With a wealth of myths and legends attached to it, Glastonbury has lots to offer as an alternative weekend break - especially if you like a good pub and fancy shopping for spell books and magic wands
Legend has it that Glastonbury Abbey was built to house the Holy Grail and that King Arthur was buried in its grounds. Well, I don't know about that, but the town, steeped in mythology, is definitely a centre for those who aspire to an alternative lifestyle, and this is reflected in its eclectic mix of shops and eating places.
Glastonbury Tor, crowned with the remains of St Michael’s Church, can be seen for miles around. Don’t even think about parking at the Tor; we drove into the town centre and used the car park by the town hall (£5 all day), then boarded the Tor Bus (adult £2.50, child £1.50). This dropped us at the Tor’s foot, and we slogged up to the summit to enjoy a great view of the Somerset levels.
Descending the Tor’s opposite side took us into Chilkwell Street and the Chalice Well gardens (www.chalicewell.org.uk; admission £3.50). This little oasis of calm contains a spring where, legend has it, Joseph of Arimathea washed the Holy Grail and the blood of Christ stained the rocks red. These iron-rich waters are supposed to have healing properties so the spring is as popular with pagans and New Agers as the gardens are with local wildlife. Keep an eye out for hedge sparrows and brightly coloured dragonflies.
Leaving the tranquillity of the gardens, it’s a brisk walk down Chilkwell Street to the town centre, passing the Somerset Rural Life Museum (01458 831197; www.somerset.gov.uk/museums) along the way. Here, displays illustrating Victorian farming practices are set within the 14th-century barn. There is a pleasant café, happy sheep and chickens and, best of all, free admission.
Fancying a drink, we popped into the Rifleman’s Arms (4 Chilkwell Street; 08721 077 077). I had a pint of hand-drawn Cornish Knocker, which was just what I needed. This is not a tourist pub, but it does have a beer garden with a nice view. Much favoured by the younger Glastafari, it was certainly starting to get a bit boisterous by the early evening.
Refreshed, we headed into town and the George and Pilgrim (1 High Street; 08721 077 077). Built in the 1400s, this very atmospheric pub and hotel has Hecks local cider on draft. If you want somewhere to stay in the town centre, it also has rooms to let, some with four-poster beds.
By now we were all feeling a bit hungry, so we decamped to the Elaichi Tandoori (62 High Street; 01458 832601), an excellent Indian restaurant where the four us had a jolly good feed for £81, including drinks.
Hunger satisfied, we sampled the night life. Two pubs had live bands (the Crown and the King William Inn) but, fancying somewhere a little quieter, we settled for the Who’d A Thought It (17 Northload St; 08721 077 077), an eccentric little boozer complete with a well and a GPO telephone box just inside the door. A nice range of Palmers real ales is on offer and the bar food smelt delicious. However, after our long day, we were soon on our way to the basic comfort of the Glastonbury Travelodge for a good night's kip.
Since the Glastonbury Travelodge has no restaurant and we didn't fancy eating in the on-site Subway or Dominos Pizza, we headed back into town for breakfast at Heaphy's (16 Market Place; 01458 837935; http://heaphys.net). At £6.95, the marvellous Big Breakfast was great value. Heaphy's also has rooms available for the night.
Breakfast done, we explored the high street. Everything from incense and crystals to spell books and magic wands can be found in the numerous shops for pagan and New Age visitors, but if you want some local souvenirs, I’d recommend getting a couple of flasks of cider from the high street supermarket.
The Tourist Information Centre can be found in the Tribunal (9 High Street; 01458 832954). Originally built in the 15th century, it was used as the Abbey court house. In 1685, the notorious Hanging Judge Jeffries gave verdict on the Monmouth Rebels there. Today, it also houses a museum displaying artefacts recovered from the Iron Age Glastonbury Lake Village - fascinating stuff (£2.50 admission, or free for English Heritage members).
Our final port of call was Glastonbury Abbey (Magdalene Street; 01458 832267; www.glastonburyabbey.com; admission £5). Established in Saxon times, it became a big local tourist attraction in 1191, when the alleged graves of King Arthur and Guinevere were discovered there. One of the richest abbeys in medieval Britain, it fell into ruin in 1536 when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. One survivor was the abbot’s kitchen, which is remarkably well preserved. The abbey has some fine grounds, but watch out for the geese - they bite!