And did those feet…

We discovered St Patrick in Glastonbury!

We discovered St Patrick in Somerset!

Finola had never been to Glastonbury, so I thought a visit on our way back home to Ireland was in order. Like me, she found the town itself fascinating: every shop seems to have a ‘mystic’ theme, and even the coffee is imbued with an otherworldly aura…

Coffee time in Glastonbury

Modern Pilgrims? Coffee time in Glastonbury

Why is this Somerset town so steeped in esoterica? It attracts ‘New Age’ adherents, pagans and Christians. Perhaps because it was a place of pilgrimage centuries ago – one of the most important in Britain. The biggest surprise for us was to find a chapel there dedicated to St Patrick!

St Patrick's Chapel - one of the earliest buildings at Glastonbury

St Patrick’s Chapel – one of the earliest buildings at Glastonbury

Inside St Patrick's Chapel

Inside St Patrick’s Chapel

The chapel is in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey and – like the Abbey itself – the little building has had a chequered history. It is well preserved, however, although the wall paintings and glass are from a modern renovation.

The chapel window - note St Patrick's wonderful snake!

The chapel window – note St Patrick’s wonderful snake!

Glastonbury is a place of history and of legend. The most important of these has to be the one that William Blake immortalised in his poem Jerusalem:

And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green…

‘Those feet’ are the feet of Jesus himself who – tradition insists – was brought to this site as a boy of twelve by his great-uncle, Joseph of Arimathea, a tin trader. Jesus in Britain? No wonder the Abbey was such a glorious place, and a rich and powerful one in medieval times. Even in ruins, the buildings have a presence and elegance which for me is unmatched in any of the other ancient monastic sites I have visited. With that history there couldn’t be anywhere more important outside of the Holy Land.

Back to the story – When Joseph landed on the islands that were Somerset in those days, he climbed to the top of Wearyall Hill and planted his staff there. It took root and grew into a thorn tree. Magically, that tree always flowered on Christmas Day. The original thorn has gone from the hill, but cuttings have been taken over time and they exist elsewhere: one such is within the Abbey grounds, just outside St Patrick’s Chapel. They still flower on Christmas Day, and the Queen is always sent one of the blooms.

Glastonbury's Holy Thorn, planted by Joseph of Arithamea

Glastonbury’s Holy Thorn, planted by Joseph of Arithamea

A tradition tells us that St Patrick grew weary of his work in Ireland and returned to Britain in old age. He went to Glastonbury because of its importance, and he was joined there by a band of monks who elected him their Abbot. After a few years he died and was buried in the Abbey grounds. Other important visitors here included St Brigid – who is pictured milking her cow on the wall of St Michael’s Tower on the Tor. St Brigid is also considered a Goddess – suitable for a town in which Paganism and Christianity seem to co-exist quite happily.

Typical Glastonbury shopfront

Typical Glastonbury shopfront

St Brigid - another Irish Saint in Glastonbury

St Brigid – another Irish Saint in Glastonbury

The stories go on and on: a multitude of Saints is buried around the Abbey evidently – and the Virgin Mary herself visited – with her Uncle Joseph – and (some say) is also buried there…

We musn’t forget another Glastonbury VIP – King Arthur. In the twelfth century the grave of Arthur and Guinever was found by monks when carrying out restoration works in the nave of the Abbey. This added to the notoriety – and the fortunes – of the monastic establishment…

sign

A Chatter of Choughs

Rossbrin Cove: Chough country

Rossbrin Cove: Chough country

One of the many treats of living up here in Nead an Iolair is the frequent appearance of a group of Choughs. Towards the evening we hear them on our roof, chattering to each other. Chatter of Choughs, by the way, is the correct collective noun: all the Corvid family seem to have interesting ones – Murder of Crows, Parliament of Rooks, Conspiracy of Ravens, Tiding of Magpies… These are just some of a very long list: do you of know any to add to it?

Autumn evening at Nead an Iolair

Autumn evening at Nead an Iolair

Choughs are distinctive birds, but easy to mistake for other Corvids when in the sky. Look out for curved red bills, and red legs and claws. Also listen for the chatter, in which the bird tells you its name:

It won’t tell you its latin species name, however: Pyrrhocorax-pyrrhocorax!

Birds on line!

Birds on line!

As an erstwhile resident of Cornwall I have a particular interest in the Chough. This bird appeared on the old Cornish coat-of-arms, together with a tin miner and a fisherman (the two latter have vanished on the new one – perhaps a poignant comment on changing times), and was once a familiar sight on the coast. Changing habitat and trophy hunting led to a decline in the British Chough populations recorded by naturalists as early as the eighteenth century. The last breeding pair was seen in Cornwall in 1947, and not long afterwards the Cornish Chough was pronounced extinct. Amazingly, the new Millennium saw the Chough returning naturally to Cornwall, with three birds taking up residence on the Lizard peninsula and breeding successfully. It’s reckoned that there are now between forty and fifty living on that far western coastline. On my last days in Cornwall before coming here to Ireland I was walking at Nanquidno, near Lands End and – as if to wish me ‘goodbye’ – there was a pair of Choughs foraging happily on the path in front of me! Where did the new generations of Cornish Choughs come from? DNA tests have given us the answer: Ireland…

Cornwall's old and new logos: and the 'Raven King' - in folklore, Choughs and Ravens are interchangeable

Cornwall’s old and new logos: and the ‘Raven King’ – in folklore, Choughs and Ravens are interchangeable

Cornish nationalists, who are campaigning for a devolved parliament, are delighted by the come-back. “This will be seen as a symbol of hope,” said Dr Loveday Jenkin of the nationalist party Mebyon Kernow. “The re-emergence of the Chough is a symbol of the re-emergence of the Cornish nation.”

King Arthur's last battle

King Arthur’s last battle

Cág Cosdearg is the name of the Chough in Irish – this is a literal translation of ‘red-legged Jackdaw’. There are a number of legends attached to this bird: King Arthur turned into one, and the red beak and legs are symbolic of the blood shed at his last battle (presumably this is another link with Cornwall). The Chough was known to Daniel Defoe as a ‘fire raising bird’ in his …tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britain…

“…It is very mischievous; it will steal and carry away any thing it finds about the house, that is not too heavy, tho’ not fit for its food; as knives, forks, spoons and linnen cloths, or whatever it can fly away with, sometimes they say it has stolen bits of firebrands, or lighted candles, and lodged them in the stacks of corn, and the thatch of barns and houses, and set them on fire; but this I only had by oral tradition…”

I like the Irish expression, “You’ll follow the Crows for it” meaning that a person would only appreciate something after it had gone.

chough close

Watching our Choughs perform their aerobatics up here is a delight – I’ve seen them turning cartwheels in the air, and they even appear to fly upside down at times. Sylvia Plath puts it wonderfully in Blackberrying:
“…Overhead go the choughs in black, cacophonous flocks—
Bits of burnt paper wheeling in a blown sky.
Theirs is the only voice, protesting, protesting…”