The History of Glastonbury Festival

With Glastonbury Festival nearing, we take a look back at where it all began; the mud, the booze and that velvet car.

Words by Danielle Morgan

Wading through a soggy mud quire, brown sludge squelching out of your wellies dragging behind you a year's supply of lager and making sure your tent is still strapped to your rucksack, you pitch up, crack open a tinnie, sit back and relax. You made it!

Origins of Glastonbury

Every year, the quintessential town of Glastonbury is taken over by eager festival goers and Worthy Farm is transformed into a culturally diverse, spiritual hot bed of contemporary performing arts, as it was branded in 1990.

The first Glastonbury was held in 1970, otherwise known as Pop Folk and Blues Festival. Back then, Michael Eavis personally posted your tickets to you and for a meagre £1 You were granted entry to the festival, a bottle of milk and an Ox roast. The Kinks were billed to headline the event but dropped out at the last minute to be replaced by T-Rex who rolled up in a car covered completely in velvet, on the outside…

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Glastonbury Fayre, Summer Soltice, 1971 Glastonbury Fayre, Summer Soltice, 1971. Credit: Geoffrey Bowler,
Festival goer enjoying some beers with his best furry friend at Glastonbury 1989. Glastonbury 1989. Acts included Pixies, The Wonderstuff, Elvis Costello and Suzanne Vega. The attendance was 65,000 and tickets cost £28. Credit: Reuters

Spiritualism has played a huge role throughout Glastonbury's eccentric history. In 1981, the Pyramid Stage was erected permanently in alignment with Glastonbury's leyline (the line connecting ancient, prehistoric sites) which was used as a cow shed when not being graced by some of the world's greatest rock stars. Stonehenge has a lot to do with that, and played a key role in the third impromptu festival held on the site in 1978. Travellers passing through on their way to Stonehenge got wind of another festival at Worthy Farm and pitched their tents up. There was no festival, there were no headliners. Instead, the performances were improvised, as was the stage with power being supplied from an electric metre running from a caravan.

Prior to that, in 1971 organisers Andrew Kerr and Arabella Churchill (Winston's granddaughter) put together a bonkers event that set the tone for future festivals. They moved the date so that the festival would be held during the Summer Solstice, and brought a sense of ecological awareness and mysticism to the event. By that, we mean they arranged a designated landing area for UFO'S and the organisers preoccupation with the ancient magic and spiritual energies he felt the festival goers would bring to the event.

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Men using the portaloos at Glastonbury Festival 1982 Glastonbury 1982. Credit: Julian Pring,
Glastonbury Festival 1979 Glastonbury 1979. Credit: Michael Green,

Controversial Headliners

It goes without saying that Glasto has played host to some of the greatest musicians of all time, however it is the weird and wonderful anomalous acts that have performed throughout the years that pricked out attention. In 1984, Eavis was condemned for billing The Smiths as the weekends headliners, with critics claiming they weren't 'mainstream' enough. And then there was that time in 2008 when Jay Z was booked, the first year in Glastonbury history that the festival didn't sell out, and un-coincidentally the first year a rapper had been billed to headline the event.

And of course the tradition of golden oldies gracing the Pyramid stage has always brought an element of old school glamour to the proceedings, from Welsh legends Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey to American greats Tony Christie and Dolly Parton.

Crowds flock to the first ever Glastonbury Festival in 1970 Crowds flock to the first ever Glastonbury Festival in 1970. Credit: Brian Walker, The Guardian
Glastonbury Fayre, Summer Solstice 1971 Glastonbury Fayre, Summer Solstice 1971. Credit: Geoffrey Bowler,

Humanitarian Efforts

As the status and of the festival grew, so did its capacity to donate its proceeds to various charities. By 2004, charities Greenpeace, Oxfam and Water Aid were benefiting from donations in excess of £1 million thanks to Eavis and co. Along with the spiritual undertones of the festival, partly due to its location, there was a growing sense that it needed a greater purpose than to just play host to good music; by the late '90s the festival for Contemporary and Performing Arts showcased theatre, poetry, art and more with a village aptly named Lost Vagueness in 2002 providing silver service dining and ballroom dancing.

Fairtrade produce is also widely used and sold on site, and always has been.

Glastonbury 1970 Glastonbury 1970. Credit:
The first Glastonbury Festival 1970 Glastonbury 1970. Credit: Brian Walker, Glastonbury Archive at the V&A.

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