Greenbelt: When the heavens opened

31 August 2012

What a festival it was! Four days in Cheltenham, home to the Greenbelt Festival for 14 years now - and it's still a surprise how nice people can be when they are sleep-deprived and have experienced the heaviest rain on the site in living memory.

A consistent theme from artists who appear at the festival is how gracious and engaged the audiences are. And the audiences said the same things about the artists (we said they were nice). The whole thing could get self-congratulatory - except that it never is. The art sees to that. There was fun to be had, but there is a world to repair, a paradise to save.

This expanded review gives a taste of some of the festival highlights. It has been produced for Church Times readers and core Greenbelt supporters as part of our 11-year-long relationship. It's our way of celebrating the festival, honouring all those who contributed to its success, and, we hope, passing on something of its vision and spirit.

Paul Handley
Editor, Church Times

Paul Northup
Director, Greenbelt

IT WAS a typical Anglican high mass: candles, incense, a cotta or two. . . But the nose can't be fooled. Mixed with the incense was the smell of sausages; and was that rosemary?

Of course, the Big Top might have given things away. And the rock band.

Yes, it was the start of the Greenbelt Festival, and 400 or so had chosen to begin with the Charismatic mass, with Benediction, produced by Blessed, a West Country worship community (i.e. church).

Others had chosen to listen to Canon Lucy Winkett, or Dave Tomlinson, Anglican priests; or Logan Mehl-Laituri, an Iraq war veteran; or Megson, a folk duo; or Catherine Francis, discussing weight problems; or Pádraig Ó Tuama, an Irish poet and reconciler; or watch Mary Poppins; or start queuing for the recording of Any Questions for Radio 4. And so on. Yet again, the choices each of the 20,000 made coloured his or her experience of the festival.


There was, of course, common ground, or, rather, mud. Greenbelt has been blessed with fine weather over the years, and is especially blessed by being on the Cheltenham Racecourse, so that many of the venues are warm, dry, and even carpeted. None the less, it didn't escape the fate of most festivals this summer.

The downpour on Saturday afternoon brought rain of a different order, unknown in Cheltenham, one resident said. Venues sited on tarmac were not immune: at one point a manhole cover was forced up by the pressure of water. Unfortunately, G-Source was downhill of it, and the film A River Runs Through It could have been set there. Elsewhere, the muddy emulsion, sometimes ankle-deep, invaded a few of the venues, such as the Jesus Arms beer tent.

But everyone who was there coped. And surprisingly few stayed away, though for a festival that budgets to break even, those 500 or so absentees will have an impact.

And then Sunday dawned bright and clear. The festival eucharist, intended to be in the round, was in a more complicated polygonic shape to fit round a zoned-off swamp; the processions were curtailed; and the temptation to flop down on the ground had to be resisted. Otherwise, it was a sunny, jolly, thoughtful occasion, even if one Greenbelter complained that men weren't represented around the altar (they were - by women).

On Monday, the weather deteriorated again, but the programme was virtually unaffected, and proved, yet again, that just about anything can attract a following: a jazz rendition of Thomas Traherne's poetry; a coffee-drinking seminar; a Big Top full of teenagers in wireless headphones dancing at a silent disco (except they weren't really silent, but kept cheering); children's films shown at 00.15 a.m.; Egyptian belly-dancing classes; life-drawing; a pop-up communion stall. . .

You had to be there.

Reviews written by Sarah Brush, Frances Novillo, Rachel Giles, Adrian Reith, Adam Tyndall, Madeleine Davies, Malcolm Doney, Ed Thornton, Paul Handley, Mike Truman, John Cheek, Grant Howitt, Simon Jones, Terence Handley MacMath, Mark Montgomery, Rebecca Foster, Nick Higgs, Trinity Handley, Matilda Reith.
On-site production Simon King. Edited by Christine Miles.


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