A Journey through History in the English Countryside, Part 3: Glastonbury, the Chalice Well, & Stourhead Gardens

Welcome to Part 3 of my series exploring the amazing history of the English countryside in Hampshire, Somerset, and Wiltshire. These counties are packed full of incredible historical sights ranging from mysterious stone circles built 5,000 years ago, to medieval castles and cathedrals, and finally to more recent historical buildings and monuments from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Day three is filled with ancient cathedrals and ruins, mystical waters, and beautiful gardens.

Day 3: Glastonbury & Stourhead
Glastonbury Abbey, Glastonbury Tor, the Chalice Well and Gardens, and Stourhead Gardens

Start your final day by driving a little over an hour west to the town of Glastonbury. Glastonbury is home to several wonderful sights, including Glastonbury Abbey and Glastonbury Tor. The abbey is one of the earliest and most important in English history. The first church was built on this site by the Saxons in the 7th century, and it grew from there. After the Normans conquered Britain in 1066, they added many magnificent buildings to the existing Saxon church. Many of these great buildings, and the precious artifacts they housed, were destroyed by fire in 1184. This is where the legend of King Arthur comes in.

As the story goes, in 1191 when the monks were raising funds to rebuild the abbey they dug to find King Arthur and his Queen Guinevere buried on the south side of the Lady Chapel. These bones were reburied much later in 1278 within the Abbey Church in a black marble tomb, in the presence of King Edward I. The tomb was later lost after the dissolution of the abbey by King Henry VIII in 1539.

After his break from the Catholic Church and the Pope, King Henry declared himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England, giving himself power over all of England’s wealthy churches. King Henry looted and destroyed England’s most prominent churches to fund his military campaigns. Over a period of five years King Henry would destroy over 800 monasteries, nunneries and friaries in Britain. Glastonbury was no exception. In 1539 the abbot of Glastonbury was declared a traitor. He was beheaded, drawn, and quartered, and the abbey was stripped of its valuable possessions, including the supposed skeletons of Arthur and Guinevere, which have been lost then. In the following years, stones from the abandoned abbey we removed for use in other buildings, leaving the ruins we see today.

The ruins of the Great Church at Glastonbury Abbey.
The Abbot’s kitchen at Glastonbury Abbey, largely still intact.
The remains of the Great Church at Glastonbury are just a fraction of the magnificent cathedral that once stood here.
The Lady Chapel at Glastonbury Abbey.
The legend of King Arthur permeates the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey.

The current price for admission to Glastonbury Abbey is £8.25 (tickets purchased online are discounted a bit but not much). Free guided tours are offered from March through October by guides clad in medieval monastic garb. We did the tour and it was great and very informative.

After a few hours exploring the abbey and its grounds you are likely to have worked up an appetite. If you’re lucky enough to visit on the fourth Saturday of the month I recommend you stop by the Glastonbury Farmer’s Market at Market Cross in the center of town.

Glastonbury Farmer’s Market.

We found an awesome stall featuring natural vegetarian food called the Parsnipship. The Parsnipship sells their delicious food all over England and Wales at farmers markets, food fairs, festivals and events. Keep an eye out for them!

The Parsnipship at Glastonbury Farmer’s Market.

Feel free to eat your lunch down in the town, or do what we did and take it with you on the hike up to Glastonbury Tor. Be forewarned, though, being high up on a hill surrounded by rolling plains it tends to get very windy up there. That said, it is quite nice to sit on top of the hill snacking on delicious food and looking out at the amazing views. Entrance to the Tor is free.

Glastonbury Tor viewed from a distance.
View of the countryside from atop Glastonbury Tor.

After visiting the tor head back down the hill to visit the Chalice Well and Garden. The Chalice Well is among the best known and most beloved holy wells in Britain. Its waters are said to have healing powers, and people visit from all over the world to experience it. The well is surrounded by stunning gardens where you can get lost in the beauty of nature for a while. Water from the Chalice Well flows into a shallow pool visitors can walk through to experience the healing powers of the water. Be careful, its slippery! The current entrance fee is £4.30.

The famed Chalice Well.
Water trickling into seven bowls before emptying into the stunning Vesica Pool.
The water was quite cold in April!

Once your feet have dried, drive the 45 minutes to Stourhead. Jane Austen fans will look forward to this visit due to its appearance as a backdrop in the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice. Even if Jane Austen is not your cup of tea, a visit to this massive private garden offers more than succor for Austen fans. Stourhead is one of the world’s finest landscape gardens. It is managed by the National Trust, and so admission is free for members (for membership details see my first post in this series here). For non-members admission is currently £16.60 for adults. You can visit the Stourhead house, a Palladian villa completed in 1725. Palladian architecture is based on the work of Andrea Palladio, who lived in the 16th century. The style embraces the principles of classical antiquity, order and symmetry being the most important. This is why many such buildings are strongly reminiscent of ancient Greek and Roman architecture.

We arrived late so we headed straight for the impressive gardens. The gardens provide over 2,500 acres to explore, offering stunning views of the large lake and impressive architectural features such as the Pantheon and Bristol Cross. Austen fans will look forward to seeing the Temple of Apollo, where Mr. Darcy first professes his love for Elizabeth in the 2005 film, and the Palladian Bridge where Elizabeth runs through the rain. The grounds are so large you could easily spend hours wandering around and admiring all of the beauty here.

The Temple of Apollo at Stourhead Gardens.
The Palladian Bridge and the Pantheon at Stourhead Gardens.
One of the beautiful rock arches in the park.
Gothic Cottage in Stourhead Gardens.

A magnificent end to an amazing journey through history in the English countryside. Hopefully you will have many incredible memories to take home with you.

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A Journey through History in the English Countryside

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<– See Previous Series Post: Lacock Village (and Harry Potter), Avebury, & Stonehenge

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