Glastonbury s a very special place for many people. Rich history, both pagan and Christian, and a long association with the spiritual. Just walking down the High Street you can get a sense of how people from countless backgrounds mix together. Shops selling books on Wicca, Earth Magick and the Earth Goddess rub shoulders with the world religions. The great thing is, its all peaceful, friendly – as it should be!
The town has so much history, too much for me to cover here. So here’s a link to a history page! I will just mention some highlights. One of the earliest Christian sites in England. A ruined abbey torn down by Henry VIII during his Dissolution of the Monasteries. The abbey claimed earlier to have found the grave of King Arthur and Gwenıvere in its cloistered grounds, then moved the remains near the altar in the main church. Two streams on the island from the iconic Glastonbury Tor. One bearing red minerals, the other white; both having strong symbolism in pagan cultures. The Tor itself is believe by some to be a gateway to the Celtic Underworld. Last but not least, the area was once an island, until the Romans drained the shallow waters of the Somerset levels for farming. The boggy land often causing mists that made the hills on the island disappear. Legends abound that Glastonbury is the mythical Isle of Avalon of Arthurian legend.
It’s undeniable that the town has a peculiar atmosphere, a air of reverence, silent worship and,perhaps, expectation and hope. The island has other names, Isle of Glass, Isle of Apples and of course, Avalon.
It’s true, I love the place and in my youth I spent many weeks staying in the 15th century coaching inn (haunted – naturally) that once gave board to Henry VIII. A great atmospheric place, especially if you can get a room in the old part, not the modern annex. The George & Pilgrim. I used to scribble poems in my notebook while sitting among the ruins of the abbey, up on the Tor, or in the bar at night. Strange thing is that I wrote about a monk haunting one of the rooms even before I found out that it was that very room that was haunted...by a monk. Coincidence?
Anyway, to the photography!
I’ll post separately about the abbey, for this post, let’s give the Tor the attention it deserves. I mentioned earlier that it is iconic. Is it a natural hill, or man-made? Either way it’s shape, which some claim from a particular angle resembles a lady in the pose of giving birth (I kid you not), not really seen that angle myself but apparently so – further enhances the pagan connections. And, literally, to top it all, the ruined tower of an old church on the summit. Long ago the Church of St Michael’s was seriously damage by a massive earthquake in the 13th century, a new church was built that was then torn down during Henry VIII 16th century Dissolution of the Monasteries, the tower is all that remains and was later restored. Why does the UK’s Royal Air Force refer to the hill as ‘the nipple’? You decide! Anyway, a link to a bit more of the history!
Back on one of my trips, 1999 I think, I took a photograph of the Tor with my Kodak digital camera. My first digital. 3.2 mp I think it was! I wasn’t into photography at the time, it was just a camera to me. But the photograph had to be printed. It was taken in early December on one of those bright crisp winter days that we get in England. About 10 in the morning and the sun was low. I was walking across one of the bridleways across a field next to the Tor with the sun silhouetting the shape of hill and tower. I lined it up...snapped the shot. The effect blew me away when I saw the image on screen later. The sun haloed like some spiritual burst of power emanating from the Tor. Yes, this blog post could get very, very poetic! I’ll try and hold it in.
Sadly the image is far too low resolution and quality to do anything with now but it still serves as an inspiration whenever I think about going back to Glastonbury. The weather conditions, my location, the time of year were all perfect for that shot. Now that I am just an opportunistic travel photographer who takes what he can, I don’t believe I will ever catch those conditions again. I will visit Glastonbury again, I have to, but it will be rarely. Such a shame!
Here then is the image, taken back in 1999. Low quality but what can I do?
A spiritual power?
The great thing about photographing the Tor, is that the shape, Mother Nature or man-made, has done most of the work for a photographer. There’s some much to use compositionally that in most weather conditions good shots are possible. The bright day shot, see above. Night shots, there are many online of the Tor backlight by blood moons, super moons, thunderstorms, fireworks...you name it!
On my last visit to Glastonbury, the last morning was my scheduled only time to walk up the Tor. Never enough! I could spend days up there! I woke to grey skies, not bright white flat skies, but moody dark ones which are perfect for atmospheric Tor shots. We had stayed two nights at the George & Pilgrim and this was our last morning. Generally, sadly – especially for my wife – the weekend had been a bit of a wash-out weather wise, it had also been chilly. The summer temperatures only in the mid teens and lots of drizzle that didn’t make Glastonbury, or the old small city of Wells up the road, shine – more 'shiver' actually. But for the climb up the Tor, I didn’t mind.
As I mentioned, the Tor has lots of connotations with myth and legend, as has the whole landscape of this area. Dark moody skies and that strange solitary tower atop the peculiar shaped hill can make for some great photographs. The other advantage of cool damp grey mornings: fewer tourists – which makes for a happier me (see my old posts for how shooting in public makes me nervous)! For the most part I pretty much had the hill to myself on the way up.
Going up the hill, you have two choices. The steep back path, or the long path (which is steep enough in places). It’s the long path angle you usually see in photographs given that the shape of the hill and the path work so well in compositions, leading the eye to the tower. Needless-to-say, I took this opportunity.
Avalon - Sun Rays on the Somerset Levels, f/11, 1/100, 15mm, ISO100
As is always the case when I plan to try long exposures to get water or cloud blur, I always line up the shot on my tripod without the filters first. I guess this is best practice, you have a better chance to see what you are doing without a thick piece of black glass in front of your lens. The clouds looked great, patches of sunlight and rays falling through on to the Somerset Levels beyond. Gorgeous. The pathway leading it’s way up to the tower. The tower so silent, obviously, but there is something about that tower, something magical...
LE’s had to be tried. The Lee Big Stopper was fitter and the tripod set as low as possible to emphasis the angles and shapes, and also to get some detail in the grassy landscape.
Portal? f/16, 30secs, 16mm, ISO100
I had to take my time, though conscious that figures were starting to appear at the entrance gate far below me, though they’d add perspective and scale, I wanted these shots empty and silent. Compositionally, spoit for choice. Which third do you put the tower, and the horizon? Or do you break the rules and stick it in the middle, to be bold and dominate the shot. The sun rays to the right, as in the second image above, emphasis the curve of the hill and path and capture the flat land to the left? The simple answer was...do them all!
Given the dark skies, mono was an obvious option for some of the images, but also I am liked the contrast given by the green the hill in the scene too.
I won’t / can’t post all the shots as I took so many. Each was captured as a single shot, but also bracketed just in case I needed to rescue some shadow or highlight detail. Portrait and landscape were also tried, perhaps the portrait gives more empahsis to the path, whereas landscape fits more of the sweeping scene beyond.
Ascension f/11, 1/160, 15mm, ISO100
Eventually I reached the tower. I took some close up momento shots showing the old carvings of abbots and bishops then sat on the stone bench inside the tower listening to the wind. It’s always windy up on the Tor. I’ve gone up many times and regardless how still the day is in the town below, the Tor will always be windy, is it the effect of a gateway? Or just a big hill surrounded by relatively flat land?
Tourists and dog walkers were now milling. That’s ok. I had got what I came for and was now just enjoying the sound of the wind and the air of the Tor. I waited. My family were all waiting down at the bottom, there was no rush, this time it was known that I can’t rush the Tor. I waited, peaceful, despite the milling people...most are respectful and silently observe the strange atmosphere and magical sense. If you’re quiet and calm, you can feel it.
Eventually, however, I had to leave. I descended by the shot path and took some handheld shots of the tower and hill from this angle, deliberately allow the perspective to distort the angles for emphasis.
Towering f/4, 1/320, 15mm, ISO100
I also couldn’t resist some long exposure side on shots, about 50 metres from where the shot was taken in 1999, but I didn’t cross the field via the bridleway, too muddy and my feet were not equipped for it. The shots though were not working as I’d hoped from this angle, the Tor was too dark and lost in the blurred clouds, even a normal exposure didn’t do it justice. The dark clouds were hanging above, but beyond the hill the sky was much brighter, even with bracketed shots, I wasn’t feeling it! It wasn’t right from this angle, not today, or perhaps it was just that I had such a treat on the way up, that now the shots just couldn’t compare.
Without doubt the Tor is one of my favourite places, if not my most favourite place, on this gorgeous planet of ours. If I could, I would spend days each season catching it in different light, from different angles, but sadly that isn’t possible. At least on this visit I was able to use the weather to get some interesting shots of a very special location.
Do you have a favouite scene or spot for a photograph? Share the shots and links here. I’ll be sure to comment and reply!
The Frustrated Photog.