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New home with room to grow

29 August 2014


"FESTIVAL? What festival?" Standing in the open courtyard in front of the east wing of Boughton House, we were looking over pristine lawns that led up towards parkland and fields. The view was uninterrupted, the evening peaceful.

Boughton, the Northamptonshire home of the Duke of Buccleuch, can absorb a festival of 15,000 and hardly notice it, it seems. On the other side of the house, people were playing on another vast lawn, that ran down to various water features. Then, through a belt of trees, the festival proper: a pop-up village of marquees and tents.

Below the walled garden were the main stage and further tents; then another belt of trees, and the huge camping area. Finally, in other fields in the far distance, the cars were parked. One thing it wasn't was cramped.

That is one aspect of the Greenbelt Festival. There is another, of course. Moving house is usually traumatic, and moving something as big as a festival more so, especially after Greenbelt had settled so successfully at the Cheltenham Racecourse, its home for the past dozen years. The organisers have been on tenterhooks, therefore, throughout the year: would the punters come? And would they like it?

The answer was yes. We spoke to many people over the weekend, and the overwhelming view was that the new site was a success. A few missed the reassuring feel of concrete which Cheltenham provided. More missed the plumbing. But all agreed that Boughton was far more beautiful, and appreciated the compactness of the festival site, and the expanse of the surrounding parkland.

There were negative comments. Country roads and farm tracks are not designed for thousands of vehicles that turn up at roughly the same time. Limited access to the site meant long and frustrating queues to get in on Friday. And getting out was no picnic, either, especially in the dark and the rain. The organisers struggled to cope on Monday and Tuesday with sloping grass car parks and rutted pathways.

Expanse has its negative side, too. Despite advance warnings, many campers were unprepared for the distances that they had to walk from the car parks to the camping fields, and from the camping fields to the festival proper.

Other festivals show photos of happy young things walking along with backpacks. Greenbelt attracts a much wider age range, and some people are not very good at the concept of travelling light, which was the festival's chosen theme. (Stewards saw a dining table, an ironing board, and a plastic tank of pet snails being carried on to the site.) Golf-buggy taxis did their best, but it was a learning curve.

So, slow access, distant car parks, dodgy mobile-phone coverage, queues for the lavatories - all things that might have been tackled better with more foresight; but all things, too, that the organisers can fix for next time. The Greenbelt crowd is, by and large, very forgiving. So the cold at night and the rain on Monday - beyond the control of the organisers, of course - were met with stoicism. "Soggy but happy," was one Facebook comment.

All this assumes an ordered mind that weighs up pros and cons before committing something to memory. Once again, though, people's recollections of Greenbelt will be based on flashes of experience: listening, thinking, realising, dancing, and singing; and there was a surfeit of these.

Our verdict? We were relieved and hopeful. Everyone knew that this was bound to be a bit experimental, but Greenbelt could not afford a trial year. The festival had to work, and it did - spectacularly at times. Watching the crowd at Boughton was like observing the beginning of a love affair. No wonder the campers want to get closer. 

Our full Greenbelt festival review

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