Since returning to Greenbelt Festival three years ago after a long break, I’ve never felt I have the words to do it justice. I’m just back from this year’s festival (well, I was when I started writing this), and still can’t put into words what it is that makes it such an incredibly special event. Is event the right word even? An incredibly special place? Community? Yes, that’s a bit more like it.
The new site, at Boughton House near Kettering, was beautiful. I loved being back on a greenfield site which make it feel more like a festival and less like a conference, and the grounds at Boughton were simply spectacular. The layout was much better for stumbling across things at random than the buildings at Cheltenham, I felt. Yes, there are some things that need adjusting to make some of the venues – and the site itself – more accessible but Greenbelt will be getting lots of feedback from people affected and I’m sure they’ll do everything they can to address these for next year.
There are so many things on the programme there’s simply no way to get to all the events you’d like to. I had several clashes when I read through the diary where I could easily have gone to three things at the same time. If there were three of me. Which there aren’t.
This little lot is what I managed to get up to: (if you’re not planning to read the whole thing this is probably a good place to bail out.)
Arrival day. Meeting up with friends, claiming our camping spot. Getting excited. Once site opened, first stop Make and Create, the craft tent where my son was itching to return having enjoyed it so much over the last two years. I popped out for the opening ceremony, which fell a bit flat because the band who were supposed to be taking part had been delayed, then we went to a fantastic kids’ comedy show Little Howard’s Big Show, a very clever, funny, and childishly crude stand-up comedy show where one half of the double act was an animated character on screen. We then caught some of an outdoor performance by Square Peg Circus before seeing some of Lau‘s set on Mainstage. Returning to Mainstage after bedtime (my son’s that is, not mine!), I really enjoyed what I saw of Stornoway, then went on to see Howard Read‘s second stand-up set of the day, the adult version of the show we’d seen together in the morning. Well worth it. Even if it did mean I missed Ben Castle’s Tombola Theory, who I saw sound checking in the Big Top and who sounded superb.
Back to the playhouse venue for another children’s show, Misunderstood Monsters by Half Moon Theatre. Not particularly impressed following the quality of children’s theatre over the last two years, but my son seems to have enjoyed it. A talk next, “Does Church make you Happy?“, which was interesting but really turned out to be an advert for Livability’s “Happiness Course“. We didn’t get into the next show we queued for, but caught a bit of Harry Bird and the Rubber Wellies at the marvellous Canopy Stage. One of my highlights next – Hope and Social on Mainstage. I’d caught a moment of Hope and Social in 2012 and really enjoyed them, so made sure I saw the whole set this time. Damn fine band. Check them out. I then went to the discussion “Can we re-imagine marriage” hosted by Vicky Beeching. A panel of interesting and educated people talking about equal marriage in the context of “what is marriage in the first place”. Lots of interesting food for thought. Vicky Beeching herself had, of course, come out as gay just a couple of weeks before Greenbelt. To be welcomed on to the platform by a standing ovation before she’d even said a word was a tremendously affirming moment, and I feel privileged to have been part of it.
Some general mooching around during the afternoon concluded with a Ceilidh (led by Flaming Nora) in the big top before bedtime. After bedtime I wandered back to Mainstage and caught the very last song from The Travelling Band (who were fab, and I wish I’d seen more) before heading to the OuterSpace Eucharist Service. What is this, I hear you ask? A communion service themed around interplanetary travel? No, not that. OuterSpace are a group whose byline is “Affirming Lesbian, Gay, Bi and Trans Christians, and each year at Greenbelt they hold a Eucharist service which is open to all. I’d read about the service in the programme the previous two years and seen some folk mention how welcoming and inclusive it was, so wanted to experience it for myself. Now, there’s no doubt that this was a deliberate attempt on my part to step somewhat outside my comfort zone; without saying too much, there’s no way I could have supported such a thing, say, ten years ago. I can now. As far as I can make out, this annual service seems to be OuterSpace’s major event of the year, and it was clear that many people were regulars. The service itself was pretty standard, following a broadly anglican pattern, and using well-known traditional hymns. Sharing the peace was particularly enthusiastic, and I joined in whole-heartedly. And so to bed myself, after a busy and fabulous day.
Sunday always starts with the big communion service led from Mainstage. Whilst there is a part of me that would be quite happy to skip this, there’s another part of me that keeps me going. Something about the entire MainStage arena packed with people of all manner of traditions sharing the one thing we broadly have in common. The music was great this year, led by Mark and Levi Hummon, but much of the content passed me by as I was distracted elsewhere. I do recall that the main speaker (Mpho Tutu, daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu) just seemed to read from her book rather than give an actual ‘address’ to the crowd. Ho hum. It’s still always special, sharing communion with friends and strangers in a vast setting.
Next up was a craft and music highlight: The Utterly Butterly Ukelele Project workshop. The three of us each made a working, tuneable ukelele from an margarine tub, some wood, and fishing wire. Clever stuff and I know my wife will want to look into booking them to do something at her school. To the Playhouse in the afternoon for what I thought a remarkable show; a one-man performance from Unfolding Theatre‘s Alex Elliot called “Best in the World“. Tricky to describe, it was about being, well, the best. At whatever. A quick climb up a climbing wall, and it was time for bed. Change of routine tonight as my wife wanted to see stand-up comedian Jo Enright so I did the whole bedtime/story/settle thing back at the tent on my own, listening to the first half of Sinead O’Connor‘s headline set from Mainstage. I made it back down to the arena for the rest of her set, and I was glad I did, for it was magnificent. She’s an interesting and odd performer, with provocative and thoughtful songs and a cracking band behind her. For my late night event I went along to another communion service. (Yeah, I know, get me, eh? Three communions in about a 25 hour period, meaning I was almost certainly The Most Holy I’ve Ever Been.) Thing is, I hadn’t actually read the programme properly and didn’t realise I was going to a service – just saw that Dave Tomlinson (author of How to be a Bad Christian that I’d enjoyed so much from a couple of years ago) was involved and assumed it was a talk. It tuned out to be a service focused on remembering people we’ve lost, and was very thought provoking for me, in ways I’m not sure I want to mention on here unless I make it the subject of a whole blog post all of its own. So there.
It rained. Never particularly heavily, but pretty well consistently. Started in the wee small hours, and barely stopped. It’s never as nice when it’s wet; no sitting around on the grass, no casually wandering around. But it was still a good day. In to the Playhouse again for another production by Half Moon Theatre, this one “When Spring Comes” a solo dance accompanied by a fabulous instrumentalist. The dance stuff’s not my cup of tea. Next main event was the return of Folk On, who we’ve seen each of the last three years we’ve been, and who my son loves. The weather had meant a few things got moved around, and Folk On were moved from the Big Top to Mainstage, which was a good job really as the number of people that came to see them was surely more than would have got in. We happened to come across the band later in the day just as they were finishing a signing session so got them to sign a poster for my son’s bedroom which is now framed on his wall. We hung on around the Mainstage arena for the next act, Hobbit, who I gather is a fairly big name in the world of beatboxing. Extraordinary stuff, thought I’m not sure a solo beatboxer really makes a whole show. accompanying a band, I can understand. When I went back out later, I caught the last couple of numbers by Tinawaren, a saharan blues band. Great sound, but the unfamiliar interplay of the music and voices didn’t work for me. Might have done had it been sunnier.
And then a slightly different time for me, as, after much trying, I’d finally made arrangements to spend some time with one of the Greenbelt photography team, acting as his assistant as he went round the site getting some night shots of lights in the rain. I was mainly holding an umbrella over his equipment, but also helping scope out some locations and moving things around to get better scenes. It was an interesting insight into one aspect of event photography. After that I snuck into the Playhouse for one last event – Jonny and the Baptists‘ show fresh, I believe, from the Edinburgh festival this year. And what a way to conclude the festival. They were fabulous – a great bunch of satirical songs about life, equality, politics and other subjects strung together with humour and aplomb. Catch them if you get the chance. (Though perhaps not if you’r at all right wing in your politics as you may get offended!)
And there you have it. My Greenbelt.