We now look at the community today, how it has changed since 1985 and whether the present community bears any resemblance to the pattern of the town in the Middle Ages with its monks in the Abbey and the supporting town
The biggest single change in Glastonbury in the last twenty years has been the shift in the balance of the make up of the local community. In 1985 the population of the town was some 7,000 people. We have no figures of the breakdown but it was probably about 500 Alternative people, 1,000 relatively recently arrived retired and people and commuters and the rest long standing residents. In 2007 the situation was completely different.
The analysis below is based upon the National Census of 2001 and the Glastonbury Community Development Trust (GCDT) Community Report of June 2004 during which they interviewed some 1900 adults. The census did not recognise the definition ‘Alternative’ and so the GCDT used questions containing the words ‘Alternative’, ‘Spiritual;’ and ‘New Age’ in their questionnaire in order to try to identify the Alternative residents. Adults were defined as those 16 years of age and over, those younger are defined as children.
The facts that emerge from these reports are that in 2001 there was a total population of 8,784 being 6,843 Adults and 1,941 children. The GCDT survey indicated that 28% of the population could be called locals and applying this to 2001 would give 2,460 Locals and the remaining 6,324 as ‘Incomers’. Of the Incomers some 20% of the population, 1,757 people, described themselves as ‘Alternative’
The GCDT stated that the figures for ‘Alternatives’, listed in their printed survey, were for the people who had specifically so stated in their questionnaire. The personal interviews had indicated that there appeared to be a significant number of people who were Alternative but had not described themselves as such on the questionnaire.
The Census for 1981 gave a total population of Glastonbury of 6,843 people and this would give a growth in population of 28% over the 20 years between the censuses of 1981 and 2001 census – 1.4% per year. Applying this figure to the six years since the 2001 census gives a total population in 2007 of 9,522 of which, using the GCDT figures, 1,904 would be Alternative people - 1,485 adults and 419 children.
I believe that the true figure for Alternative people is higher than this. My guestimate is based upon the GCDT’ s suggestion that the true figures for Alternatives were higher than they had reported in their survey, and my own experience of the type of ‘Incomer’ who has have been arriving in the town over the last five years
I believe that that the total population of Glastonbury in 2007 is about 9,522. Of these the ‘Local’ population has certainly not grown and may now be only 25% of the total. Of the remaining 75% who are ‘Incomers’ I believe that at least 25% are now Alternative leaving 50% as ‘Retired and Commuting’ people.. This would give a total Alternative population of 2,380 of which 1,856 would be adults. Whilst these figures should not be taken as exact, they do give a good indication of a quite marked trend
Make up of the population
The traditional churches continue, but otherwise the Locals tend to have little understanding of, or sympathy with, with the growing activities of what we are calling the Pilgrimage Town. Other than some services for traditional Christian pilgrims, they are not supplying and if the specialised needs of the growing number of pilgrims of every other faith.
INCOMERS – Retired and Commuting – 50% of the population
There is a major increase in the number of these newcomers. They are attracted by various features of what they see as a small country town, with relatively cheap housing and not too far from London. They tend not to be particularly interested in the town itself, its shops or its community activities.
INCOMERS – Alternative – 25% of the population.
There has been a dramatic increase in the number of these people in the last twenty years and particularly in the last seven years or so. They are of every faith, denomination and belief but the one key feature is that they feel that, in one way or other, they have been ‘Called’ to live in Glastonbury. Often the do not know why they have been so called, but they are convinced that this is the place where they want to live. Of the 500 adults and children who made up the alternative community in 1985, children have grown up and adults have moved away – perhaps 350 are still here. There views may have changed but perhaps not a great deal from those held then.
But there are now an additional 1,500 new comers who can loosely be called alternative. These people share many of the values of the original members of the community. But in many ways they are also very different. Generalising for 1,500 people is inevitably going to be very crude as of course they are all very different individuals. But perhaps we can try to define the features of these two sections of the alternative community
What is very interesting is that many of the newly arriving people feel that they have been called but are rather different to those that we have called the Old Alternatives. These newcomers see Glastonbury as a place that is special and unusual in some way. Many are well educated, with university degrees, and have held responsible posts in the outside world and have chosen to live in the Alternative community of Glastonbury, even ‘though this means, for them, a lower standard of living than that which they were previously enjoying. Often they bring with them useful amounts of capital, having sold a house in a more expensive part of the country. This allows them to buy a house here and still have a worthwhile amount of spare cash to allow them to buy, or set up, a business. They may have left wives, husbands, children and parents as well as working colleagues, and can at first be quite lonely. They nearly all have a strong sense of service to the community and soon feel at home in the town as they join local voluntary projects. They tend not to be as overtly spiritual as are the so-called Sacred Alternatives, but to be very much interested in the landscape and matters green and ecological.
A marked difference in these ‘New Alternatives’ is that they are much more positive in outlook and competent with financial matters. There is little of the old poverty consciousness. They have set up numerous new pilgrim-orientated shops and services and many are qualified therapists. Their professional experience has enabled them to run successful projects and most of these new Alternative projects are thriving.
The Emerging Pattern
It does seem as if a pattern is emerging along the lines similar to those which existed in the time of the Abbey. The Alternative people could be said to be performing the function that was performed by the monks of the Abbey whilst the Locals could be thought of as the supporting town. A major difference in 2007 was the substantial number of commuters and retired people who were altering the balance of the town. On the other hand, the incoming commuters and retirees tended to play little part in the community life of the town and the ‘activists’ could be said to be split more or less equally between Locals and Alternatives
More and more people were being ‘called’ to Glastonbury and it did indeed look as if everything needed in the way of people, skills, and experience was being ‘arranged’. But, despite this, whilst individual projects were thriving, the people of the town as a whole did not seem to be working together and the town was far from achieving its maximum potential. The main problem was fragmentation and lack of co-operation. We need to look at this situation in more detail.
A significant cause of the lack of co-operation was the difficulty that the Alternative community seemed to find in working together. Here were people who were committed to helping the new Glastonbury to flourish, and who worked hard at their own individual project, but who seemed to be totally uninterested in the complementary Alternative projects being built all around them. People seemed to find it extraordinarily difficult to see their pet project as a vital part of a greater whole – the great spiritual centre of Glastonbury.
I have a theory of why this is so. Many of the incoming Alternative people had left good jobs and family and friends who had not understood why they were giving up what was perceived as a good life, in order to live in a primitive backwater like Glastonbury. It had frequently been a very painful process. A high emotional and financial price had been paid for this new way of living and being true to the individual’s own call and destiny.
As a result of paying the price of honouring their personal call, the Alternatives tended to be highly individualistic people. This individualism results in the creation of enterprising new projects but reluctance to compromise. This in turn creates great difficulties when it come to working together as it is almost impossible for any partnership to work without at least some compromise from each party.
Another difficulty in working together is that this community of highly individualistic people is extremely reluctant to accept any form of overriding authority or co-operative organisation. So something has to emerge that allows a genuine peer group to work together to make decisions that are in the interest of the greater whole. In 2007 this has not yet been achieved but there are some encouraging signs that individuals and groups are starting to reach out to each other in order to achieve a better understanding of what each is contributing.
Understanding between Locals and Alternatives
In the last twenty years, considerable efforts have been made by many people to try to bridge the gap in understanding between the two towns. Despite this, very little progress has been made. As a result, the Alternative community has come to the conclusion that there is little point in trying to co-operate with, or seek the support of, the conventional town. This being so, the best course of action has been seen to be that of getting on with their own activities without seeking any support from conventional sources.
‘Energy of Chaos’
Nearly every one who has worked upon a new community project in Glastonbury has, sooner or later, been faced with what I call the ‘Forces of Chaos’. People fall out and argue; promises are not kept and completely unexpected minor disasters take place. There seems to be some tangible force of resistance to any forward progress. It is as if energy is trying to resist the formation of the new structure – a sot of psychic ‘energy of entropy’ which seeks to keep everything in a state of inertia. In some cases this energy is so strong that it can be ‘seen’ as a sort of spinning psychic whirlwind of dark energy.
There is no doubt that some influence of this sort continues to disrupt most attempts at co-operation. One suggestion has recently been put forward by Jon Cousins. This is that the act of hanging, drawing and quartering of Richard Whiting, the last Abbot Glastonbury, was an act of ritual magic. This ritual was made up of the carefully planned process of execution, on the Tor on a November day, with a monk each side of the Abbot.; the dis-membering of the body of the Abbot; his head displayed over the Abbey gate and the four sundered parts of his body sent to be displayed in Bath, Wells, Bridgwater and Ilchester.
Jon’s theory is that there was at that time perceived to be energy in Glastonbury that was so powerful and dangerous to the authority of the crown that it had to be destroyed. The dis-membering of the Abbot was a symbolic way of breaking the cohesion of the energy of Glastonbury – an act so powerful that it would destroy this energy for ever.
Whatever the reality there is no doubt that the Abbot was executed and that the town has had the greatest difficulty in flourishing ever since.
Jon’s contention is that the destructive influence of the ceremony on the Tor will only be healed by a formal ceremony of ‘Re-Membering Richard Whiting’. A ceremony to be held in the Abbey grounds, attended by all the inhabitants of the town, emissaries from the four towns to which the body parts were sent and senor representatives of the Anglican and Catholic Churches. This idea seems to be gaining some support in the town.
Shared Practices in the Alternative Community
The monks had a very clear and rigid set of spiritual practices. In 1985 there had been many different spiritual paths, of a broadly New Age nature, and the occasional community gathering with a simple shared ceremony. The most noticeable development in recent years has been the fragmentation of the whole into a multitude of very different and very specific paths. There certainly is the beginning of a broader acceptance of these paths and an understanding that different individuals respond to different ways to accessing the Universal Spirit. Despite this understanding there is very little co-operation between the various belief systems.
Some of specific beliefs that are now actively practised are a Sufi group, the Goddess Temple, groups following the practices of Pagan, Wicca, Hindu and Bah’ai. There is also a strong in interest in all aspects the Celtic beliefs, particularly the calendar and the festivals