Glastonbury's 'New Age' echoes ancient traditions: Unearthing the town's centuries-old spiritual roots
By Laura Linham
25th Jun 2023 | Local Features
Look at the comments on any article about an alternative lifestyle in Glastonbury and you'll see the arguments.
In one corner, The Glastonians, born and bred in the town, their family going back generations furious that 'their' home has been taken over by 'lunatics, shamans and crystal shops'. In the other corner, the Glastafarians - reminding everyone that Glastonbury would be 'just another dying market town' if they hadn't arrived and made it their home. And in between, people who want to know why we can't all get along.
But just when did Glastonbury become a mecca for the mystical and alternative? When did the healers, the herbalists become an integral part of the town?
Contrary to what many believe, the magnetic pull of Glastonbury has transcended conventional norms for centuries. The town's rich history reveals how its unique allure has resonated across generations, enticing those who defy mainstream societal constructs and prompting them to make Glastonbury their sanctuary. This phenomenon, however, isn't recent; the intriguing tapestry of Glastonbury's history, dating back to the Middle Ages, reveals a vibrant mecca of alternative lifestyles.
Glastonbury Tor dominates the landscape with St Michael's Tower, the solitary remnant of a 14th-century church that replaced an earlier one felled by an earthquake, proudly perched on top. Yet this hill, witness to Roman, Celtic, and Neolithic fortifications, is steeped in far more than just architectural history. The lore of Glastonbury Tor includes biblical and Arthurian legends – tales of Joseph of Arimathea, King Arthur, and even Jesus Christ strolling through its 'pleasant pastures', as immortalized by poet William Blake.
Glastonbury's liminal terrain, straddling both land and sea, has been a magnet for mystical beliefs since ancient times. Celtic tribes considered the landscape a portal to Annwn, the underworld ruled by Gwyn ab Nudd. Despite the advent of Christianity in Britain, the monks of Glastonbury Abbey felt an inexplicable, potent energy permeating their surroundings.
In 1191, they claimed to have found the grave of King Arthur and his queen, Guinevere. These skeletal remains were moved to a marble tomb within the church, only to mysteriously disappear when the abbey was demolished during the 1539 Reformation.
During the later Middle Ages, the town thrived with a diverse array of entertainment rooted in the parish church. The 15th and 16th centuries witnessed a range of performances - from Christmas plays to puppet shows and morris dancing - all organised to support church funds, and all enjoying a revival in the town today.
Around 1586-7, it is said that Dr. John Dee, an astrologer and mathematician, made a noteworthy discovery of the philosopher's stone amidst the ruins of the abbey, hinting at Glastonbury's long-standing relationship with the mystical and metaphysical.
In the 18th century, the town became a magnet for thousands seeking cures from water flowing through the abbey precinct
A man named Matthew Chancellor from North Wootton and others from as far as Lancashire and the West Midlands, claimed that the water flowing through the abbey precinct and near Chaingate mill held healing properties. This resulted in an influx of about ten thousand visitors each month andd a pump room was built in 1753 by Mrs. Anne Galloway, attracting visitors throughout the 1780s.
The pump room, located on Magdalene Street's west side, was incorporated into a private residence. Walks and gardens were also planned around it. . The water, rumoured to have healing properties, was even bottled for sale in London, indicating Glastonbury's early reputation as a haven for seekers of alternative healing.
Towards the end of the 18th century, a second effort to commercially exploit the water was made at Tor House, which used to be the Anchor Inn and later became Chalice Well House. The site housed a spring well known as the Blood Well - now known as the Chalice Well - and a bathing place. The house was bought by a brewer and a druggist in 1798 while it was still an inn.
The owner tried selling the water to aerated water companies in 1877. The house stopped functioning as an inn in 1880. However, memories of people queuing to get water at Tor House persisted in the 1880s. The Sacred Heart Fathers, who resided at Tor House from 1886, exchanged bottled water for contributions to the apostolic school there.
The Chalice Well Trust took over from Alice Buckton at Chalice Well House in 1958. The trust was led by Wellesley Tudor Pole, who was inspired by the finding of a vessel that some believe to be the Holy Grail. The well in the garden of Chalice Well House is now a popular pilgrimage site and Glastonbury water continues to be sold commercially.
Archaeological explorations coincided with a burgeoning spiritualist movement among the British elite. Alfred Watkins, a British archaeologist, proposed that the multitude of sacred pagan and Neolithic landmarks around Glastonbury were located on intersecting 'Ley Lines'. In his work, The Old Straight Track, Watkins proposed that these invisible tracks connecting three or more ancient sites were charted by early civilisations and held spiritual significance.
As Watkins theorised about ley lines, Glastonbury was becoming a hub for alternative spiritualists like Dion Fortune, a writer and occultist. Following her expulsion from The Hermetic Order of The Golden Dawn in 1924, Fortune founded The Society of the Inner Light and established a guest house in Glastonbury that served as the society's spiritual hub. Among her contemporaries was Elsie Hartshorn, a spiritualist, clairvoyant, and writer who professed to receive messages from a cosmic entity, The Lord Mikaal. Her seminal work, The Winds of Truth, remains the cornerstone of the enduring Group of Solar Teachings.
Even the town's archaelogical excavations at the ruins of the abbey were far from conventional: In 1907, Frederic Bligh Bond joined excavations in monastic buildings taking place at Glastonbury, where he was appointed unpaid director by the diocese of Bath and Wells. This work uncovered the dimensions and purpose of a number of the monastic buildings, notably the Edgar and Loretto Chapels. However, Bond went on to claimed that the breakthroughs were brought about by the mediumship of his friend John Bartlett making contact with dead monks from the time of the early history of the abbey. He published his results in a book The Gate of Remembrance, which lead to his dismissal in 1921 by the dean of Bath and Wells.
Alice Buckton, in 1912, even established a school of Pageantry at Chalice Well House. Glastonbury drew in many luminaries as a town of dynamic cultural exchange and intellectual pursuits, such as the composer Rutland Boughton, who organised annual music and drama festivals between 1914 and 1926.
Glastonbury's spiritual significance continued to grow. The beatification of Abbot Richard Whiting, John Thorne, and Roger James in 1895, and the ensuing Roman Catholic pilgrimage, added to the town's spiritual weight. Even today, the town remains an epicenter for Anglican and Roman Catholic pilgrimages.
The 20th century, however, marked a significant turning point for Glastonbury. With the identification of Glastonbury as the centre of the Temple of the Stars in 1935 - Some claim the temple to depict a colossal landscape zodiac, a map of the stars on a gigantic scale, formed by features in the landscape (roads, streams, field boundaries, etc.). The theory was first put forward in 1934 by Katherine Maltwood, an artist who "discovered" the zodiac in a vision, and held that the "temple" was created by Sumerians in about 2700 BC. The idea was revived in 1969 by Mary Caine in an article in the magazine Gandalf's Garden - and although there is no support for this theory, or for the existence of the "temple" in any form, from conventional archaeologists or mainstream historians, with the rising popularity of alternative lifestyles in the 1960s, Glastonbury's profile began to shift.
The Glastonbury Music Festival - which bears the town's name, despite being miles away in Pilton - was initiated in 1970, drew many visitors and settlers. This surge sparked a growth in mystical tourism, book and craft shops, and new-age educational institutions like the University of Avalon in the town.
Today - regardless of your personal beliefs - Glastonbury is a timeless hub of non-conventional lifestyles, home to those seeking an alternative path. Its allure lies in its unique blend of history, myth, and innovation. Whether you're a follower of alternative medicine, a seeker of spiritual growth, an artist, someone who's family has lived here for generations, or simply a wanderer in the quest for a unique experience, Glastonbury's character is deeply rooted in its ancient history, coupled with its vibrant present and a treasure trove of unique experiences.