The childhood years
Age 8 to 13 / 1994 to 1999
My childhood festival-going all took place at Womad. My parents may have gone to Isle of Wight in 1969 without so much as a tent to sleep under – but they didn’t want to go feral with me and my brother. When a friend told them that Womad was safe and lovely and had craft workshops for kids, they were sold. We decamped in style, taking a giant frame tent, a batik awning and half a sofa.
I loved it. It always seemed to be baking-hot, there were loads of colourful, friendly people and we were allowed the freedom to run off and spend our pocket money on terrible hats, while my mum and dad got to groove out to sitars at the main stage.
Although it did test the limits of laid-back parenting: once, I couldn’t find my mum, and was deposited at the Red Cross tent. When she, panicking, asked a steward, he gravely announced that yes, they had a Holly Williams, and took her solemnly through the tents, her imagining at each step a worse fate that might have befallen her child: run over by unicyclist? Set on fire by a giant bifter? I was fine, colouring in happily in a corner.
Luckily, neither this incident nor the overflowing toilets put them off taking us again. Womad gave me a fervent love of falafel, tie-dye trousers and dance music (I saw Faithless in the summer I left primary school). Happily, not all of these have endured.
Who I saw: Afro Celt Sound System, Barenaked Ladies, Chumbawamba, Cornershop, Ladysmith Black Mambazo
What I miss: My parents’ maximalist approach to making camp; my lack of cynicism
What I don’t: The loos (the bogs really were worse in the 1990s)
The teenage years
Age 14 to 18 / 2000 to 2004
Being a teenager sucks; going to Glastonbury made it better. At school, you’d be mocked for not having the right sportswear; at Glasto, I could braid my hair and wear purple trousers. Music sounded profound in the way it does when you’re a teenager; add thousands of people in a field, and this was a way of being different, and belonging, at the same time.
Glastonbury was too big for my parents’ taste, but happily, two friends’ mums were intrepid, and for several years supervised a gang of 20 teens. I’d take £5 a day to live on, saving money by cooking radioactive-hued Super Noodles on a camping stove. We were hardcore: wiggling our way to the front of the main stage and staying there all day to get a good spot for our favourites (ashamed to say I was much more excited by Travis than Bowie). We loved a good moshpit, too – though this led me back to the Red Cross tent again, after some 14-stone man crushed my foot during Ash.
An enthusiasm for festivals grew among my friends, our mud-sucking flares accessorised by Doc Martens, dreadlocks and dope. As well as teen-filled horror shows such as V and Reading (we liked a bit of punk-rock), we went to Beautiful Days, run by prime crusties the Levellers, and even Big Green Gathering, where the music came second to ecstatic dance workshops and group discussions about anarchism.
Who I saw: Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Super Furry Animals, Stereophonics, the White Stripes, Green Day
What I miss: The energy! The endurance! The idealism!
What I don’t: The instant-noodle diet; our vile campsites (once there were no parents to keep it civilized)
The student years
Age 19 to 23 / 2005 to 2009
A typical student love of drinking brought highs – chatting rubbish round bonfires, drawn-on moustaches and perving on boys – but also hangovers, regret and worryingly empty wallets.
Festivals, this era taught me, are easier when you’re part of a gang of girls squelching around in wellies and cagoules (it always rains at Green Man) than attempting to combine romantic relationships with the scheduling headache of seeing all the bands both of you love while holding hands in a field.
As for doing anything else in a field… don’t even go there. Festivals and romance make grubby tentfellows.
On the plus side, line-ups were now getting proper good. New festivals abounded, and while they became mainstream, they still weren’t too expensive or too big, which meant absolutely all of your friends were game.
On the downside, while mobile phones got better, their batteries got worse – and everyone had forgotten how “meet at the schnitzel stall at noon” worked. You might be at a festival with 30 chums, but you could go hours without finding any of ’em.
Who I saw: Bat for Lashes, Sigur Ros, Herman Dune, Devendra Banhart, Amadou & Mariam
What I miss: Musical discovery; long summers
What I don’t: Youthful anxiety
The working years
Age 23 to 27 / 2009 to 2013
One glorious summer as a freelancer, I managed to review Latitude, Hop Farm, Green Man and Field Day. But the obvious, brilliant benefits of working as a journo (free tickets!) come with downsides: staying sober so you can write coherently when all your friends are pissed, and having to watch all the headliners, even when it’s Bob Dylan on a bad day.
Even when not writing , work intrudes on festivals: it’s more of a slog when you arrive after a week in the office and have to put up a tent in the rain on a Friday night.
I fainted once, during Joanna Newsom; another summer saw me cry every time I saw Laura Marling play, as I tried to outrun heartbreak with hard work and hard partying. Employment back then seemed characterised by first working your ass off, then dancing it off at weekends.
On the plus side, we finally had some money to fritter away. And there were always ways of clawing back energy to help you stay up till 4am: this was back when the most famous legal high was still legal (though no one ever actually called it meow meow), and – long before recent tabloid worries – balloons filling with laughing gas were a near-constant soundtrack.
The festival boom continued, and I attended everything from End of the Road’s whimsy folk loveliness to ATP’s chalet-dwelling muso-nerd events at Butlins to the madness of Beacons’ first year, mired in mud that stank to high heaven.
Who I saw: Bon Iver, Mogwai, Vampire Weekend, Wild Beasts
What I miss: The appetite and ability to do it every weekend
What I don’t: Hanging around the press tent for a computer; emotional comedowns
The grown up(ish) years
28 and beyond / 2014 onwards…
As I approach 30, festivals have both stepped up and stepped down. On the one hand, a late-flowering love of raving means I’m swapping some twee folksiness for more dance- music fests – my 1997 self would be proud! These tend to be with the girls (this year, four of us are heading to Lost Village), and tend to be messy, quite possibly featuring glitter, fancy dress or dancing round in underwear; they definitely also involve leaving the boyfriend at home.
On the other hand, with the rise and rise of quirky festivals, posh festivals and foreign festivals, you can now make a delightful holiday of it, even staying in an Airbnb rental with – swoon – an actual bed. Last year I went to All Tomorrow’s Parties in Iceland; this summer I’ll be off to Portugal for Primavera.
There’s a downside, of course, to all this civilization. No one wants to see politicians at festivals; we don’t even really want to see celebs, looking all polished. Festivals went corporate years ago, but loads of brands want ever-more in on the festival action now – naming stages, demanding hashtags or insisting they be the only booze on site. Thanks to the “street- food revolution”, trendy food vans are masses better – but you have to put up with foodies Instagramming it. And no wonder people turn to foreign festivals, with their promise of summer sunshine – any British one with a half-decent line-up feels justified charging up to £200. Factor in exorbitant train fares and on-site food and drink, and the cost really is in the same region as a Mediterranean mini-break. It’s enough to make you start eyeing up Super Noodles all over again.