Wearyall Hill could be said to be Ground Zero for the Glastonbury mythos. This was where Joseph of Arimathea disembarked after his journey from the Holy Land. On arriving, he planted his staff into the ground. It sprouted and became the famous Holy Thorn. The very name of the hill has been considered to have been adapted to fit the story. It is Wirral Hill. Beneath it is Wyrral Park and the differently spelled Wirral Park Roundabout. An obviously recent take on the etymology is that when Joseph and his companions climbed the hill they were all weary, hence Wearyall. The thorn is of a type originating in the Middle East. Perhaps a Crusader brought it for reasons unknown.
The location of the tree today provides perhaps the best single view of the entire Glastonbury mythic landscape as it takes in the Tor, the Abbey, and Chalice Hill inbetween.
During the later years of Glastonbury Abbey the penultimate Abbot, Richard Bere, took steps to better accommodate a growing cult of Joseph of Arimathea. Unfortunately for archaeologists this entailed the creation of a crypt beneath the Mary Chapel. Anything pertaining to its fabled predecessor, the Old Church, was thereby destroyed or compromised.
Bere adopted a new heraldic device for himself and the Abbey. It depicted a green cross sprouting small shoots and drops of blood. The blood is an obvious reference to Joseph’s biblical role but the green sprouting cross is a bit more mysterious. It may refer to the story of the Holy Thorn. There are a few indications that a version of the story was circulating during the final days of the Abbey. There was a thorn on Wearyall Hill but not clearly linked with Joseph.
It is only after the Dissolution that the recognizable modern form of the tale becomes visible. The core of the Abbey mythos seemed to migrate to Wearyall Hill and was kept alive there during the wasteland years. A measure of this is that the Holy Thorn became a living iconic carrier of the traditions, perhaps the last functioning medieval-type saintly relic.
A few versions of the thorn have flourished on the hill over the centuries. The current descendant is comparatively recent, having been planted as part of the 1951 Festival of Britain. It had become part of the modern visual identity of the town just as the shape of the top of the Tor, that only displays a tower of what was once a whole church with an adjacent monastic building, is accepted in its current form as an iconic image.
In December 2010 a Glastonbury drama made headlines around the world. A person or persons unknown had decapitated the Holy Thorn. Much emotion was generated in the town. On Wearyall Hill there were a number of people who were openly crying and hugging and staring in disbelief.
A replacement was planted, adjacent to the old, and soon met a similar fate. Two other saplings planted in the town were likewise destroyed. Whether it was all down to the original perpetrator or not is unknown. There is still a Holy Thorn in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey and St John’s Church. Any attempts to plant more are now understandably considered futile. A High Street shop sells saplings and now the thorn spreads out across the country. Pilgrims still visit the barely-alive original on Wearyall Hill and the place has not lost its magic.
Text adapted from Glastonbury Psychogeography by Paul Weston.
Situated on the outskirts of town, the area known as Beckery is increasingly being appreciated as one of the most important in Glastonbury. The name is sometimes taken to mean ‘Little Ireland’ in reference to the number of monks that had crossed the sea to be there during the time associated with St Patrick being the Abbot of the Abbey. Another version has it denoting a Bee Keepers Island.
Modern Glastonbury mythology states that the area was once a Druidic women’s college and some sort of continuity remained. There is no archaeology to back this up but it is a peculiarly evocative idea that expresses something of the process whereby a Celtic goddess and a Christian saint effectively fused together.
The site has long been associated with the important Irish saint, Bridget, who is alleged to have visited in 488AD an already established community with a chapel, dedicated to the enigmatic Mary Magdalene who was acknowledged in other areas of Glastonbury as well during the Abbey period.
Bridget is a fascinating figure as she seems to have taken on some of the aspects of pagan antecedents from Ireland and Britain. She is generally known as Bride in Glastonbury and the centre of the old settlement as Bride’s Mound.
One of the great feast days of the Christian and pagan calendars, Candlemas or Imbolc, that falls at the very beginning of February, is the time of year most associated with her and sees significant commemoration in modern Glastonbury. It is when the light returns to the land with intimations of coming spring such as the lactation of ewes. Amongst her multiple aspects, Bride is felt to be an inspiration for all forms of artistry.
A wonderful story that transcends normal dating considerations had Bride transported by angels to the Holy Land to be the Foster Mother of Christ.
Extraordinary archaeological finds from a dig as recent as 2016 represent the earliest evidence of monasticism in Britain so far uncovered. Skeletons examined dated from the 5th or 6th centuries of the Christian era. Most of the remains were male.
Beckery has Arthurian associations as well. There is a strange story found in the Grail romances, Prose Perceval and Y Seint Grael. The High History of the Holy Grail, a text that claimed it was written with the aid of material in the library of Glastonbury Abbey, featured a version as well.
Arthur’s squire dreamed of visiting a chapel where a hermit is laid out by the altar. The Virgin Mary and the Devil are vying for his soul. The squire seizes the opportunity to steal a candlestick. The theft is spotted and the scurvy knave fatally wounded. When he awakes from the dream he finds he still has the candlestick and the wound and duly dies after giving the artefact to Arthur. He is prompted to investigate the chapel and finds a hermit saying Mass. The Virgin and infant Jesus are present. A flame brighter than the sun then comes through the window and descends upon the altar.
John of Glastonbury, an invaluable medieval chronicler, possibly had access to a unique form of the High History that in turn inspired him to locate the chapel at Beckery. The door is guarded by two hands holding flaming swords. After the saying of Mass, instead of the manifestation of flame, the Virgin Mary gave Arthur a crystal cross. It was this miracle that established Arthur’s Marian devotion and the subsequent embellishing of his shield with her image. John stated that the cross was given to the Abbey and still existed in his day, the fourteenth century. There were times in the year when it was carried in procession.
There is a further Arthurian link between the Beckery area and Wearyall Hill that has a very specific location. One of the most evocative of all the episodes in the story of Arthur is when the knight Bedivere casts Excalibur back into the waters after the king is mortally wounded in his final battle. A bridge over the River Brue on the very edge of Glastonbury is held in folklore to be the very place this happened and is now known as Pomparles.
The association appear dubious. We do know that the Celts made sword offerings into bodies of water. If there was ever a community of druidic women resident at Beckery as modern Glastonbury mythology asserts, they may have presided over the occasional Celtic sword offering unto the waters. A dim memory of that might have lingered as an influence on the Pomparles Bridge tales.
All of this in itself marks the area as important and the Glastonbury pilgrim would find more than enough to attract them in the stories already associated with it that form a tremendous blend of myth and possible history but there is more. An event occurred at Beckery just over a century ago that made the national newspapers and in many ways marked the modern rebirth of Glastonbury. It was worthy of a medieval romance.
A doctor named John Goodchild had come into possession of a seemingly archaic Blue Glass Bowl in Italy which he was guided by unusual spiritual experiences to leave in a Well near Bride’s Mound in 1898, trusting that some important process had been initiated and that the artefact would be found in significant circumstances that would impact upon the future. He actually believed that the bowl or cup had been in the possession of Jesus although he held back from using the G word.
A few years later, Wellesley Tudor Pole began his own Glastonbury odyssey, that would conclude with the foundation of the Chalice Well Gardens, with a dream of a past life in the Abbey and the certainty that the discovery of a holy relic was imminent. He needed to gather a ‘Triad of Maidens’ to assist in the process. His sister and two of her friends took on the role. Pole had a vision of Bride’s Well. The ladies investigated. The bowl was uncovered. Dr Goodchild told his side of the story. The discovery made the national newspapers. Such is the basic version of what was a very remarkable story.
Once the furore died down and people stopped talking about the Grail what remained was an artefact that seemed to have a considerable blessing power. Innumerable people experienced profound altered states in its proximity and still do. The Blue Glass Bowl is currently housed at the Chalice Well Gardens and can be viewed at the discretion of its guardians.