Wells to Glastonbury Pilgrimage
Two Tips for visiting Glastonbury…
One - There is no better way to arrive then by climbing over the lonely and dramatic Glastonbury Tor and pausing to drink in the views, before descending into the mystical mayhem of the town that clusters at the foot of the Tor.
Two…. If you are going to arrive via the Tor, then the best way to do it is by using your own two feet, following your own personal pilgrimage from Wells Cathedral to the holy ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. Walking in from Wells, you avoid the day-trippers by sneaking up to the Tor from the East, appropriately hobbit-like on a ‘back door’ route through a swathe of hidden, rural Somerset.
The walk from Wells Cathedral uses the historic Monarch’s Way and takes you through shady apple orchards, over ancient, wooded downs and finally along a lofty ridge that rises over the extensive Somerset Levels. The one constant as you walk is that you are always following a trail that is sweeping onwards down the ley lines towards that unmistakeable and perfect conical shaped Tor. For the walker it’s a route that feels like a mini quest… with its own Holy Grail to aim for right at the end of it!
The route leaves the Mendip Way at the green below the towering cathedral at Wells, an appropriately spiritual start to our walk. From here our holy trail to Glastonbury passes out of the “City” through the Penniless Arch and medieval market place, into the fairy-tale grounds of the Bishops Palace, following its serene moat past the sturdy castle-like walls to reach the meadows beyond, with some impressive views back over the Cathedral as you bid goodbye to the bustle of Wells and enter the peace and quiet that always accompanies any walk through the rich and hidden countryside of inland Somerset.
You are quickly swallowed up by a large and ancient tract of cool, lush woodland, full of busy squirrels and the sound of songbirds. You are now walking in the footsteps of a desperate Royal – following the Monarch's Way, part of an epic 615 mile long-distance trail that runs from Worcester to Brighton, tracking the escape route taken by King Charles II in 1651.
After a humiliating defeat in The English Civil War at the Battle of Worcester, and with a £1000 bounty on his head, King Charles was pursed by Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentary Forces along this route, across the Mendips via Wells, as he headed towards the south coast to try to find a boat in which to flee to exile in France.
After crossing the infant River Sheppey, you reach your first ascent today as you track up from the low meadows into the treeline on an ancient upland area known as Worminster Down.
Climbing its north flank, the path gets narrower and steeper, twisting back and forth through the trees and scrub (watch out for rabbits and roe deer as you climb on a trail that does not get much human use). As you pause to catch your breath, look behind you to savour great views back over the lowlands to the cathedral at Wells standing proud and framed, but rather dwarfed still by the great Mendip ridge behind it. The woods end suddenly at the summit, leaving you to cross over the open fields of Worminster Down. It’s a flat-topped airy expanse where rich fields of corn stretch to the horizon, stalks wafting in the breeze across the top of an area of remote upland that offers pleasing views in both directions off the ridge.
The descent from the down takes you back into ancient, dense woods and this time the goat-like tracks take you downwards to reveal the first sign of the “alternative” lifestyles for which this part of Somerset is known, as you suddenly stumble across a well-hidden encampment of semi-permanent tents and yurts deep in the forest.
As you leave the woods and drop off the escarpment to return to the levels you pick up a sunken drove way running to the sleepy village of North Wootton - one of those ancient routes so old that the trees have knitted together above your head, leaving you to walk under a glorious green tunnel of branches.
The Monarch’s Way skirts around the village but allows access in at various points to view the pretty 14th century Church of St Peter, sitting squatly by an old ford crossing the stream. North Wootton is recorded in the Domesday book as being part of the property of Glastonbury Abbey and it became known surprisingly perhaps for its excellent wine production!
It’s a classic rural Somerset hamlet, with a haphazard maze of grassy footpaths linking well-tended gardens, little orchards and pretty cottages with those two great institutions of rural Somerset life - the village church... and the pub, at The Crossways Inn.
There are good views back over Worminster Down as you climb Pilton Hill above the village, where you pass an area of swirling hillside earth embankments and narrow ridges with the remnants of medieval strip farming, reminiscent of the orderly rows of a Chinese paddy field.
But it’s apples and cider rather than rice that is Somerset’s gift to the world, and the next section takes you through a section of larger and rougher apple orchards trees bending under the weight of their loot.
Beyond, yet another change of scenery as you skirt the top of the Somerset Levels. These dead pan flat lands were once under the sea and are now criss-crossed by little dykes known locally as ‘rhynes’ that snake off to join the part of the Levels known as Queens Sedgemoor, which lies between you and that ever-growing Glastonbury Tor.
You have another chance for a drop of cider at The Apple Tree, a family run pub situated right on the route, before climbing up to the wooded ridge of Pennard Hill, rising 400ft above the levels.
You are now adjacent to the world-famous Glastonbury Festival site at Michael Eavis’s Worthy Farm.
The views from the top are hugely significant for the Mendip Way walker. From here beyond Wells, you can see the mighty Mendip ridge and all its bumps stretching all the way back to the Somerset Coast at Brean Down and the very start of your Mendip Way Walk - it’s pretty much the entire walking route in one panoramic sweep.
After a mile or so on the lofty ridge, it’s time to descend into the village of West Pennard and make the final push to cross more of the Levels to the “Isle of Avalon” and that elusive Tor. Around a mile below it, the climbing begins as you reach the old Manor House at Norwood Park, the largest of the Abbey deer parks and built about 1480 by Abbot Selwood as the Abbots residence - in its heyday holding 800 deer.
A short diversion allows you to visit the Oaks of Avalon – affectionately known as Gog and Magog and thought to be over 2000 years old - Gog and Magog are named after Biblical Giants and appear in the Old Testament as well as the Qur’an. Here they marked the traditional entryway to the Tor and are said to be the last of a ceremonial druidic avenue of oaks.
They are certainly huge, very old and whilst the trees themselves are dead, in these holy lands they are made of sturdy stuff and stand tall today. In true “Glastonbury Spirt” they are festooned with notes, decorations ribbons and dressings from faithful devotees who visit them.
As you reach the foot of the Tor, it is easy to feel the draw of the tales and legends that surround this place, believed by many to be the pinnacle of King Arthur’s Isle of Avalon. It’s a metaphoric Holy Grail even if the real one eludes us all and the climb to the top is the highlight of the days walk.
The last section is a lung-busting ascent straight up its bright grassy-green hillside to reach the stone tower which looms large above you, tall and proud amidst the flat expanses of the Somerset marshes. This has been a place of pilgrimage since prehistoric times.
This is one of the highest points in this part of Somerset. Somerset itself means 'Land of the Summer People' and was settled only in the summer months in the days when the Tor was once a mystical island above the swirling seas. Excavations on the Tor have discovered an array of graves, standing remains and foundations, indicating this pinnacle was occupied for hundreds of years as both a spiritual and a defensive stronghold.
The steep terraces on the slopes of the Tor remain a mystery and it is not known whether they are naturally formed or made by human hands in the long distant past. The early church built on top of the Tor was destroyed by an earthquake (yes really!) in 1275 and the replacement church of St Michael fell into ruin after Glastonbury Abbey, which lies below you, was dissolved by King Henry VIII in 1539. As such, it is also a site of Holy Martyrdom.
The Abbot of Glastonbury, Richard Whyting, after refusing to surrender the Abbey, was dragged here by horses to the top of the Tor, where he was hung, drawn and quartered for his beliefs.
Over the centuries, most of the stones of the church have been carried away for use in other buildings leaving the solitary tower standing tall as a sentinel, a dramatic reminder of Glastonbury’s turbulent past. With a 360-degree panorama and views that seem to extend forever, you will quickly be joined up here by an eclectic and varied mix of humanity. Everything from huffing and puffing Glastonbury tourists and spiritual drummers banging away from their ley lines to those who have struggled up from the town, convinced of the supposed healing properties of the Tor.
It’s a place that demands attention, like a magnet, drawing everyone in the immediate area into feeling the need to climb to the top!