Thursday, 23 August 2012

A Story of Greenbelt, 1986

Of course, the modern-day denizens of Cheltenham Racecourse have centrally-heated tents, solar-powered cooking stoves and their own individually-allocated toilets. But that wasn't how it was the 1980s.

It was at the end of that miserable summer of 1986 that the Greenbelt Festival was struck by Hurricane Charley. In those days the festival was held in the grounds of Castle Ashby, Northants. And the toilets were... well, to put it mildly, unspeakable. Vast holes in the ground, above which users of the facilities sat on planks of wood with bottom-sized holes cut in them. Nobody ever dared look down, and the chief topic of discussion was always the same - how much money would you have to drop down there to go and get it back? Of course, those toilets could never have survived the invention of the smartphone. People would simply have refused to risk dropping their phone. Indeed, a friend of mine once managed to go five days with just one visit to the toilet. And that involved a drive to a McDonald's in Northampton.

1986 was a typical Greenbelt. That is, it barely stopped raining, although Simon Mayo broadcast a Radio 1 roadshow - I seem to remember "It's a Sin" being one of the "Bits and Pieces" tracks. A wonderful communion service had been celebrated on the Sunday morning as the sun briefly shone - 24,000 people sharing bread and wine. White sliced and polystyrene cups, sure, but it was still special. And at some point, John Selwyn Gumboot spoke in a seminar at which he accidentally referred to being at "Greenpeace".  The Iona Community taught us how to sing folksy little songs from a little red book - something which was to inspire me in years to come. I reckon they turned a nice profit from those.

And then came Monday night. The great Mainstage finale. I've no idea what happened over there - we daredn't go. You could barely stand up in the rain. As Charley smashed in, the Bedfordshire Extremely Primitive Methodists were huddled around a guttering candle as our tent filled with water1. But we heard  that the Big Top was collapsing. And then - the worse rumour of all - that the toilets at the top of the hill were about to overflow.

What could be done? There was no time to evacuate thousands of campers from the bottom of the hill. It was nigh-on impossible to get a car to move on that saturated ground to get anyone out. And some people were walled into their tents by the vast numbers of Adrian Plass books they'd bought that day. The only possible action was a feat of civil engineering unsurpassed in the annals of Christian arts festivals. We would have to erect a dam.

A hint of August afterglow was struggling through the stormclouds over Cogenhoe as we set out to raise the earthworks. Clearly we had no spades or other earth-moving implements, so we made the best of what we had. In short, that was the only dyke ever to be dug with 7,000 out-of-tune acoustic guitars. As the sound of the unaccompanied singing of "Our God Reigns" drifted across the sodden air, we dug for our lives. Never did a bunch of drenched Evangelicals do such a night's work - fortified by a chain-gang providing those needing strength with Pot Noodles and baked-bean-and-corned-beef hash. The dam was just twelve feet high - and three hundred yards long - as the last Takamina gave way under the weight of the last sod of clay. All we could do was watch, and pray. The toilets were giving way, and the rain was still falling.

It was a ghastly dawn. The eerie light shone across the unnatural lake. The flood reached to just six inches below the top of the dam. We hummed "When the Levee Breaks" in a guarded undertone. But the dam had held. The rain had stopped. And when someone who had overdone it at the Falcon the night before came rushing out for the loo, we told him to clear off and go behind a hedge.

So that is the story of how we saved Greenbelt from a fate worse than death. But if you told the Greenbelters of today, they wouldn't believe it...

1 - The Extremely Primitive Methodists reject all artificial sources of light, heat and tent waterproofing. They are a devout people, constantly walking into walls and suffering from damp rot.


  1. Those wooden toilets you write off were Army Surplus. Commonly known as 'thunder boxes' because of the sound of escaping wind when in use.

    The Army had them in stock by the thousand and a whole cottage industry was employed in making them. Eventually, environmental concerns caught up. It started in West Germany, where indiscriminate hole digging and depositing waste was banned in the mid-80's and eventually spread to the UK.

    Now, in heavily disguised military field locations, the enemy is able to locate them without any technical aids, just the mark one eye ball, espying outlandish tall, blue chemical toilets standing a minimum of 30 metres away from sleeping locations like Sentry Boxes.

    In my day, you wondered off into the woods with a shovel and a bog roll - and got on with it. Which could be unfortunate if you happened across someone else's covered up doings unexpectedly. Sinking a shovel into it wasn't the highlight of the day :(

    After a months field exercise and abluting and toileting, the sight of a normal WC was greeted like an old friend - and celebrated with a yellow briefcase - more commonly known as a 10 pack of Herforder Beer.

    Happy Days!!

  2. Ah, yes, Hurricane Charley. When it hit I was in a cafe tent with a group of - cafe tent aficionados. One of our number (PhD in metallurgy so he must have known what he was doing) went outside every 20 minutes and hammered in the tent pegs. Our pleasant evening was eventually interrupted by a member of the Greenbelt executive committee staggering in through the tent flap, dripping wet and wide-eyed crying "You don't know what it's like out there!"

    Army surplus, keep an eye on your tent pegs, build a dam.

  3. Canadian scouts still do "dig'n'dump" as far as I know, out in the backwoods, but they mark their digs with a sign (was it a skull and crossbones? can't remember)

  4. 30 years ago today. Thirty years ago today, August Bank Holiday Monday 1986. I was raped at Greenbelt.
    God is love? Fuck off.

    1. I'm so sorry. I've asked for whether there are people you can talk to. If so I'll get their links posted on here.


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