Saunas and Shangri-hell. An epic Glastonbury diary…part Two

The next part of Glastonbury festival is my favourite time of the whole year, really. It’s a bit like the build up to Christmas. All the workers and volunteers arrive, gently easing into the festival, and by Tuesday night, you’d swear that the festival has already started. The moment the gates open is exciting, but sometimes tinged with regret, that the perfect place we’ve been living in will soon be teeming with people. I love the build-up, the atmosphere and the sense of excitement in the air. Perhaps it’s the “carnie” in me, but I love scenery being painted and erected, marquees being put up and statues being hauled from the ground.

Sunday 22nd June 

Last night My friend Mike suggested a walk to the nearest town, Shepton Mallet. I’d never been before, and I was surprised that it was only about three miles away from the site. Neither of us would get our festival wristbands until Monday morning, so we walked over the bumpy track I’d driven on through the fields, onto the main road. With traffic from festival traders picking up, roadworks traffic jams and speeding cars, it was quite a dangerous journey at first, but we kept onto the verges until we found some quiet overgrown lanes to walk down. It was very hot, and I decided to buy a sun hat. Apart from the busy roads, it was good to chat and catch up with Mike.

And when we got there, the town was shut. It was Sunday after all, and the main objective had just been to go there, to take a look at it and go to the huge TESCO. There were lots of interesting looking charity shops in the town centre – Shepton Mallet might be worth a look another time. We had lunch in a very friendly, rather spartan pub called The Swan, where the landlord plied me with extra bread and vegetarian gravy! There were spaniels behind the bar – but they weren’t actually serving the beer!

On the way back, we bought orange juice, a couple of sun hats and some lip balm. So far, so boring. But when we were walking back towards the sight, we saw a footpath signpost that said:  “Pilton”, two miles. Pilton is the village where the Glastonbury Festival is actually held, and we wanted to save ourselves from all that traffic, so we took the path. It seemed a bit overgrown as we climbed the first stile, and then we had to pick our way through the debris in a derelict farmyard, but then we had to find the next stile in a trackless field full of cows – and calfs, but they were lying down and we didn’t cross their path. And then we had to fight our way through ploughed earth and a field full of young corn, the stiles between each field still confidently stating “public footpath”, but we felt anything but welcome.

And then the next stile was on the far side of a field full of Friesian cows. Mike was very calm and casual, but I didn’t like the way that the cows raised their heads and seemed to take a keen interest in us. One of the cows started running. Towards us. I screamed and grabbed Mike’s arm with a vice-like grip, which I’m sure he appreciated, but he was great, calming the cows down by talking slowly to them. They gathered around us as we climbed the stile, and once we were over, I was laughing at myself in shame at behaving like such a wuss.

We were now in some kind of lane, but it was blocked off on our left by a temporary fence, and a stream of cows wandering towards the milking parlour. I didn’t fancy tangling with any more cows, and it looked like the village was over to the right, and we could see a lane heading in that direction. But there was an electric fence stretched across our path. We followed it to its end and managed to unhook it, laughing at the way that this walk had become much more of a challenge than we’d anticipated. The lane turned off onto a path that looked like it might join a proper road. I took off my sandals and wiped my feet on a mown verge. They were black with dust.

We’d almost made it onto the road when a large dog ran towards us from behind, and a man called out sharply. You’ve guessed it, I did the squealing and arm-grabbing routine again, which was very embarrassing, especially as the dog was just a very friendly Golden Retriever, whose “parents” were trying to stop him from running off and jumping up at people. The dog’s owner was very apologetic at having startled me, but I was relieved.

We crossed the road and found another path which looked promising. And then the path disappeared. We had a good view though, across to the Tor and the festival site, so we stopped to drink some water, and we heard buzzards calling from the nearby woods, then soaring into the sky. We scrambled over some more ploughed fields, and then eventually found ourselves on the outskirts of the festival site itself. As we reached the exclusive “Yurtel”, with rows of pristine yurts and fancy marquees that looked like something you’d hire for a weding, we realised that it was well into the evening. It had taken us a long time to walk over those fields, and it was still blazing hot.

Eventually, we found ourselves at the top of Cockmill Road, a narrow lane that runs down the Eastern side of the site and from there, it was a short journey back to the campsite. It felt like we’d been on an epic adventure.

Sunday evening was spent relaxing and drinking cider, aching from our arduous journey. My old friend Terry (author of the brilliant Iain Duncan Smith, My Part in his Downfall!) ate a very melted quiche and then refreshed his face with a wet wipe, from the packet he produced from his carrier bag. “These are very lemony,” he said, and then I realised that he was wiping his face with Flash wipes. I eventually persuaded him that they were for floors and toilets, rather than faces. They would probably be very useful on the long-drops on the festival site later! You probably had to be there, but “Flash Terry” became a bit of a legend over the weekend. It has to be said that Terry’s book is excellent, and he was suffering from an extreme lack of sleep, so don’t judge him on his ability to distinguish baby wipes and heavy-duty cleaning products!

Monday 23rd June

On Monday morning, I was issued with my “Easy Pass Out” wristband, that meant that I could easily pass in and out of the festival gates, as well as pass in and out of consciousness. I was also given my shifts, which I was pleased about: team leader at Campervans West (the far flung gate where I worked last year): Wednesday overnight, Friday afternoon to evening, and Sunday – very early in the morning at 4.45am, but that meant that my shifts would be finished by 1pm. Not bad, all things considered. I would get to see the Manics on the Saturday night, anyway.

I decided to have a solo wander, down to the Stone Circle, and would hopefully meet up with some friends when I got there. It was fun, walking  through the market, empty of customers, but full of traders setting up their stalls. From Monday to Wednesday morning at Glastonbury, the whole place hums with electric drills, with tranquil sign painters, and huge yellow machines called telescopic handlers, transporting pallets and crates on their extended forks.

The Stone Circle at Glastonbury is a total fake, constructed in 1992 with JCBs. But it’s gathered its own mythology over the years, a witness to thousands of wild, sleepless nights.  I always feel pulled towards the King’s Oak, a massive, ancient tree. A few of us gathered there for a while, even friends I hadn’t planned to meet. That always happens in the early days of the festival, especially under the ample shade of this tree, with a small group of people drumming and climbing the stones, to my left. I wonder if they know it’s a fake!

After a while, I got hungry and had to cut short my on-site trip as none of the food stalls were set up yet. But Oxfam’s own caterers, the wonderful Nuts, were in full flow. And the Oxfam stewards were starting to arrive in their thousands. Our tents were surrounded by new neighbours, and there were lots of hugs and introductions.

I had a very pleasant evening, hanging around with old and new friends in the Oxfam field, sharing food and drink, chatting and catching up with people I haven’t seen since last summer. It’s great how easily we can slip back into friendships.

Tuesday 24th June

Today, we decided to tackle the Oxfam Stewards’ Glastonbury Treasure Hunt. It’s designed to help stewards find their way around the vast site and its many landmarks, but there are usually some good prizes up for grabs. The first prize one year was a ride in a helicopter above the festival site. Last year, I won some cider, so that was a good start! A group of us set off, finding the laminated clue sheets, and noting down the codes.

When we reached the stone circle, a few of us decided to head back to camp. It was very hot, with the sun beating mercilessly down on us, so we had a good rest in the shade. But me, Flo and Karen struggled bravely on, wandering to the far-flung Pedestrian Gate “D” – not quite as distant as my Campervans West Gate.

When we reached the field with the John Peel stage, we admired a huge display of banners for various causes and had a chat with the lady in charge of the banners – they’re made by artists and community groups all over the country, especially for Glastonbury. But we couldn’t find the last clue we were looking for, and came back to camp, exhausted.

Our field had really filled up now, and more friends had appeared, including Suzy – and I made her gnocchi with tomato sauce and tinned mushrooms, which went down very well.

As the evening wore on, my neighbour Tigger decided to light up the fire wok outside our little “village green” near our tents, and people gathered round in their camping chairs. As dusk fell, I felt restless, despite my aching legs from the long walk around the site. Tuesday night is when all the workers, traders and volunteers are onsite. It’s like a dress rehearsal for the festival, with bars open, musicians in some of the smaller greenfield venues, and lots of things to see and explore, before it gets too busy. There was already a queue of ticket-holders right outside our campsite, and there was a sense of anticipation in the air.

So, only pausing while a bat flew into my hair (yes, really!), I accompanied my friend Allie on a wander onto the festival site. I was going to pick up Louise from the end of her last shift (and I hadn’t even started yet), and walk her home, hopefully enjoying the festival on the way back. She was pleased to see me, based in another remote location, the entrance to the “glamping” campsite, Worthy View. We stopped for a drink and a chat on the way back. When we were back at the campsite, the campfire was going well, and was surrounded by a whole crowd of people. Eventually, we were told off! But I was on my way to bed anyway.

Wednesday 25th June

The hoards have arrived! The first sign of it in the Oxfam campsite as I woke up was that the showers and taps had stopped running, and my stove came in useful again as I made tea for everyone.

The lack of showers was also a problem with an easy solution – one of my favourite places at Glastonbury is the Magic Hat saunas in the Greenfields – a tranquil spot just near the busy crossroads into the late night Shangri-La area. The sauna is actually a wooden horsebox, heated by a wood-burning stove, with canopies around it that make a changing rooms, serve-yourself cafe area, and open-air showers and plunge pool (a large paddling pool). You don’t have to be naked, but most people strip off completely, and it’s surprising how completely at ease I am with chatting in an intensely hot wooden caravan with a group of naked people. Suzy and Louise hadn’t been to the sauna before, and they loved it. And Louise even saw a friend of hers in there, as well as someone she’d met a few years ago, and we all had a relaxing time. You aren’t allowed to use shampoo or showergel in the sauna’s showers as the water drains into the ground, but the heat is wonderfully cleansing.

Feeling wonderfully clean and fresh when we got dressed again, we wandered into the Greenfields, and I bought a burger from Veggies caterers, who are a vegan organisation based in Nottingham. I had a cheeky chat with them about my novel, and left some flyers with them. The burger was delicious. We remembered that we were meeting friends at the permaculture garden, another great vegan place to eat, and a beautiful garden, there all year round, and one of the festival’s best kept secrets. We met Fraser and Karen on a bench at the greenfields entrance to the garden, and soon there was quite a bunch of us, but only one man! So Fraser decided that he would pimp us all out to passersby, at 25p a go. There were no takers, surprisingly, as there were some lookers amongst us! It was funny at the time, but maybe you had to be there.

Somebody told us that a band, Duncan Disorderly and the Scallywags, were playing soon (they’d probably seen a sticker in a toilet), on the bandstand outside the legendary Croissant Neuf tent, which hosts live music during the festival, with everything powered by wind and solar power. We decided to give them a go, and they were great. At first, we sat in the shade, right at the front, but then, the whole bunch of us were on our feet, skanking away in the sunshine, and enjoying great songs, catchy tunes, and the combination of folk and ska. Perfect for the first early evening of the festival. What wasn’t so perfect that in this idyllic spot, people had left cans and other litter behind at the end of the gig. Not cool, people, especially in the Green Fields. I picked up a few extra cans and put them in the recycling bin (only a few metres away) on my way to the loo.

There was just time for a pizza in the lovely place, just called Pizza, near the Greenpeace field. They do a lovely vegan pizza with tahini, which tastes divine, especially laced with chilli oil.

And then it was time for me to climb back up the hill to the Oxfam campsite, and get ready for my first shift as Team Leader for the Campervans West field, from 8.45pm to 5am, getting the nightshift out of the way first! It was a couple of hours before the start of my shift, but I had to leave at least an hour to be in the running for a minibus lift to my gate (or to Gate D, which was the nearest they’d go).

It was still hot when I reached the Campervans West gate, and put on my Hi-Vis tabard and I introduced myself to the supervisors who were just finishing their shifts. I met my deputy supervisor, James, who was lovely and knew just what he was doing. Supervisors start an hour before the stewards, which gives them a chance to check for any problems and changes with the stewards who’ve already been doing the job for seven hours. The campervan gate is nice and steady. We admit first-time ticket holders, who are mostly staying in the campervan field so haven’t got much luggage, making sure their ticket is valid and that they get a wristband.

The campervans and caravans are parked outside the perimeter of the fence, and all ticket-holders have to show us their wristband and ticket every time they come into the festival site. We check the photo on the ticket, and all the other security features (no, I’m not telling you what they are), give their wristbands a good tug (which became a source of innuendo over the weekend), and take the small “pass out” that they were given on their way out to the campervans. On their way back out to the campervans, festival-goers’ tickets and wristbands also have to be checked again. There are automatic counters that people have to walk through, so the festival organisers know exactly how many people are on site at all times. The system is very strict,but its the only way that the festival can comply with licencing regulations, and avoid all the scams that had people getting in for free all over the place. It works well, with the stewards (who were all lovely) doing a marvellous job. The supervisors deal with any problems or queries that arise, and help out when it gets busy. But when things are quiet, it’s the supervisors’ job to chat and keep people happy and motivated.

There were a few rush periods, when everyone seemed to be coming back to the comfort of their campervans at the same time, leading to a bit of grumbling, and there were a very small number of idiots who thought that we were “officious”. But we’re just doing our job, and we’re doing it for the festival, and for Oxfam. Luckily, if there are any big problems, I’ve got a “walkie-talkie” radio to Oxfam, or I can call over the security team, who were lovely, and helped to solve a problem with a bloke who thought he was too important to follow the system, just because he had a hospitality wristband…

At some point, it became…

Thursday 26th June

As the early hours of the morning wore on, the campervan campers became slightly more drunk as they returned to base. The sky got lighter and all the stewards rushed to take photographs of a beautiful, red-flecked sunrise. Shepherd’s warning?

Supervisor James and I were overjoyed when the Oxfam minibus arrived, a bit late, but we didn’t care, it was giving us a lift home! We virtually threw the walkie-talkie at the incoming supervisor, and ran into the bus, before the driver changed his mind and went off without us. It felt so good to be back in our field, and with a scarf over my eyes, I soon fell fast asleep.

It felt a little cooler when I woke up later in the morning, but it soon got hot again. Threateningly hot. A shower and a cooked breakfast from Nuts sorted me out for the day, and we headed off into the festival. Before we reached the theatre field, it started pouring with rain, for the first time in days. We put on our waterproofs, and ended up in the legendary Tiny Tea Tent, where Fraser and Louise played “Chopsticks” on the piano. I sent a postcard to my friends in Canada from the postcard stall, another Glastonbury institution.

It was time for the annual Oxfam stewards meet-up at 4pm at the cider bus. The rain was easing off, but it was our second gathering under umbrellas in two years. It was very sociable though, and I had fun, sipping hot mulled cider and mingling with people. The cider bus belongs to Burrow Hill Cider, who produce proper cider and are an institution at many festivals, but most notably, Glastonbury.

Eventually, we headed to the Hell stage of Shangri-La, to watch a band that Alexa had recommended, The Men that Will Not be Blamed for Nothing. It had stopped raining, so we sat about on the grass in front of the stage, chatted, and drank yet more cider. Only for someone from the band to come out and apologise, but the stage wasn’t allowed to open yet, and the band would be playing later that evening in the Rocket Lounge, which was just next door. So we stayed put, and after a bit of a wait, entertained by a man dressed as the devil, cracking his whip on the ground, we watched the Latino-infused King Porter Stomp, and a brilliant African band called Afriquio with a kora.

At last, it was time for The Men that Will Not be Blamed for Nothing. They were brilliant. They’re a steam-punk band with songs about Isambard Kingdom Brunel, syphilis and time travel, with lots of heavy guitars and Metallica riffs. Essentially, a good old fashioned shouty punk band, with Victorian costumes. Definitely one of my early festival highlights. After the gig, the rock ‘n’ roller diner next door was playing old ska music, and we danced for a while, but then we decided to go in search of Fraser and Suzy, who had left us earlier, to see DJ Sasha in the Glade.

On our way out of Shangri-La, we met some other friends, randomly. And then before we knew it, we were all in the middle of one of the most unpleasant experiences of this years’ festival. We were caught in a crowd crush, with people trying to get into the Block 9 area  next to Shangri-La, and people pushing and shoving in all directions. We each grabbed onto the nearest friend and fought our way to the far side of the railway track, struggling to breathe at times. It was seriously scary, especially as stewards are trained in crowd management and we know the dangers. But we all managed to break free. Minus Louise, Kat and Martin, although I managed to get through to her on the phone and she was safe and sound, not crushed underfoot!

We managed to get to the Glade, which was almost as crowded, but more friendly, but after a while, the music finished. We found ourselves wandering back in the same direction we’d come from, but through the West Holts Stage and the proper “one way” system into the late night “South East Corner” area, where we just wandered through, without even a queue. Earlier, the problem must have been caused by people not being directed the right way. We passed a beautiful waterfall, and guess what? We ended up at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Diner again. They were still playing good tunes, and I danced to New Order and Softcell, before deciding to call it a night. I was on shift on Friday afternoon, and it had been a long day and night of partying.

I got back to the Oxfam campsite just as the rain was starting again…

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