The Tor in Glastonbury. Photo by Soundslogical.

Mysticism, drugs and rock n roll

Glastonbury is not only famous for its performing arts festivals. Pilgrimage, spirituality, drugs, nature — since the 1970s, the town on the imaginary Isle of Avalon has welcomed all sorts of visitors in search of spiritual awakening.

Published on 13 August 2009 at 14:15
The Tor in Glastonbury. Photo by Soundslogical.

With the arrival in droves of meditation disciples in the 1970s, the small town of Glastonbury became the new-age capital of Europe. Over the years, the festival of performing arts which is held there every summer has become the world's largest open-air pop carnival. Every year, tickets are sold out even before the festival programme has been published. Glastonbury also hosts a wide range of hippie festivities, like Tibet week, with the monks of the Tashilhunpo monastery as special guests.

With its many legends, the Somerset landscape has strong mystical associations. Tradition has it that Glastonbury is built on the Isle of Avalon, which was located in the marshes of the same name. The sacred hill of Glastonbury Tor has attracted pilgrims since the Stone Age, and in the 11th century the bones of King Arthur were allegedly disinterred there in the chapel of the abbey, now in ruins.

A mystical business

Along with the spiritual tourists, a wide range of gurus have become a driving force in the local economy. Every day, sages of various creeds peddle miracle cures in numerous spiritual centres, and those who believe that the wisdom of the living is insufficient have the option of engaging the services of psychics who advertise on the town's High Street. Some of these seem to have leapt straight from the pages of Harry Potter novel, like medium Emma Howe, whose mellifluous voice and mascara enhanced stare are well-known to British TV viewers.

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Communing with mother nature is another popular past-time in Glastonbury, where visitors can spend hours exploring the surrounding countryside, or uncovering its many mysteries in quaint bookshops that also offer esoteric manuals and books of magic spells.

Unsuspecting tourists who stop for a drink by the Market Place close to the abby in the town centre are often struck by the many gaps in the smiles of the older members of the alternative community. Clearly, the distribution of crack has resulted in a lot of technical difficulties for Somerset dentists.

"Glastonbury has two faces," explains Dave, who works for the Glastonbury Backpackers hostel on Market Place. "Everyone can do what they want and be what they want, but many people are mainly interested in drugs. There is a lot of ketamine and an awful lot of heroin being taken. The downside is that Glastonbury also attracts a lot of people who don't really have the self control for that."

What Dave really enjoys is the kooky atmosphere. "If you want an idea of what the people in Glastonbury are like, you only have to look at the argument about wifi. The local council wanted to install free wifi in the town centre. But a lot of the locals opposed it, because they thought wifi would interfere with waves in their brains like a micro-wave would. So we're still not connected to the internet."

Calling up the spirits

Every tourist climbs the winding path up to the top of Glastonbury Tor — the sacred hill with its 11th century Tower of St Michael, which dominates the surrounding countryside at an altitude of 156 metres. The best time to visit the Tor is at dawn, when you can commune with the appropriately eerie ravens, who wait in the weak sunshine for the arrival of the inevitable coachloads of tourists.

As you might expect, the history of Glastonbury Tor is shrouded in mystery. It is likely that the hill emerged as a result of wind and water erosion on the surrounding landscape of the interminable Avalon Marshes, where the Lady of the Lake gave King Arthur his sword.

At around six in the morning, a group of pilgrims arrives on the summit. While one of them embarks on a series of tai chi exercises, another sits down in the middle of the porch, closes his eyes and calls up the spirits. "It is very easy to enter into contact with the spirit world here," remarks the amateur medium, who during the day earns a living from designing fashion shoes and sunglasses. "I come hear every day to ask them for advice, for a small sign that I use as a theme in work."

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