Monday, May 21, 2012

Glastonbury, Stonehenge, and Avebury: King Arthur, Stone Circles, and a Medieval Barber-Surgeon

Glastonbury, Lady Chapel
(Continuation of my London diary entry of September 7, 1998)
Our Sunday morning excursion took us back to Medieval times.  We went to Glastonbury to see the ruins of the cathedral (which was destroyed when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries) and is the supposed site of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere’s grave.  There is some speculation that the “discovery” here of the grave was a 12th century publicity stunt after much of the original church was destroyed by fire.  The monks were hard up and needed to attract pilgrims to the church in order to get more money.
At lunchtime we climbed to the top of a tall hill nearby which is topped by the ruin of another ancient church.  From the top we could see for miles across the Somerset countryside, with its patchwork of fields and small farms, but the highlight of the walk up was a close encounter with a kestrel (a small falcon) that hovered for several minutes just a few yards in front of us and then dove down into the grass and caught a mouse.
Kestrel hovering near Glastonbury Tor
After a picnic lunch we walked back to town and drove to our final destinations of the weekend, Salisbury (where we made a quick visit to the Cathedral) and Stonehenge, which is nearby.  Throughout the weekend the weather was quite nice (despite dire predictions by the weatherman earlier) but by the time we arrived at Stonehenge it had become overcast and started to drizzle.  We didn’t mind, though, because it enhanced the mystical quality of the place.
Stonehenge sits on a slight rise in the middle of vast fields.  You can’t actually walk among the stones, because there is a rope barrier around the circle, but this helps to preserve the monument’s integrity and so even though there are busloads of people that go there, you can almost close your eyes and think of being in neolithic times.  (You can also imagine the last scene of Thomas Hardy’s book, Tess of the D’Urbervilles.)  Stonehenge is quite compact as stone circles go.  We saw a much larger one in the Orkneys several years ago and on Friday, on our way to Bath, we stopped at Avebury, another ancient circle site. 

Avebury, standing stones
At Avebury the circle is so large that in medieval times people built a small village in the middle of it.  Today both the village and what’s left of the circle are a historical site.  You can walk around the stones at Avebury, but the only way you can actually  see the circle is from the air. Apparently many of the stones of the Avebury henge were knocked over and buried in the Middle Ages because villagers thought they brought bad luck.  As you can imagine, this was an enormous task because the stones are huge.  Much of what we see today in Avebury has been restored in recent times.  When archeologists dug up one of the buried stones they were surprised to find underneath not only a human skeleton but some coins and all the tools of an itinerant barber-surgeon who must have come to town to cut some hair and pull a few teeth.  Apparently he had been assisting the villagers with the stone toppling and became crushed under the stone when it fell over.  The dates on the coins establish the event as occurring between 1310 and 1320.

English Heritage:  When we arrived in England, I became a member of English Heritage which meant that I could get in free to Stonehenge and other English Heritage historic sites.  Since ticket prices can add up, it turned out to be a good investment.

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