SACRED LANDSCAPE OR ECONOMIC GROWTH
Written for Glastonbury Oracle, April 2018
The debate about a suggested bypass around Glastonbury has been conducted largely in terms of what we don’t want – heavy traffic grinding through the town, or damage to the surrounding landscape and its detrimental effect on our health and our tourist industry. Of course we don’t want any of these things, but what is it that we really do want? What is our vision for Glastonbury in the future?
Glastonbury’s landscape does have a special and very lengthy history. After the Romans had left and abandoned their sea defences, a period of particularly stormy weather resulted in the Levels being inundated anew. A landscape dotted with villas and temples was returned to primeval wetland, half submerged, whilst a resurgent Celtic culture was Christian but also retained (or reclaimed) its animistic connection with the landscape.
This Celtic landscape had a mystical quality that became the backdrop to the Arthurian legends, our national mythology, the ‘Matter of Britain’ that has been retold time and again over the centuries in different literary forms to suit the changing times. At the centre of this has been Glastonbury, with its “holy house at the head of the moors adventurous”, its sacred islands hidden away in the wetlands, and the iconic image of the Tor standing at its focal point like an ancient precursor to a medieval cathedral spire.
It is this that we are the guardians of, and it’s on this that we must base our vision for Glastonbury’s future. We can and must change with the times, just as have the legends of King Arthur. We can do this whilst staying true to the magic, whilst valuing the quality of inspiration, whilst remembering that the place we live in is somewhere very special. The future we can create here – if we decide to – is one full of imagination and creativity, of fresh solutions to human problems.
However, we live in the midst of a culture that has very different values. The bypass is being promoted in terms of economic growth, of value supposedly added to Mendip’s slender economy, of commercial and industrial opportunities. Someone, in other words, is hoping to make lots of money. The rest of us, if we’re lucky, will maybe get a little. The real cost, to the birdlife on Harty Moor, to the already much-diminished rivers the Redlake and the Whitelake, to the environs of that self-same Tor that is still sufficiently iconic to be the central image at the London Olympics … the real cost to all that will never even be counted, and will never be repaid.
Glastonbury is a town that for more than thirty years has been divided culturally, and there are clearly two very different visions of what its future might be. The issue of this bypass has come up at a time when the two sides of the long-standing divide are beginning to work constructively together. There is a danger that the result will be renewed division. It is difficult to see how an attitude that regards economic development and economic growth as the hallmarks of success can, in all honesty, sit comfortably with a desire to maintain the essentially spiritual value of a landscape rich in history, heritage and legend. How we can resolve this is now our pressing challenge.