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History, nature, and the human touch

29 August 2014

IN THE grounds of Boughton House, Northamptonshire, there is a modern sculpture, Lifeflow by Angela Connor. It sits on a bank behind the Big Top, erected for the Greenbelt Festival last weekend. Seen close to, twisting lengths, like fallen branches, snake across the grass towards a large stone disk, set on its edge. From a distance, the disk resembles nothing so much as a satellite dish, a figure of reverence for the many festivalgoers who now order their lives entirely with the help of a good mobile signal and 3 or 4G. For once, the bars in the Jesus Arms and near the Canopy stage did not get the most attention, as people wondered whether they could get a text sent to the person they were due to meet before the reception flickered out. The other modern artwork is architectural: a deep inverted pyramid cut into the ground, Orpheus, designed by Kim Wilkie. Festivalgoers were invited to collect a small cup of dirty water and carry it down the grassy slope to the pond at the bottom, beside which was a handy filtration unit, used in Kenya and elsewhere. The dirty water was poured into the top, a cup of clean water was drawn off, and this was carried back to ground level and, finally, drunk. The act was penitential and redemptive.

Stone and wood; earth and water. Natural elements predominate in a setting like Boughton, and their influence on festivalgoers last weekend was profound. The programme had been shaped to take advantage of the trees, lawns, and parkland of the estate, and those who came to the festival welcomed this as an antidote to the bank-holiday jams on the M1.

It is important not to be sentimental. The landscape has been shaped and managed over hundreds of years, and speaks of money, though in a less blatant way than Greenbelt's last home, the Cheltenham Racecourse. Modern devices such as plastic trackway made it possible to hold a festival without turning parts of the grounds into a quagmire. And a mobile signal would have been immensely useful. It is possible to synthesise the natural and the developed, if they are the right things in the right balance. It is right to be concerned about the next generation, who, unless encouraged, will not be able to see the woods for the screens.

The other features in the Boughton landscape were the humans. Any grumbles about mobiles or the rain should die unvoiced at the recollection of the stewards who stood sacrificially on the farm track on to the site. On the dry days, they were covered in a cloud of dust from each passing car, despite being dressed up as for a toxic chemical spill. On the wet days, they suffered from the more conventional clouds. Greenbelt would not have happened without them and the hundreds of other volunteers who worked extra shifts to cope with the bad weather. We salute them.

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