Glastonbury, Wells & Bath

Trip Start Apr 01, 2010
Trip End Jul 31, 2010

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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

We pulled into Glastonbury in the evening, in time for a bite at the Who'd A Thought It Inn and our first post-sunset tent assembly at the Isle of Avalon campsite. (It went surprisingly well). In the morning, we discovered that the site had a great view up the steepest profile of Glastonbury Tor, the nearly conical hill on the edge of town. In silhouette, the old tower atop the tor looks like a Stone Age monolith, though it's actually the remains of a church - an appropriate icon for a site that was holy to pagan Celts, then hailed as "the cradle of Christianity in Britain," (legend has Joseph of Arimathea coming here with the Holy Grail to establish a church soon after Christ's resurrection), and is now the centre of British neo-paganism.

Over the course of the day we saw a few Gandalfs and Earth Mothers (plus lots of crystals, yoga classes, and dulcimers), as we clambered up the Tor and wandered through Glastonbury town. The Tor itself was serene and lovely, a little peak set strikingly above the former swamps of the Somerset Levels. It's the sort of place that lends itself to awe and contemplation; hardly surprising that so many people have considered it holy. Glastonbury town had a pleasantly laid-back atmosphere, like many a hippie haven in California. We didn't enter the grand ruins of Glastonbury Abbey, supposed resting place of King Arthur; having skipped his birthplace back in Cornwall, it would have seemed rude to gawk at his grave, and besides, our National Trust membership wouldn't get us in the door for free. In another odd sort of thrift, Joel found a hardback copy of Neal Stephenson's novel 'Anathem' for 3 in a charity shop and couldn't resist - even though at 980-some pages it weighs about as much as our tent. He decided he could carry it until our imminent London break.

Late in the afternoon, we reclaimed our packs and hiked across the boggy, aptly-named Levels to Wells, a very pretty old cathedral town. The next day we made it to the cathedral in time to clatter into the midday Communion service - by far the youngest, noisiest, and sweatiest communicants of the eight or so celebrating that day. We were welcomed with very good grace, and spent a half hour afterward exploring the massive church, which holds the world's second oldest working clock (an elaborate, 600+ year-old device with jousting knights striking bells every quarter hour and a dial depicting quite accurately the phase of the moon) and a unique 'scissor arch' design supporting the central tower, heavier than the usual Gothic arches but if anything even more effective at conveying a sense of celestial space. Looking up through those arches felt like a glimpse through an orrery, with orbits and heavenly bodies modeled on a grand scale.

We had lunch in the green square outside the cathedral, then hiked up into the hills, where views of Glastonbury Tor were happily inescapable - we'd keep glancing back and seeing it at once, still commanding the landscape no matter how small. We finally left it shortly before camping at Old Down.

The next morning we caught the bus into Bath, to give us more time to walk round the city. After dropping our packs at the Youth Hostel (a lovely, friendly hilltop retreat, well worth the steep hike to get there), we rambled along the Bath Skyline Path to Prior Park Landscape Garden, built by Ralph Allen, the maker of modern Bath. In the early 1700s Allen made a fortune from improving the post office, then made a second one from quarrying and trading Bath's fabulous honey-coloured limestone. He spent much of this on a grand house and landscape garden overlooking the city.

The garden, occupying a dramatic cleft in the hill, was designed in the then-new romantic style - which according to the onsite National Trust blurbs erased the line between 'garden' and 'landscape' by carefully highlighting beautiful features natural to the British countryside, as opposed to cultivating elaborate French-style flowerbeds and topiary. Proving that this was really about Anglo-French rivalry and not a preference for nature over artifice, most landscape gardens included bizarrely artificial features like little temples of Apollo or a hermit's grotto (some complete with a salaried hermit). Prior Park's grotto has fallen into disrepair, but it does have an ornamental bridge over a lake, built in the neo-classical Palladian style. This might actually count as a natural feature of the British landscape, as the revered architect Palladio never quite managed to build one in Italy, and three of the four existing 'Palladian Bridges' can be found in British landscape gardens (the fourth, in Russia, was built after Catherine the Great visited Britain and liked the look of the one in Wilton).

We enjoyed the views down the steep garden valley and the graffiti of at least two centuries on the Palladian bridge. Then we walked down to explore Bath proper. It's a famously exquisite town, rising from the River Avon in a steep succession of terraces and crescents, with virtually everything faced in that sunny Bath stone that paid for Prior Park. It was Fi's first time there, and she fell in love with the rooflines and narrow streets. She knew she liked stone buildings, but had no idea how happy a whole city of the same gently radiant kind of stone and crisp, elegant Georgian architecture could make her; it's reinforced her bias in favour of dictatorial town planners. Joel already had a geo-crush on Bath, particularly the stretch of the Avon around Pulteney Bridge (which, in imitation of an actual Italian bridge, has rows of little shops built on it). So our afternoon/evening there was a very happy one.

We were even happier the next morning, when we heard we had a new niece up in Leeds! We were already preparing to break our walk in Bath for a wedding in London on the 24th - now we quickly arranged a Leeds visit for the 26-27th.

And now we're on the bus back to Bath, where we look forward to meeting some more friends and immersing ourselves in the hot sulphurous water that made Bath famous in the first place.
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Anise Strong-Morse on

Probably too late, but Sally Lunn's Welsh Rarebit is totally awesome in Bath; we went there as an excursion during your wedding weekend!

Grandma Hafvenstein on

Hi dear Ones:
I've been playing 'catch-up' today, reading your blog. Interesting that you talk about staying at a hill top youth hostel. Wondering if it's the same one I stayed in
when I was there a few years ago. I know I walked up a steep hill to get there.

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