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Medieval Marketing and Geology at Glastonbury

Legend, geology and architecture combined: King Arthur, a sacred thorn, a Somerset tor and ten centuries of fine buildings.

Distance 2.5 miles (4km)

Minimum time 1hr 30min

Ascent/gradient 500ft (150m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Streets, well-built paths on tor; muddy path on Chalice Hill, 4 stiles

Landscape Busy tourist town and small, steep hill

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 141 Cheddar Gorge

Start/finish ST 498389

Dog friendliness Urban walk, with leads requested on tor

Parking Pay-and-display in Northload Street West

Public toilets Northload car park and at Abbey entrance

1 From the Market Cross head down Magdalene Street, past the entrance to the Glastonbury Abbey grounds. On the right is St Margaret's Chapel, originally a 14th-century hospice for pilgrims.

2 Beyond the chapel is the 18th-century Pump Room, indicating Glastonbury's brief period as a spa town. Cross a roundabout (with, on the right, the road to Street logically labelled 'Street Road' - it couldn't really have been 'Street Street'), keep ahead into Fishers Hill, then turn left into Bere Lane. Follow this to its end, passing the Rural Life Museum - this started life as a grange barn of Glastonbury Abbey.

3 At Chilkwell Street turn right on to a raised pavement. After ¼ mile (400m) you reach the Chalice Well and Gardens: its sinister blood-red waters once supplied the Abbey, and later the Pump House. It has been developed as a 'visitor attraction' (with an entry fee). Turn left into Well House Lane and at once right, up a steep lane that leads on to Glastonbury Tor. The hill is made of layers of clay and blue limestone, with a cap of sandstone. Once the resistant sandstone has eroded away the tor will quickly collapse - but a geological age or two must pass before this happens. A dense cloud of legend and mystery hangs over Glastonbury Tor. This was a sacred site for the pagans, and then for over 1,000 years the Christian heart of the West Country.

4 A concrete path with steps leads upwards. Kestrels hover in the updraft of the steep sides. At the top is the tower of a medieval chapel: this has been a sacred site since the 6th century, with an earlier chapel having collapsed in an earthquake. Richard Whiting, the last Abbot of Glastonbury, was hanged, drawn and quartered here for resisting the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. His dismembered parts were then displayed in nearby towns.

5 Turn right, in the direction of a reservoir far below, to find a concrete path that spirals down to the left. At the hill foot it turns right to a kissing gate. Cross a field to a gate on to a lane with a small car park. Turn left along the lane and bear left at a junction. After 140yds (128m) a stile on the right leads into a field. Bear left to a stile in the field corner. The hedged path beyond gets muddy in winter. Keep ahead down a tarred lane and, where this bends left, take the path ahead. It passes down Chalice Hill with a hedge on its left, to a lane below. At the foot of the lane the arched entrance of Abbey House is ahead. Turn right in Lambrook Street. On a wall on the left is a handsome Victorian fire-plate, indicating the nearby water supply, and at the junction of High Street is an old fountain.

6 Turn left to pass all the way along High Street. Almost every building here is noteworthy. St John's churchyard has a Glastonbury thorn - a cutting from the original miraculous thorn that grew from the staff of Joseph of Arimathaea. The thorn is supposed to flower twice, at Christmas and Easter.

7 On the left, a Victorian shopfront (for Feng Shui Crystals) stands beside the arch of the former White Horse Inn: here some of the losers were hanged after the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685. The Lake Village Museum is housed behind a Tudor façade of around 1500. At the end of High Street is the Market Cross, with the King William pub standing invitingly behind it.

We must leave aside the stories of King Arthur and Joseph of Arimathaea, enjoyable as they are, for we now know they were invented to raise visitor revenue for rebuilding works after the fire of 1184. This was a strategy which must surely qualify as the most persistent and effective advertising campaign of all time. Money was raised by the sale of indulgences (time-off-purgatory vouchers) and relics, and still flows into shops and offertory boxes today.

Where to eat and drink

A wide selection of cafés and inns, the most striking being the George and Pilgrim hotel, which was built in the 14th century to accommodate overflow from the abbey's own hostelry. At the Market Cross the King William has a beer garden, real ales and food.

What to look for

Medieval timber-frame cottages get resurfaced again and again through the centuries. Signs to look for are: steep roofs that were formerly thatch; low doorways; small windows; and very thick walls (shown at the window-openings). Examples at the walk start are No 1 and No 2 Market Place.

While you're there

Visit Glastonbury Abbey. Among these hallowed ruins it's hard not to believe the legend that Joseph of Arimathaea brought the child Jesus to England, and built here a simple church of woven willow branches. Even without Arthur of Avalon, we still have an important abbey site with genuine Celtic roots; a showcase of the best of late medieval and Tudor architecture, and a hill with some of the best views in the county.


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