Friday, November 15, 2013

In Insula Avalonia - Wearyall Hill and the Holy Thorn

Last time in this short series of posts, we looked at Glastonbury Tor.

Today, we’ll wander up the slopes of another prominent feature of the landscape that you pass as you approach Glastonbury from neighbouring village of Street: Wearyall Hill.

Wearyall Hill is, of course, home to one of Glastonbury’s most ancient treasures – the Holy Thorn.

Across the street from the Safeway, you can climb up Wearyall’s gentle slope to see a hawthorn tree known as the Glastonbury Thorn, or ‘Holy Thorn’. One popular legend associated with Wearyall Hill and the Holy Thorn is that in the years after Christ’s death, his uncle Joseph of Arimathea came with twelve followers by boat to Glastonbury. When they set foot on the hill, tired from their journey, Joseph plunged his staff into the ground and it took root.

There is actually some archaeological evidence for a dock or wharf on the slopes of Wearyall Hill that date from the period. Did Joseph of Arimathea actually arrive in Britain with the Holy Grail?

Joseph of Arimathea
Well, that depends on what you believe. And Glastonbury is just that, an amalgam of beliefs that live, for the most part, in harmony - Perhaps just as the Celts and early Christians did here around two thousand years ago?

Cuttings of the Thorn grow in three places in Glastonbury. What is interesting is that this variety of hawthorn is not native to Britain, but is a Syrian variety. Curiously, it flowers at Christmas and Easter, both sacred festivals for Pagans and Christians. Every holiday season, the Royal family is sent a clipping of this very special tree that hails from the earliest days of Christianity in Britain.

The current Thorn is not the original, but rather a descendant of the original which was burned down by Cromwell’s Puritans in the seventeenth century as a ‘relic of superstition’. How much destruction has been wrought on the ancient sites of Britain during the wars waged by Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell? It’s horrifying to think about.

As with all other things in Glastonbury, Wearyall Hill and the Holy Thorn do not belong solely to the Christian past.

Thorn in Blossom - Glastonbury Abbey
The hawthorn tree was one of the most sacred trees to the Celts and is the sixth tree on the Druid tree calendar and alphabet. It is also known as the ‘May Tree’ because of when it blossoms most. May was sacred to the ancient Celts as the time of the festival of Beltane, a time for Spring ritual and worship of the Goddess.

In the Middle Ages, the practice of picking hawthorn boughs evolved to include dancing with them around a May Pole.

In Arthurian tradition, Wearyall Hill is associated with the castle of the ‘King Fisherman’ whom the select Grail knights meet. To reach the castle, those on the quest were said to have to cross the ‘perilous bridge’ over the river of Death. To pass through the castle was to go from this world to the next.

Interesting the think that the gates to the otherworld of Annwn were believed to be just on the next hill, Glastonbury Tor.

Whatever legend or myth you believe, or don’t believe, about Wearyall Hill is up to you. The stories are many and convoluted, but such is the fate of great and sacred places of the past.

I always looked forward to my walks up the gentle slope of Wearyall Hill with the Holy Thorn drawing me up like a beacon, a friend even. Locals, Christian and Pagan believers, hold it close to their hearts.

Holy Thorn with wishes tied to it
and Glastonbury Tor in background
Once at the top of the hill, I would circle the Thorn, reach out to touch its limbs, and read some of the wishes or prayers on ribbons tied to it – ‘Don’t let me lose my family,’ or ‘Thank you for making my mummy better.’ The wishes wrenched your heart, and the thanks made you smile.

When I would sit on the nearby bench at the top of the hill, I never felt alone. I would look out at the Tor and the surrounding landscape and feel tremendous gratitude. I would always leave with a sense of hope for the future, and a tie to the past.

I remember the last time I drove away from the Thorn back in 2002, the sigh that heaved out of my chest as I made my way back down the hill to the parking lot across the street. I looked up to see that lovely wind-blown silhouette and was somehow reassured by its presence.

Since my own days In Insula Avalonia, it seems that tragedy has struck Wearyall Hill.

In writing this piece, I thought I would check the internet for any new discoveries or theories about the hill and its archaeology.

After the vandalization of the Thorn
Instead, I found an article relating how in 2010, vandals took a chainsaw to the Holy Thorn in the middle of the night. In the morning, residents found their beloved tree of hope hacked to bits. A sapling was planted again in the Spring of 2013, but again, that was knocked down in the night.

I’m still in shock over this, having just found out. I’d been in ignorant bliss, lost in my remembrances of Glastonbury’s Thorn in full bloom on a sunlit hilltop.

I don’t know what would drive people to such destruction other than pure ignorance or malice. Part of me wants to devise ways in which the perpetrators could be made to pay, but then that would go against everything the Holy Thorn stands for.

Either way, if you mess with god, goddesses, fairies or Gwynn ap Nudd himself, you’re likely to get your comeuppance no matter what your beliefs.

But the Thorn has survived the centuries and there has been talk that new shoots have been coming up. The Royal Botanical Gardens is on the case, and so are the citizens of Glastonbury.

The Thorn and Wearyall Hill itself are not purely Christian or Pagan. They are symbols of unity, and of a common past. We should indeed cherish sites that are so revered, whether we believe in them or not.

In a way, the Thorn’s sacrifice is bringing people together. Glastonbury is still a town where Pagan and Christian live side by side.

I have every hope that the Thorn will blossom once again on the crest of Wearyall Hill, and that one day I’ll make the climb to say hello to a very old friend.

Thank you for reading.

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