Albion, ancient sites, Art, Books, Don and Wen

A visit to Pilton

Magdalene window, St John the Baptist, Glastonbury

Thursday morning we ended up at St John’s in Glastonbury once more, to have another look at the window in the north transept, in St Catherine’s chapel. It is a beautiful window and that small corner holds an awful lot of history. The window shows the men and women integral to the legend that tells how Joseph of Arimathea brought Christianity to these isles.

Beneath the window is a pilgrim tomb… said to have once been part of a shrine to Joseph. On top of it in a glass case the cope of Abbot Whiting, beheaded on the Tor. In the corner, there are the chained books, including the third copy of a breeches bible we have seen. From one of the roof bosses a green man looks down… it is a place where history and legend entwine with faiths old and new. It is a place to sit in silence and simply feel the life that runs through these things. Which is precisely what we did.

Window, North Transept, Glastonbury
Window, North Transept, Glastonbury

We had a little time after lunch before the third member of our team was to arrive so we headed out to Pilton in the car. “It’s on a ley.” That’s about all we knew, but that is a good enough excuse. Whatever the explanation behind the leys, and of course, we have our own theories, they do seem to correspond with what you could call sites of special interest.

“Guess,” says my companion indicating the nominal. It is, of course, another St John the Baptist. We walk up the path and through the gates to find something remarkably reminiscent of the Cathedral in the Fields, another of those churches far too grand for the sleepy little village where it now stands. Not that Pilton is always sleepy… the Festival would wake most things I imagine…

St John the Baptist, Pilton
St John the Baptist, Pilton

Apart from the banks of wild primroses, the first thing we notice is the profusion of grotesques and gargoyles that are simply everywhere. The entire building seems to be crawling with them. It even out-grotesques Cerne Abbas church! The camera is out and I start documenting them… but even I have to give up. There are too many.

Grotesque, Pilton
Grotesque, Pilton

Stuart, meanwhile, has disappeared inside the church. He didn’t even notice the doorway on the way in… not that I am in the least surprised. He stands looking up, eyebrows raised, at the heavily carved roof trusses… though my eyes are drawn to an unusual window first. He had already seen it, reflected in the glass of a piece of framed needlepoint as he came in the door. The stained glass here is quite spectacular and though most of it is only a couple of hundred years old there are some much older fragments.

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In fact, for a church that is so ornate outside, it seems quite simple in the cool interior. Closer inspection reveals that all is not what it seems, however, as angels hover in wood and stone within the shadows of the roof, delicate embroidery and an unusual pulpit hide in darkened corners. I go to photograph the east window and read the open Book in the chancel.

“You’d better sit down.”

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He is standing near a column, evidently reading. This is an unusual request… so I comply.

He begins to read out loud…. Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy metal merchant… He tells the story of how Joseph traded with these islands, landing at what was, once upon a time before the land was drained, Pilton harbour. Here. Just below the church. How, after Jesus’ crucifixion, he brought the story back to his old friends, baptising the first Christians here and building a wattle and daub church as well as the one at Glastonbury some six miles away, a story we knew well. Legends say that he brought the child Jesus with him to these islands too.

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We leave the church and walk down to the stream in the little wooded valley. You can see where the riverbank had once been, the channel for the port; how the church would sit just above it. The words of William Blake run through our minds as we look upon the verdant vale… “And did those feet in ancient times, walk upon England’s pastures green…”

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I look out across the quiet lawns and see in my mind’s eye the hustle and bustle of a busy port, a small ship coming to the quayside, a tired figure in the prow… Who can know? But if they did, perhaps it was here.

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