Solstice and Sunshine. An epic Glastonbury diary… Part One

It’s taken me a while to catch up with work, life and everything after Glastonbury. But now I’m in a position to tell you about it! I’ll be as concise as I can, but there’s a lot to get through. I’m going to do this in stages!

Friday 20th June

After a laid back day of taking my poorly laptop to Staples (that was why it was a relaxed day – I couldn’t do any work!) baking flapjack,  walking with a friend and her dogs, and cleaning the bathroom, it was time to pack the car. At about 9pm on Solstice Eve, my friend Louise and I were ready to set off to Glastonbury. The car was already quite full. Mostly because I’d already bought the booze for Fraser, the third member of the car share. Including nine boxes of Westons’ cider, and twenty four cans of Boddingtons.

I’ve been friends with Fraser and Louise for eight years now, having met both of them through festival stewarding, and now Louise lives five minutes’ walk away from me in Sheffield.

When we stopped to pick Fraser up in Coventry, the situation in the car became ridiculous. But we managed to pack in everything, including a cardboard model of the Eiffel tower, and a badminton set, of all things. The poor car rolled slowly off the drive with a groan, and without being able to see through the rear windscreen or drive about 60mph, I was glad that we were driving on quiet roads, through the night.

Saturday 21st June

The line between Friday and Saturday was rather blurred. As the early hours of the morning approached, the sky began to lighten. And as we pulled into the car park near Glastonbury Abbey, the friend who we had arranged to meet was just setting off for the tour. It was 4am. We pulled on a few layers against the early morning chill, and set off. There was excitement in the air. The streets of Glastonbury were quiet, apart from the occasional person, making their way towards the Tor. At the bottom of the hill, I filled a water bottle from the White Spring and joined the people walking up the steep hillside.

I hadn’t fancied the revelry of Stonehenge or Avebury, and I thought that Glastonbury Tor would be the perfect place to celebrate the Summer Solstice. And I was right. It felt more like a pilgrimage, with people of all ages and backgrounds trekking up the mountain, even some people with crutches or walking sticks. And I was rewarded. I caught the sight of white wings around the corner of the Tor. And after I’d climbed the next set of steps, I got my first proper view of a barn owl, hunting in the hedgerow at the base of the Tor, ghostly and graceful.

Thrilled to bit, I joined the others, and we stood, among a relaxed crowd at the top of the hill, in front of St Michael’s tower, the only remains of a medieval church, demolished after the dissolution of the monasteries. Glastonbury Tor itself is a natural hill, a striking landmark visible for miles, a sacred and Romantic site associated with Arthurian legend (and New Age Hippy Bollocks!) but undeniably a very special place.

The sun rose slowly above a distant line of hill, into a completely blue sky. I realised that I’d never stood and concentrated on the sun rising before. It was huge, and orange, and I found myself drawn into the spirituality of it all by doing yoga sun salutations. Even if you didn’t take your eyes off the rising sun, it suddenly seemed to jump above the horizon in stages, rather than gradually appearing. It was amazing that so soon after the sun rising at about 5.05am, it was getting warm, and we lounged around on the grass at the top of the Tor for as long as we could.

Back in the (almost) real world of Glastonbury town, we found a Brewer’s Fayre pub at the edge of the industrial estate that was open for a slap-up, eat as much as you can breakfast, although you can never eat as much as you think you’re going to, do you? And a quick trip to Tesco, where I shut my eyes for a few minutes in the car park, and Fraser and Louise managed to find more stuff to put in my beleaguered Hyundai.

We drove the last eight miles to the Glastonbury Festival site. For the next ten days, we’d be living in the Oxfam Stewards’ temporary campsite, just outside the festival gates, next to the Windinglake Farm, where we’d been promised ducks, chickens and even swans to make friends with! It’s always exciting to see the festival site – my first sight of the “superfence”, Heras fencing, colour-coded yellow AA signs and glimpses of the festival fields themselves never fails to thrill me. And I’ve been going to Glastonbury since 1993!

Unfortunately, the “Purple” route we were looking for was pretty elusive, and the sat nav code directed us to Blue Route, a hint I should have taken, because once we’d actually found the “Purple” route, the car was bouncing up and down uncontrollably on metal trackway laid across a ploughed field. Louise was covered in falling tents and rucksacks, but the car had built up its own momentum, even though I was driving as slowly as I could.

Finally, we arrived. A little frazzled after the bumpy drive, but the best thing was that we just met some friends who showed us where they were camped, we emptied the car, and then I drove back out to the car park in the next field. And by the time I’d returned, Fraser and Louise had put up my new bell tent! Amazing service. As the day wore on, more people started to arrive. Most of them were working on the early shift, starting on Sunday, but there were a few people like me, who’d arrived early for the “main shifts” because they were giving lifts to those starting early. Saturday was blazingly hot, but I rigged up a porch on my tent that was to become very useful over the next week.

Solstice Saturday was a bit like having jetlag (not that I ever have), with a short burst of grumpiness, riding out the tiredness, enjoying the company of my wide circle of “Oxfamily” friends, and having a little teatime snooze in the relative coolness of my tent. There were still plenty of friends’ voices around me as I put myself to bed that night, even though some of them were having an argument with a drunken idiot (I never found out who the idiot was). We’d made it. We’d seen the perfect sunrise on the Summer Solstice, and were now camping, in a lovely bell tent at the Glastonbury festival, awaiting the exciting build-up to the festival. Who could ask for anything more?

Of course I was a little anxious that my shifts wouldn’t clash with the Manic Street Preachers’ set, but that felt a long way away for now! And the gentle stroll to Shepton Mallet I’d planned for Sunday was going to be a lot more action-packed than expected…

Glastonbury – the epic 11 day mission!

 

This isn’t going to be the average sort of Glastonbury review that concentrates on the headline bands at the Pyramid stage and nothing else. This blog entry is rather epic, but it’s probably going to be my longest blog of the year, so bear with me.

I’m going to try to show you parts of Glastonbury you haven’t seen before. This was my 20th anniversary of going to Glastonbury festival – and festivals in general. Glastonbury is a behemoth of a festival. There’s nothing like it in the world. It’s a crazy concept really – a quarter of a million people (roughly 150,000 ticket-holders and 70,000 workers) descend on a dairy farm in a small Somerset village which has turned into the biggest festival in the world. After two years of being away, the sight of Glastonbury festival, filling up an entire valley, can still be breathtaking.

I’ve just used this programme and I’ve discovered that Glastonbury festival is almost exactly the same size as the whole of Sheffield’s city centre http://howbigreally.com/dimension/festivals_and_specticles/glastonbury#S1_2HH

I arrived in the Oxfam field with my friend Fraser on the afternoon of Saturday 22nd June. We were both volunteering for Oxfam as stewards, but Fraser was on the early shift, meaning that all his shifts would be over by the time the public were admitted to the festival on Wednesday – whereas mine didn’t start until then. For me, it was a great opportunity to be there early, relax with friends and treat it as a holiday.

The weather on the first two days wasn’t great. Driving down, the car was buffeted by really strong winds and it was a struggle to keep control. We stopped for lunch in Tewkesbury and wandered around the Abbey, then drove down the M5, past Glastonbury town and the tor (and the Clarks shoe village in Street), finally arriving in our Oxfam field (Oxfield), just outside the perimeter of the festival. Oxfam are now the biggest agency providing staff for the festival and there are over 2,000 people camping in our field, all Oxfam volunteers and staff. I’ve been to some festivals that have been smaller than that in total. There were already lots of familiar faces there, and we found space near some friends’ tents. Oxfam stewarding is such a great social network that for the whole festival, it takes a long time to get a shower (yes there are showers!!! That’s the long marquee to the left in the aerial photo above), food, go the loo or get a cup of tea without saying hello to about five different people at least.

On Sunday, it was still windy and I didn’t have my wristband yet, as I wasn’t working on the early shift. There was a choice of either getting drunk in the Oxfield or doing something productive! I discovered that a friend called Holly had never been to Glastonbury town and didn’t know about the Tor. After a short drive, we we battling tremendous winds, struggling up the side of the Tor. It was so windy at the top that we could lean right back and the wind kept us upright. After nearly being blown away, we sauntered around the hippie shops of Glastonbury town and did some charity shopping.

Monday was my first chance to explore the festival site this year, which I did with my friend Dave. We were looking for the codes clues for the Oxfam stewards treasure hunt, which had been organised voluntarily – with great prizes – by two stewards. It was a lovely sunny day and the empty stages and camping fields were pristine. There was still a lot of work going on – marquees, stages and signs being erected, decorations going up. You realise how much effort and attention to detail goes into the festival. It’s not just a flagpole – it’s a hand-painted flagpole with a uniquely decorated flag. Each bin, made out of a recycled metal drum, is painted imaginatively by an army of volunteers who are onside for weeks. I love watching the build-up to a festival, Glastonbury in particular, as there’s so much going on.

One of the highlights of Monday night was actually meeting Michael Eavis, the farmer who owns most of the land where the festival is held. We were admiring Bella’s Bridge, a footbridge built as a tribute to Arabella Churchill (the granddaughter of Winston Churchill), who became one of the festival’s main organisers, when Michael Eavis loomed out of the darkness and said “I’m glad you like my bridge!” We were all a bit surprised but we had a lovely chat to Michael, who seems to really like Oxfam stewards.

By Tuesday, all of the stewards had arrived, many of them in several coach-loads from Bristol. I finally had to start thinking about work. I wasn’t starting work until 4.45am on Thursday – an eight hour shift as Team Leader on a pedestrian gate leading to the campervan field on the opposite side of the site. We had a supervisors training session in the cinema tent on site, which is more Oxfam supervisors than I’d ever seen in one place before! We also had a one-hour briefing back in the Oxfield marquee, which was fairly entertaining and stressed the point of how important Oxfam stewards are. We’re on every gate into the site. It’s our job to make sure that people without tickets don’t get in! With back-up from security, of course, but if we get it wrong, the whole festival could be in jeopardy. A scary thought!

That evening, we had a special party to celebrate an Oxfam steward who sadly died of a heart condition earlier this year. Chris Light (fondly remembered by the Oxfam Stewards’ Forum users as Sergeant Howie), was a wonderful, gentle man and a brilliant photographer. He also wrote a novella about Oxfam stewarding at Glastonbury, The Gate, which I’ve just downloaded for free from Lulu.com! We drank a specially invented cocktail in his honour, called “The Shaft of Light”, which had glowsticks and edible glitter. We also drank to Mickie the Pixie, another Oxfam steward who died this year after an illness. He was one of the first Oxfam stewards I ever worked with, wearing a cardboard box that said “free hugs” on it. And he was the supervisor! Both of them are sadly missed.

Wednesday was lovely, although a little hard to get used to the sheer numbers of people on site, after a few days of blissfully relaxing, emptyish fields. We met up with more friends and had an epic wander round the festival site, to orientate a friend who hadn’t been before. He was surprised at the size, but he loved it. There was time for a quick pint of cider at the legendary cider bus before heading back to the Oxfield for an early night! My alarm clock was set for 3.30am. If I didn’t manage to catch the minibus from our field, it was going to be an hour’s walk to the Campervans West gate.

Luckily, the minibus did come to collect us. I had a lovely first shift, struggling to remember the names of the sixteen lovely people I was working with, apart from my deputy supervisor who was also called Anne (but without the “e”). The early dawn soon turned into a hot day, with a queue of people waiting good-naturedly to get into the festival. At this gate, people had to keep hold of their ticket and get a “pass-out” whenever they went back to their campervans. On the Thursday morning, most people were quite well organised, but by Friday night, people started losing their partners, tickets, passouts and marbles, which made things a bit more difficult. I walked back from my first shift in the heat, managing to get a few more vital clues for the treasure hunt and getting back just in time to enter the competition!

Unfortunately, it started raining immediately after I got back to the field. That meant that the traditional Oxfam stewards Thursday afternoon meet-up at the cider bus was rather damp, everyone huddling in cagoules and under umbrellas. We stuck it out and drank a few pints of cider though! A large group of Oxfam stewards decided to wander somewhere else, where we could dance. A brilliant decision was made to go to the Hell stage in the Shangri-la area of the site. We were damp but ready to party. We had a fantastic time watching Slamboree, a band combining, rave, hip-hop, folk and circus. Then we stumbled to the Avalon Cafe to see 3 Daft Monkeys, mainstays of the festival circuit. After that, I danced in the Rock ‘n’Roll diner at Shangri-La until 5am, where actual real rock ‘n’ roll was being played, including some rare rockabilly classics such as “Barking up the Wrong Tree” by Don Woody.

On Friday, I felt rather rough! I dropped a heavy bag full of jumpers, my tabard and snacks for my night-shift off at Campervans West, which almost killed me. En route though, I was entertained by the L.B.W. Outside Broadcast unit, gently commentating on the goings on on the theatre fields. Then I went to see hotly tipped indie band Peace at the John Peel stage. There was a massive crowd and they were excellent, but the singer must have been very hot, wearing a pair of white decorators’ dungarees and a thick seventies sparkly jumper! I started to feel a better when I had a long sit-down in the cabaret tent with my friend Clare. The sight of compere Arthur Smith is always reassuring, and 4 Pouffs and a Piano were hilarious – and very rude!

Before my shift I went to see the legendary Dinosaur Junior in the Park, the boutique-festival style area of the festival nearest to my gate. In case you haven’t heard of them, they are a legendary alternative rock / grunge band. It was great to see them, despite the mostly blank faces of my Oxfam colleagues when I told them about the gig! I swapped some lovely text messages with a friend who loves Dinosaur Junior but couldn’t come to Glastonbury. The nightshift went very well – the gate was busy all the time with people coming home in various states of disrepair, and there were several relationship crisis where the husband was lost and drunk and their wife had the ticket to get back into the campervan field. It was pretty amazing that we managed to sort out most of the problems – that is, if the drunk lost people actually turned up! Some of them are possibly still missing in action.

Although I hadn’t been to sleep until nearly 6am on Saturday morning, I woke up feeling relatively refreshed (due to the lack of alcohol may have helped). I headed off on my own at 11.30am to see Rokia Traore, a singer and guitarist from Mali who was opening the Pyramid stage for the day. I was determined to pack as much music as possible into my day off! The main Pyramid Stage was starting off with a Malian artist on each day, to highlight the strife in the country due to Islamist groups starting a civil war, with hundreds of thousands of people displaced and the rich musical heritage of the country under threat by fundamentalists who want to ban music. I’d seen Rokia Traore before at WOMAD. I was running a bit late, but luckily, so was the Pyramid stage, so I was able to catch more of her joyful set, while I made friends with two lads who hadn’t gone to bed yet! We stayed firm friends for Billy Bragg’s set too, until Billy played “a lullabye for people who hadn’t been to sleep yet” and they took the hint to hit the hay! The power of suggestion! Billy Bragg was on top form. As Britain’s top left-wing singer-songwriter, he can sometimes get on his political soapbox a bit too much, but we all had a cheer at the demise of Margaret Thatcher and enjoyed his new Country and Western leanings! I was joined by friends for Laura Mvula but we were all sitting down by this point, conserving our energy in the hot sunshine.

We headed over to The Strypes on the John Peel stage next. This Irish band are still in their teens but are tipped as “the next big thing”. They’re a straight-up 60s style R&B band – a bit like the very early Rolling Stones. They play a few covers but their own songs, notably “Blue Collar Jane” are full of energy. I was bopping away near the front of the stage, but people at the John Peel stage don’t seem to like dancing – they take it all a bit too seriously! After that, Clare was hunting for some Drum ‘n’ Bass, but I headed off towards the West Holts stage. En route, I had a meal in one of the hidden gems of Glastonbury: a vegan cafe in the Permaculture Garden, between the Green Fields and the old railway track, one of the main thoroughfares of the festival. It was time for my peak day-time rave moment with The Orb, an electronic band I’d first seen twenty years ago at Glastonbury. We had been too close to the front to see the massive laser show, which was “totally amazing, man!” according to anyone who’d been at the back of the field. This time, the Orb were playing with Ghanaian master drummers Kakatsitsi and it was an absolutely mesmerising performance, enjoyed by having a good dance with lots of other old ravers! I then popped over to the Avalon stage to check out the Urban Voodoo Machine, who were brilliant – sleazy rock ‘n’ roll with a gypsy punk edge – just my sort of thing. Heading back to West Holts, I caught the end of Maverick Sabre before meeting up with some friends for the next act, Major Lazer, which had been recommended to me by my stewards. It was great fun, but as it hopped between dubstep, dancehall and more other dance genres than I could keep track of, it was all a bit giddy! Music for people with short attention spans!

The next band I saw was a controversial move. I decided to see Public Enemy, rather than the Rolling Stones. This was for several reasons: I like to swim against the tide some of the time; I knew it would be rammed at the Pyramid Stage; I knew I could watch the Rolling Stones’ set on the TV or on the internet later on; and I was just curious really! I know the most famous songs by Public Enemy and it was a chance to see another legend, at closer quarters than I’d be likely to be seeing Mick and Co. We were right on the front barrier, although there did seem to be a massive crowd. Chuck D was the coolest man in the world and really engaged with the audience. In my ignorance, I hadn’t realised that Public Enemy would have a live band. Their guitarist in particular was amazing and the set really blew me away (man!). I parted company with my friend John after Public Enemy to see something a bit different – Hobo Jones and the Junkyard Dogs; a favourite band from Bearded Theory and Beautiful Days. Basically, a punk skiffle band who are hilariously funny. What’s not to like? While I was there, I met a friend from Bearded Theory. We headed to Bez’s Funhouse in the Shangri-La area and re-lived the Hacienda glory days for a few hours. At 4am, my friend left, in time to start his recycling shift bright and early at 6am, and I was adopted by a group of gay guys who took me to Glastonbury’s only dedicated gay venue, the NYC Downlow – a re-creation of a New York gay club in a specially built half-ruined tenement block. It was great fun, but eventually, I staggered home to the Oxfield! What an adventure of a day!

On Sunday morning, I had a sauna in the Greenfields, followed by a cooked breakfast, before heading to my shift at 1pm (I was a few minutes late as I’d miscalculated the amount of time I needed to eat my breakfast!) The Sunday afternoon shift was a much more laid-back affair. People were coming in dribs and drabs from the campervan fields, and back again. Soon after I started my shift, we had a “runner” – a young man sauntered through the gate and when one of the stewards questioned him, he sprinted out into the camping field. The bored security staff followed him at a lightning pace, but the chase came to a swift end when the miscreant tripped over a guyrope. He was brought back by security to cheers from the stewards and comments like “nice try, pal”, “epic fail” and “try getting a ticket next time”. The sprinter still seemed quite pleased with himself though! We whiled away the hours playing an increasingly cryptic version of I-Spy and wondering when the tea van was going to get round to us (it didn’t!) At eight o’clock, we were instructed to hand the running of the gate over to security. We got a lift back to the Oxfield for 9pm and my stewards were very happy to have finish an hour early (we’d been told that we were being re-deployed, but this was a clever ruse by our steward control, Oxbox!)

I changed my shoes, put on a tutu, grabbed some cider and headed to the Sprit of ’71 stage, to meet Fraser and various other friends to see System 7 and Eat Static and finish the weekend with some techno raving of the highest degree. The lights and visual projections were completely mesmerising and after a few glasses of Westons’ cider, I was well into the spirit of things. Afterwards, we had a wander around the dance village and then headed to the Park to the Bimble Inn, which is a pub venue inside an elongated tipi. Unfortunately, one of the friends we met there was ill (not self-inflicted but through injury) and a group of us walked her to one of the pedestrian gates, very slowly, until the Oxfam minibus could pick her up. It was dawn by the time we returned to the Oxfield but we stayed and watched the sun come up for a while, revealing the view of the crowds still partying in the Stone Circle field.

Monday was a much gentler pace. I had the biggest cooked breakfast of my life from our own caterers, the excellent Nuts. Once that had gone down, it was time to head out on site to see what the hoards had left behind. This activity is called “tatting“. Despite the “love the farm, leave no trace” campaign, thousands of people still leave tents, chairs, camping equipment and general rubbish behind. Of course, there are teams of litter-pickers dealing with the carnage, taking weeks to painstakingly return the site back to pristine condition, but their job would be a lot easier if everyone packed their stuff away and threw their rubbish in the bin. The site did look a little clearer this year, but it wasn’t a lot better in the busiest camping fields near the Pyramid Stage. It’s surprising what people do leave behind. We collected: a brand-new Eurohike tent in perfect condition, about 20 cans of Kopparburg cider, a lovely wicker basket, a picnic blanket, a designer shopper bag, a kettle, a Romany flag – and a mystery flag that looks like it might be an African country amongst lots of other things. Basically, you can just go out there with a shopping list, and find what you want, as long as camping gear and cans of cider are on your agenda. Later on, Fraser and I went to wave goodbye to our friend Clare, who’s going to be travelling the world for six months, as she was getting a lift in John and Suzie’s campervan. We went to see some friends backstage in the acoustic field, and ended up chatting to their neighbours for five hours and having an impromptu barbecue!

Tuesday morning was dull and grey, and time to pack up. Fraser and I had lunch at the Garden Cafe in the delightful town of Frome, where all the residents seemed to have been at the festival, exploring the town and then heading home through the Cotswolds. We took a wrong turning and found a charming village called Barnsley, which we thought was hilarious as it was very different from the Barnsley in South Yorkshire, so we stopped for a drink in the very posh pub. We couldn’t put it off much longer though, it was time to return home, and it was lovely to come home to my partner, solid walls and modern conveniences. At least I wasn’t stuck in an office the next day, and I’m determined to make a success of my free-range life so that I can enjoy many more Glastonbury festivals in the future. One day I’ll be ready for free-range working all summer from a perfectly fitted-out campervan!

Main Links:

The Official Glastonbury Website

BBC Glastonbury Website

http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/a-big-weekend-out-at-glastonbury I enjoyed this review, particularly the bit about the stewards – which is exactly what Oxfam Stewards are, really! People who love festivals and want to help other people to love them.

Things this blog is about…