A Guide to Mysterious Britain | Rick Steves | Smithsonian
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Avebury is 16 times the size of Stonehenge. Tourists are free to wander among 100 stones, ditches, mounds and curious patterns from the past. (David Pearson / Alamy)

A Guide to Mysterious Britain

Glastonbury, Stonehenge, Avebury and Dartmoor hold secrets of the island’s prehistoric past

smithsonian.com

Stonehenge, Holy Grail, Avalon, Loch Ness...there’s a mysterious side of Britain steeped in lies, legends, and at least a little truth. Haunted ghost walks and Nessie the Monster stories are profitable tourist gimmicks. But the cultural soil that gives us Beowulf, Shakespeare, and “God Save the Queen” is fertilized with a murky story that goes back to 3000 B.C., predating Egypt’s first pyramids.

As today’s sightseers zip from castle to pub, they pass countless stone circles, forgotten tombs, man-made hills, and figures carved into hillsides whose stories will never be fully understood. Certain traveling druids skip the beefeater tours and zero right in on this side of Britain. With a little background, even the skeptic can appreciate Britain’s historic aura. Britain is crisscrossed by lines connecting prehistoric Stonehenge-type sights. Apparently prehistoric tribes intentionally built sites along this huge network of “ley” lines, which some think may have functioned together as a cosmic relay or circuit.

Glastonbury, two hours west of London and located on England’s most powerful ley line, gurgles with a thought-provoking mix of history and mystery. As you climb the Glastonbury Tor, notice the remains of the labyrinth that made the hill a challenge to climb 5,000 years ago.

In A.D. 37, Joseph of Arimathea—Jesus' wealthy uncle—brought vessels containing the blood and sweat of Jesus to Glastonbury, and with them, Christianity to England. (Joseph’s visit is plausible—long before Christ, locals traded lead to merchants from the Levant.) While this story is “proven” by fourth-century writings and accepted by the Church, the King-Arthur-and-the-Holy-Grail legends it inspired are not.

Those medieval tales came when England needed a morale-boosting folk hero to inspire its people during a war with France. They pointed to the ancient Celtic sanctuary at Glastonbury as proof of the greatness of the fifth-century warlord, Arthur. In 1911, his supposed remains (along with those of Queen Guinevere) were dug up from the abbey garden, and Glastonbury became woven into the Arthurian legends. Reburied in the abbey choir, their gravesite is a shrine today. Many think the Grail trail ends at the bottom of the Chalice Well, a natural spring at the base of Glastonbury Tor.

In the 16th century, Henry VIII, on his church-destroying rampage, wrecked the powerful Glastonbury Abbey. For emphasis, he hung and quartered the abbot, sending the parts of his body on four national tours...at the same time. While that was it for the abbot, two centuries later Glastonbury rebounded. In an 18th-century tourism campaign, thousands signed affidavits stating that water from the Chalice Well healed them, and once again Glastonbury was on the tourist map.

Today, Glastonbury and its tor are a center for searchers, too creepy for the mainstream church, but just right for those looking for a place to recharge their crystals. Since the society that built the labyrinth worshipped a mother goddess, the hill, or tor, is seen by many today as a Mother Goddess symbol.

After climbing the tor (great view, easy parking, always open), visit the Chalice Well at its base. Then tour the evocative ruins of the abbey, with its informative visitor’s center and a model of the church before Henry got to it. Don’t leave without a browse through the town. The Rainbow’s End café (two minutes from the abbey at 17 High Street) is a fine place for salads and New Age people-watching. Read the notice board for the latest on midwives and male bonding.

From Glastonbury, as you drive across southern England, you’ll see giant figures carved on hillsides. The white chalk cliffs of Dover stretch across the south of England, and almost anywhere you dig you hit chalk. While most of the giant figures are creations of 18th- and 19th-¬century humanists reacting against the coldness of the Industrial Age, three Celtic figures (the Long Man of Wilmington, the White Horse of Uffington, and the Cerne Abbas Giant) have, as far as history is concerned, always been there.

The Cerne Abbas Giant is armed with a big club and an erection. For centuries, people fighting infertility would sleep on Cerne Abbas. And, as my English friend explained, “Maidens can still be seen leaping over his willy.”

About Rick Steves
Rick Steves

Rick Steves is a travel writer and television personality. He coordinated with Smithsonian magazine to produce a special travel issue Travels with Rick Steves.

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