A journal of travels

ePicaro.com header image 2

The Other Worlds of Glastonbury

January 24th, 2013 · 1 Comment · New Age

In a visit to this ancient town in the West of England, Judith Pierce Rosenberg, author of the award-winning cooking memoir, A Swedish Kitchen, discovers the New Age alive and hopping, right alongside the ancient one. 

Fairy wings flutter in the audience as the “burlesque fairy” at the front of the room blows kisses of green glitter. In the crowd are pirates, flower fairies, and even geishas as well as aficionados of Steam Punk style (think Victorian in goggles a lá Jules Verne). A man in moon boots and a woman in a tutu are dressed all in white with strands of blue LED lights. In a corner, two mermaids are combing their long tresses, flapping their tails, and showing the few children in the room their treasure box of shells. The band comes on, the blonde lead singer in black leather opening with an Irish jig that gets the crowd moving, and then switching to hard rock that keeps them dancing until the clock strikes midnight. Welcome to the sold-out Avalon Faery Ball of 2012 in Glastonbury.

A mid-sized English town, west of London, in the Somerset Levels on the Salisbury Plain, Glastonbury is best known for its eponymous music festival. Every other summer, thousands of young people camp on a field outside the town, braving mud and rain for a chance to hear some of the best contemporary bands. Late at night recorded music, spun by one or another of the DJs simultaneously performing, is piped through special headphones, so the dancers move to different beats in silence.

But on this weekend just before Halloween, we are here not for the music, but for the fairies. Also known as All Hallows’ Eve, this night before All Saints Day is a time when the veil between the worlds, the living and the dead, the human and the fey folk, is thought to be at its thinnest. What better time to visit this New Age center with ancient roots, a place where belief in the otherworldly springs like indigenous flora from the land itself.

For in ancient Britain, the Somerset Levels would flood, and the North Sea was much closer then than now, so that Glastonbury, with its sprawling Abbey and Tor hill, appeared to be an island shrouded in mists. The Lady of the Lake supposedly lived in the waters; she was the Faery Queen who gave King Arthur his magical sword, while a plaque in the Abbey ruins marks the graves of the legendary king and his lady, Guinevere.

Our first day in Glastonbury, we woke before dawn to climb the Tor, a grassy hill topped by St. Michael’s Tower, the only remains of a nunnery that thrived here before King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, including the great Glastonbury Abbey. After breakfast at our B&B, we attended mass in a small, whitewashed Anglican chapel with frescos of early Saxon saints on the grounds of the Abbey.

In the afternoon, we entered Chalice Well Garden, named for a goblet found in Victorian times, supposedly of ancient Near Eastern origin. Some believe this same cup was used at the Last Supper and that it is the Holy Grail of Arthurian legend. This garden also houses the spring of iron-rich water that flows over the rocks, turning them red. The fount of the Red Spring is covered with a lovely glass-and-oak lid, decorated with two overlapping ovals, a design known as the Vesica Pisces, which has become a symbol for Glastonbury itself. Given its illustrious history, I somehow expected something grander than the manicured lawns and flowerbeds of this rather small property.

But the biggest surprise of the day was the White Springs temple, although I had never even heard of it before coming to Glastonbury. The small, nondescript whitewashed building that houses the calcium-rich White Spring is around the corner from Chalice Well Garden, on a side street leading up to the Tor. The only indication that this is a special place is the tree outside decorated with a multitude of colorful ribbons, presumably representing prayers or thanks to the spirits of the place. Whereas Chalice Well Garden is peaceful and airy, the White Spring temple is chthonic and dark, a place of palpable earth energies, lit by candles and adorned with natural offerings. Both springs are known for their healing properties. At the pipes on Wellhouse Lane, we filled a bottle with water from each spring.

On this, our second visit, the weather was cold and wet, and we had head colds, leading us to spend much of our time indoors. At the annual Faery Fayre in the converted town hall, a score of artists plied their wares. One painted my face with green vines and silver glitter. From another I bought a silk scarf hand-painted with a petulant fairy poking her head up through the flowers. Meanwhile, my partner, Michael, found a claw-shaped pendant recycled from a piece made for one of the Harry Potter films – a perfect gift for a friend who loves the Hogwarts crew.

We wandered the high street of Glastonbury, browsing in shops selling Buddhist Kuan Yin statutes, Wiccan chalices, and Native American dream-catchers. There were crystals, herbs and incense galore. But best of all were the bookstores. We spent the last rainy afternoon going from one to another. The bookstores were filled with used and remaindered as well as new books on everything from the I-Ching to Stonehenge, from goblins to Mary Magdalene. I found the hilarious Wood Nymph Seeks Centaur, a “mythological dating guide” by Francesca Lia, which left me wondering if I am more of a wood nymph or a fairy or even – yikes – a banshee.

As we boarded the bus back to London the next morning, laden with our books and containers of water from the Red and White Springs, we looked forward to our return to Glastonbury, with its unique mix of legend and history, archaeology and magic.

© Judith Pierce Rosenberg, 2013. Judith is the author of A Swedish Kitchen: Recipes and Reminiscences, winner of a Gourmand Cookbook Award (Hippocrene Books) now available as an eBook from Amazon.

Tags: ·

One Comment so far ↓

  • Laura Strom

    Judith, you paint such a vivid picture of these places that I can imagine them clearly, and long to visit! Walking in the places that have such an ancient, illusive and enthralling history sounds like a dream come true. Thanks for a delightful description of Glastonbury, sacred inspiration for one of my favorite books, The Mists of Avalon.

Leave a Comment