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  • Karen Hamilton-Viall

24 Hours in Glastonbury

When I was sixteen, my parents took me to Glastonbury in Somerset for a day out. I recall walking around the town in awe. My upbringing in suburban South London hadn’t prepared me for the spiritual onslaught that is Glastonbury. It found a connection with my soul that never left. A spiritual awakening.

Whilst visiting a friend recently, she said she’d drop me in Glastonbury to catch my bus home via Bristol. It seemed too good an opportunity to waste, so I had an overnight stay in the town to see if the reality lived up to the memory. She was only the second friend I’d been to visit since restrictions were lifted and one of the first I’d hugged in two years. We’d met up initially to attend a psychic evening in a village hall near Bristol. I was excited to be be there. It was the first live experience I’d had with a psychic. The air felt heavy as we entered the room; like the feeling you get before a thunderstorm breaks. Small waves of nausea swept over me and I considered leaving, but I controlled the feeling. I used to get similar feelings when I had lived with my poltergeist.

The psychic began telling people messages from their loved ones about the small everyday things that make up a life. Bob thinks you should get the decorating done; your favourite pet is here in spirit and other such niceties. The night went on in this fashion for a little over two hours, but we had to wait till the end before it was our turn. I hadn’t especially come to find out anything but to experience the sort of people who live in the world that I write about. Still, I was wondering if anyone would come through. Would my strict grandma come through and tell me off for wasting my life? Would my favourite grandpa say hello? Finally, he came to us.

“Curiosity Killed the Cat,” was the first thing he told us. I wasn’t sure if this comment was directed at me or my friend, but perhaps it was a vague reference to my interest in the spiritual world.

“Has one of your parents died?” He enquired.

“Yes,” I responded.

“Is it mother?” he replied.

“No,” I said. Next, I was told a very shy person was there. Which I guess my dad might be, as he hadn’t ever believed in an afterlife.

“I’m seeing a man with a J name,” he said next. My grandfather was a Jack, although I never knew him, having died when I was just three.

He mentioned an illness and said it was nothing to worry about. I’m not sure yet whom that referred to. He also asked if I knew a Carol and was later told off for not realising that this was a reference to my name, Karen! As we’d already chatted for an hour on the phone, he had sent me the tickets and I think I was the only Karen there; I hadn’t made the connection that was supposed to be referring to me!

“It’s bloody close enough isn’t it!” He said.

My novel is about a psychic, and it seemed appropriate to see some real psychics in action. It was an interesting insight into how a real psychic works. Although I learnt no great truths, I’m still keen to watch other psychics and perhaps have a direct chat about my future. Perhaps my dad would be more willing to come through with fewer people and spirits nearby.

After a night spent camping on my friend’s sofa, we arrived the next morning in a car park near Glastonbury town hall. My first impression was how much smaller the town was than how I recalled. My friend wandered with me for a short while and suddenly opened a green door, sandwiched in the wall between the town hall and the entrance to the abbey. Not the entrance to a secret world but a community larder, its shelves stacked high with a bounty of free food. One entire shelf was full of strawberries near their best before date. My friend selected two punnets and handed one to her three-year-old daughter. We wandered on past shop fronts, offering spiritual help of all varieties. My tiny companion munched happily through her fruit, taking a bite from each, then putting it back in the punnet and taking a bite from the next. “Would you like one?” She said, kindly proffering me a tray of half-eaten fruits; red juice dripping down her chin.

“No thanks, I’ve just had breakfast,” I said, politely declining.

We wandered on further to find a bakery store called Burn the Bread with a plethora of delightful looking cakes in the window, including a large chocolate muffin that my young friend demanded, despite having already had toast, bacon, part of a sausage roll & strawberries for breakfast! A terrible twos tantrum started brewing; my friend parted from me at this point to carry on their journey. My tiny friend elected to stay with me, but I wasn’t sure if it was me or the cake she actually wanted!

On my own now, I decided it was time to have coffee and cake. I found Hundred Monkeys Cafe further up the High Street. They support a local food economy, buying from local suppliers which fitted well with my own ideals. I was going to have my usual cappuccino and tea cake. Then I realised I was in Glastonbury, and perhaps something a little different should be on the cards. I didn’t push myself too far but opted for their vegan spiced latte and a Somerset apple cake. Both were delicious I had to stop myself from ordering another piece. The service was great, and I’d highly recommend it.

I spent some time after this wandering the shops. Most were far slicker than the ones I recalled from my teens. They were like chic spiritual boutiques that would be happy gracing the pages of a glossy magazine. Even on a Sunday, they were open. Although Sunday trading has been allowed for a long time now, it still feels strange to see shops open on the Sabbath. Dazzling arrays of neatly arranged crystals with helpful information about their uses filled the shelves, stacks of books on spiritual healing, goddess cards and incenses. There was a shamanic sound healing store, spiritual bookshops, and soul therapy on offer.

My favourite find was The Gauntlet, an alley full of tiny shops with a history that dates back to medieval times, selling Viking merchandise and jewellery alongside pagan supplies and a vegan teashop. I visited Sons of Asgard, a magical emporium which stocks, potions, spells and pagan supplies. I spied some palo santo wood sitting on the shop counter. Its name literally means ‘Wood of the saints’ and is used to dissolve negative energies. My friend had recommended it to me the night before. It had a pleasant, piney, citrus sort of scent, so I purchased a couple of sticks to use as incense and to try my hand at smoke cleansing.

Back on the main High Street, I came across Star Child, a magical botanical store. A large plate of incense was smouldering in the doorway, enticing people to enter. Its dark decor had a tribal feel and gave promise of the wondrous merchandise hidden within. A large Victorian apothecaries cabinet stood to one side and shelves were stacked full of esoteric wonders, jars of herbs, essential oils, sacred resins and candles. I half expected to see Hermione Granger perusing its shelves. As it was, it was full of people busily restocking their magical supplies.

Further up the street, I found the Goddess and the Green Man, which has been a part of the town for thirty years. It stocks a range of books, incense and jewellery. I stood a while amongst the excited hustle of people, oohing and aahing at the wonders held within its walls, then bought myself a book on smoke cleansing, having recently become interested in the subject.

After Sunday Lunch at the Abbey Tea Rooms, I made my way across the road towards Glastonbury Abbey. It was said in medieval times that the graves of King Arthur and Guinevere had been discovered in its grounds and as a teenager I'd bought a replica of the lead cross discovered with the bodies. The site has been used since at least the seventh century, when a monastery existed on the land. The remains of the current abbey were built in the medieval period, but like so many others, it was destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries in the sixteenth century. The abbey has a small museum attached which contained some interesting artefacts relating to life in the monastery. As a hobby calligrapher, my particular favourite was a hare's bone made into a pen. Upon entering the grounds, the remaining structures of the abbey loomed above me. Much of it had been robbed to build other houses in the town, but the skeleton of the abbey was still there. Its bones laid bare for all to see. The first thing that struck me about the place was a tremendous sense of peace and tranquillity. I wandered around its monolithic structures, once powerful symbols of God's power on earth, now serenely casting their sacred shadows like giant sundials across the land. I strolled peacefully through its hallowed acreage, soaking up its calm aura, through the wild woods, past its great ponds and through its fecund orchards laden with fruits. Outside, I could hear the bustle of the town, but it was as though I was listening to them under water and somehow the sounds were dampened by the holiness of the place. I took a while to sit in quietude and contemplation. Eventually, I noticed time was rolling on and reluctantly I left to carry on my journey.

It was now approaching four o'clock, and I really wanted to visit the Chalice Well. This is a natural ancient spring and well at the foot of Glastonbury Tor. It’s also known as the Blood Well, as the water is rich in iron. Joseph of Arimathea is said to have buried two cruets of Christ’s blood here. I arrived late in the day and was told the well was shutting in ten minutes, so I blundered my way around till I found it. It’s easily missed as it is a simple sunken hole in the ground with a well cover and seats around its edge for people to sit and contemplate. As I arrived at the well, a young woman was performing some sort of spell, her sacred items set out in front of her. She turned to look at me and I realised my intrusion from the earthly into the spiritual was not wanted, so I moved away, found a bench and took some time to sit and reflect. I found the spring head, which gushed forth from a lion’s head and filled my bottle with its blessed life-giving waters. I drank the cooling draft and soon I felt tranquility creeping in again. The respite was brief, as I had arranged to book in at a certain time to my bed-and-breakfast and all too soon I had to leave.

En route to my accommodation, I found a fantastic coffee stall, not far from the well, selling reusable coffee cups and some very fine flapjacks. I bought one, and the barista filled it with my chosen stimulant.

A few wrong turns later, I found my bed-and-breakfast, Camelot Retreat. It only served vegan/vegetarian breakfast and was in a quiet cul-de-sac on the edge of town, so was perfect for my needs. It also provided Reiki crystal healing, amongst other things, and had a meditation room off the breakfast room. My hosts had to leave for an urgent appointment but showed me to my room before departing. The website had mentioned a view of Glastonbury Tor, and I wasn’t disappointed. In the near distance stood the Tor, standing proud of the Somerset levels which surrounded it.

The bed-and-breakfast itself stood on the crossing of two ley lines and was specifically chosen by its owners for this reason to aid in their healing practices. Ley lines are lines of energy which criss-cross the world and connect ancient monuments and natural formations together. They are said to have supernatural energy flowing through them, especially at the points where they cross. A feeling of calm descended the moment I entered the place and, after a shower, I wandered downstairs to find some milk. As I walked past the meditation room, I was haled by one of the other guests, who immediately started engaging me with talk of ghosts. I’m naturally quite a shy person and my instinct was to nod, smile and walk on, but I quickly reasoned that meeting people outside my usual sphere was part of the reason I had made my way here. I entered the room and started chatting with him about my own ghostly experiences.

“You have a little girl attached to you. She’s about this tall.” He said, holding his hand some distance above his navel. It sounded like she was about seven years old.

“I don’t know any little girls that have passed.” I responded.

“They don’t always have to be someone you know,” he replied.

“Oh, right.” As I walked into the corner of the room, I felt a cold spot. I said nothing to the other guest but just withdrew my hand.

“What do you do for a living when you’re not healing?” he asked.

“I teach children, in history workshops,” I responded.

“That’s a very powerful crystal,” he said, whilst pointing to the middle of the room.

“Yes, it’s huge, isn’t it?” I said, talking about a crystal the size of a toddler which sat in the carpet in the middle.

“No, that one.” He said, pointing at a finger sized crystal hanging from a chain above it.

“Oh,” I responded. Thinking that size was obviously not everything in the world of crystals. Shortly after, I left to get my milk. I pondered whether to climb the tor, but the darkening skies put me off and I’m glad I decided against it; as shortly after, the heavens opened in a deluge. I spent the evening in quiet contemplation instead, enjoying the stillness of the place and serenely watching the tor until the fading light prevented me.

In the middle of the night, I awoke to scratching noises in the built-in cupboard in my room. My heart pounded, and it transported me back to my nineteen-year-old self, lying in bed at night in fear of the poltergeist I shared my flat with. I didn’t get up to investigate. I lay there listening to it for a while, as quiet as the proverbial church mouse. Eventually, it stopped, and I drifted off to sleep.

I woke early to catch my bus home, briefly glimpsing the other guest and my host before departing. My friend had told me where to catch the bus to Bristol but unbeknownst to her, the buses were not running as normal. A kindly lady at the stop told me what she thought was happening and what I needed to do. As others arrived to catch the bus, more questions and anxiety arose, but everyone was extremely friendly in trying to help each other. I fretted I might miss my connection back to Essex, but all worked out ok in the end. On the route home, as I drove through the rolling hills that surround the Levels, I felt an extreme sense of sadness wash through my soul. I had an overpowering feeling that I wasn’t going home but leaving home and that something or someone wanted me to stay. Despite the passing of over thirty years, I realised that this was how I’d felt at sixteen, too. I found Glastonbury a lovely place to visit with a warm, community minded people. My heart yearned to stay so much that I’ve now booked a return visit with friends for later this year. One day is not nearly enough time to understand the rich, spiritual complexity that makes up this ancient Somerset town.

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