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Glastonbury is a small town in Somersetmarker, Englandmarker, situated at a dry point on the Somerset Levels, south of Bristolmarker. The town has a population of 8,800. It is in the Mendip district.

The town is known for its history, including Glastonbury Lake Villagemarker, Glastonbury Abbeymarker, Somerset Rural Life Museummarker and Glastonbury Tormarker, the many myths and legends associated with the town, and the Glastonbury Festivalmarker which takes place in the nearby village of Piltonmarker.

On the south west of the town centre is Beckery which used to be a village in its own right but is now part of the suburbs. In the c.7th/8th centuries it was occupied by a small monastic community associated with a cemetery.



The origin of the name Glastonbury is unclear but when the settlement is first recorded in the 7th and the early 8th century, it was called Glestingaburg. The burg element is Anglo-Saxon and could refer either to a fortified place such as a burh or, more likely, a monastic enclosure, however the Glestinga element is obscure, and may derive from an Old English word or from a Saxon or Celtic personal name.

William of Malmesbury in his De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie gives the Old Celtic Ineswitrin (or Ynys Witrin) as its earliest name, and asserts that the founder of the town was the eponymous Glast, a descendant of Cunedda.

General history

During the 7th millennium BC the sea level rose and flooded the valleys and low lying ground surrounding Glastonbury so the Mesolithic people occupied seasonal camps on the higher ground, indicated by scatters of flints. The Neolithic people continued to exploit the reedswamps for their natural resources and started to construct wooden trackways. These included the Sweet Trackmarker, west of Glastonbury, which is one of the oldest engineered roads known and the oldest timber trackway discovered in Northern Europe. Tree-ring dating (dendrochronology) of the timbers has enabled very precise dating of the track, showing it was built in 3807 or 3806 BC. It has been claimed to be the oldest road in the world.

The track was discovered in the course of peat digging in 1970, and is named after its discoverer, Ray Sweet. It extended across the marsh between what was then an island at Westhaymarker, and a ridge of high ground at Shapwickmarker, a distance close to 2,000 metres (about 1.24 miles). The track is one of a network of tracks that once crossed the Somerset Levels. Built in the 39th century BC, during the Neolithic period, the track consisted of crossed poles of ash, oak and lime (Tilia) which were driven into the waterlogged soil to support a walkway that mainly consisted of oak planks laid end-to-end. Curves at the bases of the poles show that they were from coppiced woodland.

Most of the track remains in its original location, and several hundred metres of it are now actively conserved using a pumped water distribution system. Other portions are stored at the British Museummarker, Londonmarker, while a reconstruction can be seen at the Peat Moors Centremarker near Glastonbury. Since the discovery of the Sweet Track, it has been determined that it was actually built along the route of an even earlier track, the Post Track, dating from 3838 BC and so 30 years older.

Glastonbury Lake Villagemarker was an Iron Age village, close to the old course of the River Brue, on the Somerset Levels near Godneymarker, some north west of Glastonbury. It covers an area of north to south by east to west, and housed around 100 people in five to seven groups of houses, each for an extended family, with sheds and barns, made of hazel and willow covered with reeds, and surrounded either permanently or at certain times by a wooden palisade. The village was built in about 300 BC and occupied into the early Roman period (around 100AD) when it was abandoned, possibly due to a rise in the water level. It was built on a morass on an artificial foundation of timber filled with brushwood, bracken, rubble and clay.

During the Middle Ages the town largely depended on the abbey but also had important interests in the wool trade which reduced in the 18th century. A Saxon-era canal connected the Abbey to the River Brue. The towns charter of incorporation was received in 1705. Growth in the trade and economy was largely depended on the drainage of the surrounding moors. The opening of the Glastonbury Canal did cause an upturn in trade, and encouraged local building.

Richard Whiting, the last Abbot of Glastonbury, was executed with two of his monks on 15 November, 1539 during the dissolution of the monasteries.

Glastonbury received national media coverage in 1999 when cannabis plants were found in the town's floral displays.

Mythology and legends

Holy Thorn, Summer 1984.
Died in 1991.
Glastonbury is notable for myths and legends concerning Joseph of Arimathea, the Holy Grail and King Arthur. The legend that Joseph of Arimathea retrieved certain holy relics was introduced by the French poet Robert de Boron in his 13th century version of the grail story, thought to have been a trilogy though only fragments of the later books survive today. The work became the inspiration for the later Vulgate Cycle of Arthurian tales.

De Boron's account relates how Joseph captured Jesus' blood in a cup (the "Holy Grail") which was subsequently brought to Britain. The Vulgate Cycle reworked Boron's original tale. Joseph of Arimathea was no longer the chief character in the Grail origin: Joseph's son, Josephus, took over his role of the Grail keeper.

The earliest versions of the grail romance, however, do not call the grail "holy" or mention anything about blood, Joseph or Glastonbury.

In 1191, monks at the abbey claimed to have found the graves of Arthur and Guinevere to the south of the Lady Chapel of the Abbey church, which was visited by a number of contemporary historians including Giraldus Cambrensis. The remains were later moved and were lost during the Reformation. Many scholars suspect that this discovery was a pious forgery to substantiate the antiquity of Glastonbury's foundation, and increase its renown.

In some Arthurian literature Glastonbury is identified with the legendary island of Avalon. An early Welsh poem links Arthur to the Tor in an account of a confrontation between Arthur and Melwas, who had apparently kidnapped Queen Guinevere. According to some versions of the Arthurian legend, Lancelot retreated to Glastonbury Abbey in penance following the death of Arthur.
Joseph is said to have arrived in Glastonbury by boat over the flooded Somerset Levels. On disembarking he stuck his staff into the ground and it flowered miraculously into the Glastonbury Thorn (or Holy Thorn). This is the explanation of a hybrid hawthorn tree that only grows within a few miles of Glastonbury, that flowers twice annually, once in spring and again around Christmas time (depending on the weather). Each year a sprig of thorn is cut, by the local Anglican vicar and the eldest child from St John's School, and sent to the Queen.

The original Holy Thorn was a centre of pilgrimage in the Middle Ages but was chopped down during the English Civil War (in legend the roundhead soldier who did it was blinded by a flying splinter). A replacement thorn was planted in the 20th century on Wearyall hill (originally in 1951 to mark the Festival of Britain; but the thorn had to be replanted the following year as the first attempt did not take). Many other examples of the thorn grow throughout Glastonbury including those in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey, St Johns Church and Chalice Wellmarker.

Today, Glastonbury Abbeymarker presents itself as "traditionally the oldest above-ground Christian church in the World," which according to the legend was built at Joseph's behest to house the Holy Grail, 65 or so years after the death of Jesus. The legend also says that earlier Joseph had visited Glastonbury along with Jesus as a child. The legend probably was encouraged in the mediaeval period when religious relics and pilgrimages were profitable business for abbeys. William Blake mentioned the legend in a poem that became a popular hymn, 'Jerusalem' (see And did those feet in ancient time).

Glastonbury is also said to be the centre of several ley lines.


Glastonbury is in the Mendip local government district which is part of the county of Somersetmarker. It was previously administered by Glastonbury Municipal Borough.

It falls within the Wells constituency represented in the House of Commonsmarker of the Parliament of the United Kingdommarker. It elects one Member of Parliament by the first past the post system of election. The current MP is David Heathcoat-Amory, a member of the Conservative Party.

It is within the South West England which elects 7 MEPs using the d'Hondt method of party-list proportional representation.


The walk up the Tor to the distinctive tower at the summit (the partially restored remains of an old church) is rewarded by vistas of the Mid-Somerset area including the Levels, drained marshland. From there, above sea level , it is easy to appreciate how Glastonbury was once an island and, in the winter, the surrounding moors are often flooded, giving that appearance once more. It is an agricultural region typically with open fields of permanent grass, surrounded by ditches with willow trees. Access to the Moors and Levels is by "droves", i.e. green lanes. The Levels and inland Moors can be below peak tides and have large areas of peat. Although underlain by much older Triassic age formations that protrude to form what would once have been islands—such Glastonbury Tormarker. The lowland landscape was formed only during the last 10,000 years, following the end of the last ice age. Glastonbury Tor is composed of Upper Lias Sand.

Glastonbury is less than across the River Brue from the village of Streetmarker.


Glastonbury today is a centre for religious tourism and pilgrimage. Diverse strains of mysticism and paganism co-exist alongside the followers of its Catholic heritage. As with many towns of similar size, the centre is not as thriving as it once was but Glastonbury supports a remarkable number of alternative shops. The outskirts of the town include a DIY shop and the slow redevelopment of a former sheepskin and slipper factory site, once owned by Morlands. Although the redevelopment has been slow, clearance of the site has begun with a dramatic change to its appearance.


The Tribunalmarker, was a medieval merchant's house. It was used as the Abbey courthouse, and during the Monmouth Rebellion trials by Judge Jeffreys. It now serves as a museum containing possessions and works of art from the Glastonbury Lake Villagemarker which were preserved in almost perfect condition in the peat after the village was abandoned. It also houses the tourist information centre.

The octagonal Market Cross was built in 1846 by Benjamin Ferrey.

The Somerset Rural Life Museummarker is a museum of the social and agricultural history of Somerset, housed in buildings surrounding a 14th century barn once belonging to Glastonbury Abbeymarker. It was used for the storage of arable produce, particularly wheat and rye, from the abbey's home farm of approximately . Threshing and winnowing would also have been carried out in the barn. The barn which was built from local 'shelly' limestone, with thick timbers supporting the stone tiling of the roof. It has been designated by English Heritage as a grade I listed building, and is a Scheduled Ancient Monument. After the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539 the barn was given to the Duke of Somerset. By the early 20th century it was being used as a farm store by the Mapstone family. In 1974 they donated it to Somerset County Council and between 1976 and 1978 underwent restoration.

Cover of the Chalice Well
The Chalice Wellmarker is a holy well situated at the foot of the Tor. The natural spring has been in almost constant use for at least two thousand years. Water issues from the spring at a rate of 25,000 gallons per day and has never failed, even during drought. Iron oxide deposits give water a reddish hue, as dissolved ferrous oxide becomes oxygenated at the surface and is precipitated. Like the hot springs in nearby Bathmarker, the water is believed to possess healing qualities. The well itself is built of stone blocks and forms 2 underground chambers, the inner one reached through an archway at the foot of the west wall of the well-shaft. Total depth is about Wooden well-cover with wrought-iron decoration made in 1919. In addition to the legends associated with Glastonbury, the Well is often portrayed as a symbol of the female aspect of deity, with the male symbolised by Glastonbury Tormarker. As such, it is a popular destination for pilgrims in search of the divine feminine, including modern Pagans. The Well is however popular with all faiths and in 2001 became a World Peace Garden.


The Glastonbury Canal ran just over through two locks from Glastonbury to Highbridgemarker where it entered the Bristol Channelmarker in the early 1800s, however this became uneconomic with the arrival of the railway.

Glastonbury and Streetmarker was the biggest station on the original Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway main line from Highbridge to Evercreech Junctionmarker until closed in 1966 under the Beeching axe. It was the junction for the short branch line to Wellsmarker which closed in 1951.

Road transport is provided by the A39 which passes through Glastonbury from Wellsmarker connecting the town with Streetmarker and the M5 motorway. The other roads around the town are small and run across the levels generally following the drainage ditches.


There are several infant and primary schools in Glastonbury and the surrounding villages. Secondary education for 11 - 16 year olds is provided by St Dunstan's Community Schoolmarker.

Strode Collegemarker in Streetmarker provides academic and vocational courses for those aged 16–18 and adult education.

Religious sites

The ruins of the abbeymarker are open to visitors; the abbey had a violent end during the Dissolution and the buildings were progressively destroyed as their stones were removed for use in local building work. The remains of the Abbot's Kitchen (a grade I listed building.) and the Lady Chapel are particularly well-preserved. Not far away is situated the Somerset Rural Life Museummarker, which includes the restored Abbey Barn. Other points of interest include St. John's Church, the Chalice Wellmarker, and the historic George and Pilgrims Innmarker, built to accommodate visitors to the Abbey.

The Church of St Benedict was rebuilt by Abbot Beere in about 1520.

The Church of St John the Baptistmarker dates from the 15th century.


The local football side is Glastonbury F.C.marker

Glastonbury Cricket Clubmarker competes in the West of England Premier League, one of the ECB Premier Leagues which are the highest level of recreational cricket in England and Wales. The club plays at the former Morlands Athletic Ground which used to stage Somerset County Cricket Club first-class fixtures.

Notable people

See also


  1. [1]Project Gutenburg - french text of Le Roman de I'Estoire dou Graal
  2. [2] Vulgate Cycle Arthurian Legends
  3. A Vision of Britain Through Time : Glastonbury Municipal Borough

Further reading

  • Geoffrey Ashe, King Arthur's Avalon: The Story of Glastonbury, 1957

External links

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