Waking to a glorious morning on Sunday there was only one thing to do. You can’t go to Glastonbury for more than a day and not climb the Tor. The weather had been wild overnight and the wind was still high, but here the sun shone and the land was green and beautiful… and I needed to blow the cobwebs away.
The Tor is an island in many ways, some obvious, some perhaps less so. Once upon a time it was called Ynys Witrin, the Isle of Glass. Maybe the name came from the water that surrounded it, reflecting the terracing of the processional way in its surface like a vision of the Otherworld. Perhaps it refers to the manner in which this hill lifts you higher than your feet can tread to a place where you seem to see into the mirror of the soul. Certainly it reflects the liminal quality of the place, a threshold between the levels of perceived reality…a numinous window on the worlds.
As the path winds its way up the Tor you inevitably pause to look back to Wearyall Hill where once, it is told Joseph of Arimathea rested on his staff and it grew leaf and branch, giving us the Holy Thorn that flowers every winter. I had seen the first flowers the day before on one of its descendants while another flourishes in a village near my home. The original tree is long since gone, but its scions travelled the world carrying the story of that time and place and flower still. Christian lore tells that they flower at Easter and Christmas for the resurrection and birth of Jesus.
There are other stories too, other interpretations… and the flowering staff is a symbol that reaches very far back in our own folklore and sacred history, while in the biblical story of Moses it is Aaron’s staff that bursts into life, bestowing the priesthood on the tribe of Levi.
Looking over to Wearyall hill the grassy spine of the hill seems like an emerald dragon. Yet in spite of the brilliant sunlight you seem to see torches illuminating the darkness, snaking across the landscape of another time. Legends and dreams weave a rich tapestry of colour and memory, carried on the wings of ravens and even the sun seems other than you know. Climbing the final stretch, the wind at your back seems to carry you towards the stark, iconic outline of St Michael’s Tower.
The tower is all that remains of St Michael’s church, he who holds the dragon at the point of his lance… and dragons abound in this landscape. The first church on the site was a wooden structure, destroyed by an earthquake in 1275 AD. The second church, of which only the Tower still stands, survived till the Dissolution in 1539 when the Tor also became the site of the execution of Abbot Whiting and his monks. But history is only one layer of reality here. The doorways of the ruined tower seem to be portals that traverse the boundaries of perception.
The wind funnels through the weathered stone, the roofless structure offering no shelter from the elements. Indeed, here they are wild and primal and the heart leaps in answer as you pass the threshold that marks the transition between worlds both inner and outer, the world of sunlight and the shadowy realms of otherness. For this is Avalon and legends hold their own truth and meaning, a verity that follows a different path than history and logic.
Here King Arthur was brought, it is told, wounded in his final battle and carried by three queens to the Isle of Apples. Some say he sleeps beneath the mound, awaiting the need of Albion. For others Merlin waits in the hollow hill, and older still are the tales of Gwyn ap Nudd and the threshold of Annwn. The common thread is that of transition, a journey from one state of being to another and in this place, suspended between earth and sky, surrounded by a memory of water that is more than memory, the Summerlands seem very close and the air sparkles.