Far from the madding crowd - the alternative Glastonbury

There’s far more to Glastonbury than the main stages, David Taylor discovers
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The Independent Culture

Glastonbury 2011: without doubt Europe’s – if not the world’s – biggest and best festival. Over a dozen main stages crammed with the great and good from just about every musical genre you can shake a (rhythm) stick at. It was the hottest ticket of the summer, a musicophile’s dream destination.

But beyond the main stages – away from Beyoncé’s bootilicious beats and Coldplay’s cathartic outpourings – there was a whole other world to immerse yourself in. We are, after all, talking about the Glastonbury Festival of Contemporary Performing Arts. So there’s far more to do than just catching the latest achingly hip bands and self-styled rock gods. And there’s no decree forcing you to set up camp directly in front of the Pyramid stage for the entire three days. And not move. Although, I must confess, that is exactly what I used to do, many moons ago.

So, a full 19 years from my first experience of the Elysian fields of Avalon, I set myself the ultimate challenge this year: could I really bypass the main stages, forsake the headline-grabbing acts and still have a good time? Or would the lure of the Pyramid prove just too powerful to resist?

The short answer to the first question was a resounding “yes”. And now that my fingernails have finally been purged of the mud that encrusted them, and my trusty tent has at last dried out, I can categorically state, hand on heart, that I had one of my best festivals ever – without once fighting my way through the crowds en route to the main stage.

Believe me, that’s hard to admit. It actually sticks in the craw somewhat. Especially given my long-term addiction to music. My bowing bookshelves lined with CDs, vinyl and cassettes (remember them?) are a testament to that.

As, too, is my long-suffering partner, but that’s another story.

I actually found the whole experience rather liberating. Rather than dashing frantically about the site, adhering rigidly to a carefully calculated schedule of acts, this new-found freedom found me going with the flow. Or maybe that should really be against the flow. For while most people seemed to be striding with purpose towards the main stage areas, I, more often than not, found myself swimming against the tide, pushing through the welly-clad crowds in the opposite direction.

And around every corner I seemed to stumble across something to hold my attention – and that of my constantly changing roll call of friends, when they weren’t heading off to catch another band. Highlights included the truly epic Masters of the Kazooniverse – a fully kitted-out marching band who weaved their way around the cabaret and circus fields performing cover versions of classic tracks – on kazoos. Wherever they went they left a trail of smiling, laughing punters in their wake – even those poor souls fresh from a tumble in the Glastonbury mud.

Indeed, I seemed to find myself drawn to this part of the festival throughout the weekend. Away from the main drag and the accompanying mayhem, the area provided a welcome break from the crowds.

Here too I stumbled across the fantastic Jaipur Kawa Brass band – a group of Rajasthani musicians blending classical Indian music with Bollywood tunes. They were accompanied by a traditional dancer, whose twirling moves in her multicoloured, layered dress will stay long in the memory.

All over the weekend a whole host of performers weave their way through the fields, delighting adults and children alike with their wild, wacky or just plain hilarious costumes and acts. I stopped off for a fine cuppa from that Glastonbury institution known as the Tea Ladies – Mildred, Ethel and Flo – who, dressed in Hilda Ogden-esque headscarves and pinafores, serve brews with a smile.

For an even more chilled-out experience, the Green Fields are well worth checking out. Here, far away from the hustle and bustle you are more likely to hear the rhythmic clang of a blacksmith’s anvil than the repetitive beats of dubstep. It’s like stepping into a different festival altogether. I sat watching stone carving and someone making a coracle in the Green Crafts Field.

But it’s at night that the areas away from the main stages took on a real life of their own. Indeed, if you wanted to experience the full-on sensory assault that is Arcadia, Shangri-La and Block 9, you were probably best skipping the headline acts to ensure you get in.

The three main areas are the party destination of choice for after-hours entertainment, with DJs, fire shows and performances going on in to the wee small hours. So, while my friends fretted about getting past the huge queues that develop once the main acts have finished, I headed up before the sun went down. Without doubt one of my highlights had to be the outstanding son et lumière production from Arcadia: a giant spider-shaped stage, laser, acrobats, tesla coils and plumes of fire – what more could you want in a show?

If you don’t know what I’m talking about take a look at the official video on the Glastonbury website. In gives you a taste of what it’s like. But believe me it’s far, far more impressive when you’re actually there.

So did I miss the whole band experience? Well, I have a slight confession to make. My attempt to swerve the main stages was all going to plan until midway through Saturday afternoon. I happened to be up in the Park area, away from the usual stages, taking in the impressive view of the whole site from the top of the Ribbon Tower. The Park stage usually hosts some of the less well known bands, but on this occasion there seemed to be a huge crowd developing in front of the stage. My journalistic streak impelled me to take a closer look – who could it be?

And then, under a gloriously hot summer sky, Pulp took to the stage for a “secret” gig. So secret that 20,000 people had already found out. What could I do, dear reader? I did what any other right-minded soul would do – I stood and watched a killer set from Jarvis Cocker and co that, for me, crowned a perfect weekend.

So, I never did make it to the Pyramid, the Other Stage or any of the plethora of other “main” stages. I tried my best to turn my back on the music for which Glastonbury is justly renowned. I almost succeeded – but in the end the lure of the music was just too much to ignore for a whole weekend. Bring on 2013 – and the bands!