Europe 11 – Glastonbury Festival

Glastonbury Festival (1)

Where?

Glastonbury, England

When?

End of June

How long?

3 days

Glastonbury is quite simply the finest music festival in the world. It may not always attract the biggest-name bands, but there’s something special about the vibe in the surrounding countryside of southwest England – Druid burial mounds, crop circles, converging ley lines and the like – and the festival digs right into that groove. As well as taking in some great sounds, it’s a time to rediscover your free-spirited, tree-hugging side, sleeping under canvas, losing your shoes in the mud and sharing toilet facilities with a hundred thousand other people. There’s a lot of drugs, a lot of young people and a great buzz, but Ibiza it ain’t – you can still smile at people and hug strangers, but the person you’re doing it to may be dressed as a Womble or the Earth Mother Goddess.

History

The first Glastonbury festival was held in 1970, when dairy farmer Michael Eavis persuaded T-Rex to play a gig in his fields on Worthy Farm, paying the £500 fee in monthly installments from his sales of milk. Intermittent versions of the festival were held in the same place throughout the 1970s, but numbers didn’t really take off until 1981 when eighteen thousand people witnessed its relaunch as the Glastonbury CND Festival, with its distinctive new pyramid stage that conveniently doubled as a cowshed in winter. The event has been cancelled several times – first in 1988 following outbreaks of violence between New Age travellers and festival security, once in 1991 after the event was swamped by Acid House ravers, and again in 2001 and 2006, due to ongoing concerns about safety after numbers had rocketed to as many as one hundred and fifty thousand.

Other key dates are the launch of the festival’s own station – Radio Avalon in 1983, the introduction of the Green Field as a showcase for environmentally friendly technology in 1984, and the name change to “Glastonbury Festival for Contemporary Performing Arts” in 1990 to reflect the huge array of entertainment on offer. Music-wise, headline highlights have included Oasis in 1994, Massive Attack playing the first dance tent in 1995 and the Chemical Brothers’ pyrotechnics of 2000 – though, as any old timer will tell you, the buzz caused by David Bowie’s first appearance in 1971 is nearly impossible to outdo. The fields have been turned to mud several times, most recently in 2005 when two months’ worth of rain fell in two hours, resulting in the bizarre sight of rubber dinghies ferrying stranded revellers across the fields.

In recent times, Glastonbury has become more and more commercialized, in 2002, Mean Fiddler, one of the UK’s biggest live music promoters – which also runs other major British festivals such as Reading and Leeds – took a twenty percent stake in the Glastonbury Festival, and assumed full operational control of the event. Some people claim the subsequent festivals have been the best ever – and they’ve certainly prevented the unsavoury elements that have blighted Glastonbury in previous years. Others, though, feel that the big steel fences, sponsored tents, and sprawling market stalls now selling anything from bongs and bongos to iPods and mini DVD players anaesthetizes the festival. Not to mention the fact that you can see much of it on Channel Four these days. However, the original feel-good vibe of the event still flows through the festival over £1m is donated each year to charity at the insistence of Michael Eavis, to the likes of Greenpeace, Water Aid, Oxfam and local good causes. Glastonbury officially runs from Friday morning to Sunday night, with the majority of punters arriving on Thursday and struggling home Monday afternoon. It’s a real camping experience, so you need to organize a tent, sleeping bag and ideally a ground mat if you want to avoid waking up freezing at 4.30am. These days, everything you might possibly need – spare tent pegs, blankets, toilet roll, gas cylinders, even a new tent – is available from the expanse of market stalls inside the festival grounds.

Pitching your tent

Your first big decision will be where to stick your tent. Arriving late Friday or on Saturday means your choice will be extremely limited, and you may find yourself walking around for hours looking for a spare patch of land. The area northeast of the Pyramid Stage (Row Mead, Big Ground and Kidney Mead) is hugely popular and very noisy, but gives you the buzz of being smack bang in the middle of things. The further south you go the more peaceful the fields are, with the areas surrounding the Green Field (Pennard Hill Ground, Dragon Field and William’s Greenfield) particularly mellow. Romantics should pitch their tent in the west fields facing east, to receive the first golden rays of dawn. Once you’ve settled on somewhere, it’s a good idea to rig up some kind of flagpole or marker to make your tent stand out from the fifteen thousand other identical ones in your field.

If it’s going to rain – and this being Britain in summer, there’s every chance it will – don’t pitch your tent at the bottom of a hill or you’ll get soaked. And if it’s going to be hot, don’t set up too close to toilet blocks. The toilets at Glastonbury are almost as legendary as some of the bands that have played there. Combine the digestive systems of one hundred thousand people who have lived on a diet of junk food, veggie burgers and strong cider for three days, with sanitary arrangements that wouldn’t pass muster at a refugee camp and you get an idea of what’s in store. In recent years, however, there have been huge improvements, with the introduction of blocks of airplane-style flush toilets. Plenty of the old-style toilets are still around, though, to give you a true “flavour” of yesteryear.

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