Greenbelt through the decades: the 2020s

Greenbelt through the decades: the 2020s

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, Becky Hall wrote about the 2010s. This month it’s the turn of our Creative Director, Paul Northup, to talk us through this decade so-far, pandemics and all.

Little did we know when we left the blazing hot grounds of Boughton at the end of the 2019 festival that we wouldn’t be back there – at least in full-fat festival form – until 2022.

The 2010s ended with Greenbelt buoyant, on the up. As Becky Hall describes in her 2010s blog, it had been a momentous decade that had seen the festival move from a racecourse to a country estate – and almost lose itself in the process. But on the eve of the 2020s, things felt solid and hopeful.

Meanwhile, COVID had other ideas. 

Greenbelt Festival gets cancelled for two consecutive years during the COVID pandemic

In the first few months of 2020 we joined calls with other members of the Association of Independent Festivals to begin thinking about the implications of this new ‘mystery virus’. Those calls became all-the-more urgent as the first national lockdown was announced in March 2020. But the mood was that this would all be over by the summer and needn’t impact festival season.

How wrong we were. 

With artwork all designed and the lineup in place to announce in late March, we held off sharing our news. Just in case. Then, ‘just in case’ became a necessity, and at Easter 2020 we took the decision to cancel the festival – for the first time in its history.

We were gutted. Greenbelters were gutted. But there was an inevitability to it all. Greenbelters responded with the grace, generosity and understanding we have come to expect and treasure. Hundreds of you donated your tickets back to us. The vast majority of you chose not to refund but to roll tickets forward. And our Angels kept on giving. We were overwhelmed. 

Wild At Home, 2020

We switched our thinking for the physical festival, with its ‘Wild at Heart’ theme, to a summer-long campaign of digital activity that we neatly called ‘Wild at Home’. We launched a Greenbelt podcast, we hosted weekly livestreams, (including daytime shows for families and children) and for the first time we were digitally present in a way that we’d always hoped we could be. Without a physical festival to deliver, we had the bandwidth (pardon the pun) to make our digital presence work for the first time. Every cloud.

And then, over August Bank Holiday weekend itself, we set up a weekend-long digital festival experience and hundreds of you bought passes to access for a Saturday of live acoustic gigs from the virtual Canopy, panels and conversations from the virtual Pagoda and Jesus Arms ‘Zoom Room’ action (including Beer n Hymns and a lock-in). On the Sunday, we shared together, remotely, in an act of communion, in an online service we called Plan B.

Wild at Home, 2020

Looking back, it’s amazing to see all we achieved across that summer. The entire library of content is here – including guest blogs from wonderful writers and a Black Lives Matter panel curated by Chine McDonald in the wake of the murder of George Flloyd.

As we moved into the autumn of 2020, we felt pleased to have had a summer online and overwhelmed with the response. Naturally, we assumed that we’d need to get back to business as usual as we headed towards 2021. We re-confirmed most of the bill we had ready to announce for 2020. We re-grouped. We prepared for announcements. Again.

And then, at the start of 2021, we spent another anxious few months in online meetings with other festivals again as the pandemic seemed reluctant to leave us. We costed up different options and explored different scenarios. Could we produce a socially-distanced festival? It felt like an oxymoron.

Prospect Farm, 2021

Once again, as Easter 2021 approached, we had to take the regrettable decision to cancel. Again. It would be two summers without a full-fat festival. And with people suffering from an extreme collective case of Zoom fatigue, and with the heady online enthusiasm of 2020 well past its sell-by-date, we realised we had to envisage something different for 2021. 

So, we went back to our roots and, under permissions granted for camping events, we hosted two community gatherings – one on the week leading up to August Bank Holiday weekend and then one over the weekend itself – where we welcomed Greenbelters to join us in the camping fields at Boughton House for a community-focussed gathering that we called Prospect Farm – named after the site of the very first ever Greenbelt festival near Framlingham in Suffolk.

These simple, lo-fi, low-key gatherings felt like a life-saver, a state of grace. The ‘programme’ was sparse and simple. There was plenty of room for pop-ups and spontaneity. It just felt good to gather (as these photos suggest). But we were so, so conscious of all those who couldn’t be with us or didn’t want to be. It wasn’t Greenbelt, but it kept the flame alight.

Prospect Farm, 2021

As the autumn of 2021 rolled in we got back to re-booking a full-fat Greenbelt festival – one that had now been two years in the making. No wonder the lineup, when we returned to the fields in 2022, was one of the strongest we’d ever had. We’d had – literally – years to make it! Kae Tempest, Reni Eddo-Lodge, House Gospel Choir, Simon Armitage, to name a few. And what joy there was that summer of 2022. After so long away. The weather was kind, too. Not as scorching as 2019, but warm nonetheless. It was sheer joy. We were back.

Kae Tempest, 2022

And so our thoughts turned to 2023 and what would be our 50th anniversary year. But dare we celebrate 50 years, given the COVID interruption? Absolutely! Wild at Home and Prospect Farm had kept the journeying, restless spirit of Greenbelt alive across two long years. We hadn’t taken two years off. Greenbelt had continued to be present – just in different forms.

2023 would also be the 10th year of our being at Boughton House – although only our eighth full festival in its beautiful grounds. Given our bumpy landing there back in 2014, it’s so good to remember just how much we’ve bedded in and made it our home now for this season of the festival’s pilgrim journey.

And so, on the eve of celebrating our 50th anniversary, our thoughts turn to the future – to the next 50 years! Hard to imagine, I know. But that’s the work of Greenbelt: to be present in the moment, but to face the future, too.

Rebel Rouser, our new venue in the woods, 2022

Looking back over this wonderful series of decades blogs, I’m grateful to all the writers and for the story that their different recollections tell. The festival has shape-shifted, ebbed and flowed, expanded and contracted, as it has reimagined itself annually, responding to the changing world and culture with a steady heart and eye. But, at its centre, the same spirit has been constant throughout. 

I first bowled up at Greenbelt in 1984, just after the festival’s first decade. It was in full swing. I agree with former Greenbelt trustee and writer Martin Wroe when he says that he “never went home” from his first Greenbelt. There is a sense in which many of us find a home in Greenbelt that we find nowhere else.

Each year, I still get exactly the same feeling at Greenbelt that I first experienced at Castle Ashby with my youth group in 1984. It’s hard to quantify. It’s a mixture of freedom, challenge,  learning, openness, devotion, welcome, provocation, connection and integration. It somehow makes sense – in my head and my heart.

Performing Arts, 2022

Just as it was in the beginning, Greenbelt in the 2020s – on its 50th birthday – is still a place that takes the arts and creativity seriously, that takes faith seriously, that takes social justice and politics seriously. At the same time as being free and festival-like enough not to take itself too seriously; to realise that often the deepest forms of healing and wholeness come through laughter, dance, party and celebration. 

I didn’t know it, but Greenbelt was what I was looking for back in 1984. And it’s still the ‘church’ I feel most at home in; the ‘community’ I feel I can belong to most deeply; the ‘culture’ that best inspires and provokes me; the energy that fuels me for the rest of the year. It is all these things to me and more. (It’s why I have to pinch myself every now and then to remind myself just how privileged I am to be part of the team that helps to shape it each year.) And this is what I hope people still find at Greenbelt Festival today.