From Glamping to Blocked Coke Shits: How the Other Half Lives at Glastonbury
What is the version of the elite? And who is pushed to the margins of festival society? I went on a mission to find out.
The author, sipping a local cider in offsite camping paradise. All photos by Jake Lewis
From Jo Whiley's talking head barking into a camera above the Park Stage to pretty much every single office around the country, one of the conversations that circulates every time anybody mentions Glastonbury Festival is how it is like a city. "Just imagine," you all say, "a temporary city the size of Wolverhampton or Newcastle cropped up in Somerset for a week! 250,000 workers, punters and performers all together! It's like a city, it is!" Then you all nod, stop thinking, and get back to work.
I don't blame you for this: it is absolutely fascinating. But I don't stop there. My brain keeps going; really asking the questions you would of a city built on progressive ground. How many different communities reside, even momentarily, within these very grounds? And most importantly, are there the same levels of inequality present here? How do the other half live on Worthy Farm? What is their version of the elite? Who do they push to the margins of festival society? With that in mind, I thought I'd have a close look at it, spending a day of my time here split between the yin and yang of Glastonbury.
Firstly, I was going for a taste of the yin. I mean, gin. Based ten minutes beyond the festival's "naughty corner", nestled at the summit of a gigantic hill above the festival, a community calling itself Land & Sky runs somewhat separate from Glastonbury. In fact, based off-site, it isn't even officially acknowledged or endorsed by the festival. But it still boasts a population of nearly 200 who live here, buy festival tickets privately through L&S, and make the trip up and down to the festival site in a rumbling 4x4 every day.
But what kind of person would you have to be to actually want that? To only semi-attend the world's biggest and probably best festival? To be just sort of part of it but not quite? To maybe watch some live music, on some of the days, but draw the line at actually immersing yourself in the filthy thick of it? Laura, who works at the company, is going to teach us exactly who that person is.
Stepping out of the 4x4 onto lush green grass, it suddenly becomes abundantly clear...
I've entered Glastonbury's Garden of Eden for the filthy fucking rich.
Waiters in fully black outfits service lush bedouins, plumping their quilted velvet cushions; couples scratch away at confit duck leg I'm told has been prepared by a Michelin-starred chef on their on site restaurant; and there is not a single polyester tent or crushed can of Red Stripe in sight.
Before I can even process that information, we arrive at a site office where a member of staff is on call 24/7 to deal with residents' requests. It kind of looks a bit like the little wooden office you used to be able to visit to order Maxibons and borrow swimming kit at Haven Holiday Parks, but with crisp canvas walls and expensive-looking oak doors instead.
We enter just as a lady leaves the counter, nodding away and smiling with giant white teeth. She looks lovely; like an auntie who smells like flowery perfume and would spoil you. Laura and the lady at the desk are having a whispery discussion, so I come over and ask about the commotion.
"Well," the other member of staff comments. "We're just trying to sort out a car for the lady tomorrow morning." Sounds simple enough.
"Yes," Laura continues. "So am I OK to leave you to get this car ready for Heathrow tomorrow morning then?" We leave, and I'm gobsmacked. Heathrow airport? Is somebody literally setting up a 111-mile taxi ride with the light-hearted intonation that you'd arrange a pint on a Tuesday night? What on earth does a surprising or difficult request look like here? Laura immediately bursts into laughter.
"Well, last year" – she takes off her glasses, rubbing them with her blouse – "we had a lady fly in from Texas. She turned up and, quickly seeing the mud, asked us what we were going to do about it. When I explained that there's very little we could do, she'd basically packed up and left. She'd flown 5,000 miles for a 12-hour stay." Laura puts her glasses back on. "So Heathrow doesn't rock me."
Sat on top of the hill at the Sky Bar, I share a bottle of Champagne and a chat with two guests in their mid-30s who have just emptied almost half a baggie of MD into their flutes, but will still manage to go Morocco kite-surfing tomorrow evening. I know where I'd rather be, however, and eventually leave. Past the ivory-coloured marques and through velour curtains, down the hill, I stroll past the office. A resident, red-faced, straddling himself between the doorway like a spider's web, yells through the doorway, "Imodium, please!"
I walk on, chuckling. This wasn't a Heathrow or a Texas request, it was a Glastonbury request. And no matter what you fork out on Yurts, champagne, and foie gras, everybody does it.
Think about it: 250,000 people on site, drinking endless streams of beer, cider – bookended with coffee. Eating a diet of chips, bread, curries, noodles. If each person does one poo a day, that's 250,000 poos per day. For five or six days. So – in this temporary city, where does all the waste go? How does one build a sewer system that sophisticated? Well, it runs 24 hours a day, with streams of trucks driving circuits of the toilets, three times a day, sucking up every last ounce of the waste we make. It was time then, I had decided, to see the other side of Glastonbury. The counterpart to this tale of two shitties. Sorry, cities.
And here we are! This, these little silos, are where the magic happens. Yes, they are filled with shit. To the absolute brim. And that doesn't even take into account the growing number of compost toilets, portables, urinals and more. Can you imagine the remarkable people power it takes to run this thing? Can you imagine the Glastonbury you'd have if you were part of this work force? Coming back with one of the gigantic tractors back to the staff office, I spoke to some different people – the people of the poo – to talk about their Glastonbury experience.
In the staff food tent, I find Holly and Charlie, both 19, who have just finished shifts. They're two of the 400 volunteers en masse brought in to clean the toilets at Glastonbury. Working on two blocks of 72 toilets and another two blocks of ten, in the festival's Southeast Corner, they're up at 6AM cleaning your dung for a solid six hours. They'll do this four times during their time at Glastonbury, and it is their second year working here.
So how does that even work, cleaning a block of Glastonbury toilets? "So you have a team of four," Charlie begins. "One to pick litter around the toilet, one person to unblock the toilet, one spraying and wiping it, one replacing hand sanitisers and cleaning the sink. That's a full block." And what's the most disgusting thing they've seen today? "There's a lot of poo on seats. On the floor. I don't even know how this one person must have done it, but they managed to get poo on the door."
"And there was that guy working, the other day," Holly picks it up, "Who was trying to get everybody to come and look at the biggest poo he'd ever seen in one of the toilets. It's just like: mate, I don't wanna see any gigantic poos. I literally spend my day looking at poos."
Wiping away the coffee I've obviously spat everywhere, I ask them both what the point of coming to Glastonbury is if you're just get covered in shit? It sounds like a holiday in the very, very depths of hell. "I love it, working on loo crew. I've spoken to people working who have previously bought tickets, and they prefer working on the crew. And just think about it: I know that – when I go to the toilets – I don't want to be in somewhere disgusting." Holly comments. "And you get all the people who come out as you do it, telling you that you're doing a great job. You get your days off, get to do your own thing - I think it's a really good way of doing the festival."
Jane, head of toilets for the whole festival, soon arrives looking stressed. Can you even imagine? "I get up at 5AM to go around on the tractors, makes sure everything has been emptied. Then I man the office, and I'm doing that until 1AM. Long days." So what does Jane smell when she thinks of a toilet then? "Hopefully sweets, as we've been putting bubblegum scent down the long drops at the minute!"
And what's the biggest poo accident she's seen on-site? "We don't have too many poo accidents. We get people pooing in the showers all the time. We call that the 'Dirty Protest'."
It's clear that Jane – enthusiastically explaining how 80 percent of the toilets now function with compost – is clearly more excited about toilets than disgusted. She indicates this by speaking of the Pee Power toilets on site. "They convert urine into electricity. They use urine to power lights; charge iPhones. I like looking at that. And – as we have such an intensely large footfall – it allows the companies to progress the technology and test it on the necessary scale. They have thousands using it, which – in turn – allows them to see if they're actually going to work before taking them to refugee camps. You look at it as just toilets, but this is about the bigger picture. It's very rewarding."
And with that, Jane's walkie-talkie goes and our time is up. My afternoon with the poo, over. For completely different reasons, I'm feeling utterly in awe of both sets of people I'd spent my day with. Whether it's silos filled with poo or spending more than a mortgage deposit on a 12-hour expedition to Somerset, both – despite being at such opposite ends of the scale – are equally and eerily desensitised to such viscerally compelling, enchanting and disgusting universes.