England's mythic market towns
England's scenic landscapes hold a mix of historic wonders and legends that go back to Camelot and beyond. Two of the best places to contemplate the country's mythic past -- Glastonbury and Wells -- are in southwest England. Both market towns were once stops for religious pilgrims a day's walk apart, and together make a great day-trip from Bath (and are within three hours of London).
Glastonbury was a religious site back in the Bronze Age -- about 1500 B.C. It's also considered the birthplace of Christianity in England and the burial site of the legendary King Arthur. For thousands of years, pilgrims have climbed Glastonbury Tor, a hill now capped by the ruins of a church dedicated to St. Michael. St. Michael was the Christian antidote to paganism, so it's a good bet this church sits upon a pre-Christian religious site.
The tor has a biblical connection as well. For centuries, pilgrims came to Glastonbury on a quest for the legendary Holy Grail. According to Christian tradition, Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy follower of Jesus who buried Christ's body, was a tin trader. And even back in biblical times Britain was well known as a place where tin could be mined. Considering that, Joseph could have sat right here -- with the chalice that Jesus drank from at the Last Supper -- in his satchel. Near the base of the hill is a meditative garden built around a natural spring. According to legend, the Holy Grail lies at the bottom of Chalice Well.
Next to Chalice Well at the hill's base, England's first church was built. Eventually, a great abbey rose on the site. Mix the scant ruins of England's first church with the mystique of King Arthur and Holy Grail, add the hard work of a busy monastery, and, by the 12th century, Glastonbury Abbey was the leading Christian pilgrimage site in all of Britain.
At its peak, Glastonbury Abbey was England's most powerful and wealthy, part of a network of monasteries that by the year 1500 owned a quarter of all English land and had four times the income of the king.
When Henry VIII broke with Rome, abbeys like this allied with the pope and became political obstacles, so Henry dissolved England's monasteries in 1536. He was particularly harsh on Glastonbury -- he not only destroyed its magnificent church, but had the abbot hung, his head displayed on the abbey gates, and his quartered body sent on four different national tours.
Without its abbey, the town fell into decline. But Glastonbury eventually rebounded. An 18th-century tourism campaign -- with thousands claiming that water from the Chalice Well healed them -- put Glastonbury back on the map.
Today, Glastonbury is popular with those on their own spiritual quest, and synonymous with its summer music and arts festival -- one of the largest in the world. Part of the fun of a visit here is just being in a town where every other shop has a New Age focus, and where "alternative" is the norm.
In contrast to Glastonbury's abbey ruins, the city of Wells is dominated by its glorious, still-intact Gothic cathedral. With a population just under 12,000, Wells is the smallest "city" in England. (It's considered a city because it has a cathedral.)
Wells Cathedral, England's first completely Gothic church, dates from about 1200. The west portal shows off an impressive collection of medieval statuary -- about 300 carvings. This entire ensemble was once painted in vivid colors. It must have been a spectacular welcome -- a heavenly host proclaiming, "Welcome to worship." You're still welcome to worship today -- I especially enjoy the nightly evensong service, when the choir takes full advantage of its heavenly acoustics.
Inside the cathedral, I'm struck by the unforgettable and ingenious "scissor" arches. The hourglass-shaped double arch was added in about 1340 to bolster the church's sagging tower. Nearly 700 years later it's not only still working, it's beautiful.
The chimes draw attention to one of the oldest working clocks in the world -- from 1392. The clock does its much-loved joust on the quarter-hour. More medieval whimsy is carved into the capitals: One man has a toothache, another pulls a thorn from his foot, and a farmer clobbers a thief so hard his hat falls off.
North of the cathedral, peaceful Vicars' Close is perfectly preserved -- lined with 14th-century houses that still house church officials and choristers. South of the cathedral, the stately Bishop's Palace is circled by a park-like moat and sports an impressive front yard -- just the place for a relaxing walk, where you may pass old-timers playing a proper game of croquet.
Peaceful and picturesque, both Wells and Glastonbury are worth a detour on a tour of England. Spend a few hours in each and let your imagination soar to long-ago days.