Glastonbury Abbey

If you are in the Mendips region of Somerset you really shouldn’t miss visiting the wonderful Wells Cathedral nor the historic town of Glastonbury, possibly the quirkiest town in England. Steeped in history, myth and the smell of incense, it may not be for everybody.

However, do not let that put you off visiting the beautiful site of Glastonbury Abbey. Since Medieval times, the abbey has held legendary status as the earliest Christian foundation in Britain linked to Joseph of Arimathea and the burial place of King Arthur.

It’s a peaceful place – 36 acres of grounds to explore. Plenty of benches to sit and relax and take in the atmosphere. The remains of the abbey to walk around, which must have been enormous in its day. A medieval herb garden. Views of the Glastonbury Tor.

The abbey was built on the myth that followers of Christ settled here within the 1st century CE and built ‘The Old Church’. Abbot Dunstan remodelled and expanded the abbey and by the time of the coming of the Normans, the abbey was the wealthiest in England.

Disaster struck in 1184 when a great fire destroyed most of the abbey including the Old Church. Rebuilding began immediately, with the support of King Henry II, beginning with the Lady Chapel which commemorated and preserved the position of the Old Church. Chevron detail, floral and figural work, and both Romanesque and Gothic architecture adorn the chapel.

A few years later, the monks of Glastonbury announced the discovery of the body of King Arthur and his queen, Guinevere, a claim that helped draw much needed funding, which had ceased with Henry II’s death two years before.

In 1534, the passing of the Act of Supremacy made Henry VIII the head of the Church of England and suppression of the monasteries began. Glastonbury held out as long as possible, but eventually Abbot Richard Whiting was arrested on a fabricated charge of treason and executed in 1539, marking the end for the monastery.

The Glastonbury thorn is a form of common hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna ‘Biflora’ unusual in that it flowers twice a year.

According to legend, Joseph of Arimathea visited Glastonbury with the Holy Grail and thrust his staff into Wearyall Hill, which then grew into the original thorn tree. The “original” Glastonbury thorn was cut down and burned as a relic of superstition during the English Civil War, and one planted on Wearyall Hill in 1951 to replace it had its branches cut off in 2010. The original tree has been propagated several times with one tree growing in the Abbey grounds.

As you enter the grounds of the Abbey the first thing you notice is a bronze casting of a figurative sculpture, showing the monk Sigeric riding a mule while on pilgrimage from Canterbury to Rome. A small girl offers him an orange from a bag hanging on her back.

The statue was originally made in plaster for a travelling exhibition held in the millennium year, to celebrate the Via Francigena and inspired by the story of Sigeric who was educated at Glastonbury Abbey, where he took holy orders. He was elected Abbot of St Augustine’s in about 975 to 990, and consecrated by Archbishop Dunstan as Bishop of Ramsbury in 985 or 986. He was transferred to the see of Canterbury in 990.

Within the grounds there is a herb garden which hosts a variety of traditional herbs that may have been used in cooking at the abbey during the monastic period and a kitchen garden which once served the Abbot’s Kitchen. The abbey orchard has been in use since at least 1799 and possibly during the monastic period and contains an array of historically significant cider apple varieties.

The Orchard
Abbot’s Kitchen from the Kitchen and Herb Gardens

I don’t know why abbey ruins appeal to me so much. Maybe it is the sense of history, trying to visualise what the buildings might have looked like? A strong perception of lives gone by? Monks drifting in and out, sandals slapping on the stone floors as they made their way from the refectory along the cloisters to the chapel for meditation and chanting. I always find such places very tranquil to be in although together with a certain feeling of poignancy.

Source of historical information from Glastonbury Abbey website.

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I have lived in the UK for most of my life, but when young I definitely had wanderlust and even ended up living in South Africa for several years which was a wonderful experience. I now look forward to a long and leisurely retirement doing what I like most - gardening, photography, walking and travelling.

47 thoughts on “Glastonbury Abbey”

  1. Just the sort of place I’d love to visit and spending lots of time exploring! I re-read Rosemary Sutcliff’s book about Arthur often as well as the trio by Mary Stewart. There’s also a book in Deborah Crombie’s series that takes place in Glastonbury but all that aside, it just a beautiful place with history, ruins, and garden. What’s not to like? I especially enjoyed the photo about midway down where the white blossoms are on the left of the shot.

    1. Probably cow parsley – it is rather beautiful in May. I must admit that I am not a believer of Arthur and his tales, but it does seem to be popular here.

      1. The Sutcliff book gives a story that could actually have happened, whether or not it did which makes it more interesting than the magical stories.

  2. It’s interesting that people in 1191 claimed to have found the remains of Arthur and Guinevere, given that most modern scholars don’t believe those two really existed.

  3. Couldn’t agree more about how places such as this make you feel peaceful and tranquil whilst also having that pleasing sensation of soaking up history. I haven’t visited the Abbey but attended a wedding in the area a few years ago. We had a night out in the town whilst there but until I read this post I’d forgotten what a quirky little town it is. Note to self to return.

  4. Fantastic photos. It’s funny you should mention about the appeal of old abbeys because I know exactly what you mean. When you stand in them and touch the stones you get a real sense of history.

    1. I love reading about the history of such places. English Heritage often have audio guides that you can listen to as you go round and they really bring a place to life.

  5. Very interesting to read about this place that is so deep in history and legend. And the archways of the abbey are so beautiful! I love how you have captured the details of the incredible architecture!

  6. This was the first place we went to outside of London on our first trip to UK in 1999. I remember standing there and being amazed at how large the whole building must have been. I was also surprised that so much of the stone had been reused elsewhere, considering it was taken from a sacred site. Then it was explained that because it was already worked it was easy to use it for other constructions. Made sense.

    1. You will find that a lot of buildings have used stone from the dissolved abbeys all around the country. It’s quite astonishing that anything is still standing!

  7. Nice photos of Glastonbury Abbey!! very interesting buildings, and it looks so old, especially compared to the stuff I see in North America. We do have a lot of historical buildings, especially in Eastern Canada, but even in Montreal, or Quebec City a 200 year old building is still really old.

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