48 Hours in... Glastonbury
PUBLISHED: 13:09 09 September 2008 | UPDATED: 15:26 20 February 2013
Glastonbury is revered by many as a sacred place and to this day it still attracts pilgrims as it did hundreds and possibly thousands of years ago. The town is an impressive blend of medieval, Georgian and Victorian architecture, historic winding ...
The signs of Glastonbury's mythical and legendary significance are everywhere, in its shops selling crystals and books on the Arthurian legends and the Holy Grail, in the Glastonbury Thorn that is said to have grown from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea, or in the legend of the fairies who lived on Glastonbury Tor. You might say that, in Glastonbury, anything goes. But as well as being enshrouded in myth and legend, Glastonbury is also a place of more solid history that grew up around the Abbey, one of the greatest Christian strongholds in Britain before the Reformation.
On a visit to Glastonbury, you might be in the minority if your hair isn't dyed the colours of the rainbow, or if you haven't ridden into town on a motorbike, or if you don't have any tattoos... but whatever you look like and whatever you believe, Glastonbury has a place for you.
Tour the town
Glastonbury has a remarkably small town centre, but don't let this fool you into thinking that there is little here to see and do. Rather it is crammed full of independent shops, pubs, cafs and historic nooks and crannies all overlaid with that sense of the mystical and the spiritual that makes Glastonbury so distinctive.
The heart of the town centre is Market Place, enclosed by the pedestrian-only Northload Street and Magdalene Street running into the High Street to the east. This area is an informal delight, with tables and chairs spilling out from the cafs.
From here, many of the historic buildings of the town centre are laid out before you in all their glory. A town of spiritual contrasts, a walk from the Market Place could take you into the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey, once one of the most powerful monasteries in the country, or down Benedict Street to peer in at a shop specialising in the occult.
New Age and gothic-themed shops are abundant in Glastonbury, peppered among the greengrocers, delicatessens and vegetarian cafs. The highest concentration of these can be found on the High Street, but keep an eye out for the narrow alleyways that are shopping centres in their own right. One of these leads through an archway to the Assembly Rooms, Falafel Bar and Glastonbury Galleries, and on the opposite side of the High Street, by the Tourist Information Centre, stands the entrance to The Gauntlet, a tiny shopping street of great character and charm.
You might be forgiven for spending all your time in the town centre just nosing through the shops and sitting in beer gardens soaking up that quintessential Glastonbury atmosphere. However, a visit to the Lake Village Museum in the Tribunal on the High Street is a must, and a longer walk around the outskirts of the town centre will bring you to a park full of horse chestnut trees and tantalising views of Glastonbury Tor.
Eating and sleeping
In good weather, Glastonbury has an almost Mediterranean caf culture. Heaphy's Caf, on the corner of Magdalene Street and Benedict Street, offers plenty of outside seating and a rather old-fashioned and cluttered interior. A relaxed and cheerful pizzeria, which also serves a range of other snacks and drinks, Heaphy's is central to Glastonbury and a good place in which to eat and watch the world go by.
The Abbey Tea Rooms on Magdalene Street is a traditional tearoom serving a daily roast lunch and other lunchtime specials, as well as delicious home-made cakes and cream teas.
For award-winning fish and chips with a loyal local following, try Knight's Fish & Chip Restaurant on Northload Street. There are so many ways that fish and chips can disappoint, but having been open since 1909 it seems Knight's has steered clear of all of them.
As a popular tourist destination, Glastonbury has scores of great places to stay at a range of prices. The George and Pilgrims Hotel (tel 01458 831146) is one of the most central. Dating from the 15th century and originally a coaching inn for visitors to the Abbey, the hotel has a rather grand stone frontage, mullioned windows and original oak beam ceilings. It is a real experience to eat and sleep in a building with such a long local history.
Luxury accommodation can be found at the elegant Georgian manor house, Chalice Hill House, on the slopes of Chalice Hill. Within walking distance of the town centre and Glastonbury Tor, this luxury 4-star B&B accommodation is not only conveniently located but also secluded in its own large gardens overlooking the Abbey.
Three things to take home
It is impossible to visit Glastonbury without falling just a little bit in love with its alternative perspective. Take a piece of that away with you in the form of a healing crystal or an agate geode. There are several shops selling these; try Heartfelt Trading on the High Street.
For a lasting souvenir to keep in your home, Glastonbury Galleries just off the High Street sells copies of fascinating antique maps of Somerset and local artists' prints featuring the Tor, the surrounding landscapes and, of course, local legend and myth.
An emphasis on health and happiness is self-evident in Glastonbury, and nowhere more so than at Fruition greengrocers on the High Street, where the food is clearly bursting with goodness and everything is displayed to look its most inviting.
Explore the area
No trip to Glastonbury would be complete without climbing Glastonbury Tor. The Tor is an iconic local monument and considered by many to be a sacred place of pilgrimage. The panoramic views from the top stretch to Exmoor and the Quantock Hills to the west, Dorset to the south, the Mendip Hills and Wells Cathedral to the north, and Alfred's Tower at the border with Wiltshire to the east. Journey a little further to the Mendips and you will find abundant opportunities for outdoor activities including climbing, caving, walking, cycling and horse riding.
At the foot of Glastonbury Tor, on the main road towards Shepton Mallet, you'll find Chalice Well Gardens, maintained as a natural sanctuary and place of rest and healing, where you can drink from the natural spring that is steeped in local myth. Parking is generally available at the nearby Rural Life Museum on Bere Lane, which is also worth a visit while you're there.
To understand the delicate ecosystem and the long-standing relationship between man and nature on the Somerset Levels and Moors, visit the Peat Moors Centre at Westhay, six miles west of Glastonbury. Archaeologists rarely find preserved timber in Britain, but the peat moors have acted as a natural preservative, with prehistoric timber walkways and a settlement at Lake Village being uncovered. The Peat Moors Centre has reconstructed a section of the ancient Sweet Track, the oldest man-made road in Britain, as well as three full-size Iron Age roundhouses. BY LIZ PICKERING. PHOTOS BY TONY HOWELL