Glastonbury Tor, Sacred Centre

The National Trust looks after lots of hill tops and they’re all pretty special.. but this week.. I went to a meeting at Glastonbury to talk about conservation repairs to a nearby hill that is so popular it receives 350,000 visitors a year. We were struggling for a description of it and tried to avoid the obvious ‘i’ word.

The steep walk up to the tower from the east side.

The steep walk up to the tower from the east side.

Glastonbury Tor has a very distinctive profile rising from the Somerset Levels with its medieval chapel tower like an obelisk on the top, visible for many miles around.

Approaching the Tor from Shepton Mallet and Pilton

Approaching the Tor from Shepton Mallet and Pilton

We walked to the summit. A perfect day, cold but very clear. There is a small level area there. At one end a toposcope and at the other the tower. Between them a worn trough of erosion. We took away a concrete path in 2008 and planted grass reinforced with a plastic grid. The idea was to improve the visual appearance but the footfall is too heavy. We need to replace the hard surface again to protect the underlying archaeology.

This years erosion between the 15th century tower and the 1983 toposcope. 350,000 visitors this year.  This is where the medieval St Michael's Chapel used to stand from the 8th century, before that there was a Dark Age monastic site, traces of a Roman temple and before that prehistoric flints of various types demonstrate people have valued this spot for many thousands of years.

This years erosion between the 15th century tower and the 1983 toposcope. 350,000 visitors this year. This is where the medieval St Michael’s Chapel used to stand from the 8th century, before that there was a Dark Age monastic site, traces of a Roman temple and before that prehistoric flints of various types demonstrate people have valued this spot for many thousands of years.

The tower from the south side.

The tower from the south side.


Back in 2003, the tower was in a bad way and needed repair. A Royal Navy helicopter from Yeovilton kindly carried the materials up there.
The Royal Navy transport of conservation materials to the summit 2003

The Royal Navy transport of conservation materials to the summit 2003

Scaffolding was erected and loose stonework was rebedded and the tower repointed. Fragments of older medieval carving were found in the structure and the whole tower was drawn and analysed by Jerry the historic buildings specialist. Local archaeologists Nancy and Charles watched while a new path was laid around the tower, recorded buried archaeology and carried out a survey of the site.

Building repairs to the parapet on the top of St Michael's Tower 2003

Building repairs to the parapet on the top of St Michael’s Tower 2003

We looked out towards the Mendips and the city beneath. Wells cathedral was clear picked out by the bright sunlight.

The Tor has been a place of pilgrimage and fascination for thousands of years. Pagan and New Age worshippers are most visible now. Glastonbury Abbey built a chapel here and this was repaired and rebuilt from the 8th-15th centuries. In 1275 there was an earthquake that demolished the nave and in 1538 the last abbot was hung here when Henry VIII closed the Abbey and ordered the demolition of many if its buildings.

Philip Rahtz dug here from 1964-6 and found a Christian monastic site in use during the 5th-6th centuries. This find helped feed speculation that this might be the Isle of Avalon linked to Arthur. In 1190, the graves of Arthur and Guinevere are said to have been discovered at the Abbey.

Rahtz also found Roman material on the summit and it is possible that there was once a Roman temple there. Finds of prehistoric flint also demonstrate that people have been drawn to the hill since the Mesolithic.

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But then.. they were much like us and who wouldn’t want to climb up here and marvel at the beauty of the Somerset landscape fading out in all directions far into the horizon.

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