The Demography of Glastonbury

(Article written in 2014)

Glastonbury’s Alternative Community

Over the last thirty years the Glastonbury ‘alternative’ community has grown from some 600 people to some 3,000 people in 2014.  It is sometimes held that this community is a homogenous whole but this is very far from the case, and in fact it is becoming more heterogeneous with every year. This paper is an initial attempt to define the various aspects of this community and how the makeup has changed over the years.

 The terms we are using are arbitrary and not necessarily widely accepted. We do our best to define our concept of each group as we go along.

The Avalonians – These were a group of active ‘alternatives’ that worked in Glastonbury in the early part of the 20th century. These people included Frederick Bligh Bond, Wesley Tudor Pole, Dion Fortune, and Alice Buckton. These were people with a middle-class background and recognizable conventional skills and qualifications – but with very unconventional philosophies.   

They tended to have a Christian background from which they had moved on to develop their own beliefs. They were ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious’ but were each on a specific and individual spiritual path. They tended to be fluent in the spiritual mores of the moment and would have been aware of Mme. Blavatsky, Theosophy, Mysticism, Esotericism and the early 20th Century alternative spiritual teachers.

They were alternative to the mainstream as far as their spirituality was concerned but not so obviously alternative in their lifestyle. They were aware of what we might call an Over-Lighting presence that they felt was guiding the destiny of Glastonbury. They also felt the place had the potential to become an internationally recognized place of pilgrimage and spiritual transformation and that it could make it a strong contribution to the well-being of the world as a whole.

We are generalizing here but I think on the whole these people were very individualistic. They worked with other people and organized events, groups and projects but at heart remained rather solitary.

I believe that this pattern has continued into the 21st century and I'm going to call people with these interests avalonians – with a lower case ‘a’.

avalonians - when I arrived in Glastonbury in the 1980s, a significant number of members of the alternative community could be defined as avalonians using the definition I have given above.  They understood the beliefs of the Avalonians but had moved on to an awareness of other spiritual teachers such as Alice Bailey, Rudolf Steiner, Jiddu Krishnamurti, and the then contemporary forms of mysticism such as Transcendental Meditation. Most were following some form of spiritual practice.

They also tended to be interested in artistic creative and cultural activities of every sort.

There were continuing similarities to the Avalonians in that many were people with professional qualifications who had previously lived a conventional life but had chosen to move to Glastonbury to live a different style of life. They were alternative in lifestyle but otherwise did not look particularly unconventional.

 I think these avalonians probably made up about half of the alternative community – but they were only half and there was another important part of the community.

‘Alternatives’ - for want of a better word I will call these people Alternatives with a capital ‘A’ - Again we can only generalize in the broadest possible way about the people in this group, as they were also an individualistic and independent group.  Some of them had been travellers who had settled in Glastonbury. All of them tended to be in revolt against the conventional rigid life of the postwar world and were rejoicing in the freedom expressed by ‘Flower Power’,  Haight Ashbury and the New Age movement. They enjoyed freedom of expression, being together, and Festivals of every sort. They were quite prepared to put up with considerable material discomfort in order to live the lifestyle of their choice.  They had a strong social conscience and were very much aware of the unfairness of the conventional world.

They contained a significant number of very talented people.

If we wanted to summarize the difference between the Alternatives and the avalonians it is probably that the avalonians were more consciously spiritually orientated and solitary whilst the Alternatives were more community orientated and dressed and behaved in a more distinctively alternative style.

‘Benchers’ - there was a small handful off people who were seen by the town as being part of the alternative community but where itinerants who did not live in the town.  They were to be seen hanging around the town, drinking Special Brew beer or smoking pot, and sitting on the benches outside the church. Some were genuine travelers and some were simply dropouts who found Glastonbury a good place to camp out in the summertime. Many of them were sleeping rough. There were not many of them but they had a noisy and disruptive presence out of proportion to their small numbers .

The alternative Community in the 1980s.

In the middle 1980s there were probably about 600 people in the resident alternative community. Approximately half of them fell into the broad category of avalonians  and the other half into the broad category we have described as Alternatives.

These definitions are vague enough in themselves but the situation was made even less clear by the fact that the two categories overlapped and intermingled.  Nonetheless there was a definable difference between the philosophies of these two groups.

There were also different centres of interest in that that the Glastonbury Experience and Chalice Well tended to be the centres around which the mystics congregated whilst the travellers tended to be centred on the Assembly Rooms.

It is interesting that these two apparently different categories of people got on well together and worked together in surprising harmony. Despite their differences in outlook on life they had a lot of things in common which might be summarized as:

  • They were newcomers to Glastonbury and had not been born in the town.
  • They felt that they had been ‘called’, or somehow encouraged, to come and live in this place although they would have given a wide variety of reasons of the way in which they were called and what they felt was the purpose of this calling.
  • They had a feeling of being at home in the town - it was a place where they could grow in their own awareness and consciousness and at the same time make a useful contribution to the community.
  • They had a sense of valuing nature and the seasons and joined in celebration of the Celtic recognized solstices and quarter days.
  • All parts of the alternative community enjoyed the ‘sacred places’ including, Abbey grounds, Chalice Hill, Wearyall Hill, the Tor and the surrounding landscape.

 This disparate collection of people had a sense of being one alternative community despite their very different approaches to life.

 The local residents of what we might call the conventional town also saw them as one community – a community that included the Benchers and were collectively seen as a community of difficult people often collectively called ‘hippies’.

This is how things appeared to one new arrival in 1985 – now we need to look at what appears to have happened in the ensuing years.

In 1985 there was some 600 people in the alternative community in a town of some 8,000 people.  In 2014 this has grown to some 3,000 people in the alternative community in a town of 10,000 people.

The way in which the alternative population has changed has been in two broad phases – as with everything else we are looking at, there are not clearly defined stages, or indeed individual groups but Is perhaps a help to try and break things down if we are to understand the process that has been flowing through the town.  Let us consider the first stage

The alternative community – 1985 – 2000

During this time people continued to arrive and be called to live in Glastonbury and by 2000 there were probably some 1,500 members of the alternative community. The reasons for their calling and their beliefs diverged from those held by the original members of the alternative community but there were still some very clear common denominators that we might summarize as:

  • They were all newcomers
  • They felt that they had been ‘called’ to live in the town
  • They felt that the town was a special place where they could be themselves and where they could contribute – their definition of the special place varied widely

The new arrivals where diverging from the mores of the original members of the alternative community but they were still sufficiently different to enable them to look upon themselves as being an ‘alternative community’ and for the town to view them as such.

The most marked change in this period was the emergence of specialization in cultural and spiritual beliefs and the resulting fragmentation that took place. Instead of being a reasonably coherent alternative community it started to break up into specialized small groups and individuals. This fragmentation in turn led to a less general acceptance of what Glastonbury itself might be about.

So let us look at some of these new groupings

Alternatives and avalonians - these we have defined as the broad categories of the people in the alternative community in 1985. In the following years their numbers did not increase and in fact decreased as individuals died or moved away. Most of the expansion of the alternative community took place in ‘new categories’ that included the following - in alphabetical order:

 Artists - a wide range of artists of every sort including sculptors, painters, and graphic artists.

Authors - of novels, factual books, and poetry plus journals and magazines

Astrologers - a widespread belief in the value of astrology including many active practitioners

‘Believers’ - one of the most interesting developments that took place in this period was the ‘fragmentation’ from what had been a broadly esoteric ‘new age’ range of spiritual beliefs into a more specific following of recognized spiritual paths. People where looking at following the mystical side of the established religions. This included Mystical Christianity, Sufism as the mystical side of Islam, the Kabbalah as the mystical side of Judaism, Tibetan beliefs, Hindu spiritual books and many others. People tended to find a path of their choice and then to actively follow this. This involved research, finding a teacher, reading books on the subject and actively following the practices defined by their chosen path.

‘Communitarians’ - not a good word but the best we can do to describe an interest in the community at large and how it can support its members.

Computer Experts - many highly skilled computer experts arrived. This enabled the town to set up two successful town portal websites plus a large number of other websites.

Geomancers - there had always been an interest in earth energies, sacred sites, sacred geometry, ley lines, and dowsing. Now there was a substantial increase in the number of individuals interested in these subjects and an active and successful annual conference on the subject was established.

Goddess - there was an explosion of interest in the Goddess in history, myth and her influence on the present time. Courses, teaching and training emerged and a successful annual conference established.

Greens - these was a growing interest in ecology and the impact that the present materialistic approach to life was having on the world. This involved active interest in alternative sources of energy, local food growing, how to handle the transition from today to the ideal future in the form of a Transition Towns initiative, and a broad concept of how to ‘live lightly upon the earth’.

Musicians - the number of local musicians steadily increased. These were of every type interested in classic, contemporary, acoustic, amplified and traditional music.

Pagans - it is probably worth a separate category for pagans. In many ways this was part of the emerging interest in the esoteric and mystical side of traditional religions. But in this case these were beliefs that had not had not previously been thought of as conventional. The two main beliefs were Wicca and Druidism and there was rapidly growing interest in research into these beliefs and in following their practices.

Shop Keepers - Shop keeping was not a philosophy or belief but these people came to play a very significant part in the alternative community. Essentially newcomers arriving had to earn their living in one way or another and there were few conventional jobs. Many people turned to opening a shop. An interesting development was that the people involved tended to be more practically competent than had been the case in the past and the shops tended to succeed and thrive. A logical decision was made it to sell the products in which both the local alternative community and visitors were interested - hence there became an abundance of bookshops, crystal shops and alternative cafés. By the end of this period, 80% of the shops on the High Street, from the Church down to the Marketplace, were alternative shops. This might have looked like the potential for fierce competition between shops virtually next door to each other selling similar products  – but in fact the very number of these shops became an attraction which drew more people to the town.

Therapists - by the end of this period there at least 300 therapists in the town. These were offering therapies of every conceivable type. Some were successful, some not so as was inevitable with such a concentration of therapists in a small town where, even with visitors, there were just not enough potential clients.

Yoga and Martial Arts - interest in the various Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese and Japanese schools of yoga and martial arts. Teachers arrived and people started actively practicing these disciplines

 

During this stage the population of the alternative community grew from some from some 600 to some 1,500 people. The community had grown but at the same time it had fragmented into a large number of small groups and individuals concentrating upon their own specific activities.

The interest of individuals was not necessarily confined to one or other of the groups we have mentioned above and they might be involved in a number. Nonetheless their interests tended to be in the local groups in which they were concerned rather than in the community as a whole. This fragmentation led to a lack of cohesion within the alternative community and in some ways this lack of cooperation meant that individual groups had to solve their own problems and there was little real synergy in the community.

Whilst the alternative community had fragmented, this was not how the conventional town saw it. The town saw the growing number of strange shops in the High Street and the proliferation of incomprehensible conferences, courses, workshops and general activity as being a sign that the stability of their established, conventional, historic market town was being undermined by these new incomers who appeared to be working in collaboration in order to destroy the town

The alternative community – 2000 – 2014

In looking at the previous period, we saw a substantial growth in numbers but the fragmentation of the alternative community. In the period at which we are now looking the numbers continued to grow. People continue to be ‘called’ to the town and by 2014 the numbers had grown to some 3,000 people. Again we have to repeat that we are defining as alternative, people who have some interest or practice that is different to the mainstream.

 During this period a subtle change has taken place in the alternative community and its relationship to the town as a whole. We might summarize these as follows:

  • Many of the newcomers have some alternative interests or practices but otherwise do not appear to be startlingly different to the conventional community.
  • After the initial fragmentation and polarization there has been a growing awareness within the alternative community that whilst individuals follow their own spiritual path, they are nonetheless open to accepting the validity of other paths. What they have in common is a spiritual or philosophical outlook that is different to the present materialistic paradigm.
  • There is a growing realization that a substantial part of the wealth of the local economy is being generated by the alternative community - to the benefit of the whole town.
  • The fragmentation into a much wider range of interests, and the more conventional aspects of some of the newcomers, has led to the alternative community appearing less different, less homogenous and in consequence less threatening to the local townspeople.

 These developments have led to the beginnings of real cooperation between the conventional town and the alternative community. It is still early days but there are signs of a new ability to negotiate and understand each other.

In 1985 was the small alternative community was rather like a specialized college in one corner of a market town. Now it's become more like a town with a large university operating within it. This is a university with a number of very different specialized faculties. The ‘University’ has a significant number of resident members and a large number of visiting visitors and students. It is recognized by the town as being separate from the town but a provider of useful revenue to the economy as a whole.

An interesting facet of the changes we are mentioning is that not only have the members of the alternative community changed but so also has the nature of the visitors to the town. In the early part of the period we were looking at, many visitors were specifically interested in what we might call the ‘Esoteric Energies’ of the town and were interested in purchasing articles in the shops that appeared to represent and reflect these energies.

The visitors today seem to have a broader range of interests and some of the shopkeepers have noted a significant change in their buying patterns.

Another impact on the town has been the Internet. Whereas previously following a spiritual path involved a  great deal of research in finding the right books, courses and teachers. Today a simple search with Google will reveal a huge range of teaching – in some ways this has short-circuited the sense of ‘seeking and finding’ and made it almost too easy for the search to appear to be completed.  This can lead to a lack of concentration upon one specific path – the course that the mystery schools have always held is essential in developing spiritual awareness.

New people continue to be called to the town and the alternative community continues to grow. The members of this community are still socially alternative but not so different to the conventional community as was earlier the case. Part of the reason for this is the changes that are going on in what we might call the conventional world.  There is a growing interest and awareness in climate change, green issues and community activities and a sense that pure materialism and economic growth is not working. The alternatives, and those to whom they are alternative, are slowly growing closer together.

 Today it looks as if Glastonbury is continuing in its role as a place where individuals can be different and be accepted as being different. There is something about the place and its atmosphere that allows individuals to enhance their own level of consciousness and spiritual awareness. In this way it will continue to be different to a conventional town in that many of its residents will have a different outlook to that of the conventional world.

Hopefully as it grows and develops there will be an increasing understanding of the value of all aspects of the town and it will begin to achieve the roll envisaged by the Avalonians – that of a great Centre of teaching that will be an inspiration to the world at large.

Whatever may happen, there seems to be a continuing momentum to the development of this extraordinary place.