I am a Glastonbury child. Actually I’m not. I grew up in Street, a few miles from Glastonbury but didn’t really come into contact with the festival – the Pilton Pop Festival as we locals knew it – until 1977 when I was 12. Of course, before then I remember there were always ‘hippies’ as we called them roaming through the high street during the festival period, barefoot, long-haired and smelling of wood smoke and incense. On several occasions, a smiling face, with huge saucer eyes, which seemed to look beyond us into the distance, would approach my school friends and me. The smile would ask us a question about Avalon or how to find the lost crystal, which none of us could make any sense of. Shyly, we’d walk away giggling, telling each other that the hippy was ‘stoned’, but not really understanding what that meant, except it involved smoking a grass-like substance.
1977 was the year that the festival at Worthy Farm, Pilton took a break and so people decided to host the Glastonbury Free Festival on Street Hill, which is where I lived. My father came home from work one day and said that there were hippies setting up camp on the hill, so why didn’t we go and take a look? It was a bright summer’s evening and, as we stepped out of car and walked into the clearing, I was transfixed by the sight in front of me: naked men and women dancing round wooden sticks as they wrapped lengths of rope around the top to erect their tepee frames; nut-brown toddlers grabbing fistfuls of dry dirt and throwing it at each other; a young woman with waist-length plaits singing to herself and spinning dizzily round and round before collapsing with hysterical laughter to the ground. My father and I stood out like a sore thumb but no one seemed to notice us as we walked through the camp, peeping at groups of individuals sat around campfires, passing wooden pipes round or just stretched out staring at the darkening sky as night fell.
Several days later we came back for the festival itself. It was dark and noisy. I remember a band playing on the main stage. The drummer was naked and shaking himself up into a mad frenzy, thrashing and bashing his cymbals and drums. That’s all I recall from that year, but there was something so raw and so animal about that evening that it scared me off for a while. I didn’t want to belong to that world of disorder. Maybe it was something to do with the fact that my parents were splitting up at that time and my family bubble had burst. All I wanted was to be around people whose lives were orderly and familiar, not this hedonistic whirlwind of madness.
It wasn’t until I went to university in 1983 that the festival became a more regular event in my calendar. The festival was still very small during those years and my friends and I would park our battered old cars alongside our small framed tents directly in front of the main stage. I loved the fact that you could just wander along to see a band and stand at the front if you wanted to, as there was no jostling to be close to the lead singer. Most people preferred to sit on the grass away from the stage and enjoy the music from a distance whilst openly partaking in their drug of choice, in most cases weed as far as I could see.
My favourite year was the very wet 1985. We had a blast. A group of us jigged in the mud to the Pogues and soon a play fight started up. By the end of that gig, we were all caked in mud and had to endure it for the entire festival. We walked past a group of guys who were more foolhardy than us and had thrown themselves into a slurry puddle and were dripping all over in brown sludge. It looked disgusting and I wonder if they lived to regret that. At the end of the festival, a friend and I hitchhiked home to Street with a lorry driver who didn’t seem to mind us dirtying his cab. It took several changes of bath water to melt the mud off my body.
Another memorable year was 1989, when my friend Glenn and I got stuck in traffic travelling to the festival. I was living in Paris at the time and he picked me up from the airport on the Friday. We’d arranged to meet up with our group of friends who’d gone down the day before and had taken Glenn’s tent and sleeping bag down for him so they were ready and waiting when we got there. The plan was for us to meet up at a certain place and time on the Friday evening. However, we were late and they’d given up waiting. We spent a good two hours wandering round the festival to try and find our friends. The site had grown enormously. No longer were there one or two camping fields and cars were now in a separate parking site. Luckily I had my sleeping bag with me but Glenn didn’t, so he had to purchase one from the army surplus store on the site. Along with a handful of other people who hadn’t been able to locate their tents or their companions, we spent the night in one of the music tents. It wasn’t the best of sleeps but at least we remained dry.
In 2003, after several years away from the festival, my husband and I left our two young sons with my parents and took Co, who was seven, with us. That was a very hot weekend. We were fortunate enough to be able to camp in the family field which was a much more calming experience than the main camping fields. We spent a lot of the weekend, in the shade, sipping on cider whilst Co and her friend played in the children’s field. One hilarious moment was when we decided to visit the Green fields. As we entered the gate, a naked man with an erection strolled serenely past us. Fortunately, we spotted him in time to distract Co into looking at a beautiful cotton wool cloud above our heads. If she’d witnessed what we saw, she might have wanted to enter a convent there and then!
This year, my parents joined us on the Sunday at the festival. My father had talked about going for years and this time, with news that Dolly Parton was going to be there, he signed up for it. The mud was a challenge for everyone: it was thick and gloopy. If you stood still for too long, you struggled to pull your feet out from beneath it. Dolly was fantastic but the crowd was huge and there was a lot of pushing and shoving as people tried to move to the front. My father stood his ground and refused to be pushed around, even reprimanding a young girl for elbowing through us all. We sat on a grass bank overlooking the Other Stage, drinking pints of cider and listening to the Bombay Bicycle Club and Ellie Goulding, whilst the young couple next to us enjoyed balloons filled with laughing gas.
Every year, I ask myself if I really want to subject myself to another muddy, busy, weekend of madness and the answer is ‘yes’. There is something about this festival, which is so close to my heart: the rolling hills of my childhood, Glastonbury Tor keeping a watchful eye over us that the older I get, I yearn for it even more.