Anti-Social Behaviour In Glastonbury Town

All is Not Always Pleasant in England’s Green Land

Many of Glastonbury’s residents and visitors are feeling intimidated, or at the very least irritated, while ‘running the gauntlet’ of the town centre. The benches outside St John’s Church and other areas in town are increasingly populated by large numbers of street drinkers, addicts and the generally troubled, shouting fighting and carrying out other nefarious activities in full view of everyone. I recently attended the meeting on Anti Social Behaviour in the Town Hall, the building was packed with people, all insisting that ‘something must be done’. Those who’ve put their money and their passion into setting up local shops and businesses are concerned about the effect that daily drunken arguments and brawls may be having on visitor numbers, while everyone else would just like to walk down the High Street in peace.

When I arrived here 25 years ago we had what were then known (rather more affectionately in those days) as ‘hedgers’. A little later, due to their fondness for congregating on the benches in the High Street they became known as the ‘Benchers’. Opinion was generally divided, many of us got to know them, heard their life stories (which often served to explain at least in part their more visible problems) and felt able to be straight with them when their antics crossed the line from eccentric and occasionally entertaining to bloody annoying. Others simply wanted them to disappear and saw any initiatives which saw them fed, or counselled or accommodated as ‘just encouraging them’.

Artwork by Steve Reeves

Now I find myself harking back fondly to the days when Pagan would insist on reading me his poetry (he had a witty and clever turn of phrase even when quite drunk) and Steve Reeves would show me his latest artwork. I am sure if he hadn’t been so prey to alcohol Steve would have been a successful illustrator, rather than dead from drink in his early thirties. Nowadays it is hard to deny that the atmosphere on the street has become less friendly, harsher and more threatening.

Anti Social Behaviour – not just in Glastonbury

I feel that the visible problems we are seeing on the High Street are symptomatic of a much wider problem in the country as a whole, caused by increasing poverty, cut-backs to support services, the ever-rising cost of accommodation and consequent increase in homelessness. These are problems in virtually every town in the UK. Also, there’s no funding for community projects, art, music, sport, that connect people in a meaningful way and alleviate their feelings of powerlessness and disenfranchisement.

Some people, due to difficult childhood circumstances, mental health problems, poor education, lack of opportunity, etc,  need a lot of one on one support in order to discover their own worth and desire to, and be able to be, ‘valuable’ members of a community. If they’ve consistently slipped through the net, or that help has not been available (largely due to funding cuts in the name of ‘austerity’) they eventually band together in a smaller, different kind of community. The community of the disenfranchised, the outcast, the addicted. This community doesn’t have the same rules as the wider community, because it doesn’t see how those rules benefit them. Its members often view themselves as victims and use that to justify the kind of behaviour that the wider community has a problem with. The more they feel cast out the worse that behaviour becomes. Compounding this, there are simply more vulnerable people around, who in turn provide easy prey for this handful of those who have become so screwed up, that they see no reason not to exploit others in even more difficult circumstances. It is believed by many that those causing the most problems are not incomers attracted by Glastonbury’s alternative culture, but homegrown Somerset locals, such as you might find in most of our local large towns.

Baa Baa Black Sheep

I think it’s a particular problem in Glastonbury because, to a certain extent, the wider community is composed of ‘black sheep’ – the misunderstood, the bullied, the not neuro-typical, those who came here precisely because they felt uncomfortable in the communities in which they were brought up. In many ways this is Glastonbury’s strength. It creates an atmosphere of tolerance and acceptance, but it also makes it harder for us to agree a common set of standards of behaviour.

Speaking personally: I was generally regarded as a ‘weirdo’ by other kids, I didn’t know how to fit in, during my childhood the conventions of acceptable behaviour (or at least the kind of behaviour that would make me ‘popular’) seemed arbitrary and meaningless, and connected to things like my gender and class in ways which were restrictive and unhelpful. I sought out other outcasts, people who defied convention in their dress and behaviour. Then I discovered Glastonbury and for the first time felt at home.

Fortunately I got raised with a few basic rules to do with honesty, integrity and respect for others. However, I have a problem setting boundaries. I don’t like being dictated to and I don’t like dictating to others. If someone else’s behaviour upsets me I find myself examining that, to see if my upset is a result of my own unacknowledged prejudice, or lack of understanding, or cultural bias. Also, even when that behaviour is clearly intimidating others I wonder how I can most usefully respond, so as to help, rather than exacerbate the problem. I suspect a lot of ‘the alternative community’ have this dilemma and so we end up doing nothing, because we simply don’t know what the best thing to do is.

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What to do?

Local traders are considering employing the services of a private security firm. There was even a call at the meeting for a ‘zero tolerance approach’ which I quite honestly found chilling. I am proud to live in a town in which tolerance is largely seen as a virtue. I fear the authoritarian approach to ‘cleaning up Glastonbury’ would be rather heavy-handed, perhaps involving clamping down on the kinds of things that in other towns are seen as ‘Anti-social behaviour’ but here are viewed more as entertaining and mildly eccentric. Busking and drumming for instance or colourful graffiti like that produced by the Krumble Empire. How long before brightly coloured processions, gatherings on the Tor and labyrinths in the Churchyard are seen as encouraging anti-social behaviour?

Personally. I am not in favour of private security. The police, who are after all under oath to serve the people,  are increasingly underfunded and short staffed. It is no great secret that members of the establishment would like to see us paying private firms to patrol the streets of our towns, firms in which they often have a very significant financial interest. Security firms may impress by statistics, but they have no long-term interest in improving the town.

Man dressed as chicken outside St John's church Glastonbury
Do we really want to get rid of the odd as well as the intimidating?

It’s not always easy to discriminate between that which is contributing to the atmosphere in the town, and that which detracts from it. It generally comes down to your perspective and even then you have the choice to tolerate it, or not. For instance, I enjoy Lee’s drumming, he’s a consummate musician, but IMO bad djembe players on the Market Cross are the pits. I can’t imagine a security guard sent to impose some order on the High Street is likely to be able to tell the difference, or realise how much many of our visitors enjoy listening to some well-formed beats while they are eating their ice creams. A less tolerant attitude might lead to the eccentrically dressed and dreadlocked tourists ordered to turn out their pockets for a bit of pot, while hoodie wearing short haired drug dealers are able to pass by anonymously. They’ll still be able to claim they are dealing with Glastonbury’s drug problem, but Glastonbury will be no safer as a result.

Some people in the meeting clearly had a more robust answer to the problem – I heard mutterings about bundling people into vans and taking them away, some would like to see the return of big lads sorting the issue out with fists and kicks. I get it, and in moments of frustration I occasionally find myself thinking perhaps it’s not such a bad idea, answering violence and bullying with more of the same. However, I think this solution is rather antithetical in a town that prides itself on the fact we have over 70 religious groups living in peace and harmony. Violence and bullying doesn’t seem to be making the world a safer place in general, I really don’t see how it can be an answer here. Besides, in my experience, those who deal with problems with force tend to get bored when the troublemakers are gone and look elsewhere for their adrenalin fix, becoming troublemakers in turn. Also, I feel that when we call for violent solutions it’s a measure of our own frustration and powerlessness, a sign that we have given up even considering more creative and imaginative approaches.

We might get tainted by association, and so we become less understanding and less tolerant by degrees.

Over the years travelling folk and penniless dreamers have contributed greatly to Glastonbury’s creativity, colour and vibrancy. It’s become a hub for festival crew, gardeners, carpenters, musicians, artists, poets and writers. Those of an entrepreneurial bent have established successful businesses, been able to buy property and are now seen as valuable members of the community. However, many active, hard-working residents are finding it nearly impossible to keep a roof over their heads. It all feels rather precarious, many of us are so near to homelessness ourselves, we no longer have the time or inclination to sit and listen to the stories of those on the benches. After all we might get tainted by association, and so we become less understanding and less tolerant by degrees.

The only way we are ever going to find an answer to these problems is by treating people as individuals. There is no one sure-fire way to help everyone find purpose in their lives, to build their own self-respect to the point that they respect those around them, to give up the addictions, anger and behaviours that are making their lives (and others) a misery. Surely, in a community that prides itself on being free-thinking, we should be better placed to at least try and find creative solutions? Or perhaps we could bring back the support systems that helped in the past, as banishing them has clearly not magically made the problem go away.

The Robert Barton Trust

Following the death of a young homeless man in the town, the Robert Barton Trust opened in 1996 and helped people in need access vital services that got them ‘back on their feet’. The RBT also acted as an interface between those who had settled in the town and it’s more itinerant, and sometimes more troubled, visitors. The staff and other service users did a sterling job ‘self-policing’ more difficult behaviour, setting boundaries which defined what was, and wasn’t OK. The RBT was a friendly place, great for a cup of tea and a cheap meal, anyone could pop in, which fostered tolerance and respect all round.

Some argued that the RBT encouraged people to stay in Glastonbury who otherwise would simply have moved on, it seems to me that the situation since the RBT’s closure in 2011 has proved this theory wrong. Rather than moving on, the benchers are now gathering in even greater numbers, showing very little inclination to contribute to the town in any useful way and those amongst them who do want help sorting their lives out are unable to easily access it. When an addict has a tenner in their pocket they are more likely to use it to alleviate their immediate suffering with a beer or a bag than on the bus fare to the Elim Connect Centre in Wells to access Drug and Alcohol services.

There are other approaches too, check out the work of Windsor Hill Wood in Shepton Mallet for example, who provide a retreat for those in crisis, and in recovery. I worked there for a while and saw how community, kindness, routine and responsibility could help stop chaotic lives spiralling out of control.

Harpist and Street Traders in front of St John's Church. Glastonbury 2017
Harpist and Street Traders in front of St John’s Church

It has often been remarked that for a town with so many healers there seems to be a lot of unwell people here. If there is anyone working in alternative approaches to mental health or addiction with any practical ideas I think we need to hear about them, as it seems there is very little funding for conventional treatment nowadays, and it may be that a more holistic approach is needed.

We also need to really appreciate and defend those things that make our High Street special and unique – like the buskers, glittery litter bins, Gaz’s chalk mandalas and processions of people doing weird stuff that we don’t necessarily understand. We need to support all those local artists, musicians, writers, town bloggers(!) and other creatives, so they can earn enough to stay here and continue to contribute meaningfully to the community. The same goes for the local businesses, local food growers, cider makers, herbalists and acupuncturists, yoga teachers and chainsaw carvers. We need a diverse and thriving community to be able to creatively and kindly, but effectively, deal with the problem of anti-social behaviour in our town.

If you are a visitor to Glastonbury please don’t be put off, the media seem to be delighted at this opportunity to paint Glastonbury in a bad light, but it’s still a safe place to visit. The troublemakers are more of a danger to themselves and each other than anyone else. This post follows on from Dora’s guest post about bad behaviour on the benches.

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18 thoughts on “Anti-Social Behaviour In Glastonbury Town”

  1. A friend visiting from Birmingham asked me about the Town Hall meeting and remarked that you get this kind of problem everywhere – certainly in big urban centres where people drift in from outside. It’s true that Glastonbury is a unique place, but one aspect that hasn’t been mentioned is that we’re also a very small place, with most business clustering round the High Street and marketplace. That makes the benchers way more conspicuous and more of a ‘gauntlet’ than they might be elsewhere. I haven’t personally been bothered or intimidated by them, at least not deliberately on their part, but on occasion I’ve chosen to avoid people on the benches who have dogs running off leash from one side of the road to the other – that means I can’t walk my dog past them, so I go another way. I notice the benches have been almost deserted the last few times I’ve gone along the High Street – not sure what’s happening there?

    Also, Vicki, is Windsor Hill Wood still open? I thought Toby Jones had closed it and moved on?

    • Yes that’s a good point about Glastonbury being a small place Maria.
      As for Windsor Hill Wood, it’s still open and being run by another family, although Toby and Fra have moved back to Italy.

  2. Nice one.. and well said. I remember the bruwcrew fondly. .. i also remember when there were only a couple alternative shops facing the opression and bullying of chambers of commerce and ‘straight ‘ shops.. Now the alternative shops are the majority but their philosophy is not so alternative.

  3. Very good post there, Vicki; what a shame it’s come to this. I find it easy to share your horror of private security – though then again I don’t have a business to run in Glastonbury – but I find it hard to believe (call me an optimist) that this could really be the top of a slippery slope where “normal” eccentrics, musicos and hippies in general will be hassled out of town – Glastonbury’s social and economic ethos relies too much on them and I think this is generally understood; and it’s well known that the town thrives because, not in spite, of them. We were pottering about in the town centre yesterday and saw no evidence of untoward behaviour, and we wondered how much of this has been exacerbated by, and during, the hot dry summer? Or is it going on all year round now? Unfortunately, as you suggest, our current government’s ideology of “Austerity” (which I personally regard as little more than a flimsy façade for further cutting back of the State) inevitably impacts most on the weakest, and I fear that Brexit will bring worse news still. The numbers of lost souls sleeping and socialising in public spaces all over the UK has shot up nationwide over the past few years, and the street homeless are just the tip of an iceberg, with many more financially unable to leave their parents’ homes or using friends’ sofas or spare rooms etc. It seems all we can do at present is personally treat everyone with as much compassion as we can possibly muster, and simultaneously keep discussion alive as to how to curb the most uncomfortable excesses. Yours, David.

    • Yes, the long hot Summer has definitely contributed to the problem. As for other people getting hassled out of town, perhaps not, but when many of us are realising we can no longer afford to live here it won’t be necessary to hassle us out of town, we will simply have to leave or join the ranks of the homeless. It seems to me many poor areas that were rejuvenated through the activities of poor creatives have consequently become popular places to live, prices have rocketed and the very people who contributed to the colour and vibrancy have been forced to move elsewhere – this is certainly true of large areas of Bristol for instance. I used to think that Glastonbury was immune to this gentrification, sadly I am not too sure now.

  4. Yes, indeed. In trying to move to this area over the past two and a half years, we definitely noticed that property prices are generally as much as 15% – or more – higher in Glastonbury than the surrounding district, which is one reason we ended up in Street – we simply couldn’t have afforded to buy the same house had it been in Glastonbury. And a place in Benedict Street we tried to buy when we started looking back then was on the market at £190,000 but very recently appeared again at £240,000! Blimey …

  5. About ten years ago the benchers were congregating on the bit of pavement where there are three trees growing at the top of St Johns carpark. Problem being was when the infants were coming out of school at 3.30 the mothers were finding their presence intimidating. So we had a word and explained the situation. From then on the lads would move off elsewhere around school leaving time.
    Why don’t you talk to them?
    Obviously having acceptance by the local community by way of the RBT, went a long way to earning their respect and so they listened to us. Don’t know about now. Maybe Glastonbury has fkd it for insisting RBT was closed down.

  6. It makes me a bit sad that Glastonbury has somehow now been singled out for media attention. This story is in the Guardian and national news now. There is one part I disagree with, people are saying that crazy drunken BS doesn’t happen in Wells… yes it does… every Saturday night. Only they are dressed in jeans and t-shirts and have short hair. I called the cops one time because someone was beating the shit out of someone in the street (Wells town center) at 2am and then proceeding to rip down a street sign… and they didn’t even show up! But if I had said it was a hippy, betcha they would have come out. Yes Glastonbury attracts homeless but to make out that it is worse than other towns? Sorry but show me the actual crime statistics, because I think there is some discrimination going on. I don’t feel unsafe in Glastonbury, kind of the opposite actually, but then I’ve been around alternative people for decades and I can roll with it, but would I walk down the street in wells at 2am on a saturday night? Hell no, not after what I have witnessed.
    If you could curb the bad drugs (we all know which ones those are) and the alcohol (very difficult), the worst of all these problems would settle down. If anyone is triggered by buskers and drifters they need to chill, those things are not the problem.

  7. Very well written article. If only drugs and alcohol weren’t involved thee would probably be very little actual trouble and the “normal” eccentrics could do their thing without causing any annoyance. In New Zealand most, if not all towns have a “no alcohol in the town centre” policy which seems to work pretty well. It would need policing – and wouldn’t it be great if there was a friendly support place for people to be moved on to, but it would keep a lot of unsociable behaviour out of the main street.

    • Thanks Glenys. We do actually have a no alcohol in the town centre policy, but it relies on a constant police presence to enforce, which of course we don’t have! I am hopeful that the community will lead an initiative to create a centre where people can be supported.

  8. Great article. I agree with you: I think local communities need to start initiatives of their own to solve problems, rather than depending on the government to solve them. Affordable housing would perhaps be a good start.

    • Yes, you’re right of course, though I have certain doubts about the hire of private police forces, or their equivalent. But it seems that what usually goes by the name of “affordable housing” is well beyond the range of a salary which is the minimum wage or thereabouts. On the other hand, a national programme of building decent social housing in the UK would provide a good deal of employment and then actually affordable homes to rent when they’re built. Just a thought.

  9. Really well penned article Vicki – (Anti-Social Behaviour In Glastonbury Town
    September 21, 2018). I’ve been saying to folk there and at home that I’ve noticed a difference over the past 2 -3 years. I’m not alone in that either! In 2018 (I get there each July) there was a distinct level of unrest among the ‘bencher’s’ and police were on site more than once. Yes, even as a regular visitor, I too have noticed a shift from purely eccentric to out and out disturbing – which seems to reflect society in general?? Oh, hang on a sec’, “the lady” famously proclaimed that “there is no such thing as society”. Maybe its up to all of us to prove that ethos incorrect. I witness events during C-19 which do just that!

    • It will be interesting to see what long term changes Covid 19 brings about societally. There’s a lot of positive stuff going on in the community to support people. I’d like to think a more equal and caring society comes about where people aren’t so disenfranchised. I guess it’s up to all of us.

    • Paulos, you may be aware that the benches in the High Street have all been carted away during the pandemic; I do hope they can return soon, as I’ve met some very nice people indeed whilst watching the world go by on them! Though of course when things finally get back to normal (for Glastonbury!) people will just sit on the ground anyway if they’re still missing.


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