HISTORY by Hal G.P. ColebatchNews Weekly
Glastonbury and the twice-flowering thorn
, August 1, 2015
I hate Glastonbury.
The Glastonbury thorn, before and after
its branches were shorn off.
Or rather, I hate what, thanks to the Glastonbury Festival, it has become in the public mind. What should be the sacred and mystical heart of England, the core of its national spirit and mystery, has become in that public mind a focus of horrible music, drug-raddled filth and ugliness and a symbol of degeneration.
Or as The Guardian put it, approvingly, of course, in its case: “Glastonbury 2015 after dark – ravers seek unbridled dance hedonism …”
What had been for centuries a unique centre of Christian mysticism and contemplation has been turned into something more or less the opposite.
To me it expresses not only the worship of ugliness and the corruption of the Void, but the destruction of the best and highest of what gave England its identity.
The very name Glastonbury – the “island of glass” – should have something mystical about it: a lens to see into the other world, to Arthur, Merlin and the matter of Britain. Yes, and of Gandalf and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, too (Tolkien’s works are popular among the hippies who periodically infest the place. How Tolkien would have loathed them and the Glastonbury Festival!).
The abbey is believed by some to hold the grave of King Arthur; and whether that, like the story that Glastonbury was founded by Joseph of Arimathea, is true or not, its remains still possess a strange majesty.
The abbey itself dates from the seventh century, though even older Romano-British remains have been found there. One of its great Abbotts, St Dunstan, was a pioneer of metallurgy in Britain. It should be a revered site for its contribution to technology as well as for its Christian and mystical associations.
To visit Glastonbury when the “festival” is not on is to be touched by something genuinely uncanny. The towering ruins of the abbey (it was despoiled by King Henry VIII) and Glastonbury Tor which dominated the skyline, somehow disappear when one is inside the town. It is as if perspectives are not quite normal.
In a brilliant article a few years ago, then Chief Rabbi of Britain Jonathan Sacks, now Lord Sacks) warned that Britain was losing its traditions and values because of excessive tolerance to modern shibboleths.
The Glastonbury Festival is a case in point. But equally symbolic is the so, so sad case of the Glastonbury Thorn. The Glastonbury Thorn, a tree said to have grown from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea, was cut down by vandals in 2010, leaving Christians around the world devastated.
There are in fact a number of “Glastonbury Thorn” trees growing in the area, all evidently from cuttings of one ancestor. They are unique and easily distinguished in that they flower twice a year, once in mid-winter near Christmas.
The vandalised tree on Wearyall Hill, beneath Glastonbury Tor, which is said to have flowered on Christmas Day every year for the last two millennia, had become a site of holy pilgrimage for many.
There were reports of many people in tears in Glastonbury as they looked up at the bare patch of sky where the tree had grown, beside a public footpath and protected only by an iron railing – still festooned with the ribbons, prayers and little decorations regularly left as offerings.
The day of the attack, 8 December, may have been chosen for its special significance: each year on that day a sprig had been cut from a tree in St John’s churchyard grown from a cutting of the thorn, and sent to the Queen to decorate her Christmas dinner table.
“I’m stood on Wearyall Hill looking at a sad, sad, sight,” Glastonbury Mayor John Coles told reporters. “The tree has been chopped down – someone has taken a saw to it. Some of the main trunk is there but the branches have been sawn away. I am absolutely lost for words – I just do not know why people would want to do this.”
The site is held in legend to be the location of the Holy Grail.
The branches were sawn off and dumped on the ground and only the two-metre stump was left standing. Caring Christians have dressed the tree’s wounds in pine resin and beeswax and wrapped it up to protect it from the frost.
Arborist Peter Wood Frearson said: “I am 75 per cent sure the tree will survive. There are tears and nips to the main trunk that have been dressed, but the root system looks to be healthy. I can almost guarantee it will shoot again in the spring.”
The Glastonbury Thorn had survived almost miraculously before.
Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads felled the tree during the English Civil War, but locals salvaged the roots of the original tree, hiding and tending them in secret locations around Glastonbury. It was then replanted on the hill in 1951, where it had stood – revered and untouched.
This time the enemy took care to ensure that there would be no survival. When it began putting out shoots, vandals or anti-Christian activists, possibly those responsible for the original destruction, returned and destroyed them repeatedly from September 2011.
The St John’s Churchyard tree is one of several grown from cuttings of the original. It and cuttings from it survive. Cromwell’s heirs have not succeeded in destroying what has been a living piece of the ancient mystery of England.