The Path to Priddy and “A Pretty Legend”

by Dennis on January 7, 2010

I’m extremely grateful to Yvonne Whiteman for sending me the above photograph. As far as physical geography’s concerned, you can discern the white houses of Westbury-sub-Mendip in the distance; when you reach the top of the Mendips, you cross the Mendip Way and walk in a straight line over the fields to Priddy, which is the place where many legends specifically locate Jesus “in ancient time.”

As far as Yvonne’s perception of this site is concerned, it is a special place, a description that is more than adequate for me. I’ve been fortunate enough to find many such places in my time, in Britain, Europe and Scandinavia, while I wrote in some detail about the tranquil and at the same time uplifting sensation I experienced at Nine Barrows Lane in Priddy some years ago. I’m certain that many other readers of Eternal Idol will have had experience of other places that possess at atmosphere or aura that is difficult to accurately convey in words, whether that atmosphere be benign or malevolent, but I’m naturally intrigued to learn of the existence of one so close to Priddy.

I’m also very impressed by Yvonne for accomplishing something that has thus far defeated me, by managing to acquire an opinion from a senior member of the Church of England on details of ‘very early Christianity’ in Britain; once again, I’m grateful to Yvonne for being willing to share this with everyone else.

In the summer of 2009, Yvonne was chatting to one of the Canons of Westminster Abbey and she asked the lady in question how the Church of England regards the myth of Jesus coming to England. The Canon replied that they think of it as “a pretty legend.”

Yvonne then asked how they regard the myth of Joseph of Arimathea coming to Glastonbury, and received the reply that “they take this rather more seriously”.

Absolutely fascinating, but I’ll leave you to ponder all this for yourselves and to draw your own conclusions.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

thelma wilcox January 7, 2010 at 8:53 am

Its a lovely area and I’ve walked up to the Priddy Nine barrows; one of the other places you can see Glastonbury from, though, is the Ebbor Gorge, just out of the village of Priddy. You have to stand on a ledge jutting over the tree lined rocks of the gorge below and Glastonbury is very much the mystical island in the distance; its strong presence in the landscape must have been a great attraction to travellers.

But to return to hills, one year walking up the steep lane of Solsbury Hill by Bath on Good Friday I found at the top about 50 people from the local church celebrating there with a great wooden cross. I was surprised to see them worshipping on a pagan hill fort, but apparently they did it every year. Perhaps it was just a re-enactment of carrying the cross, but of course the last Abbot of Glastonbury – Richard Whiting – also carried a cross up to the Tor, for his execution I think….

Dennis January 7, 2010 at 7:55 pm

This all long ago reminded me of George Orwell’s ‘Doublethink’.

There are stories of Jesus in the West Country and evidence to place him there, along with assorted people finding ‘special places’ and Christians clambering up pagan hills with crosses, but of course, these things aren’t remotely related.

The Church takes the stories of Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury with a certain degree of seriousness, while the monarch gets annual cuttings from the Glastonbury Thorn, but of course, these things don’t have any bearing whatsoever on the notion of JC in the West Country.

Etc, etc, etc.

It’s neither here nor there to me, because I’m just an observer, but I have to say that I’m an increasingly baffled observer.

Robin Melrose January 8, 2010 at 12:50 am

Hi Dennis,

As you know, I agree with you that Jesus could well have visited Britain, including Glastonbury and Stonehenge. As I’m sure you also know, William of Malmesbury, who was an Anglo-Norman local boy, reported that the church at Glastonbury may have been founded by one of the disciples, but says nothing of Jesus. This is probably not surprising, since Jesus obviously was in England before he was famous, and if he made an impression, his deeds would only have been preserved in oral tradition, in a form we can’t really imagine.

If the church at Glastonbury was founded by a disciple, then you would expect the connection to be made between Jesus-the-boy and the later Jesus, but then the earliest Christians at Glastonbury would have been under pressure from the Roman authorities, and we can’t be sure whether they survived, given that Christianity didn’t become legal till the 300s. So the memory of Jesus being here could have been lost, and only the oral traditions survived. What might this oral tradition consist of? One possibility is Arthur, who originated in Britain, and seems to be unknown to us until after the Romans left Britain. Arthur is associated among other things with Otherworld journeys and slaying monsters, which sort of fits in with his profile while in England. Presumably Arthur was already known to the Britons, but may have got a boost from the young Jesus.


Dennis January 8, 2010 at 1:44 am

Ah, the 7th Cavalry, and not a moment too soon! I’ve recently been discussing events that took place in 1987 and it’s amazing the different memories people have of a particular event, so it doesn’t remotely surprise me that something that occurred around 2,000 years ago should be preserved in less than crystal clear form.

I’m not an Arthurian expert, but when you mention this man, Otherworld journeys and the like in the West of England, I’m reminded of Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”, by which I mean that I’m not remotely surprised that one ‘hero’ or messianic figure in the West of England in antiquity somehow became merged with another. I was recently reading about Theseus, also, who was almost certainly a historical personage, as was Hercules, yet the constant recounting of their deeds elevated them to heroic and semi-divine status.

I could go on for hours yet, as could we both, but it can wait until another day and a more detailed post. In the meantime, Robin, as soon as you would like to send me details of your forthcoming book, I will be very happy to announce them to the Four Winds here on Eternal Idol and it’s always good to hear from you.

Dan H. January 8, 2010 at 1:14 pm

Just out of interest, where is that photo taken from?

Dennis January 8, 2010 at 1:23 pm

I’ll ask Yvonne to see if she’s happy to post up some more details, but it’s obviously a ‘high place’.

Alex Down January 8, 2010 at 6:13 pm

The place is pretty apparent if you look at an OS map, and line up Westbury-sub-Mendip and the obvious whaleback hill in the distance. There’s a little reentrant valley running down the scarp of the Mendips. Finding it should be left as an exercise for the reader!

JohnWitts January 8, 2010 at 10:25 pm

What is a reentrant valley?

Yvonne Whiteman January 9, 2010 at 12:04 am

Interesting, Thelma Wilcox’s sighting on Solsbury Hill.

From Bath, the next valley beyond Solsbury Hill is St Catherine’s Valley, and on one side at the top is Rocks East Woodland. You can see the remains of a Roman pool and piping there, and deep within the woodland is a moss-covered stone circle where, I was told by the old man who used to run the Woodland, druids regularly meet. The circle is damp and overgrown and oozes eldritch atmosphere.

Alex, you’re right. People can find this special place for themselves – there aren’t that many footpaths from Westbury Sub Mendip up to Priddy. It’s the journey that’s important, not the getting there. And yes, there are wonderful, wild iconic views of the Levels and Glastonbury from higher up the path – but they don’t have the special feel of the place I snapped.

Alex Down January 9, 2010 at 10:03 am

Reentrant? Sorry, I’d assumed that it was a term in general use, and I see now that it isn’t. It’s used extensively in the earth sciences, but I first came across it in the sport of orienteering where it’s defined as: “Reentrant – a small valley running down a hillside. A stream cut into a hillside would create a reentrant-type feature. On a map, the contour lines which describe a reentrant point uphill.

Alex Down January 9, 2010 at 10:44 am

This concept of a “special place” is interesting and, as Yvonne observes above, a great view is not sufficient. I’ve always felt the concept of genius loci is important to ancient monuments and sites, and I’m strongly tempted to believe that a marked genius loci equates to the “specialness” of a place.

But what is this spirit (or atmosphere) of the place? The Romans thought that it was an actual spirit. These days, it seems to be more of an idea captured in landscape design. Alexander Pope wrote:
Consult the genius of the place in all;
That tells the waters or to rise, or fall;
Or helps th’ ambitious hill the heav’ns to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;
Calls in the country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks, or now directs, th’ intending lines;
Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.

And that seems as good a description as it’s possible to get of the natural resources in Yvonne’s picture above.

Because I like speculating, and I’m quite willing to be shown the error of my ways, I’d guess that a sense of specialness or genius loci is an atavistic throwback to our distant forebears. In a dangerous and uncertain world, a place that could provide safety, security, shelter, protectedness, nearby supplies of food and water, and a good look out over surrounding country would always be sought after and, for people who lived intimately on and within the landscape, it would be a natural instinct to identify these places and seek them out as they travelled through the land. Some people might wish to add some idea of “earth energies” to that list of special characteristics. And modern sensibilities would probably include the idea of beauty.

I think we all probably have some of that natural self-protective instinct hidden deep within us still. For most people, the totally alien environments of urban living will ensure that it stays deeply hidden, because it’s entirely superfluous. But for others, perhaps just the simple act of choosing where to have a picnic on a summer ramble taps into that ancient sense. And, for some, they will always be intimately aware of the conformation of the land and let it speak to them in ways that reconnect us with our distant past.

Dennis January 9, 2010 at 1:05 pm

Alex, I’m very grateful to you for bringing Pope’s words to my attention and I’m sure everyone else who wasn’t aware of them will be pleased as well.

What can I say? I’ve been to hundreds of ‘special places’ in my time, but I still don’t know what the ‘genius loci’ is. You’re spot-on with the idea of picnics, because I found many such places on Salisbury Plain and one that stands out in my mind is the destroyed barrow known locally as “The Hot Cross Bun”, so named because of the way the American tanks ripped it apart during training in World War II.

Otherwise, I’ve made my way by night to places that had a ferocious reputation for hauntings; on some occasions, the site was unremarkable. On others, the spot was indeed frightening, but on others still, the location had an otherworldly beauty and enchantment to it, much to my surprise.

I’m inclined to think that some ‘special places’ are special as a result of human activity imbuing the site with an atmosphere, while others may be haunted in the broadest sense of the word. As I mentioned in my book, Aubrey Burl specifically writes of a ‘genius loci’ at Stonehenge, but we none of know what its precise nature is.

At other places, it may be something to do with the physical contours, the way the wind blows, aesthetic appeal or “earth energies”, or indeed a combination of all the above. All I know for certain is that these blessed or damned places most certainly exist and that one does not need to be a psychic to appreciate that there is something very different and primaeval about them.

And they absolutely fascinate me.

Alex Down January 9, 2010 at 6:19 pm

Way off-topic, but striving desperately to make it fit … Eternal Idol is a wonderful landscape and within it are many special places, some provided by a broad range of contributors with many different interests.

I was surprised to find that one very tech-savvy reader didn’t know that it’s possible to be automatically notified of new comment posts. So it’s worth passing on a tip for how to do this. Possibly most readers already subscribe to an RSS feed that puts a summary of a new post from Dennis into their blog reader. It’s just as valuable to be notified of new comment postings, and you can accomplish this simply be clicking on the RSS COMMENTS button at the bottom right of this page, just below the “Care to comment?” section. Then you’ll see all of the comments posted too, even if they’re weeks, months or even years after the original posting. And often they’re the most valuable …

If you don’t yet use a blog reader, it really does make sense to install one. Probably the simplest and most accessible is the Google Reader that acts as a simple aggregator in a tab in your browser. You’ll never miss out on one of EI’s special places again!

Juris Ozols January 9, 2010 at 6:43 pm

Special Places – Here’s a few that have a special feeling, for me and a lot of other people I’m sure:

- The Avenue as you walk up it from Stonehenge Bottom to the stone circle. If you haven’t done that, you don’t know Stonehenge.
- The 1066 Battlefield. I have spent many hours there, daytime and night. And at night, in company with others and by myself. An indescribable feeling.
- Beachy Head. Very, very unsettling. Both my daughter and girl friend commented on that when I took them there on separate occasions.
- Westminster Abbey. Unfortunately, you can’t be there alone at night, which would be a magnificent experience. But even in the hordes of daytime tourists, still a very special place. When the people go away and the spirits – Queen Elizabeth! – rise to mingle at night, can you just imagine the parties they hold!
- Gettysburg Battlefield in Pennsylvania. My first visit was in the evening with the darkness falling and the mists rising. The ghosts were there too, I didn’t see them, but they were there.
- The USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor. I once was aboard a US Navy destroyer that steamed into Pearl. As we passed the Memorial the sailors manned the rail at attention and gave a salute. I wonder if anybody can do that and maintain a dry eye?

Well, others too. But those are some of my very special places.


Red Raven January 10, 2010 at 9:53 am

“Special Places” … a very subjective concept. I’ve given the subject much thought over the last year or so and have tried to define what it is that creates “special”. The result stands at around 4000 words and still doesn’t do it justice.
Probably the most accurate way to define it personally, (forgive this self-indulgence) would be to class it as a relationship with the land and the associated interactions made in the environment throughout what we experience as time.
Stonehenge has, of course, been in the defined as special because of it’s history, both recorded and speculated. However, each of us, I suspect through our own biological processes, experience and respond to localities differently. Again, as an example using self indulgence, I live in what would be classed as a former mining area and the local areas that were the industrial sites that produced the coal have now been landscaped. This results in what were formerly pit slag heaps now shaped by the planting of various plants and the creation of an environment suitable for habitation of the area’s wildlife.
However, for me, much more powerful is the realization that the hill I am walking up, which now looks entirely natural, wouldn’t have been there were it not for the efforts of my (recent) ancestors. So, whereas I can appreciate the connection made by people with the natural landscape, my own personal “special” is walking upon, and therefore interacting with, that which exists because of the exclusive efforts of the local population.
It has been my experience that the natural landscape is experienced somewhat differently.


Angie Lake January 10, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Walking on Dartmoor, which I don’t do often enough considering my proximity to the moors, can be very spiritual. The landscape has hardly changed over the millennia and you really can get that feeling of ‘touching base’ with the distant ancestors when you’re out on those hills. You’re seeing exactly what they saw, which is quite an awe-inspiring and humbling sensation. I recommend it .. and wish I was up there today in the snow. On a cold day that’s bright, the light is so sharp and clear, too, and the rugged tors silhouetted against the bright blue sky can be surreal. Last winter’s walk to the twisted dwarf oaks of Wistman’s Wood, sprouting from their mossy rocks, was such a day. A magical land….

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