So much mythology and legend surrounds Glastonbury. Stories abound and people have flocked, sometimes in their thousands, for over 4000 years. However the reality of real life in Glastonbury is very different. And the town of Glastonbury, as seen through the eyes of a young woman growing up between the First and the Second World Wars was far removed from the esoteric shops and lost souls that we see there today.
I started the Millenium Trail from the Georgian Town Hall, (next to Glastonbury Abbey) and followed thereafter in order the guide suggested-a good way to take in the main highlights and sights which I had heard about over the years as I grew up with my Nan.
The Town Hall has served many purposes over the years-as well as housing a market area, jail and Court Room and even a silk factory for some time.
Nans main recollection of the Town Hall was as a young girl of eleven or twelve years. In approximately 1930 a hall was added to the rear and following the renovations there was a grand re-opening. Twelve boys and girls were selected to sing at the opening. Nan was one of them. Her father was so ill (heart disease) he had to be helped up the stairs by three people. Not only was he proud to hear his daughter sing but he and the whole town wanted to hear the choral version of ‘Jerusalem’ (or Glastonbury Hymn as it was sometimes known.)
William Blake wrote the immortal words many years previously, probably inspired by the apocryphal story that a young Jesus, accompanied by Joseph of Arimithea, went to Glastonbury. However it was Charles Hubert H Parry who wrote the musical score to accompany the words in 1916 when he was asked by the poet laureate, Robert Bridges, to put it to music for a ‘Fight for Right’ campaign meeting in London’s Queen Hall. After that it continued to be tested out with different orchestral and choral versions. During the 1920’s many Women’s Institutes started to close their meetings by singing Blake’s words to Parry’s setting. Parry died in 1918 (incidentally that was the year my Nan was born.) And Edward Elgar added to the scores to create the more powerful version known and loved by so many of us today.
According to my Nan she was one of the chosen ones to be involved and it was the first time that the people of Glastonbury heard the tune when she sang it.
As you look out from the Town Hall you can see St Benedicts Church.
The adjacent school is where Nan attended her secondary school. Back then it was an all girl’s school. The year Nan sat her 11+ no one passed the exam. The following year only one girl passed-a very posh girl called Margaret Parsons who was apparently related to someone in the Clarks (shoe) family.
Back towards town on Benedicts Street is the Mitre Inn.
Nan remembers a new girl, Joy Mills coming to the school. She was plump but very well dressed and had curly dark hair with a fringe. Her parents owned the Mitre Inn.
When I went to Glastonbury I contacted the local press and they were so helpful they even put an appeal in the paper for any one who remembered my Nans family or who remembered life in the town just before the 2nd World War to contact me. I was quite disappointed not to hear from anyone throughout my stay. However the night I got home I had a telephone call from a 90 year old lady-Joy Mills, Nans friend from all those years ago. She still lives on Benedict Street with her husband and for several years took over the Mitre Inn pub after her mum and dad passed away. She is one of the few remaining ‘elders’ in the town-everyone else has now sadly died.
Iris Knight (daughter of Knights famous Knight's Fish Restaurant, the oldest (and best) fish and chip shop in Britain ) was at school with Nan and they shared exactly the same birth date. 18th August 1918. Sadly Iris died a few years ago however the fish and chip shop still exists and I ate the most delicious fish, chips and mushy peas during my stay and definitely plan a return trip with the boys!
Nan can remember shop by shop along the streets in town. I have written them all down and intend to document them along with her memoirs-the Antiquarian Society and Library said they would be very interested for their records.
The market square used to be the centre of town life and many of the buildings date from the time of the Abbey, although the shop frontage has changed over the centuries. The present cross was built in 1845 and replaced a medieval water conduit. Live cattle were sold in front of the butchers shop, where nan's Uncle Wally worked for years.
Nan came out of the dance at the town hall one New Years Eve and danced and celebrated with everyone in the square.
One of the old Glastonbury Inns, The Crown (mentioned as early as 1535)still remains. Unfortunately a bad fire a hundred years ago burnt down much of the medieval original. Nans Uncle and Aunty owned the pub for several years and Nan was very good pals with their daughter, her cousin Eileen. For some reason when Eileen died, the family never contacted Nan to tell her and the two sides of the family lost touch. However it was believed that the family continued to own the pub until more recent times. I intend on my next visit to brave and go in and enquire to the current landlord-I was a little nervous on my visit as it seemed a little intimidating from the outside. It would be interesting to see whether any of 'that side of the family' are still alive.
The George & Pilgrims Inn was built by Abbot Selwood approx 1465 to accomodate the thousands of visitors who flocked to the town.
Nearly opposite the inn used to be an ironmongers. Nans brother Douglas used to work there filling up the paraffin lamps.
By co-incidence my Granddad was billoted to the house above it during the second world war during his first stay which is when they met. Nan would go past on her bike and wave to him as he hung out of the window. They would shout the words “Three Pips!” at each other, coded message for “I love you.”
St Johns Church was very much the centre of their world. Nan was christened there and her mum and dad's burial services were there before being taken on to the cemetery on Wells Road.
The Glastonbury Thorn in the churchyard flowers at Christmas and Easter time. Every Christmas the vicar cuts some blossom and sends it to the Queen for her Christmas breakfast table.
To the rear of the church is St Johns school, Nans first school. Nan had two older brothers as well as her twin brother. One day the eldest, Jack came home with a note from the school teacher-she needed to see a copy of the twins birth certificates for the records. My Nans mother never did send her a copy despite her repeated requests-she packed the children off to school and they were barely three years old.
Nan recalls going to school with Jack Chislett (and admits she used to fancy him!) He was mayor of Glastonbury a few years ago. His brother, George (who sadly passed away a couple of years ago) had a flower shop on the high street. He was head gardener for the Abbey grounds and was one of the few people who was able to graft Holy Thorn cuttings onto the root of blackthorn.
The war memorial in front of the Church was designed by Bligh Bond and based upon a Saxon Cross he discovered when excavating the abbey. Nan recalls being a brownie and leaving a wreath on the memorial on Armistice Day .
Much of the remainder of the high street remains as it has been for over 200 years.
The post office is the only other memory of any real significance to Nan along the high street. Her beloved dad worked there as a postal clerk. And she later joined as a post person-she covered a good five mile stretch down the high street, down Benedicts Street delivering post along a round route to the Station and back.
At this point I diverted off the millenium trail to Bove Town, which until about 1791was the main medieval road to Wells.
On the left as you go up you see a beautiful cottage, Many of the other houses along this stretch still have internal features that are up to 500 years old.
I was looking for Coombe House, the house where Nan worked as an 'in-between' maid' from the age of just twelve.
I could see very little from the roadside of the house-it was masked by laurel and leyandii trees although I dared to step up a couple of the steps, maybe re-tracing the route she will have taken to the servants entrance. Nans hours of work were 7am until 9pm. She stayed at the house during the week and only went home at weekends. Woe betide her if she was not home on time-her mother would march down and collect her!
The house is now privately owned by two gentlemen, one of whom is the Chairman of Somerset County Council, Alan Gloake. I have had no luck contacting him so far. However I have just been given his telephone number so I will dare to ring and introduce myself. I do know from the website that the gardens open on 3rd August for 1 day only. Me and the boys have already planned our return visit to Glastonbury around this date, although I am rather hoping Mr Gloake may be kind enough to show me around the inside of the house some time!
Next door is a thatched cottage dated 1637. Miss Murial owned it and sold it to the Scott Stokes, a very wealthy family who were related to the Clarks of Somerset. Nan remembers as she worked in Coombe house the children next door ran and played outside in their bare feet, not of course because the family were too poor to afford shoes, but the Clarks family believed that it was more healthy and natural for childrens feet to be allowed to breathe and grow without restrictions.
If you continued past you walk through Wick Hollow and a route to Tor Hill.
Uncle Wally (the butcher) and Aunt Bess lived there and one of her errands was to go and collect cider in a heavy flagon for her dad from the cider press which Wally had.
On the way home Nan would pick violets and primroses and other seasonal flowers from the banks and take small bunches back to her mother.
To be continued...