Glastonbury Encounters – “England’s mountain(s) green”

35mm film contact strip of my first visit to Glastonbury Tor

Going up the Tor

I’ve climbed Glastonbury Tor a fair few times over the decades, either as an ad hoc detour on the journey to or from my folks who lived not far from there (see this post), or as an outing from Bristol with family and friends, the weather often changing from sunshine on the climb up to showers or freezing cold winds that generated much complaint from the kids, but the vistas and exhilarating atmosphere at the summit usually won the day. The contact strip in the photo above is possibly from my first visit to Glastonbury in 1975.

Three years ago at the end of January the Tor seemed a good destination for a winter outing, especially since it was some years since we’d been there, so on this bright day we headed south from home on the once familiar route. Just under an hour later we started out on our favourite path for the upward journey, passing a Buddhist retreat with spinning prayer wheels set into the wall and entered a muddy field where we were treated to an alluring view of the sentinel tower on top of the ridged Tor.

Picnic Paradise, mid 1980s

We crossed a lane, entered another field and began to climb more steeply, the view west revealing itself as we rounded the contours.  As we made our ascent, light, air and water competed for dramatic effect. The view and the climb are both breathtaking so after a few moments recovery at the summit we sat and marvelled at the flat world laid out below us – the characteristic orchards, church towers, clusters of farm buildings and fields of sheep. 

The partially flooded moors and ribbons of rhynes flashed as ragged clouds blew out of the sun’s way, and lit up in turn the arena of surrounding hills – Mendip, Polden, and further away, the Quantocks, Blackdown and Exmoor. The prominent high points that emerge from the coastal Levels and Severn Estuary – Brean Down, Brent Knoll and Steepholm Island – were picked out by some fleeting rays. More distant still a clear view to the Welsh hills in the west and the Wiltshire Downs to the East (with Stourhead’s Alfred Tower on the farthest horizon), created an eye-stretching span of some 70 miles.

Orchard and farmland seen from the Tor

However much you think you’ve just gone to the Tor for a steep walk with great views, the climb up this miniature mountain often does feel like a pilgrimage; the vistas that are revealed as you wind and wend sunwise around the cone, and the beckoning finger of St Michael’s tower at the top determine this from the outset – you’re being told an ancient story that, even if only for a while, you become part of and merge into.

We did get caught up in some of the Glastonbury myth in 1987 when we came to see the sunrise on a day in August that was apparently a Harmonic Convergence. Friends had heard about this cosmic event (“the world’s first synchronized global peace meditation”) and suggested we go down to Glastonbury for the weekend camping. Not sure how many of us were taking it seriously but it sounded like fun so we went along with our small children, stayed in a sweet farm campsite where we discovered, once night fell, that if you place lit candles in cow pats they burn blue for hours and you can create constellations across the field, and avoid stepping in the pats in the pitch black! 

At an ungodly hour of darkness we began our trek with torches, passing the Gog and Magog oaks, and joining company with other walkers from different directions as we came to the steep path up the Tor. Once we reached the summit we sat, mostly quietly, and waited for dawn. As it became lighter we realised with delight that the Tor was largely surrounded, but above, a lake of mist and when the sun rose it cast a spectral shadow of the Tor onto the mist below, it was a truly enchanting sight. The photographs I took were pretty poor sadly (trying to keep an eye on the kids in the dark on a steep hill may have had something to do with it!) and exist only as small, bad prints that I’ve scanned, but here they are! Included is a photo from a couple of years before, not from or of the Tor but of our first visit to Glastonbury Festival – it seemed to fit in with these!

Glastonbury Festival 1983

I’d been having a little reminisce about that magical episode as we sat at the top of the Tor on this more recent visit but was released from the memories by cold gusts of wind and dark clouds that had mounded up behind us from the east, so we gathered up our belongings and were about to start off down the hill but turned round for a final close-up view of the tower. We were dazzled by the brightly lit stone against the louring slate sky and at that point my eye was caught by two small details on the tower. 

Set into the stone of the tower flanking the west door were two square, semi-relief sculptures; on the left an angel is carrying scales, and on the right a woman milks a cow. I vaguely remember them from previous visits though had thought no more about them, but, on this occasion, the milkmaid captured my attention and my curiosity grew as I thought of the image more than once during the day. 

We took a different, “slightly” gentler westward route down the mound with Wearyall Hill in front of us and a little way along the path, as the town’s roofs became more prominent than the green and brown landscape, we saw a hooded man sitting on a bench with his back to the Tor swigging cider from a half empty Demi-john. Just beyond him was a hawthorn whose boughs were clad in strips of coloured cloth – a cloutie tree   and for a fleeting, slightly spine-chilling moment he looked like figure from the past, a monk – or an extra from a medieval mystery and myth film!

Beside the final gate before the road were two adjacent smooth, flat stones, like small gravestones with a narrow gap between them. Someone had jammed a bunch of fresh jonquils into the gap; another supplication, a gesture of gratitude, or a failed wooing?! Whatever the cause it looked both sad and charming and turning to photograph them I could also see the top of the tower on the Tor, peering down over its stepped hillside, as if reminding me to say farewell.

Over lunch, in a more hipster than hippy cafe in the town, I learnt (through the very modern magic of WiFi!) that the angel with the scales on St Michael’s tower is weighing souls, and the milkmaid is St Brigid, who, an hour or so later, with splendid synchronicity, makes her presence known again just down the hill… more of which in the this post.


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