When I got home from Greenbelt yesterday, I said this:
So here I am trying to explain.
Greenbelt Festival was an annual thing for me back in the 80s and 90s. My first visit was in 1988, attracted by the lure of Amy Grant playing mainstage and the chance to spend some quality time with my best mate Dave. I loved it, and kept on going back for the next eight or nine years (I forget whether my last one was ’95 or ’96).
Over the years I’ve often fancied going back, and this was the year we took the plunge and booked in for the weekend. I feel like I’ve changed a lot in the last 16 years, and I suspected Greenbelt probably had, too, but as it got closer I found I was really looking forward to it. And I mean, really looking forward to it.
And I fell in love with it all over again.
There have been some changes over the years, most notably the site. When I was going before it was held on greenfield sites (Castle Ashby then Deene Park, both in Northamptonshire) so the entire festival was built and every venue was temporary. In 1999 the festival set up a new home at Cheltenham Racecourse and has returned there ever since. This gives it an infrastructure that simply wasn’t possible before. About half the festival venues are set up in and around the racecourse’s grandstand so there are concreted roads and paths linking many of the main sites. Several venues are actually inside the Grandstand. Indoor venues seemed a novelty – a very welcome one. But the feeling of the festival – the ‘vibe’ if you like – remains just as I remember it.
Let’s talk music first. I love to hear live music, but rarely go out of my way to get to gigs so over the years Greenbelt has been one of my main opportunities to soak up a load of different stuff. Back in the ’80s I was kind of keeping track of what was happening in the then ‘contemporary christian music’ scene (hence Amy Grant being the big draw in 1988) but it’s been a long time since I’ve been up to date with any of that. Heck, I’m not that up to date with any music scene, so looking down the programme there were very few names I really recognised. So most of what I saw was from artists new to me. But that’s the thing about a festival: you can catch a bit of this, a bit of that, and a bit of something else. If you don’t like what you hear you can wander elsewhere and hear something else. One artist I’ve vaguely kept up with over the years is Martyn Joseph, and he now does a daily thing at Greenbelt introducing new artists to the festival and giving them a bit of limelight. I enjoyed Grace Petrie, a sort of female Billy Bragg figure, but an outstanding new face was Willy Porter: great songs and astonishing guitar work. (Note: I don’t normally appreciate it when websites play you music without asking, but click on to his – it’s worth the listen. Look out especially for “How to Rob a Bank”, which went down brilliantly.) Mainstage artists I caught were Bruce Cockburn (another astonishing guitarist), The Proclaimers, and Bellowhead, who headlined the last night and were a great act to finish on. Superb festival band.
They do a lunchtime thing from Mainstage these days, perfectly timed to take your picnic and enjoy some tunes while you eat. We enjoyed this each day, but most of all on Monday when Folk On did their set. I’d never heard of Folk On before Monday but they were undoubtedly one the festival highlights for me. Great, great stuff. I’ve gradually come to the realisation that what I like to see in a band is people that look like they’re enjoying themselves and who give the audience a great time. And if that means a spoof comedy folk group, then that’s fine with me. Look em up on YouTube – you’ll be glad you did.
Folk On rocking the Mainstage arena. Photo by Jonathon Watkins for Greenbelt.
One thing I missed was the old Bandstand. I guess the closest thing was the Roots stage, but that was a bit tucked away and I never actually made it to any performances there, whereas the Bandstand always had a central position in the middle of the main field surrounded by food stalls and retailers. It seemed to me to create a focal point that was somehow missing from the Cheltenham site. (Or maybe I’m just remembering it fondly because I managed to perform there one year as part of the once-only-and-never-heard-of-again Three Men and A Saucepan.)
Of course Greenbelt’s not only about music: the programme of talks and discussions was, as ever, expansive and varied. Going through I circled a few that I thought might appeal to me, but ended up only going to two. Katherine Sarah Moody‘s “Giving up God for Lent: A New Kind of Christian is A New Kind of Atheist” sounded right up my street but turned out to be a bit philosophical and didn’t really engage. It touched on lots of things but didn’t ever seem to get anywhere.
Much better was Dave Tomlinson. He has a new book out, “How to be a Bad Christian … and a better Human Being)” and was doing two talks based on it. The first was on Friday evening but I didn’t discover it in the programme until after it had happened, so I made sure I got to the second, “How to think with the soul instead of following rules”, and it was good. In a sense it was covering similar ground to the other talk I went to – the separation of the religious from the spiritual – but doing so it a much more approachable way. I will buy his book. And read it, unlike a couple of other theological books that have sat by my bed for the last nine months or so.
And then there’s the really unique stuff about Greenbelt: The Worship. Jut take a look at how many different things are listed in the “worship” category in the programme. Things drawn from many cultures and many traditions. We went to the big mainstage communion service on Sunday Morning. There’s always something special about sharing an intimate service with so many people, and thankfully the rain held off for the service. (Ah, yes, the rain. I’ve not mentioned that yet.) I can’t say I felt as “connected” to the service in the way I used to but I appreciated the choices of songs – accessible, inclusive, spiritual. We also went to a Taize service – a style of contemplative worship based around quiet repetition of simple songs and periods of silence. Not my cup of tea really, but still nice to be part of it with a large group of others.
How many for Communion?
This time around I got to experience a whole side of Greenbelt I’d never paid any attention to before: the children’s programme. Being there with a five year old was inevitably going to mean a different Greenbelt experience, but it was a great one. One of the first things we saw was Blunderbus Theatre Company’s excellent production of The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark. We spend some time each day in the Make and Take marquee completing a variety of craft projects, making dreamcatchers, bug houses, potions and some clever edible poetry, watched a couple of magic shows and took part in the (inevitable) juggling workshop.
Beautiful Birds. Photo by Andy Stonehouse for Greenbelt
And then on top of all this was the general ‘stuff’ that was just happening all around. I’m guessing this is pretty standard festival stuff and not remotely unique to Greenbelt, but there was always stuff happening. Stilt-walkers and trick cyclists wander around, amazing costumes pop up (two huge colourful birds wandering around on Saturday were a delight, as were the excellent Granny Turismo), and there is the usual selection of colourful stalls selling all manner of hippy and new agey clothing and stuff. And of course a huge range of great food on sale.
I can’t really compare Greenbelt to any other festivals as it’s the only one I’ve been to, but from all I read online there really does seem to be something uniquely brilliant about it. There’s just something so positive, and friendly, and uplifting about the whole event that’s hard to define. Here’s something I noticed: as we packed up the tent and made our way through the half-empty campsite on Tuesday morning, I look around me. The site was virtually litter-free. I wish I’d taken a photo to illustrate, but here’s one of another festival campsite, which I gather is typical.
Definitively NOT Greenbelt. (Photo by Gavin Lynn on Flickr)
Horrid, eh? Why would people leave a site like that?
There’s also a story doing the rounds which I have no reason to doubt: a chap lost his wallet at Greebelt this year. Not only was it handed in, but it contained an extra £25. That’s a bit special, that is. (I doubted the truth of that, as there were lots of versions of it on Twitter, all starting with “I heard a story…” but I managed to track it down to a vicar who was with the person at the time.)
The only real thing that let the weekend down was the one thing that the organisers could do nothing about: the rain. We’d had some rain on friday after setting up, but Saturday brought some torrential downpours. Our tent has never been so well tested (and thankfully it passed the test). But so much rain caused real problems. Large parts of the site were quickly turned into a mudbath as nearly 20,000 people tried to make their way between venues. Getting around was not easy (thank God for wellies!) and it meant there was never any nice grass areas to sit on and relax. We didn’t get it as bad as Creamfields, which had to close early, but I’ve found a video of inside one of the marquees that gives you an idea of how much rain there was on Saturday. Such a shame.
Mud. Horrible mud.
Next year I’ll be hoping for sunshine.
Did I say next year?
Yes. I’m sure hoping I’ll not be leaving another sixteen year gap before my next Greenbelt.
Needless to say I’m not the only person to have blogged about Greenbelt: here are a few others I’ve found and enjoyed.
(Quick update, January 2013: Tickets booked. I’m going again.)