Chasing the Beltane Dragons in Glastonbury

I do my best to have my finger on Glastonbury’s pulse, especially when we gather together to celebrate the Celtic festivals to mark the times of transition between the seasons. But, even in Avalon, sometimes things just don’t work out as planned, I end up out of kilter, dislocated from the community. I missed Beltane 2016 in Glastonbury (I was at a fantastic pirate wedding instead)  but had really enjoyed the Glastonbury Dragons Samhain event (click here to see my photos), consequently, I’ve been looking forward to Beltane for months. Frost Fayre too was a brilliant event. I had high hopes for Beltane, especially as we’ve had some unseasonably bright and sunny days in April. Even better, Beltane was now happening over two days, with different groups organising each day, this was going to be twice as much fun. I was looking forward to taking some great photographs and writing up a blog post all about it.

I’d been publicising the event on facebook for weeks but hadn’t managed to memorise the running order, I didn’t worry about that though, as I figured I’d just follow the crowd. We got downtown at midday to find the last of the Glastonbury Road Runners limping in, so the town was full of fluoro-clad fit people, the forecast rain had held off so it looked like it had been a good event for them. I was expecting crowds in their finery at the Market Cross, turns out they were up at Saint John’s Church, but I’d failed to spot that the events were beginning there, and assumed that everything was running late. Still, a few friends were gathered outside the Mocha Berry so we stopped for coffee. At last, there was a sign of activity – the Avalonian Free State Choir arrived, but just as they started singing the drizzle descended.

Avalonian Free State Choir, Glastonbury Beltane 2017 in the Abbey
Avalonian Free State Choir in Glastonbury Abbey

Fair Weather Pagan

I’m a bit of a fair weather pagan so I thought I’d nip down the King Arthur to catch ‘Jiggy Piffle’ play in the warm and dry, they’d been advertised as starting at one o’clock, so my plan was to catch them then head back for the procession. Arriving at the pub most of the band haven’t turned up yet, and it’s half past one before they even start thinking about playing. Meanwhile, it appears to be bucketing down outside, there’s a lively crowd in the pub, Gaz is keeping us entertained complaining about the roast potato component of his Sunday dinner, so I don’t contemplate moving until after two. I bump into Su who tells me that both the Community Celebration at the Assembly Rooms and the after party at Bridies Yard that happened last night (neither of which I attended] were absolutely brilliant. Bollocks, oh well, there’s the procession to look forward to, and I haven’t missed that.

A friend appears and tells me the procession gathered only briefly at the Market Cross and already left, up the High Street towards the Tor. Damn, I can’t believe everything is running on time (nothing ever runs on time in Glastonbury) and I’ve missed it. The Yorkshireman mutters something about cycling up there, I’m surprised he’s that keen as it’s still raining, turns out he means he’ll wait at the pub for me. I set off, through the drizzle, I’ve no mudguards so the water is coming off my wheel straight up my back. Bumping into friends just past Chalice Well. I explain I missed the procession setting off from town so I’ve come to catch up with them. They tell me everyone’s gone – there’s no point in going to the White Spring, there’s no one left, they’ve all carried on up to Bushy Coombe. I’m surprised – I thought the gathering was in the the Fair Field at the foot of the Tor, but no, they are adamant.

I turn around and head back towards town, park my bike by Shekinashram and walk up the hill to the plateau of Bushy Coombe where May Day is traditionally celebrated. It’s empty. I bump into some walkers and ask them if they’ve seen a red and white dragon, they tell me yes, in the Fair Field. I carry on walking, almost completing the circle back to where I had turned around outside Chalice Well. As I approach the entrance to the Fair Field I hear the blowing of horns and cheering, the sort of blowing of horns and cheering that happens at the end of something. I walk through the gate and see that the circle has broken and people are already leaving. The dragon heads sit empty at the edge of the field. I grab a few quick pictures but everyone is looking a bit cold and tired and it feels like all the magic of the day has gone.

I can at least still catch some of the bands playing in the Abbey, so I walk back to the bottom of Dod Lane with the Vikings and leave them to go and pick up my bike where I left it at the Ashram. (I’m aware that I live in the only town where this sentence could possibly make any sense). Meanwhile, I phone the Yorkshireman and ask him to reserve two Sunday dinners at the Arthur, I may have missed everything but at least I can cheer myself up with a hot meal – even if I don’t have high hopes of the roast potatoes. He rings me back after a few minutes – they’d just sold the last dinner, there are none left. I feel like crying. It starts raining again.

I head back down the High Street and then into the Abbey. The Avalonian Free State Choir are singing, but everything feels a little flat, and the choir are looking a bit damp and cold. Turns out that the Glastonbury Dragons had arranged a gazebo and a PA, but the rain had shorted out the PA. After the Choir the ‘Ukes of Avalon’ perform a singularly despondent version of ‘You Are My Sunshine’.

I head back to the pub to find that the Yorkshireman has just left. I contemplate waiting in the pub for him but all I really want is a cup of tea and a sofa, so I head home. At home, my housemate listens to my tale of woe, serves me curry and puts on two episodes of The Goldbergs. Oh well, it’s May Day tomorrow.

Beltane Celebrations

May Day Morning on Glastonbury Tor

Determined to capture a bit of Glastonbury magic, the Yorkshireman stays up all night īn order to wake me up at 4 am to head up the Tor for May Day sunrise. I drag myself out of bed, drink a strong coffee, and we cycle up the High Street. it rains, of course. We only see a couple of people in town and they are both wearing cloaks, normal for Glastonbury. We make our way up Tor Hill through the mists of Avalon, the sky has been getting brighter for some time, and sure enough, we get to the top to find the ceremony has ended. The sun is presumably above the horizon but the clouds are so thick I’m not even sure where East is. The Cam Valley Morris are doing their thing though. I remember previous, brighter and warmer, May Day mornings with everyone dressed in greenery and fantastic garb, but in this weather, anoraks are proving a popular choice. A couple of people are wearing cloaks of thin velveteen in vibrant colours with massive pentacles on the back, they look like bad fancy dress costumes and the Yorkshireman tells me off for whispering that they look like pagan Teletubbies. I don’t care, I’m cold and hungry and yet again I missed what I came for, I’m allowed to be a grouchy cow. We head down the Tor and get much-needed tea, and scones, and cake from the Chalice Well, but we’re tired, and over it, there’s no room left to sit around the Beltane fire, I’m no longer in the mood for the ceremony in the Cress Field, and we head home for a sleep.

I wake up in time to get to town for the procession up to the White Spring and then on to Bushy Coombe for the May Pole. Except I don’t, instead I arrive to find someone playing a djembe, loudly and badly, on the Market Cross, and not much else. The procession has gone, on time, and I missed it, again. I head up to Bushy Coombe and the crowds are already gathered. The maypole is erected by the Green men in the hole dug by the women earlier that morning. The sun comes out, the dancers weave the rainbow ribbons around the May Pole, there’s music, and old friends, and mead, and picnics. It feels like the beginning of Summer, at last. I can’t quite shake off that ‘late to the party’ feeling though.

May Day Celebration on Bushy Coombe

Eventually, the sky darkened and I didn’t much fancy getting cold and wet again so I headed home. The storm hit as I got back to the house, the lightning was spectacular – horizontal purple bolts split the sky, and then the rain pounded down. Part of me wished I was watching it from the hill, I love storms and the exhilaration of being out in them, exposed to the elements.

It’s easy to present Glastonbury as some sort of magical wonderland. Here in Avalon, it’s always sunny, magic is real, fairies and mythical creatures live amongst us. We are one big happy family living in a rainbow coloured cuddle puddle, attending an endless round of magical events and ceremonies dressed in fantastic costumes.

I know many people had a fantastic Beltane, I somehow ended up ‘out of step’. I’d assumed that events would happen in much the same order, at the same times, and in the same places, as previous Beltanes, despite the fact that the advertising had made it obvious that everything was different. Unfortunately, it seems that there were fallings out between the groups organising the celebrations, resulting in separate and distinct events, which to me made the community feel fractured rather than unified. We have a great community here, of people who are, in their own unique (and occasionally bonkers) ways, trying to make the world a better place. Perhaps we need to remember that everyone is doing their best, and work together, as individuals and as a community, to find solutions that embrace different points of view for future events.

Wishing you all a sunny and fun filled Summer.

A Few More Faces from the Beltane Weekend

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