Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Pilgrimages: And Those Feet Did...


Back in November you may recall me telling you that I was off on a pilgrimage to Glastonbury. Several months later and here is my account of a trip to a place in England where those feet may well have walked...

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Links to accounts of all my pilgrimages:

Pilgrimages: To the Holy Island

Pilgrimages: Nazareth in Norfolk

Pilgrimages: And Those Feet Did...

Pilgrimages: The Sacred Heart of Wales

Pilgrimages: Across the Sound

And those feet did…

An Account of a Pilgrimage to Glastonbury

Copyright © 2012, Matthew E. Pointon


           And did those feet in ancient time.
          Walk upon England's mountains green:
          And was the holy Lamb of God,
          On England's pleasant pastures seen!

          And did the Countenance Divine,
          Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
          And was Jerusalem builded here,
          Among these dark Satanic Mills?
William Blake (1804)


Those immortal words by William Blake are ones that have haunted and inspired me since my teenage years. Did those feet, Christ’s feet, walk upon the green fields of my own country? And can we, can I, as a Christian and as a socialist, help built Jerusalem, the city where all is as it should be, here in this country where so much is so unfair? Eighteen years after first learning them, I still have yet to find the answer.


Ever since going to pray at the Holy Sepulchre back in 2009 I had not been on a pilgrimage. A lot had happened in my life since them and my faith had waned more than waxed. I needed a time of quiet, of reflection, of peace if I were to start about building my own personal Jerusalem. After Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem following their exile in Babylon, they were led by Nehemiah. When he arrived he found a city devastated, without even walls to protect. His job is to rebuild those walls but before he sets about this holy task, he sits down, takes a moment of quiet and prays. After the tumult of my separation and subsequent divorce from my wife, I too needed that space. I needed a pilgrimage.


On my last English pilgrimage, to the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, I had felt the presence of God whilst walking along the country lane from the Slipper Chapel to the Holy House. It seemed right for it reminded me of the green lanes of my childhood and those feelings were powerfully captured and expressed in a folk song in which a traveller like myself meets Joseph, Mary and the Infant Jesus whilst walking along a similar such lane. They stop there and dine together in a meadow and when the traveller asks what their purpose is, Joseph tells him:

‘We are travelling to Glastonbury through England’s green lanes,
To hear of men’s troubles and to hear of men’s pains.
We travel the whole world, o’er land and o’er sea,
For to show all the people how they might be free.’

But why, you may ask, would the composer of a folk song write about the Holy Family travelling to Glastonbury, a small Somerset market town, famous these days for its drug and money-fuelled music festival?

I wrote when I journeyed to Lindisfarne that I was travelling to the birthplace of English Christianity. In some respects, that is true: England was evangelised from the monastery on the Holy Isle in Northumbria, but in another sense it was another island, one altogether more mystical and legendary, the Isle of Avalon, that serves as the birthplace of the faith in my nation. If Lindisfarne is the historical home of English Christianity, then Glastonbury is its spiritual home.

The Four Gospels are all about the life of Jesus of Nazareth. They are what Christians of all persuasions rely on when looking for the God who was also a man that founded their faith. But those Gospels, whilst helping us immeasurably, at the same time leave us with a big problem. They talk about Christ’s birth and his childhood up to the age of twelve, but then they fall eerily quiet and the next thing that we hear of He is in His early thirties and is beginning His ministry. The question begs therefore, what happened to Him in-between? Where was He? What was He doing? How did the boy become the man that Pilate beheld? And where the documents are absent, the legends fill the gap. 

Jesus, the legends say, had a great uncle, one Joseph of Arimathea who is mentioned in the Gospels as the member of the Sanhedrin who provided a tomb for Christ after the Crucifixion. Joseph of Arimathea was a trader, a trader in tin or so the legend goes, and the Roman Empire got all of its tin from Cornwall on the Isle of Britannia. On one of his trips to Britannia Joseph took the young Jesus with him. They visited various locations in Cornwall before travelling up through Devon and Somerset to Glastonbury, at the time one of the greatest centres of Pagan religious activity in the country. They arrived by boat – Glastonbury was then an island in a marshy inland sea, an island known as ‘Avalon’, a name which is also well-known in the world of myth and legend through its associations with King Arthur – where, upon striking ground, Joseph stuck his staff into the ground and a tree called the Glastonbury Thorn sprouted up. Then, together, Joseph and the Infant Christ constructed a dwelling place where they stayed awhile before later returning to Palestine.

Years later, after the Resurrection, Christ told Jospeh to return to Glastonbury and to build a church on the spot where they had once dwelt. In AD63 Joseph did return with twelve disciples, (including, according to some accounts, Mary Magdalene). They were given twelve hides of land by the local King Arviragus and they built a wattle church on the spot already consecrated by Christ which they dedicated to the Virgin Mary, this being the first above-ground Christian church not only in England but indeed the whole of Western Europe.


Chaos, absolute chaos. The house was a mess, I had a mate kipping in the spare room, the phone was ringing, washing up needed to be done, I hadn’t packed and my head was still fuzzy from the beers of the night before.

The sensible thing to do would have been to tidy up, eat well, pack carefully, order one’s mind, then depart. But all that would’ve taken days, not hours. No, sometimes we have to listen to Christ’s admonition to Martha who was similarly concerned with housework:

‘Martha! Martha! You are worried and troubled over so many things, but just one is needed.’

Sometimes we just have to stop the world and get off. That is, after all, in many respects, what a pilgrimage is. So that is one I did and after tossing the bare minimum of clothing into a bag, I set off.

I tried to focus by singing hymns. For some reason ‘Be Thou My Vision’ came to mind, an early Irish prayer composed at a similar time to when the Abbey at Glastonbury was established. However, as I sang another voice was present. Through the grey, misty November morn it seemed to be calling “To Avalon! To Avalon!” The Pagans talk about the ‘thin places’ where the veil between the temporal and the spiritual is more transparent and I could understand them. Is not all pilgrimage a search for a thin place? And was not the isle of Avalon the most celebrated thin place of the Ancient Britons?

I stopped midway at Worcester to pray in the magnificent cathedral. Walking from the car park across the river to the great mediaeval temple I chanced upon a tiny Saxon church dedicated to St. Alban. St. Alban is another English first: our first saint and martyr. Several years previously I had visited his shrine in the city that bears his name and found it both beautiful and moving. Stopping for a moment, I prayed for his blessing on my trip.

Worcester Cathedral is associated with another ancient holy man, St. Wulstan who was once bishop there and on whose orders the building was constructed. St. Wulstan is a name that I am familiar with as there is a settlement near to my home called Wolstanton after him and he has associations with a number of places in my area, but I knew little of him. He was, it transpires, a churchman whose life spanned both the Saxon and Norman periods acting as a bridge of reconciliation and stability between the two and much loved by the people.

I went into the Jesus Chapel and prayed the rosary. It was at times difficult to concentrate due to rehearsals for an Elgar concert underway in the Nave but I persevered, recalling past pilgrimages, friends and family, my son forming the most fervent prayers.

Under the cathedral, in the glorious Norman crypt there was a fascinating exhibition on the cathedral’s history. One section discussed the Worcester Pilgrim. A grave of an unknown man was excavated in 1986 and we know that he was a pilgrim due to his attire – walking boots, woollen garments and a staff – and by the fact that he was accompanied in his grave by a cockle shell – which denotes that he had made the pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James at Santiago de Compostela in Spain – and twigs of goat willow or ‘English Palm’ indicating that he may also have journeyed to the Holy Land. What touched me most though was that his pilgrimages had all been years before his death, (he died in his sixties crippled with arthritis), and he had chosen to be buried with his pilgrim garb on, (and in the case of the boots, these had had to be slit open to fit them on his feet!), so proud was he of his past achievements. This reminded me of the great importance that pilgrimages played in the past and of the long and noble tradition that I was following in. The chance encounter with this pilgrim of yore touched me and I wondered if he too had ever journeyed to Avalon?

Worcester Cathedral


I had decided to stay in the city of Wells rather than in Glastonbury itself. The rationale behind this was two-fold. Firstly, Wells is an ancient city with a beautiful mediaeval cathedral considered by many to be the finest in England and I had long wanted to see it. My main reason though relates to a computer game that I played many years ago back in the 1980s on a Spectrum 48K. It was called ‘Hampstead’ and the aim was to get rich quick and thus be able to live in the yuppie suburb of Hampstead. I never completed the game but once I remember taking the tube to the place at which point the computer told me I’d lost the game since ‘You have reached Hampstead but not attained Hampstead’. Attainment is central to the concept of pilgrimage and I wished to attain Glastonbury rather than just reach it for the shortest route is not necessarily the best. In the old days pilgrims used to walk hundreds of miles to reach their destination, and whilst I had neither the time nor money to spend doing the same, Wells is six miles distant from Glastonbury and I could at least walk that rather than just drive straight into town.

After settling into my B&B I walked into the city and dined at an ancient pub called the City Arms that had once been the city gaol. I sampled two local beers, Cathedral City and Golden Chalice. Yes indeed, I was in holy country! To finish off I strolled down the High Street to take a look at the magnificent cathedral itself before retiring to my bed.
The Morning Eucharist Service at Wells Cathedral was well-attended with hardly a free seat in the house. The service was a pleasant one – traditional but not too heavy and with a fine sermon on the subject of endings, (it was the last Sunday in the Church Year). After taking Holy Communion, (and the customary cup of tea with the congregation and priest afterwards), I lit a candle to my endeavours and set off.

Wells Cathedral

The walk from Wells to Glastonbury is, I am afraid to say, not one of the more inspiring in England. It is on a narrow pavement aside a busy A-road and the landscape is flat and uneventful. It was certainly not the old English green lane of the folk song.

But I cared little for pilgrimages are not about sightseeing and instead I concentrated on trying to attain Glastonbury. I prayed the rosary, sang hymns and undertook various other devotions and so hardly noticed the miles roll by.

Just outside of Wells, by the side of the road was a spring. A sign informed me that this was one of the lesser known wells from which the city gets its name. Wells have long held spiritual associations and coming across this one seemed right. I splashed the water across my face as if re-baptising for this spiritual journey and then continued on my way.

Every so often, before me, in the distance, I would catch a glimpse of the Tor with the ruined tower of St. Michael on its summit. Through the mist it appeared magical and a very visible reminder of the goal of this pilgrimage. Again came the words, “To Avalon! To Avalon!” and again I sang ‘Be Thou My Vision’, the words of the 8th century Irish poet having particular resonance:

‘Thou my soul’s shelter, and thou my high tow’r
Raise thou me heav’nward, O Pow’r of my pow’r.’

There before me was the very physical embodiment of that high tower that I so sought. All I had to do was attain it.

Outside Glastonbury there is a sign. It informs motorists that the town is twinned with two other places – Lalibela in Ethiopia and the Isle of Patmos in Greece. This indeed made me stop and think for a moment for both are world-renowned holy sites, Patmos being where St. John the Revelator composed the Book of Revelation in which the New Jerusalem, (which, along with Glastonbury, inspired William Blake), is described whilst Lalibela is the site of the famous rock-hewn churches, mediaeval Ethiopia’s Second Jerusalem. I was reminded how the Faith has touched all corners of the globe and mused upon what other connections with Jerusalem that Glastonbury might hold.

Towards a New Jerusalem?


I climbed a steep hill before reaching the town itself. In the old days the flat lands that I had just walked through had been an inland sea and it was only several hundred years ago that they were drained to produce the landscape that we know today. The climb signified that I was now on the fabled Isle of Avalon itself, the goal of my pilgrimage. Drenched with sweat from the exertion of the stiff climb, I dropped down into the town itself. It was strange, for however, visualised the place for so long, it all seemed remarkably normal and everyday as I strolled down its streets. However, when I began to look closer I realised that something was amiss. There were adverts in house and shop windows for clairvoyants, shamans and healers, whilst the shops that lined the High Street sold spiritual products and boasted of being eco-friendly. There were Buddhas and pentangles, crystals and incense and, in front of the parish church, a replica of a Celtic Pagan labyrinth. The entire place reeked of faith and yet unexpectedly, here in the very birthplace and spiritual home of English Christianity, that faith was not Christian.

I called in at Labyrinth Books, an emporium of all texts spiritual, to see if they had anything that would help guide me on my pilgrimage. Half an hour later I emerged with ‘Glastonbury: Maker of Myths’ by Frances Howard, (and several other books), but more importantly, wiser following a conversation with the lady behind the till. “I’m about the most un-Pagan Pagan you’ll ever meet,” she told me. “I worship in churches, temples, anywhere, taking a bit from every tradition. But if there is one place in Glastonbury that you must see it is the Tor, you must go up the Tor. Whether it really is an ancient labyrinth like they say or just a thin place where ley lines converge I cannot say, but it is powerful, very powerful. I’ve had several experiences up there over the years; it’s impossible to describe them, put them into words, you just have to go there and experience the atmosphere and holiness of the place for yourself.”

The thing that struck me most though was how she had described herself as ‘Pagan’ as if that were normal, everyday, the standard label to use. She had expected me to think that she was a Pagan as if it is the default position yet in Britain today Pagans make up only a tiny percentage of the population and many people struggle to accept it as a ‘genuine’ religion. Yet here in Glastonbury, I was learning that paganism is the norm, the default position and that felt strange. I had journeyed here from afar because it is the birthplace and spiritual heart of Christianity in my country and here, by their very own hearth, the Christians are in the minority.

In an attempt to understand more of Glastonbury’s other major faith, I called in at one of its centres several doors down from the bookshop. Situated in a non-descript outbuilding, the Glastonbury Goddess Temple is the only temple dedicated to the Goddess in the British Isles and one of the few specifically Pagan houses of worship in Europe. Inside it was quiet and dark and, after removing my shoes, I was led through a curtain to the main sanctuary where devotees sat in silence on cushions whilst candles flickered on the altar and ambient devotional music played. I sat with them awhile and meditated, trying to make sense of it all. Here was a religion that was radically different to my own yet, unlike all other different religions, was wholly English in character. However, whilst it was in so many ways culturally familiar in one crucial aspect it was alien: this was a feminine faith, based on women and designed for and by women. Being a man it was a well-spring that I could never fully tap into. However, encountering it, the common criticism by women that the Abrahamic religions are too male became a little more comprehensible.

Glastonbury Goddess Temple

I left the Goddess Temple and made my way to the ruins of the Abbey, once the spiritual and financial heart not only Glastonbury but indeed the whole of the south-west of England. This abbey was one of the largest in the country and also England’s oldest religious foundation. It was established in 670 but was built on the site of a much earlier religious foundation which itself was based around the Old Church supposedly built by Joseph of Arimathea in AD63 only thirty years after Christ’s death. Legend tells us that he arrived from Palestine with twelve followers, going back to the place where he had stayed with the Infant Christ all those years before and was given twelve hides of land by the local King Arviragus.

Whether the legend is true or not cannot be verified but it is of great antiquity. In 166 Pope Eleutherias acknowledged that the English Church was the oldest in all of Western Europe because of Glastonbury when he sent legates to rededicate the still-extant Old Church and there are accounts of St. Bridget, St. Beon, St. David and St. Patrick at Glastonbury in addition to a horde of other early holy notables. Few places on Earth and none outside the Holy Land except perhaps Rome can boast such a distinguished Christian lineage. Strangely though, as I wandered through the leafy precincts of the once great Abbey, I felt very little. Was it because I was rushing a little or was it because Glastonbury’s spiritual focus has now shifted or was it something else entirely? I know not but after praying in St. Patrick’s Chapel – the only completely extant building remaining – I continued on to my goal.
Glastonbury Abbey where those feet may once have walked…

I had known where this pilgrimage would culminate even as I was driving down the M5 the day before. “To Avalon! To Avalon!” had been the call and an island rising out of the mist capped by a tower was the vision. As I’d walked across from Wells that same island topped by a mighty tower had enigmatically appeared, disappeared and then reappeared, calling me on. The Psalms talk of Zion, during His temptation Christ was offered all the kingdoms of the world from the top of a high peak and even today one climbs the Mount of Olives in order to survey Jerusalem. Like Moses, Abraham and Christ Himself, to meet God one must climb His Holy Hill and England’s Holy Hill is Glastonbury Tor.
I walked out of the town, past the houses of the healers and fortune tellers, past too the Chalice Well which runs red because, according to legend, the Holy Grail is buried at its source, and then I climbed up the mount itself. The climb was stiff and taxing and I was tired from my day of walking, but I persevered; this was my goal, this was my pilgrimage and eventually, sweat streaming and out of breath I stood at the summit beside the ruined tower of St. Michael.
The summit of the Tor

Laid out before me was it all: the ancient Isle of Avalon with its modern-day town clustered around the ruins of the Abbey; beyond that the flat fertile plain that had once been an inland sea which devotees had had to row across to reach this sacred, separate place, and then beyond that, on the horizon to the north, only faintly discernible, the towers of Wells Cathedral from whence I had set out that morning.

I sat down by the tower, gazed out and prayed. The sun set slowly and I watched the view both near and far. Far, the fields turned gold and the world gradually darkened whilst near others waited giving a feeling of spiritual solidarity. There were Pagans there for the sunset – two knew each other, they lived in the town and came every evening – and a man practising Tai-Chi, tourists simply enjoying the view and some local children play fighting. There on that holy hill I contemplated the Glastonbury legend. Had Christ once sat at this place also? If He had visited Glastonbury then it is inconceivable that He didn’t climb the Tor, so potent is its call, and whilst there is much doubt about the veracity of the legend, as I said before, its very antiquity makes it far more feasible than one might initially think. Deep down though, I knew that the historical actuality of the story matters little, instead it is the message: if Christ would have come to Glastonbury, why would He have come and what would He have hoped to find? And then, how can that help me – and all of us – on our journey of faith?

As the sun set, I climbed down again and walked back into town, stopping only at the White Spring to collect some holy water, before catching a bus back to Wells. The experience of the Tor though, stayed with me throughout the rest of the evening in the City Arms and my guesthouse afterwards, playing with my emotions, challenging me to understand for there was something about Glastonbury that was bugging me, something that I could not make sense of...

View from the Tor


‘And immediately there fell from his eyes as it had been scales: and he received sight forthwith, and arose, and was baptised.’

The next morning and it was time to go. I had plans that day, a pilgrimage of a secular kind. My father’s best friend at university and best man at his wedding lives in Axbridge, a small town only a few miles distant from Glastonbury. It was with him that my dad travelled overland from New York to Buenos Aires in the summer of 1972. Although an experienced backpacker myself, the sheer length and scope of such a journey boggles the imagination and yet he rarely talked about it and never travelled again. Had he not enjoyed the trip? Had there been problems? I could not understand how someone could experience such a journey and then never yearn for more, yet I wanted to understand my dad. But since I can no longer ask him myself, then perhaps this friend could provide some of the answers and in doing so, help me to understand my father better.

But before that there was one more place that I had to visit for my Glastonbury pilgrimage was not yet complete. I drove my car down the road that I had walked along the day before and parked it at the side of Wearyall Hill, the high ground on the far side of the town to the Tor. Then I got out and climbed up to it.

The Glastonbury Thorn is a sorry sight these days. Attacked by vandals a year before it looks almost dead and may well have to be replaced. Such a senseless act which has reduced a living tree to an almost lifeless stump is painful to witness and even harder to comprehend, but it did not upset me as much as I’d expected. The Thorn has been cut down before, during the Civil War, yet local believers lovingly salvaged the roots and grew new trees from them. And for a Christian, there is something very profound and relevant about the unwarranted death of something innocent and defenceless and its subsequent rebirth. It is at the very heart of our faith.

Legend tells us that the Thorn first sprouted when Joseph of Arimathea struck his staff into the ground upon arrival on Avalon after alighting from his boat with the Infant Jesus. Again, this is a fanciful legend that is easy to disbelieve but as with the other Glastonbury legends we should not be so quick to do so for botanists tell us that the Thorn is not a common English variety but instead a Middle Eastern variety which is to be found nowhere else in England save at Glastonbury.

And there, where Christ first set foot on the sacred Isle of Avalon, I ended my pilgrimage. I knelt down and prayed before the Thorn safe in the knowledge that, for the Christian, from death comes new life, and after doing so I turned around to view the still very much alive town with its Tor behind it, the same view that would have been seen by Christ if He did travel to that place two thousand years before.

And in doing so it all became clear. As if scales had fallen from my eyes, the enigma of Glastonbury began to make sense. Throughout my trip I’d had the feeling of déjà vu almost, that I’d been there before even though I knew full well that I hadn’t. Glastonbury reminded me of somewhere yet I did not know where. There on Wearyall Hill though, stood by the Thorn, I knew. I saw before me a town, an ancient town built around a place of worship, a place of great holiness touched by Our Lord Himself, a place of great antiquity surrounded by and immersed in legend so that one knows not where that legend ends and reality begins. Yet that town around the holy place, although bristling with churches both old and new was no longer Christian but instead perhaps the most religiously mixed town in the kingdom. Walking through her streets, in addition to the churches of a dozen denominations, I’d seen Buddhist and Hindu centres, the goddess temple, a Sufi establishment and a great deal more from the Pagan and alternative traditions. The birthplace and spiritual home of English Christianity Glastonbury may be, but Paganism and other faiths take precedence these days and for many Christians that is hard to reconcile.

But beyond that town, looming over it powerfully, is a mountain, a holy hill, that attests to the fact that even though this is where Christianity first took hold in this green and pleasant land, Avalon was holy long before that and the Pagans that throng her streets todays are merely the spiritual descendants of the Pagans who once held sway here for millennia, exiled for over a thousand years, now returned to their spiritual home.

Walsingham, this island’s other great site of Christian pilgrimage, is often referred to as England’s Nazareth, but if that is the case then what should we call Glastonbury? Stood on that windswept hillside by the Thorn, the answer was as clear as day. The Abbey is the Holy Sepulchre, home of the New and Everlasting Covenant, but all around it is a city holy to all, and just as the Jews have returned to Zion after a long exile and much persecution, so too have the original spiritual inhabitants of this city and now they, like the Jews, take precedence. Different denominations and faiths jostle for space and the streets are filled with the faithful with varying degrees of sanity in their convictions. We Christians have to learn how to share our sacred city just as we have to in Glastonbury’s more famous brother in the Middle East. For Glastonbury is England’s Jerusalem and Glastonbury Tor is Mount Zion, the hill upon which the Temple was built, a mountain once climbed by Christ, a mountain holy to an ancient faith, the Old Covenant of the land, an mountain holy to us yet in many ways surpassed by the Abbey in the town below, God now sat amongst the people, not aloof from them.

Around a hundred years ago William Blake asked us whether those feet in ancient times walked upon England’s mountains green and whether we can rebuild Jerusalem in this green and pleasant land. After visiting Glastonbury, the spiritual heart of that green and pleasant island then I can answer those questions with great surety. Those feet did walk upon England’s mountains green, perhaps literally, definitely spiritually, and indeed, they walk there still. And Jerusalem has been builded here, for I have seen her, both literally and spiritually. Glastonbury is England’s Jerusalem, but more than that, in my opinion, as one who is familiar with both cities, it far surpasses the original, for whilst, like with that great and ancient city in Israel, a myriad of faiths compete for space there, unlike that original, in England’s Jerusalem, I never once witnessed any hate or animosity between them.

And that, I know, would have gladdened the heart of the young boy who once stood where the Thorn now flowers.

‘A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.’

Written March 2012, U.K.


Next pilgrimage: The Sacred Heart of Wales

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