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.

Arthur, Badon and Badbury

The end of our October walk standing on the inner rampart looking south beside the west entrance.

The end of our October walk standing on the inner rampart looking south beside the west entrance.

Each October I lead a walk at Badbury Rings as part of Dorset Archaeology Days. The weather is generally fine, I meet some great people and it’s an opportunity to share the stories of the place.

At the end, we walk up to the top of the rampart, we look out across the hillfort and surrounding landscape and I say.

“Some people believe that the battle of Mount Badon took place here”

blank faces

“But perhaps you know of Arthur. Not the romantic medieval mythical king but the person he’s based on”

Someone smiles “Yes but was he a real person?”.

Badbury Rings looking south with the west entrance and barbican on the right. The 6m square excavation trench was just above the entrance through the inner rampart.

Badbury Rings looking south with the west entrance and barbican on the right. The 6m square excavation trench was just above the entrance through the inner rampart.

“Well, there are different views. He’s the hero from a time when the Roman legions had withdrawn from Britain and left her citizens to fend for themselves ( many of them thought of themselves as Roman. Britain had been part of the Empire for nearly 400 years)”.

Badbury lies on a hill top at a route centre. It seems to have defended a crossroads on a border. To the east at Christchurch and north near Salisbury have been found Anglo-Saxon pagan warrior burials of 5th-6th century date. To the west at Tolpuddle, around Dorchester and on the Isle of Purbeck, contemporary burials are of Christian type, east-west without grave goods.

Batts Bed field north of Badbury where the Dorchester to London roman road crosses the Bath to Poole Harbour road. The parish  boundary hedge that crosses the picture top to bottom may preserve the line of the road to Hod Hill and Ilchester.

Batts Bed field north of Badbury where the Dorchester to London roman road crosses the Bath to Poole Harbour road. The parish boundary hedge that crosses the picture top to bottom may preserve the line of the road to Hod Hill and Ilchester.

The invading Anglo-Saxons were taking the land. Bit by bit the British were being pushed west. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle documents their triumphs but at the end of the 5th century the tide of conquest is halted.

A leader in the west united the British forces and defeated the Anglo-Saxons at Mount Badon. This battle stopped the Saxon advance for about 50 years. Rare scraps of historical evidence survive. Gildas, a British 6th century monk, comments that the battle took place in the year of his birth although he does not mention when that was or name Arthur.

The Welsh Annals do though

“The Battle of Badon, in which Arthur carried the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ for three days and three nights upon his shoulders and the Britons were the victors”

I particularly like this time (it’s a bit like an end of the world science fiction story). The fading of the old civilisation and the emergence of a new order. The lantern bearers holding back the dark. Traces of history merged with rare archaeological remnants.

…but was the battle in Dorset? Most people don’t think so. Some say it took place in Somerset near Bath on Bathampton Down. Others think it was in Wiltshire near Swindon at a place on the Ridgeway called Liddington Castle close to another Badbury.

The view from Badbury's west gate across the Roman temple along the Dorchester road to the group of three barrows by the entrance track.

The view from Badbury’s west gate across the Roman temple along the Dorchester road to the group of three barrows by the entrance track.

So.. back to last week when we stood on the windswept rampart looking out across the Dorset countryside…

“Nobody had ever recorded an excavation inside Badbury.. so in 2004 we asked for permission to dig a trench. We expected Iron Age occupation and we found it …but above it there was an unexpected floor of rammed chalk and scattered on its surface were scraps of occupation evidence. Fragments of worn late Roman pottery, a spiral bronze ring, a few nails, a worn 4th century coin and patches of charcoal perhaps remains of cooking fires.

Our 6m square excavation against the inner rampart of Badbury Rings. The chalk floor we found covering the Iron Age deposits

Our 6m square excavation against the inner rampart of Badbury Rings. The chalk floor we found covering the Iron Age deposits

Badbury’s population had left when the Roman army arrived in the 1st century. Most of them had probably shifted their homes down to Vindocladia, the small town beside the Stour a mile to the south…then about AD 410 the Empire ended in Britain, the legions left and the world became uncertain. A storm was brewing in the east. The old fortification was re-occupied.

A Late Roman bronze spral ring left on the chalk floor dated to AD 480-520.

A Late Roman bronze spral ring left on the chalk floor dated to AD 480-520.

We took the charcoal and sent away samples for Radiocarbon dating. All three dates came back as AD 480-520.

We cannot prove that the Battle of Mount Badon took place at Badbury in Dorset and that Arthur was there ..(although all patriotic Dorset people would like it to be true) but we now know that the place was certainly occupied then.

We can stand on the ramparts and imagine… a society on the edge..drawn back to the old secure place guarding the crossroads, people looking towards the threat from the north and the east as though a storm was approaching.

…as it is this evening.