It’s a hundred years since the first famous Avalonians came to Glastonbury: Alice Buckton at the Chalice Well, Frederick Bligh Bond, the archaeologist at the Abbey, and Rutland Boughton, the composer who masterminded the first Glastonbury Festival. Their story is quite well known now, but what of the generation before them? What was it about this little Somerset town that drew them in? This talk looks at Gothic Glastonbury in the nineteenth century, the new taste for old buildings, the romance of the Middle Ages and the railway over the moors; the Welsh, the druids and the Lake Village; new religion and New Women; the importance of Joy, and how Chalice Well almost became the home of Clark’s. (This talk was first given to Glastonbury Antiquarian Society in February 2015).
I’m going to start by looking at the Gothic revival. The word ‘Gothic’ has acquired lots of different connotations, but the one that I’m concerned with is a deep and romantic fascination with the past. In England around 1800 ‘Gothic’ signified a reaction to revolution, both American but especially French. England was rebranded as a land of deep roots, free from constitutional novelties and experiments. And since the French were keen on Classical architecture, Gothic architecture progressively became identified as an essentially English, or at least, an essentially un-French style.
This man, John Carter, was at the heart of the project to make the Gothic ‘English’. He maintained that the English had invented it, and resisted all suggestions that the French might have got there first with truly splenetic fury. A year before Waterloo, one such critic was nigh-on accused of treason, for trying “to establish the origin of Gothic on the land of our natural Enemies”. When he wasn’t railing against the French, Carter was doing all he could to save the Gothic heritage. He wrote hundreds of angry letters to the press denouncing ignorant restoration schemes, and he made such an impression on public opinion that the Gentleman’s magazine dubbed him “the Wycliffe of our Architectural reformation”.
Glastonbury’s crop of medieval survivals had entranced him since 1784, when he made the well-known series of delightful drawings that Neill Bonham has put on the Antiquarians’ website, and in 1812 he reported with alarm ” that the famous Abbot’s Inn, Glastonbury (vulgarly called the ‘George Inn’) is on the eve of being destroyed by its present possessor, an attorney, to erect on the site a modern dwelling.” Nothing happened for five years; it was as though, as Carter said, “the hands holding its destiny were bound by a second-sight apprehension to refrain the fearful operation”. Then, in January 1817 readers were told that the time had come, and “The Abbots Inn at Glastonbury is at last to fall’. But this time a small miracle happened. The lawyer heeded the rucus and changed his plans. Carter praised his ‘taste’ and sensibility’, and could not, he said, “refrain from heartily rejoicing. We once more cry out in joyful strain, thanks! and conclude with this self-congratulating effusion, OUR LABOURS ARE NOT IN VAIN!” This was actually the last thing that Carter wrote for the Gentleman’s Magazine. He died a few weeks later, and it is pleasing to reflect that his final days were illumined by the thought that he’d help to save one of Glastonbury’s most iconic buildings.
The owner of the Abbot’s Inn was John Fry Reeves,
not merely a lawyer but also senior partner in the Glastonbury & Shepton Mallet Bank, who was rapidly becoming a very rich man. His change of heart about the architectural merits of Gothic had far-reaching consequences, for in 1825 he acquired the Abbey ruins. He landscaped the grounds and built this enormous house, which though more strictly Tudor than Gothic was nonetheless the first bit of antiquated new-build to go up in Glastonbury. The architect was John Buckler, a colleague of Carter’s and in some measure his successor. Both worked for Richard Colt Hoare of Stourhead, a great patron of antiquarian pursuits, who made several visits himself to Glastonbury and helped Reeves to choose the exact site.
The house was finished by 1830, and Reeves’ eldest son Thomas, who at 21 had changed his surname to Porch in order to pick up an inheritance at Edgarley, moved in.
Porch inherited his father’s taste for medieval architecture; in fact, became a local pioneer of the Gothic Revival. He saw what he called ‘pointed architecture’ as being particularly “calculated to inspire the mind with awe and veneration”. “Is it too much to hope”, he asked, echoing Augustus Pugin, “that a school may yet arise, whose productions shall rival the glories of that Augustan age of ecclesiastical architecture— the fourteenth century? What has been once may be again”.
He practiced what he preached, or tried to. He commissioned a well-known Gothic Revival architect, Benjamin Ferrey, to supply a suitably Gothic replacement for the old Market Cross which had been demolished a few decades earlier; and he laid the foundation stone himself in June 1846. Ferrey’s design was perhaps based on the Eleanor Crosses, but almost immediately it attracted ridicule. ” Confectioner’s Gothic”, it was called. Sarcastic letters were written to the papers; it was said to be “a disgrace to the ancient city” and within twenty years people were calling for its demolition. You could say that the Ferrey cross made people very cross.
Undeterred, Porch was one of the main people behind the restoration of St John’s Church in the 1850s. Work was carried out to designs supplied by Gilbert Scott, the most prolific architect of the Gothic Revival, and began with a rebuild of the font by a local mason called Frederick Merrick. Scott relied heavily on local builders to interpret his designs, and he helped to launch the career of Merrick as an ‘ecclesiastical builder’. St John’s School, behind the Church, was built by him, allegedly to Scott’s designs, but he himself may have designed the Vestry House across the road.
There were one or two other Gothic Revival buildings erected in late 19C Glastonbury, of which perhaps the most obvious is this rather cheeky bank of 1885, designed to look like a kind of extension to the George and Pilgrim next door. But given Glastonbury’s reputation I think that there’s surprisingly little Gothic revival building in the town. It’s as if the surviving medieval architecture served to daunt and deter most builders; echoing the Avalonian Guide‘s pained observation on the Ferrey Cross which has “no consistent fellowship with the ancient and historically important town of Glastonbury. This is a fact which every body knows, and which everybody now feels, although they may not be able to analyse their feelings.”
That comment is a reminder that the Gothic Revival was as much about feelings as about buildings. It was about a way of seeing the world, a reaction to the brutal simplicities and ugliness of Revolutions, whether political or, increasingly, Industrial.
“How is it”, mused the poet Laureate Robert Southey, “that every thing which is connected with manufactures presents such features of unqualified deformity?… Time cannot mellow them; Nature will neither clothe nor conceal them; and they remain always as offensive to the eye as to the mind”. To Southey, renewed pride in the architecture of the Middle Ages was ‘one proof of national improvement in feeling as well as in taste and knowledge’.
Southey was also responsible for re-introducing King Arthur, or perhaps more fairly re-creating him since it wasn’t, as some claim, that Arthur had been forgotten during all those centuries, more that his role had changed. Before Southey he was generally seen as ‘the British Worthy’, a valiant if rather predictable warrior, much given to smiting enemies. Southey’s 1817 edition of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur restored the romance, and it greatly inspired Alfred Lord Tennyson.
It is hard to make too much of Tennyson’s impact on the Victorian mind. He didn’t just bring Arthur to the Victorians; he created a mystical faith-charged universe around the legendary king. As his fellow-author Thackeray wrote to him, ” I thought about the other horns of Elfland blowing in full strength, and Arthur in gold armour, and Guinevere in gold hair, and all those knights and heroes and beauties and purple landscapes and misty gray lakes in which you have made me live. They seem like facts to me”. Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, published in four parts between 1859 and 1869, completely blew away his audience. Advance orders for the last part, The Holy Grail and Other Poems in 1869 reached 30,000 copies. “Nearly everybody is discussing Mr Tennyson’s new poem”, the papers claimed.
Arthur having being taken “to the island-valley of Avilion” to be cured of his wounds, it was this final and most popular volume that prompted interest in Glastonbury the most. The railway had conveniently come to Glastonbury in 1854; and after the Idylls people flocked to view what one writer called ” the scene of some of the Arthurian legends which Alfred Tennyson has awakened into fresh life”.
Tennyson’s Arthur does not die, of course, which means that the King’s traditional burying-place in Glastonbury Abbey did not figure in tourist expectations. The holy grail, on the other hand, was according to Tennyson the cup that Christ had used at the Last Supper, which
the good saint
Arimathaean Joseph, journeying brought
and although the poet claimed that
Grew to such evil that the holy cup
Was caught away to Heaven, and disappeared
people nonetheless began to ruminate speculatively about more local places where the Grail might have been concealed.
‘Chalice Well’, also called the ‘Blood Spring’, first enters the written record in 1751 when it was the centre – or more accurately one of the centres – of the Glastonbury Waters phenomenon, when thousands of people flocked to the town in search of miracle cures. Later, the ‘bathing place’, as it was called, became a rather neglected water feature in the garden of a pub called the Anchor on the main road, which as it was just beyond the turnpike tollgate probably did rather well. In the later 1700s the landlord was John Pickford, and after his wife Ann’s death in 1803 a Worcester man called John Bull, a glover and dealer in hides and skins, announced his plans to turn Chalice Well into a tannery and glove manufactory. It didn’t happen; he decided to set up shop in Street instead. Nineteen years later his daughter Sarah married one Cyrus Clark, who with his brother James went into the shoemaking business.. a simple twist of fate. Just think how different the history of these two towns might have been had John Bull stayed in Chilkwell Street!
The pub was eventually taken over by James Crocker, who renamed it the Tor Inn or Tor House Inn and to judge from this photograph, taken soon before it was demolished, he probably rebuilt it as well. Five years after Crocker’s death at a grand old age in 1872, his daughter sold the place to two of John Pickford’s grand-daughters, Mary and Sarah, and their husbands.
Mary married this chap, George W Wright, who was to become a well known, even a notorious figure in Glastonbury. Wright was in some ways a proto-Avalonian. He was a vegetarian, a homeopath, a teetotaller, had ‘advanced’ political views. He was a schoolmaster. He’d worked at his brother’s Alcott House school near Richmond in Surrey, home to a Utopian community so progressive (by Victorian standards) that the Vegetarian Society today believe it was probably where the word ‘vegetarian’ was coined. He and Mary met in London but moved to Glastonbury in 1848, and Wright eventually set up his own school on the Street Road which though no Alcott House was probably more relaxed than most schools of its day.
When the family came to buy the Chalice Well, they did so not out of sentiment but as an investment. Wright was a firm believer in the therapeutic value of Glastonbury waters, and he wanted to revive the spa. They procured a promising chemical analysis of the water, and started writing to the medical journals in an attempt to interest doctors. “This house offers peculiar advantages to a medical man”, readers of the Monthly Homeopathic Review were informed. “In the garden is the celebrated “Blood Spring,” which, in olden days, was resorted to by numbers of people for its supposed curative powers. It certainly gives the finest drinking water in the country. There are extensive baths attached to the spring which yields 20,000 gallons daily— never lessens, never freezes.”
Unfortunately for the family, their sales-pitch not only failed but coincided with a crisis in the town’s water supply. More was needed, and the Town Council approached Wright with an offer that was very much less than the sum that Wright was hoping to get for his spa. He refused to drop the price; and for months the pages of the Gazette were full of letters and commentary vilifying him for what they saw as his greed. The council eventually built the reservoir out by Edgarley. “No-one is rejoicing more than me”, he said when the news came through, but it is doubtful if his reputation never really recovered locally.
It was Catholics, not doctors, that showed real interest in buying Chalice Well, and this may well be the reason why Wright, who until now had been somewhat hostile to Catholics, began to show a lot of interest in the legendary history of his property. As did his niece, Alice Maud Meadows, daughter of another Pickford sister and a writer of short stories and poems for magazines. Although she herself lived in London, she was very excited by her family’s Somerset home – and the implications of its name.
In August 1886, the Gazette published a remarkable poem that she’d written, which introduced a breathtaking new twist to the legend. She describes the coming of the Risen Christ to Glastonbury after the Crucifixion, where he is met by Joseph of Arimathea. Christ takes the Holy Chalice from his hands, strikes the earth and lets the Chalice fall in it:
then once again
The earth rolls to, the gaping month is closed.
None speak, all eyes are downward bent, and lo!
From out the earth a tiny streamlet springs,
Like liquid silver, o’er the mossy grass
It makes its way, and down the verdant hill
Meanders, going onward to the sea
When this poem appeared, negotiations were to sell the Chalice Well to the Catholic Missionaries of the Sacred Heart were well advanced. That November Wright read a paper to the newly-launched Glastonbury Antiquarian Society, in which, interlarded with lashings of Tennyson, he recounted his niece’s allegory in more prosaic terms. “Joseph brought with him the chalice of the Last Supper, and hid it, or in some way located it in, or on the hill which henceforth was to be sacred to its memory, and to be known as Chalice Hill”. Recalling that the pub had been called the Anchor, he deduced that there had been a colony of hermits, or anchorites, who lived here until such time as they were called down to join the abbey. And he concluded by lauding the far-sightedness and generosity of the Catholics that had just bought the place, hoping for a revival of pilgrimages and consequent increase of trade to the town.
Just the fact that the Catholics were even interested in Glastonbury is curious enough. Nineteenth-century Catholic missions were either based around the homes of well-heeled benefactors, or else located in places with sizeable Catholic populations already. Glastonbury had neither of those things, but Bishop Clifford of Clifton was very keen to establish a Catholic presence in the old abbey town, and when Jules Chevalier, founder of the French-based Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, was looking for an English base for a missionary college, the bishop steered him deftly to Chalice Well, where, Chevalier wrote, “St Joseph of Arimathea, the first apostle of Great Britain, miraculously caused water to spring up which still flows.”
The bishop was aided and abetted by one of Chevalier’s own pioneers on the English Mission, Francis Xavier Deidier, who according to Chevalier “has consulted the archives and examined the traditions: the facts are correct.. There is a unique situation there for us to take up, what could become in a short time a famous place of pilgrimage.” They were not uninfluenced by the beatification process for Abbot Whiting that had just been launched, a “coincidence”, wrote Deidier, that was “not to be unregarded: We like to think that the missionaries of this divine heart were providentially conducted here”.. “Standing between the commanding ruins of the Abbey and the noble Tor of martyrdom they will try, according to their power, to make flourish again the former days of Glastonbury.”
So there we are; both the Catholic return to Glastonbury and the Antiquarian Society are demonstrably linked to the beginnings of the Avalonian dream!
King Arthur meanwhile was undergoing a bit of a makeover. Tennyson’s Arthur was a figure of romance pure and simple, but his appearance coincided with a burgeoning interest in all things Celtic, and pioneering folklorists such as Alfred Nutt ransacked and reinterpreted a rather sketchy written record to try and prove that the legends of the Arthurian cycle could ultimately be traced back to Celtic roots. Avalon, he claimed, was another name for Tir-na- nOg, the Celtic otherworld. New interest was consequently shown in Glastonbury’s prehistory, and a Celtic mist began to settle over the Moors, which after 1854 was the main approach to the town since the railway came across the levels from Highbridge. To a generation of romantics raised on Tennyson, that last leg of their journey truly was a trip across the Moors Adventurous. The Castle of Carbonek, Tennyson wrote, was approached across “a great black swamp” by way of a bridge made of “a thousand piers [which] ran into the great sea”, and this put one writer in mind of the recently-discovered prehistoric trackway nicknamed the ‘Abbots Way‘, which ran towards Glastonbury almost parallel to the railway.
These Celtic mists had a decidedly feminine allure. A bronze torc, found by a peat-cutter near Edington Burtle, was thought to have belonged to a “Druidical priestess”. Did she make use of the Abbots Way, one writer suggested? Was she the owner of the “weird trinkets” found with the torc, “suggesting all sorts of mysterious associations with spells, and prophecies, and wonder-working power, traversing the moor, not by water, but by the secret path, spread like a piece of wooden matting on the soft and yielding surface of the moor?”
In 1887-8 the Glastonbury archaeologist and businessman John Morland excavated the site of the chapel at Beckery known as Bride’s. He found traces of two successive buildings, which he took to represent the two foundations mentioned in the chronicles, the first being dedicated to Mary Magdalene and the second to St Brigit, whom he described as “not only a miracle-working saint and a strong ruler, but also a loveable woman”. Noting that one interpretation of the word ‘Beckery’ could mean ‘Little Ireland’, he made the radical suggestion that this might have been the first Christian site at Glastonbury. “There is much interest attaching to the connnection of Glastonbury with Ireland, and one would be glad to believe that the connection was historical rather than mythical…. Is it then possible that, not in the Isle of Avalon itself, but on the humble Isle of Beckery, was the earlier Christian shrine, and that the later Saxon foundation but inherited the Irish traditions ?”
Morland’s co-excavator at Beckery was Arthur Bulleid, who four years later and just a mile away across the Moors made the discovery that put Glastonbury right in the centre of the ‘Celtic’ world. The discovery of the Lake Village took the press by storm and everyone was delighted with the evidence for a sophisticated pre-Roman culture that the site was yielding in season after season during the 1890s. This is not the place to go into this in any depth but I would like to flag up this rather wonderful item – the so-called Glastonbury Bowl, discovered in 1893, and which our enterprising society allowed this Taunton firm to make and sell copies of in large numbers. Is it just coincidence, or was this choice of artefact as a template to please the tourists perhaps suggested by all the talk of the Holy Grail? I’ll leave that question hanging… and move on to another vessel, now known as the Blue Bowl and housed at Chalice Well, which at least one senior Anglican clergyman came to believe was the Holy Grail itself.
While Morland and Bulleid were digging up ancient treasure near Godney, someone else was burying it at Bride’s. The Blue Bowl, of unknown date, was acquired in northern Italy by Dr John Goodchild, a psychic and Celticist much caught up with the Celtic revival. In Goodchild’s book The Light of the West 1898, an investigation into ancient Irish legend, he contended that the Irish long ago had worshipped the female aspect of the deity, who was eventually Christianised as St Bride. The book was a paean to the ‘beauty of womanhood’ and to the need to restore the female element into all life. It didn’t mention Glastonbury, beyond one enigmatic suggestion that the legends of Glastonbury and Ireland were somehow linked. But as soon as he’d sent the book off to be published, he had a waking dream in which a voice told him that this vessel had once been carried by Jesus, that it had a powerful influence to play in shaping the thought of the twentieth century, and that he should take it to Glastonbury and ‘place it in the Womens Quarter’ there. In August 1898 he came to do so, decided that the Women’s Quarter was indeed Bride’s Hill, and hid it in a well, pending the arrival, as he was told, of a maiden who would soon come and retrieve it.
This part of my story has been well told by Patrick Benham (The Avalonians, second edition 2006) and more recently by Jerry Fenge (The Two Worlds of Wellesley Tudor Pole, 2010). Suffice to say that in 1902 Pole, an eighteen-year old Bristolian, had a dream about Glastonbury so powerful that thereafter he began to go pilgrimage annually to Glastonbury in or around St Bride’s Day, February 1, on a quest to find the ‘Holy Graal’. He was later joined by his sister Kitty, and subsequently by her two friends, the sisters Christina and Janet Allen, who in October 1906 discovered the Blue Bowl in the well at Brides. They were by now in touch with Dr Goodchild but it is only fair to say that they all of them maintained that they found the place by intuition alone.
Delighted that what Tudor Pole called “the Spiritual Shrine of the West” had been discovered in the Glastonbury Fens, he took the Blue Bowl to various experts for their opinions, including such prominent churchmen as the future Catholic Cardinal Gasquet and the Anglican Archdeacon Wilberforce, Canon of Westminster. Both were impressed; and Wilberforce, who was unusually open to unconventional religious ideas, convened a meeting at his home in Dean’s Yard of many well-known individuals to discuss the find, which he personally believed to be genuine. He tried, unsuccessfully, to get the Archbishop of Canterbury along too, by implying that the Catholics were already on the scent: “I may say the RCs are making efforts to get the relic and I am told that Dom Gasquet who has seen it several times is going to Rome to speak to the Pope about it”. This failed to stir the Archbishop, but is a timely reminder that Catholics and Protestants were still slugging it out over Glastonbury, as they had been since the Dissolution.
The beatification of Abbot Whiting in 1895 was followed by a pilgrimage of a thousand and more Catholics to the summit of the Tor, where the titular Abbot of Glastonbury told them that “there was no spot on this island which showed more completely the continuity of the Catholic faith than the hallowed ground all around them”. Two years later the Anglicans responded in kind with a massive durbar of bishops and high dignitaries who came to Glastonbury from all over the British Empire, and at this swaggering event, akin to that year’s Diamond Jubilee, it was solemnly affirmed that Glastonbury had never been truly Roman Catholic at all.
Ten years later Glastonbury Abbey was sold at auction. The buyer, Ernest Jardine, a Nottingham industrialist, later revealed that he had bought it on behalf of the Church of England. The announcement was made just a fortnight before the Dean’s Yard meeting, and this heady atmosphere may help to explain why young Tudor Pole found his roomful of dignitaries so astonishingly attentive to what he described as his “very strong intuition” that “Glastonbury will become the centre of healing as at Lourdes, a centre not only of physical but also of spiritual healing”. The finding of the Blue Bowl meant that “through Glastonbury is Christianity to be renewed here in England”. A divine outpouring of spirit in the world was imminent. If the Christian Churches were able “to come into greater harmony one with another” then the Divine outpouring would come through them; if not, rather ominously, “Other agencies will be found.”
The meeting was meant to be secret but details were soon leaked out to the press and for a while everyone was talking about the find at Glastonbury. Tudor Pole kept the bowl in a special room at his home in Clifton and there were many visitors, including seers, mystics and religious leaders from non-Christian creeds. A kind of informal cult evolved, around the literal figure of Bride and the allegorical figure of Joy. Goodchild’s friend and inspiration, the Celtic poet William Sharp who rather significantly adopted the female pen-name Fiona Macleod for some of his work, wrote a Triad at Glastonbury Abbey a year before his death in 1905:
From the Silence of Time, Time’s Silence borrow
In the heart of To-day is the word of Tomorrow
The Builders of Joy are the Children of Sorrow
This was often quoted by the Blue Bowl people, who were much smitten by Joy. They named their homes and their daughters after her; in one case a play was dedicated “in JOY’s most holy name”. Called The Story of Glastonbury and the Grail or The Light of Avalon, it was dedicated at Glastonbury on St Bride’s Day, the 1st of Feb., 1909, by its author who adopted the pen-name of Melchior Macbride, ‘Melchior’ being the name of one of the gift-bringing Magi from the east, and ‘Macbride’ to show that he was of the clan of Bride.
The play opens in a room in Maiden’s Castle, Brides’ Island with the Lake Village as a backdrop in the distance. Gladys, a clairvoyant Druidess, sister of Caractacus, and the archdruid Cymveline, is there to welcome Joseph of Arimathea and his party. Druidesses at the Women’s Quarter discuss their religion with the Christian women of Joseph’s party whilst – and I quote – “putting the finishing touches to the supper table”. The menfolk meanwhile are pursuing manly matters. King Arviragus, who in medieval tradition had invited Joseph to Glastonbury, is revealed as the Fisher King, a kind of Celtic Nelson who defeats an enemy fleet in the Channel, flying beneath the Salmon Flag. Cymbeline takes Joseph to one side and tells him to “plant the Chalice deep in that sweet hill/ That riseth up beneath the frowning Tor”, and he goes on to make the gratifying prediction that “The Centre of the Christian World shall be/ Where this Cup doth abide…
What makes this play so interesting, apart from the fact that the author clearly knew all those recent legends of the Blue Bowl, is that the author and his wife actually tried to buy the Chalice Well. His real name was John Purcell Quinton and his wife, Ethel, who was reliably said to be “the one who holds the purse strings”, ran the Lotus Tea Rooms at 25 High Street; now a new-age crystal chain-store, a building which has some claim to be considered the first Avalonian centre in Glastonbury. Here, briefly, the archaeologist Frederick Bligh Bond had an address; he had just begun his psychic investigations into the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey that were to make him so notorious when they were finally made public. Bond and Quinton were members of the same masonic lodge in Bristol, and read papers on esoteric male mysteries there perhaps as counterpoint to all that joyful female energy. The Lotus Tea Rooms were described as a Food Reform establishment, code for ‘vegetarian’, and Ethel like many food reformers is likely to have been a keen suffragette: the picture on the right is of a shop-front further up the High Street, a reminder that even without the Avalonians womens’ suffrage was very much on the agenda in Edwardian Glastonbury.
Although the Catholic church was riding high nationally, the same cannot be said of the Sacred Heart mission in Glastonbury, which in fact was in difficulties almost from the start. Strong on legends, the town was weak in Catholics or supporters, and the administration made some very ill-judged decisions. The dynamic young principal Pierre-Marie Tréand built the school house but despite the warnings of his colleagues was in 1891 transferred to Australia. Then followed a quick succession of principals and a declining number of students. Parents complained that their children often went hungry; teaching levels were said to be derisory. By 1898 they were down to six pupils and were hoping to be transferred to somewhere nearer London, but the place was reprieved when a wave of ugly anticlericalism in France forced the Sacred Heart’s French Province to decant abroad to Glastonbury. They went back when things quietened down, and the school was revived in a half-hearted fashion, but the place became a dumping-ground for misfits from elsewhere in the Catholic church: radicals with challenging ideas, or simply violent alcoholics. By 1908 morale was at rock bottom, and Glastonbury was described as “a hopelessly run-down institution with no future whatsoever”. The Order now began to make serious efforts to get rid of it. The Bishop hoped that some Catholic order would turn it into an orphanage for boys, but none was forthcoming. Ernest Jardine, the magnate that had bought the Abbey for the Anglicans, considered opening a factory there but only if he could buy it for a paltry sum.
More interesting are the proposals that were made by these early Avalonians, evidence that the legend of Chalice Well was taking hold. Unusual Christians, such as Aelred Carlyle (right), a kind of Catholic Protestant, and Rene Laurain, a sort of Protestant Catholic, both showed some fleeting interest, but it was the Builders of Joy that made the reckoning. Tudor Pole himself had made a resolution to purchase Chalice Well “when available”. Many years later, in 1959 to be exact, he did just that; but at this stage in his career he was in no position to do so. The Quintons came onto the scene in November 1910; Father Martin, whose job it was to try and sell the place, made discrete enquiries and ascertained that they were “known enthusiasts for the local Glastonbury traditions”. Their solicitor told him that the property would be cared for “in a manner compatible with its historic association”, perhaps involving a hotel open in the summer for visitors to Tor Hill, and a link with the Lotus Tea Rooms. For some unknown reason the deal fell through. Perhaps the Quintons didn’t have as much ready cash as they thought they had.
In March 1913 another contender appeared: Philip Oyler, who wanted to open what his lawyers described as a “non-sectarian, vegetarian, simple life school”, which Father Martin glossed as “a kind of English utopia, it seems to me, but so what”. I’ve recently found a letter that shows what a pivotal role this meteoric individual played in the onset of Avalon. A farmer, traveller, author, he had recently set up a Nature School near Haslemere on the Surrey-Hampshire border. He was also spiritually inclined, a friend of Tudor Pole’s who described him as a “seer”. The month before he made the offer to the Sacred Heart he had been to see the Blue Bowl in Bristol and decided that the time for transformation had arrived. In the letter, written from Tudor Pole’s house to a friend of Pole’s in Scotland, Oyler announced that
“It has been felt for long that Glastonbury has to become again the centre of a great spiritual movement and it has now been revealed (almost suddenly) that the first step towards it is to be taken this year. The Powers have chosen unworthy me as the unifying personality in those many who are to be responsible for its Inauguration, and the Powers have chosen music as the unifying factor, because it consists of no words and therefore the more easily links heart to heart.
A gathering will therefore be held from August 2 to 30 this year at Glastonbury and will represent those who can present high ideals in simple constructive fashion through any form of religion or art, whether music, literature, oratory, healing, painting, handicraft, folk song and dance etc etc.”
There were to be lectures by idealists, well known and otherwise, including the Christian Socialist vicar of Hambridge Charles Marson, and the musical side, he wrote, “is in the hands of Reginald Buckley and my friend Rutland Boughton, who has taken on the work (under guidance) that Wagner began in Parsifal. There will be 25 performers there for the whole month, giving something every week, and in the last week will be given 3 times a choral drama ‘Uther & Igraine’ the first of a series of Arthurian Legends by Rutland Boughton – wonderful work hitherto not performed but held as too sacred for anywhere but Glastonbury. For this a full orchestra of about 100 professionals will be engaged, being gradually replaced year by year from the simple communal life which is to spring up there in the way that Oberammergau has grown.”
Oyler introduced Boughton to the new vicar of St John’s, Charles Day, who helped him to launch his series of famous Glastonbury festivals that took place in the Assembly Rooms. But Oyler’s plans to buy the Chalice Well were once more thwarted by lack of funds. He hoped to find the money “in a few weeks in answer to combined prayer”. The prayer was answered, but not perhaps as he would have wished. Within weeks of the letter being written, Alice Buckton was showing people around her new purchase, and Oyler had vanished from the scene. I suspect that she was the only person he’d approached who was in a position to put the money down; whereupon she decided that it was in fact her and not Oyler whom the Powers had chosen to lead this new initiative. Oyler later moved to France, and in his book The Generous Earth, published in 1950, introduced the joys of the Dordogne, its unspoiled landscapes, plentiful sunshine and matchless cuisine to a bombed-out country living on rationed spam and snoek. This book, it has been said, began the English love affair with that part of the world; but back to Alice Buckton.
I don’t mean to say too much about her because I suspect that most of you have come across her already. She was well-connected, a family friend and neighbour of Tennyson’s whose cloak she inherited, and also of archdeacon Wilberforce, who invited her to the Dean’s Yard meeting which is probably where her interest in Glastonbury was kindled. She was a dramatist, in high odour for her much-appreciated Christmas play Eager Heart. She was an educationalist, running a pioneering and well-esteemed Froebel school in St John’s Wood with her partner Annet Schepel, who came with her to Glastonbury. Within weeks of her arrival she produced a prospectus for “the Chalice Well Training College for Women and Pilgrims Hostel”, with a highly ambitious range of courses.
This was nothing less than a revival of the alleged druidess’s college at Brides Mound, please note, “the chief ancient seminary for young ladies in Britain” as Dr Goodchild had rather quaintly described it, and it is no coincidence that the following year her Guild of Festival Players produced ‘A Pageant Play’ called ‘The Coming of Bride’. Dedicated “To Those who have heard in the dawn The songs of the day to be”, the play is set during the time of Abbot Patrick. A group of Chalice Hill anchorites, grumbling like the grumpy blokes they are, assemble to await the landing of Bride from Ireland; when she arrives, she asks for and is granted Magdalene’s chapel on Beckery “by the Salmon’s Back”. Bride is a prophet, she foretells the Grail quest and its failure, but also its eventual success:
“Bitter the waters of grief, but sweet is the Well-spring!
Stoop and be fearless! Drink, O ye Builders of Joy!”
And there, on the eve of both the Great War and the Avalonian century, I’ll stop.