Reflections on my first time at Greenbelt (Part 1: Friday – getting there)

Introduction

This year, I attended the Greenbelt festival for the first time in my life. It was the first time I had chosen to go to any kind of festival, let alone a specifically christian one. Well, I say specifically christian. It is certainly christian in ethos, but it is by no means exclusive. There was a fair smattering of secular material on offer as well as offerings from other religions.

I had intended to just give a gist of each talk and what I did each day, though I confess I got a bit carried away with writing and didn’t have time to edit it down. So it’s a bit of a blow-by-blow account (particularly Friday), but I hope you find it helpful to read. It may be an interesting experiment to see if the key points percolated through.

Friday

I arrived at Kettering station after an uneventful journey and set about going for my hotel. I knew the approximate route, but wanted to do some checking along the way. The landmarks that were most useful were in fact the churches. I could tell straight away that the town had quite a diverse christian ethos. The first shop I came across was a small christian book store and what seemed to be the town centre was populated by a church group in purple t-shirts that had a slogan something along the lines of “[Bible for life week]” while they had a PA system set up playing some fairly cheesy worship tunes that I probably hadn’t heard for the better part of 15 years.

I found a Quaker meeting house, the Salvation Army and a more conformist church (I think it was St Andrews, but I didn’t check the sign too closely). The trouble was, the road signs were all a bit funny. The most common direction was ‘All Other Routes’ which wasn’t all that helpful. I was aiming for the Rockingham Road and I thought I was on it, but none of the junctions with the side streets had the name of the main road on it. So it was that the plain speaking Baptists came to my rescue, as I walked past Rockingham Road Baptist Church and so finally confirmed that my sense of direction was intact. One of the things I forgot to do before I left was print out street maps. I had an OS map in my pocket, but they are pretty useless in urban areas. I had bought it with the intention of navigating my way cross country from the hotel, rather than find the hotel in the first place.

I got to my room and made a quick change before heading on towards the festival. This was where I began to run into problems. I had planned to walk alongside one road to get to a village from where I could pick up a public footpath. Only it turns out that this road had small amounts of fairly fast-moving traffic on it and no pavement. So I had to make a detour and head into a residential area. I could roughly see where I needed to go, but I had to rely on my compass to make sure I was headed in the right direction. What was so absurd it was almost amusing was the fact that I ended up walking along a crescent road with no way to turn off it. So whilst I was happy that I was walking in a south-easterly direction, the road just slowly bent round and as it did so, a growing wave of panic grew within me, as the compass then told me I was heading more south than east, then slightly to the west until I did eventually get to a junction when I was walking full-west, in the complete opposite direction to that which I wished to head in.

Eventually, I found where I was, having done an extra 2.5-3 miles after missing a turning quite early on and having walked halfway through the town of Kettering. So I eventually arrived at the village of Warkton. This was quite a pretty little place, not unlike what some might conjure up in their minds if you ask them to imagine a ‘typical’ English village. Just beyond the village, though, the pavement runs out. This time, though, I was prepared for it. The road was not as busy as that which I had abandoned earlier, nor was it as conducive to quite so high a speed of vehicle. I kept to my usual walkers’ routine of staying on the right hand side of the road so as to face the oncoming traffic, only changing if there was a right hand bend so I would not be on the apex of the corner.

I arrived at the site exit, but since I was on foot, I thought “Blow it!” I’m not walking another mile down the road to get to the ‘proper’ entrance. After all, the entrances and exits were primarily devised for those who had their cars (so much for the motto of “travelling light”, eh?) with next to no thought given to pedestrians. The path was rather dusty and I passed some cars that were leaving the site, presumably because they had dropped people off and weren’t staying. Thankfully the stewards that were posted around had been provided with masks. The dust track from the main road up to the site seemed to go on forever. When I had come off the road, I had thought, “at last, we’re here”. But this seems to have been a premature idea. After about another quarter of an hour of walking, I saw other people walking along a track. Some were walking with one or two bags, others had large, rainbow-canvassed wheelbarrows.

The further I got, the greater the size of the crowd swelled, so, having traipsed for a total of nigh on ten miles by myself, I now finally started to feel as though I might be a part of something. OK, a lot of people were walking in the other direction (back to their cars, as I later found out) which somewhat spoiled the aesthetic, but the general drift towards the main site had a great sense of pilgrimage to it. It felt far more ‘together’ than the communion service on the Sunday morning.

Then it was that the path narrowed slightly, with a natural gap appearing in a line of trees. And through that gap one could just glimpse the fields of tents. Now it felt like I had arrived at a festival. So where to now?

I just joined in the crowd and tried to follow the greatest throng of people, hoping that they were heading in the right direction and that we weren’t just imitating a line of ants that get stuck in a giant circle of death. There was an information point handing out the pre-bought programmes. I picked mine up with a little bag that was loaded with too many leaflets and a random plastic packet of laundry liquid, before looking for the programme and a reasonable map of the site. There was a map on the back of one of the programmes, but it wasn’t terribly useful, as it only showed the locations of the venues. The campsite was only partially included and the car park was wholly absent. So in spite of being sat on a patch of grass near a numbered junction, there was no clue as to where I actually was or where I needed to go.

After a 10 minute sit down, I got up again and tried to follow the crowd, passing a tent that was advertised as being the weekend home of the Franciscans. There was a big sign a bit further down with a map on it, with the header “You are here”. At any one time, about half a dozen people were gathered by it. For a “You are here” map, though, it lacked one crucial feature: an indication on the map itself of where actually where in relation to everything else. It was just a header above the map, thus making it rather useless. It was only a careful inspection that showed two small curved walls that marked the entrance to the venues which was just behind where the sign was situated.

Jesus Arms

I wandered in and had a little exploration of the festival site. It turns out I didn’t actually go that far, as I was to find out later. But I spied out some places to eat, found the main stage and, importantly, the pop-up pub on site, the Jesus Arms. I grabbed myself a gin and parked myself on an outside bench so I could take a closer look at the programme to investigate what talks looked most interesting. While I sat there, a few friends came in but short of waving like a madman, I tried to catch their eye. I’ve never been good at subtly getting people’s attention.

The stupidest thing was that when I had checked into the hotel and moved things between my two bags, I had forgotten to put the torch I had into the backpack; it was still in the hotel. I tried to look for the Milk & Honey store which I knew to be on site but which wasn’t clearly marked on the map. It wasn’t until later that I looked at Dave Walker’s alternative map that I found it. Even then, though, they weren’t selling torches that I could use that night. So having penciled in a few ideas of things to do that evening, I just grabbed some fish n’chips (yay, how adventurous!) and head back to the hotel before it got dark.

So I left the site rather deflated on the first day. All I had achieved was picking up the programme. No talks had been attended, the first band were late. I wasn’t overly impressed with the Hummons who played in the meantime. When the Hackney Colliery Band did arrive and get on stage, they were so awful it was a good prompting to leave.

By the time I got back, I was rather limping, having walked quite some distance that day. Having been advised that it was good to bring your own loo roll, I had had to sacrifice bringing my first aid kit as there wasn’t enough room for both. In hindsight, I probably ought to have skimped on a t-shirt instead. Not only were my feet plagued with blisters up to an inch long, but having put on some weight recently, the tops of my thighs had rubbed together a lot. Someone later said that this was “chafing” though a better word for it would be “flaying” as I had actually lost a few square inches of skin and was bleeding a fair bit. So it was good that I had access to a shower to keep the wound clean, but it did make for an uncomfortable night and I dreaded having to walk back in the morning. Though at least, I now knew the right route, so I wouldn’t take an unnecessary detour.

Coming up next…

Well, that actually contained very little of the festival itself. Tomorrow, I’ll give a rundown of the activities on Saturday, which I promise will contain less walking, more talks and a few reflections on those talks.

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3 responses to “Reflections on my first time at Greenbelt (Part 1: Friday – getting there)

  1. Did you know that google maps on your phone is a great way of navigating, is easier than trying to use an OS map and is free (give or take some data allowance…)

    Personally, I’d have gone by taxi… 😉

    • I know. It’s especially useful in areas where there’s mobile signal. Unfortunately, it was rather patchy. And while I took a taxi later on in the weekend, they were expensive. The 4 mile journey to the site was £17.

      • Ah, but if you plan in advance, you can download sections of google maps (when you have good signal, or access to wifi) for use when you don’t have signal.