Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 14, 2010

Thorn Tree in the Garden

An act of vandalism in England last week presents an opportunity to write about Glastonbury. Vandals hacked all the limbs off the Glastonbury Thorn Tree. Great, you’re thinking, we have wars, pestilence, disease and Ron Paul in charge of overseeing the Fed, and now we have some bleeding-heart tree-hugging story. Before you log off, though, the tree’s story is interesting, and, whether you come to care about the its fate or not, there are fascinating things to learn about Glastonbury.

I wandered into Glastonbury on foot on a summer day in 1977, intending to take a look at the ruins of the Abbey, and discovered one of the world’s amazing places.

It’s likely that even moderately avid Anglophiles know little more about Glastonbury than that it has a notable ruined Abbey (plenty of those in Britain) or, if you’re in the rock ‘n roll crowd, that there is an enormous outdoor music festival near there. Glastonbury doesn’t make the short list on itineraries of visitors to England, who, if they’re in the area, merely zoom past the turnoff for Glastonbury on the way between Exeter and Bath or Wells. If, however, one is interested in tales of ancient England, of King Arthur and the Grail legend, or stories even older, well, Glastonbury is the sine qua non of your search. There, according to legend, Arthur and Guenevere once lived and were buried (though someone carelessly lost them somewhere along the line; many blame Cromwell and that gang, but they’re blamed for almost everything bad in England that can’t otherwise be blamed on Margaret Thatcher or Camilla), and many tales relate that it was the site of Avalon, Arthur’s kingdom that lies beyond the world we see. Whether you’re touring as a kind of pseudo-medieval journalist or merely wandering for a glimpse of old ruins, Glastonbury is a far-out place, as I intend to show you.

The most immediately accessible site is that of Glastonbury Abbey. There’s not much of the Abbey left these days other than Evocative Ruins, thanks to the dissolution of monastic establishments under Henry VIII, and subsequent stripping from those buildings of their lead roofs, which were invaluable, as well as a lot of the original stone, now incorporated into other local buildings. Once a roof is off a stone building, it deteriorates with shocking rapidity in the English weather.

Here is how the Abbey appeared when I was there in 1977.

Glastonbury Abbey Brad Nixon 5630 (640x440)

There’s also a better-preserved building, the Bishop’s Kitchen, from the 13th Century, still extant on the grounds. You can see it beyond the Abbey facade in the following shot, recognizable by its tall, chimney-like roof.

Glastonbury Abbey Brad Nixon 5503 (538x640)

OK. Evocative old ruins (equal to Tintern Abbey, except you can’t quote from a Wordsworth poem about the place while you’re there), association with King Arthur. What else you got, Nixon?

The fact of the matter is that unless you breeze into town in your rented car or on a tour bus, snap a few photos, and quickly motor on, you cannot AVOID the unusual, the offbeat and the downright weird in Glastonbury. The place is awash in tales, legends, mysticism, the occult, dowsers, spiritualists and far-out dudes and dudettes. I was in town about twenty minutes, chatting with whomever I encountered (except in the shops with the signs, “No Hippies or Long Hair,” which I did not enter, possessing the latter quality), and in short order had connected with a series of local hangers-on who regaled me with enough lore to serve as a the basis for a Discovery Channel special. Where to start? It’s easy: The Tor.

Glastonbury Tor is a big mass of dense clay capped with sandstone that’s kept it from eroding with the surrounding land. It looms on the outskirts of town, and is topped by a tall stone tower.

Glastonbury Tor Brad Nixon 5632 (640x420)

Archaeology reveals that humans have been living on and around the Tor for something like 5,000 years. Up until not-so-ancient times, the entire Glastonbury area was a low-lying, poorly drained fenland, mostly covered with water, so the Tor was a naturally fortified place. At some uncertain time in prehistory, someone leveled out 7 spiraling terraces around the circumference of the Tor, for reasons unknown. The explanations range from the mundane (cattle paths or terraced agriculture) to the way-out (a spiraling ritual labyrinth to be walked by initiates entering the Underground Kingdom of Gwynn ap Nudd, the Lord of the Fairies). Then, a notable archaeologist in the first half of the 20th Century reported that a study of the countryside surrounding the Tor revealed the presence of a carefully constructed series of man-made lines and enclosures that divided the land into 12 plots, associated with the signs of the Zodiac. Theories abounded and occultists rallied round.

The Celtic name for the Tor was, reportedly, Ynys yr Afalon — Avalon!

The tower that now stands on the Tor is a modern reconstruction of a structure from the 1360s (laid low by the same decree that ended the Abbey), but there have been Christian sites in that spot about as long as the religion has been in England, with evidence of pagan sites extending back thousands of years.

One additional overlay of mystic intrigue is the notion of ley lines. A cadre of spiritualists/mystics/dowsers a hundred years or so ago determined that many of the ancient pagan sites across Britain were aligned along axes of power related to magnetism and underground wells or springs and maybe phlogiston, too. Is there a spring next to the Tor? Natch! It, therefore, is considered a nexus of converging ley lines which, purportedly, the ancient Briton shamans could use to guide them across the island, perhaps send messages along and, according to some stories (which Thomas Pynchon manages to work into his Mason & Dixon), fly along those lines of power.

Woof. But wait ….

So the gang of locals who were cluing me into all this amazing stuff let me know that there was a special quality about the tower on the Tor, and that if one spent the night there, one could have Significant Experiences: sleeping in the base of the tower gave one dreams of contentment and peace and healing, while sleeping in the top of the tower brought dreams and visions of power and terror and … well, you get the idea.

CLICK HERE to read what Wikipedia has to offer about the Tor. I’m exhausted. Plus you’ll find better photos of the Tor and its terracing. I never got a good angle on the spot during daylight. HERE seems to be the “official” site of glastonburytor.org.

As if that were  not enough for a small town, there’s the Thorn Tree. Legend says that Joseph of Arimathea — either Christ’s uncle or great-uncle — came to Glastonbury carrying the cup in which had been captured some of Christ’s blood at the time of his crucifixion. Here, of course, one is speaking of The Holy Grail. (There’s also a related story that Joseph had brought Jesus to the island as a boy, giving us Blake’s “And did those feet in ancient times” poem. Quite a traveler, ol’ Joe.) As the story goes, Joseph stopped in Glastonbury to rest, thrust his staff in the ground, then fell asleep. When he woke up, he discovered that his staff had taken root, grown into a thorn tree, and flowered. Since he was already carrying that cup of blood, the association of thorns and the crucifixion were enough for Joseph: he took it as a sign and he concealed the Grail near Glastonbury, which we already know is associated with Avalon and there’s all this other powerful stuff going on and then Arthur sets up shop, the knights fan out looking for the Grail and … well, that’s the story. It’s an odd coincidence that I made reference in a blog post to Sir Percival’s encounter with the Fisher King during his search for the Grail (CLICK HERE for that post) just a day before I read about the damage to the Thorn Tree (Twilight Zone theme music plays).

Whatever its origin, a thorn tree did grow there in Glastonbury, for hundreds — if not thousands — of years, and, without taking the Joseph story as gospel (sorry), it’s not easy to account for why it’s there, because it is a bona fide native species from the Middle East. Or, some claim that to be so, while others say it’s merely a hybrid graft from a common English hawthorn. Whatever the case, there is the mysterious circumstance that the tree blooms twice a year, at Christmas and at Easter. Mystery upon mystery.

Now, that “original” thorn tree was cut down by, whom? No, not the Duchess of Cornwall. Cromwell’s gang, bent, as always, upon eliminating symbols of superstition, cut it down around 1650. (Mrs. Chuck was born a couple of years later). BUT, locals preserved cuttings from the original tree, which were nursed along and in about 1950 were planted in a couple of spots in Glastonbury, one of which eventually established roots, and which I saw in ’77. Wikipedia tells us that the tree I saw died in ’91, and was replaced by a later cultivar. No, I didn’t take a photo. (One took a lot fewer photos in those days of 35mm film.) CLICK HERE to see just one of many stories you can find online about the vandalism, and you’ll find photos, too.

Whether one believes any part of any of this or not, from flying along ley lines to Christianity itself doesn’t detract from Glastonbury’s occult allure. Thinking I would see only a picturesque ruin associated with the Arthurian legends, I found an entire subculture of magic and mystery. One of the pleasures of traveling without a predetermined schedule.

Word has it, by the way, that there are plenty of cuttings from the now-deceased thorn tree, and that they’ll be planted to continue the tradition, if at some remove from ol’ Joe’s original staff. As an additional literary note — purely speculative on my part — fans of The Lord of the Rings might consider if this old tree provided the germ for Tolkein’s idea of the dead tree that stands in the fountain of the palace of Gondor, which is ultimately restored. If you get a graduate thesis out this idea, please credit me with the suggestion.

Oh, and, you’ll wonder, did I sleep in the base of the tower or the top? Well, some of those chaps I met invited me to stay in their caravan (in the U.S. that’s a “trailer”) camped out in the countryside, not far from the foot of the Tor. I have to tell you that after days of hiking and hitching along the roads of southern England, with the sky looking like there’d be rain and maybe lightning that night, I did not find any appeal in the notion of cowering in a damp old stone tower, the tallest point for maybe thirty miles in any direction that might as well have a sign saying, “Mind the Lightning.” I slept very nicely on the floor of the caravan, thank you. I woke at dawn, shouldered my pack and stepped out into the first dim light and heard, for the one time in my life, a cuckoo’s song. I headed toward Wales, not, so far as I knew, along any recognizable Line of Power but my own.

© Brad Nixon 2010, 2017

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