A Glastonbury Festival pilgrimage
Ruth shares her daily diary from being part of the Iona Community presence at Glastonbury Festival 2023. The Iona Community has hosted a place of sanctuary, rest and companionship for over 25 years, in the heart of the hustle, bustle and thumping beats.
Laden, I stumble onto the train. Tent and heavy-duty ladder on the trolley; large fishing net and camping kit tightly packed in hold-all and rucksack. I eye up the luggage space keenly. “Looks like you’re moving house” says one bright companion. “Where are you heading?” When I reply “I’m off to the Glastonbury Festival with the Iona Community” the brightness burns more strongly. “So what is the Iona Community?” asks my new 20-something friend, this would-be banker, who sang in a church choir in his youth, strikes up a conversation about sectarianism and the need for ethics within business. And so the pilgrimage begins: a journey on holy ground with unexpected companions and over-full bags as we discover again the joy of travelling light.
I’m met at Leicester station by Debbie and Richard – sanctuary folk in the midst of the storm, who pack me and my stuff in the van, already full of Glastonbury kit. The calming Ben then drives us on to Bristol, building a Glasto play list as we go. Another sanctuary awaits us in the home of the Sharples family.
After some nifty driving through the Mendips, Ben, Eve and I glide through security and ticket checks onto the fields that are Glastonbury by 9am. Darryl, Suzanne and Jo had hopped on a tractor and were already in ‘the Iona Field’ by the time we got there.
Actually it’s not really ‘The Iona Field’ – more, the ‘Tiny Iona Glade’, in the shade of two massive, and very, very loud venues. The story goes that for years this glade was heavily fenced and security managed as it had become a bit of a hazard area. Through outreach and conversation Member David Osborne found a way to bring the Iona Community presence into the very heart of the festival. Now land that was hostile has become a sanctuary with the healing presence of a beautiful bonfire.
Monday was a day of pitching tents; preparing the kitchen space; setting up the sanctuary tent; and decorating the area. All the while, being surrounded by an emerging enormous festival.
The four corniced Avalon tent surrounded by beer gardens and eateries is one neighbour; Block 9 the other. Two of about 10 big stages, Avalon and Block 9 are festivals in their own right. The Block 9 is a drum and base, techno dance stage, with a beat until 5am, that pulses through your body. Our third neighbour is the The Unfairground, just opposite us. We are tucked in between these three huge venues, think ‘constant presence’ and ‘embracing companion sound’. Sleep, with the help of ear plugs, washes over the weary.
The Green Fields and the Healing Fields, just over the back of us, offer hand fasting, Celtic prayers, a Hindu temple, palm reading, a Shaman Healer, talks by Green Party Councillors, advice on domestic wind energy and radical recycling stations cheek by jowl.
With our fire pit re-dug and a glorious pasta dish prepared by Suzanne, we close up the space ready for the finessing and final preparations on Tuesday, before we’re joined by 200,000 plus punters on Wednesday.
Bin art at Glastonbury. Image Credit: Iona Community/ R.Harvey
There are between 17 and 20,000 bins on site. And these are not just your ordinary pedal bins. These are hand painted barrel bins for food waste, recycling of all kinds and minimal non recyclables. The promoting and app info from Glastonbury all the way through asks us to bring minimal stuff, take back everything: leave the land clear.
Karen is one on the 100s of bin painters on site since April undercoating then individually decorating each bin. Her story of a life of violence and abuse, redeemed in part by belonging to the bin-art community, is told around the fire pit as we put the finishing touches to our Iona Glade. Today is a day of getting to know artists and security guards, many of whom have been coming for solace to this shady spot for years.
Today is also the day that Liz brings us a dump of logs for the fire; Jo signs off our electricity and we can plug in the urn; and Andy sorts out our cold water tap so we can fill the urn! Lisa, our key contact at Avalon, pays us a visit to check we’ve got everything we need. And so we are part of the pre Glastonbury Community. In this calm before the storm, these crew members, some on site for months, share the bizarre sense that this beautiful space will be disturbed by the punters. And yet as the anticipation builds, this sense of community radiates out and beyond the gates to welcome the thousands who’ll join us tomorrow.
Tuesday is rounded off with a communion service hosted by Somerset Churches Together in the Church Tent where, after a very tasty barbecue and some great chat, we walk through the site together offering a blessing on each other’s spaces of hospitality. Unity and generosity across the religious presence on site mirroring the unity and generosity we have been receiving from the festival crew. And so to bed for the last pre-festival night. (Where are those ear plugs?)
The white clad lantern bearers walk from one end of the festival site to the other. They blow horns and sing chants. I ask one, as they gently weave past our corner through the crowds: what are you doing?
The lantern bearer replies “we’re blessing the festival.” And on they go, sharing their love and the blessings of the universe on their way.
It’s 10am and the festival has formally opened. We too have opened our doors. We are on a busy busy junction, our constant companions, as well as the music, are the lovely traffic wardens and security guards. They are already signalling pedestrians through the one way system.
Conversations in our Iona Glade range from queries about the Community, to ‘must see acts’, to comments on the heat and the joy of shade and sanctuary in our small corner. Some bring their stories of grief, their requests for blessing, their delight in the arts, their curiosity about faith. All receive an open welcome. And offers of water!
We have our own shared grief to ponder this week. Our space has one poignant corner – a hammock is slung between two trees where Phil, a past volunteer used to sleep. A festival nomad who travelled and preached from festival to festival, Phil perfected the art of travelling light. His sparse back-pack was mirrored by his philosophical depth and lightness of touch. He carried little baggage, offering a deep listening ministry of availability. And he believed that the radical Jesus would have been a festival-goer, a nomadic pilgrim moving from site to site. He wrote about this too (“Love Big or Go Home: the inherent nomadic nature of the gospel; a theology of mission for all people”). Phil died while at the Hay Festival this year. He would have been with us this week, his final week before setting off on a pilgrimage through Wales, speaking only Welsh for the year. I didn’t meet him, but Ian the security guard did, as did our longstanding Glastonbury volunteers and visitors. Today we held a short time of prayer for Phil. And our visitors see his picture hung up by the hammock.
Wednesday ended with our lantern bearing friends leading the way to the festival-wide opening ceremony. Huge bonfires and a magnificent fireworks display mean the festival has well and truly begun. The dancing and the music fills every inch of air space all around us. We continue to offer a sanctuary space in the midst of such stimulus. Our own fire lit in the fire pit, the night drew to a close at around 1:30am with around 50 folk having passed through our glade to rest their legs and find a moment of stillness.
“Let’s have a large net slung overhead. And a skein of geese flying through our site.” This was one of the visions that Phil had for the Iona space at Glastonbury. And so we set our minds to making it happen. With help from our creative Glasgow staff who made a stencil and lent us a huge net, we now have a growing flock of geese. Some made in silence by pilgrims passing through our space, some through intense conversation with reflective poems; some by our younger visitors including one who preferred to paint a garden rather than a goose; all flying in the same direction, helping one another through the head winds.
A bit like the travellers who pass through the Iona Glade, each with their own story, each seeking solace, companionship as we head into the wind together.
Like Clara and Dave, Jenny and Fraser, and more who bring their sorrow and grief, some lighting candles in memory of beloveds who have now died. Or Andy, rethinking his life pattern who through tears shared his concerns for his own mental health in a stressed security job. Or Jo celebrating their first class honours degree in event management while volunteering at the Pyramid stage; or Bradley, who’s aim at Glastonbury was to ‘not get off my head’ in the midst of multiple grief.
And then there are the Scots who recognise the name, or an accent, or the sense of belonging and bond over banter. And there are the prayerful ones who seek out the solace of this stillness bizarrely in the midst of thumping music. For the stillness is there, in this redeemed thin place where the hearts and arms of radical welcome embrace the lost and the seeking, the celebrating the joys of the delights of each other.
The geese are growing, flying in formation, in community, some with words of encouragement or poetry included for sustenance on the way. One with this excerpt from a Mary Oliver poem beloved by so many:
‘Whoever you are,
no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination
calls to you like wild geese
harsh and exciting
over and over
announcing your place
in the family of things’
Today I had two conversations with tutu-clad beauties.
The first was with 7-year old Anna. She and her mum came into our quiet reflection space. They both pulled over a wild goose stencil and as they created geese, we talked. It was going to be Anna’s 8th birthday soon, so her mum Jane made a goose for Anna in her favourite colours, with a beautiful birthday inscription. As Jane and I talked about their festival experience so far; about her time as a student of Celtic Studies in Glasgow; about her scepticism of Church and of her parallel curiosity about all thing spiritual and reconciliation focussed, Anna continued decorating, presenting her mum with a beautifully inscribed goose for her own birthday in a few more days.
Later in the day John appeared. In fact it was so much later in the day that I was bleary-eyed, energy-waning. So when John tip-toed down the steps dressed in a pink tutu, with multiple garlands around his neck, a sequined hat and bright trainers, I was jolted awake by the dazzle and the colour. John was here for a brief break before joining his friends in one of the dance venues. He’d been before. He loved the quiet, the company, the flickering fire. As our conversation deepened, I discovered John also had a passion for the spiritual journey, and had given a local Alpha course a try in his nearby church. Ben the tutu-clad dancer was also a skilled civil servant, in his 50s, enjoying the freedom and the welcome of this festival for all.
I learned about fractals from Wendy, one of our Communications Consultants, many years ago. She used it to help describe various aspects of our life in the Iona Community. A fractal is a geometric shape that, at a small scale, replicates the larger organism of which it is a part. For example, a frond of a fern contains within it the shape and structure of the full fern. In some respects, we are a Community built on fractals. With a Family Group, for example, you can often find a full range of the passions and concerns that the Iona Community holds at its centre.
Here at Glastonbury, there’s a sense that we’re living a fractal of our life in Community.
Within these first few days we, a small community of 6, have set up home, prayed and eaten together and agreed task teams. We have found the ways we work well together, and have worked through some of the assumptions and differences that are present in every community. Our space is defined and sign-posted – and people are now joining us – dipping in and out of our community, much like the ebb and flow of guests arriving and departing our islands centres week in and week out.
The parallels continue, as we show our guests to a seat, offer them hospitality , listen to their stories, answer their questions, sign-post them to their next stop, and then check in with one another – ‘are you getting enough time off?’ ‘when did you last eat?’ ‘do you mind if I de-brief confidentially from that last conversation?’ ‘could you come and help me over here – I’m struggling.’ And so the parallels continue and we think of our colleagues and friends on Iona and at Camas welcoming and hosting and sending, week in week out. Except here we’re a transitional community set up under canvas for only 8 days, 5 of them open to the public. So far we’ve welcomed and sent off at least 500 visitors, some resting with us for mere minutes, others sleeping on our sofa for a whole morning.
On this day our community is meeting in fractals across the UK. At the nuclear Naval Base at Faslane today our Members are joining together with faith and church leaders from across Scotland under the leadership of SCANA, Scottish Christians Against Nuclear Arms, to protest the presence of nuclear warheads on Scottish soil. Joining together with people of goodwill, we claim the right to war-head free land. Others are lighting candles at a vigil mass in Glasgow in solidarity with the peaceful protest We will continue with this cry for justice in and through community.
Other members in NW England are meeting in a Regional gathering supporting the development of a church garden and allotment next to an estate where the beleaguered residents have turned waste land into a productive vegetable plot with 300 volunteers. A further clutch of Members met in Edinburgh with Israeli and Palestinian activists who have a boat sailing to Gaza in 2024 to challen
ge the Israeli blockade – the gathering sang, and shared a blessing with the crew for the voyage. Fractals of Community meeting around the globe.
You will have parallels in your own homes, your networks, your places of worship – spaces where the ebb and flow of the welcome and the sending, where the quality of the hospitality makes space for the courageous to find solidarity, and for the stranger to rest, to heal, to restore: body, mind and spirit.
Who’d have thought that in the midst of this throng of humanity we would find the gift of community? And yet we know: where two or three are gathered, there ‘I am’. Community is always ahead of us.
Remarkably we’ve come to our final full day. We sit down early on to make sure that the various events highlighted in our diaries all dove-tail so that we each get out to our must-see gigs, while the Iona Glade stays open as long as possible. We agree early that we’ll shut up shop between 8 and 11 as the vast majority of the site will either be watching Elton John perform his last ever UK gig, or sleeping off a very busy festival.
My own highlights so far have been two-fold. I’ve loved the Left Field tent. Hosted by English folk-politics icon, Billy Bragg.This stage has show-cased some of the best of British political thinking, for me culminating in the presence of Pat Cullen, General Secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, in a debate entitled ‘Power in the Union.’ Pat herself had joined the RCN decades earlier precisely because its members didn’t strike. She was a no-fuss nurse who wanted nothing to do with politics. So it’s been a long journey for her, such that now ‘the only action left for us in the face of the catastrophe of this government is to withdraw the labour of our nurses.’ Flanked by nurses and teachers on the stage, and with contributions from teaching assistants, train-drivers and HR consultants from the floor, Pat and the panel, ably facilitated by journalist John Harries, left us in no doubt about the depth of the crisis within the public sector. We were also sent on our way with a glimmer of hope even pointing to the possibility of a general strike. Watch this space…
A further highlight was the phenomenon that is Jacob Collier. A polymath in his 20s, this brilliant musician is also a remarkable communicator, getting the West Holts stage audience singing in four-part harmony. Leaping bare-foot in rainbow coloured attire from synthesiser to grand piano, to drums to bass guitar all in the space of one song, Collier is a must-see master of musicianship. I was captivated as I clung to the barrier at the front, unaware that the small crowd I’d sidled in to 10 minutes from the start had grown to a thronging crowd of thousands. The fly past of the Red Arrows offered a bizarre coda to a remarkable day of music.
I’m not great with estimating numbers, but I reckon we wove our way through a mass of humanity of around 150,000 people as we perched above the Pyramid stage awaiting the arrival of Elton John and his surprise guest who were to round off the festival. Unsurprisingly he didn’t disappoint, although I was rather disconcerted that the young folk around me knew many more of the words to all his songs than I did!
The pressures of celebrity life are evident – the courage of Lewis Capaldi is astonishing. And yet the wealth that supports the glitterati here performing, mirrored in the many hundreds of pounds needed by punters to attend this festival of the senses, is also staggering. Volunteering opportunities mean that many hundreds attend for free while donating their labour, some donating their wages for that period back to chosen charities. And for all the encouragement to bin litter, the thousands of bins were constantly overflowing, and the sea of single use cups was sickening. This was a faultless closing act, including the fireworks mirroring those of the opening session now so many moons ago, at the stone circle.
After Elton mania had passed we made our way back to our shady glade to set the bonfire and welcome the weary. That was a late but highly glorious night.
A two-hour sleep, punctuated by the thrum of Block 9, was curtailed in time to join Eve as she made her way to the Festival bus and train station. The energetic thousands who had gathered on Wednesday, were now
half-sleeping revellers. Converging like streams as they began making their way home with wonky trollies and dusty tents. Toddlers sleeping atop piles of bedding, and tutu-clad civil servants now neatly dressed for travel, all were making their way towards the travel terminal. Unwittingly I crossed outside the wall, doubling back on myself to check with the security guard that I would be allowed back in. Normally if you leave the site there’s no way back in, unless you have the three required forms of ID with you. This truly was a kin-dom within a world. This time they were lenient – and I waved goodbye to our weary volunteer, heading now to Iona to volunteer there for a while, before making my way back to deconstruct our tiny glade community.
Worn out and foot-sore from days of trudging, Ben and I left the site with van piled high with our benches and kitchens, tents and shovels, taking two hours to travel two miles. As with staying at our islands centres, the journey to and from is as much part of the pilgrimage as the living together on site. And so we chat and we sit in silence, comfortable in our company, processing the many moments.
Since 1997, first with David Osborne, then with Sheila Doig, and latterly with Debbie Chaloner leading the team, the Iona Community has had a presence at the Glastonbury Festival offering a kind of chaplaincy presence to a nomadic community of seekers and ravers. We are privileged to be part of this community for a short time. I honour the wisdom and the vision that created this small space out of hostile, scarred land. I honour the time, experience and energy of the Glasto-Iona 2023 team: Jo, Ben, Suzanne, Darryl and Eve.
And I hope and pray that our presence, and that of other faith-based organisations will continue to flourish in the fields of Glastonbury.
Scenes from the Faslane protest, lighting candles in solidarity with the Faslane protest and standing in solidarity with Israeli and Palestinian activists in Edinburgh (see Ruth’s diary entry for Day 5: Saturday 24th June, above)