The search for the Holy Grail has captured the imagination of societies across the centuries, and is one of the most enduring legends in European literature and art. Now a European Union funded research project aims to encourage visitors to take up the quest at one of six locations in the UK and across Europe. I headed to Somerset to go in search of Glastonbury’s Holy Grail trail…
Welcome to Glastonbury
Glastonbury is a small town in the South West of England. Lending its name to the famous Glastonbury Music Festival in nearby Pilton, this ancient town punches well above its weight as a tourist destination thanks to more than its fair share of history, legend and myth.
The town has been inhabited since Neolithic times, and the first settlers were probably stone age farmers. Three miles north-west of Glastonbury is the site of an iron age lake village, which housed 200 people from around 250 B.C. until it was abandoned in 50 B.C.
Glastonbury Abbey was one of the richest and most powerful monasteries in England until it was suppressed during the Dissolution of Monasteries under King Henry VIII.
The last abbot was hanged, drawn and quartered as a traitor on Glastonbury Tor in 1549 and the Abbey now stands in ruins.
The area has also been associated with the legend of King Arthur since the 12th Century, and the search for the Holy Grail (cup of Christ) was the principal quest of the knights of King Arthur’s round table.
The connection with King Arthur was actively promoted by medieval monks who believed Glastonbury was the Isle of Avalon (a legendary island featured in Arthurian legend). The town sits on high ground above the Somerset levels, which are prone to flooding.
The Holy Grail Project
The Holy Grail Project (GRAIL) is a European Union funded research project, designed to develop and examine the importance of religious and cultural routes and find out how they can act as a catalyst for regional development and to boost tourism.
The project team has developed a pan-European spiritual tourism route based on the legend of the Holy Grail, which takes in six locations each in Britain, France, Spain, Bulgaria and Malta.
Glastonbury’s Holy Grail Trail
Given Glastonbury’s history of myth and legend, it’s no wonder it features prominently on the Holy Grail route. Some believe Glastonbury Tor was the last resting place of King Arthur, and Arthur and Guinevere’s coffins are said to have been uncovered there in 1191.
It is also claimed that when the Templars returned from the First Crusade, they hid a host of plundered biblical relics throughout the British Isles. This led to claims that the Grail was buried on Glastonbury Tor.
But other stories suggest it is hidden in Santa Maria de Montserrat in Catalonia, or Catedral de Santa Maria de Valencia in Spain, at Rosslyn Chapel in Roslin, Scotland, or at The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
This iconic landmark offers magnificent views of the Somerset Levels and is steeped in history and legend.
Excavations at the top have revealed the foundations of two superimposed churches of St Michael, but only a 15th-century tower remains today.
Glastonbury Tor has a fairly grisly past. Abbot Richard Whiting was executed here on the orders of Thomas Cromwell, the first Earl of Essex.
But Glastonbury Tor is also known as being one of the most spiritual sites in the country. Its link with pagan beliefs are still very much celebrated.
Above all it is a beautiful place to walk, unwind and relax on a sunny afternoon, with great views across the Somerset Levels.
Glastonbury Abbey and the Abbot’s Kitchen
Glastonbury Abbey was founded in the 7th century and enlarged 300 years later by the Abbot of Glastonbury, St. Dunstan, who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 960.
The abbey was destroyed by a major fire in 1184 but was later rebuilt, and by the 14th century it was one of the richest and most powerful monasteries in England.
It is one of England’s earliest, more important and most fascinating abbeys, providing sanctuary, tranquility, history and heritage all in one place. The Abbey is a grade I listed building and a scheduled monument.
Visitors can also wander through 36 acres of parkland grounds.
Visit the Abbot’s Kitchen, and it isn’t hard to imagine life in the past with costumed guides ready to demonstrate a medieval lifestyle.
The Abbot’s Kitchen has been described as one of the best preserved medieval kitchens in Europe.
The 14th century octagonal building, complete with grotesque gargoyles, has an unusual pyramidal roof and four large arched fireplaces in the corners of the room.
Chalice Well and Gardens
The Chalice Well is among the best known holy wells in Britain. It is a continuously flowing fresh water spring, which leaks water at a constant rate and temperature.
Some legends claim the waters represent the blood of Christ or that it was here that the Holy Grail was last washed. But for others the waters represent the essence of life, a gift from Mother Earth, and an unbounded life force.
Now in the care of the Chalice Well Trust, the well is a popular stop for visitors and pilgrims and it is a wonderful experience to visit the well-head, drink the water and absorb the atmosphere.
Other interesting things to see include a visit to The Tribunal, which is a late 15th-century stone town house with an early Tudor façade, thought to have been the courtroom of Glastonbury Abbey.
The Tribunal is now home to the Tourist Information Centre and the Glastonbury Lake Village Museum, which contains finds from one of Europe’s most famous archaeological sites.
Other historic buildings include St John the Baptist Church, St Margaret’s Chapel, and the Magdalene Almshouses and Quiet Garden.
It’s well worth stopping to do some shopping in Glastonbury with it’s eclectic mix of new age and esoteric shops. Think wholefoods, clothing, second-hand books, gifts, and all things odd and interesting, and you won’t go far wrong.
One of my favourite stores is The Crystal Man with its amazing collection of minerals, gemstones and fossils. Look out for some great second-hand book stores full of legends, and Earthfare, an organic and ethical wholefoods store.
The shop names speak volumes in Glastonbury with Little Imps Toy Shop, Enchanted Floral, The Twilight Zone, Gothic Image, and Natural Earthling to name just a few.
The annual Glastonbury Frost Fayre may also be the most alternative Christmas Market you will ever visit and is well worth checking out in December.
There are lots of sustainable projects and businesses in the Glastonbury area including Sharpham Park organic spelt farm, the Bridie’s Yard Organic Food Co-op, Avalon Permaculture Gardens, and Brook Farm.
The town even has a Green Party Mayor and Deputy Mayor, pictured here with Green Member of the European Parliament Molly Scott Cato holding the Glastonbury Candle with its motto Unity Through Diversity.