Most people probably know Glastonbury for its rock festival, an event which often seems most noteworthy for its mud, rather than its music. The festival attracts its fair share of alternative types – new-agers, hippies and so on, which is perhaps not particularly surprising. What might surprise a casual visitor to the town of Glastonbury, though, is that they will encounter the same alternative spirit as a noticeable presence. It seems slightly out of place because the town itself could stand in for any number of similar places scattered throughout the length and breadth of England. What they do not have, of course, is Glastonbury Tor.

It rises on the outskirts of the town, a steep isolated hill topped by a tall stone tower. It is not large as geographical features go, certainly not compared with the sort of mountains that might loom over an Alpine town, but then that is the nature of the English countryside. Glastonbury may be a small English town adjacent to a small English hill, but it is no less striking for that. And it has to be admitted that as a landmark it stands out starkly from the flat, gentle Somerset countryside which lies around. It really starts to impress, though, when one climbs it. Perhaps it is the fact that it is almost a part of the town which makes the sudden transition to an ancient, pagan world all the more striking. As one ascends the winding path to the summit the countryside begins to stretch out on either side, and the town recedes to a distant set of street patterns. The flat countryside is spread all around, the ridges of occasional hills rising from it like whales from a green, velvet sea. Ahead is the tall stone tower, standing alone and pointing to the sky with an unmistakeable symbolism – this is where our thoughts are supposed to rise above the mundane.

That was certainly true for our ancestors, who found this a spiritual place; so much so, in fact, that the Christian establishment felt obliged to build a church on the tor to reclaim the site. They shouldn’t have bothered – all that remains of the church is its lonely tower, while the cults inspired by the original pagan beliefs flourish. Whatever one’s views on such new-age religions, as an exercise in collective nose-thumbing at authority one has to admire it. And the beliefs are certainly powerful and widely held: a few miles from Glastonbury, on a quiet lane on the edge of a village, sits a pleasant and unassuming house. It’s claim to notoriety is that it is reputedly owned by a Hollywood star, who bought it – if one should believe in such things – because it sits on a ‘line of force’.

Mystical notions aside it is undeniable that the location, looking out over the rolling green of the Somerset levels, has a certain spiritual peace about it – no doubt a welcome change after life in tinsel-town. On the bright winter’s morning on which we walked past it, though, it was anything but peaceful: a crowd of starlings had congregated in a neighbouring tree and were making an almighty din, chattering continuously. One could not help but speculate: did their animal senses detect the ley-line running beneath the tree, which our more limited capabilities could only guess at? Maybe – but if they really were so in tune with things, then why should they not have picked up on the fact that a famous celebrity lived nearby? Perhaps this was the first recorded observation of a gathering of avian paparazzi.

On balance, I think not: most likely it is an example of that phenomenon which gives most trouble to human intellects – pure coincidence. Having said that, it is hard to escape the conclusion that there is something about green, open spaces which strikes a chord deep within us. The weather on the morning of our walk could hardly be described as glorious, being early January, but at least it was too early for the traditional, noisy English summer pastimes of mowing the lawn and trimming the hedge. Somehow, looking out over the idyllic landscape made work and Monday morning, with all its attendant irritations, seem as distant as the far off hills. Why worry about something of such small importance compared with the age-old narrative of the landscape?

There appears, in fact, to be strong scientific evidence emerging that the quality of the landscape has a profound effect upon us: according to Dr Richard Fuller from Sheffield University our well-being is enhanced by ‘biologically complex surroundings’, by which one assumes he means nature. And, if this is true, the question arises as to whether different environments evoke different levels of well-being. Could it be the case that there is something in the landscape around Glastonbury which really does have a measurable effect on us, sending us away mentally refreshed and uplifted?

Perhaps the hippies and new-agers are on to something after all – a rather sobering thought.

All text and images © Insubstantial Pageant 2008