Communes & Festivals

In June 2011 whilst at a friends birthday party the conversation drifted to everyone telling their own Glastonbury Tales. Wearing my green credentials on my sleeve I proclaimed that I would never now go to Glastonbury as “Why would anyone want to go to Somerset to trash a farm?” Three days later I came home from work to be greeted with – “You are never going to guess who has phoned and what they want you to do.” The production manager for Julien Temple had tracked me down via the Diggers & Dreamers website and wanted to know if they paid my train fare, provided accommodation and a free ticket would I go to the Glastonbury Festival in two days time to be interviewed for a film they were making about the ‘Other Glastonbury’ – the one you don’t see on the BBC. In the time it took to utter the words “Well you should obviously never say never!” I had rearranged my diary for the rest of the week, bought a rail ticket and a new pair of wellies and set off to trash my own little bit of a Worthy farm.

Rutland Boughton at Glastonbury
Rutland Boughton at Glastonbury

On the train down from Lancaster I brushed up on my festival history by rereading George Mckay’s Glastonbury: A Very English Fair and starting to wonder why they wanted to interview me and if the film crew weren’t confusing me with George. As it turned out it was a piece I had written about the very first Glastonbury Festivals that had sparked their interest. Back in the early 1900’s the English socialist classical composer Rutland Boughton and his librettist Lawrence Buckley had dreamed of an English cultural revival, including the establishment of a ‘national’ theatre and an annual festival in the countryside that might become an English Oberammergau or Bayreuth. Letchworth Garden City was considered as a venue for the project given the potential for support there, but Glastonbury with its Arthurian and spiritual associations was favourite from the start. Alongside the festival Boughton and Buckley envisaged a permanent group of artists who would share the running of a collective farm as a base for the festival. Encouraged by the likes of George Bernard Shaw and Edward Elgar, and with financial support from the Clarks, Quaker shoe manufacturers at nearby Street, they set about trying to find a home for the festival and artists’ colony.

A festival venue proved easier to find than a collective farm and in 1914 the first Glastonbury ‘festival’ kicked off with a summer school and a performance of Boughtons opera The Immortal Hour based on the book by ‘Fiona Macleod’ at the Glastonbury Assembly rooms. Boughton’s work was part English Romantic part Celtic revival, drawing heavily on Arthurian legend. From this beginning a series of festivals developed along with help from Alice Buckton’s Guild of Glastonbury & Street festival players, who performed their own series of masques and mystery plays.

From the Immortal Hour

An opportunity presented itself to set up the dreamed-of artists’ colony when in 1919 The Elms, later renamed Mount Avalon, a large house with extensive grounds at Bovetown on the edge of Glastonbury was purchased by a devotee as a base for the festival. The Elms was later run by a Miss Lacey as a retirement home and on her retirement in the 1970s the British Israelite Trust took over the house as their national conference centre. The British Israelites, who believed that the British were one of the lost tribe of Israel and had briefly opened a centre in the town in the 1920s, sold the house to a local property developer who left it to go to ruin and was taken over by squatters. The house was demolished after it was gutted by a huge fire. In 1922 The Immortal Hour was produced in London where it enjoyed a phenomenal success and still holds the world-record for a continuous run of any serious opera written by an Englishman.

The downfall of this first wave of Glastonbury Festivals came about when Boughton supported the 1926 Miners’ Lockout and General Strike. Staging his music drama “Bethlehem” based on the Coventry Nativity Play at Church House, Westminster, London, with Jesus born in a miner’s cottage and Herod portrayed as a top-hatted Capitalist, surrounded by soldiers and police. The production caused a stir among the good folk of Glastonbury and support for the festivals was withdrawn. The Festival Players went into liquidation and Boughton moved out to Kilcot, a small village in Gloucestershire, from where he organised two further festivals at Stroud (1934) and Bath (1935).

And so I found myself lying on a airbed in the Glastonbury mud in 2011 in a field half way between ‘Arcadia’ and ‘Shangri-la’ being interviewed by Julien Temple about the life of Rutland Boughton and the utopian/dystopian-ism of the ‘new’ Glastonbury festivals. The film, whose working title was Glastopia, but changed to Glastonbury After Hours by the BBC, was shown on BBC4 in June 2012. It is a sort of update/sequel to the films that Julien Temple has been making about the festivals since the seventies.

The rethoric of communal living was often expressed in the publicity of the free festivals that started to be organised in the early 70s, at the same time as those at Glastonbury, and some of those involved in organising the festivals were themselves communards. The manifesto for the 1974 Windsor Free Festival, being organised by among others Sid Rawle and Ubi Dwyer, opened with the words:

W*E*L*C*O*M*E: People willing to devote themselves to the work of the Commune (a circle of human love) are most welcome to come and discuss and, if agreed, join…. Communes: The old society is founded on the family which has now grown so small and lonely that it is truly called an emotional gas chamber. Two people smoking dope together don’t have half the fun or satisfaction as a group of six or 12. It is TRUE not only of dope but of our whole lives. WE CAN LOVE MORE THAN ONE for before our eyes monogamous love is everywhere failing-far better and from that more generous, peaceful, freer HOME called the COMMUNE we can build a society which will recognise the genius in all of us. In the place of the ripoff employer/employee relationship we can have one of complete co-operation (we can all take part in the decision-making process at work as well as at home). But we have to learn this cooperation in the home and from an early age. It is there-in the COMMUNE-that the Revolution must begin! Here in our commune we aim at practising what we advocate. LOVE!   Windsor Free Festival Manifesto 1974

The 1974 Windsor Free Festival has attained something akin to legendary status amongst those chronicling the alternative history of the various strands of the British counterculture. It has come to be seen as both a high point in the utopian idealism of the period and at the same time the beginning of the end of the hippie dream.

“It began as an experiment in a new society of love and mutual co-operation, functioned for six short days as a model world where all differences of creed, colour and politics were non-existent and ended in a nightmare that bore more than a passing resemblance to the Wounded Knee massacre. The third Windsor festival was not a pop music festival, but a gathering of thousands of people, young and old, to experience for nine days the realisation of living what has been termed an alternative society. The creation of a tent city of people who longed to return to the simpler life of tribal concept. While the world outside looked in and saw nothing but the stages from which blared rock music, those who penetrated deeper became aware that by comparison to what was actually taking place, the music was incidental.” Reverend Brian Ferguson in MAYA 1974

Windsor Festival cuttingWindsor 74 was broken up by the police in a brutal attack on peaceful festival-goers, the like of which wouldn’t be seen again until the so-called Battle of the Beanfield in 1985. The government’s reaction to the essentially bad press it got from the police actions was to grant organisers an ‘official’ free festival site at Watchfield and to tolerate a softly-softly approach to policing festivals for the following decade.

Occasionally the short-lived communalism of a festival would inspire plans for more permanent experiments in communal living. Following a number of Free Festivals, called the Meigan Fayres, held in Pembrokeshire between ’73 and ’75, a group hoped to set up a community on the site of Penlan holiday village at Cenarth. Their goal was “ … To facilitate Harmony. Harmony within man. Harmony between man and his neighbour. Harmony with nature. Planetary Harmony.”

Over the years a number of communes themselves have run or acted as hosts for festivals. Postlip Hall, near Winchcombe in Gloucestershire, host the annual CAMRA Cotswold Beer Festival in their Tythe Barn.

Cotswold Beer Festival 2009 Postlip Hall
Cotswold Beer Festival 2009 Postlip Hall
Wood Festival Poster
Wood Festival Braziers Park

And in recent years Braziers Park, at Ipsden just south of Oxford, has become the venue for a number of small festivals; WOOD and the Supernormal festival.

After lying in the mud in Shangri-la, hanging out in Strummerville and watching the Wombles followed by Paul Simon. I caught Michael Eavis doing a Q&A session in a marquee in the Green Field. He explained that far from trashing the farm the festival was increasing its fertility – a result of the woodchip they used along the paths being trodden in by all the festival goers – “It’s like running thousands of pigs on the land for a week.”  After the big post festival clear up the cows are back on the festival site fields something like three weeks after the last punter has left. I am off to the Fire in the Mountain Festival in mid-Wales at the end of the month to talk about Communes Britannica –  Will I go to Glastonbury again – well “Never say never!”

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