Fields of dreams with pagan roots: Before festivals became boutique, they were wild affairs

Festivals are nothing new, despite their contemporary popularity. From the extraordinary eruptions of outdoor religious
revival gatherings to vegetarian, teetotal, anti-vaccinationist rallies, Philip Hoare charts their history

Festivals are bigger than ever, even as they aspire to "boutique" status. Last weekend I appeared at two – from a tent with crushed velvet haystacks for seats at Oxfordshire's Wilderness Festival, decoratively strewn in the grounds of Cornbury Park, to the city-wide extravaganza of the Edinburgh Fringe, where I found myself in a New Town drawing room drinking gin with Alasdair Gray, laughing uproariously at his own uproarious, anarchic view of the world, and listening to Dan Cruikshank's impromptu architectural lectures on the gas lamps outside.

Meanwhile, in a quiet pub round the corner, Ian Rankin was complaining about all the crowds. And as I returned south, the plane flew over the rural outskirts of Winchester, I looked down on a vast new temporary settlement that had sprung up, the teeming crowds and tents of the appropriately-named BoomTown Fair festival, self-proclaimed as "UK's maddest pop-up city" with its own invented "town history".

Festivals are nothing new, despite their contemporary popularity. In their own way, they're race memories of remote pagan rituals, or of more recent gatherings. In 19th-century America, from the Appalachians to New England's Cape Cod – the now rarified festival retreat for wealthy New Yorkers – there were extraordinary eruptions of outdoor religious revival gatherings during which huge camp sites were set up for six-day festivals of preaching and singing, day and night.

They were counterpointed at the same time by similar gatherings in England, from vegetarian, teetotal, anti-vaccinationist rallies in Manchester, to the non-conformist conventions held in the genteel, rolling grounds of Broadlands House in Hampshire, where the owners, Lord and Lady Mount Temple, aristocratic patrons of the Pre-Raphaelites, spiritualist mediums and former slaves, confirmed to Marx and Engels' 1848 critique of "Conservative or Bourgeois socialism", as "philanthropists, humanitarians, improvers of the condition of the working class, organisers of charity, members of societies for the prevention of cruelty to animals, temperance fanatics, hole-and-corner reformers… desirous of redressing social grievances in order to secure the continued existence of bourgeois society".

Indeed, one of the Mount Temples' lost causes was that of the New Forest Shakers, a sect of religious communists – 170 men with long hair and women clad in bloomers – led by Mary Ann Girling, an illiterate farmer's daughter, female Christ and stigmatic. Girling offered her followers immortality and a glimpse of the Second Coming from a soggy field in the New Forest, from where, in 1874, they were infamously evicted and resorted to living, with their furniture and goods, along the roadside like latterday New Age travellers, their plight reported in all the newspapers of the day.

The Shakers' story was an augury, in its way, of the festival-edge confrontations of the 1980s (which themselves would merge with rave culture), culminating in the notorious Battle of the Beanfield on 1 June 1985 when, as writer Ian Sansom records, 1,000 police officers smashed up the peace convoy in Savernake Forest, striking women with babes in arms and leaving burning caravans behind.

What a contrast to the current bourgeois appeal of festivals – for all that they propose their own temporary utopias, an alternative regrouping of communal spirit outside ordinary society and scheduled time. People who spend their lives never knowing their neighbours' names end up wandering about in states of semi-nakedness channelling their inner hippy.

But these evanescent events, mere summer butterflies, are far from the anarchy of early Glastonbury or the Isle of Wight festivals. Nowadays you're as likely to find stalls purveying the latest gastro-sensations from London's pop-up eateries as a plate of lentil curry.

Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas