Worthy farm in England's vale of Avalon is the resting place of the legendary King Arthur and home to a herd of dairy cows—at least most of the year. Last weekend, it became home to some 100,000 revelers populating a temporary town known as Glastonbury Festival. Farmer Michael Eavis has been inviting people to his farm since 1970, when Marc Bolan pulled up in a velvet-covered Buick and Eavis handed out free milk to 1,500 hippies who had scraped together the $2.40 entrance fee. Today, Glastonbury—as the grandfather among European pop music festivals—marks the start of a heat wave of festivals across Britain and the rest of Europe.
The resurgence of the summer festival in Britain coincided with the revival of a stagnant music industry. From the late '80s illicit raves dominated alternative youth culture. Then, in the mid-'90s, a rash of guitar bands appeared—Britpop they called it—with huge appeal and audiences that wanted to see live music again. The existing festivals of Reading and Glastonbury were the natural home for the heroes of Britpop such as Oasis and Blur, but soon a clutch of new corporate events horned in on the market.
This year, Oasis play at the rebranded Reading Festival, known as the Carling Weekend, which will run simultaneously in Leeds and Reading; the Virgin-sponsored V2000 will also rotate sets between sites in Chelmsford and Staffordshire; the Tennents lager-sponsored T in the Park in Scotland is now well established, and this year sees the introduction of the Guinness-backed Witnness Festival in Ireland. It may not be the spirit of Woodstock or the Isle of Wight, but many modern festival-goers are happy enough that organizers can afford the top-name acts and lay on bank machines, coffee shops and mobile-phone chargers.
Glastonbury still survives without major corporate sponsorship—and makes a profit, which it promptly gives away. Throughout the '80s, the festival raised funds for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; this year Greenpeace, Oxfam and WaterAid are the main beneficiaries, as well as housing and youth club projects in the local Somerset village of Pilton.
The enduring popularity of Glastonbury can be put down to the vision and ethos of its founders, Michael Eavis and his wife Jean. Eavis distances himself from other festival promoters. "I'm just a farmer basically, the farm and the cows are still my first love. The festival is only done as a fun thing. It's all done by volunteers who love working here."
This year on the 280-hectare site an open-air dance stage was set in woods, while the main stage acts were led by Travis, the Chemical Brothers and David Bowie. Those who found even 54-year-old Bowie too young swayed to Willie Nelson. Sideshows included a ballroom dancing tent, with full costume-hire. Many don't care about the music. "People come as an act of faith," says George McKay, author of Glastonbury: A Very English Fair. "They tap into the green issues, the Arthurian side, the mystical landscape and the legends."
Jean Eavis died last year and many thought her 64-year-old husband would hand over the reins. But he is continuing a festival which over the years has seen the stage burn down, gatecrashing New-Age travelers, fights with the local council, upset neighbors plus the odd Woodstock-style washout. Pressure is mounting from the branded competitors, but Eavis is determined not to change and go down "the sponsorship road." McKay agrees. "I think I would prefer it to just stop than to be taken over by one of the big festival organizers."
For those who couldn't get there, the bbc broadcast some 60 hours of the festival. For the many thousands who could, Glastonbury three decades on continued to be more than a rock festival. It's a change of lifestyle, if only for a few days. And even for the Eavis cows—on temporary pasture further down the valley—a change is as good as a holiday.