The Free State of Avalonia – Where have all the Hippies gone?
I’ve been reading Bruce Garrard’s excellent account of the growth of the Alternative community in Glastonbury from 1970 to 2000 and beyond ‘Free State’. The book unofficially follows on from ‘The Avalonians’ by Patrick Benham, a fascinating, if somewhat dry account of those who came to Glastonbury around the turn of the last century seeking the Grail, writing poetry, seeing the stars mirrored in the landscape, composing and performing operettas.
Most of us with an interest in the town’s ‘alternative’ history are familiar with the names of these early Avalonians – like Dion Fortune, Alice Buckton, Frederick Bligh Bond, Katharine Emma Maltwood, Rutland Boughton and Wellesley Tudor Pole. I wonder how they were perceived at the time, was the town as fictionalized as it sometimes seems now, did they get on. or have differences of opinion about spirituality or issues of the day? We know from newspapers of the time that they sometimes scandalized the townspeople. Some warned against letting local children take part in Rutland Boughton’s ‘Glastonbury Festivals’ that took place between 1914 and 1925, believing these eccentric characters with their extra marital affairs, bare feet and corduroy trousers were a pernicious influence.
Glastonbury at the end of the last millennium
In Free State’ Bruce exhaustively records the development of the Assembly Rooms from the time it was squatted in the 1970’s to it’s becoming a community owned venue. He documents Glastonbury Experience’s growth from a collection of struggling shops to the thriving New Age shopping arcade it has now become, and it’s brush with financial ruin in between. The book also covers numerous other endeavours which involved large numbers of the ‘Alternative’ community – Gog Theatre, the Christian Quest Community , Paddington Farm , the Library of Avalon, the Goddess Temple, The Chalice Well and White Spring, Ploughshares Organic Cafe, Childrens’ World, music in the community. There are many more, including some ventures which, although commercial in nature, made a strong contribution to Glastonbury becoming the centre of pilgrimage for visitors from around the globe (and the occasional Flat Earther). Then of course, there is the Glastonbury Festival which first took place in 1970.
What really stands out in Bruce’s account was how these endeavours survived, and generally thrived, despite facing considerable adversity. Many of them were founded in the Recession years (the last one, not the current one) and were only made possible by the efforts of unpaid volunteers.They happened despite the determined opposition of some Locals (many of whom were in positions of power) who were determined that Glastonbury should remain a small market town, welcoming the occasional coachload of visitors to the Abbey.
What was most affecting for me was being reminded of the many visionary individuals who ether founded these community ventures, or stepped in with time, money and expertise to make them a reality, when they would have otherwise foundered. What appears to have motivated them was a powerful desire to make manifest not a personal vision, but a vision of Glastonbury as an important spiritual centre of unity, growth and learning. Some were guided by the same forces that motivated the Avalonians of the last century, like a personal Grail Quest or by the Company of Avalon popularized by Bligh-Bond, some by their Christian Faith, some were inspired by Dion Fortune’s Avalon of the Heart.
“It is to this Avalon of the Heart the pilgrims still go. Some in bands, knowing what they seek. Some alone, with the staff of vision in their hands, awaiting what will come to meet them on this holy ground. None go away as they came…”Dion Fortune, Avalon of the Heart
Barry Taylor adds to our knowledge of the town and it’s most influential characters in ‘A Pilgrim in Glastonbury’ an account of life here since his arrival in 1985, while Atasha Fyfe contributes with her article ‘The New Avalonians’.
Reading all this made me feel a little sad, as I began to wonder, “Who are the Avalonians now?” When I arrived in town in the ‘90s there were many people I met and worked with who seemed to embody the spirit of Avalon. I started listing them, but I’ve decided against sharing my list, as it’s only my opinion and I don’t want to omit or upset anyone.
So Who Are the New Avalonians?
Nowadays I don’t hear many people asking what they can do for Glastonbury, it seems many are rather more concerned with what Glastonbury can do for them. With the town’s growth as a spiritual centre it has become a brand in its own right. A property in Glastonbury’s doesn’t just mean an opportunity to dwell on England’s holiest earth, but also a jolly good investment opportunity. Hundreds flock to town to set up their shops, or B&B’s, or healing businesses. I’m not suggesting there is anything intrinsically wrong with that, pilgrims need mementos, food, accommodation and healing, but sometimes the spirit of Glastonbury seems to me to be disappearing under the weight of all that commerce. Has it just become a ‘Spiritual Supermarket’ as I suggested in this blog post in 2016?
Or is it still as much of a Mystery School as ever, with the challenges of financial and social inequality just lessons in our individual journeys?
Where is the Spirit of Avalon?
I realize Glastonbury is of huge significance to an increasing number of people, comments on this blog and the Normal For Glastonbury facebook page are testament to that. But, in a world of Harry Potter and Instagram witchcraft, it’s otherness, it’s sacredness, it’s sense of community, sometimes seem to be fading into the mists of Avalon on the wings of a glittery plastic unicorn.
Where are the community projects that serve those without the disposable income to afford a week’s B&B and a self development course, or those locals who aren’t benefiting from the cash to be made in the town? It seems in order to survive that one can’t just be a musician or an artist but must also be an entrepreneur. This is something that often doesn’t come easy to those of a more mystical or artistic disposition, especially if they’ve spent years volunteering or working for pennies in projects they believe in but haven’t filled the pension pot and now barely cover the groceries. I imagine it is an added source of friction for for those who are ‘born and bred’ in the area, but now find the rents and house prices out of reach on small rural market town, rather than big city, wages.
The Glastonbury Trust provide small grants to community projects, but arts and social funding as a whole has been dramatically cut across the country. The Back to Work schemes that afforded those of us who worked in the Assembly Rooms in the early 90’s a small income are no more. In the current economic climate, particularly with the introduction of Universal Credit, it is no longer possible to develop a business or community project slowly, it must generate an almost immediate profit. People offering concessions to the needy do so at the risk of their business, and of being seen as foolishly profligate in these days where the buzz word is monetization. It seems to me that most of the new grass roots, inclusive community projects are happening elsewhere.
See my post about the Art Bank in Shepton Mallet for example.
Many of those who have contributed to Glastonbury’s cultural and spiritual life can no longer afford to rent here and have moved away, or are barely hanging on, living in a friends box room or a shed or a truck. Perhaps things are going full circle – after all there are plenty of (now) respected members of the community who arrived here in trucks in the eighties. But in those days living cheaply with no fixed abode was a lifestyle choice for most, now it is often not a choice at all, but a necessity. Arguably the luxury of ‘dropping out’ has only ever really been possible for those who were ‘in’ to start with. The poorest are flung to the fringes, where, using all their energy to survive, they won’t present too much of a challenge to the status quo, or ever get the opportunity to reveal their creativity or skills unless they find a way to monetize them.
Personally I would love to be able to write this blog and carry on promoting Glastonbury’s small businesses and creative people for fun, but Normal For Glastonbury has become a full time job for me now. I’ve started a member’s only group We Are Normal For Glastonbury in order to generate an income for myself in the hope that I can afford to rent a place in the town and carry on living and writing here. It’s only £20 a year and you get some exclusive members benefits, so please consider joining us.
I would like to see more initiatives that unify and benefit the community as a whole. I’d like to think that we might, as a community, present a unified front against the forces of greed and self-interest that seem to be dominating the political sphere. Perhaps then the Newest Avalonians can emerge and flourish from all sections of society.
The image that heads this post is of Alice Buckton and a student at Chalice Well Gardens by Wellesley Tudor Pole.
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