The future of Britain's best gig: The lost spirit of Glastonbury

The 'festival within a festival' that many believed was its heart won't be appearing this year. Cole Moreton reports on the latest battle for the musical event's soul

Jake Shears, from the Scissor Sisters, calls it heaven. Kate Moss and Pete Doherty got married there (possibly). Lost Vagueness, a secret land of burlesque and freakery, has long been seen by some people as the twisted heart and soul of the Glastonbury festival. But this year it won't be there at all.

No more striptease on a trapeze. No more Fifties kitsch and cocktails, gothic glamour or couples in evening wear dancing to "horror swing" in the mud. Not at Glastonbury. Or at least, not under that name.

As registration for the ticketing process began this weekend, with hundreds of thousands of people hoping to attend the biggest music festival in the country, it has emerged that one of its most popular attractions will not be present. "After 10 monumental years, the 'festival within the festival' which is Lost Vagueness will not be happening at Glastonbury 2008," said a statement on the LV website.

Lost Vagueness has been part of Glastonbury for a decade, growing from a tiny casino to a sprawling, decadent zone with eight venues and 1,500 performers. Its loss will lead some to wonder again whether the battle for the soul of the festival is being lost.

The details are unclear for legal reasons, but founder Roy Gurvitz insists he has been forced to walk away from the festival after disagreements with its organisers.

"It is rumoured that the vacuum created by the departure will be filled by some ex-Lost Vagueness crew and others, attempting to re-create a similar production in the same area," the statement said. "We do not want you to be misled by this omission. Reproduction of our shows, without our permission or endorsement, has been tried before, and however flattering these imitations may be, they will never come close to the real thing."

There have been other concerns about the festival. Michael Eavis, the founder, who owns Worthy Farm in Pilton, Somerset, where it all happens, is known to have been unsettled by the increasing commercialisation of his event. Five years ago the security and ticketing arrangements were taken over by the Mean Fiddler Organisation, now known as Festival Republic. Huge fences were erected – seen as a necessary precaution, given the growth of the event and the way it was overrun and endangered by up to half a million gatecrashers in the 1990s. But they included the hippies, crusties and characters that some long-term Glastonbury-goers believe once contributed to its unique countercultural spirit.

Anyone who wants to go this year must register their interest now and provide a photo. Later in the year, those who have done so will be able to apply for tickets online and via mobile phones. But they'll have to be quick: last time the 177,500 tickets sold out within two hours. Michael Eavis complained that 2007's exclusively internet-based system favoured "older people, with the money for the right connections". It has now been changed to include phones – but only after registration. "We're trying to get the youngsters back," he said in July. "We need to get the Radio 1 and NME crowd back in."

That won't have been helped by the news on Friday that middle-of-the-road star Neil Diamond has been booked to play this year, in the "legend" slot previously filled by Dame Shirley Bassey and Rolf Harris. But credibility was boosted again when the news broke that the rapper Jay-Z will headline the event, in a departure from the usual guitar bands.

The festival organisers are still reeling from the loss of one of their most energetic and anarchic allies, Arabella Churchill. The debutante granddaughter of Sir Winston Churchill dropped out of high society in 1971 to attend the first Glastonbury and stayed to be a mainstay of the event for 37 years. She died in December from cancer, aged 58. "We're the pillars of this thing, she and I," Mr Eavis told The Independent on Sunday last summer. "We have to fight tooth and nail to hang on to the core values of the thing. Arabella is one of those who are essential to doing that."

The organiser of the circus and theatre programme that contained some of the festival's wildest spectacles was described by Mr Eavis as "a stalwart and one of the most valuable members of our team". "Her energy, vitality and great sense of morality and social responsibility have given her a place in our festival history second to none."

But now she is gone. A memorial service will be held later this month. Her husband, Haggis McLeod, juggler and fellow organiser, will continue her work at the festival, alongside their daughter Jess.

The debate over the character of the festival has been going on for a long time. Mr Gurvitz, for example, claims to have "been in a quandary" about attending for the past 10 years.

A spokesman for Glastonbury declined to comment on the absence of Lost Vagueness this summer, or on the idea that a similar programme of events will take its place. However, the area has previously been acknowledged as one of the last links with the so-called new age traveller movement of the 1990s, which once gave the festival a unique, edgy atmosphere.

"Virtually everybody who was with us at the start lived on the road," said Mr Gurvitz, a contributor and festival-goer for 20 years until now. "I lived in vehicles for years, until relatively recently."

And Emily Eavis, the founder's daughter, who helps her father to run the event, once used the presence of Lost Vagueness as a defence against those who asked whether Glastonbury had lost its soul. "That's my argument when people say, 'Where are the travellers now?'" she said. "When Roy came and said he wanted to do something, Michael said yes. Lost Vagueness has come in and it's brilliant for its aesthetic and entertainment value."

The first Lost Vagueness was a casino made in 1998, as a backdrop to a cabaret stage. Among the muddy wastes of 2000, festival-goers were astonished to see people in full evening wear enjoying a full casino and dancing in a ballroom. A roller disco, silver service restaurant and American diner followed in subsequent years, as well as the corrugated iron Chapel of Love, in which Kate and Pete were rumoured to have married.

TNT magazine called it "the living, beating, loved-up heart of Glastonbury". Jake Shears said three years ago: "I've never seen such madness ... At one point I turned to a friend and said, 'I think this must be what heaven is like.'"

Lost Vagueness has also been credited with aiding the revival in this country of cabaret and burlesque, a theatrical style now so fashionable that its biggest star, Dita Von Teese, has just been picked as the front – ahem – woman for Wonderbra.

The Lost Vagueness website describes it as "an illuminated field of bizarre zones and happenings where memorable myths and surreal stories are born. Over the years Lost Vagueness has picked up a reputation for being the most anarchic and culturally twisted location at the festival, a place where performers and guests languish together in the warped decadence of the surroundings."

Funding from the Arts Council enabled it to grow into a small company based in east London. Mr Gurvitz describes himself as the "sole proprietor" of Lost Vagueness Ltd. He says it will continue to provide temporary venues, shows and performers for festivals, parties and corporate events around the UK, "including three that would not have been possible if we were going to Glastonbury".

Non-attendance would mean "a tremendous withdrawal of income", he said. "But more damaging is that people who work for me have been approached to do pretty much the same thing at this year's festival. The public is being deceived. What we do is quite special."

Registration for Glastonbury tickets continues until 14 March

Did you know? The festival in facts and figures

The first festival was on 19 September 1970, the day after Jimi Hendrix died. Marc Bolan headlined, and the £1 ticket included free milk from the farm.

In 1978, the festival was still small, attended by only 500 people, and power to the stage came from a cable run out of a nearby caravan.

The nearest town to the site is not Glastonbury, but Shepton Mallet, home to Britain's oldest prison. The Domesday Book was stored here during the Second World War.

The site's main residents are 360 dairy cattle. They are now in winter sheds, which is where they will be when the revellers arrive in June.

Glastonbury is the world's largest arts festival. In 2007, it had more than 700 acts on at least 80 stages, playing before a crowd of 177,500. There were 3,200 toilets, a worrying ratio of one for every 60 people.

Last year, demand was so great that all 177,500 tickets, at £145 apiece, sold out within 105 minutes of the box office opening.

In an effort to make life more comfortable for the cows, campers are now urged to forsake metal tent pegs, and use ones made from potato starch.