Glastonbury is the first real stop on our summer long road trip. Our younger son moved into a new old house at the start of the year and we are helping with decoration and renovation duties. It’s an interesting stay because it’s a working visit with time to do exploring, walking and get to know the area better than if we were regular tourists.
I guess everyone has heard of the Glastonbury festival. Evidently its the biggest greenfield festival in the world with nearly 200,000 visitors nearly every year. The back story is that the first festival was held in 1970 and that the hippies and counterculture people came and many stayed. Today the town is a magnet for alternative culture.
The first thing you notice about Glastonbury is the Tor – a 531 foot high hill that stands alone above the town and the Somerset levels, with a 15th century church tower that’s all that remains of two earlier churches. It’s a limestone hill with a sandstone cap which means the softer base has eroded to create very steeps sides, while the harder sandstone cap has remained intact. Its really steep slopes make for a good climb, and I walk/run around up and down first thing almost every day. I vary the routes but keep the time under 60 minutes. There is absolutely no truth in the rumor that I can make the top in under 16 minutes. But the Tor is an amazing landmark. And I meet many interesting people on the hill – dog walkers, American, German and Japanese tourists of course, but mostly locals and visitors that climb the Tor as a spiritual place to reflect in their own ways.
Consider that until the last few hundred years the levels were frequently flooded and that the Tor was an island. Which of course gives grist to the mill that the Tor was the island of Avalon, the legendary island featured in the Arthurian legend in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 1136 pseudo-historical account as the place where King Arthur’s sword Excalibur was forged and later where Arthur was taken to recover from his wounds after the Battle of Camlann.
After the Tor, the town. The high street is radically different to any other in the UK. By my own observation, a significant majority of people are dressed in counter culture – women in long dresses, kaftans, beads, head dresses and more. The men similarly showing a disregard for orthodoxy, with beards, pony tails, bare feet, dresses, beads and more. Some will be local people, some visitors. And there is an energy in the high street and an obvious friendliness. To add to the uniqueness, none of the usual UK high street names are here. Don’t bother looking for McDonalds, Pizza Express, Next, Starbucks, Costa, WH Smiths or Nandos. The only one here is Boots which is perhaps a necessity. All the other premises are individualistic, counter culture and the people running the shops are full of enthusiasm for their alternative artwork, crystals, fairy dust as well as organic, whole food, vegan and vegetarian foods. And of course I loved the music store with guitars hung outside the shop marked for street players. Similarly the cafes and vegan restaurants with creative meals beautifully prepared. In fairness one of the restaurants we visited did have have fish and meat on the menu, but we could see the primary demand was for the vegan offerings. And the prices! We were amazed at the reasonable prices being charged in shops and restaurants.
On a good day the streets are crowded with hippies. Gathering in the churchyard among the gravestones, or on the open spaces outside the coffee shops sitting on the ground, singing, playing the guitar, doing pavement art, chanting over a chocolate cake (sic). Glastonbury is without doubt a place apart. It’s even quite difficult to get to. There’s no train station. A bus to Bristol takes an hour and 40 minutes. There are no major highways nearby. At this time of year when the weather is quite good there are lots of people sleeping rough. In the orchards, fields, beside the road. Some in tents. Some in vans. They are not all young; far from it. Many of the hippies are as old as I am!
My favorite memories . . coming down from the Tor shortly after eight o’clock in the morning, and seeing a scantily clad chap with beard standing outside his tent in the middle of an otherwise empty field playing his saxophone. Or rounding a bend in the country lane at a similarly early hour, and coming across a well dressed little chap sitting on a seat beside the road, combing a huge head and beard of very grey hair. “Good morning, what a grand morning it is!” I said. He replied, “Tis a grand morning indeed, and I am grand and grey!” I think I had just met my very first leprechaun.