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'Not a safe place to be'

"THE WORLD is a blur. It really is hold-on-tight time," says Paul Northup, the development manager of the Greenbelt Festival. "The telephone just doesn't stop ringing." There is a buzz in the air at the London offices of Greenbelt. With a few days to go before the 32nd festival begins, there's plenty to do.

 'But five years ago it was a different story. Not only had the festival just moved to Cheltenham Racecourse for the first time, but the date had been changed. As a result, only 5000 people turned up. It was a mistake, says a festival trustee and long-term stalwart, Pip Wilson. "In hindsight, we shouldn't have moved the date, but we've always been an organisation that has taken risks."

With mounting debts, the festival had to consider whether it would be able to carry on. Since then, however, it has gone from strength to strength. In 2004 17,000 attended. This year, the organisers hope that the figure will approach 20,000. This will take the festival back to its heyday of the '80s.

The move to Cheltenham seems to have appealed to the festival's wide audience. The location is suited to many tastes. While many camp at the venue, others prefer to stay in nearby guest houses and hotels. In light of the years when mud and unfriendly weather all but ruined things at Greenbelt, the racecourse's blend of indoor and outdoor venues now seems to suit many.

The racecourse event is the latest incarnation of the annual festival, which has visited a number of venues over its 30 years. When the first event took place in the summer of 1974 at Prospect Farm in Suffolk, 2000 people attended. It was called "the nice people's pop festival" in The Sun that year.

The festival later moved to the grouds of Deene Park, a sprawling Georgian mansion in Northamptonshire, and to the 16th-century Castle Ashby in Northampton. Its recent move transforms one of England's most prominent gambling venues into a place of worship - a move perhaps typical of a festival that has always been recognised as creative and innovative.

Mr Wilson says that the sense of a journey is all part of Greenbelt's enduring appeal. "The festival is popular with people who feel they are on some kind of journey," he says. "It's not a safe place. If you're conservative, or comfortable in how you see the world, it probably isn't the place for you. People who attend Greenbelt tend to want to see some kind of change in society and in the world."

This facet of Greenbelt is evident in the provocative seminar programme, which encourages debate in challenging areas: justice, fair trade, and building a peaceful world are scrutinised with passion. Then there are hot potatoes on human sexuality. At one time, the festival was nicknamed by some "Groinbelt" - such was the dominance of seminars on sex.

GREENBELT is perhaps the only festival where gay and lesbian Christians can find solace in the "safe-space" venue, championed by another regular of the festival, Dave Tomlinson. Mr Northup thinks Greenbelt's willingness to be different is crucial to its make-up: "Greenbelt provides a voice from the margins," he says. "It's a space for the Christian 'homeless', and those not quite content with weekly life in the pew. People who feel scorched or neglected in their year-round Christian journey find a place of comfort at the festival."

The inclusion in recent years of dynamic figures such as the activist Peter Tatchell, the Body Shop founder and philanthropist Anita Roddick, and, this year, the human-rights lawyer and campaigner for the abolition of the death penalty Clive Stafford Smith, and the outspoken critic of abortion the Revd Joanna Jepson reflect this commitment to speaking for the marginalised.

Mr Wilson says: "We've always brought people to the festival who've got something radical to say." Some would suggest that the organisers of the festival have been too radical. In the early '90s, the festival organisers invited a white witch to speak, a move that was criticised. When Tom Robinson and Martyn Joseph ran through Mr Robinson's hit "Glad to be gay" in 2000, it was too much for some at the festival. The next time the duo played, the song was conspicuous by its absence.

But for the faithful, the festival hits the mark far more than it misses it. Its approach brings together many of the colours of the Christian rainbow: Evangelical, liberal, Anglican, Baptist, Methodist, Quaker, and Franciscan. It is this openness that has led thousands of grateful visitors to support the festival by giving regularly, and by returning to Greenbelt in the years when most had not. These people have become known as Greenbelt's "angels".

It was this band of backers whom Mr Wilson credits with keeping the show on the road after the move to Cheltenham. "They saved the festival," he says. This level of ownership is particularly important. While a skeleton crew in London looks after things throughout the year, Greenbelt comes alive through the common purpose of hundreds of volunteers and helpers. In total, they contribute 25,000 hours during the year and at the fesival.

THE PROGRAMME offers many possibilities: alongside seminars and worship, punters can choose from rock, jazz, classical, and folk music. They can listen to speakers, watch film or theatre, hear writers at the literary venue, seek solace in the quiet area overlooking the racecourse, or catch up with old friends at the "Tiny Tea Tent".

This is one of the reasons for the festival's success, says Mr Wilson. "You can listen to 120 bands if you want to, or go to the gallery to look at art, or to the theatre. There's a pick-and-mix element that appeals to a lot of people. It's inclusive, open, and non-threatening. It stays in the guts all year."

Mr Northup agrees: "The programme is rich, diverse, and eclectic. Where else could you find the Archbishop of Canterbury, pop singers like Jamelia, and awareness-raisers like Yasmin Alibhai-Brown all on the same bill?"

And the festival's growing programme for children in recent years has shown the organisers' awareness of the audience's needs. Many of the teenagers who came in the 1980s to listen to bands now have young children.

This year, the mix of music, worship, laughter, and spirituality will once again be in full flow. Speakers include the celebrated theologian Karen Armstrong and the controversial South African cleric and politician Allan Boesak. The music features the cutting-edge folk musician Jim Moray, and a welcome return by the Scottish troubadours The Proclaimers.

THE FACT that Greenbelt has come out of its difficult 20s to be a mature 30-something is a reason for its organisers and audience to be enthusiastic. But, as Mr Northup says, a large part of its success is down to its commitment to its values: "A lot of things have shifted culturally and ecclesiastically, but Greenbelt essentially still offers a home for a Christian celebration and exploration of the arts, together with a forum for the pursuit of justice concerns and awareness-raising."

Church Times is a Greenbelt Associate.

The Greenbelt Festival runs from 26 to 29 August. For information and bookings, phone 020 7374 2760.

'At the end of the summer, for four days in Cheltenham, we will gather together to unite in our love of the arts, our desire to wrestle with the important issues of the day, our itch to celebrate a sense of the gift and the giver - to build our little nomadic part of the Kingdom again; to realise that things don't have to be the way they are'

Karen Napier
Greenbelt Festival Chairwoman

Festive: (top to bottom, below) visitors to Greenbelt this year; the development manager, Paul Northup; a speaker at this year's festival, Clive Stafford Smith




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