Summer Solstice on Glastonbury Tor 2012
Glastonbury is the public epicenter of Paganism in Britain. I climbed its mystical Tor for the overnight Midsummer vigil.
Avoiding Stonehenge at Summer Solstice
Tens of thousands of people take advantage of the fact that English Heritage finally open the gates. Unfortunately, the majority of them aren't Pagans.
I was going to travel to Stonehenge for Litha, the Pagan Midsummer Sabbat.
The great stones are only open to the public twice a year, both on the Solstices. The rest of the time, tourism takes over and the monument is viewable from pathways behind fences.
However, such things are nicer to do when you're in company. I would likely be surrounded by over 20,000 Pagans, but none whom I had traveled with to celebrate the longest day. Unfortunately, those interested were entrenched in exams, prior commitments or vacations.
Just when I'd resigned myself to going alone, I was contacted by friends from Glastonbury. Druids themselves, I endured a short rant about how party-goers - without sympathies beyond a free festival - had swamped the religious meaning from the Solstice. They left behind trash and damaged the stones.
After persuading me to switch the Stonehenge plans to Winter Solstice - when it was too cold for the more irreverent 24 hour party people - Trevor then invited me to his home instead. I would spend my Litha upon the famous Tor; in a town with more Pagans per capita than any other place in Britain.
What is Glastonbury Tor?
A natural promontory in Somerset made sacred by the millions who have visited throughout the ages.
After all of these years of traveling there, I've worked out where you can catch your first glimpse of Glastonbury Tor from the M5 motorway.
As the Huntspill River passes underneath, a quick glance to your left will reveal that strange hill. The waters appear to lead straight to it. After that, only the passengers can safely keep their eye on the distant landmark, until the moors or the A39 lead you there.
The Tor never fails to take my breath away. That first sighting clutches at the heart and you exhale. Maybe I'm just another tourist casualty of all of the stories; a spiritual quester seeking there what should more properly be found at home. But what does it matter, when the sun is shining on St Michael's Tower and the slopes await?
Image: Glastonbury Tor
But what is Glastonbury Tor? There is the boring answer first. It's an outcrop of alternate layers of clay and limestone, with a hard sandstone cap.
The shape, and indeed the hill itself, is natural. It can be seen for miles in this landscape. It wasn't too many centuries ago that the Somerset levels used to flood on an annual basis. You could sail a boat from the Irish Sea right up to the foot of the Tor.
Even today, it takes a lot of modern irrigation not to see the nearby towns and villages disappear under sea-water each year.
When it happened, the likes of the Tor (which is merely a Celtic word for 'hill') and Brent Knoll would become islands. Herein is the clue to those terraces etched upon their sides. Only up here could crops be grown with any hope of not being washed away by harvest.
But those people climbing the steep trackways are not going up there to view a fine example of a Medieval agricultural system.
Glastonbury Tor is much more than that.
BBC Documentary: The Terraces of Avalon
Aubrey Manning follows geo-physicists and archaeologists, as they investigate Glastonbury Tor.
Buy Glastonbury Tor Mousemats
Why settle for mundane mousepads, when you can have scenery from on and around the Tor on your desk?
Some of the Legends of Glastonbury Tor
More of these are added every time I go there. Visions abound. Not all of them are entirely false.
- The Celtic God Gwyn ap Nydd lives in the hollow tunnels honeycombing the Tor. The White Spring temple at its base is a shrine to Him.
- The landscape all around takes the form of the celestial zodiac. The Tor itself is part of Aquarius, which is very important when you consider that we are approaching the Age of Aquarius.
- Glastonbury Tor is the entrance to the Welsh Otherworld of Annwn.
- There is a Neolithic labyrinth carved into the Tor, rendering this a sacred site that is much, much older than Stonehenge.
- St David, now Patron Saint of Wales, included Glastonbury within his diocese. He once had a vision of Jesus Christ Himself upon the trackways of the Tor.
- Jesus Christ told St David that He had been brought as a child to Glastonbury, with His uncle Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph had stuck his staff into the ground on nearby Wearyall Hill and it had transformed into the Holy Thorn that grows there still.
- The same legend inspired William Blake to craft his poem Jerusalem. This was later turned into a hymn of the same name.
- Glastonbury Tor was once the Avalon of Arthurian legend. Morgan Le Fey and her Nine Ladies lived on its summit. King Arthur was brought to her after the battle of Camlan. He sleeps in the hidden caverns (presumably with Gwyn ap Nydd) waiting. One day, he will rise and save Britain from her enemies.
- St Gildas lived in Glastonbury Abbey. He was able to intervene when Guinevere was abducted by Melwas, King of the Summer Country.
- The graves of Arthur and Guinevere were found in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey.
- The Holy Grail is buried inside Glastonbury Tor.
- Dion Fortune used the power of the Tor to mobilize witches all around the country, during the Magical Battle of Britain. They created a shield to stop the Nazi invasion.
Image: Steps leading onto Glastonbury Tor.
Glastonbury Tor at Litha
With a large amount of Pagans living all around, you can be sure of company on the Tor. This is especially true at the Sabbats.
Arriving in Glastonbury and preparing to keep the vigil up on the Tor, the question wasn't so much whether anything would be happening, but what.
It never crossed my mind, nor that of my friends who live there, that no-one would share that night with me. It is a rare moment to have the Tor to yourself. During a Sabbat night, it's unheard of.
Summer Solstice, aka Litha, is one of the eight Sabbats in the Wiccan Wheel of the Year. All over the country, Pagans would be lighting their fires, partying and drinking, in the spirit of goodwill. All feuds forgotten, all friendships forged, as they kept their vigil until the dawn.
I am usually at the Glastonbury Festival for this. As a text from a good friend reminded me, it had been fifteen years since I'd last spent this night on the summit of the Tor.
I recalled that night well. I was much younger and utterly enchanted by Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon series. I arrived with two friends and looked for that magical isle. This being Glastonbury, I saw it too, in the pre-dawn mists twirling like an ocean far below.
Older, wiser, initiated to the Third Degree and with a few more academic History qualifications under my belt, I still looked forward to seeing Avalon in the pre-dawn mists. Just with a little more knowledge behind it.
That night had been one of drums and people. Dancing to the tribal beats and making friendships on the slopes, which lasted until our parting after sunrise. Interesting conversations or dancing with wild abandon occurred on every patch of ground. It had been magical, mystical and beautiful.
So what would be happening up there tonight? Neither Trevor nor Liz knew, but it was bound to be something. Glancing upwards at twilight, we could already see figures moving slowly up the trackways. The Pagans were amassing.
Midsummer on the Tor - June 20th 2012
The actual solstice occurred at 11.09pm. I was on top of Glastonbury Tor at the time surrounded by Pagans.
In the old days, I would have been up the Tor by sunset and partied on until noon, just to ensure that the sun was properly welcomed.
Fast approaching forty, I said my farewells to the setting sun from the ground, then fortified myself with a hearty meal in the Ashcott Inn before even thinking of climbing those steep slopes.
Thus fully pledged to this rock'n'roll lifestyle, Trevor and I moved our cars onto private land, practically at the foot of the Tor itself. (It's not what you know, but who you know.) We then donned sensible clothing.
"I hate to break this to you, but it's forecast rain tonight." Trevor informed me. Contrary to popular belief, there is no shelter from the elements up there. St Michael's Tower has no roof and its two gaping doors turn it into a wind tunnel.
This I knew from past bitter experience, so I accepted his offer of a large umbrella and his own waterproof jacket. The fact that he's over six foot with a build to match meant that said coat buried me, but that was a blessing before long.
I'd like to say that we scampered up the hillside like the proverbial spring lambs. Unfortunately, we're both very unfit and I chain-smoke. We paused every few yards for a rest. This gave us ample opportunity to note the number of pilgrims coming down from the Tor.
It had already started to rain. Just a light drizzle, which grew steadily more heavy as we ascended. Only moonlight could illuminate that path at half past ten at night. But the moon was hidden behind a thick bank of cloud.
Eventually we arrived, gasping and glad of the rain to cool us down. About two dozen people, wrapped up tightly against the inclement elements stood clustered around the Tower. We moved over to the exposed tip and sat gratefully down on the concrete circle.
In daylight, this acts as a compass point and map, describing all that can be seen from this incredible viewpoint. That night, it was merely somewhere to sit which wasn't sodden and muddy. We huddled under the umbrella and told ourselves that the rain would pass.
It didn't. By the time that Trevor said his goodbyes (he had work in the morning, so couldn't do the whole vigil), the weather could easily be described as torrential. I considered leaving with him, but we hadn't long reached the summit; and we were going back to his house in two cars.
I decided to have an hour or so meditating under my umbrella, then follow him back. He would leave a light on in the guest room, where I was bedding down. Our rites and blessings done, Trevor disappeared into the darkness.
I sat with the wind and rain hammering against my umbrella, staring out over the sea of street lamps far below. They looked like thousands of bonfires reaching out across towards the distant horizons. It felt incredibly invigorating, powerful and cold!
Image: Looking Upwards Inside St Michael's Tower. No shelter here.
I started moving when I could feel my limbs going numb. That didn't take long to happen.
The center of the party was St Michael's Tower, where the rain drenched all inside. Nevertheless, three drummers beat a tattoo on their bongos and one or two people had the energy to dance. I stood just outside, drinking up the atmosphere, but without the inclination to join in.
A young man appeared beside me, dripping in a t-shirt and velvet cloak. I quickly let him step under my umbrella, where he would at least be sheltered.
He'd traveled down from Doncaster, in South Yorkshire, just to be here tonight. He was quite alone and had been caught out by the weather. I moved us around to the west side of the tower, where the wind was less intense.
As we talked, he received a text message which immediately worried him. His girlfriend, left behind in Doncaster, had been rushed into hospital with a severe asthma attack. He wanted to be with her. There was no conceivable way that could happen with public transport tonight.
With nothing practical left to do, I suggested that we sent her energy from the Tor. We both closed our eyes, while I talked him through the visualization of drawing the energy to himself, holding it and casting it out in her direction.
Our eyes shot open, as the ball was sent, and we stopped dead in shock. The lights of both Glastonbury town and Street had disappeared. There was nothing but pitch blackness anywhere about us.
"What did you do?!" He cried. I had no idea. I hadn't done this, but I was at a loss to know what had.
We were to work it out quickly. We were standing in a storm-cloud, high enough to be above its lowest depths. The lights were still there, underneath, but our vision was obscured by a black cloud right on top of us.
Image: Glastonbury (in daylight) as viewed from the Tor
As the rain went from merely very heavy to torrential, those of us on top of the Tor had two choices. We could pick our way down, in absolute darkness, being pelted by it; or we could stay put with no shelter at all.
The lad from Doncaster opted to go down, as did over a dozen other people. I had a large umbrella and I was standing in the most sheltered corner outside St Michael's Tower. I reasoned that I was both warm and dry enough to withstand the storm. After all, it couldn't last long at this intensity.
It could and it did. From around quarter past 11pm until nearly half three am, the storm raged around us.
I say 'us' because nine people saw the vigil, throughout the night until the dawn. Four of us did so under that umbrella. Others huddled under a large piece of tarpaulin. It was so black that none of us saw each other's faces, even pressed so close, until the morning.
So was the Solstice a wash out? No, not at all. Naturally there were no fires, but a kind of Blitz Spirit descended upon those who were left. Litha is about making friendships, goodwill, looking out for each other, having fun. We did all of that and more.
Supplies were shared and no-one was bereft of shelter. Between umbrella and tarpaulin, we covered us all. As the drummers' hands froze too much to keep a beat, we sang songs. We stamped in lieu of dancing, as that drove life and warmth into our ice-cold feet.
At any time, we could have undertaken the perilous journey down the Tor and into proper shelter. It felt dangerous to me to attempt it, in that kind of onslaught, but that wasn't the reason that I didn't go. Even desperately tired by the dawn, I had fun up there. In the midst of a storm, I found the Solstice flame, which never could be extinguished, in the care of my fellow human beings.
Image: The spot where I spent the night (taken next day)
Once the torrential rain and storm abated, it was less than an hour to the dawn. We all emerged from beneath our covers and walked about to warm ourselves up.
A drummer, from Wrexham in North-East Wales, rubbed life back into his fingers and brought out his drum. The heart-beat rhythm began again and kept on going, as figures began to be discerned on the hillside.
The rest of the town was coming to join us! We light-heartedly joked amongst ourselves that the nine of us were the hardcore ones here. We were the only people who kept the full vigil, whatever was thrown at us.
But it was all in good fun. One hundred people or more fanned out around the drenched Tor and we held hands together, cheering as the Solstice sun rose over the horizon. Not that we could actually see it. The sky was still grey with cloud, but we had watches and we knew when it had come.
We sang Pagan songs and engaged in mass meditations. Led by a local priestess, we imagined a Utopian world, focusing on love and peace and whatever else we could throw into the mix. (I chose the worldwide abolition of the death penalty and cast that into the circle.) I got goosebumps when I heard all of those voices raised in a heart-felt and prolonged 'Om', before we released the energy into the ether.
Then, as quickly as they'd all arrived, they drifted away again. There were just a handful of people on the Tor, mostly those who'd been there all night, when I finished with my hugs and bid them farewell.
The mists were up, as I picked my way down the steepest pathway of the Tor. At the best of times, it can feel like walking on the edge of the world. This early morning, there was nothing but heavy fog.
I always look for the mists of Avalon upon Glastonbury Tor. Maybe it's that childhood enchantment still keenly felt that reaches for that magic. I don't think so. It really does feel and look magical.
By the time I reached the bottom, the mists had gone, but so had the Tor behind me. I didn't see another living soul, as I traipsed wearily in squelching No Sweat Converse down a deserted Wellhouse Lane.
I was utterly exhausted, cold, wet and half dead on my feet; but also so happy. To paraphrase The Waterboys, after coming down from 'the hill of dreams', I'd just found the Goddess where She always was.