Avalon (Overnighter)

 



GPX File of the Route.  Avalon

This 70 mile route starts from Castle Carey, a small town in the low hills of South Somerset which, rather surprisingly, is a regular stop for trains on the main line from Paddington to the West Country. It is an easy ride, so there should be time for a bit of sightseeing. I like to do it clockwise to get the steepest hill out of the way early on. Accommodation at around the half way point on the route itself is sparse, but a short detour takes you into Burnham on Sea where there is plenty.

Some five miles south of Castle Carey you pass Cadbury Castle, a candidate for King Arthur’s Camelot and a colossal hillfort. Really, it is worth climbing up it just to get an impression of the scale of the beast. It covers the equivalent of over ten football pitches. Keep in mind that the imposing ramparts were once even higher and the ditches deeper. The organisation and effort (if not the engineering) that it must have taken to build it in the Bronze Age stands comparison with the pyramids.

Cadbury Castle 

About 12 miles later you reach the Somerset Levels. These are the ancient Marshes of Avalon, the land of mists and mystics. The land is only marginally above water level and sometimes under it. If there was a Lady in the Lake in Arthur’s time, she was spoilt for choice then and scarcely less now. 

The Levels Flooding

 What settlements there are occupy the surrounding higher ground and a few isolated outcrops. One of them, the Tor of Glastonbury, can be seen from miles away; the tower on top is the remains of an old church. Otherwise it is all wetlands and meadows bounded by rhynes and ditches, very flat and very green, with a maze of small lakes and ponds.

The Tor
You will have heard of the Glastonbury Festival which is, of course, not held in Glastonbury but some five miles east, on the road to Pilton. The town itself is described in its own website as the “quirkiest town in England…..steeped in history, myth and the smell of incense”. It is indeed weird but this undersells it. This is distilled 70° proof quirk, not your everyday stuff and the dominant smell is not incense.

The story goes that Joseph of Arimathea (Jesus’ Uncle!) popped over from the Holy Land to bring us the ‘benefits’ of Christianity, made a beeline (or perhaps followed a ley line) to the place and planted his staff, from which a thorn tree grew. It is still there. (See the Disclaimers at the end of this note). 

The Abbey
Arthur is supposedly buried in the Abbey here and the Tor itself is the alleged hangout of Gwyn ap Nudd, the Lord of the Underworld, and a host of fairies. Right-oh.

One of the joys here is sitting in the square, watching the ebb and flow of the wraiths, waifs and strays, self-appointed mystics, soothsayers, druids and more goddesses than you can shake a wand at. Excalibur was forged hereabouts which probably kicked off the proliferation of local crafts emporia. Now you can shop for potions, crystals, occult pendants and books of spells or perhaps the skull of a real demon. Merlin meets Alisteir Crowley. Wonderfully bonkers.

Goddesses
Glastonbury Street Fashion

Leaving Glastonbury the route follows the (gravel) Bittern Trail eastwards towards relative sanity, picking its way carefully though a landscape shredded by canalised rivers and drainage ditches. If you don’t mind walking a bit or have a bike that is comfortable off-road, there are plenty of opportunities to wander off on the tracks. One ‘must see’ is the Sweet Track, an elevated walkway across the marsh between Shapwick and Westhay Heaths that is probably 6000 years old. It is marked on the OS Map. But if you prefer to stick to tarmac, there are alternatives. Check the map.

The Sweet Track

The Levels cover around 230 square miles, most of which is paddlingly close to sea level. While the marshes are drained, they periodically disappear under water again. But in the Dayse of Olde this was proper, permanent, impenetrable marshland; famously used by King Alfred the Great in the late 9thc. to hide from the Danes and do a bit of baking. That was reputedly on the ‘Isle of Athelney’, to the south east of this route.

There used to be a railway line across here, until Dr Beeching did for it. Sir John Betjeman, the well known Michael Portillo upgrade, did a trip along it for TV. The youtube link is at the bottom here.

The return leg takes you back through the Levels, on a northerly route through even lonelier country. If you want a short diversion would take you to the absolute tourist trap that is Wookey Hole and Wells, a diminutive, pleasant but unexciting cathedral city even if the edifice itself is gloriously gothic. After that you are back in the gentle hills again!

Disclaimers. .

OK. In no particular order. 

1. The Bush. What are the odds of Jesus’ Uncle popping over to Somerset? And his staff, once planted, turning into a hawthorn bush. But seriously, Thorn trees, even holy ones, don’t last that long. Anyway, this one suffered at the hands of Cromwell’s Roundheads and more recently by a rapacious landowner. But cuttings survived and I believe have been replanted in St Dunstan’s in the town.

2. King Arthur didn’t exist. The fable was probably based on an amalgam of different characters, some of whom played a role in protecting the Italian imperialists colonists from hairy Saxon colonists. It was kicked down the pitch by Geoffrey of Monmouth in the 12th c and liberally embellished ever since. 

3. Many places claim ‘Camelot’. Cadbury at least looks the part. Slough does not. Neither does Huddersfield. And it can't have been in Brittany because I have seen the film and Arthur didn't speak French. 

4. They aren't REAL Goddesses, 

5. King Alfred did exist. We know that because he was a master of social media and PR and made sure we knew it. By all accounts he was also a bit weedy. And he wasn’t the first King of England. That honour goes to his grandson Aethelstan. There is a little monument on Athelney but the ‘island’ it is now isolated by the A361 rather than marshes.

6. You don’t get to walk on the real Sweet Track. Heaven forbid. There the course is clear, there is a good recreation in situ and if you have imagination and sense of wonder, that is enough.

7. The marshes are great. I have found them misty and, when in the mood, mystical. But the current watery landscape owes much to peat cutting in the last century. They are indeed a haven for wildlife. But their environmental designation as been downgraded because of the amount of phosphate pollution pouring out of the farms. In fairness, this has been recognised and plans are supposedly afoot etc.

Links: 

The Levels Railway  John Betjeman's Trip 

Glastonbury Abbey  The oldest in England? 

Avalon Marshes  Landscape, Nature, Heritage. 

National Geographic  The American take.

The Guardian  ....The Islington take. 

The Goddesses  Check the embedded video!

The Town  Basic guide

Local cycle routes  If mine are not good enough for you...






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