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West Country Wanderlust

Updated: Oct 31, 2022

Hotel beneath the hill of the holy thorn

Take a peek out of your window. Not every hotel has Glastonbury Tor in its sights. You’ll be up that before the day is done. Closer still, Wearyall hill rises 70 metres above the town. Follow in the footsteps of Joseph of Arimathea and climb this ridge of high ground. You will be rewarded with views of abbey, town and tor.

Camelot country

A short walk from the hotel through Wirrall Park leads to Benedict Street lined with business-like, brick built Victorian cottages. The tower of St Benedict’s church sits on a precarious sliver of land drawing you toward the top of the street and the centre of this ancient town. It feels like an island enclave of Christianity set within more mystic and pagan surrounds. The nearby King Arthur free house offers a clue as to one’s whereabouts. Could this be Camelot country?

Witch way

Quirky side-street boutiques with names like Laura Lou Lou’s Vintage and Retro offer alternative fashion and lifestyle knickknacks to those in search of something just that little bit different. A more permanent memento can be procured at the Twilight Zone tattoo and body piercing parlour. Meanwhile cosy black cats and broomsticks look down from spider-webbed windows above the Magpie’s Nest emporium of trinkets and treasures. Hurry along to the High Street; Glastonbury is casting its spell.

Market cross

Rest your legs a while and grab a comfortable coffee at Heaphy’s pavement cafe from where you can politely ‘people-watch’ the tie-dye dreamers and purple hair passing by. If it’s magic, myth and mysticism you're looking for then you've come to the right place. Minerals, crystals, fragrant incense and the ying-yang of alternative therapy book stores cater for every whim.

Arthurian abbey

Make for the Abbey off Magdalene Street where King Arthur and Queen Guinevere may lie beneath your feet. Older still is the Holy Thorn said to descend from the wooden staff planted inadvertently by Joseph of Arimathea on nearby Wearyall Hill. Its white blossom bursts into a biannual bonanza at Easter and Christmas when sprigs are still sent to our sovereign. Summer Shakespeare, an outdoor film festival and the Glastonbury fringe are all performed here in the abbey gardens.

Avalon ascent

No visit to Glastonbury can be complete without a visit to the mystical Isle of Avalon or Glastonbury Tor to give it its correct name. In fact, in days gone by, the whole town of Glastonbury was an island sitting proud above the marshes accessible only by wooden causeways. It is easy to see why some saw it as the most likely location for Avalon. As you approach its terraced slopes you may be tempted to imbibe some holy water from the nearby Chalice Well said to be where Joseph of Arimathea washed the cup from which Christ drank at the last supper.

It is a steep ascent to the summit, up a winding path, with beautiful views opening up for miles at every turning point. Look out for peacock butterflies settling on patches of nettle and thistle and the red and black patterns of the Burnett moth amongst the wild flowers growing on the slopes.

The imposing tower of St Michael’s church greets you at the top. Get your camera clicking. From here, at 518 feet or 158 metres, the panorama across the Avalon Marshes to the west and the Mendip Hills to the east is jaw-dropping. Draw breath, sit quietly and soak it in. This is a special place.

Shapwick squares

The geometric shapes of the Shapwick Heath National Nature Reserve look like graph paper when viewed on the map. The reserve is a short drive out onto the Somerset Levels to the west of Glastonbury. Leave the car at the Avalon Marshes visitor centre and walk for a couple of minutes until the road crosses the South Drain. A distinctive brown sign indicating an English Nature Reserve prompts a turn eastward through a gate and onto a ruled path edging the course of the ditch.

Treading the boards

This watery channel is the main artery for Shapwick Heath’s network of reed beds, marshes and broad-leafed woodland glades where neolithic people once lived upon interconnected islets. One of the raised wooden walkways linking their communities was discovered during an archaeological survey. Preserved in the peat, the six thousand year old ‘Sweet Track’ was one of the many routes through the reeds for these prehistoric paddlers. Visitors can tread the boards on a short reconstructed section; an evocative experience and a tangible link with our ancient ancestors.

Booming bitterns

Further on it’s time for a flask of tea and a cheese and pickle sandwich on picnic benches set amongst ageless oaks. Small wooden boxes have been secured to their trunks giving a home to greater horseshoe and brown, long-eared bats.

The final port of call on this woodland trail is the secluded decoy hide. Creep in quietly, lift the shutters and gaze out onto a secret inland sea bordered by acres of rustling reed beds. During the summer months the unsettling boom of the bittern can be heard, although rarely seen, and it may not be long before the majestic marsh harrier makes an entrance as it carefully quarters the reeds in search of prey. The final member of the ‘big three’ is the Great Egret, a snow-white heron, often seen stabbing the shallows for unwary sticklebacks.

Gorgeous gorges

Five miles to the north of Glastonbury there are two gorges to choose from set deep into the Mendip Hills. Many of us will be familiar with Cheddar Gorge with its world famous, limestone show caves, farmhouse scrumpy and the much-loved hard cheese. But if you fancy some fresh air and solitude why not escape the tourists and tearooms for a ‘mini cheddar’ instead?

Just five miles southeast of Cheddar is Ebbor Gorge, a rocky ravine carved out of the carboniferous limestone by icy meltwaters. Secret paths strewn with beech leaves are bordered by shade loving ferns, hart’s-tongue and solitary wood anemones. Climb up through the jungle humidity to reveal breezy, cliff top views of Glastonbury Tor in the distant haze.

Soothing stay

With your west country wanderlust satisfied it’s time to return to your hotel. Relax and cosy down. It’s been quite the stay. You’ll be asleep before your head hits the pillow.

© Robin Redfern 2020

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