What was Greenbelt like? 20 home truths about this year’s festival

The Greenbelt festival of arts, faith and justice happened in fields and woods near Kettering over the August Bank Holiday weekend and I was there. Here are some thoughts on what it was like for me. When you’ve read it, why not share yours?

* Wow. That was a weekend. Frustrating at times, overwhelmingly beautiful at others.

* There are few things more powerful than the human voice telling the truth in words or song.

* We don’t have the answers but if we can find the right questions it is a start.

* Love wins. Again.

* Sometimes you just need to lie down under a tree, put a hat over your face and have a little cry. You can do that now. There are trees everywhere, and grass to lie down on. (I’m choosing to remember the lovely first few days rather than the treacherous mud that followed. Don’t lie down in that, you will either drown, freeze to death or get run over by a demented camper with a stolen wheelbarrow).

* The new site is a magical place, enchanting and visually spectacular. The look and feel of site resonates so well with what Greenbelt stands for and wants to be.

* GB14 felt like a new beginning, but because of the nature of the site it also felt like a return to something we had lost, and that brought to mind all the people we had shared Greenbelt moments with who could not be there. Here’s to them.

* And here’s to the people who were there and who touched my life over the last weekend. Grace Petrie, Brian McLaren, Linda Woodhead, Kate Bottley, Gareth Higgins, Doug Gay, Abdul-Rehman Malik, Sara Miles, Gavin Mart, Martyn Joseph, James Stewart, Bobby Baker and the Janes, the Rachels, the Ians, the Richards, Matt, Kai, Rob and others who only gave their first names when they came up to speak at The Daily Mirror (reflecting on issues arising from the news, geddit?).

They are some of the best humans I know. It is a privilege to gather in a tent with some brilliant thinkers and doers, both in the audience and on the panel, and together try to seek some higher truths. I got a bit emotional at the end of the last Daily Mirror show but that was right and proper.

* Dizraeli is a lyrical genius and the Small Gods are hugely talented. Seek them out. (Even if Greenbelters don’t know a good thing when they see one. The audience for Dizraeli was far too small, just as it was for the great Ron Sexsmith, one of the world’s finest songwriters, a couple of years back.)

* Some people would rather stand in the pub and talk to each other than engage with the artistry of those on stage. (The Jesus Arms is in a perfect place for all the people in the Jesus Arms but the wrong place for everyone else.)

* Canopy is a brilliant venue. Martin Wroe’s event Lyrical was a stimulating coming together of writers and musicians and it was a pleasure to share the stage with the likes of Rory Butler. Also to read out loud the last poem by Mark Halliday, which appears in the book Lyrical.

* I need Greenbelt in my life. I have had a love hate relationship with it over the years, because of the sheer stress for all concerned in organising the event, but it keeps me going, takes me home, recharges my batteries, stirs my little soul.

* The people who make Greenbelt happen need your help. it’s a difficult thing to do. Become an angel, or just be nice to them. They face a tsunami of moans in the coming days and weeks, some more relevant than others, but they need to know that we value them highly, appreciate their hard work and are so grateful that the festival exists at all.

* That said …the access to the site was shocking. Dangerous. It gave the impression that Greenbelt did not want day visitors, which is commercially catastrophic. At night it was worse. The same walk back, uphill, in the dark, with no lights, no signs, uneven ground and vehicles coming at you out of the shadows. The stewards sent us the wrong way so we got lost. We are able-bodied and reasonably fit but we were exhausted, drained, angry and alarmed. The situation was not improved the next night. When the rain came, the ground became treacherous and all of the above applied. It’s a wonder nobody got hurt.

* I am sure there will be change. Certain of it, because the people who make Greenbelt happen are good people. Very good people, with good hearts and good brains, who will listen and learn. I don’t speak for them but some are friends and I do know they are working very, very hard to understand what went wrong and make it better for next time.

* The buggy manager I shouted at, he’s a volunteer. Sorry mate. Heat of the moment. Please forgive me. I was scared for my children. The stewards standing in the rain, soaked through, with mud from the cars flying in their faces? Volunteers. The comperes, the site crew, the brilliant people who made the festival into an enchanted, enchanting space, they’re all volunteers. They make it all happen. If you were one of them, thank you so much.

* You buy a ticket, you expect value for money. For me, there were moments this year that were priceless. Chorros and chocolate with the kids and their mates in the rain, for one. It’s the little things, as Dizraeli says.

* Being able to bring up kids within the festival family, bringing them back every year to meet inspiring people, funny people, thinkers and sayers and doers and players and makers and life-changers and world-changers, that is another.

* Sending them off to find things for themselves, and then hearing later that they’ve come across great art, great music, great ideas or a cause that has stirred them, that is also priceless.

* Taking an hour to get 100 yards because you keep meeting people you like, you love and you want to talk to, then hearing your 12-year-old daughter say, “Dad, all these people are so cool.” Priceless.

* A hug from a friend who knows that you need it just at that moment, because even though you have not said so and distance makes it hard to spend time together in the rest of your life, you have shared history in this place and he can read your face. Priceless.

* I read a post by someone asking if was true that the festival had lost its way, the music was poor and the speakers lame. That’s tosh. There have been posts like that going back all the way to when posting meant putting something in the post, and there have been years when it was true. Terribly true. But not this one.

* For me, despite the trouble getting in, this was a vintage year. A beautiful thing. A soul-filler and a precious gift.

* Here’s to all those who made it happen or were there. May you find love, strength and shampoo in the coming days, and find yourself warm, dry and flushed. If you were not there, maybe see you next time?

That was my truth. Now tell me yours.

And in the meantime, a little thought from Dizraeli. 

Published by Cole Moreton

Award-winning interviewer, writer and broadcaster.

11 thoughts on “What was Greenbelt like? 20 home truths about this year’s festival

  1. I’ve been coming to Greenbelt since the Odell days and it’s hugely important to me in enabling me to feel reconnected with the church and my faith and leaving me with a feeling of wholeness through being in a place where I feel the whole of me is accepted. I usually return feeling energised, after the initial sleep recovery, and set up for the year in terms of enthusiasm and commitment. However, after this year I’m not sure I’ll be able to go again. I had some back trouble that flared up a few weeks before the festival and which made it very difficult to get around. I anticipated my back problem easing during the festival as I relaxed, which I tend to do very much at Greenbelt. However, the business of transporting my stuff made my back was far worse so that it was painful to walk, let alone carry camping equpment etc. I had a walking stick but it was difficult to use that and to carry things. I did have some help, eventually, from another camper when getting down to the camping fields, but going back I was on my own and because of the time it took me to traverse the site, having to stop every few yards, I missed my lift home. Greenbelt were very helpful about this, but I do feel that the amount of stress and physical effort involved were too much for me and had I known about the shortage of taxis and the distances, I would have made the sensible decision not to go. I’m very sad at the prospect of having to lose something I value so much, but if the situation and my back are the same next year then I really wouldn’t want to put myself through it again.

    1. Please talk to Greenbelt about this. It would be a totally understandable decision but such a shame for the festival to lose you and for you to lose it. They have an obligation to listen to you and to help.

  2. I came to Boughton house with apprehension.. Cheltenham had been on my doorstep, the extra travelling, meant breaking the journey up over two days.

    On arrival the queue seemed horrendous, followed by the long walk to the campsite from the cat park..

    Having said that, from the moment I saw the site, I understood why the change had been made, it felt as though I had come home. Cheltenham ceased to exist..

    The uneven surface on the ground near the glade caused a leg injury on Saturday morning, but I was not going to let that stop me enjoying the festival..

    Wonderful speakers, awesome venue, total faith that the team will look at the issues and address them..

    Looking forward to returning to Boughton next year, because Greenbelt is my fix if faith for the year..

  3. Cole, I think I was the Taxi Marshal (as you said just a volunteer) you spoke with on Sunday night and I completely understand your frustration at the service we were able to provide (or not provide in this case), indeed, I and most of the others on the Taxi team, shared that frustration. We did not want to stop running at 11 and leave people stranded but there are very good reasons why we had to.
    Having spoken with the Taxi Team Leaders, they will do their best to make sure we do not get into the same situation next year. They also want to have more golf buggies running next year as we all realised that the time some people had to wait in queues was far too long at times.
    This was the first year on a new site and there were mistakes made, hopefully these mistakes will be learned from and we will get more things right next year.
    See you at GB 15.

    1. Thank you so much for posting this. Also for the dignity with which you handled things at the time. Apologies again. You were all put in a very difficult situation. Your work is so much appreciated. Thank you.

  4. My 20 Truths about GB14

    1. No act is so bad that it cannot be forgiven and no-one is un-deserving of forgiveness (Mpho Tutu).

    2. Finding all the answers is not as important as asking the right questions (Cole Morton).

    3. Boughton House estate is beautiful and we should be thankful for the privilege of gathering together in such a place.

    4. But, The Grove was too close to mainstage and got drowned out a bit,

    5. and Beer & Hymns should be on the official programme next year.

    6. Greenbelters are lovely people, (generally) full of love and good humour regardless. Big thank you to the nice man who helped us carry our tent canvas back to the car park when we were struggling.

    7. I am ashamed that this was my 7th Greenbelt and only the first time I heard the wonderful Grace Petrie and also Martyn Joseph (how did that happen?).

    8. The sunset over the lake is amazing (especially Saturday when there was simultaneously a rainbow behind us). Wow, what a moment.

    9. If Grace Petrie could cause a flood, she would! (And the Greenbelt organisers don’t control the weather either).

    10. There were not enough toilets.

    11. I have no idea how I would vote in the Scottish Referendum (but I don’t get a vote).

    12. Next year I will travel lighter.

    13. People on Facebook moan too much. Don’t spoil that Greenbelt feeling: Spread the love, people!

    14. Vicky Beaching is a brave and inspiring young woman who deserved her standing ovation in Big Top.

    15. ‘Bad Christian’ is a very good pint.

    16. Higgedy Pies are the best food on site (especially the vegetarian one).

    17. The walk from car park to campsite is tough, but most people in the UK don’t get enough exercise. Exercise is good for body and soul. If those who were physically able to carry their stuff from the car did, then the queues for the taxis would not have been so bad for those genuinely in need of assistance (ok, I admit it’s a bit more complex than this).

    18. Greenbelters chose to be there. No secret was made about the differences between the new site and Cheltenham.

    19. Many people around the world are forced to endure much tougher conditions with no end in sight and would be glad for a weekend at Greenbelt (rain, long walks and mud included).

    20. I love Greenbelt and I will be there next year.

  5. Hi Cole, one of my all time favourite Greenbelt moments was finding your poem to me in Lyrical when I did not know it existed. Thank you. I am moved beyond words. The Daily Mirror was fantastic by the way. Thank you again, Ant x

    1. I wondered why you had never mentioned it! Wrote it immediately after that night and sent it to you, but it must have got lost in the ether somewhere. Anyway, you have it now. Thanks for the kind words about the Mirror, please tell someone who might ask me to do it again next year. x

  6. I was touched by some great kindnesses after an incredibly tough 2 years. Interviewing Mpho Tutu was a great gift for me. Had had to pull out of doing those things for greenbelt due to depression. Organisers were kind when I cancelled then, and kind when I managed to ‘do the gig’ and support Mpho telling her story so powerfully. I cried on he M1 home as could only manage the day. Fragility has become familiar. Thankfully, I can be honest about that at Greenbelt, and many other places. It was a grace.

  7. I’m not sure about 20 truths, but here goes…

    I went to Greenbelt this year with a degree of trepidation – worried that in the Cheltenham years I had grown old and soft. Apparently I hadn’t, although I will admit to a measure of relief on Monday, when I knew that my next toilet facilities would be porcelain, and indoors.

    Car parking arrangements do need some more thought for next year – a sloping field of grass is only really suitable for smug 4×4 drivers. Like me…..

    Listening to John Bell is an annual treat, that should be available on the NHS.

    The weather turning crap can bring unexpected benefits. Entering the Leaves venue on Monday (to get out of the rain, if I’m honest) I was introduced to the poetry of George Herbert by Miranda Threlfall-Holmes. A whole world of opportunities, made available by lack of sunshine.

    Sometimes what Greenbelt gives you is the chance to talk to the person you live with. Even if it’s about the thing you’ve spoken about many times before. Somehow just being there can make the conversation work better. I have no idea how, but I am very grateful that it can.

    Greenbelt has always provided a place to encounter inspired silliness, and we should treasure this. Folk On are a force of nature.

    The clues are often there, if we choose to notice them. This year the theme was “Travelling Light”. We didn’t. Next year I may bring a donkey.

    During the walk from car to campsite with too much stuff, my fellow pack mule said of the other Greenbelters “they all look like they’re being evacuated”. She was right – they did. Except we and they weren’t in fear of our lives. Reality check – tick…

    Like the song says – “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” Last Orders – you were missed. The perfect late night end to a Greenbelt day for some years now. Please come back. I promise I’ll try not to doze off next time if you do.

    To the traffic marshal on Tuesday morning who waved goodbye to every car individually as it passed him on the way out of the parking field – thank you. You summed up the whole festival for me with a smile and a wave. To all the volunteers who make Greenbelt happen every year – thank you, thank you, thank you. You are appreciated more than you can possibly know.

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