Set amidst marshland in the south-west of England is a mystical isle that has enchanted many religious and spiritual pilgrims for millennia. Jutting prominently out of this sacred landscape is the iconic landmark Glastonbury Tor, visible from all directions. When approaching the isle at dawn or dusk at certain times of the year, an indelible vision greets you as the water from the marshy ground transforms fervently into mist.
Picture: Flooding of the levels takes us back in time to how the mystical isle may have looked
Somerset is known as the land of the summer people because most of the land could only be lived on when it dried over the summer months. At the start of the Early Medieval period (5th to 7th centuries), the Somerset Levels were a bountiful wetland, comprised of intertidal marshes towards the coast and freshwater peatlands in the river Brue valley eastwards towards Glastonbury. At this time Glastonbury Abbey was granted various estates in the Somerset Levels and draining of the marshland commenced, to create rich farmland.
Every winter the reclaimed land floods, in some years it’s more severe than others. In autumn 2023, wild storm Ciarán unleashed heavy rains, the waters rose and the enigmatic and mystical isle returned. When the Somerset Levels flood, it’s easy to imagine what it may have been like before the wetlands were dredged. As the clouds clear, the sun dances on the water and reflections of the Tor glisten. Some believe there was an ancient sea of glass here and rising out of it, was the isle of glass. Irrespective of whether this is true, from various view points on the levels, you can clearly make out the isle of glass when the land floods.
Picture: Glastonbury Tor Rises Above Flooded Marsh On The Somerset Levels
Religious and devotional practices have been occurring here for millennia. When you walk around the isle, it feels like you are treading a path with the ancients and there is an understanding that you are part of and not separate from this land. You’ll discover a plethora of sacred sites and power spots around Glastonbury. These are thin places, where the veil between this world and the Otherworld is thin. Thin places are about being connected, a place where you can more easily hear the land talking to you. There are many places you can connect with the land in Glastonbury, simply become still and quieten your mind and be guided.
Picture: Glastonbury Tor Burr / Egg Stone on the south facing slope, a thin place
The ancients believed the Otherworld was located either on an island or underneath the earth. Glastonbury is hailed by some as the isle of Avalon and like many mythical paradise isles, it has captured people’s imagination of throughout the ages. Perhaps Avalon is actually ‘Britonization’ of Irish mythology. Reminiscent of the island of Hy-Brasil off the west coast of Ireland. An isle shrouded in a cloud of mystery, filled with treasures and only reveals itself once every seven years. Or the fabled Emain Ablach, a paradisical island which is the domain of a sea God. Irrespective, isles like this belong to the Otherworld, the realm of the fairies.
Celtic myths recount the Tor is hollow and contains the underworld of Annwn, the magical domain of King Gwyn ap Nudd. Avalon was an isle of enchantment and considered the meeting place of the dead. The point where the dead passed to another level of existence. The isle was a sacred burial ground, made renowned by the legend that King Arthur came here after being mortally wounded.
Below the Tor are two majestic yew trees that a traveller into the Otherworld greets as they enter the physical isle and gains permission to step through the portal. Then they continue the steep journey in reverence, to reach the summit of the Tor. Alternatively, there is terracing around the Tor which has been interpreted as a labyrinth. Only attempt it if you can navigate challenging paths.
Picture: one of the paths up the misty Tor
Even today getting to Glastonbury is a pilgrimage, particularly if you come on public transport. In fact, getting here is an initiation in itself, so if you make the voyage, try to spend more than a couple of days here because there is a lot more here than meets the eye. It is certainly a place of healing and rejuvenation and a hub for spiritual tourism. They myths and legends are captivating. Sometimes it’s good to let your imagination flow and in doing this you can either visit the town of Glastonbury, or you can reach the isle Avalon through the mist.
The mystical nature of Glastonbury even captivated the hearts of early Christians and this will be discussed in the next blog.