Wanderer at Large: Gloucestershire, Somerset & Wiltshire – Glastonbury

A tour guide’s all-time favourite UK places.

Sponsored by Your London Tours.

This September, Visit Britain, the marketing arm of the British tourist industry, is launching its ‘Great British Staycation Campaign’ to encourage people to holiday in the UK.

Soul City Wanderer (aka Frank Molloy) is one of the UK’s most accredited and experienced tour guides. Over three decades he has visited nearly every part of the country, touring many of the places that Great Britain and Ireland has to offer.

In a new blog series, he will list his all-time favourite five places by area (spiralling out from London*). These are personal choices, some obvious, some obscure.

This week, the area of England that includes the counties of Gloucestershire, Somerset & Wiltshire.

Glastonbury Abbey ruins


How best to describe Glastonbury? As a place, it is a sacred shrine where mysticism, music and monasticism co-exist. Christians mingle with new age pagans and tourists mix with pilgrims. It is notable for some famous legends, particularly the one surrounding King Arthur and the search of the Holy Grail. And, of course, for one weekend of the year, the largest music festival in the world is hosted nearby. Perhaps we can best relate it with a knowing nudge: in 1999, it received national media coverage when cannabis plants were found in the town’s floral displays.

Glastonbury’s history sweeps right back through the mists of time. People have been making a pilgrimage here for thousands of years. We know that for sure because in 1970, a Neolithic wooden path to the west of the town was discovered. Known as the Sweet Track (as it was found by a Mr Sweet) it is regarded as the world’s oldest road. Tree-ring analysis dates it exactly to 3807BC, making it over 5,800 years old. A relatively more recent date for Glastonbury bring us to the 7th century AD, when it was first recorded as ‘Glast’s’ town and borough.

Glastonbury Tor

Pagan legend has it that paradise could be found within the Glastonbury Tor, the hill that overlooks the town. An ancient natural spring at the foot of the Tor continually spouts about 25,000 gallons of iron-rich mineral water daily. It is said to have curative and magical properties. Certainly, those with iron-deficient diets would have felt the benefits. Pagan legends refer to it as the Blood Well. It was said to be a gateway to the paradise world but guarded by a fierce god.

When Christianity arrived, the Tor became as one of the holiest of places in Christendom. Jesus himself is said to have performed his first miracle here when he visited as a child with Joseph of Arimathea. This legend inspired the line in William Blake’s poem Jerusalem: ‘And did those feet in ancient time?

After Christ died, he was buried in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. Joseph was said to have returned to Glastonbury to infuse the Tor with Christ’s blood that he carried with him in the Holy Grail. Thus, the spring became known as the Chalice Well.

Glastonbury Abbey

Joseph of Arimathea is was said to have built Glastonbury Abbey here in the first century AD to house the Holy Grail, making it the site of the oldest Christian building in the world, and one of the oldest pilgrim shrines. Christians claim the church was rebuilt and eventually became a monastery.

In the late 12th century, monks claimed to have found the graves of King Arthur and Guinevere in the grounds of abbey. It was a sensational story. But we must remember that at the same time, Glastonbury had a major rival. Roman Canterbury was challenging Celtic Glastonbury as the premier Christian site in England. Canterbury, of course, now had the shrine of the newly Sainted Thomas Beckett, and was establishing supremacy as a place of pilgrimage.

Now Glastonbury has added King Arthur to add to their foundation myths, strengthened with stories of the Knights of Round Table and linked with the nearby ‘Blessed Isle of Avalon’. It was a major PR coup.

Another legend was that of the Holy Thorn, a hybrid hawthorn tree. It grows only around Glastonbury. It was said to have first grown when Joseph of Arimathea arrived, and flowers twice a year at Easter and Christmas. Each year a sprig is sent to decorate the Queen’s Christmas table.

In the 16th century, Henry VIII decided this holy shrine lark was a load of old twaddle. Whether it be Glastonbury or Canterbury, the monasteries with their lucrative home-made tourism industries were shut down during the Dissolution. The last Abbot of Glastonbury, Richard Whiting, was executed in 1539.

These events gave rise to a nursery rhyme. A property boom came as a result of the sale of church estates. Through chicanery, Whiting’s steward Jack Horner gained the rights to a local manor house. At Christmas time he secretly conveyed the deeds of ownership to Henry’s chancellery concealed in a pastry. Thus:

Little Jack Horner sat in his corner, eating his Christmas Pie,
He put in his thumb and pulled out a plum, and said ‘What a good boy am I!’

If anything, in the long run, the magnificent ruins of the monastery at Glastonbury have added to the romance and mysticism of the place, and given it a longevity that Henry could not have envisioned during the Reformation.

Glastonbury Festival

Six miles east of Glastonbury, between the villages Pilton and Pylle, a farm regularly hosts the largest music festival in the world. It’s worth reading that sentence again to appreciate the improbability of its miraculous success. In occurs over a late summer weekend, in four out of every five years.

The first Glastonbury festivals were held in the early 1970s. They were mounted by local landowner Michael Eavis at Worthy Farm. Originally it was a free concert but very ‘new-age’/hippy orientated. Early headliners included Tyrannosarus Rex, Traffic and Fairport Convention, attracting crowds of around 2,000.

During the 1980s it became a regular event under Eavis’s management. The crowds got bigger and unruly, so the festival became organized, fenced in and ticketed. Still it got bigger. In 2000, a quarter of a million people attended the festival. Since then it has been limited to 140,000 tickets. In 2004, two million people applied for tickets online. They sold out in five minutes. Still today, literally millions apply for the limited number of expensive tickets to spend a weekend in a huge tented city on a foundation of grass, mud and liquefied cow dung.

‘Glasters’ as it is studently known has featured a diverse spectrum of sounds from Green Day to Al Green, and Neil Diamond to Neil Young. Over 400 acts perform over a weekend. Headliners have included Blur, The Cure, Oasis, Radiohead and REM. Older music fans are catered for with performances by Tony Christie. Crosby, Stills & Nash, Tom Jones, Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and Rod Stewart. It hasn’t always been plain sailing. In 2007, thousands of unsold tickets were blamed on the headlining of the hip-hop artist, Jay-Z. Eavis still pushes the eco-friendly and charity message amidst cries of a corporate sell-out.

So, Glastonbury. How to sum up in a single phrase? Hmm… ‘Out there’.

Note: All sites mentioned were operating pre-lockdown. Please check relevant websites before embarking on any potential visit. Another recommendation will appear tomorrow.

For the very best in guided private tours of the UK visit www.yourlondontours.com

*Operators in the UK tour industry often separate the areas of the country according to what touring can be achieved in a region in one day. As a London-based operator, my ‘map’ spirals outwards from the capital and is separated thus:

  1. London
  2. Northern Home Counties (Beds/Herts/Cambs)
  3. Eastern Home Counties (Essex/Suffolk)
  4. Southern Home Counties (Kent, Surrey, Sussex)
  5. Western Home Counties (Ox/Berks/Bucks)
  6. South coast (Hants/Dorset)
  7. Western England (Somerset/Gloucs/Wilts)
  8. South West England (Devon & Cornwall)
  9. Wales (north & south)
  10. Welsh Borders (Herefordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire)
  11. Western Midlands (Brum/Worcs/Warks/Staffs)
  12. Eastern Midlands (Northants/Leics/Rutland/Hunts)
  13. Northern Midlands (Notts/Derbys)
  14. East coast (Norfolk/Lincs)
  15. Yorks (all ridings)
  16. North West (Manchester/Merseyside/Lancs/Lakes/Cumbria)
  17. North East (Durham/Tyne & Wear/Northumberland)
  18. Southern Scotland (Borders/Lowlands)
  19. Northern Scotland (Highlands/Islands)
  20. Ireland (Northern/Southern)

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

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