A personal history of Glastonbury by John Brunsdon MBE
I well remember my first sighting of Glastonbury Tor in 1952. I had travelled on a pre-war motorcycle across Salisbury Plain, passing Stonehenge, to take up my first job as veterinary assistant to Brian Fletcher. He had found me lodgings with a kindly couple, Mr and Mrs Botter at Home Cot, now White Cottage, Bere Lane. Mr Botter regaled me with tales of the Glastonbury Festival under Rutland Boughton, in whose orchestra he had played the violin. His son Eric worked at carpentry and upholstery from the home; today he continues at his workshop at Fairfield.
Tuesday nights were sleepless with bereaved cows at Abbey Farm bellowing for their calves sold at market earlier in the day. Bob Mapstone milked shorthorns, and following a veterinary visit I would clean up in the stone sink, which is still positioned outside the museum’s kitchen door. When Bob Mapstone died, Mrs Mapstone generously donated the ancient barn to the Somerset County Council for a Rural Life Museum. The farmhouse was purchased along with additional land, at the insistence of the town council, for the carpark.
There were still other working farms in the town. Reg Mapstone farmed at Northload Hall Farm, where cheese was made (in the 1990s the house became offices for Social Services). Doc Morse farmed Manor Farm, and his sons continued until the construction of the relief road. George Bolton dealt in cattle at Northload Bridge Farm, though he did have a rest in jail with others for tarring and feathering poor hermit Bisgrove at Sharpham. Farming at Sharpham was quite primitive. Cows were hand-milked in fields and churns transported by horse and cart. Mrs Jones would drive her horse into town with the cart loaded with peat for fuel. Peat was to transform the prosperity of those who owned the right land and got permission to dig. First the Eclipse Peat Co., then Fisons, gained peat in a big way. Now the former peat fields are returning to wetland again.
Rutland Boughton in his day lived in The Elms, Bove Town, where he entertained the likes of George Bernard Shaw and Edgar Wallace to appear at the Assembly Rooms. By 1952 The Elms was known as Mount Avalon and run by Miss Lacey as a nursing home, the only one in Glastonbury. Miss Lacey retired and the British Israelite Trust took the house over as a conference centre. They sold to Charles Perry, who left the place available to squatters. There was a tremendous fire. The place was gutted, derelict and dangerous and, after some delay, demolished. Other unsatisfactory Perry enterprises included a failed shopping arcade behind the Crown Hotel and the conversion of the police houses in Benedict Street and of St George’s Hall in the High Street.
Shortly after my arrival in 1952 I was called to St Edmund’s Lodge to attend a cat. The owner, Mrs Bath, a former mayor, kindly suggested that I should join the Constitutional Club so as to meet the right sort of people. This rather put me off, and I did not join for several years. Jack Leney lived at St Edmund House. He had built most of Ashwell Lane just before the war. Jack Leney, Ted Richards (my future father-in-law) and Clifford Ayles were pillars of Lambrook Street Methodist Church, which had a sizeable congregation and a full Sunday school.
Mrs McLean, Lady of the Manor of the Glaston Twelve Hides, was still at Chalice Hill House, where she lived to be 100. George Harland inherited the title, which is now vested with Barbara Harland. Jack Smith bought the McLean estate. He widened Dod Lane so as to build houses in the kitchen garden at the top and where all the daffodils used to grow alongside Chilkwell Street. Humphrey Morland wanted the Bushy Coombe Gardens road to extend down to Dod Lane, to give rear access and relieve Bove Town, but he was not supported. So Dod Lane remains quiet and problems remain in Bove Town.
Captain Ashley lived at The Lodge, Coursing Batch. His off-the-lead greyhound preceded him into town. Captain Ashley hailed a lady walking up the hill. As he passed he exchanged pleasantries across the road, but observing the dog now well ahead, called out, “Come here, you bitch” — all in the same breath!
One day I met Mr Wadman the baker in his bowler hat labouring up Bove Town with his hand cart. I offered to push it for him and he accepted. I quote from the Central Somerset Gazette, 1955. “This is what Mr William James Wadman does three days a week and he will be 88 in October. Eighty-seven years old and pushing that hand cart up the steep height of Bove Town is this tiny man whose eyes barely reach the top of his cart.”
Miss Porch lived at Southfield, Bere Lane. I got on with her large Pyrenean Mountain dog quite well, but the Revd Noel McKittrick, vicar of St Benedict’s, did not! It chased him across the lawn and out of the grounds with his cassock flowing behind him like Batman. The Revd McKittrick was an ordained minister of the Church of lreland, which delighted my mother visiting one Christmas, as my grandfather was an Irish minister also. Unfortunately the Revd McKittrick’s anti-war fervour was a bit too adamant in one Remembrance Day sermon and several career officers walked out. The Porch family were private bankers in Glastonbury in the 19th century. Miss Porch told me how there was a run on the bank when she was a young girl, and she accompanied her father in a pony and trap to fetch gold sovereigns from Bridgwater, as the locally issued banknotes were not being accepted. Mr Montague Porch lived at Abbey Grange, Magdalene Street, in a guesthouse run by Mr and Mrs Phillips. He had married Lord Randolph Churchill’s widow, who predeceased him. His Italian manservant was interned at the start of the war. Mr Porch contacted Winston Churchill to secure his man’s release on his personal guarantee of loyalty. Winston complied but, as he had no great liking for his stepfather, added that he did not expect to hear from him again for the rest of the war. Winston’s granddaughter Arabella later settled in the town and runs the Children’s World charity and festivals in the Abbey Park.
Hugh Knapman was vicar of St John’s in the 1960s, and our children played together. He was a most kindly person. Peter Haynes followed, with a model railway in the vicarage garden, and left to become Archdeacon of Wells and then Dean of Hereford. The next vicar was Alan Clarkson, who became Assistant Dean of Winchester. St John’s and St Benedict’s were joined as a single benefice when the Revd McKittrick left, and Patrick Riley came as vicar in 1984, retiring to Shaftesbury after 20 years. He was succeeded by Maxine Marsh, Glastonbury’s first woman vicar.
The Victorian railings around St John’s Church were removed during the war (Somerton’s survived). The open-plan churchyard was largely respected, and the newly formed Friends of St John’s provided bench seats for visitors. Progressive antisocial behaviour led to the restoration of the railings in 1994. The stone path to the church was old and broken. With money short, the stone was removed by Snows and finished up in Norman James’s Devon garden. The Friends provided an asphalt path amid great controversy. Eventually this was replaced by the present stone path under an enhancement scheme sponsored by Manpower Services. In the 1970s the pinnacles started falling off the tower and Church Path was temporarily closed. The bells fell silent for fear of further damage, and it was many years before the tower was restored and later the bells rehung. The heavy tenor bell went to Australia.
During my second mayoral year Alan Clarkson asked me to welcome pilgrims at a Festival of Light at an evening service in the Abbey. Monks of Downside attended; the pilgrims consisted of disabled children with parents and friends. It was a memorable occasion finishing with a candlelight procession led by St John’s great Easter candle back through the town to St Dunstan’s School, where the pilgrims were lodged.
I also received for the town a gift of the Tor Trophy silver cup from George Webb. He had won the cup outright in the 1930s, in the distance-running race organized by Clarks sports. It is now competed for every May in the Glastonbury Road Run round the Tor via Wick. This has grown into a major Glastonbury event, the organization of which owes much to Hugh Sharp and Janice White.
The veterinary practice first operated from what is now  David Hall’s art studio on Street Road. Then the practice moved to 42 Magdalene Street, where there were no dog kennels. A small terrier escaped my charge and ran towards the Market Cross. Fit from playing rugby I gave chase; it turned left by the café, down through workshops behind, emerging by St Benedict’s Church, and continuing down the street. My heart pounded as it dawned on me that it was running home to Street. Suddenly it entered the police yard (now Abbot’s Court) and I followed. To my dismay there were lines of police cars with the Chief Constable inspecting. The dog ran through the ranks, I ran round and with good fortune made an arrest with the help of a sergeant. My reputation had been at great risk. You don’t lose animals entrusted to your care. The practice built new premises at Orchard Terrace opposite the cattle market, serving farmers and pet owners in a convenient central site for many years. With the closure of the market along with other small markets, my successors in the practice opened a new veterinary hospital at Wirral Park.
The demise of the market was a sad day for the town. Over the years the market day brought business into the town from the surrounding countryside. A splendid Fatstock Show and Dinner were held by the auctioneers, Cooper and Tanner, each Christmas. Disaster struck in the 1950s when an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease affected the bovine herd of the Snell brothers at Common Moor. They lost all their stock, but the disease was contained.
Tor Fair was still a big event for the community, especially the first day, when sheep were driven by foot from Kennard Moor and sold from pens alongside Street Road. A few horses were sold as well. Over the years Tor Fair became a less traditional fair and more of a funfair, finally moving to Dyehouse Lane and losing much importance in consequence. The move was precipitated by the decision to build the Safeway supermarket (which became Morrison’s in 2005); the small circus field was lost as well as the convent field where the Roman Catholics had a shrine on Pilgrimage Day. The convent and attendant school had already closed in Magdalene Street.
Much of the Abbey grounds was given over to the football club, which eventually moved to the Godney Road site. There was a grandstand and the crowd generated a lot of noise on Saturday afternoons. The rest of the present picnic area and new pond area was grazed by cattle. They would be driven on foot to and from Wick to eat the grass, usually early on a Sunday morning to avoid the traffic. I once had to operate on a cow’s abdomen in the Abbey grounds.
But I must say more about the setting up of the Rural Life Museum. The county council started to restore the roof of the medieval barn, which had small replacement clay tiles since the 19th century, using a concrete imitation of stone tiles. When it was pointed out that planning permission had not been obtained, all work stopped and the place stayed surrounded by scaffolding and corrugated iron for months. This prompted the Vicar of St John’s, Alan Clarkson, to comment at the mayor’s civic service that the barn was symbolic of the ills of Glastonbury: “a town at war with its tin hat on”. There was a great controversy raging about a proposed relief road at the time — but more of that later. Martyn Brown was appointed the first keeper of the Rural Life Museum. He was a dynamic personality who did much to promote the town.
The medical practitioners at first had surgeries at their private houses. Doctor Willcox had retired to the Channel Islands. By all accounts, when still in practice he would spend his recreational half-days enjoying a tea-dance at Weston-super-Mare. He was successful on the stock exchange. When he died he left the town a splendid legacy in the form of the Willcox Trust homes for less well-off Glastonians. His house sale, at what became for many years Ayles’ furniture shop near the top of the High Street, revealed some fascinating early X-ray equipment. “Dick” Ainsworth lived at Chalice Leaze in Chilkwell Street (with the veranda). He was a keen rifle marksman in his day, as well as being a competent surgeon, operating at Butleigh Hospital.
Dr Pinnegar was a dapper little man with a weak eye. He started practice with a motorbike and finished driving a large Humber motorcar. He lived at The Hollies, Bove Town, where he slipped and broke his hip on the lias flagstones. He completed his surgery consultations first and then called for an ambulance! My wife Jean had the misfortune to fall downstairs when expecting our first son, Paul. Dr Pinnegar responded quickly to our urgent call for a visit. When asked if the baby would be all right he replied, “Ever since the world began young women in trouble have tried falling downstairs to no effect, so the likelihood is that the baby will be all right.” We were most reassured.
Dr Malin Boyd was a remarkable and talented man. He was a most caring practitioner, reserving Saturday afternoons for leisurely visits to chronically sick patients. These visits proved useful primary sources of information for his antiquarian studies. He wrote a number of learned papers, now lodged with the Antiquarian Society library, and was the founding chairman of Glastonbury Conservation Society. He became so concerned at the loss of many old buildings of character in the town that he felt compelled to act when it was proposed to demolish the Crown Hotel as well. Many shared his concern and rallied round to launch Glastonbury Conservation Society. Harry Scott Stokes became president, Pen Evans secretary, Jack Hepworth treasurer, and the town councillor, former mayor and practising solicitor Cecil Hamilton-Miller joined to make a formidable committee. Noteworthy achievements of the society include the restoration of Summerhouse Orchard terrace through a housing association and extensive tree-planting schemes, later under the direction of Ian Rands. Dr Malin Boyd’s house and surgery were in the High Street at what is now Beckett’s Inn. He was a heavy smoker and died from cancer. His boxer dog was a constant travelling companion in his car and predeceased him with the same complaint.
The creation of a Health Centre effectively closed the separate doctors’ surgeries. The old Glastonbury Arms pub at the top of the High Street was demolished and the site left untidy for some time. Colonel Gould organised a team of children to pick up litter, and rewarded them with Mars bars. The Brunsdon children were at the front of the queue! The new Health Centre was expectedly controversial in design but nevertheless won a Civic Trust award particularly praising the sympathetic roof line. A new generation of doctors followed, Bill and Susan Openshaw, Hugh Sharp and Peter Nicholson-Lailey, Philip Jackson, etc. This led to the need for an additional surgery, which is off Feversham Way. Built in a neo-Palladian style, it did not get an award.
Back in the 1950s the town was proudly partisan and insular. It was a historic town with a Royal Charter and Borough status, while Street was considered an overgrown village. Street was indeed growing fast, soon to overtake Glastonbury in population and amenities under a paternal employer provider. The borough council was almost a unitary authority in itself with responsibilities for some roads, sewage works, refuse collection and disposal, street cleaning, public health, council houses etc.
Stan King was borough surveyor and George Harland was town clerk. It was said that between them they ran the town and the council was just an appendage. Essential works were well done and money largely well spent — largely because the direct labour force under Stan King would tackle every job that needed to be done as and when, with no time wasted. Stan King, however, was not above bending the regulations or simply not doing something he thought unnecessary. On the other hand he would do jobs, such as cutting back overgrown hedges, that were not strictly council responsibilities. It became known as “King’s Law” and he proceeded much as the Abbots of Glastonbury had done before him — as he liked.
Stan King did not care for old buildings. He saw the need to modernise the town, and much was lost in consequence in Northload Street, Grope Lane, Hill Head and elsewhere. To be fair, it was happening all over the country in the 1960s in the name of comprehensive redevelopment — a concept learnt from whole areas of wartime bomb damage enabling a total replan. No attempt was made to save the isolated building of merit. There were even councillors like Humphrey Morland to back him up, stating that “Nothing really mattered to save except the Abbey and the George and Pilgrim.”
To the newly formed Conservation Society this was an anathema. Neill Bonham, the new chairman, led a team who systematically recorded the old buildings at risk, requesting the Department of the Environment to spot-list them. This put the brake on demolition and was followed by a full-scale revision of the official list of protected buildings. Most of the High Street finished up Grade II listed. Confrontation with the borough council was inevitable. Already threatened with local-government reorganisation, this was just too much to bear. The society was castigated as an unelected body hindering the modernisation of the town. At about this time the county council was trying to introduce a conservation area and presented the case to a meeting of the town council. The idea fell on deaf ears. They had heard too much about conservation already. Cllr Edith Rice referred to “these brash young men from the County who have come to tell us what to do with our town”. Russell Lillford and Derek Seaward, older and wiser no doubt, had the task recently of introducing the latest town-centre enhancement proposals following the completion of the western relief road.
A better relationship between the council and the Conservation Society came about as a result of planting trees in St John’s carpark. At least we could agree about something, but we had to wait until the advent of the Mendip District Council before the modified Conservation Area, no longer to include Northload Street, was implemented. In a few years it was to be redesignated an Outstanding Conservation Area and later again enlarged. What a tragedy that so much had already gone, no longer able to be protected.
The axe fell in 1973. We lost our borough council; our town council was reduced to Parish status. Real power now rested with the new Mendip District and the county council. The direct labour force went and in so many ways standards of council care fell. In one way things were substantially better. We were consulted as a society over all matters involving plans relating to listed buildings. There was now a presumption to protect these buildings and not to allow their indiscriminate destruction.
Road traffic back in the 1950s was still relatively light. Mrs Jones would continue to drive her pony and cartload of peat in from Sharpham, soon to argue with the policeman about entering the High Street from Archer’s Way, now prohibited. Things were changing rapidly. Traffic flows increased, especially in the summer with as yet no motorway. Special constables stood all day Saturday at the Street Road junction directing traffic. (Miniroundabouts were yet to come.) Soon traffic flowed all night at weekends. Tor Rugby Club served all-night teas to raise funds. In a desperate bid to keep traffic moving in the High Street, a one-way system around the Abbey perimeter was introduced. It worked well in that the traffic moved, but too fast without any calming measures. The second six-month trial was cut short by the traffic minister, Ernest Marples. A public enquiry followed, resulting in a recommendation to continue two-way traffic but to provide off-street carparks. Hence St John’s carpark and Butts Close carparks were created; welcoming signs outside the town advertised free parking for 600 cars!
Still the buildup of High Street traffic continued, and the county council decided to introduce an inner relief road. It was proposed to run from Wells Road via St Edmund’s Road, George Street, demolishing the police campus in Benedict Street, crossing Fairfield (now Safeway) to Street Road. Rear access for the High Street was to involve the extension of Silver Street, demolishing the then unused Assembly Rooms to emerge in the Market Place. This would permit pedestrianization from the Market Cross to Archer’s Way. Plans were advanced; Councillor Frank Chislett as the borough council’s planning chairman had the job of promoting the idea.
Then the opposition started. Councillor Alan Tucker sitting in the council chamber looking at the aerial photo of Glastonbury saw the now unused line of the old railway — this must be a better route. Many others agreed. The Inner Relief Road Pressure Group was born. Philip Lucas (former head of St Dunstan’s School) became president. “Steve” Jackson-Stevens won the county seat from Norman James. Susan Openshaw lost her seat on the borough council following her mayoral year. John Frith, a hardworking and invaluable asset to the council, was not re-elected and never became mayor as expected. Electoral turmoil followed. All four seats to the new Mendip District Council were won by road protest candidates, as were most of the seats on the town council.
The reaction from the county council was very negative. If Glastonbury did not want its relief road, other towns did — they simply moved their resources elsewhere. Then followed a period of planning blight that was Glastonbury’s loss and Street’s gain. Boots, Currys and Abbey Garage were among a number of firms that relocated to Street. Increasingly Glastonbury residents could be seen shopping in Street’s “golden mile” of high street. It was only when Mendip’s director of planning, Raymond Bush, came down on the side of the protesters, stating that the county scheme was too traumatic for a small town like Glastonbury, that the tide of official opinion turned. Nevertheless another 20 years passed before Glastonbury achieved its preferred relief road route, and we shall never know if the very damaging delay was really worth it.
Other road schemes were lost as well. The borough council wished to improve Coursing Batch by reducing the bottom bend. To this end the Chalice Well Trust was encouraged with its scheme to demolish the Tor School buildings, built as a seminary at the bottom of Wellhouse Lane. The works caused disruption to traffic on the A361, so Stan King ordered in the “ball-and-chain cowboys” to hurry things up. Accidentally or otherwise the charming Regency house was badly hit about. A big protest followed, but by the time a public enquiry had been held the inspector regretfully agreed that the structure was unstable and should come down. Then came local-government reorganisation and the Coursing Batch modification never happened, but the view towards the Tor improved and the Chalice Well gardens were extended.
Then the southern distributor (Bretenoux Road) was constructed as a “planning gain” by the developers of the Actis estate. The plan was for it to emerge at Edgarley by the school entrance. Mendip Council, however, would not sanction more houses on the lower slopes of the Tor. The county would not fund the completion of the road, so the whole concept failed.
Back again to the town council. The road protest movement had such a grip on local opinion that party politics were “suspended” and there was little chance of election unless supported by the movement. Longstanding councillors resigned in disenchantment. Non-protest candidates were loath to stand. Two vacancies occurred, and I was asked to stand for cooption by Edith Rice, who spoke for councillors to consider the greater good of the town. One of the protest councillors broke ranks and I was coopted instead of the protest candidate — to general amazement. At my first council meeting I was reminded not to lecture them about “good taste” — perhaps there were some bad consciences.
As I never expected to survive the next election I decided to try and revitalise the local system of country footpaths. Neill Bonham had already been out with groups of members and discovered that with wartime neglect, and the barbed-wire separation of cattle under the Attested Herd scheme, many paths were unwalkable. Holywell Lane was blocked with saplings. Nevertheless, the new Countryside Act had made it clear that the definitive footpath system was to become an amenity network. My efforts were supported by Glastonian Councillors Edith Rice and Maurice Bush, who knew the pathways from childhood. The town council voted some money to part-fund the new oak signposts, Barry Hudson and I, using a post-drilling tractor, erected some 30 signposts in a day. All went well until the last post, when we dug up a telephone cable at Lowerside Lane! A guidebook followed (it’s still in print and on sale) and later two style building schemes by a Manpower Services team. I was returned at the next election — top of the poll. Glastonbury warms to someone who actually does something instead of just talking about it.
The loss of the railway under the Dr Beeching plan of rationalization was another blow to the town. Hitherto travel had been possible extensively from Glastonbury by train. Now those who do not own cars are restricted to a much reduced coach service. The old railway canopy was resited in St John’s carpark in a Manpower Services scheme sponsored by the Conservation Society. The idea had come from Martin Godfrey, the architect who founded Gothic Image in 1975, and won a national Pride of Place award.
Back in the 1950s Glastonbury enjoyed high employment. The prosperity of Morland’s reflected in the feelgood factor of the town shops. Baily’s, Snow’s, Draper’s and Imco (soon to move from Northload Street) all provided employment prospects quite apart from nearby Clark’s at Street. There were a few tramps passing through, along with gypsies that camped usually in the lanes, but apart from peasant farmers at Sharpham there was little evidence of poverty, let alone homelessness. Having said that, wages were low. The town had always attracted odd sects. Druids still climbed the Tor on May Day proclaiming peace. The Essenes did their midnight watch as well. Local residents could visit the Abbey free, and the Chalice Well gardens were open to all comers.
All this changed in the 1960s when flower power hit Glastonbury. Hippies arrived in large numbers. Lord Harlech’s son arrived in a horse and trap smoking cannabis and was duly fined. Others took over the Chalice Well gardens and let their goats eat the flowers. These were colourful people. Minihaha parked her caravan in Silver Street carpark and hung out her washing. The children put paper in car petrol tanks. Soon they had the place to themselves. When forced to move, she encamped at the top of Bushey Coombe provoking the volatile farmer, Bernard Slocombe, to near apoplexy. Every available caravan parking space was being used, which caused Stan King to dump clean sludge from the sewage-works filter on the verges to try to prevent them parking. The unused Assembly Rooms were taken over by a mass squat. Pat Leyshon owned the old Edward’s butcher shop (now Red Cross) and decorated it with stylised flowers — it became a famous landmark, the first thing visitors saw as they turned at the top of the High Street.
Eventually the people drifted away, but some stayed on, starting businesses and taking jobs. They formed the basis of the alternative society we have in the town today. When in later years recession hit and factories closed, and firms moved to Street, shops stood vacant in the town, and the only people prepared to take them on were tourist-orientated alternatives. Without them the town could well have been boarded up. Willem and Helène Koppejan injected considerable capital into Glastonbury property, notably in the creation of the Glastonbury Experience, a courtyard trading haven from the High Street then dominated by traffic. Local traditional residents often resent this change and the absence of their type of shops selling their everyday requirements.
More recently “new-age travellers” have taken over where hippies left off. They include anarchist elements that are more difficult to live with. Caught up in this motley crowd are those who have problems of drug, drink and mental illness and are to be pitied for it. It is difficult to love them all when some are so dirty and behave so badly. They come and go from the town with the weather, phase of the moon and proximity of festivals. Their presence undoubtedly carries the risk of deterring other tourists. Some live in vans and cars, other live rough or in benders . Some eventually get bedsits above our shops and are with us all the time. Low police presence makes control of the situation difficult and has required the introduction of paid security patrols. A major encampment took place at Green Lands Farm, Wick, causing huge inconvenience that took a year or more to sort out. In August 1988 — on the 8/8/88 — a mass trespass and encampment took place on the Tor, requiring the enforcement of the Public Order Act. Wellhouse Lane is now zoned No Parking in consequence.
The Tor is a natural landscape feature 520 feet above sea level. A more resistant layer of harder sandstone has protected the softer layers underneath to produce the conical shape, and alternate terraces of clay and blue lias. Medieval cultivation has accentuated the terraces, which may originally have been adapted by prehistoric man to form a ceremonial “Cretan” maze. Myths and legends abound, including the abduction of Queen Guinivere by a warlord and the involvement by King Arthur of the Abbot to secure her release. Philip Rahtz of Birmingham University excavated at the top in the 1960s, confirming the existence of a dark-age settlement, which fitted nicely with this Arthurian tale. He describes in his Glastonbury book how the monastic settlement evolved.
What we see now is the surviving tower of St Michael’s church, the second built on this unstable site. The first was destroyed by earthquake, and the present tower partly rebuilt after lightning struck in the 18th century. The tower is a scheduled ancient monument protected by statute. Virtually all the Tor fields inside the road system are now owned by the National Trust, which has bylaws that prohibit camping, fires, damange and the playing of musical instruments. Glastonbury Tor comes under the Wessex Region of the National Trust, based at Warminster. The NT employs land agents, managers, wardens and a number of specialist persons. In the past where there existed, as at Glastonbury, a small area of land with no house to maintain, local management committees were formed. The late Colonel Hugh Gould chaired such a committee for many years, assisted by George Harland, Bill Knight and others. Humphrey Morland took over the chair and was anxious to continue the management role. It was at this stage that I joined the committee along with Barry Hudson. Many of the younger trees around the edge of the property date from this time. Humphrey Morland moved away, and I took over the chairmanship.
About this time, 1980, a local plan was in preparation by Mendip council. Marion Meek, the first conservation officer, was very concerned about the serious erosion problem developing on the Tor. Substantial areas on and around the footpaths were eroded down to the bedrock, and the foundations of the tower exposed. The National Trust agent, Jim Thorneycroft, was already at work on the problem. A management plan was drawn up. Eroded areas were reinstated with tons of rock, earth and netted turf. The contractor Don Cribb did the task using an ingenious homemade railway system. A Royal Navy helicopter airlifted a lot of materials for us. Steps and hard paths were installed using railway sleepers and concrete for low cost and safety.
The top of the Tor was extensively eroded. The rusty broken railings were removed. The bricked-up east doorway was reopened and the whole area around the tower raised by using a precast interlocking system covered by stones and finally capped with concrete, raising the surface some eighteen inches. The whole appearance was substantially improved, despite the use of relatively unsympathetic materials, largely because the previous eroded state looked so much worse!
A system of mostly sheep grazing was adopted alongside a campaign to educate the public to control their dogs. The cost of doing this work far exceeded the resources of the local management committee. Reluctantly we had to agree to being an advisory committee only, so as to secure wider NT funding. Why had all this work become necessary? Simply because of the ever increasing number of visitors in all weathers, wearing away the grass paths, widening the paths and in consequence exposing the soil to wind and rain, and finally exposing the bedrock.
This remedial work along with the grazing management and control of weeds and rabbits has been remarkably successful in coping with the increasing number of visiting public. Thousands of visitors have been able to enter St Michael’s tower and enjoy the unique views through the doorways to the Somerset Levels. Mostly, visitors have behaved very well. Problems have arisen from an anarchist daubing paint, and new-age travellers lighting fires at night within the tower, cracking the recently paved floor. The playing of drums within the tower at night in the summer is very disturbing to local residents. One threatened to take the National Trust to court for not upholding the bylaws. Recently some local elderly residents have run a press campaign to reinstate the railings round the tower to better protect the monument.
The matter of how best to protect the tower is receiving attention in the context of a new management plan under preparation by Adrian Woodhall, the NT countryside manager. Railings by themselves may not be the answer to the determined vandal at such a remote site. They would require ancient-monument consent. The new management plan is likely to include proposals to upgrade the appearance of footpaths, gateways etc. and will require a successful bid for lottery funding. More recently still, sheep have been withdrawn as a result of losses from dog-worrying. The return of cows in a wet season brought a number of complaints from visitors. Then again, even visitors were excluded from the Tor during a widespread precaution against foot-and-mouth disease.
The Abbey remains the town’s principal tourist attraction. Dr Raleigh Radford excavated for many postwar years to good effect. Sadly he did not write up his work, which remains in note form and difficult to decipher — unlike Philip Rahtz and Nancy and Charles Hollinrake, who have been meticulous in recording their work elsewhere. Philip Rahtz carried out a series of digs sponsored by the Chalice Well Trust — at the Well, the Tor, and at Beckery Chapel. The Hollinrakes have been involved in rescue archaeology at a number of sites, notably the medieval canal site across the old fairfield. The Abbey grounds have evolved under successive custodians. Major Ashby saw the departure of the football club, the restoration of the round pond, and the reclaiming of the picnic area with its new pathways. Commander Scadding’s term saw the new shop and visitor centre. Now Brigadier Morgan has created a new pond and widened the public use of the grounds. Conservation work continues all the time to keep the ruins safe to visit. Custodians act under the directorship of a board of trustees, not all living locally. PrebendaryXX John Lance was succeeded as chairman by Prebendary Vere Hodge — a passionate believer in the Arimathea story. Bernard Harvey, the chairman in the late 1990s, gave much sound financial leadership. Then we had Peter Speke, and since 2005 the historian Dr Robert Dunning. The Roman Catholics now pilgrimage to the Abbey as well as the Anglicans. Evangelical events are held. Miracle plays directed by Ken Janes for many years have returned under Bill Wych. Sadly the peafowl did not stay: like James Austin’s kangaroos they were a passing phenomenon. Mor recently a series of musical Extravaganzas have been held, sponsored by Michael Eavis.
The old borough council created the advertising association — a committee set up to promote the town and tourism. It produced a town guide, leaflets and maps for tourists and did some modest advertising. A big step forward came when Bill Knight allowed the free use of 7 Northload Street and then part of Marchant’s Buildings as a tourist information office. This was a low-cost Glastonbury enterprise run by volunteers [and in the 1980s even had a computer display in the window with high-tech touchpad through the glass]. Eventually with the advent of professional council tourism officers, a perceived need for larger premises, and the threatened closure of the Tribunal, Glastonbury Tribunal Ltd was formed. This now operates a networked TIC from the Tribunal with paid and voluntary staff, under the chairmanship of Dennis Allen. The internationally important Lake Village collection owned by the Antiquarian Society and managed by the county museums service is displayed upstairs in the Tribunal. The Antiquarian Society museum was still in the Town Hall, where it had been since the 19th century until the council required the space for the refurbished small hall. An adequate home for a Glastonbury museum, the raison d’être, has yet to be found . At the time a cinema operated in the large Town Hall; its seats were removed for other functions. Ballroom dances were popular in the winter.
And what about law and order? Glastonbury was the HQ of the Somerset Constabulary in the 19th century. In the 1950s the police houses were still occupied by police officers. “Ginger” Harris was a no-nonsense officer and he had a cell to prove it. Although the police houses became blighted with the road plans for the relief road (serving briefly as homes again for Ugandan Asians escaping the despot Amin). The police station remained open until the late 1980s. Since then we have been policed from Street with totally inadequate resources at a time when antisocial behaviour requires beat policing. A “cop shop” or office facility set up in the Town Hall was never used and abandoned. The magistrates’ court lasted a little longer but is now a youth club; the court moved to Wells. In the days of the borough council the mayor sat on the bench during the year of office. The town council is currently financing security patrols to supplement an inadequate police presence. CCTV is about to be installed.
As already mentioned, the association football club moved to Godney Road, sharing the site with the greyhound track. An undercover police operation revealed licensing irregularities. A prosecution followed and the town clerk, a dignified pillar of the community and former schoolmaster, was held responsible as chairman and fined. He was not amused at this blot on his otherwise clean record! The Tor Rugby Club were let at peppercorn rent the field at the corner of Street Road and Beckery New Road by Norman and Algy James. The latter raced camels in his younger days. Club members struggled to re-erect an old EMI hut as a clubhouse until it disintegrated in a gale. Sympathy generated by this mishap led to Rotary Club members, including Cyril Driver, help raise funds for a Pratton building, in which many a high-spirited evening was passed. Tor RFC was in its heyday, winning the Bath seven-a-side competition. The winning team included John Crocker. The family shoe shop was opposite the Town Hall, next door to what was then W.H. Smith. (Then, towards the Cross, were Farqueson the chemist and Dowdney the butcher and, around the corner, Hucker the fishmonger.) Tor RFC were persuaded by a financial offer to relocate at Lowerside Lane, the town thus losing another greenfield site to some not very pretty commercial development. The old Morlands recreation grounds and club remain in new hands. In former days County Cricket matches were held on this site. Nearby the Territorial Army would operarte from their drill hall — now put to other uses.
Glastonbury’s youth organizations survive but not as well supported as formerly, when the mayor’s civic parade and the Remembrance parade would see them out in large numbers; but then again even the British Legion parade declines in numbers, with its club in Benedict Street now closed.
It was Harry Scott Stokes who convinced the borough council to twin with the French town of Bretenoux. An independent committee ran exchange visits alternate years to each town. The problem was the long distance and the journey involved. When St Dunstan’s School and the Rotary Club decided on different, closer town-twinning arrangements the Bretenoux link weakened. The twinning is now in abeyance. An official party from the town went to Glastonbury, Connecticut, for the American namesake’s tercentenary. Previous to this we had received financial help from Connecticut for replacing the chiming clock in St John’s tower. The visit overall was a success. Sadly something happened in America which broke up our visiting town band. We must hope it recovers.
The winter of 1963 proved exceptionally cold. Piles of cleared snow became blocks of ice as temperatures fell, remaining sub-zero (Fahrenheit then!) for weeks. The River Brue froze over, and I regularly skated from Cow Bridge via the Millstream and under the main road to the Morlands factory until melt from the factory kitchen prevented further progress. Rain before the thaw set in covered everything with ice and caused temporary havoc.
In 1979 heavy rain flooded out the Bath and West Show, causing the mayor, John Bromfield, to rename the event Bath and Wet. Torrents of rainwater off the Tor flooded down Wellhouse Lane, crossed the A361 and passed right through the cottages opposite, cascading downhill. Flood-prevention grids and drainage followed.
St Dunstan’s carpark remains an environmental problem. Every writer of consequence has criticized its unsympathetic appearence so close to the Abbey. Once part of the early Abbey precincts, it became a garden in the 18th century, only to be a derelict eyesore in the ownership of a developer after the First World War. Rescued by public subscription, it became a useful car and coach park for the Town Hall and Abbey. A local plan sought to convert the area into amenity gardens and indeed a public enquiry endorsed this. Subsequently the architect and planner Roy Worscott devised a concept of screening the carpark with a pavilion-shaped library along Magdalene Street, which preserved sightlines to the Abbey. Cost and design constraints have made this concept unviable, so the problem remains. Criticism of the area will no doubt continue, along with the debate surrounding the merits of a short-term visit against the wider benefits to the town of the longer stay and walk past shops. The carpark is now back in the ownership of the town council. Nearly all the town’s modern housing estates — Actis, Paradise, Thorndun, Avalon, Wirral Park and Millstream along with other developments off Wells Road, Roman Way, Butleigh Road, and the newly built Leg of Mutton Road — occurred in the last 55 years. Land suitable for building is getting scarce, being either environmentally sensitive or undesirably low-lying.
The Freemen of Glastonbury:
• H. F. Scott Stokes was managing director of Morlands. Through his scholarly studies he became hugely knowledgeable about Glastonbury. He was mayor six times, including Festival of Britain year, when he planted the Holy Thorn on Wearyall Hill. He was founder president of Glastonbury Conservation Society and first Freeman of Glastonbury.
• Edith Rice was born in Benedict Street. She grew up helping her parents run the King William Inn before spending time away assisting at a children’s home. After training she joined the Diocesan Moral Welfare team. She was mayor four times, zealously pro-Glastonbury and our second Freeman.
• Stephen Morland was joint chairman of Colombian Fur Dressers and Dyers Ltd, a subsidiary of Morlands. He was an Alderman of the county council, on which he served some 42 years, chairing both the education and public-health committees. Both St Dunstan’s and Crispin schools were built under his chairmanship. His scholarly knowledge was immense, and he was president of both Antiquarian and Conservation Societies. He was the town’s third Freeman.
• John Bromfield taught at Millfield and coached athletics. He was twice mayor and involved himself in numerous charitable causes. Through his diligent researches he proved that ownership of the allotment land off Benedict Street lay with Glastonbury town council — who sold it very profitably for the benefit of the town. He is our fourth Freeman of Glastonbury.
Events do not always run smoothly, however. The Holy Thorn tree planted on Wearyall Hill in 1951 died and had to be replaced the next year. (It is wrongly sited and rarely flowers.) The town-twinning with Bretenoux has not blossomed either, and the Morlands proud empire has passed away, its Northover site in dereliction.
Edith Rice once tied at the poll for a borough-council seat with Hugh Barker. She conceded the seat to him since she detested gambling and would not toss a coin. At the next byelection she was opposed by a road-protest independent, and it looked like another defeat for her. She won by ten votes, all of which were obtained by frantic “knocking up” by her supporters in the last half-hour before polls closed. A forlorn trickle of crestfallen young ladies would climb up Hill Head to seek her help. Then again, one day she was seen in hot pursuit down Hill Head, along with Miss Osborne Smith, of a very young Christopher Driver, who had decided that he did not like school any longer and had run off home.
Mayor Charles Dadford was the outspoken and sometimes abrupt licensee of the Market House. He castigated a councillor who arrived at council on a hot evening in casual dress: “I will not have councillors turning up looking like bums.” They should be dressed in a suit and wear a tie. The atmosphere in the council chamber was rather tense, as well as hot. Edith Rice rose to ask if he would like ladies to wear a hat. I could hardly contain myself. Edith Rice was well known for her hats. When she purchased a new Morris Minor convertible car, bright yellow, she asked her retired police-sergeant friend what he thought of it. He replied that if she had the roof down and was to wear her red hat, she would be like a custard tart with a cherry on top!
Stephen Morland after 42 years on the County Council was deprived of his County Alderman’s seat by local-government reorganisation in 1973 and the abolition of Aldermen. He failed to win a seat on the town council, where his immense knowledge and experience would have been invaluable. A fire broke out on the derelict Morlands site. I asked Stephen Morland which part had been damaged. He told me it was part of the administrative area and included the boardroom, and added that he always believed the best thing that could happen to that building was to set fire to it! Stephen Morland lived a long and useful life. In retirement he helped with meals on wheels, administering to many former employees younger than himself, who were delighted to chat to him.
I had the privilege of being deputy mayor twice for John Bromfield during his terms of office. He was so conscientious as mayor that I seldom had to deputise for him. His second mayoral reception was quite remarkable for the colourful range of guests invited. One Nigerian Millfield parent asked Brom if he was paid for his work as mayor. Brom replied, “No”. Then his questioner asked if he received “considerations”. Again the answer was no. His Nigerian guest looked puzzled and remarked, “In my country we get paid, and we receive considerations!” Brom’s tragic ill health restricted a distinguished career of public service. The closure of the British Legion Club must have saddened as well.
I was elected to Somerset County Council in 1989. The Glastonbury western relief road was to be constructed at the same time as the Wells relief road. Preliminary weighing-down of the peaty land with stone soon commenced. The MP, David Heathcoat-Amory, told me that the Department of Transport could not fund both schemes simultaneously. One road should wait, and they considered Wells more urgent. I argued in favour of Glastonbury since I could now vouch for agreement on the route, whereas the Wells route was still controversial. Both schemes had priority funding, as they were seen to be protecting historic towns. To this end additional funding was to be used to make the town centres more attractive and pedestrian-friendly. It was all part of the deal. We could not have the new road and fail to alter the traffic-dominated town centre. The landscaped relief road was well received, but opposition rose against altering the town centre. The Glastonbury Residents Association put up election candidates dedicated to “wait and see”, with preferably no change. For a while it looked like a rerun of the road-protest movement, but while the GRA gained two Mendip seats and took control of the town council, works on the town centre continued with some modification due to funding difficulties. The entrance to Northload Street became pedestrianized and the High Street was traffic-calmed. There may yet be trials of pedestrian priority. Anything innovative in Glastonbury tends to be controversial and county councillors tend not to be elected for a second term in office.
This is a personal history and inevitably there are omissions. More could be written about the campaign to save the fire station, associated with Jack Tucker (followed by his son Ian, also a long-serving town councillor and now Freeman), the splendid carnivals each year that owed so much to the energetic leadership of Maurice Bush, Hugh Barker, Ern Holley and others; the demise of the Town Hall cinema; the moving Remembrance parades under Ralph Linham as parade marshall; Vic Jones’s service as standard-bearer and poppy collector; Les Sharp and Bill Wilkins’ service as macebearers and firemen, etc. etc. To do justice to all who have contributed to the town over the last 45 years would require much more time.
Latterly, a Civic Trust report prepared by David Williams revealed the town’s strengths and weaknesses and pointed ways forward. Now schemes supported by the Rural Development Agency are under way to move commerce and tourism forward into the new millennium. These and the initiative to redevelop the Morlands site give every encouragement for the future.
There have been as many changes at 45 years as there had been in the previous 40, when Wright wrote in the 1880s. But the essential Glastonbury remains: the Tor, Wearyall and Wick Hollow are still there for all to enjoy.
One story remains to be told. A stork appeared on Kennard Moor and was around for several weeks. The tale was put about that it had made a wrong delivery to Butleigh Hospital (then a maternity unit) and was too ashamed to go back and admit it … but now I am straying into the realm of Glastonbury myths and legends and must finish.