In preparation for the publication on April 9th of my book, We Are Pilgrims, last week I joined a group of around 15 folks on a pilgrimage from Glastonbury to Wells Cathedral. We began early in the day with a visit to two water sources that emanate from beneath Glastonbury Tor – the White Spring and the Chalice Well – and concluded at dusk with the enchanting and serenely lit Wells Cathedral. The walk was organised by the British Pilgrim Trust and is one of a number of one-day pilgrim routes created in partnership with the Association of English Cathedrals.
The meandering 12-mile walk took us up Glastonbury Tor, the high point of this Isle of Avalon where even on this hazy spring day the 360-degree views of the Somerset levels were spectacular. On the descent we passed two ancient oak trees, known as Gog and Magog which are thought to have formed part of a Druidic ceremonial approach to the Tor, a steep-sided hill incised with notches, whose exact origin and purpose remains a mystery.
Gog and Magog – these two names appear in both the Hebrew Bible and later in the Quran, as either characters, territory or tribes. In the Bible, Gog is variously Gog from the land of Magog, the individual Magog, or the Magog people. In much later Welsh and English folklore (as described in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th century Historia Regum Britanniae) Gogmagog is a legendary giant, so strong that he can tear up an oak from ground as if it were a switch of hazel. He is finally despatched (possibly by being thrown from a cliff in Plymouth) by Corineus, the equally legendary giant slayer and eponymous founder of Cornwall (a county of England whose border adjoins Plymouth).
Further east, in Cambridgeshire, Gog Magog is the name given to two chalk hills known to have been inhabited in the Bronze Age. In 1990 the writer I.J. Wilkens put forward an argument that the city of Troy was located here, with the Trojan war having been fought between groups of Celts, rather than amongst the people of (modern-day) Greece and Turkey. Wilkens’ ideas did not attract much support, but the evolution of the myths around Gog and Magog, and the conflated Gogmagog tells us a lot about how stories are co-opted and embroidered over time. We need big characters to bring places and stories to life and when their names are familiar, it makes the place more potent and the story yet more powerful.
Glastonbury is rich in such names, with Joseph of Arimathea said to have sailed here (perhaps with the young Jesus Christ), King Arthur and Guinevere said to be buried here, and in 2020, the legendary Taylor Swift was due to play here in what would have been the 50th Glastonbury Festival. Sadly, in these uncertain times, the festival has been cancelled in the interests of public safety. This setback must be very disappointing for those who have already worked for months in the expectation of bringing the festival into being, and of course for those holding the ‘golden’ Glastonbury tickets.
But this is only one year out of thousands of years in which summer festivals of one sort or another have taken place here; events where there were no tickets and no barrier to entry for all comers. People have been drawn to this place since the Bronze Age, if not earlier, and while the 2020 Glastonbury Festival may be off, the Tor is still there, as is the footpath to the divinely beautiful Wells Cathedral. Walking alone (or with a friend at a safe distance) still offers a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the glory of this landscape, and who knows, by June the sound of swifts may fill the air.