Being old gains you lots of interesting layers. We are talking about places, aren't we? The burial mounds near Stonehenge to the ancient hippies in Gloustonbury span almost eight thousand years. In between, a lot of living has taken place in Southwestern England. Layers of churches, roads, farms, towns, and families are the topics of discussion everywhere. It's not hard to get the locals to tell the stories.
Saving Stonehenge for last, we drove to Wells first this morning. The Cathedral there has one of the most open air and light designs I've seen. And the view of the transet appears very much like a modern art sculpture, with powerful curves and ellipses. On one wall is an intricate figurine clock, with riders on horseback jousting on the quarter hour.
In 1086, Glastonbury Abbey was the richest monastery in the country. As businesses go, it was the Apple of its day. It began as probably the first Christian church in the world. After the crucifixion of Jesus, lore has it that Joseph of Arimathea (who according to the Bible donated his own tomb for Christ's interment after the Crucifixion) came to Britain, bearing the Holy Grail - the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper and later by Joseph to catch his blood at the crucifixion. When Joseph landed on the island of Avalon (the town's name when it was an island), he set foot on Wearyall Hill - just below the Tor (large limestone hill). Exhausted, he thrust his staff into the ground, and rested. By morning, his staff had taken root - leaving a strange oriental thorn bush - the sacred Glastonbury Thorn. For safe keeping, Joseph is said to have buried the Holy Grail just below the Tor at the entrance to the Underworld. Shortly after he had done this, a spring, now known as Chalice Well, flowed forth and the water that emerged brought eternal youth to whosoever would drink it.
Legend proclaims that after Arthur's death, a powerful spirit haunted the ruins of the Abbey, appearing as a black-armoured knight with red glowing eyes and a burning desire to eradicate all records of the ancient Arthurian legends, which is why, it is said, that those seeking to discover the truth, find so few facts available.
Glastonbury, in addition to many other places, like Caerleon and Tintagel, has been linked to King Arthur. This link though, at Glastonbury, is in death rather than life. The connection of the Isle of Apples or Avalloc, to Avalon was thought to have been first made in about the 12th century and then reported by William of Malmesbury the interpolator, in his De antiquitae Glatoniensis ecclesie and Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia regum Britanniae.
Arthur was the legendary English King - 'Arthur of the Britons', before Saxon times. He was born out of wedlock and raised by wizard Merlin. When only a boy, after many men had tried and failed, Arthur gained the throne by withdrawing the magic sword Excalibur from a stone. The nearby Cadbury Castle, at North Cadbury supposedly became his 'Camelot'.
Centuries later (in 1191) prompted by hints and rumours, the monks excavated this same spot in the cemetery and they dug down sixteen feet, to find an oaken coffin. At a depth of seven feet they found a stone beneath which was a leaden cross with an inscription His iacet inclitus Arturius in insula Avalonia - variously interpreted to read 'Here lies King Arthur buried in Avalon'! The coffin contained two bodies - a great man and a woman, whose golden hair was still intact, until touched, when it crumbled away. The bodies were said to be Arthur's and Guinevere's.
A century later in 1278 the bones were placed in caskets and transferred during a state visit by King Edward 1, to a black marble tomb before the High Altar in the great Abbey Church. There they remained until the Abbey was vandalised after the dissolution in 1539. No one has seen, or heard anything of them since.
Today a notice board marks the spot of Arthur's final resting place. Occasionally people lay flowers there to honour this mighty King whose life and death gave birth to so many myths and legends. These mystical tales that still envelope Glastonbury Abbey in a cloak of mystery add to its profoundly rich and timeless history.
After a couple of bean and tuna baked potatoes (and blueberry smoothies), we drove to Stonehenge. There's almost no words which adequately describes this ruin, and the National Trust has done an excellent job presenting it through hand-held audio equipment and secure barriers to prevent graffiti. We talked with some staff there about the more recent local excavations revealing earlier structures dating back to five thousand years BC.
Here are two links to the photos taken today: Saturday morning, August 11th, Southwest England