Monday, June 29, 2009

The Glastonbury, England Music Festival


With America being the site of the original monster concert at Woodstock way back in 1969 it seems ironic that two of the most successful festivals in the world are in the UK, not America. Fact is this August is the 50th anniversary of Woodstock and there are no super festivals in America.

In Glastonbury, west of London there is the recently concluded Glastonbury Festival featuring the top national and international music acts in the world where up to 250,000 converge for a weekend with music and dancing the dominant programs. This is the Glastonbury close to Stonehenge and the center of the King Arthur stories of ancient England. Twice I have traveled to Glastonbury doing research on ancient sites and Druids and King Arthur and it was a most enjoyable journey.

The other festival is the concurrent undertaking of 12 different festivals in Edinburgh, Scotland during August in which up to 2.5 million people attend the month long celebration of the arts. Many are performing arts festivals but music is not a major focus.

I've also made a couple of trips to Scotland and was able to help a friend, Max McClain, get his one man show on the Bible approved by the Scottish review groups and performed by him at the festival. This was shortly before we also got his show on Broadway, the real NYC Broadway, where it was the first performance of a Book of the Bible by one person in Broadway history.

I must say the marquee on Broadway showing Max performing the Books of Mark, Revelations and Psalms turned a few heads in the Big Apple and when he did it all from memory they were stunned. My production company also recorded a 16 CD digital recording of the New Testament with Max, another first. But then Max graduated from the Royal Shakespeare Company in England so he was a top talent.

The following is a report prepared by the Britain Express Travel and Tourism Office about the ancient sites in Glastonbury.

Legends of Glastonbury

There may be no other location in the British Isles with quite so many mystical legends and spiritual speculation attached to it as this ancient market town. Part of the mystique is a result of geography; the striking shape of Glastonbury Tor which rises above the nearby Somerset Levels like a beacon, topped with its solitary medieval tower, is a striking landmark, visible for miles in all directions. To see the Tor rising above the mists that cover the Levels in the early morning is a visual treat.

It is hard to imagine it today, but hundreds of years ago Glastonbury was an island; the sea covered the Somerset Levels, creating a world of marshes and small hillocks that rose above the water level. The largest of the hills was that upon which Glastonbury was founded. According to which myth you believe, Glastonbury was founded by St Patrick, or, even earlier, by Joseph of Arimathea, who was granted land here by a local king. The tale goes that Joseph brought with him the Holy Grail, which was buried with him in a secret place when he died, and there it waits to be discovered.

Also waiting is King Arthur who, if the legends are to be believed, is buried with his queen, Guinivere, in the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. The Abbey is located off Magdalene Street, and offers lovely grounds with excellent views of the Tor. In the Abbey grounds is the Abbot's Kitchen, a strking medieval building that survived the Dissolution of the Monasteries largely unscathed.

On the High Street are two buildings of note; the Tribunal, which now houses the local Tourist Information Centre, and the George Hotel. The latter was built to act as accommodation for pilgrims during the Middle Ages. From the High Street a town walking trail is laid out, with plaques at points of interest along the way. A short walk leads to the Somerset Rural Life Museum, which is housed in a huge stone building that was once a barn for Glastonbury Abbey. The size of the barn gives some clue to the prosperity of the Abbey during the medieval period.

If you continue on past the Rural Life Museum you will soon reach Chalice Well, at the base of the Tor. This peaceful oasis of gardens and winding paths is owned by a private trust. There is, naturally, a legend associated with the Chalice Well. The waters of the well have a distinct reddish tinge, and the story goes that this red colour is the blood of Christ. The scientific explanation is that the water has a high iron content, and it is this that accounts for the colouring. Many people bring containers to fill from the waters of the Well.

A few yards from the Chalice Well a public footpath leads up Glastonbury Tor, which has long been identified as the mystical Isle of Avalon, where King Arthur was said to have been taken to rest until his country needed him. As you ascend you can clearly see the signs of medieval terracing; ledges cut into the slopes of the Tor. One legend says that the terracing forms a spiral to the summit, or a maze, which, if you follow it consciously to the top, will act as a source of spiritual inspiration. At the top of the Tor is St. Michael's Tower, all that remains of a medieval chapel on this spot. The views are truly wonderful; if the weather is clear the Mendips are easily visible, as are the towers of Wells Cathedral a few miles away, and further to the west the expanse of Exmoor National Park.

If you have the time, walk out onto the Somerset Levels to get a really good view of the Tor. For an equally striking view, visit Wearyall Hill (see photo below) on the southwest outskirts of Glastonbury. Here you will see a thorn tree, said to mark the spot where Joseph of Arimathea came ashore on his arrival in Glastonbury. The current thorn often has offerings hanging from its branches, the contribution of modern pilgrims.

Joseph of Arimathea

Joseph was the Biblical figure who took Jesus' body after the crucifixion. According to some legends he was actually Jesus' uncle, and had visited Britain years before with Jesus in the pursuit of his interests in the tin trade. It appears that there actually was a strong Jewish presence in the west of England at that time, and many of the tin miners may have been Jewish settlers.

At any rate, when Jesus died, Joseph thought it prudent to flee Palestine, and after many travails he came to Britain with a company of followers. He brought with him the Holy Grail, the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper. Some versions of the legend have it that the Grail contained two drops of blood captured from Jesus' side when he was wounded on the cross.

When Joseph came to Britain he was granted land at Glastonbury by the local king. When he arrived at Glastonbury, Joseph stuck his thorn staff in the earth, whereupon it rooted and burst into bloom. A cutting from that first tree was planted in the grounds of the later Glastonbury Abbey, where it continued to bloom every year thereafter at Christmas time. There is still a thorn tree in the Abbey grounds, of a variety native to the Holy Lands, and it does indeed bloom around Christmas time.

Joseph was said to have established the first church in England at Glastonbury, and archaeological records show that there may well have been an extremely early Christian church here. What happened to the Holy Grail is another matter. Some legends have it that Joseph buried the Grail at the foot of Glastonbury Tor, whereupon a spring of blood gushed forth from the ground.

There is a well at the base of the Tor, Chalice Well, and the water that issues from it does indeed have a reddish tinge to it, from the iron content of the water.

Other legends have it that the Holy Grail was interred with Joseph when he died, in a secret grave. The search for the mysterious Grail emerges again and again in the tales of Glastonbury.

Further legends tell that the church founded by Joseph continued for many years. Eventually it became a monastery, and one of the first abbots was the future St Patrick, who was born in the west country.

King Arthur and Glastonbury

Legends of King Arthur swirl about Glastonbury like a tantalizing fog from the nearby Somerset marshes. The nearby hill fort at South Cadbury has long been suggested as the location for Camelot. Indeed, excavations of South Cadbury suggest that it was in use during the early 6th century, which is the likeliest era for the real Arthur to have lived.

The association of Arthur and Glastonbury goes back at least to the early Middle Ages. In the late 12th century the monks of Glastonbury Abbey announced that they had found the grave of Arthur and Guinivere, his queen. According to the monks, an excavation found a stone inscribed "Here lies Arthur, king." Below the stone they found the bones of a large man, and the smaller skeleton of a woman. The monks reburied the bones in the grounds of the abbey, where they were a very handy draw for pilgrims. The site of the grave can be seen today in the abbey grounds.

Glastonbury Tor, the enigmatic conical hill that rises above Glastonbury, has been linked with the Isle of Avalon, where King Arthur was buried after his death. This isn't so farfetched as it may sound, for a millennium ago the water level was much higher, and the tor would indeed have been an island. Avalon was also called "the isle of glass" which does suggest similarities to the name "Glastonbury".

The Holy Grail, the object of Arthur's questing, is said to be buried beneath Glastonbury Tor, and has also been linked to Chalice Well at the base of the Tor.

One final myth of Arthur at Glastonbury: the landscape around Glastonbury is said to have been moulded and shaped so that the features (such as roads, churches, and burial mounds) create a zodiac calendar replete with Arthurian symbology. Like so many of the Arthurian myths, so much is open to interpretation and your own predisposition to believe or disbelieve.

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