby.
This area known as The Brides would have been the western gateway to the Isle of Avalon. Legend has it that King Arthur had a vision of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus here, leading him to change his coat of arms. Archaeological investigations suggest that the site has been used since prehistoric times, and C5th skeletons have also been found. Evidence shows that there was a small chapel and cemetery here from Anglo-Saxon times which was in use until the Reformation (and a healing well nearby). William of Malmesbury (1135) and John of Glastonbury (1340) state that St Bridget visited Glastonbury in 488 and spent time here at Beckery at the chapel, then dedicated to Mary Magdalene, later Bridget. Bridget was often associated with Bride’s, hence why there is a pilgrimage from Chalice Well here every 1st February (St Bride’s Day/Imbolc). Eventually Bridget’s relics were later on display here and visited by pilgrims. John also tells of a circular hole in the chapel wall that pilgrims crawled through for purification.
(With thanks for this text and research due to the Friends of Bride’s Mound who still need help to repay their loan acquired to buy the Ridge fields in order to protect this sacred space from development).
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 center 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),
Chalice Well & Gardens
Enter via the yew guardian trees. Then paddle 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 and acknowledge the nearby well in the floor as well as the main one.
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’.
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. Be blasted by the white noise of the water gushing forth crashing on the stones and immersion pools. Pilgrims are encouraged to bathe in the water or offer a tune (though nothing too loud as the old Victorian well-house is an echo chamber). There is a seasonal altar 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 for those on virtual pilgrimage.
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.
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 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.
One day, standing in the tower, I 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. Cast your eye over the vast flat landscape of the Somerset Levels, prone to flooding, and Glastonbury town.
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 they are burnt from the inside and have a petrified quality, but hugely majestic in their presence.
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