Where are Glastonbury’s New Avalonians?

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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27 thoughts on “Where are Glastonbury’s New Avalonians?”

  1. If there’s anywhere in Britain – or perhaps the world – that is a “spiritual supermarket” then surely this is it. But what is a “supermarket”, really? For better or worse it’s a place where a vast array of products is available, from health-threatening junk to the finest of foods; all life is there. And, nationally, after forty years of trickle-up economics, there remains a solid core of decent and caring people here who are determined to live their ideals in spite of our political climate. Some are thoroughly bourgeois (as indeed were the “Avalonians”) and others are still eking out a living in the ways you describe, but the ethos has not disappeared; it’s just been spread out as the area’s fame has grown. Has the “Glastonbury Spirit” died? I don’t believe that’s even possible and nor do I see much evidence of it. Viva Glastonbury!

    • Thanks David, It’s hard sometimes to see how my experience of Glastonbury is coloured by what’s going on for me at the time. I know I used to feel very blessed to be in the town and very secure here, now it feels to me like love of the town, the landscape and commitment to the community and to Avalon is no longer ‘good’ enough without the wherewithal to buy property. Thanks for your perspective, I needed that. I’m not trying to enforce my view on others, just start a discussion.

  2. Great piece .. Thank you for echoing a viewpoint I have for years. Its. all about how Glastonbury be exploited ( thank the monks for that!). There are one or two questionable facts though. Glastonbury a perfectly thriving community market town always tolerating of visitors was hit when the industry (Morlands/Baileys factories) closed down. You make it sound that we we saved by the “New age” incomers. Not at all and this has always been the perspective of the Incomers to justify the lack of awareness and, as sometimes mentioned, social contempt and superiority they have had towards the “OLD AVALONIANS I would love to meet up with you at some point .. I think to see the middle ground x

    • Thanks Tracy, great points. I do try to see the middle ground and appreciate how the born and bred locals experience Glastonbury, but I don’t always manage it not being a local myself! i would very much like to meet up with you and get a more balanced perspective, I’m away at the moment but perhaps we could make a date in September?

  3. Thanks Vicki for your caring and careful post.
    Thanks too to Bruce for his helpful and engaging books.
    I have an added perspective that might add to the conversation.
    When I first came to Glastonbury in 1970 there were several very quiet healing sanctuaries in people’s homes. I knew three of them. Their owners did not want a high profile and their background was partly in the Spiritualist Church. So whilst the hippies, the occultists and the pagans were beginning to gather, there was also a background matrix of healing sanctuaries. Equally in the background over the coming years were meditation groups, small meditation communities and spiritual study groups. All quiet.
    Later on in the 90’s there was a circle in the Assembly Rooms where we discussed the difference between visitors and crew. Some of us knew that we were here for the longterm and were crew.
    Taking people on tours of our Isle in the 80s and 90s I always used to say ‘Ignore the High Street. Spend time in the hills, wells and abbey grounds.’ I also said then that the crew stayed here because of the landscape and mythology, not the High St, B&Bs and commercial opportunities.
    There are, I believe, still many people in Glastonbury who quietly get on with their spiritual practice and are grateful every day for the wonder of the isle’s landscape. These are the old and the new Avalonians.
    Changing subject a tad: The issue of how to make a living/earn money and be able to live on the isle is perhaps not just an issue for this place, but for everywhere where work opportunities are limited. To live in many places, such as London, also requires substantial funds far more than needed for Avalon.
    Thanks, Vicki, for the stimulation! I always appreciate your humour and insight. And wish you floods of dosh.
    Love. William

    • Thanks William, you have summed up here the vibe that I remember in the town from the early 90’s, perhaps it’s that those engaged in quiet spiritual practice have become even quieter… Nowadays the fashion seems to be to shout about how spiritual you are on social media! I quite agree, for me the sacred is to be found on the Levels appreciating the flora and fauna. I also agree that social and financial problems are countrywide, but I’m finding it increasingly hard to be able to afford to live in Glastonbury and I’m beginning to wonder if the town will soon only be affordable to those fortunate enough to have secure housing or the money to buy. I’ve conflated the two issues of Avalonians and poverty in this post and perhaps it would have been better if I hadn’t, but it clumsily expresses my fear that I, and others in a similar position, will soon find ourselves excluded from Avalon.

  4. Hi again Vickie – You say that the town is not now affordable. Can you give us an example of how it was affordable in the 90s but not now? EG Is it just the level of rents or landlords legislation?
    Wm x

    • In 1993 I rented a 4 bedroom house for £350 a month, 2 of us shared the rent and we were able to accommodate another 3 people who would otherwise be homeless. From 1999 to 2006 I rented a room in a shared house that cost £200 a month including bills, again there was space to put people up who were looking for somewhere to live in the town, or passing through. As a consequence we enabled many people to move here who went on to contribute greatly to the community. Since the new legislation on HMOs such shared houses no longer exist in Glastonbury. Instead, thanks to Air BnB not only are most spare rooms rented to visitors for more money for a weekend than we can afford for a week, but also whole houses are being bought up and turned into holiday accommodation. When a room is available it is generally over £400 a month, while 1 bedroom flats are in excess of £600. I recently saw an old static caravan for rent for £600 a month. This is the reason for the proliferation of people living in vehicles and caravans around the town, many of which are housing people with full time work who cannot afford to spend the majority of their income on rent, bills and council tax. As a self employed person I stand no chance of getting a home through an estate agent without a guarantor and I do not come from a wealthy family. When a full time job is no longer enough to keep you is it no wonder that people do not have the time to do voluntary work in the community? I know this is the situation in other towns too, but I personally despair at the idea that I may have to move out of the town I love.

      • £350 in 93 is £707 quid today (CPI). That will buy you a 2 bedroom terrace at £720 or £735 in Street or a 2 bedroom flat in the high street in Glastonbury at £700 or £780.

        • Exactly, so half the space and bedrooms for twice the price. Meanwhile wages have not kept pace with rent, so the low waged end up spending 70% of their income on rent.

  5. Hi Vicky x
    I am Pat Benhams daughter . Sadly we lost Dad in May . We are all devastated but ive definatly got some stories to tell . Please get in touch so we can chat .
    Much Love
    Beth xx

  6. Thanks for describing the rental situation in Glastonbury over last 25 years. I don’t have anything useful to say. It looks like part of the whole problem since the financial crash when living standards for low earners across the board in the UK have deteriorated. —- Are there creative solutions?
    Wm x

    • A nationwide program of building genuinely affordable (not to mention energy-conscious) homes to buy and rent would be of considerable assistance, along with much stricter rent controls for the private sector, but this takes a political will and vision currently in little evidence; we are still locked into the trickle-up economics of the past 40 or so years. We can only lobby, vote for a more inclusive and wholesome system whenever we can, and never lose sight of our hopes and aspirations for a more decent society.

  7. An interesting read. Bruce’s book sounds interesting in your telling of it. I like also the association of extra marital affairs and cordory, not the fabric I would link with the activity now though which one I would j don’t know.

  8. Thanks David for your policy response. I agree. Was more pondering how to answer Vicki’s Q about being able to live here and now in Glastonbury.

    • Cheers, William (though my earlier rant seems to have at least temporarily taken wing elsewhere!) ; yes, a somewhat unlikely program of new affordable housing isn’t likely to help Vicki right now. But she does command a lot of respect and affection in Glastonbury, both from old and new friends, so let’s all consider possibilities and keep our collective eyes and ears open on her and Jon’s behalf.

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