As I write, it is pouring with rain and somewhere out to the west of the countryside that lies around me, there are hordes of people heaving tents and Hunter wellies as they make their pilgrimage to Glastonbury, the behemoth of summer music festivals. I thought it might amuse to recall the time I went myself, when I was Deputy Editor of Country Life. It was my first expedition (for such does it feel) to the festival, and so far, my last. It was, in the language of the time, epic, and I somehow feel that much of it must remain the same. Returning, deeply hungover, I hazily agreed to the Editor’s suggestion that I write about it for the magazine, resulting in what must be the only first-hand experience of the event for that august publication…
Mud, glorious mud. Puddles of it, rivers of it, great gushing lakes of it. You do not know mud until you have been Glastonburied. And some would say, you do not know Glastonbury until you have been muddied. But as this year’s festival opened several days after the promised heat wave had begun, I gaily entered the site with no thought of raindrops falling on my head.
Two hours later, I lay under the soaking, flimsy nylon canvas of my tent and fervently tried to remember my school science lessons. Was the presence of 150,000 mobile phones in a Somerset valley encouraging the lightening and did the Samsung by my pillow mean I was likely to be struck? Should I wear rubber boots inside my sleeping bag? For five hours, the thunder rolled, in judgement on my appalling basic knowledge. I listened out for the sound of an ark being built somewhere. The only thing I did not do was sleep.
The cockerel did not crow but the crowds cheered with the sun came out at last. Donning boots and plastic poncho, I scanned our campsite and, bar a few wet-looking stragglers, decided that we had all got off quite lightly. Then the news spread like dampened wildfire. All acts had been cancelled until further notice. There were tents that had been washed away in the night. People were packing their sodden belongings, ready to trudge off before even a single guitar string had been twanged. When the ))rain began an hour later, I suffered a severe sense-of-humour failure and bitterly remembered why I had refused to come to Glastonbury before.
But there is nothing like a bit of British weather to bring out stoicism. When the rain finally stopped for the last time at noon, strangers were cheerily greeting each other with ‘Happy Glastonbury!’ and the two-hour queues for wellies had started to form. After all, queues, warm beer and soggy picnics are what we do best.
All I had to do now was get my bearings. Given that the site was a mud-soaked 900 acres – a mile and a half across and eight miles around the perimeter – this was not so easily done. Any journey became an epic one as our band of friends tried not to lose members from one point to another. Someone would spot someone they knew; someone else would need the loo; someone else would try to buy socks (all sold out). Everyone moved in slow motion through the mud and on reaching their destination would be faced with the inevitable queue. Yet although our clothes, tents and food were dampened, our spirits were not.
In the end, I latched onto two adjacent fields as my base camps. The Lost Vagueness field with its black-tie only restaurant (you can hire the correct attire at the door), 1950s breakfast diner and a trailer park of caravans and beach huts to stay in; and the Tipi Field with large wigwams that even have small fires inside to send smoke signals from if the telephones fail. (Actually, no one managed that, but the thought was there.) Nearby was the Avalon Field with its organic cafes and, if you are in that kind of a mood, it is only a hop and skip from the Green Fields with their healers, and the Theatre and Circus Field with elaborately costumed performers walking round. And, of course, music, music everywhere. In crowds of 40,000 in the sunshine we all sang along to Van Morrison and his ‘Brown-Eyed Girl’; later I jumped up and down to the speedy folk violin tunes of Shooglenifty in a crowd of just a couple of hundred (no, I had not heard of them either).
Fenced in by a ring of steel, there is an other-worldly feel inside Glastonbury. No television, no radio, no newspapers, no advertising hoardings, no traffic, no animals. It would be trite to say it is like being in the war, but there is a certain Blitz mentality. I have never been in such a large crowd and felt so safe. After three days and four nights I had lost my phone, bank card and, in all probability, my marbles. I had been Glastonburied and never felt better.
First published in Country Life, July 7 2005.