I’ve spent years saying rather loudly “I Don’t Do Greenbelt” whenever anyone has mentioned it. Last year I had a great deal of fun on twitter at #notGB40. But this year a great divide has been crossed, I have acted and cannot un-act. I have crossed the great divide. I have not only been to Greenbelt, I have camped at Greenbelt. For the record I Don’t Do Camping either, or at least, I didn’t.
It all started with an idea from Sara for a talk about moving – as you know if you are a regular reader, I have. She cleverly pitched it to me when I was right in the thick of things, so my reaction was “August? I don’t have to do anything till August? Are you sure? OK, count me in.” And when her excellent submission was accepted, and the four of us (Sara, Kathryn, Emma and I) started to talk, the dreadful truth dawned. I was going to Greenbelt.
My expectations? Mud. Horrible toilets. Lots of good Christians. Lots of people. Cold. Rain. Hail. (Greenbelt is held over August Bank Holiday). Bad food. Nowhere to sit down. A bar I’d never get served at. And doing a talk where a few friends might come along and be polite. My expectations could be summarised as “Very Low Indeed”.
What happened? Arrival was long, slow, pack horse like and grumpy. But after finding friends and a pint in the Jesus Arms, I ungrumped. The rest was a whirl of where-am-I-and-where-is-everything-else, unpacking, exploring, bumping into people, and accidentally missing every evening/night prayer on offer. My word, it was chilly. A four season sleeping bag, air bed, pjs and jumper were just enough.
The next morning it heated up fast, tent buddy Sara cooked bacon, and I washed up (a fair division of labour in my view), and I made it to the only run of three sessions I was to manage in the whole weekend. Bex Lewis led us in peaceful digital and paper chain worship. Naomi Milner talked about myth – and I know just enough about myth theory to be able to stay with her through an excellent academic exploration, although I found myself doing loooog blinking once or twice. Then for me a highlight – Sara Hyde on “The End of Prison as we know it”. Brilliant challenge about what society wants prison to achieve, about how to turn lives around, and about how to bring about change, acknowledging slow timescales. That was THE talk which has inspired me to action (not that others weren’t inspiring, but I can’t do everything).
An afternoon spent exploring, bumping into more people, listening to Hope and Social from the Jesus Arms (which was conveniently situated for the main stage, great until you wanted a conversation) and then a talk by Anne Lamott on her book on prayer “Help. Thanks. Wow”. It wasn’t quite my thing, but most people there obviously loved it, so we’ll put that down to stylistic differences. I wandered up the Mount for evening prayer, at which I was given permission not to join in any of the activities if I didn’t want to, so I didn’t. Closed my eyes and drifted with God. bliss. It rained while I was up there, but there was a canopy, and I was dry. (I’m all right, Jack.) There may have been beer afterwards…and then I went to bed to the sound of a man singing very sad songs very LOUDLY from the main stage.
Sunday morning, a hot shower, bacon, coffee and we were good to go. Now is a good moment to mention Sara is a great tent buddy whose company I enjoyed, that the people looking after the showers were cheery and good at their job, and that I have the liveliest admiration for the people who did the shittiest job of all – yes, the toilet emptiers and cleaners.
Off to Communion, which was a major gathering point for most people at the festival. It was never going to be conventional Church of England, and that’s fine with me. As long as someone says a prayer remembering the Last Supper and why we eat bread and drink wine, I don’t stress about different methods. However, gathering together several thousand Christians, and then expecting them to sit and listen to a band a choir singing well known hymns is madness, so I ignored the “Band and Choir Only” instruction and sang. So did everyone else. I took grave exception to the ‘talks’. I expect a mention of the Gospel, and of Jesus, not a reading from “my book”, however excellent that book and its contents may be. However, being irate about that led to my making a rather excellent suggestion to friends that since we never get to go to the pub on a Sunday lunchtime, now was a good time to take the opportunity…..
Now is also a good time to mention that I was drinking shandy because I don’t like beer, and that I never had more than two pints at any visit to the Jesus Arms. And after a look round the exhibition, I returned to the pub for THE highlight of my Greenbelt – Beer and Hymns. Which I celebrated with lemonade. Beer and Hymns wasn’t supposed to be happening, for reasons I don’t understand, and so this was a guerrilla version, not in the programme, but news spread. I’ve never thought of singing “And can it be” as a subversive act, but pitched against Trance coming from the stage it was. We were loud, passionate, and it was the best worship I’ve been part of for a while. I don’t often put my arms in the air when singing…….and I never spilt a drop.
As it cooled down, I went and got changed, then it was time for “Moving Swiftly On: Handling the baggage of transition” when the four of us sat on a sofa and chatted in a moreorless structured way. We talked about the tears and the laughter, whilst trying to keep the tone of the talk light but honest. And, bless you all who did, people came. People I didn’t know came. A few left as they realised they weren’t interested (which is fine, much better than staying where you don’t want to be), but the place was packed out and there were people standing outside the doors. (It was a small venue, mind!) Not only did people come, but they asked questions, laughed in the right places, nodded furious agreement a lot and stayed to chat afterwards. It was HUGE fun, and if you want to listen, apparently we were recorded, and will be downloadable from their site for a payment to Greenbelt. I’ll link here when I can.
I met more people, ate, drank a tiny bit then went to bed before it rained. Monday it rained and it rained and it rained. I went to Proost Poets for morning worship, and mostly didn’t cry, but was deeply moved and bought their book.
We relocated to the Christian Aid tent for tea, coffee, chocolate brownies and New Monasticism, and then took a decision. We were planning to leave after lunch, but it was so wet that we packed, borrowed a trolley (thank you Charlotte and Dave) and got everything to our cars, and agreed to meet at the first eatery on the A14 for lunch.
Skating and slithering up the muddy track from where I was parked was unfunny, and I am grateful to the three nameless chaps who gave me a push when I briefly got stuck. I’m told that when it got dark, people were stopped from moving cars from down the bottom of the field because it was just too dangerous in the dark. I’m glad I left when I did. A stop for Greenbelt decompression lunch, and finally a choice about cross country including the Oxford ring road or A1M, M25, M3, A303. I took the latter on the grounds the escape points were more obvious.
So good bits? Meeting people, hearing interesting ideas, beautiful site, well run facilities, lots of choice about what to do and whether or not to engage. No phone signal – it meant I couldn’t worry about trying to contact people and meet up, I could concentrate on what was happening around me. I had enough signal to text home and say I was safe, and that’s fine.
Less good bits? Access to site was horribly slow, the direction to the campsite was clear but the wrong direction, and a few more temporary roads down to the bottom of the field may have improved my exit. Those things are, in my view, easily fixed. All the people I didn’t meet even though they were there – although I met plenty, and there are other years….
I can’t comment on the move from Cheltenham Racecourse – I never went there for Greenbelt although I have been for other reasons. But Broughton was beautiful, and the festival made good use of the features of the site.
Will I go back to Greenbelt? You bet. I am mildly peeved that I have to wait a whole year.