Tuesday, March 19, 2013

CLIMBING GLASTONBURY TOR and other mystical places in Somerset

By Stephanie Cowell

The first day I came to Glastonbury I climbed the Tor; I opened the gate and a short way along the gently ascending muddy path, found ten enormous cows in my way. They moved politely aside, and I continued upward. I climbed and climbed, stopping now and then to sit on the most welcome benches. Below me the green fields of Somerset receded. My heart beat faster, not only for the climb, but because I was ascending to a holy place.

Tor is a local word of Celtic origin meaning rock outcropping or hill.  The Glastonbury Tor is 514 feet high and when you finally approach the top you find the ruins of St. Michael’s Church. Monks have worshiped here since the fifth century and this present church survived until the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539 when the last Abbot of Glastonbury, the gentle and good old Richard Whiting, was hanged, drawn and quartered along with two of his monks. 

From all sides the country of Somerset rolled away so far below me. The wind rushed about the ruins; I was almost unnerved by their ferocity.

I was almost entirely alone on the Tor that day.  
My husband and I had come to Glastonbury where he was taking a spiritual class, so when he was in his training I had hours to wander about. I was drawn the second day to walk down to the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey where I sat for hours, sensing the active spiritual and intellectual life which had been here in 1539. 

The library was one of the great glories of its time and less than 40 of its books have ever been found. Scholar James Carley tells us that earliest identified surviving manuscripts from Glastonbury Abbey date from the ninth and tenth centuries, but there are reliable post-Conquest traditions claiming that valuable books were found at the monastery as early as the reign of Ine, king of the West Saxons (688–726).

a book from Glastonbury circa 960 now in Bodleian Library
When I could tear myself away I walked down a quiet road to the small entrance to the Glastonbury gardens. This contains the Chalice Well which marks the site where Joseph of Arimathea is said to have placed the chalice that had caught the drops of Christ's blood at the Crucifixion. Again the peace of the whole area and the little town surrounded me. 

The third day was marked for a special spiritual initiation ceremony for the class at Stonehenge. We arrived after the gates were closed to visitors and were allowed within the ropes which prevented people from approaching and chipping off bits of the stones as souvenirs as they had done in the past. 

The stones, still warm from the sun, felt alive under my hand and very ancient. I stood a little to the side of the group during the spiritual initiation and time seemed to stop for me. My breath seemed to stop. I drifted between worlds.

We all piled back in a tour bus to take us back to Glastonbury. Darkness was falling as we approached the little town. “The Tor!” a woman called. Darkened against the setting sun, the remains of the St. Michael’s Tower stood out against the sky, waiting for us.

  “But I never climbed the Tor,” my husband said as we took a bus back towards London. 

So a few years after, we returned from America once more. We walked the path from town to the Tor entrance and opened the gate. Up we climbed as the fields and houses of Somerset spread below us. Strangely my husband was not tired at all but kept steadily on. We stood together at the top in the clean winds and he photographed the broken Tower. We could barely tear ourselves away.

I do not know when I’ll return to Glastonbury; I do miss it. I have not begun to deeply study all its mysteries. There are many books about it. But when I close my eyes and believe myself standing on top of the Tor again in the wind, I feel the same entire peace. It is inside me whenever I want it. It’s waiting for you, too.


Historical novelist Stephanie Cowell writes about English history and historic people in the arts. She is the author of Nicholas Cooke, The Physician of London, The Players: a novel of the young Shakespeare, Marrying Mozart (which debuted as an opera/play in NYC this past December) and Claude & Camille: a novel of Monet. She is the recipient of the American Book Award. Her work has been translated into nine languages. Her website is http://www.stephaniecowell.com


  1. Glastonbury is one of the top 10 places in the world I want to visit. I love to hike and I love sacred places and history, so it does sound like a perfect storm.

    Great post--looking forward to exploring some of your books as well. By the titles, they are just up my alley :)

  2. I climbed the Tor several times when writing my Pendragon's Banner Trilogy - anything about Arthur has to include it of course!
    Fascinating to hear the wind whispering in the grass up the top there!

    1. Read those books about 10 years ago after reading Harold the King. All absolutely brilliant books :) unfortunately they are out of print and my sister is still trying to find them so she can read the whole trilogy!

    2. 'Unknown' - My Pendragon's Banner Trilogy is in print in the US and UK (UK versions are better quality though, I think) Look under my name on Amazon The Kingmaking, Pendragon's Banner & Shadow of the King.

  3. Lovely post, and of course I know Glastonbury so well. I'm a native of Somerset, my home town being that of the ecclesiastical City of Wells.

    Next time you pay visit to Glastonbury don't miss the chance to walk on Wearyall Hill, where Joseph of Aramathea purportedly struck his staff to the ground and thence a holy thorn grew: the original one. Similar sense of spiritual peace prevails on Wearyall to that of the Tor. Unfortunately, some vicious vandal cut the tree down not so long ago, but there is a Holy Thorn in the grounds of St John's Church and it does flower at Christmas.

    On the opposite side of the road to the Abbey ruins, just down the slope from the mini-roundabout (leading to Street)lies a narrow passage way. At the end there's a small chapel dated same time as the abbey. Due to its hidden aspect it survived the dissolution of the monastery. When I had access to the chapel by kind permission of a key-holder, it had the largest most beautiful bible I had ever seen.

    The George Hotel - bottom of the high street - is unusual too, not to mention the carved stonework. The hotel's original name was Pilgrims Rest and was part of the monks hostelry. But there is so much more in that area than just Glastonbury. ;)

  4. Stephanie, That's a wonderful article. I felt your spirit there at Tor, and now I long to visit Glastonbury. Thanks for sharing the details of your two journeys.

  5. Your wonderful post makes me want to visit Glastonbury, and climb the Tor, as well. There's a pilgrimage site in Galicia, Spain, where my husband and I go, and one of these days I want to walk a section of the Ruta Jacobea, too. I've been to England, as I have relatives there. Years ago I did see Stonehenge, but I'm oh, so envious that you and your husband got to see it from inside the ropes.

  6. That a wonderful and inspiring post! Just reading your description of Glastonbury has mesmerized me; it thrills me to imagine what it would be like to experience it in person. Thank you so much for sharing your journey with us!

  7. This is a wonderful post, Stephanie...I've never been able to get enough of the place...there's a draw you just can't describe. I wonder if you had any 'experiences' when you were there...the place is simply mystical.

  8. Oh FRANCINE, I must go back to Glastonbury and see that chapel and Bible! You live in Wells?? I went there at least twice. Do you know that church in Glastonbury with the dozen or so ancient and now unoccupied tiny almshouses? Someone from the church showed them to me. I always hung around The George and wished we could stay there. GAYEMACK, yes I did have "experiences" there...many. I am a pretty spiritual person and I wrote a blog for somewhere about the mystical aspects of HF but can't recall where! Here? ELIZABETH, I felt the stones in Stonehenge were holy and held all they had seen these thousands of years. Other people took photos; I just stood there half in another world. EVERYONE: Thanks for your kind words!

  9. How enticing you make it sound, Stephanie! I hope to visit when next in England.

  10. Sigh! I once spent about two hours in Glastonbury and had no chance to climb the Tor. We were staying in Bath and took a bus via Wells - at least we got to see the wonderful Wells cathedral while waiting for the Glastonbury bus. I did get to see the monastery ruins, but then we had to catch the last bus back to Wells at about 3 pm. Maybe some day there will be time to go back.

  11. The closest I've gotten to England is Ireland last Spring Break...you have almost made me yearn for this experience. What a wonderful post!

  12. What an inspiring post! I could almost feel the spirituality oozing from the warmth of the stones and from your descriptions I can also imagine the settings in your novel to be quite evocative too! I will certainly share the post but also try and visit one day


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