Written with Alistair Danter. Published in ‘The Radiator’, Southern Region CND magazine, February 1982.

festival stage under construction

Worthy Farm, at Pilton near Glastonbury, is becoming a landmark for the peace movement. For more than ten years it has been at the centre of the new ‘Glastonbury phenomenon’, which last year joined with CND for the first of what should be a series of annual benefit festivals. Bruce Garrard and Alistair Danter went to see the farmer.

Walk down Worthy Lane on the edge of Pilton – near Glastonbury in Somerset – and you will see the most extraordinary structure at the bottom of the field below you. It’s a silver pyramid, open at the front with hay stored inside. It belongs to Michael Eavis, the farmer at Worthy Farm. Besides being the most interesting cow shed in the country, it’s the stage for the Glastonbury festivals.

The festival was staged as a CND benefit for the first time last year, and made £20,000 for the campaign’s funds; but its history, and that of the pyramid, goes back to 1970.

Michael was so interested in the festival [The Bath Festival of Folk and Blues] held on the show grounds at Shepton Mallet that year, that the following September he had a small festival on his own land. “I’m just a local farmer” he says. “I’ve been here for 300 years if you like” – but since that summer his lifestyle has been dramatically different from his neighbours’.

He met up with Andrew Kerr, one of the many people who had been drawn to Glastonbury at that time, and together they organised the much larger festival in 1971. It was the first free festival ever organised, and a ‘new age’ style celebration of midsummer. It was then that the original pyramid was built – out of scaffolding and sheet metal – by volunteers who turned up at the farmhouse in a steady stream.

People continued to arrive in Glastonbury every summer, but it was 1979 before a second big festival was held. Another temporary stage was built and a dramatic laser light show was laid on. As a commercial venture, it resulted in chaos; but as entertainment it was so successful that another was planned for 1981.

The commercial firm that had been set up to run the ’79 festival was ditched, and Michael Eavis took on the finance as his own responsibility. Film and record revenue had eventually paid most of the bills in 1971, but he feels free festivals are impracticable if they are to be reasonably organised. For 1981, the capital outlay was frightening, but he feels it’s worth it: the profits were to go to CND.

“I wouldn’t do it any other way” he says. “It wouldn’t be worth it just for money. And I do feel that this CND thing is so pressing, so vitally important, and so right.”

He decided to build a permanent pyramid, which alone cost £18,000 to construct. Bill Harkin, who had designed the scaffolding structure in 1971, did some initial sketches for the new building, but from there it evolved as it was built.

It’s based on a square box frame made of telegraph poles, with the pyramid built up around it out of Douglas Fir. The cladding on the outside is galvanized corrugated steel – bought cheap, surplus to requirements from the Ministry of Defence!

Worthy Farm had been attracting the attention (and sometimes the annoyance) of local people for ten years, but now the planning authorities took an interest. And so the pyramid became a cow shed – for which there would be no need to obtain planning permission, except that it was too big.

By the time the planning application had been formally made, it was far too late to halt the festival anyway. 20,000 people gathered at midsummer last year, and for three days their attention as focused on the pyramid. Some weeks later the planning committee visited the site, and were sufficiently impressed by its tasteful design to agree to grant the necessary permission – subject to its complying with building regulations.

The pyramid was very sound; but it had been built as a joyful piece of creativity. “There was so much energy going into it at the time” says Michael. “We were like little boys building a camp, to tell the truth.” Many details of the structure were designed as the work went on; some, he’s convinced, because the carpenters had got so much into it that they didn’t want to stop. Building regulations belonged to a different world.

Nevertheless a consultant engineer had to be hired, and he gave it a clean bill of health. But the authorities weren’t satisfied: What is the load-bearing capacity of Douglas Fir? Nobody seemed to know; until some figures were discovered in an old boat-building manual, according to which the pyramid was structurally sound with a more than adequate safety factor.

The cladding presented another problem. Because it is MoD surplus, its design capabilities are classified information. It’s the same square-sectioned corrugated steel that’s used for lining aircraft hangars and store sheds on nuclear-hardened military installations. Measurements had to be taken, and calculations made from scratch.

After all this, it was still claimed that pieces of the pyramid would be blown away in a 65 mph wind. Just before Christmas it survived a 100 mph gale. And it would be no use as a cow shed, so it was said, because it would become waterlogged like the land around it. The water table in Somerset just now is higher than it’s been for years; inside the pyramid, the ground is bone dry.

“It’ll stay here for some time, I think” says Michael, resting his hand on one of the timber supports beneath the stage – where the cattle cubicles are to be. Yes, peace festivals will surely continue here for some years to come.

With the success of 1981 behind him, Michael was asked by E.P.Thompson to help organise a massive European festival this summer. Thompson came to Glastonbury last year, and was so impressed that he wanted to organise an END [European Nuclear Disarmament] festival, to take the place in the middle of Europe with musicians and audience coming from both sides of the rusting iron curtain.

It’s been provisionally arranged for August 6th-9th, on a 350-acre island in the Danube near to Vienna. 100,000 people are expected. “Vienna – it’s over the top really” says Michael; but he appears to be entering into it with just as much enthusiasm as for his festival at home.

Back at Worthy Farm, the Ecology Party has established a regular fixture with their summer gatherings at the end of July. This year a feminist group are following in August. “I feel an obligation to let people like this use the land” says Michael – because nobody else will.

He’s establishing an annual cycle where the dairy herd is dried off at Christmas, so that for the three winter months from January to March he concentrates on organising the coming summer’s festival.

There are a few possible modifications to be made to the pyramid – and decent toilet facilities to be installed, which will cost as much again. The children’s playground – a sheltered meadow containing a rough timber fortress, slides, sand pits, climbing frames, swings, rubber tyres, a derelict psychedaelic car and a totem pole – needs rehabilitating.

Meanwhile the cows wander from field to field with no gates in between. They seem to have few problems.

Michael was annoyed by a journalist from Readers Digest who rang up wanting to know about the festivals. “He seemed to think I was a dangerous communist or something, giving £20,000 to CND. But as far as I’m concerned it was the land, and the people, that generated the money. I just passed it on.”

So what of this year’s festival?

“Better than ever. We’re hoping to have the Grateful Dead.” And yet he’s still anxious that not enough people will come. He wants to hold the price down to £8 – zero inflation since last year – compared to the commercial festivals whose weekend prices are going up from £20 to £30. “I don’t think the commercial festivals are going to last” he says.

“Last year’s laser show wasn’t so good – it’ll be much better this time – we’ve got the guy who did the lighting in 1971; he works in special effects now … I think the artwork’s going to be really good, I just had a phone call about it yesterday … It’s Friday to Sunday, June 18, 19 and 20 – I expect a bunch of freaks will stay on here for the solstice …”

We left with a warm vision of what the world would turn into if all its farmers were like this.

pyramid 1
pyramid 2
pyramid 3
pyramid 4
pyramid 5