The first Glastonbury I've missed for decades!

The first Glastonbury I’ve missed for decades! Laments super-fan MARY ANN SIEGHART – This week should have been the 50th anniversary of Britain’s biggest festival

  • BBC is airing highlights from Glastonbury to mark the festival’s 50th anniversary
  • Mary Ann Sieghart, 58, revealed she has attended Glastonbury almost 30 times 
  • She shared her fondest memories of the British festival founded by Michael Eavis

Usually by this stage in June I’m obsessively checking the ten-day forecast for Glastonbury. Will it be another ghastly mudfest or will we all be smiling seraphically in the sunshine?

This week, hundreds of thousands of us were meant to be heading off to the 50th anniversary of the festival. For me, a proud Glasto veteran, it would have been at least my 30th time (there have been some fallow years and the odd birth, so I’ve lost count). But thanks to the coronavirus, we’ll be going no further than our sofas.

We’ll have to console ourselves by watching iconic Glastonbury performances from acts such as Beyonce (2011), David Bowie (2000) and Adele (2016). The BBC has created a pop-up channel on iPlayer — BBC Glastonbury — dedicated to highlights from the past 50 years, while BBC Two and BBC Four will be airing classic performances over the weekend.

It won’t be the same, of course. Nothing can capture the magic of Glastonbury, even if the festival has changed hugely over the past five decades.

Mary Ann Sieghart, 58, reflected on her past visits to Glastonbury, as the festival celebrates its 50th anniversary. Pictured: Glastonbury 2016, daughter Evie, husband Dai, Mary Ann and daughter Rosa

I was an early adopter when I packed a sleeping bag and went there with friends age 21. I’d been a grown-up for nearly a year, but I didn’t feel grown-up at all.

It was the summer of 1983, a year after I’d left university, and I had been doing what felt like a terrifyingly serious job at the Financial Times since the previous September. Outwardly, I was holding it together. Inwardly, I just wanted to cut loose and be an irresponsible student again.

Glastonbury was my chance. The previous year, some friends and I had dropped into the festival after our finals on the recommendation of my brother, Alister, but only for a day as we didn’t have any camping gear. Flushed with the excitement of that encounter, we were determined to do Glasto properly the following year.

And so we did. Twelve of us clubbed together and hired a red-and-white striped, circular tent, the sort you might see hosting cream teas at a village fete. The owner delivered it to the site, took one look at the event and promptly doubled his fee to cover the extra risk.

We slept in a clock face formation, feet to the centre. And we were wonderfully well-equipped. In those days, you could drive all the way into the festival with a carful of gear and park right next to your tent, within viewing distance of the main pyramid stage. I say ‘main’ stage, but I don’t recall there being any others. (Now there are dozens.)

It was bliss. We were cocooned in a world of laughter, music, fun, friendliness, eccentricity and hedonism. This was long before mobile phones, so the outside world couldn’t chisel its way in.

Mary Ann explained that when she visited the festival in the Eighties, there was a sense of community and you could join any bunch of strangers. Pictured: The Pyramid Stage

It felt like a parallel universe, one in which time, appearance, planning and obligations no longer mattered. Dishevelled was the prevailing look and we loved wandering around at random, like leaves blown in the wind.

For the first time in my life as a young woman, I didn’t feel remotely unsafe. I could walk around after dark without fear of attack. Nobody wolf-whistled or groped me. Because there was such a sense of community, the other festival-goers were extraordinarily friendly. You could join any bunch of strangers sitting round a fire and be included in the conversation. It was as if Glastonbury was its own little utopia and we had created a different and better way of living.

I don’t have much recollection of the music, though I vaguely remember a storming set from UB40. But I came away with a determination to return every year, for as long as I could.

Now 58, that’s exactly what I’ve done, despite my colleagues at the newspaper where I worked for nearly 20 years as a senior editor treating it as a standing joke.

Mary Ann revealed her daughters who are now aged 27 and 28, still camp with her each year. Pictured: A poster for the first event (The Kinks cancelled to be replaced by T-Rex)

In fact, I believe I was the first arts editor of a newspaper to send a critic to review the festival. That, according to the festival’s founder Michael Eavis, was what set Glastonbury on the path to becoming a national cultural event.

The first and worst of the mudfests was in 1985. It started raining on Thursday and didn’t let up for a moment until Sunday. Some festivalgoers gave up on trying to minimise the mess and simply covered themselves in liquid mud. I wasn’t brave enough.

When the rain finally stopped — as my musical hero, the great South African jazz trumpeter Hugh Masekela, came on to the stage on Sunday afternoon — we roared with delight. Gradually the skies started to brighten and, as the jubilant, high-energy strains of his trumpet brought us all to a state of dancing euphoria, the sun burned its way through the clouds and a couple of magpies circled the twinkling light at the top of the pyramid. Two for joy, indeed.

We took our two daughters (now aged 27 and 28) from babyhood onwards, and they still camp with us every year, even though they are older than I was in 1983.

My brother Alister runs the Glasto Latino stage, and all my nieces and nephews come too, so we have a huge extended family encampment of at least 20 siblings, cousins and even, now, great-nieces and nephews. It’s like Christmas in the summer, but without any of the obligations.

Mary Ann (pictured) revealed they’ve often opted for smaller stages instead of watching the main acts

One of our festival rituals is to climb to the highest point of the site and watch the sun set over this pop-up city the size of Derby, teepees in the foreground, the huge stages reduced to pimples in the distance. No camera lens is wide-angled enough to take in the vastness of it all.

The magic has somewhat dissipated: Glasto is far, far bigger and no longer a communal utopia. The crowds can be oppressive, and the beery atmosphere at the main stage can feel more like a football match than my first gentle gathering of 40 years ago.

We often choose not to watch the main acts, but to head off to the smaller stages, where we can have much more space and fun.

But we’ve made exceptions for acts such as Adele — we were in awe of how one woman could take possession of a huge stage and a 100,000-strong audience while also making each of us feel as if we were her best friend.

The Rolling Stones were, of course, epic. Patti Smith was a legend. The Who were just going through the motions. Paul McCartney was . . . meh.

But Glastonbury is still better than any other festival. It’s still the highlight of our summer, especially now that we’ve finally succumbed to camping in a shabby old caravan rather than a tent. (Electricity! Hot water! A kettle!)

If the caravan sees us out, I fully expect us to be back every year —and maybe even celebrate Glasto’s 60th and 70th birthdays.

Glastonbury Memories 

by Alister Sieghart

Fifty years ago, in September 1970, dairy farmer Michael Eavis put on a festival at Worthy Farm, Pilton. He had only once been to a festival: a couple of months before, a few miles from his house, but he’d never even stayed the night. All the same, with typical can-do he went ahead, and 1,500 revellers arrived, shocking the villagers of sleepy Pilton, to enjoy the likes of T Rex, and paying £1 for the weekend (free milk included).

There were many small events around the UK at the time, and ‘Pilton Pop’ might have been forgotten. However, the next year a second festival put Worthy Farm on the map, and set the style for the Glastonbury we know today. Organised by Andrew Kerr, festival visionary and former assistant to Randolph Churchill, Glastonbury Fair 1971 was at the end of June, had the first Pyramid stage, and featured some of the top performers of the day (including a young David Bowie). ‘Britain’s Woodstock’ became a myth, reverberating around the seventies alternative culture; the legend was cemented by a cult film of the show made by then cinema students Nick Roeg and David Puttnam.

Alister Sieghart (pictured) who first attended Glastonbury in 1978, recalls consulting the ancient Chinese oracle, the ‘I Ching’, on his first night 

Still, no-one expected festivals to carry on at Pilton – until 1978, also my first time. I was part of a gaggle of small trucks, coaches and campervans – the ‘travelling Free Festival’ – which headed from Stonehenge intending to set up in a field outside Glastonbury town. But the police got there first, blocked the entrance, and for reasons that remain a mystery led us instead to Worthy Farm. Michael Eavis was driving home, came up behind the convoy, and wondered where it was going. As we got closer, he twigged, and overtook. After a negotiation with the police, said to involve his untaxed car, he agreed that the festival could set up on his land.

That first night, six of us sitting in “King of the Hippies” Sid Rawle’s tipi decided to consult the ancient Chinese oracle, the ‘I Ching’, made famous by Jung and Hermann Hesse. Each casting three coins, we drew ‘The Creative’: the most powerful result in the whole book. With hindsight of course, the result was spot-on – you could say the festival is a bit creative! – but we were astonished.

Back then, there were only a few hundred people; the stage was a portable pyramid on the back of a truck; and the power came from a cable to Andrew Kerr’s caravan – when the music stopped, someone had to put 50p in the meter…

Alister revealed Glastonbury (pictured) fans throughout the country are having their own ‘at home’ festival, with light shows and mini-pyramids in the garden

On the last evening there was a thunderstorm: I was again sitting in a tipi, lightning came in through the smoke flap and struck the pot-hook inches in front of me. The same lightning hit the apex of the stage: witnesses swear that the music got louder and louder until all the fuses blew out. Then the rain cleared, and an enormous double rainbow appeared. As we left, we had no doubt that we had been part of an event blessed by magic.

As it turns out, it was also seminal. Michael Eavis’ daughters began asking him when there could be more festivals, and the next year there was a big one, official this time. And many thousands will still tell you that the experience is magical…

Since then, there has never been more than a year off between festivals. This year is an enforced gap, being felt all over the country by fans who had been expecting next weekend to be very different. Some of them are having their own “at home” Glastonburys, with lightshows, mini-pyramids in the garden, and even mock tickets! They will celebrate alongside the BBC’s coverage, together with special online offerings from many of the festival’s areas – my Glasto Latino stage for example, is streaming live dance classes. There is a Facebook “Glasthomebury” group, with more than 27,000 members.

And we all hope that we can keep the record unbroken, and that Glastonbury will be back next year, as always better than ever before.

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