In the very first of our on-going series of OUT! pages exploring the wealth of outdoor (and occasionally indoor) wonders in Sparkland, we explore sacred sites.
St Nectan’s Glen, Tintagel
A place of ancient pilgrimage, you reach its waterfall and shrine through a choice of several steep footpaths down a valley. Its trees, wild plants and wildness beside a stream would be enough to induce a sense of spirituality but there is more. People leave prayers and photos of loved ones in the quiet of the Hermitage. This small shrine room (follow signs for the tea room) where the bedrock forms a natural altar was once closed to the public. Now the owners, persuaded of its spiritual value, have opened it up.
Leaving the shrine, steps lead to the bottom of a steep waterfall where more heartfelt messages line the stone shelves. Known for its therapeutic effects, the waterfall is classed as one of the ten most spiritual sites in the UK. The sheer force of the water pouring from a height of 60-foot has punched a second hole in the rock. For a more extreme experience, people are known to climb through the second doughnut-shape to the original basin or kieve - Cornish for wash tub - and immerse themselves in the deep cold pool six foot deep. It a slippery climb up the waterfall’s opening and the water is icy cold so it’s only for the hardiest of pilgrims.
Possibly a pagan site but named after an early Christian hermit, the place is now run by a couple who were staring into a Cornish estate agent’s 28 years ago when the ad was displayed in the window for the first time. They just knew it was for them. Photos of the waterfall are reputed to feature unexplained circles when developed, examples of which are pinned to the tea garden notice-board. My photo of the waterfall also featured the famous orbs! I will be sending it to the owners as requested.
The main public footpath is behind The Rocky Valley Centre at Trethevy on the Boscastle to Tintagel road. Sensible footwear is advised. Dogs are welcome but must be on leads near the Hermitage. Children under ten cannot go in the shrine room and the tea room is standard fare.
www.stnectan.currantbun.com about £3.50
It’s strange how everyone troops off to Stonehenge when six miles outside Bristol is the second largest stone circle after Avebury. Enclosed in the village of Stanton Drew and near the Druid’s Inn pub, its setting is more agricultural than magical but it is possible to have the huge field of (mostly fallen) stones to yourself. Very few excavations have been undertaken compared to Avebury and Stonehenge which only enhances its everyday mystery. Cows graze in the fields and dogs are not allowed.
In a car take the A37 from Bristol towards Shepton Mallet. Turn right at the roundabout on the A368 to Weston Super Mare. After a mile take a right to Stanton Drew. Buses run to nearby Pensford (379) from Bristol Bus Station. No dogs allowed and please drop money in the honesty box.
Don’t go to Cadbury Castle expecting turrets and battlements. The ‘castle’ is in fact a series of banks and ditches on a tree-covered hill near the village of Sparkford, five miles north of Yeovil. This ancient hill fort is well worth a visit though - it’s a beautiful place with a fascinating history. The summit rises some 500 feet above the surrounding landscape giving views across to Glastonbury Tor and, on a good day, Brent Knoll, and excavations around the site have yielded Neolithic, Bronxe Age, Roman and Saxon artefacts. Archaeologists have also found traces of settlements, including a prehistoric temple and an Iron Age ‘Great Hall’. Although built around 500BC, evidence suggests that Cadbury Castle was an important place in Arthurian times; lending weight to the local legend that it was King Arthur’s Camelot.
The largest known stone circle in the world, Avebury lies in a genteel Wiltshire village. A quiet grassed circle area with a deep inner ditch, its standing stones are megalithic mysteries - we can only wonder at the role their architecture played 5,000 years ago. These days the stones encircle the village of Avebury, complete with pub. According to ley line experts, Avebury lies on this same line as Glastonbury Tor. It became somewhat notorious in the 1930s when the site was bought by marmalade heir and amateur archeologist, Alexander Keiller, a possible mate of of Aleister Crowley’s. However Keiller stopped Avebury being snaffled off as building material. It is now owned by the National Trust.
Muchelney was once a remote island in the Levels, and the church that was founded here in 693 would have provided a peaceful haven for monks and recluses. It’s still an atmospheric place and although Somerset’s second largest abbey is no longer standing, its medieval foundations (plus some Anglo Saxon remains) can be clearly seen and the beautifully preserved Tudor Abbot’s House boasts impressive carvings, stained glass and wall paintings.
Since I moved from Bristol to a small South Somerset village a couple of years ago life can sometimes seem a little sleepy, so I feel really lucky to have Glastonbury nearby! It’s a lively and intense place, with an undeniably powerful energy and a sense that anything is possible. It’s easy to see why visitors flock here in their thousands from all around the world.
It’s likely that Glastonbury was thought of as a sacred place ever since humans first settled in the region. Once an island surrounded by tidal marshland (reputedly the Isle of Avalon), archaeological evidence shows the area was of great importance to the Celtic druids. By the late Middle Ages Glastonbury had become one of Europe’s main places of pilgrimage and, as a result, was home to the richest Abbey in England. Nowadays the town is a magnet for spiritual people, artists, and those seeking change and healing.
The most recognisable and visible of Glastonbury’s many sacred sites is the Tor. This 500ft-high naturally conical hill dominates the surrounding flat landscape, and is associated with countless myths and mysteries, from faerie folklore, Arthurian legends and UFO sightings to the controversial Tor labyrinth. Some archaeologists believe the hill’s maze-like terraces simply enabled the land to be used for farming, but like many others I prefer to imagine their purpose was ritual rather than agricultural. Excavations have shown that the Tor has been in use since the Neolithic period. There was probably a pre-Christian temple at the summit; now it is topped by the remains of a gothic-looking 15th century church tower.
The once-great Abbey is also ruined now but its 36 acres of parkland are a tranquil oasis amidst the town’s hustle and bustle. It was the first Christian sanctuary in Britain, and is still used for services every week. The site is said to be the resting place of King Arthur and his queen Guinevere.
More legends surround the Chalice Well, which has long been associated with healing miracles. Tradition says that a spring representing the blood of Christ has flowed ever since Joseph of Arimathea buried the Holy Grail here. The Chalice Well’s water is high in iron oxide and certainly has a reddish tinge.
Glastonbury’s other sacred sites include Bride’s Mound and Wearyall Hill (where a tree is supposed to have grown from Joseph of Arimathea’s staff), but you could say the whole place is one great big sacred site. Dowsers have traced a massive web of energy lines running through the town. One major line that runs from Cornwall to East Anglia is made up of two intertwining male and female energies, known respectively as the Michael and Mary lines. These lines cross an amazing three times in Glastonbury; at the Abbey, the Chalice Well gardens and the Tor. Perhaps it’s these energy lines that have made Glastonbury such a special place and have lead the whole area to be referred to as a ‘landscape temple’.
Glastonbury Isle of Avalon by George Wingfield. Glastonbury-based publishers Wooden Books. www.woodenbooks.co.uk
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Glastonbury section written by Melanie Ward-Ablitt
First published Spark issue 57, summer 2009
Details correct at time of going to press but may now have changed - please make your own checks