Journeying to the Top of Glastonbury Tor

Journalism major Faith Morrow ’24 attended the Regional Writers of England May-Term Faculty Led Experience in May 2022. She wrote this piece as a part of her 2022 SCARP project titled “Sharing Personal Cultural Experiences Through Travel Writing.”

A stairway leads down through a forest of bright green trees.

Thousands of people must have climbed this hill before me, and thousands more will. I begin my hike up the manmade steps covered by a canopy of trees and overgrowth. The mythicized 518-foot hill connected to Arthurian legend, Glastonbury Tor, awaits me. The gravel crunches under my sandaled feet. The end of the botanical tunnel leads to a gate, and on the other side seems to be a grassy haven for mystic and spiritual folk. 

A large circle of people stands on the hillside to my left with mats and blankets on the ground, likely for some yoga or spiritual practice. Near the gate, I hear a man sitting cross-legged say something about shapeshifting to a woman sitting across from him on the grass. He has a walking stick planted in the earth with a fox head puppet on top of it. I’m starting to understand the unique free-spirit culture of the Glastonbury area and Tor. Located in Somerset county of the UK, it’s one hour’s drive southwest of Bath. The great hill has been a destination for pilgrimages and practices because of its unique structure and history. It protrudes from the town like a beacon and can be seen from miles away with its seven terraces of land that run along its outside. There is debate about the terraces’ original purpose, from agricultural to military uses, to being naturally formed, or as a spiritual labyrinth.

I continue walking up the moderate incline, grateful for the sunshine compared to sweater weather back in Bath where I’m staying. I cross the end of the grassy section and go through another wooden gate, like the kind at a petting zoo where you have to close it behind you before leaving so the animals don’t escape. The gate gently bangs shut as I look up, seeing what I assume is the top of the great hill. Although I thought I was prepared for the climb, I underestimated its height.

A view from a tall hill shows a town of buildings and fields. The sky is bright blue and full of clouds.

I walk at a steady pace, one foot in front of the other in my cushiony sandals. One two, one two. Several students in my study abroad group grow farther ahead, but I keep with my steady slow pace. I breathe in and out in rhythm with each step so I stay focused, something I’ve learned through yoga practices. Planks and downward dogs become difficult no matter how much Zen you have, but moving with your breath keeps you in the moment. Eventually, I need to stop on the side of the path, resting my legs and taking deep breaths.

As I glance behind, the circle of people I just passed now appear much smaller below. The area around the Tor is beginning to flesh out under the great height. I continue my walk up the hill as the steps curve to the right and up the steep side of the mound that appears to be the top. As I walk, the wind begins to whip around my indigo windbreaker and pull strands of hair out of my ponytail. In fact, as I get to the top of the mound I brace myself against the wind, afraid that if I don’t a strong gust could knock me down. I sit on the bench at the top and admire the view, but also sigh realizing it’s not the very top. I have about halfway left to get to the summit where St. Michael’s Tower stands alone.

Three stories tall, the tower is the only remaining part of the second Saint Michael’s Church which was demolished under King Henry VIII during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The original church was erected in the 11th or 12th century but was destroyed by an earthquake in 1275. The abused but hopeful ruins remind me of Matthew 5:14 — “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.” 

Glastonbury Tour sits at the end of a path leading up a tall hill.

As I hike toward the tower, I take deeper breaths and try my best to persevere inside my tired brain. Oh, how nice it would be right now to be one of the sheep in the meadows, nibbling on grass and sniffing buttercups. I take several breaks when I need to, but I’m not embarrassed. I’ve done my fair share of mild hiking whether in Wintergreen Gorge or the Erie Bluffs back in Pennsylvania, but this perpetual uphill climb is something unfamiliar to me. I huff in and out like a steam engine, not sure how long I’ve been climbing. With a final push of motivation, I march up the last leg of the giant hill and stand in front of the tower, exhausted but proud.

I practically fall over in the grass, breathing shallowly. The wind lashes my hair and long skirt ferociously while the sun splays gently over myself and the hill. I gaze in tired awe at the miles and miles of land below Glastonbury Tor.

I’ve trekked roughly as high up as a 50-story building. Though the wind roars in my ears and waters my eyes, it doesn’t detract from my awe at the 360-degree view. Sheep speckle meadows below like little toy figurines. I can see the clear divides between land plots like puzzle pieces, separated by fences, shrubs, roads, and tree lines. I not only see the tops of some clouds but exactly where their shadows travel across the land. It feels both powerful and peaceful to be on the summit, looking down at life humming below after a roughly 25-minute trek.

A path leads down a tall hill. A town of buildings and farmland is below.

My breath eventually returns to normal, but the cool harsh wind makes my nose run. I don’t mind. Checking social media doesn’t cross my mind, nor does how I look, or what happens after this. I’m here on top of the world.

It makes sense why Glastonbury Tor is speculated to be the Isle of Avalon, the idyllic place where King Arthur was sent during his final hours in hopes of healing from fatal battle wounds. The hill certainly resembles an island, especially in the past when it would have been surrounded by watery marshlands. And sometimes if the temperature is right, a phenomenon will occur called Fata Morgana where the Tor appears to rise out of dense fog collecting around the lower area. This mirage is named after Morgan le Fay, King Arthur’s sorceress sister, who was believed to have powers that made the phenomenon possible. Though King Arthur did not recover from his wounds, the Isle would have made for a peaceful resting place.

A small group of people with a large kite stand by the side of the tower. A woman slowly unravels the line as a man holds the triangular kite in anticipation. I worry that if I were the one flying the kite, that the wind would be so strong the kite would fling me down the hill with it. I feel like flying kites is the kind of thing you forget about as you grow up, overtaken by responsibility and pressure. My brother and I used to have a kite. It’s long gone now, but I think we had fun even if we weren’t very good at it. Maybe I should buy one again.

A dog trots around the border of the summit as if it’s a regular place for a dog to be. My hands and face feel prickly from the cold wind, like it’s a brisk morning in an Erie winter back home. The group finally releases the kite, but the wind batters and contorts it rather than uplifting it. They give in and settle down on the hillside, putting away their supplies. Not everything is meant to be conquered or wielded, but many things are simply meant to be experienced, like a wild wind unable to be tamed.

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