In the grip of what could swiftly become a mid-life crisis, I booked an overnight trip. I was running away from home, escaping from the insecurities that plagued me: should I keep writing? What makes a writer? Does it matter if I’m forever poor? Is it worth it? Will it be worth it…? Questions which no one else could possibly answer. I had been pouring my free time–at the expense of my family and my housekeeping–into writing for the past ten years, with not a single bestseller or award-winning story to show for my effort. I could continue to invest my time and energy into this or simply concede under the weight of my failures so far and take up knitting or water colours or some other less traumatic hobby. These were hard decisions.
And so I retreated to another place. I wanted an affordable holiday, somewhere as different from my normal urban lifestyle as possible, preferably somewhere I could have a mystical vision as to my future. There was only one answer: a day out in the magical town of Glastonbury.
Glastonbury High Street
I discover a perfectly-placed B&B right next to the Chalice Well, at the foot of Glastonbury Tor, making my itinerary clear. I rise late–I am on holiday after all, even if only for the weekend –and make my way to the well, a brochure clutched in my hand. It’s overcast and damp and I’m already wondering what I’m doing here. The Chalice Well, I read, is a holy well that’s been in use for over two thousand years. The red water that stains the round stone fountain is symbolic of its position of the female divine. I’m surprised to see the water running clear and cold into the fountain.
The Chalice Well
I sit on the edge, staring into the pools dyed dark orange from the iron. It is oddly silent away from the main street, and a little bit boring. What did I expect?
Then the sun comes out, splashing my face with warmth, and it feels like an omen, magical, an invitation. It’s an anxious inspiration: I want to write something, write more, write dreams, write miracles. I want to give up all the hours of my life and create. I want to write the sunlit patches and the shadows, I want to fill a notebook. I try to fill myself with energy: don’t wait, don’t think about it, just do it. Because talking about writing is not writing and perfect first drafts only occur as the result of a hundred scribbled pages in the background. I reposition to make sure I’m facing the sun, the shadow of my pen a purple grey cast against the paper, and I feel the page. And as I reach the end of the line, my heart fills with fear of committing meaningless tripe, pointlessly filling the page with mediocrity. Am I wasting my time?
The Waterfall and the Lion's Head Fountain
The waterfall is surrounded by fresh green moss and leaves: new growth on ancient stone. I’m convinced there’s some secret that I need to make this work. I wish I knew more about the stories of this place. I wish I could spend a week here, a month, and learn everything about it. I wish that I had some Arthurian story that I was burning to write. I wish I had something of value to write. At this moment, I want Glastonbury to become my life.
But then what do I give up? Every choice is a choice not to do something else. I’m paralysed by options.
The waterfall holds no answers. Frustrated at its lack of answers, at my own immaturity, I pace around to the top of the gardens to the Lion’s Head fountain, where two small glasses await the thirsty traveller. I kneel down and carefully rinse out the glass and then laugh at the folly and simply fill it. I touch my tongue to the water. It’s cold and metallic. My heart beats a little bit faster at the thought of hundreds or even thousands of women drinking from this fountain and then I raise the glass to my lips and drink it all.
The clouds clear from the sky as I empty the drought. I choose to take this as another omen as I replace the glass on the red-dyed stone. Strengthened and calm, I leave the peace of the gardens, ready to climb to the Tor.
Glastonbury Tor
I am panting as I follow the steep path and steps up to Glastonbury Tor. The sculptured green hills are deceptively steep–or perhaps I feel out of breath at the history, belief, and superstition layered upon this place. I pause in sight of the famous 15th century building and throw myself down on the sunny side of the grass hill, the tower glowing golden in the afternoon light.
Somewhere in the distance there is music: deep chimes and the occasional high-plucked note. It sounds otherworldly, right on the edge of hearing, a dark and earthy song that I can’t hope to grasp, the rhythms too foreign for me to find the pattern. It might be a recording, but lying on the grass I prefer to believe there is someone there, playing for no one, for everyone, for the setting sun. And in an instant, I know that’s what I want to somehow learn, that easy creation. The ability to write words just for the day. The anxious inspiration still runs through me: I want to capture it all, I want to write for the cold grass below me and the misty landscape of the levels in the distance and laughter in an ancient ruin and the hazy white winter sun shining onto all of us. I want to capture the distant roar of industry: a factory, a motorway, a helicopter passing in the distance, the distant thunder of a jet passing at 30,000 feet. But somehow the music has unbound my fears. I feel as if someone has lifted an anchor that weighted down my soul. I feel like I could fly.
My pen scratches against the paper as I try to capture every piece of this moment: a whispered conversation, the clink of a bottle against glass, a young woman laughing, footsteps of the others walking up the path and as a backdrop to it all, the low, slow chimes echoing from the tower. I can almost believe that the music comes from a faerie ring and maybe the anoraked people with their dogs and the wellington boots can’t even hear it. Maybe it’s there only for me.
Music on the Tor
The curiosity overwhelms me. I get up and walk to the Tor to see who is there. Three young men are lounging on the ancient stone bench. One has a make-shift instrument in his lap: a large stick of wood–possibly the leg to a table–with large screws bolted into the top. Two groups of twisted fishing line lead down to the back of a black-and-white snare drum. The man tells me that it is his version of a kora, a West African harp. They have a bottles of beer and a mongrel-looking dog begging for treats. He says he made the harp with bits and pieces that he found, it’s nothing special. His friends join in; they tell me they are from Bristol, that they work at the Invisible Circus. The harpist points at one of his friends, tells me he’s an amazing acrobat. The friend blushes and takes a long drink from his beer. Their reality starts to sound more unreal than my imaginings. More people arrive and ask questions of the group. They are only in Glastonbury for the day, he says, embarrassed by the attention.
Magical Moment on the Tor
“So you don’t always play here,” one woman asks, clearly disappointed. So much a part of this place are they, it seems criminal that not every visitor to Glastonbury Tor gets to share this experience, the quiet music and the laughter. The young man in the middle shrugs and plays his harp again, and now it sounds like water falling onto rocks, like a herd of cattle wearing perfectly-pitched bells, like a whisper from a forgotten dream.
Another group of walkers arrives and the circus performers retreat down the slope to enjoy their beer and their music in private. I listen for a moment longer, watching as the sun sinks towards the level, and stuff my notebook into my back pocket. As I make my way down the hill, I know I can never capture this moment with words, any more than I could pin a live butterfly to a board to keep forever. But I also know that I am going to keep trying.
Evening over Glastonbury
If the only result is scribbled memories in a crinkled notebook in my back pocket, then it’s worth it. And with that, I have my answer. Glastonbury has taught me the beauty of the ephemeral and, this evening, I don’t need anything more.