To celebrate our 50th anniversary, we’ve asked some of the folk who’ve helped bring Greenbelt Festival to life over the last 50 years to write a little something about their festival experiences. One blog post per month, reflecting on one decade at a time.
Last month, Andy Turner wrote about the 2000s. This month it’s the turn of Becky Hall (who served as Vice Chair of the Board from 2014 for 6 years) to take us back almost up to date – with the 2010s, a decade that saw the rebirth of Greenbelt at Boughton House.
Greenbelt in the 2010s was a game of two halves. We’d been in Cheltenham for 15 years and it felt like home, with the combination of inside spaces and outdoor stages. It was comfortable and the festival felt established as we continued to dream, take risks, embed and branch the programme out to 365. Paul Northup took over as Creative Director in 2012 and the staff team and board continued to shape and craft Greenbelt’s vision together.
And then, like a bolt of lightning, the rug was pulled from under our feet as the good people at Cheltenham Racecourse informed us (just before the 2013 festival) that they were closing for refurbishment (which we knew) and we wouldn’t be able to come back the next year – or after that (which we didn’t). Which left us homeless. Overnight.
This was a real shock and the team (trustees and staff) went into overdrive finding us a venue for the following year. After much real-life looking and agonisingly pressurised soul-searching we settled on Boughton House. This felt like a big risk and a great opportunity. A return to Greenbelt’s roots as a greenfield festival, and a big wrench to all of us who had got used to the accessibility and ease of having both indoor and outdoor spaces. And it was, as always with Greenbelt, a leap of faith.
And that first year at Boughton (in 2014) was hard. It was a long way from the cars to the camping. It was cold and hard to find things. There was a real bolt of lightning, nay a minor hurricane, on the Saturday to contend with. And we lost money – in fact let’s not beat about the bush – all our money (and more) in the process. Once again, Greenbelt was in the position where we had to raise funds to survive – quickly. Once again it was touch and go. In some ways it felt like starting again. Except it wasn’t – it was building, re-imagining, believing – all things that run through Greenbelt’s DNA as strongly as artistry and activism. And once again – we made it. The generosity of Greenbelters pulled us through.
From a governance perspective, the trustees and the senior staff team pulled closely together to create a tight-knit way of working together and a clear strategy – not just for getting us through the storm, but for growth. We implemented a new governance structure with trustees holding terms of office lasting six years, meaning that trustees who had led the festival brilliantly for many, many, many years gradually stepped down – with our on-going love and gratitude. At the same time we welcomed Steve Baker as chair and a host of new trustees.
We got really clear about our strategy (even printed on our tea towels!). We were intentional about our priorities – what we were going to give focus to over the next five years and what we weren’t – which provided energy, clarity and focus. We selected five issues for our campaigning which drove and underpinned all our activity – from programming to choosing partners to work with. And we measured our success against these things.
And slowly, year on year, we learned how to make the transition to our new greenfield home. Greenbelters are quick learners and natural adapters, and by year two at Boughton, carts, pushchairs, wheelie bins and trolleys could be seen transporting camping kit onto site.
And there were definite upsides. Because we were generating all our own electricity, we could measure our environmental impact in our attempt to become one of the UK’s most sustainable festivals. And as part of that, we pioneered going single-use plastic-free.
Away from the festival, change was afoot with another move – this time our offices. Under the entrepreneurial leadership of Steve Baker, Greenbelt leased a whole suite of offices from the URC which we were able to sub-let to other like-minded charities (like Trussell Trust) – meaning that we, for the first time in our history, had a secure income stream that was not dependent on the festival itself. This gave us the confidence to focus on growth and to keep dreaming about how we could continue to improve the festival – make it attractive, accessible and fun for young and old – for established Greenbelters and those joining us for the first time. It also set up a financial resilience, which – along with the incredible ongoing generosity of our wonderful Angels – meant that we were able to re-build our reserves just in case…which, as we know was a life- (well, festival-) saver come 2020 and two years without the full-blown festival.
But beyond the story of struggle that we can tell about Greenbelt in the later 2010s, there is the story of how we fell in love with our greenfield site. How we moved from surviving to thriving. Of how we laughed and danced and celebrated. How we continued to push the boundaries of the possible – Pussy Riot, the Red Tent, activism workshops, and Amal in residence. The story of how we were gradually able to create spaces and moments and music and art in the trees and the fields of our new home and begin to bask in the energy that was generated by the new combination of Greenbelt in nature. How we lay down in awe and wonder on top of the mound taking in beauty of the sky full of stars in the dark sky and we wandered through the trees at night delighting in the light installations that illuminated them.
The last festival in of the 2010 decade in 2019 was baking hot and full. We had grown, year-on-year, and there was palpable joy in the air. The air resounded with small festival moments – from the bell ringing to celebrate a new Angel signing up to the ad hoc jazz music or street performers roaming the site. The Jesus Arms was full and buzzing day and night, every stage offered up something different, and the Greenbelt programme was (as always) packed full of rich delights for all tastes. It was as if everyone felt high with the love of it. Greenbelters commenting to each other at the excitement, the relief, the downright “isn’t this brilliant?”ness of it. There was a sense of connection and true belonging resonating from every corner. It really felt as if we had, once again, come home.