‘Glastonbury’ and ‘Festival’ are words inescapably welded together in the collective consciousness of pop culture. But there’s more to the area than its annual music gathering – in fact, Glastonbury has a unique vibe which makes it a great destination throughout the year.
Read more: Glastonbury Festival 2012 cancelled
“There’s a history of silliness here, of non-conformism. There’s a tradition of standing out of line,” says festival founder Michael Eavis. He believes it’s due to this heritage that the world-famous jamboree ever came to pass. In this part of the country, he says, people have a taste for the offbeat. “I don’t believe the festival would have happened anywhere else.”
A brief stroll down Glastonbury high street confirms Eavis’ point. In the space of ten minutes I pass a man with rainbow-coloured dreadlocks, two druids, several witches, and enough spiritualist shops to support a burgeoning economy of mystics. But compared to most other high streets – many now resembling the identikit sterility of the average Welcome Break – there’s something distinctly refreshing about the eccentricity on display here.
A characteristic that also attracts a whole roster of famous names, says Eavis. “Nicolas Cage has bought a house in the area. His wife is very keen on the festival and she loves the town. And the one from Radiohead… what’s his name? The lead guitarist, him and his wife love to come here for shopping. And Banksy, too.”
It’s true that the area has an undeniable pull, which has been drawing people here even before Eavis first advertised live music and a glass of milk for £1 at his Worthy Farm. Legend has it that the young Jesus Christ visited Glastonbury with his great uncle Joseph of Arimathea, who owned one of the lead mines in the area used by the Romans.
Arimathea is said to have later founded the first church in England on the site of Glastonbury Abbey, planting his spear into the ground which then sprouted a thorn tree. You can see a descendent of the same tree on one of the excellent free guided tours around the site, which is said to bloom both at Easter and Christmas – unlike varieties found anywhere else.
A further layer of mythology associated with the site maintains that King Arthur and Guinevere were once interred in the choir of the abbey, having chosen the area to die after being mortally wounded in battle. His bones were later distributed among the local churches. So many now claim to literally ‘have a piece of him’; were the king reassembled today he would probably have around 17 arms and several heads.
But it was attractions such as these that drew visitors from across Europe and made the abbey the richest in the country – attested to by its magnificent ruined arches and mosaic remnants. It’s not hard to imagine how awe-inspiring the abbey must have been to its original onlookers and even if you take the legends with a large dose of salt its beautiful decayed grandeur makes the £5 entrance fee well worth your money.
Closely linked to the abbey is St Michael’s Tower perched on Glastonbury Tor – Celtic for conical hill – where the last abbot of Glastonbury was hanged during Henry VIII’s disillusion of the monasteries. The 521ft landmark dominates the surrounding Somerset skyline and a hike to the top affords breathtaking views of rolling countryside, spread for miles below like a giant patchwork quilt.
And if you feel like a relaxing shop after all that, there are worse ways to spend the afternoon than a trip to Clarks Village in the nearby town of Street, about one mile away.
Next stop is Cheddar Gorge for those craving more physical exhilaration, or in search of the area’s world-famous cheese. It’s more than a ten-mile drive from Glastonbury, but is also well served by the local bus routes.
The dramatic geological phenomenon provides some of the best rock climbing this side of the Peak District. Its limestone cliffs tower 450ft above a gorge three miles long, with an intricate cathedral of stalactites and stalagmites below. Experience an unequalled view of it with a beginner’s rock climbing course, or if you’re a member of the British Mountaineering Council scale the entire gorge. And if that’s not enough to get your heart racing, you can plunge its bottomless depths with a cave diving instructor.
For non-thrillseekers, like me, the Cheddar Man Museum provides a fascinating glimpse into our pre-history. It was here in Gough’s Cave that Britain’s oldest complete skeleton was discovered, while the butchered remains of other humans were also found here – providing a chilling insight into cannibalism in this country. The exhibits raise some interesting questions about human existence.
No visit would be complete without sampling the most famous dairy export in the world. The Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company is the last producer of Cheddar’s eponymous cheese and I’m pleased to say lovers of the curd will not be disappointed. The company has won awards for its dairy produce and the cheese’s nutty, creamy texture is perhaps the best I’ve tasted.
Final destination is the beautiful city of Wells on the edge of the Mendip Hills. Technically the smallest in the country with a population of around 10,000, the city is most famous for the majestic splendour of its early English Gothic cathedral built in the 1180.
Inside, the building is best appreciated with one of the frequent guided tours, which run daily. But make sure you don’t miss the astronomical clock on the north transept, dating from 1390 and almost rivalling Prague’s famous timepiece. Finish off with a walk around the Bishop’s Palace Gardens for £5 and soak up the array of shrubbery, sculptures and historic ruins.
Fans of the film Hot Fuzz may also recognise Wells as the setting of the backwater rural town featured in the movie, something The Crown pub is so proud of it has a plaque outside the door. But the watering hole is far more salubrious than imagined in the film and offers a selection of dangerously drinkable high-strength ciders which the county is famous for.
The Swan Hotel, where Simon Pegg’s character stays in the movie, offers a great venue at a reasonable price (starting at £94 for a double) and offer stunning views opposite the cathedral. However, if you’re feeling like splashing out, Charlton House in Shepton Mallet, about three miles from Wells, provides a truly luxurious weekend retreat for around £140 a night.
While telling people you are heading to Glastonbury is bound to elicit a humorous response along the lines of “you’re a bit late for the festival, aren’t you?”, whatever season you choose to visit it’s hard to disagree with Michael Eavis’ reason for staying firmly put throughout the year. “Why would I move? The whole area is so full of energy.”
For more information visit The Somerset Tourism Association
or visit Cheddar Caves and Gorge’s website.