As a Glastonbury first-timer, I had pieced my expectations of the festival together from friends’ reports, TV footage of previous years, and a secret feeling that it would all just be a bigger, wilder version of Green Man. I went for the music, sure, but I also went to see what on earth all the fuss is about. It couldn’t be much more than just another festival, surely? I was very wrong.
What struck me more than anything was that the whole thing is more like a surreal, outdoor city than a music festival. Picture London – its many districts and boroughs, each with its own separate, ever-changing personality. Think of the way it is populated: a vast, diverse mix of people, each one with their own agendas and haunts.
Imagine rush-hour traffic – but on foot, through mud that goes over your wellies. Then imagine all of this crammed into an area roughly the size of Oxford, covered in glitter and rain and set to a soundtrack of hundreds of bands playing at any given time. And then remind yourself that the whole thing has been carefully orchestrated by a vast creative and logistic team.
Wonderful, prophetic poetess/rapper Kate Tempest (with whom I’ve come away from the festival more than a little bit in love) stood on the Left Field stage and reminded us that “all of this effort, it’s all so that you guys have the fucking best weekend of your lives”.
Like any new city, getting your bearings takes a while – especially if, like me, you haven’t done your research and have zero navigational skill. Thursday daytime consists mostly of my standing underneath things, ringing someone and asking exasperatedly: “can you see a giant stripy tent?” not realising that the person I’m on the phone to is three miles away and that the festival has about 30 giant stripy tents.
What is great, however, is the fact that the camping areas are integrated into the festival, meaning that you’re free to trek (and it is literally a trek) around the vast site with a crate of cider under your arm and a whole temporary life strapped to your back, at any hour of the day or night. There is no separate ‘arena’; your tent becomes a part of the Glasto scenery, creating an atmosphere of complete immersion.
This is a festival with villages; my favourite daytime one was the Park. The stage is situated mid-way down the hill where you find the famous Glastonbury sign, making the viewing experience a bit like watching bands from a grassy amphitheatre.
I was also a big fan of The Green Fields, probably best described as “where all the hippy stuff is”. People making things out of bits of metal, hula hooping, having massages, sitting around naked – and kids: tiny babies being carted around in trolleys and carried on backs; toddlers wearing ear muffs and looking a bit like how I felt – in awe of everything and not really sure where they’re going.
As night hits and the headliners end (Regine Chassagne dancing around with ribbons!) everyone who hasn’t passed out in the mud from exhaustion wanders down to the train line-cum-footpath which runs down the middle of the festival.
This is where things get dark – literally and metaphorically. On either side are pockets of the most conceptual nightlife I’ve ever experienced: Arcadia, Block 9, the Common, the Unfairground (which we avoided on the grounds that it “sounded sad”), Glasto Latino, and finally Shangri-la.
Shangri-la is the festival’s very own Promised Land. Situated at the very furthest end of the South-East Corner, it is the heart of Glastonbury nightlife, falling somewhere between an experimentation in immersive theatre, a modern art installation, and the best outdoor clubbing experience of your life.
It’s heaven-and-hell themed, and the whole thing really does feel a bit like blasphemy – this year’s hell was the modern commercialist world, complete with iBabies and organs growing in jars.
And yet it is pure hedonistic fun.There were spontaneous rave parties in what look like offices, with actors on typewriters frantically handing meaningless bits of paper to the dancers; a man sitting on top of the red walls of hell with a £20 note dangling from a fishing rod, just out of reach; posters saying things like ‘Savour the Whales’, ‘Save Your Selfie’ and ‘Numb the Pain’. I sent a text saying: “I’m in hell, it’s so great.”
With more than 100,000 people on-site it could all so easily go wrong. And yet people seem to get that they’re onto a good thing. When my phone runs out of battery I start asking strangers for the time about ten times a day, and not one of them is anything but lovely. People stop to give water to people puking on the side of the track.
It’s called the Glastonbury spirit; Dolly talked about it up on the Pyramid stage and articulated it in her southern drawl better than I could ever do in writing. Go watch her on iPlayer if you haven’t already (I have, twice) and imagine being stood right at the edge of the crowd, listening to ‘Coat of Many Colors’ and simultaneously welling up and grinning like a muddy, tired out fool.