It’s that time of the year, the summer solstice, when thousands of hyped-up festival heads make their annual pilgrimage to a field in Somerset. But Glastonbury town itself has long been spiritual home to the British counter-culture. By the 1970s, John Michell high priest of the Earth Mysteries movement claimed Glastonbury as a place of sacred power.
Here lies the Isle of Avalon where Excalibur was forged and King Arthur and his Queen were buried. It was to Glastonbury that Joseph of Arimathea bought the cup of the last supper. That cup, the Holy Grail, became the sought-after prize of all good Arthurian Knights and spiritual warriors. As with all myth, this narrative is said to veil a truth greater than any fact. Magical reality is just much more fun. Glastonbury has seen plenty of that. It has been home to a variety of mystics, occultists, eccentrics and esoterics since the turn of the last century. Long before The Da Vinci Code a chalice was hidden in St Bride’s Well and rediscovered as the “Holy Grail”. By the First World War the town had its own festival based on an annual Passion Play held in Oberammergau, Bavaria.
Little wonder that Glastonbury became the venue for a festival inspired by the ethos of the counter-culture and free festival movements of the 1970s. The Pyramid Stage – which this year will headline Muse, Adele and Coldplay – was conceived as a one-tenth replica of the Great Pyramid at Giza. Its position was determined by dowsing at what Michell claimed was the meeting point of two ley lines. But something had shifted. Maybe it was the uprooting of the festival from the lofty spiritual ideals of the town to the fields beyond. More likely a different tune was blowing in the wind. The counter-culture had got down, real and dirty. The soundtrack had changed. The Stones had more sympathy with the devil. Whilst Wiccans were dancing with their Horned God, the hippies were busy frolicking with the Green Man in Gandalf’s back garden.
The 1970s spiritual warrior wanted a direct route. Wallowing in mud, in a hazy glow of connectivity, shamanistic drum beat whipping up a frenzy and easy access to drugs meant the Doors of Perception could readily open. Sex drugs and rock ‘n’ roll are a potent mix. “Turn on, tune in, drop out” and “Do what you will” became the whole of the point.
Fast-forward to 2016 and the festival is a huge commercial success. There is concern that those original fields can no longer sustain the behemoth. Rumours are circulating that an alternative venue may have to be tried. That would be a pity. There is something about the spirit of place that may be tricky to reproduce.
But think again. In Danny Boyle’s 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, to the soundtrack of Jerusalem, an evocation of England was conjured up before our eyes. In the foreground we saw maypole dancing and a game of cricket, and behind a conical hill with a path spiralling to the top – the very image of Glastonbury Tor, but with a green tree replacing the church tower. Perhaps the Green Man is on the move again and even Glastonbury can be “Uprooted”.