Greenbelt is an annual festival of art, activism and faith held in the UK over August Bank Holiday weekend at Boughton House, Kettering. From humble beginnings in 1974, the festival has grown to boast a line-up of 200+ artists, comedians, community leaders, speakers, organisations alongside the essential 1000+ volunteers in 2022.
Impressive programme for festivalgoers
Greenbelt offers a huge variety of entertainment and activities that would keep even the pickiest festivalgoer happy. Speakers this year included Caroline Lucas, Paul Mason, Richard Dawkins, Rowan Williams, Nazir Afzal, Shaparak Khorsandi and poet laureate Simon Armitage. Top billing on the main stage were Kai Tempest, Anaїs Mitchell, The Magic Numbers, Hurray for the Riff Raff and BCUC, as well as many other up-and-coming artists.
Every year has an overarching theme that is shared across the event, with 2022’s theme being ‘wake up’. This was felt through consistent conversations about the climate, deep socio-political problems that must be uprooted and through the joy of being present in one another’s company. The latter felt particularly poignant as this was the first in-person festival since it was postponed in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
I went to Greenbelt with no prior knowledge of the festival, so my expectations were measured and not too lofty. More fool me; all expectations I had were far surpassed. The sheer quality of Greenbelt’s programming is staggering, which is only exemplified by the quantity of venues and activities they run across Boughton House’s beautiful grounds.
Once parked up, unpacking commences before the main gates open at 5pm. The atmosphere was simultaneously busy and calm. Hundreds of people were parking up, pitching tents, grabbing forgotten essentials from the general store, and yet the tranquillity of nature remained undisturbed.
The festival even had the foresight to provide general waste and recycling bags for its visitors, to ensure they didn’t leave the site looking like Glastonbury or Leeds Festival in years gone by, with rubbish strewn about the place like a landfill. Strangers were helping strangers with their tents or bags, and the sun was shining gloriously overhead. This was a sure sign of what was yet to come.
Upon entering the festival you’re greeted by the Glade, a grassy expanse surrounded by food venders, youth engagement, charity stalls and the ‘Jesus Arms’, Greenbelt’s signature on-site pub. These provide the framing for the Glade stage, the largest concert-style venue, where music and talks took place over the weekend, featuring Ron Artis II & The Truth, Kae Tempest, The Young ‘uns, Richard Dawkins and many more. One of Greenbelt’s greatest features is that of its variety, with a program so packed full you are guaranteed to find something that fits your taste.
Each venue had its own style and theming:
- Rebel Rouser, a new venue for 2022, had a line-up of Punk bands
- Hot House was a space dedicated to the climate emergency, discussing the role we must all play to safeguard our planet
- Pagoda was predominantly community talks and panels with some spoken word performances
- Playhouse was for Greenbelt’s theatre performances
- Treehouse was packed with activists and speakers presenting ideas for a better world
- Hope and Anchor was an alcohol-free pub for talks and conversations as well as its own escape room
- Canopy was for smaller music performances, comedy, and ‘beer and hymns’ – a very popular attraction
- Shelter had a mash-up of theology, social change and worship.
Alongside these stunning venues were places to create, relax and explore the grounds, which were a welcome change of pace when the weight of the world became a little too burdensome.
Over the weekend I had the pleasure of seeing two events hosted by Citizens UK, a people-powered alliance fighting for social justice and the common good. The first being ‘Racial justice: thoughts, words and deeds’, which explored two campaigns: #NCBetterBooks and the Settle Our Status campaign.
The former was a successful campaign by Nottingham Citizens to diversify the books in Nottingham’s libraries so that everybody felt represented and valued, a campaign that has now been picked up by other cities across the UK. The latter is an ongoing campaign fighting for the rights of people who have been denied their right to settled status, preventing such people from working, paying taxes and having access to essential services like the NHS.
The second event was talking about a project by Creating Ground, a not-for-profit organisation that works with women from migrant backgrounds, supported by Citizens UK called #NoticeUs. The campaign aims to change the law around eviction notices for those living in temporary accommodation, as well as giving families accurate time frames for how long they can stay. They are also demanding that Wi-Fi is included at every residence, as the internet is no longer a luxury, it is a modern day essential for finding work, connecting with loved ones and managing finances and bills.
The takeaway from these sessions for me was the power that community organising and community solutions has in our society. Protesting is a great start to making our voices heard, but community organising gives us, the people, the power to demand what is right and fair and gives us the space to work with councils and the government to bring about solutions that will make life better for all of us.
Sh!t Theatre’s Evita Too is politically engaged performance art that doesn’t take itself too seriously. From the outset there is audience participation with shocking results, as Becca and Louise tell their version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Evita’, including all the gritty details that were left out of the West End hit.
With white painted faces, the pair clown around stage in what appears to be an unrehearsed show, only to undercut that assumption with a choreographed dance number followed by a well-researched hard-hitting political truth. It’s chaotic and messy, but we bought into it, and the whole audience were on their feet at the end – even if we were slightly tricked into it.
This is the charm of Sh!t Theatre, with content that is incredibly well thought out, yet presented without the frills and perfection that theatre sometimes obsesses over. It shines in its imperfection, perhaps because it’s simply holding a mirror up to its audience, in a very wacky and unique way.
An unmissable festival
Each of Greenbelt’s components makes it worthy of high praise, with very few elements missing the mark or feeling subpar. However, once combined it makes a festival that truly is unmissable. My only critique l is that I wasn’t able to be in more than one place at any given time, often having to toss a coin between two incredibly exciting events when something inevitably clashed. Without doubt I shall be returning to Greenbelt, the only question that remains is: will I see you there?