From field to fantasy

How do you make a temporary, city-sized festival on a farm in the Somerset countryside, offering a hedonistic and spiritual experience that is so sought-after it sells out in 26 minutes? Antonia Wilson visits the Glastonbury Festival site as the build for this year’s event begins, and talks to co-organiser Emily Eavis about creating utopia in a field

(Above: The Pyramid Stage skeleton is a permanent fixture at Worthy Farm. Photo: Jason Bryant/Glastonbury Festival)

When I visited Worthy Farm in the Vale of Avalon, Somerset, about a month before Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts was due to start, the famous fields were relatively empty. As I arrived, the grass was being cut across the 900-acre site, its scent caught on the breeze. A wave of nostalgia swept over me.

Officially, my first visit to Glastonbury Festival was when my mum was pregnant with me, and working on a friend’s organic cake stall. I went as a child too, and as an adult I’ve been drawn back to the festival again and again. Glastonbury has become a British institution, an annual pilgrimage for those lucky enough to attend.

So how do you make a temporary, city-sized festival on a farm in the Somerset countryside, offering a hedonistic and spiritual experience that is so sought-after it sells out in 26 minutes?? Co-organiser Emily Eavis has been familiar with the rhythms of each year’s preparations since childhood and she continues to live and work on site at Worthy Farm.

“I suppose my role has been evolving very gradually, for a very long time, for about 20 years. It’s kind of at its maximum capacity now – it’s full time every day of the year. We’re completely absorbed in it and we absolutely love it,” says Eavis, as we chat on the phone a few days after my visit. She came on board to help her father in 1999, after her mother Jean passed away. She now works on everything from booking bands to planning installations, with her music manager husband Nick Dewey, and her father Michael, the founder and farm owner, who still has a significant presence.

 Poster from the 1971 festival (image: Glastonbury Festival/V&A)
Poster from the 1971 festival (image: Glastonbury Festival/V&A)
Poster from the 1982 festival (image: Glastonbury Festival/V&A)
Poster from the 1982 festival (image: Glastonbury Festival/V&A)

Various departments working on the festival are now on site in the relatively new farmhouse-style office buildings. These teams grow in size as the festival approaches, from tens to, eventually, tens of thousands, many of them volunteers who are rewarded with a free ticket. From infrastructure and operations, to finance and licensing, press and production, the ‘offices’ – if you could call these lively, bright and art-filled rooms such – are filled with groups of people chatting around tables. On the walls are large-format boards displaying newspaper clippings and early ads, photos of iconic moments, scrapbook montages, original artwork, and a collection of official festival posters.

The family’s farmhouse sits just down hill from the new block, along with the old wagon shed, the former Glasto HQ where everything happened around a large kitchen table. Now used to store artwork for dressing rooms, old furniture, former layout maps, and other dusty delights, it offers a facinating glimpse into the festival’s wild and wonderful history.

Poster from the 2015 festival (image: Glastonbury Festival/V&A)
Poster from the 2015 festival (image: Glastonbury Festival/V&A)

It all started in 1970, when dairy farmer Michael Eavis was inspired whilst watching Led Zeppelin 2 3 at a local blues festival, and decided to organise an event to raise funds for his farm. Two thousand people attended the first Glastonbury Fayre, for just £1 each, with music from Marc Bolan and T. Rex and free milk from the Worthy cows. A lot has since changed, and Glastonbury is now the largest greenfield festival in the world. The site is currently over 1.5 miles wide, with a 4.5-mile, 12ft perimeter fence. More than 1,000 acts perform in over 100 venues across the site over the five days, and its capacity has grown to 200,000 including staff and artists.

Glastonbury is an enormous logistical operation. There are several large warehouses on site, with, at the time of my visit, sections of various installations peeping out. The giant withy ‘nipple’ that tops a viewing tower in the Park area sits inside what will become the industrial-scale recycling shed, alongside some of the 25,000 bins, ready to be handpainted with colourful decoration in a nearby field.

Another large shed houses a workshop for painting the 2,500 signs used across the site, all with the same distinctive lettering style, which is now copyrighted as a part of the festival brand.

Venue sets are flat-packed, numbered and stored inside another warehouse, guarded by two of the Greenpeace polar bear statues. The yard is stacked with shipping containers, holding all sorts of props including banners from the Glastonbury ‘peace curtain’. In front stands a dragon from the Kidz Field and some old airplane noses awaiting a new home in the night-time area.

Page from the 40th anniversary scrapbook (2010), with exclusive material from the personal archives of the Eavis family, including a photo of the original Pyramid Stage from 1971 (image: Glastonbury Festival/V&A)
Page from the 40th anniversary scrapbook (2010), with exclusive material from the personal archives of the Eavis family, including a photo of the original Pyramid Stage from 1971 (image: Glastonbury Festival/V&A)
Page from the 40th anniversary scrapbook
Page from the 40th anniversary scrapbook

“In the last few years the festival has done more with installations and really interesting creative projects and ideas. Building into the sky, building up high and building into the trees, and doing incredible light shows,” Eavis says. “There’s so much here, it’s a real feast. And that’s totally separate from the main stages. Just as an art installation alone it’s incredible. Even the handpainted signs along the old railway line, all the beautiful little crochet flowers people make and tie to fences – all those details are what make it really different for me. But then also the really ambitious builds of Block9, that are massive scale – it really feels like you’re in New York.”

Block9 is one of the 24-hour areas in the southwest corner of the site, coming to life at night with alternative performances inside huge installations including a building with a train carriage crashing through the front. It sits alongside Shangri-la, which in recent years was split into a heavenly sanctuary and a fiery hell with a maze-like structure of mini nightclubs; The Common, including a secret venue behind an artificial waterfall; and the twisted sideshows and scrap art of The Unfairground. Arcadia is another night-time favourite closer to the centre of the site, with a 30-foot high mechanical spider built from recycled military hardware, with the DJs inside its body and fire spouting from its legs. Glastonbury is a 24-hour festival, and this nocturnal world is a wonderfully chaotic multi-sensory playground.

Page from the 40th anniversary scrapbook
Page from the 40th anniversary scrapbook
Page from the 40th anniversary scrapbook
Page from the 40th anniversary scrapbook

As we drive around the near-empty site, some of the shipping containers marked with their area names sit waiting in fields, ready to be unpacked and set up. At the highest point, above the stages and the ‘sacred space’ of the Stone Circle, is a new acoustic field for this year called Strummerville at the Spinny, with a pretty little wooded area and awesome views. Looking out across the land, it is evident how much there is still to do – despite its size, it’s only during the last few weeks before the event that the majority of the build takes place.

However, the festival is never completely absent. Beneath the lush green grass lies 600 miles of cabling and three underground reservoirs, each holding a million litres of water. There are several permanent structures including 23 sets of long drop toilets across the site, and the skeleton of the iconic Pyramid Stage.

Each area has its own distinct identity, both musically and visually, and thinking about what the environments should look like for certain types of music or activity is carefully considered. But nothing is forced, it is the result of a journey – a layering of history and collaborations.

 Genosys, in Block9, a large scale night-time dance music stage made from concrete and glass (Photo: Peter Podworski/Block9)
Genosys, in Block9, a large scale night-time dance music stage made from concrete and glass (Photo: Peter Podworski/Block9)
 The London Underground, in the Block9 area of Glastonbury Festival (Photo: Peter Podworski/Block9)
The London Underground, in the Block9 area of Glastonbury Festival (Photo: Peter Podworski/Block9)

“What is different here is that we work with so many different people; there isn’t one [overall] designer for the event. We work with hundreds of designers and creatives. And that’s brilliant because for each area, and even within each area, you’ve got tents that are designed by lots of different people. It feels like it’s a sort of patchwork – a patchwork that no one [person] could have made,” says Eavis. “Obviously we get very involved in the design of things – how the overall picture is going to work. And anything inappropriate – there are certain things you have to stick within. But it’s a kind of blank canvas for people.”

The skill and devotion of those running each area and their teams is vital to making Glastonbury what it is today – and most do it for their love of the festival, not for money. Strong and secure relationships are key, which often evolve very organically, and there’s an understanding of the importance of individual people but that it is ultimately about everyone coming together.

“We’re working with a whole selection of people who have completely different backgrounds, who all add something that makes it into a really interesting, fascinating tapestry,” Eavis says. “These are very long-standing relationships, because we work very closely with a lot of people across site. All winter there are reviews and we go through budgets, planning and ideas and sharing visions for the next year. Breaking it down, and going through last year, what worked and what didn’t work. Then come January, it’s all hands on deck and we throw everything into the next one. You’re working so much with these people, it’s important that we have close relationships, and they’ve grown a lot over time.”

(L to R): Flat-packed venue sets; a map found in the old wagon shed (and former Glasto HQ), showing the former, much smaller site; Current infrastructure maps; Inside Michael Eavis's office, with useful numbers written on the wall. (Photography: Antonia Wilson)
(L to R): Flat-packed venue sets; a map found in the old wagon shed (and former Glasto HQ), showing the former, much smaller site; Current infrastructure maps; Inside Michael Eavis’s office, with useful numbers written on the wall. (Photography: Antonia Wilson)
 (L to R): Stage signs in the workshop; Newly-painted toilet signage; A dragon from the Kidz Field in front of the Block9 shipping container; A wall of posters showing previous line-ups in the office. (Photography: Antonia Wilson)
(L to R): Stage signs in the workshop; Newly-painted toilet signage; A dragon from the Kidz Field in front of the Block9 shipping container; A wall of posters showing previous line-ups in the office. (Photography: Antonia Wilson)
 The Welcome to Worthy Farm sign, one of the oldest still used; Inside the old signage shed; Stanley Donwood artwork used in the 2014 poster, hanging in the office above a She-Pee toilet sign; Bins stacked and ready to be painted. (Photography: Antonia Wilson)
The Welcome to Worthy Farm sign, one of the oldest still used; Inside the old signage shed; Stanley Donwood artwork used in the 2014 poster, hanging in the office above a She-Pee toilet sign; Bins stacked and ready to be painted. (Photography: Antonia Wilson)

Every area of the festival has its own story, and many of the creatives involved are interwoven within its history, including hippies, travellers and local residents. In some ways the festival has been a revolution in itself, not only traditionally a home to nonconformist revellers and politically committed performers, but also in terms of the fight against the local council and licensing woes. The late 70s saw the advent of rebellion in more of a political sense, with CND brought on board, and today the festival continues to make a substantial donation to charitable organisations fighting for human and animal rights and environmental issues.

The sense of the original politics and spirituality is still palpable, particularly in the Green Fields, with their mix of activism, healing and alternative therapies, and skills sharing with traditional crafts. Eavis tells me this is her favourite area: “I love the Green Craft Fields, all the ancient crafts and the lovely willow arches that they make and the beautiful things that they do up there. That could not be designed by someone – it’s evolved into that area, because it’s been there for 40 years. It’s got a real feeling of history about it and it’s totally not superficial. These people … everyone lives it,” Eavis says. “I love the Green Fields because it’s how I remember it from growing up here. But what all the areas do is impressive and amazing. It’s the best feeling in the world, when you spend winter talking through ideas and concepts for areas, and then when you see it all coming together it gives it you such a high.”

The spectacle of it all can be overwhelming for newbies. There’s so much to see and do other than the big main stages – theatre, circus, poetry, comedy, cinema, a village of venues just for dance music, a Latino tent, a literary tent housing The Free University of Glastonbury, the infamous secret Underground Piano Bar. The festival even has its own 1957, seven-tonne Heidelberg printing press, which is used to print posters and issues of the Glastonbury Free Press newspaper.

A sense of wonderment, freedom and escapism is part of Glastonbury’s enduring appeal. It has always been a melting pot of creative activity, with unexpected and inspirational things happening around every corner to lose yourself in. “I think it’s more and more important – when there are cuts and various other things happening in the outside world, that make you want to escape and need to escape – that there’s a parallel universe for that week,” Eavis says. “You can escape and live in this environment where people are very nice to each other, and look out for each other, and self-police. It’s an amazing place to be.”

glastonburyfestivals.co.uk

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