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

The Greenbelt festival of arts, faith and justice happened in some 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? And if you were not there, then maybe see you next time.

* 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 embarrassingly 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 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 and 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 people who make Greenbelt happen are mostly volunteers. 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. If you are 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. See you next time. 

That was my truth. Now tell me yours.

If you have no idea what any of this was about then sorry, but have a look at http://www.greenbelt.org.uk

And in the meantime, a little thought from Dizraeli. 

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

  1. Agree with you * 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.” and apologies as I was (as a novice “Contributor Driver”, one of the drivers who came out of the shadows though always had lights on.. Reality is that for the price there cannot be many venues to choose from. I thought a Blackpool seaside train thing running every 15 mins from the ticket office down the “production track” which was all tarmac/concrete to the BIG TOP performer entrance (about a 5 min ride each way) which could easily have been made a site entrance would have helped A LOT, (this was a route paying guests never got to see or use) Would have made day visitors much safer and enabled people to access site much more easily. Also the bus route from Kettering seemed to be little promoted and used. Let’s hope the team get that sited for next year..

  2. I agree the site was fantastic. Beautiful. Plenty of space to escape and consider anything that had been stirred up in the talks or by the music.
    As a weekend visitor I had no idea how treacherous the journey back to the car parks was for day visitors. Boughton is a large estate with many entrances, maybe choose a different one for day visitors next year.
    I thought the site coped brilliantly with the amount of mud – thanks to great management and volunteers- yes it was slippy in places but fast action and cordoning off of areas prevented shoe sucking quagmires. The campsite was well lit and it was a bonus that there were no vehicles on it. It was safer, quieter, cleaner and meant damage to the site was kept to a minimum. Ok having to carry your stuff was awkward, back breaking, but we were warned. How about seeing it as an opportunity to rethink our needs? The theme was Travelling Light, surely that is the point.
    For those with families, youth groups etc where paring down equipment is difficult why not allow the buggies to be booked in advance, fill a trailer, and walk along side.
    My only criticism from my point of view was that there didn’t seem to be as much variety in the talks this year. Maybe this was because speakers weren’t available, maybe programming decisions were difficult due to uncertainty of there being a Greenbelt at all. …but (every negative has a positive) this meant I could mooch, take in the atmosphere more, pop my head in on an interesting sounding band, catch some performing arts, all things I miss running from talk to talk.
    Hopefully Greenbelt has found a long term home. A home that is back among nature where it belongs not in an environment where the messages of gambling and greed are at odds with the message of fair trade and global justice.

  3. A lot of great thoughts here. Not sure I understand the point about the Jesus Arms location though. I’m not a frequenter of it, but it seemed the perfect location to me. For those using it, they could do so *and* enjoy the Mainstage. For the rest of us, the location is irrelevant so I don’t see how it can be “but the wrong place for everyone else.”

    1. Thanks Trevor. The point is that if you are standing in front of the pub trying to listen to the band then the sound of hundreds of people chuntering away behind you is pretty off putting. It is big, so the noise was considerable.

      1. Point taken. Guess I never stood close enough to notice that.

        For what it’s worth, my only real frustration with the layout of the village was the location of the Canopy stage, which seemed to me tucked out of the way. I’d put that far more central so that when folk are milling around the food stalls and vendors, the Canopy is what they here. As it was, unless you were going to the Angels’ or Contributors’ Lounges, you would never just come across the canopy and hear something unexpected. (I feel similarly about Roots stage, which was massively sidelined compared to the Bandstand of old, which seems to be what it has replaced.)

  4. I really enjoyed my first Greenbelt! The carrying of camping equipment from a car park so far away it felt like it was in a different time zone (there are 5 of us) made me question whether or not I should just go home again, and we saw many people struggling with their stuff. The wheelbarrows were about the size of an Ikea bag with a wheel on the front – not much use to be honest. I know there was a lot of work being done during the weekend and so hopefully, things will be much better in that regard next year.

    The actual event was sublime. I will definitely (finances allowing) be going next year. I can’t compare with the previous site, but this one was fantastic. Plenty of space so it never felt too crowded, but not so much that it was a a long walk to get around. I was challenged in some areas, reinforced in others and learned a lot.

    I now have to spend a lot of time contemplating many things and my soul feels full.

  5. Thanks so much for this, exactly right. I’ve just left a message on the Facebook page and you make me realise that I have over-whinged…
    For three days (provided you don’t include the 2 hours queuing to get in) it was fantastic. Linda Woodhead was a revelation, the standing ovation for V icky Beeching uplfiting, Sally Hitchiner’s contribution from the floor at the Saving the CofE debate humbling, Sinead O’Connor brilliant, the labyrinths in Orpheus so moving, Taize sublime (and benefited greatly from getting out of the concert hall setting of Centaur). Martyn Joseph was – well, Martyn Joseph. I could, and probably should, go on.
    Again, once on site, for those first three days very little seemed to go wrong, though I’m sure behind the scenes it was frenetic. To move site and have things run that smoothly for the attendees was a tremendous achievement, and only occasionally did the permanent team betray in their comments the incredible stress they must have been under for the past year.
    I was in a hotel, so I’ve got no real right to talk about getting camping gear down (though I did help my daughter with hers…). However, there probably is a “travelling light” thought process to go through, yes. And maybe there is a possibility to expand the provision of pre-erected tents? I can see how that might work
    But, unfortunately, the lack of resilience in the site really worries me. Quite apart from our own problems, we’ve gone to somewhere beautiful and left it scarred, which is absolutely not what Greenbelt is about. I remember feeling very embarrassed when I saw the central part of Cheltenham still not recovered a year later after 2012, and hope the same won’t be true of Boughton.
    And I agree that in parts it was downright dangerous. There has to be some sort of hard surface from the entrance to the village out through the camp site to the car parks, and I’m simply not prepared to risk my car on those access roads again if there is any danger of rain.
    I heard a rumour, over the weekend, that we have been given a rent holiday/reduction for the two years we are committed to the site in exchange for building up its infrastructure so other festivals can be held there. If that is true, it would help if Greenbelt were open and transparent about it, and had a good conversation with Greenbelters about what the absolutely essential changes are – and to have that discussion early, to allow time for discussions with the estate about them, so that they can be implemented for next year.

  6. And I missed, when referring to Martyn Joseph, the obvious message i want to say to the Greenbelt team – there’s still a lot of love round here. Still a lot of love, still a lot of love, still a lot of love…

  7. Another ‘contributor driver’ (we’re not the ones driving the buggies, but going on & off site frequently to bring contributors from e.g. the railway station).

    First of all: I loved the venue – it’s beautiful to have those trees, and the modern earthworks. If I was staying on site all weekend, I think it would have been great. It was a pain driving on & off, but I hope that can be ironed out in discussion with the estate. Yes, they have other entrances, but they also have one (or more) working farms, as well as the main house.

    Talking of the main house: being at best ambivalent about vast personal inherited wealth, I thought it ironic to be camped on the lawn (as it were) of Britains largest private land owner, listening to calls for reform of the entire economic system:)

    Speakers: I can’t see why anyone thought the range was small. I only encountered a tiny fraction, but that included an atheist & two moslems, along with British Anglicans (high & low) & American preachers. That’s what I love about Greenbelt – the chance to listen to people I disagree with. Perhaps conservative evangelicals were missing?

    I guess the only way to reduce the likelihood of rain (whilst remaining in the UK!) would be to move to an earlier weekend – but I’m not going to advocate that, as I reckon it would be very hard.

    So, keep up the great work all you organising types; having dried off, I’m looking forward to next year.

  8. We (partner and me) thought the site was much better than Cheltenham – green, spacious and no tarmac, but yes, there does need to be more thought to access on and off the campsite, though we enjoyed the peace and quiet of the site. Could some matting be kept in reserve in case of rain for particular locations on the avenue and in and out of the site?
    There needs to be some thought to siting of music venues near speaker venues. The two venues near the Big Top could have been moved further down the avenue, as I was in some talks where the music almost drowned out the speakers. Maybe one more speaker venue to allow for the extra variety that someone wanted, but the size of venues was much better – no long and ultimately disappointed queueing that I’ve experienced in previous years at Cheltenham. I thought the main music venue was great with food stalls all round an the backlit trees.

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