The Somerset: Levels, Leylines and Layers
Article ID: 8700
Age Group: Adult
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Posted: September 3rd. 2004
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The Somerset: Levels, Leylines and Layers
by Michael Calabrese
It's one of those very hard things to describe. Perhaps it's made all the more difficult because every image, smell, sound and emotion is so increased there. Being a self-proclaimed "word-smith" should mean that I can readily find a way to express the power, breadth and detail of this place whose name may, in itself, serve as its only definition: Somerset.
The wild, magnificent West Country of Britain has an area which is set apart - even from its extraordinary landscapes, ancient places and mists. There are many perfectly logical explanations for why this place looks as it does: all the rain, the angle of the sunlight in northern latitudes, the geologic this and that...all quite correct and entirely beside the point. Somerset is a place made of crossed descriptions. Color carries with it an echo of past ages; the sounds of the forests, bird songs and the wind in the branches creates a visible vibration that rings through the land and the spirit of a place once held to be the center of the world...is everywhere. It rises from the ground through your feet, enters your lungs when you breathe, and dazzles the senses with brilliance and shadow in the same eyeful. It is pervasive, unstoppable and unending. No matter what you look for - the breast of the Goddess, the wisdom and faith of the Druids, or the grace of the Christ - it, will find you, in the Somerset.
Humans often drive human religious experience. We are the active partners. That is not true in the Somerset. There, the initiative is shifted from our hands, carried away on a tide of the sea, which on some level still surrounds the place. At the center of that spiritual sea is the Isle of Avalon, a place touched by the hand of divinity. Yes - the hand that made the universe has touched everything that was or will be, in some way, at some time, but that is not what I mean. The Isle is a place where divinity dwells and so, leaves its imprint everywhere.
The Somerset has seen the rise of the ancient faith of the Goddess, Druid groves, the Romans, Arthur, Patrick, Bridget, Ethelred, Dunstan, Alfred, Canute, Giso, John Lackland, John of Glastonbury, William Chaplain and Henry VIII. But did any of them ever leave? I don't think so. In the end, the result of the hand of divinity is the creation of a place which holds the memory of all events which came to pass in the history of its living spirit and will not surrender them - not even to time.
Walking along the quiet lanes, climbing her sacred hills or watching the fog lift from the Levels, forces the question: Is there a past in Somerset? That answer may well be, "No." In order to be the past something needs to be over. Here, events from all the ages of man surround you, enfold you, like the fog on the Levels. Nothing is over. This is the Somerset - where nothing is the past.
For me, the single aspect that sets the Somerset apart from other places more than anything else is in the change that comes to the nature of emotional and spiritual events. We are all raised to believe that these things are matters of the heart, the psyche, perhaps even the ego. In the Somerset, they are physiological, tactile. I use the crossing of that line as the best single definition of magic, and of all the things that matter in the Somerset, your ego is the last.
I should state plainly that I am one of those dazed Americans who arrives for a week or two to receive my annual dose of awe. But after seven years of traveling the roads of the West Country, reading and studying, I hope that I am worthy of the coveted title: "Un-tourist." But amateur archaeology and history by avocation leave me unprepared for the overload that greets me each time I come. They also fail to explain why on each sad departure, less of me leaves. I should also say that I am Pagan. Does this mean that I am an overgrown member of the airy-faerie crowd? No. It does mean that I am more comfortable with explanations which involve spiritual energies operating in the here and now, than perhaps the average American. Pagans tend to look for such things. Many stalwart Church of England types on the other hand, seem to have little difficulty combining the two ideas and wonder what all the fuss is about. I also know deeply spiritual Christians whose breadth and depth of understanding and sensitivity to those same energies, dwarf most self-declared High Priestesses of the Sacred Third Order of Whatever-It-Is-This-Month. In considering the Somerset and particularly, the Isle of Avalon, I don't know that such orientations mean very much. It is probably the job of divinity to ignore whatever points of view we arrive with.
Over the course of my trips to the West, I've driven into and out of the Somerset a hundred times from all directions. Approaching from London by either the M4 or M3, or most commonly, the A303, I pass through Wiltshire with its rolling fields, miles of sheep and cattle, quiet villages. Wiltshire is rich to the point of luxury, thick with history and enchantment. The road ahead stretches around a long curve, and the color of the world shifts from lush to radiant. That's when I know...I've crossed into the Somerset, where God invented iridescent paint. Color takes on an added dimension, a new depth created by a special backdrop: the shadow of a world which is not our own. The presence of all that has come to pass in this place leaves its indelible mark on the world and creates that extra layer of depth, which our eyes are not used to seeing. That shadow combined with brilliance, equals the Somerset.
I used to think that I had succeeded in "glamoring" myself - falling into the trap any tourist might set. Then I made this same trip with others, on different occasions. We make that long sweeping turn along the road, silence fills the car...we're there. When one person gets awestruck, it's romance. When two, three or four people, of different faiths and points of view do, it's not romance - it's what is out there.
Standing upon the Tor, one's eye is drawn to the chain of hills running across the south, forming one lip of the bowl surrounding the Levels. An extra layer of depth pervades everything. This is Arthur Country. The hill fort at South Cadbury stands forward of the rest of the hills overlooking the plain and the forest is just a bit darker and a humming shadow adds its somber base note to the sound of the wind in the trees. To the north and west, the Mendip Hills rise with their own shadows. In the gorges, faces in the stones gaze down upon the traveler as they have for thousands of years and whispers rise from the hollows and caves. In the valley below, the tiny city of Wells lies nestled around her Cathedral - a shining proof that is no more a myth than Druid faith.
Yes - to see these things, one must be in Glastonbury, but as the Leylines cross, so the road to Glastonbury is braided with Dion Fortune's turning path. You have to stand upon Avalon to see the tapestry for all it is.
We should agree that anyone who drives through the Dorset, Devon, Wiltshire or Gloucester and finds those places dim, is an idiot. These places are not made less by the Somerset. Their splendor makes the shift in the visible world all the more remarkable because of their beauty, history and lore. Crossing the usually unmarked boundaries of ever-shifting county lines is something like watching the movie The Wizard of Oz when the color kicks in. Lines drawn by men don't matter. The land defines itself and allows you to see it...if you behave.
Anyone who spends more than a day in Glastonbury becomes struck by the odd assortment of religious communities who are drawn to this place to establish a presence here. One can easily understand the attraction to Pagans of all descriptions and the rich Christian tradition, both Catholic and Church of England. Between them, they've made this place the "holiest ground in England." But why do the Greek Orthodox have a monastery here? Why is there a Bahai Temple, and Ashrams? Muslims, Hindu's and Buddhists make offerings and Tibetan monks come to pray at the waters of Chalice Well. On my second or third visit, I was sitting on a bench in front of St. John's in the High Street, engaged in a discussion with a Rabbi from Jerusalem, who told me he was there "on retreat." I don't know that the Rabbinate maintains a house in Glastonbury or the surrounding areas; still, he came to this place. All of these faiths are overflowing with rich culture, holy sites and lore of their own. There is a sound case to be made that together, they weave the fabric of human religious practice. So...what are they doing here?
There are words that conjure images of mystery and myth, and magic. Avalon is such a word. In many respects, Avalon - ancient Glastonbury - lies at the heart of the Somerset, and at the heart of Avalon lays Chalice Well, a crossroads of the spiritual world. This portal of an ancient, primal faith, so close to the White Well and the rising heap of Glastonbury Tor - seen as the entrance to the "Otherworld," where the dead and unborn wait, where the Veil is always thin - is the center of that crossroads. Perhaps that is what they are doing here.
There are some who will tell you that the Leylines, the routes of magnetic and spiritual energy that cross the earth, linking sacred sites one-to-another, concentrate their energies in this small market town. Personally, I lean toward the archaeological evidence of the "Old Straight Track," and the idea that the ancient roads built for the souls of the dead led humans to build their burial mounds and shrines along those paths. Yet, those ancient highways do indeed lead here and crisscross time and time again through this town where divinity has always been found.
Walking down the High Street today, one is accosted by the army of tourists, the wanderers, the sellers, and hawkers. The Goddess statues are everywhere; you can always tell when something spiritual is in the shop window - she's naked... She sits among all the other trappings of those who come to prey but not to pray. I always wonder at what thoughts might run through the minds of the generations who walked the miles to the sacred grove, who made the processional climb up the Tor to meet the sun, made their offerings and left with hearts full of hope.
There is a unity of spirit in this ancient place, and it may be that Avalon is both the place where the Veil is thin and the reason why. I found my way to look beyond the weary shopkeepers. For me, the call to return is always there. It grows stronger with the need to rejoin the accumulating parts of myself, which remained when last I left.
Location: Cincinnati, Ohio
Author's Profile: To learn more about Erwyllian - Click HERE
Bio: Michael Calabrese is a long-time Pagan and Bard. Many trips through Britain's West Country, love of the land and its ancient spirit, inspired this essay. Avalon is a thing of mists and myth. It is here today in our world. Michael is a Companion of Chalice Well in Glastonbury and the author of a new book A Dragon Rises.
Photo Credit: "Wearyall Hill from Glastonbury Tor" Photo by "Varden" September 2003
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