Greenbelt Festival started in 1974, and has continued to come together each year since then, without exception… With such a rich history, we aren’t above taking a nostalgic look back at where we’ve come from, remembering the good times, and measuring the distance between where we were when we started and where we still need to get to…
Among farmers, actors, musicians, theologians and used car dealers, Greenbelt was a dream born on the unsettled non-conformist edges of the church during the early 1970s. And a few brave and creative people soon found themselves at the first ever Greenbelt festival in 1974 on Prospect Farm in Suffolk.
The Sun newspaper billed that first festival as ‘The Nice People’s Pop Festival’, but perhaps it was more subversive than it appeared. Back in the 1970s, Greenbelt’s holistic take – ‘Bible in one hand and newspaper in the other’ – had a transforming impact, believing that all artistic expression and endeavour was God-given.
And, while the initial draw of the Festival lay in this celebration of the arts, its appeal broadened as a growing internationalism emerged from the concerns of festival organisers. Among significant new voices heard at the festival in this period were Nicaraguan minister Gustavo Parajon, South African anti-apartheid activist Caesar Molebatsi and Elias Chacour, a Palestinian Melkite priest from Nazareth.
Then, as the evangelical musical subculture dried up, the heart and mind of Greenbelt broadened and strengthened still more. Artists were invited not just because they were believers or had a distant churchgoing relative, but because their vision overlapped with a biblical one of global justice (Bob Geldof) or engaging with the political powers (Midnight Oil) or was simply fuelled by a divine sense of wonder (Waterboys).
The festival grew from its initial 2,000 and, by the early 1980s, there were more than 20,000 people coming each year. But, for a whole variety of reasons, numbers declined in the 1990s. And a series of disastrously wet August Bank Holidays didn’t help. Only the loyalty of a small core of committed believers who’d grown up with the festival kept an increasingly unlikely show on the road. These believers became Greenbelt’s ‘Angels’.
Then, in 1999, with attendance at its lowest since the first festival in 1974, Greenbelt moved away from its green-field locations and de-camped to Cheltenham Racecourse. To some, it seemed like the end. Yet, the move proved to be a lifesaver. Now, after passing our 40th festival, Greenbelt is once again looking towards the future.
As Greenbelt has cemented its partnership with Christian Aid and other associate agencies, Greenbelters have translated debate about political engagement and international injustice into vigorous campaigning, re-imagining the Christian community as an infectious global conspiracy.
And still Greenbelt believes, along with Richard Holloway, that only the arts come close to capturing the mystery of the other that haunts us.
… all great art … breaks through the frustration of language and unites us with that which language only usually signifies.
The future brings with it exciting challenges – including the return to a greenfield site at Boughton House near Kettering and the chance to keep producing an arts, faith and justice centred festival while looking at how to broaden our reach year-round.
This is Greenbelt today.
Page last updated 23 Jan 2015