“A festival beyond hedonism powered by wind, sun and people - It’s MORE than just another party!!!”
When I set off for Chepstow on Thursday 31st of July I was in work mode. Although I knew full well that I was heading for The Green Gathering Festival I hadn't given much thought to the festival itself, having been consumed with preparing to teach people there about forest gardening. I had volunteered to give three, hour-long talks in the permaculture zone and was looking forward to meeting other teachers, speakers and do-ers of good things, while helping to spread the word about the possibilities of perennial food systems. In the back of my mind I was aware that there would be a party going on, but I was struggling to marry the impressive schedule of speakers and the impressive list of bands into a cohesive single event! I last went to the Green Gathering 14 years ago when it was based near Warminster in Wiltshire. The festival has seen various incarnations in its long and chequered history, and it has not been an easy ride for those involved.
"The Green Gathering Charity promotes environmental sustainability, ecological awareness, biodiversity, human rights, appropriate technology and independent media, through education, communication and the arts. The Charity pledges to create a forum for open discussion and debate while rejecting intimidatory or discriminatory tactics." Greengathering.org.uk
It all began at Worthy Farm (Michael Eavis’ farm where the Glastonbury festival is held) back in the early 80s and my co-teacher Patrick Whitefield was one of a group of green-minded folk who decided to start holding ‘gatherings’. The purpose of these gatherings was to discuss environmental issues, ideas and possible actions while meeting people with shared ethics, making positive connections and having fun. Since then off-shoots of the group have gone on to do other things...like set up the Green Party, or create other regional gatherings. Some were involved in the infamous ‘Battle of the Bean Field’, the culmination of the government’s determination to snuff out alternative lifestyles, politically motivated gatherings and environmental protesters. Some later regrouped to form The Big Green Gathering which also fell foul of underhanded government tactics when one festival was cancelled in 2009, then in 2010 police spy Mark Kennedy was revealed to have been posing as a part of the Big Green Gathering crew.
After all of this drama and intrigue I had expected the festival to have a gritty, serious feel about it. So as I made my way up the M5 in the bright sunshine I was feeling focussed on the work I was going to contribute and not a lot else. This all changed as soon as I pulled up to the entrance and was met by a beaming dreadlocked guy in a high-vis vest who greeted me (probably the 500th driver he had greeted that day) with such gleeful enthusiasm that I was immediately infected with the festival vibe and felt a tingle of excitement in my belly.
“Interested in green tech, crafts, cycling, recycling and composting? Do you enjoy story-telling; real food, cider and music; seeing kids roam free?” Greengathering.org.uk
This beaming from people in high-visibility clothing (and usually dreadlocks) continued as I gradually made my way on to site and into my camping spot. Everyone I encountered was donning a huge grin, an open-hearted one that says ‘welcome home, we’ve been waiting for you’. This set the tone and it never faltered over the four day long festival. I made my way to the permaculture zone and met the effervescent Tammi Dallaston, who was also beaming despite having been run off her feet for weeks, co-ordinating the permaculture area. Soon I had met the whole permie crew including inspiring teachers like Mike Feingold, Looby Macnamara and Chris Evans. There were many others who had also come to share their knowledge and personal experience of living out permaculture values and methods, creating a full workshop schedule each day.
On exploring the rest of the site I was pleasantly surprised to find a pretty sizable festival gently spread across a parkland valley with the Severn estuary and bridge on the horizon. The site has a very spacious feel to it as there is plenty of room for this multi-faceted event, and the whole site is visible from the main drag that runs from the Raconteurs’ tent (poetry and comedy by day, live music by night) past the crafts and permaculture areas, the Off grid college, campaigns field and floating lotus stage to the bustling market place and kids zone.
The programme, as you can imagine, is jam packed. Several stages offered diverse and wonderful live music, poetry and comedy while other areas hosted workshops, forums and speakers such as Simon Fairlie, Molly Scott Cato (MEP) and Tony Gosling, covering subjects such as community, fracking, lobbying, land rights, social justice and sustainability. The crafts area offered a chance to get your hands dirty with clay oven building, basket weaving, copper forging and rocket stove workshops. The campaigns field offered a stage for campaign groups to speak about their causes and rally up support, while the amazing Off-Grid College offered educational talks, lectures and discussions from such varied teachers and speakers as Starhawk and Bez from the Happy Mondays!
The Avalon Rising tent often hosted talks with a more spiritual perspective, beginning each morning with yoga practice and chanting followed by a full programme of educational and inspirational talks including dowsing, the sacred art of geometry, communicating with nature spirits and astrology. On top of all of this there was a women’s dome, co-operators camp, Tipi circle, Faerie glade, Healing area and three other music stages, plus the colourful market place full of beautiful shops and cafes.
This festival could easily have been a week long and it would still be impossible to see and do all of the things that make you say ‘ooh!’ when reading the programme. I was particularly taken with the Dandy Lion stage and café where they served delicious middle-eastern style wraps and mezzes accompanied by great live acts such as the hilarious Hatty Hatstar putting the world to rights with her comic songs and squeezebox. The Raconteurs’ stage also had a great line up and I enjoyed seeing Matt Harvey and Salina Godden there performing their wonderful poetry.
An extra mention must also be made of the kids area. I didn’t have my son with me this year, but I can’t wait to see his face light up next year when he sees the colourful old-fashioned merry-go-round and boat swings, the trampolines and climbing frames and all the other semi-feral kids having a ball in this relaxed, laid-back, family friendly festival. The painted sign at the entrance: ‘Unaccompanied children will be given an espresso and a free puppy’ made me laugh every time I passed it.
So I will be returning next year, with my family and our dog, and possibly a highlighter pen and a watch to try and take in as much of this wonderful green feast as possible. Although it’s quite likely that just like this year, I’ll be infected with the atmosphere and just happily drift from place to place, seeing and hearing things I hadn’t expected and feeling inspired and refreshed by all of it.
Caroline Aitken teaches Permaculture Design with Patrick Whitefield at Ragmans Farm. The next Design Course starts on the 31st August for more information and bookings go to the Patrick Whitefield Associates website.
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