Last updated on 12th February 2019
From In Pursuit of Spring (1914), one of Edward Thomas’s best topographical books, recounting his bicycle journey, in March 1913, from London, through the southern counties, to Cothelstone Hill in Somerset. Here he describes Glastonbury.
For three miles I was in the flat green land of Queen’s Sedgemoor, drained by straight sedgy watercourses, along which grow lines of elm, willow, or pine. Glastonbury Tor mounted up out of the flat before me, like a huge tumulus, almost bare, but tipped by St Michael’s tower. Soon the ground began to rise on my left, and the crooked apple orchards of Avalon came down to the roadside, their turf starred by innumerable daisies and gilt celandines. Winding round the base of the Tor, I rode into Glastonbury, and down its broad, straight hill past St John the Baptist Church and the notoriously mediaeval “Pilgrim’s Inn,” and many pastry cooks. Another peat cart was going down the street. The church stopped me because of its tower and the grass and daisies and half-dozen comfortable box tombs of its churchyard, irregularly placed and not quite upright.
One of the tombs advertised in plain lettering the fact that John Down, the occupant, who died in 1829 at the age of eighty-three, had, “for more than sixty years owned the abbey.” He owned the abbey, nothing more; at least his friends and relatives were content to introduce him to posterity as the man who “for more than sixty years owned the abbey.” If the dead were permitted to own anything here below, doubtless he would own it still. Outside the railings two boys were doing the cleverest thing I saw on this journey. They were keeping a whip-top, and that a carrot-shaped one, spinning by kicking it in turns. Which was an accomplishment more worthy of being commemorated on a tombstone than the fact that you owned Glastonbury Abbey. The interior of the church is made equally broad at both ends by the lack of screen or of any division of the chancel. It is notable also for a marble monument in the south-west corner, retaining the last of its pale blue and rose colouring. A high chest, carved with camels, forms the resting-place for a marble man with a head like Dante’s, wearing a rosary over his long robes.
At first I thought I should not see more of the abbey than can be seen from the road — the circular abbot’s kitchen with pointed cap, and the broken ranges of majestic tall arches that guide the eye to the shops and dwellings of Glastonbury. While I was buying a postcard the woman of the shop reminded me of Joseph of Arimathea’s thorn, and how it blossomed at Christmas. “Did you ever see it blossoming at Christmas?” I asked. “Once,” she said, and she told me how the first winter she spent in Glastonbury was a very mild one, and she went out with her brothers for a walk on Christmas day in the afternoon. She remembered that they wore no coats. And they saw blossom on the holy thorn. After all, I did go through the turnstile to see the abbey. The high pointed arches were magnificent, the turf under them perfect. The elms stood among the ruins like noble savages among Greeks. The orchards hard by made me wish that they were blossoming. But excavations had been going on; clay was piled up and cracking in the sun, and there were tin sheds and scaffolding. I am not an archaeologist, and I left it. As I was approaching the turnstile an old hawthorn within a few yards of it, against a south wall, drew my attention. For it was covered with young green leaves and with bright crimson berries almost as numerous. Going up to look more closely, I saw what was more wonderful — Blossom. Not one flower, nor one spray only, but several sprays. I had not up till now seen even blackthorn flowers, though towards the end of February I had heard of hawthorn flowering near Bradford. As this had not been picked, I conceitedly drew the conclusion that it had not been observed. Perhaps its conspicuousness had saved it. It was Lady Day. I had found the Spring in that bush of green, white, and crimson. So warm and bright was the sun, and so blue the sky, and so white the clouds, that not for a moment did the possibility of Winter returning cross my mind.
Pleasure at finding the May sent me up Wearyall Hill, instead of along the customary road straight out of Glastonbury. The hill projects from the earth like a ship a mile long, whose stern is buried in the town, its prow uplifted westward towards Bridgwater; and the road took me up as on a slanting deck, until I saw Glastonbury entire below me, all red-tiled except the ruins and the towers of St John and St Benedict. At the western edge the town’s two red gasometers stood among blossoming plum trees, and beyond that spread the flat land. The Quantocks, fifteen miles distant, formed but a plain wall, wooded and flat-topped, on the horizon northward.