NO OUTDOOR festival in Britain, especially one that runs over a Bank Holiday weekend, can count on fine weather. Over its 44 years, the Greenbelt festival is justified in feeling hard done by, having suffered more than its fair share of wet, cold, and windy weather.
Last weekend helped to redress the balance, as festivalgoers strolled in the sunshine or sought shade under the avenue of trees that ran through the site at Boughton House, in Northamptonshire.
The fine weather was just as well: in a pared-down (though still rich) programme, many of the speakers had a far larger audience outside their venues than in them. The perimeters of the crowd were defined simply by how far the sound travelled. (Or maybe not: I stood beside some people on the edge of one of these crowds, and could swear that they could neither see nor hear the speaker.)
The sun, then, was the unifying factor for the 11,000 who attended the festival, according to the organisers: figures were eight per cent up on the previous year. Beyond that, the programme was so varied that everyone’s experience not only differed, but differed wildly. But the story on the ground was that all the experiences were good — except, perhaps, for the “vomit team”: trained volunteers who were called in when someone decided to cure their dehydration by sampling more of the wares from the Jesus Arms.
That aside, the theme of the festival — “the Common Good” — was explored by all, either in debate or by taking part in one of the many communal activities. Children were especially welcome, and activities ranged from mitre-making to tree-climbing, as well as games organised for them on the expanse of lawn in front of the Duke of Buccleuch’s third- (or is it fourth-?)best home.
There were games for adults, too. The churchiness was largely post-Evangelical; the politics firmly left-of-centre. The Mail columnist Peter Oborne had a respectful audience for his knowledgeable talk on the Middle East; less so later on, when he attempted to defend the Mail in the company of the activist Jack Monroe, who was libelled by one of its columnists, Katie Hopkins. Monroe had been greeted with cheers when, earlier in the day, she had been asked how to end poverty. “Stop voting Tory, for Chrissakes.”
She was talked about in the food queues (the best measure of success at the festival); and so was Charles Handy, the 90-year-old economist; the Revd John Bell, who spoke about his sexuality for the first time; the rich Muslim programme of music and worship in its dedicated tent; the Revd Kate Bottley’s illustrated talk on body image, again in a dedicated tent, this time for women; performances by the singer Kate Rusby and the singer-songwriter Newton Faulkner — and also a quartet from St Martin-in-the-Fields.
Others mentioned were Baroness Warsi, Harry Baker and Chris Read, Cole Moreton, Lee Bains III, Natalie Bennett, and Sarah Corbett.
The chief topic of conversation, though, was the main Sunday eucharist, where the festival’s inclusivity was brought into the heart of the service. As well as signers from the charity Livability, and prayers from the L’Arche community, there was a reading via live audio link by Tanya Marlow, an ME sufferer, lying in her bed in Plymouth.
The homily was delivered by 14-year-old Becky Tyler, composed on the computer that enables her to overcome a few of the handicaps caused by her cerebral palsy. The sustained standing ovation she received was deserved, not only for effort but also for achievement: her short sermon was witty, illuminating, and theological.
The collection brought in more than £40,000. Greenbelt says that it will spend some of this on improving accessibility at its festival next year.