Glastonbury, the town where William Blake once envisioned Jerusalem, is now synonymous the world over with good music, hippy culture and organised middle-class hedonism. Festivals are the modern pop-up equivalent of Victorian spa towns, oases buried amongst England’s most picturesque countryside with their patrons purporting a multitude of psychological benefits. And Glastonbury is as exclusive as Bath once was.
Epitomising the new liberal bourgeois, however, has meant that festival-goers have replaced townsfolk as Glastonbury’s political mouthpiece. Where else would TV-news cameras flock to find pro-European millennials en masse in Brexit’s immediate aftermath, other than Worthy Farm? This despite 48.9 per cent of locals backing Leave in 2016 and helping to catapult the Brexit Party to victory in the European parliament elections last month. And herein lies the problem. In its success as a luxury brand tailored to the needs of Londoners looking for a retro jaunt, the festival has obscured a Glastonbury that is struggling to cope with its decline as an agricultural and industrial epicentre.
One Glastonbury ward has the highest proportion of children under 16 in poverty in Somerset, and the area to the east of the town – which includes the festival site – has the highest levels of obesity in Year 6 children. Mendip, the local government district that includes Glastonbury, is also a so-called “Teenage Conception Hotspot” with 28.1 girls in a 1,000 becoming pregnant between the ages of 15 and 17. Poverty in rural areas is often overlooked in favour of in-vogue urban locales, but in reality the difference is only fractional: 14 percent of households in rural areas have absolute low incomes, compared to 16 percent in cities.
It is into this environment that 135,000 well-heeled festival goers descend each year. “We dread this time of year,” says one local resident, “the entire county gets gridlocked and we are just trying to go about our lives. We shouldn’t have to put up with all that noise and nonsense.”
Michael Eavis, the dairy farmer behind the festival since its inception forty-nine years ago, does involve himself in local affairs: he supports Surviving Winter, a charity that helps 500 vulnerable pensioners in Somerset stay warm, and he joined a local campaign attempting to prevent the closure of the town’s last bank.
But trouble is brewing. This year saw Glastonbury locals demand more ticket allocation for next year’s festival after they sold out in minutes, with residents suspecting that people from London were using fake addresses in the town. The petition states, “we deal with a lot of s**t being local to the festival” and outlines grievances ranging from traffic nightmares to the pollution of local rivers that has caused a decline in marine life since the festival became the society event of the year. Tickets were introduced as a way of easing tensions with residents angry at increases in deaths, crime and drug use that the festival brought to Glastonbury, and other local businesses began to profit from advertising. But that initial discontentment has never completely subsided.
Locals were outraged two years ago – the last time the Festival was held – when its organisers hired hundreds of workers from across Europe on zero hours contracts. Seasonal work had previously helped tradesman in the area, but now organisers are accused of taking advantage of workers from Poland, Latvia, Spain and the Czech Republic who were signed up as litter pickers before being fired after just two days. “There were plenty of people in Glastonbury those jobs could have gone to,” a local grandmother said, “Plenty. I get the feeling they don’t want us local folk up there.” That same year Jeremy Corbyn headlined the Pyramid Stage, where he told the assembled crowds that “a world of human rights, peace, justice and democracy all over the planet” was possible. But few ordinary people in the town could hear him.
As Glastonbury the town struggles, Glastonbury the brand thrives. In becoming a commercial entity, the town’s name might have gained a worldwide reputation as a liberal paradise secluded in isolated countryside but this has been to the detriment of understanding the town and the people as they really are: agitated, cut off, struggling to maintain its rural community in the shadow of the festival. Despite this Glastonbury Festival has become a blueprint for farmers dealing with falling yields of key crops and low products like diary so that today there are now over 1,000 festivals held in the UK each year. Students and city professionals looking to use rural England as a summer playground would do well to remember the unglamorous, local problems that remain long after they have packed up and gone home.