Shambala vs Greenbelt – the battle of the bank holiday

Those of you who follow me on Facebook or Twitter will know that I spent my bank holiday between Shambala and Greenbelt festivals which were, this year, conveniently just 15 minutes apart in Northamptonshire.

Greenbelt is my lifelong partner in the festival world so basing myself at Shambala felt a bit like having an affair. I didn’t mean to do it. I agreeed to take my daughter to Shambala and then found later that the dates clashed. Before I knew it I was sneaking off behind Greenbelt’s back and pitching my tent in a new and greener field.

The differences were apparent immediately. In the queue I realised my Greenbelt-inspired wardrobe of jeans and hoodies was not going to cut it. Clothes were colourful and flamboyant, wigs, glitter, cross-dressing, hippy-chic, boho-patchwork all were perfectly acceptable but not jeans and hoodies. (Bang goes the fashion fast and my festival budget)

As soon as you are through the turnstiles you are greeted by a disco tent which you walk through to enter the festival proper. Be-wigged, be-flared and be-sequinned podium dancers smile and wave – it is utterly pointless but great fun.

And so it continued. Shambala was great fun. I didn’t go to any talks, tho’ I could have. I didn’t see any bands I already knew. I didn’t bump into old friends on every corner but I had a great time.

Here are some of the reasons why: Shambala is all about participating. Dressing up, dancing, drinking, sitting round campfires, sharing hot tubs, roller discoing, joining parades, joining dance or yoga workshops, enjoying random happenings. As one sign put it: Shambala is you. And that felt true. You were part of something not consuming something.

Shambala does not justify its existence in any way other than being about enjoyment and fun. I didn’t feel like I must fill my time at talks or hurry to seminars. Gathering was a good enoough reason to come together and gathering was enabled by the size of the venues, the campfires dotted around the site (and permitted in the camping fields), the ranges of bars and cafes and the conviviality of music.

There was never a sense of scrambling for shared resources – queuing for venues that fill really quickly is a real Greenbelt bug bear. There were queues and venues did fill up but there was so much to do it didn’t matter and the really good things were on several times so you could always catch them later. This abundance was evident too in the way the site was decorated, the installations dotted here and there and the sheer number of music venues.

Children were an important part of the festival and helped adults play and create. Children, adults and adults with children could be seen on the ferris wheel, the helter-skelter, crazy golf and craft making tents at most times of the day and night.

But the main thing that made the difference was how nice people were. I would love to think Christians were nice but often at Greenbelt I find people a little bit grumpy. People weren’t cross at Shambala and they were amazingly honest (I was so surprised that the hat I left in the pub had been handed in to the bar.)

So when I went to Greenbelt on Sunday for communion, to catch up with my Church group and to see Sinead O’Connor (who was amazing) I was a little bit nervous that it would all be a little bit dull. I did get snapped at in the Tiny Tea Tent, I did hear people complaining about full venues, I did start timetabling myself a day full of talks but I did too sense a new feeling of fun, space and beauty. The new location has added new possibilities and it was great to see people playing on the lawns, strolling by lakes and admiring new installations. There was even a campfire.

So the two festival experience has left me with some questions.

How could Christianity add to the Shambala experience. They had a Sunday assembly there – could we lead a communion service that fitted the ethos? What could we bring to this particular table as Christians? What is fun about our faith – or should it not be fun?

Could there be something as fun as Shambala without alcohol? Hoping to return next year with a group of friends I realised that none of my Muslim friends would be comfortable in that environment.

Do we go to Greenbelt to consume good-ness rather than create it? How would it work if we stopped paying for speakers and instead provided fully paid-for and catered spaces for people who cannot afford to go to a festival or buy camping gear.

Could we provide more ways of gathering at Greenbelt so we can share our ideas and learn from each other rather than from ‘experts.’

I still love Greenbelt. In many ways it is like my home. I first went when I was four, I went as a teenager, a young adult, a parent and a contributor. But l loved being at Shambala too. Its great the two festivals are now just down the road from one another but perhaps one day there is a new related festival to emerge: Shambelt or Greenbala where people of all faiths and none could have a really good time, build new friendships, delight together in beautiful things and dream together of a better world.


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