The first and most obvious thing to notice about this year’s Greenbelt festival
is the total and utter lack of any racecourse for horses. Not a grandstand or betting kiosk in sight. Greenbelt has a new home.
Having spent 15 years on the Cheltenham Racecourse, the festival has now moved onto the lush grounds of the Boughton House estate
, which is located near Kettering - so only a stone’s throw away for any enthusiastic Baptist on the trail of William Carey.
Such a move was always going to bring comparisons, but the organisers can safely sit back and sip on a celebratory organically-grown, locally-sourced, forest smoothie. The overwhelming consensus was one of happy satisfaction with a venue, which was beautiful to look at and easy to get around. Large, sprawling lawns gave children ample space to run, play or sit and chat. How often is one actively encouraged to get on the grass in what are essentially the grounds of a stately home?
When seclusion was sought, there were glades and clearings in and amongst the forests which ringed the site. If curious landscaped follies were more to your liking, then climbing a giant grass mound for a moment of silent group contemplation, or descending into a grass pit while stopping at various reflective stations, were all available.
While the surroundings were a welcome novelty, it was still good old Greenbelt. Familiar sculptures from previous years were dotted all over site.
The Tiny Tea Tent with its bohemian atmosphere enjoyed a roaring trade, as always. Saturday night ended off with the traditional Goth Eucharist. Disraeli and the Small Gods charmed the younger crowds with his musical stylings. Talks with titles like “Is the Church of England worth saving?” and “Orangutans, Kit-Kats & Toothpaste: The Hidden Ingredient that threatens the rainforest” were a reminder that the festival may have moved, but its desire to challenge, question, and enlighten was still the same.
This year the theme was “Travelling Light” - a reflection on Greenbelt’s nomadic past (this is its seventh site in 40 years) but also a time to consider what should be left behind - and what should be taken along - for its future journey.
Mpho Tutu took to the stage on numerous occasions to speak about the power and difficulties of forgiveness, “Unforgiveness is like being held hostage. You are trapped in the past. Forgiveness turns both parties from victims to survivors”.
It was a serious message indeed, but sprinkled with warm anecdotes and, in one interview, amusing clips from her father, Desmond, with whom she has written her latest book. Mpho was quick to point out that she also has a mother - a fact often forgotten but warmly applauded by the crowd.
A warm welcome was also given to Brian McLaren, who by his own admission has developed a soft spot for Greenbelt. A packed Big Top tent listened to his talk on the different stages of Bible interpretation - from the inerrancy of the elders who taught the community (Bible 1.0) to the inerrancy of the Bible itself (Bible 2.0), and finally, the multiple global interpretations of today’s Bible (Bible 3.0). McLaren is never one to mince his words and his challenge to consider where you sit on a graph of Biblical interpretation - which ranges from literary to literal or innocent to critical- left much to ponder.
a time to consider what should be left behind - and what should be taken along
Sarah Miles had flown all the way from San Francisco. Whether she was on her own, in panels, or being interviewed, she was always keen to explain the importance of community - especially in the context of the city as a metaphor for God’s family.
Greenbelt has also always worn its leftwing political heart proudly on its sleeve, and this year no-one expressed that better than 30-year-old columnist and activist Owen Jones. An overflowing tent met each of his rousing points with round after round of applause as he laid down a call to arms for the public to get involved in politics and trade unions. “What we have right now is socialism for the rich but dirty capitalism for the poor,” was how he put it.
By the end, there were very few who weren’t keen on nationalising the railways or paying their taxes responsibly.
Sunday night saw the main Glade stage filled to capacity as one of the bigger names to perform at Greenbelt of recent years came out to rapturous applause. Sinead O’Connor is currently on tour in the UK so her appearance here, as well her complicated and public relationship with her faith, meant there was a sizeable crowd who were keen to see her perform.
In the chilly night air, Sinead walked on stage in a hoodie decorated with an image of Mary. Her short bursts of speech in between songs may have been soft, often inaudible, but when she sang it sounded like no time had passed since her breakthrough album 27 years ago.
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were met with enthusiastic whoops, which was to be expected. Her decision to finish with a traditional bed-time hymn, traditionally used by Irish monks, alone and unaccompanied, will certainly be an enduring Greenbelt memory.
Greenbelt has a new home. They may be travelling light but there are plenty of big ideas for the future.