A little of my history
I thought it might be fun to share the story of my first time visiting Glastonbury Tor and Town with you all, but to put it into context I’m going to reveal a little of where I come from too.
Visiting Glastonbury in 1988 was to change my life, but naturally I didn’t know this until several years later. I arrived, an insecure, but consequently mouthy and opinionated twenty year old, for a 8.8.88 free festival on the Tor.
It was my first time in the town, but not my first visit to the West Country. I’d been to the Bath and West Bike Show in my late teens (loud music, loud motorbikes, leather, beer and wet t-shirt competitions) and had spent a weekend in Cheddar with a boyfriend. We slept on the flattened-out seats of his matt black Ford Cortina in the Gorge. He told me that this narrow valley with its high rocky walls had been dug by a team of Irish navvies. I, being young and gullible, believed him, only having doubts when he added that, after finishing, they’d realised they were in the wrong place and were sent off to dig the Grand Canyon. On neither of these occasions did I realise how close I was to Glastonbury Town.
I had come from Northamptonshire, from a small town surrounded by three massive council housing estates, built in the fifties to accommodate ‘London overspill’ – families like my own who were never to be accepted by the ‘locals’. The council houses were built in only a few styles, so after visiting a few school friends I never had to ask where the loo was. Although my family had moved from North London shortly before my birth I never felt any great attachment to Northamptonshire’s flat landscape, its ‘countryside’ mostly monoculture and its towns surrounded by retail parks, multiplex cinemas and bowling alleys. I think of it as a ‘nothing place’ – by the time I was born the area was no longer a centre of industry, there was (and still is) nothing to attract tourists.
The saving grace of my hometown for me was a large and well-stocked library, an art shop from which I purchased acrylic paints and a camera shop where the staff tolerated my persistent questions and eventually sold me my first camera – a Pentax which cost the princely sum of £100, which was all my 14th birthday money. Without the encouragement to explore creativity, to read, write, draw and photograph I wonder if I would have been able to imagine a different life for myself.
Who was I at twenty years of age? Like most young people I wasn’t really sure who I was so I defined myself by what I was not. Of one thing I was confident – I was not normal. I didn’t have to expend a great deal of energy to avoid being normal, as six years of being bullied at secondary school had made it clear that ‘fitting in’ was not an option. I simply didn’t know how to do it and nor did I want to. I had the instruction manual – I read Just Seventeen every week but was didn’t follow the instructions as I had no interest in following fashion, or teenage pop bands.
I wanted to be interesting, but it seemed that interesting was something that happened somewhere else, not on a council estate in Northamptonshire, where even the architecture was remarkable only for its uniformity. I sought out books and music that hinted at other dimensions to life than dull reality in 1980’s Britain. I watched The Wicker Man on a tiny black and white telly late at night in my bedroom and decided it was my favourite film ever (it still is). I discovered Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood and loved its characters with their multi-layered lives. I took to carrying around a book of his poems. I decided I was a feminist and bought Spare Rib magazine. Once, the woman in WH Smiths asked me if I would like my copy in a brown paper bag, I was self righteously horrified at the idea that I should be ashamed of my choice of reading matter. I know I didn’t particularly understand Dylan Thomas’s poems or gender politics, but I wanted to be seen to be someone with profound and interesting thoughts.
I wanted to be recognized as an artist and an intellectual, but there was a small problem. I didn’t know any or have any idea of how to become one. I had no one to model myself on, it seemed they all lived somewhere else. I was dimly aware that while it was possible a working-class person might make a living from something creative it wasn’t exactly encouraged. Those that did succeed seemed to do so only by ‘showing off’ and in my family ‘showing off’ was considered at best embarrassing, at worst shameful.
I found ways to ‘show off’ unobtrusively, like most teenagers, I expressed my difference with small clues – an ankle bracelet (memorable mainly as my mum insisted it made me look like a prostitute), a tiger claw on a leather thong around my neck and a studded leather wristband. I adopted the fashion of a previous decade – Indian embroidered tops and jeans. I attempted to hide my unfashionably full lips with white pan stick.
I watched French films, read fantasy novels, and listened to concept albums. I attempted to read Dostoevsky and failed. I bought books on astral projection and ritual magic and tried to follow the instructions, but it all felt rather silly, and besides it didn’t explain what the point was. I moved on to Existentialism and Taoism, because at least then there didn’t have to be a point, so it didn’t really matter if I couldn’t communicate it. I plowed through dull tomes on Anarchism and the class struggle but it was all rather abstract and wordy. Nonetheless, I decided it was important to have opinions and to express them passionately and at every opportunity, lacking any formal education in debate, this meant listing the labels to which I subscribed. I was, I would declare at every opportunity, a Feminist, Taoist, Anarchist, Pagan. Of course, I was unable to justify, or even explain any of these positions, so I developed an air of withering contempt instead.
The one thing about Wellingborough that I might take pride in was that it was a hotbed of radicalism, in the 1600’s it housed a Digger settlement and was later to become a centre of Quakerism. In the Eighties, there was a thriving music scene, when I started Technical College in 1984 my biggest decision was not so much what I would study as whether I would become a punk, goth, psychobilly, hippy, New Romantic or ‘greebo’ (metalhead). My friend Laurie and I simply couldn’t decide which to choose, so I hit on the idea of joining the group with the largest cohort of good-looking boys. After some discussion, we decided the Goths won. We failed to consider that many of the goth boys were actually gay and that the only listenable goth band was the Cult. I spent the next 3 years having my hair backcombed, wearing black, painting boys’ nails, and trying to work out how to get a snog.
The publishing house Thorsons produced ‘A range of popular instructional books on such subjects as psychology, self-improvement and unconventional medicine’. They were based in Wellingborough. I eagerly absorbed their books, which were very radical at the time. I was particularly fascinated by ‘Alternatives: New Approaches to Health, Education, the Family and the Aquarian Age’ by John Osmond (published in 1984) which included a handy guide to where one might find groups practicing ‘alternative living’. There was a photo of people who were engaged in ‘circle dancing’, the address was Victoria Buildings, Glastonbury. I had no idea what circle dancing was, but judging by the photograph I thought it looked rather exciting, I decided Glastonbury was somewhere I would ‘fit in’ and resolved I would visit at my first opportunity. (Funnily enough in 1999 I lived briefly in the same house in Victoria Buildings, but I have never taken up circle dancing).
The Harmonic Convergence
My first visit to Glastonbury Town was in 1988. I’d heard about the Harmonic Convergence of 1987 and decided that the free festival that was advertised as taking place on the Tor on 8.8.88 sounded like an ideal opportunity to make my first visit. There’s not much on the web about the Harmonic Convergence except for this entry I found on AP News:
“According to the theory, the convergence Sunday and today begins a period of cleansing which will last at least until 1992 to prepare the Earth for contact with alien intelligence in the 21st century. (Jose) Arguelles said he needed a minimum of 144,000 convergers Sunday ″to create a field of trust, to ground the new vibrational frequencies. Organizers said about 2,000 people went to Glastonbury (on) Sunday for one of the larger observances of the ″convergence″ outside the United States. About noon local time – the hour set to try to project positive, peaceful thoughts to other ″harmonic convergers″ around the globe – they formed a circle facing outward, linked hands and began a low humming that continued for a half-hour.”
A campervan full of hippies
We hitched 170 miles to get to Glastonbury, but all I remember was our last lift, predictably in a campervan full of hippies, which pulled up at the foot of the Tor. My memories of that time are vague, I’m not sure what I was expecting in Glastonbury, but thought I might see fairies on the Tor.
I think all I had with me was:
My boyfriend at the time, who was also 20.
A very basic sleeping bag (I may have had two sleeping bags, but ‘boyfriend at the time’ refused to carry either, due to the fact that he (being a man) needed neither tent nor sleeping bag and so saw no reason to bear their weight. If I insisted on these unnecessary luxuries I should have to carry them myself, but having arrived on site and finding himself cold and tired he would of course avail himself of them, as they were there, and it would, of course, have been selfish in the extreme for me to refuse. (We are still friends 30 years later, his attitude has significantly improved.)
I was wearing:
A pair of size 6 German Army boots (very heavy, rather uncomfortable)
A pair of green army surplus combat trousers (that were practical and multi-pocketed but at the time I was sure they made my bum look enormous)
A cheesecloth embroidered hippy shirt
I can be pretty sure about all this because that was all I wore at the time. I also owned a pair of once denim jeans that had been repeatedly patched with coloured fabric and scraps of leather and with a broken fly repaired with a bootlace. Amongst the bikers that I’d been hanging around with, up until my discovery of free festivals in 1987, these were known as ‘originals’. Their originals were liberally covered with bike oil, as I didn’t own a bike mine were not. They were however sufficiently revolting for my mum to have taken them from my room, put them in a bin liner, thrown them in the bin, covered them with more bin bags full of rubbish, put the bin in the shed, locked the shed and hid the key. Needless to say I managed to retrieve them.
I think I was wearing my mid-length Afghan coat that had magic mushrooms embroidered around the bottom. I loved that coat. When it rained it stank of wet goat. Some thieving git stole it from my house a year or so later and I still miss it. It definitely would not fit me now.
In a small canvas army surplus shoulder bag I had:
A pair of Indian cowhide thong sandals (I had a succession of pairs of these, I think they used to cost 50p a pair).
A spare pair of jeans
Spare knickers and socks, not very many pairs, hopefully I washed them occasionally, I can’t remember.
My memories of that week in early August are vague, but I do recall a few things. On arrival, I stepped in a massive cow pat while wearing my Indian thong sandals and felt it squish around my foot and between my toes. Welcome to Glastonbury. There was a massive thunderstorm. The plastic mattress bag we had bought to serve as a tent proved utterly inadequate to the task, leaving us wet and cold. We asked the man next to us whether we might share his tent. He said no.
We camped at the foot of the Tor, amidst a ragtag selection of Travellers’ vehicles that had managed to get through the gate (I seem to recall this necessitated taking it off its hinges). I climbed the Tor at least twice a day. At night there were fire jugglers and drummers. There was a handfasting on top of the Tor to which everyone was invited. The groom was called Star. I was amazed at the number of stars to be seen from the Tor at night, and the lack of light pollution (sadly this is no longer the case).
I honestly don’t remember very much about Glastonbury Town, except that I found it very green, and small and quaint. I hung out in front of St John’s Church, blissfully unaware of any opprobrium from the locals. I ate Burns the Bread Glastonbury pasties because I was only vegetarian when someone else was watching. We popped into the Rifleman’s Arms and got invited to a party, but I remember bananas were mentioned and we weren’t sure what we might be agreeing to by going along, so we didn’t.
There’s little about 8.8.88 on the web, but in an interesting piece about the history of Glastonbury, the late John Brunsdon said “In August 1988 — on the 8/8/88 — a mass trespass and encampment took place on the Tor, requiring the enforcement of the Public Order Act. Wellhouse Lane is now zoned No Parking in consequence.” I highly recommend reading more of his memories from many years in the town here.
We met Sam, Alistair and Paul, nice young hippies who invited us to travel with them on to Tewkesbury Activator ‘88 School Bus Festival, via Bristol. I was incredibly impressed that Paul actually owned a VW hippy van, this being the height of my own aspirations at the time. They lived in squats in London, and several of them were actors, which made them incredibly cool in my estimation. We spent a month away in the end, returning home and sleeping for 48 hours. A few months later we visited our new friends in London and in 1989 I moved there myself, moving into the housing Co-op that Sam and Alistair lived in and doing a course at the local Poly that they recommended. But that’s another story.
How things have changed
I recently celebrated the 33rd anniversary of that first visit to Glastonbury. I walked up the Tor at sunset alone and tried to remember the insecure young hippy of three decades ago. I wish I could go back in time and tell her that it would all be alright, that she would be moving to Glastonbury herself in 1993 and wouldn’t have a normal life at all. I’d tell her that her bum didn’t look big in those army trousers, that she should tell her boyfriend to carry his own sleeping bag and that her life would be full of interesting and amazing people.
I wish I had a video of the gathering in 1988, I’d search for my younger self. I can’t go back in time but I realised I could record the moment in 2021, so I shot a few short videos in the twilight, perhaps someone else might spot themselves in them a few decades hence. Listening to the drumming and the freeform chanting, watching the dancers and the woman circumnavigating the tower with her burning incense, it strikes me that nothing much has changed, the Glastonbury Tor is still a beacon for idealists and dreamers. Long may it remain so.
I would love to share some of your accounts of your first visits to the town, especially if you have photos too, please contact me if you’d like me to tell your story.
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