Glastonbury Festival – It’s Not In Glastonbury

Some people get confused when I say I live in Glastonbury, they associate the name purely with the Glastonbury Festival and don’t know that the town exists. Sometimes they ask ˜But I thought the festival wasn’t on yet? This is particularly odd when you are talking to them in December. They assume we all live in tents in the mud, or that we can all hear the bands from our gardens. I wonder if anyone is under the illusion that Cheddar village is carved from a giant block of cheese?

For those who don’t know, Glastonbury Festival is the biggest music and arts festival in Europe. This once-yearly five-day event is set across 1,200 acres in the “myth-rich Vale of Avalon”. It is more than a mile-and-a-half across. It has a population of about 200,000 making it bigger than Bath, Glastonbury Town has a population of 9,000. For those of us who love UK festivals, Glastonbury Festival is the Mothership.

Sufi and Wizard Glastonbury Festival 2014
Sufi and Wizard Glastonbury Festival 2014

Glastonbury Festival has a 46 year history, I’m not sure how to date Glastonbury Town, but as Neolithic people lived very close by on the Somerset Levels since at least 3838 BC (when they built what is known as the Post Track to navigate across the marshland), I think it’s reasonable to say Glastonbury Town has been in the making for about 127 times as long as the festival has existed. (I’m not sure that that information is interesting or illuminating but people seem to like statistics).

Glastonbury Town is, of course, in Glastonbury, it’s unlikely to move, barring severe seismic shift. Glastonbury Festival is, in fact, closer to Pilton Village, about 7 miles from Glastonbury, and is in theory movable. Indeed there are rumours it will be moving to the Longleat Estate in Wiltshire, and home to the eccentric 7th Marquess of Bath. I don’t believe this. From a purely logistical point of view how could you create a temporary city of 200,000 in one month, where absolutely nobody knows their way around? (Michael Eavis has just said that Glastonbury Festival definitely won’t be moving to Longleat – apparently, people from the estate came this year and were put off by the mud! Read more.) Glastafarians call the Festival ˜Pilton” to distinguish it from the town. Older locals tend to call it ‘Pilton Pop’,

Navigating your way around Glastonbury Town is facilitated in part by topographical features – if you can see the whole of Tor Hill and everywhere you can see around you is flat you are on the Somerset Levels between 1 and, say, 15 miles away from the Town. If you can see the Tower on the Tor out of a window you are either in town or very close, if you can see the Tor and smell cider at the same time you are at the King Arthur or the Rifleman’s Arms. Alternatively, of course, you can navigate using my handy Glastonbury Tourist Map.

Tipi Field Glastonbury Festival 2014
Tipi Field Glastonbury Festival 2014

Navigating your way around Glastonbury Festival does for a large part rely on topographical features. These include the steep and slippery ascent to the Railway Track that means you’re desperately trying to leave the dystopian world of Block 9. The big oak tree that indicates that you are somewhere near the mile-long queue of people waiting to drag themselves up a mud-slicked rope and through a hexagonal hole into the Underground Piano Bar. Or the stone circle in King’s Meadow constructed by druids way back in the mists of time…oh, well by Ivan MacBeth in 1992, read more here.

Ticket Buyers, of course, navigate by stages, bars and festival cafes (much like the Londoners who direct you around our capital city using only pubs as waymarkers).

Those who have worked on the site might also navigate by field names, getting directions from one of them tends to suggest you’ve wandered into an episode of the Archers where someone has spiked the beer in the Bull with acid “Through Undle Ground, past the naked hippies outside the sauna, over the Railway track into Avalon, past the Volkswagon Beetle with wings, on past Clapps Ground and then into the Orchard”, unless they work in Infrastructure in which case they’ll tell to go to KY6.23.

Mud, mud, glorious mud

I personally navigate around the festival using 30 years of memories, which is of absolutely no use to anyone else at all. The main memory I think I will retain from this year’s event is of the spot close to Arcadia (we’d just been to see the show which was fantastic) where we spent an hour on Friday night. We stopped by some litter bins and discovered the car-sized patch of mud in front of us was somehow more treacherous than the rest. About half of the people trying to get through it got stuck, fell over and lost their wellies. Being the helpful, kind people we are we started placing bets on who would go over next. The family next to us (who turned out to be from Pilton) joined in with an It‘s a Knockout style commentary. We then all started applauding a. All the people who fell over and b. All the people who looked like they were going to fall over but didn’t. I did have a fleeting moment of guilt at not actually helping anyone, but actually, it’s hard to help when you are laughing so much you are crying and besides, most of the people who went into help fell over and lost their wellies too. At one point a group of security surrounded the mud and looked intimidatingly at it, but it defied their control measures and persisted in being sticky and hazardous, so they went away again. PS If you are reading this and you are the family from Pilton get in touch – we like you and want to take you down the pub. For an idea of precisely what the scene in the mud was like here’s someone else’s video.

I once got horribly lost by the Pyramid Stage, bewildered by a mass of signs, none of which pointed to where I wanted to go. I turned in circles looking desperately for the correct exit until a very concerned looking lady from the Samaritans stall opposite came over to stroke my arm and ask me if I needed a cup of tea and a sit-down. I have found myself in the same spot every year since. in my Festival memory bank it is labelled as ˜That bit where I always get lost”. Needless to say this ensures that I can never find the right route to where I am actually heading, but I just stride off confidently in a random direction for fear of looking like a middle-aged festival virgin.

Viking Longship Glastonbury Carnival Float
Viking Float at Glastonbury Carnival

Arguably the two histories of Glastonbury Festival and Glastonbury Town are inseparably intertwined, with the festival having a huge effect on the town and vice versa. When I arrived in Glastonbury in 1993 many of the locals liked to ignore the festival, dismissing it as a bunch of stoned hippies in a field listening to terrible music. Much like the Glastonbury hippies tend to dismiss the Glastonbury Carnival as a bunch of burger eaters watching farmers’ wives in shiny tights on ridiculously power consuming floats playing ear-splittingly loud pop music. Many of the Carnival Clubs volunteer as marshals for the festival to raise funds for the carnival.

Goodwill towards the festival has no doubt improved largely due to the fact that anyone in the local area who can make a toasted sandwich or brew cider realized they had a massive captive market of festival goers. Those who caught on early enough managed to grow their businesses as the event grew and many now serve the massive number of other festivals that happen all over the UK and Europe, but Glastonbury is for many their biggest earner.

Tipis Glastonbury Festival 2014
Tipis Glastonbury Festival 2014

No doubt the attitude towards the festival has improved amongst the local press and officialdom since it has become the preserve of the middle classes. Gone are the days of the Brew Crew crusties and the Convoy. Some complain that the event has lost its edge, become too safe, too commercial. This is a fair point unless you are the kind of person who has never found the thought of being mugged by Scallies exciting. Before the days of the Superfence I too used to applaud the fence jumper who successfully evaded security, but then cursed them when I was stuck in a scary bottleneck or endlessly queuing for the loos as the services became horribly overstretched.

Nowadays you do have to actually contribute something worthwhile to get your ticket, as a consequence the quality of those contributions has grown. It’s no longer enough just to be a face painter or a juggler or push around a pram full of vodka jellies, unless you have joined together with other creatives and truly developed these things into an art form. A huge number of the creative people who contribute to the event – as musicians and performers, in production roles, as artists, build crew, healers, are drawn from Glastonbury Town, and of course, many of those living in the Town first discovered it through coming to the Festival.

People think if you live in the town you get a free ticket to the festival, this is not true. I have heard it said that the Electoral Commission were incredibly impressed by the political conscientiousness of the Pilton Village residents, all of whom register to vote, they even considered a study to find out what they could learn from them to foster enthusiasm for our democratic system in other English villages. Truth is only those living very close to the festival in Pilton village who are also on the electoral register get free tickets.

Glasto Latino Stage at Glastonbury Festival 2016
Glasto Latino Stage at Glastonbury Festival 2016

Not so many years ago Glastonbury Town actively repelled Festival Goers from coming to the town before or after the event. It is rumoured that the Town Chamber of Commerce refused Michael Eavis’s offer of a free page dedicated to advertising the town in the programme as they ˜didn’t want those sort of visitors”. Nowadays the townspeople put on a Glastonbury Fringe event to encourage visitors to the town during the Festival, and showcase local talent. I’ve never seen it as I am always at the Festival – over the last (nearly 30) years I have got in through the Traveller Field in the days before the fence, as a Trader managing a bookstall in the Avalon Field, a band manager for Heathens All and Seize the Day, as Gate Crew on Blue Gate, helping run the Tipi Fields and this year as Site Manager for the Glasto Latino Field. I find my enjoyment of the Festival increases the more involved I am.

In Glastonbury probably 2% of the residents wear wellies daily, at the festival it’s closer to 90%, even in the years when the site becomes swelteringly hot and dusty (giving rise to the infamous Pilton Black Bogey) youngsters, in particular, will still sport patterned rubber boots, as if a massive mud bath could appear at any moment. Those Glastafarians in wellies often found them abandoned at a previous Glastonbury Festival, so much stuff is lunched out at the end of the festival that most of the locals have sheds full of tents, folding chairs, roll mats, cool boxes, sleeping bags etc. Some people roam the site on the Monday actively looking for quality items that just need a wash to be reused, a process known as ˜tatting”. I used to do it, excited by the prospect of finding expensive camping gear or rolls of banknotes (it does happen), but was rubbish at it. Many years ago I was ineffectually tatting (all I had found was a tin opener) when a particularly handsome stranger came up and gave me a kiss, I was so gobsmacked I wasn’t even able to ask his name. Nowadays I generally find the mess and wastefulness too depressing to face, though on a dry year I have been known to pick up an entire year’s supply of loo roll, I’d like to think this was me being Green but actually, it’s more me being tight.

It is sometimes said that living in Glastonbury Town is like being in an all year round festival. When I attended my first Glastonbury Festival (I think it was 1988 but I’m not entirely sure!) I was struck by the friendliness and kindness of strangers, having been bought up in a Midlands Town this was largely unfamiliar to me! In common with the many, many thousands of people who have been to the festival over the years, I was transformed by the experience of being immersed in a massive crowd of people having a good time and being nice to one another. I decided this was the life I wanted, Moving to Glastonbury Town meant I got to live in that same atmosphere of colour, vibrancy, creativity, anarchy and diversity that I had discovered at the Festival, all year round.

Read more of my thoughts on the Glastonbury Festival in this 2017 post The Glastonbury Festival Dream

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14 thoughts on “Glastonbury Festival – It’s Not In Glastonbury”

    • Ha ha! To be honest I can’t actually remember exactly what festivals I have been to each year. I know my first one was in 1987 – Rollright Stones Free Festival. I think my first Glastonbury must have been 1989 then, and I think I have been every year it’s been on since then, but everything is a bit vague!

  1. Excellent, true, amusing and touching piece. I particularly liked the phrase: Glastonbury Town is, of course, in Glastonbury – which makes sense to anyone who lives here.

  2. Fab writing Vick, be good to see you sometime too, thought we’d see you Sat, we did a latino eve espesh xx

  3. Me and my partner have been coming for 20 years non stop .we have for the last 10 years stopped in glastonbury town either before and after .we allways make sure we visit the tor and mingle in the town .I hope to continue this tradition as to us its not just the festival its the area thats the draw .This year 2 weeks before the festival we had the devastating news our 3 year old boy had a rare disease called mps .After the shock we thought what a fantastic place to get awareness we found the town so supportive but the festival not so .so a big thanks and love to glastonbury town and long will our visits continue xx

  4. I have often wondered why it’s called the Glastonbury Festival, when it’s held in Pilton. It should be called the Pilton Festival.

  5. Great stories!
    Since moving to Brighton, I’ve had so many people look at me blankly and say ‘but how can you live there all year?’ when I say I come from Glastonbury. They only know the festival! But the really strange people are the ones who just look blank, and I’m like ‘not the festival, there’s a small town nearby that the festival is named after’ and then they’re like ‘I don’t know the festival’! Seriously!

    • First attended the festival in 1990 or 91 and as I drove through Glastonbury on the way home, I thought ‘wow this magical town is home – I’ll live here one day”.
      Well almost 30 years later (last November) we finally moved here and yes…we lost count of the amount of people who asked, when told we were moving to Glastonbury, ‘do they have actual houses there?’ Or ‘are you going to live in a tent then?’
      Well in the past 7 months, Glastonbury has certainly lived up to every magical expectation that was sparked all those years ago………
      ……Just wished we’d remembered in the midst of our Glastonbury house hunting and buying frenzy last year to buy a blumming ticket to the festival 😮😊

  6. That track across the levels from Neolithic times is called the Sweet Track, after the man who discovered it. It is made up of posts, yes you are right there. There used to be the reconstruction to see at the Peat Moors Centre, which did so much to explain the early history of the area, but rather sadly it was closed by the Council and they moved exhibits to Taunton


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