“The benefits are incalculable: the taxis, the shops… and then there’s the cultural aspect.”
As Glastonbury’s creator Michael Eavis CBE readies for the Festival’s return after two years of absence, Access meets a man still fascinated by the small details that make a big festival
Moments into Access’ meeting with Michael Eavis at Worthy Farm, and already he’s focusing on the minutiae of his working life – weighing the pros-and-cons of the various engines suitable for his waste powered generator. A “good, reliable British Rolls-Royce model” wins particular praise.
Still identifying as a farmer first, event organiser second, Eavis – toned legs jutting from his trademark shorts – looks proudly up at his farmland as he steps into his muddied Land Rover Defender.
As we enter his house – a stone’s throw from a skeletal iteration of the Pyramid Stage – Eavis is discussing the early start he had today, during which he learnt that First Great Western had named a new train after him: The second train bearing his name, no less. (The first ‘HST No. 43026 Michael Eavis’ was Christened in 2015).
Eavis’ nominal designation, and a Glastonbury logo, will appear on the side of the new locomotive when it speeds between Paddington and nearby Castle Cary station to drop off more than 15,000 festival goers. The honour was bestowed after Eavis beat 99 ‘Great Westerners’ in a public vote.
Referencing the famous equine competition that occurred the day before, he quips: “I feel like the Grand National horse that just won twice. I’m very pleased.”
We sit down for tea under the projector in Worthy Farm’s own cinema in the Alice Rooms, renovated in 2016 in what was once the milking parlour. 30 of the red velvet seats we’re perched on once graced the Little Theatre in Wells, whilst the back row of VIP seats come from Glastonbury’s own ‘Cineramageddon’. The room is warmed, Eavis proudly notes, by electricity produced from cow slurry.
This passion for sustainability and re-using found objects no doubt led Eavis to greenlight one of the Festival’s regular highlights, the Arcadia Spectacular – an ingeniously devised light and sound show featuring a giant spider made from ex-military machinery and industrial components, which began in 2014.
Eavis reflects on the inception of this Arachnidan attraction, which now tours the world as a standalone act: “We get 100 ideas pitched to us, and we look at each of them and see who’s for real. Arcadia’s founders came to us as total strangers and wanted me to lend them £20,000. I said: ‘What have you done before?’ And they said: ‘Nothing. But we’re going to build a big thing from cranes, and we’ll do a show for you for nothing, and if the show’s a disaster, you get to keep the scrap metal, which is valued at £10,000 – so you’re only losing £10,000 maximum’. Not a bad pitch that was it?! So I said: ‘Give me the name of the auctioneer, and then I’ll cut you a cheque’.”
This nurturing but pragmatic approach seems typical of Eavis. And talking to individuals around the Glastonbury site, we get a feel for his uncompromising but stoic inclinations. One employee regales us with an anecdote recounting a time when a hot-headed tradesman fell afoul of Glastonbury’s structure guidelines, forcing Eavis and his team to physically dismantle his marquee on site. The tent owner’s rage then escalated into action when he smashed a large nearby rock through the window of Eavis’ 4×4. Undeterred, Michael continued pulling pegs from the ground as if nothing had happened.
“I feel like the Grand National horse that just won twice. I’m very pleased.”
This Zen-like attitude no doubt helped Glastonbury become the behemoth it is today, covering 1,100 acres (500 football pitches) and generating an economic impact in excess of £73m. It’s a legacy that – on the day he had a second train named after him – Eavis is keen to reflect on:
“The impact of the Festival is huge. The guys behind Boomtown all started here, so did companies like Serious Stages and much of the festival industry. I was talking to Mendip Council’s chief executive Stuart Brown the other day, and he said if people around here really knew how much activity is down to the festival they’d never believe it.
“Up to 15 miles from here there’s businesses feeling the effects of it, and he [Brown] says wherever he goes there’s someone making a good living because of the Festival. The benefits are incalculable: the taxis, the shops… and then there’s the cultural aspect.”
Indeed, Glastonbury was declared the ‘most shared’ event of 2017 by EE, proving its free-wheeling cultural ethos has translated seamlessly into the 21st Century. But all this activity is underpinned by Glastonbury’s legendary charitable policy, of which Oxfam, Greenpeace and WaterAid are prominent beneficiaries. For Eavis however, it’s the local ventures that he likes to roll his sleeves up for: “The things I really enjoy doing are those that benefit the area. I donated land and stone for a local social housing project, which I lease for nothing. It’s been going about 14 years, and they’re beautiful stone houses. The village are very supportive. We quarry our own stone. It’s local stone and local houses for local people. You can’t beat it. And it means young people, and kids come to the village, which gives it a character.”
Despite the magnitude of this ‘Glastonbury Effect’, the festival is no stranger to opposition, yet Eavis looks back on his court battles with nostalgia: “I had to work a big charm offensive to keep the Festival going after various licensing threats. I’ve been up against mayors and people wearing silly wigs, while I’m standing there in my shorts and sandals. And there’s nothing silly about that is there?!” he jokes.
“It took 35 years of really hard work, and all those objections. But we’re there now, and I must admit I did enjoy that period. The court cases were good fun, and well reported. It was a ‘David and Goliath’ thing, and I was David. It was tough at times though… and I deserve the two trains in my name now,” he chuckles. “But I didn’t lose any money during that time, which was good. And I did like winning those cases.”
As well as new acts, there are many new structural additions to look forward to this year. “We come up with new stuff all the time,” says Eavis. “Rock ‘n roll is a bit flaky on its own, so we’ve introduced a lot of other stuff to the Festival that makes it different and gives it a heart and soul.”
Eavis mentions a new treetop stage in The Wood where Shakespeare plays will be performed nightly. “We worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, who are taking over the stage, and doing bits and pieces. It’s been great fun.”
Other new elements for 2019 include: a re-jig of the Shangri-La area, with Earache Records confirming a ‘proper stage’; a new ‘hidden gem’ micro-venue called No Average Groove; a newly-designed Sonic Stage; a bigger Block9 area – double the size no less; and a new 60-metre Victorian Pier created by long-standing Festival artist Joe Rush (plans pictured below).
“It was a ‘David and Goliath’ thing, and I was David.”
Michael and Emily have done a bang-up job again then, but Glastonbury’s founding father is still highly motivated: “It’s important to keep going and prove you’re still there,” he says. “They say to me: ‘Your daughter’s doing it now isn’t she?’, and I say: ‘Is she?’. She’s fantastic, Emily is. She doesn’t like the public facing stuff so much but she’s great with people one-to-one. She’s very clever, and is good at handling me, and we get on really great most of the time. We bounce ideas off each other.”
The full realisation of these ideas will be laid bare when 135,000 people head to Glastonbury Festival on 26-30 June to experience 135,000 unique event journeys. Now which train to book?
Cover photo and main inset photo by Plaster PR