'My cancer consultant would have been horrified, but Glastonbury gave me hope for the future'

Susanna Walker
·4-min read
Susanna Walker has been to every Glastonbury Festival since 1997
Susanna Walker has been to every Glastonbury Festival since 1997

And so, another year without my beloved Glastonbury. It has been the highlight of my social calendar for more than three decades, but now, due to the pandemic, the festival has been cancelled for the second year running. Whilst I understand the reasons behind why the organisers, Michael and Emily Eavis, have reached this conclusion, my heart sank at the news.

People often ask why I’m still so enamoured of the festival at my age (I’m 60). From the first moment I stood knee-deep in the mud watching Radiohead’s seminal set in 1997, Glastonbury has been one of my favourite places on Earth. I’ve been every year since. I even went midway through cancer treatment once – but more on that in a moment.

I love everything about Glasto, even the camping – although we’re more tipi than tent nowadays (I’ve learned to tailor the experience so that the many deprivations of living in a field for a weekend are offset by having some comfort while you sleep). But that doesn’t mean we don’t throw ourselves into the experience whole-heartedly. We still trudge from stage to stage, managing our schedules to try to catch as many bands as possible; drink non-stop; and maraud around until dawn in the late-night party areas.

One of my favourite places in the festival is The Park, quieter and more laid-back than the rest of the site and a great place to hang out in the daytime, its skyline dominated by a huge, rainbow-striped helter skelter. Or Strummerville, Joe Strummer’s legendary campfire community, nestled in a beautiful area of woodland with out-of-this-world views where we go to drink, stay warm, talk and laugh with like-minded souls. And then there’s The Stone Circle, a spot where festival-goers gather to watch the sunrise, listen to the bongo players, and marvel at the twinkling lights spreading as far as your eye can see. A city bigger than Bath.

Susanna Walker and friends at Glastonbury's Strummerville enclave
Susanna Walker and friends at Glastonbury's Strummerville enclave

Every year I go with a slightly different set of friends. For some, the whole experience of hurtling your way through five days of hedonism is too much and they conclude Glastonbury isn’t for them. I find this hard to identify with, as it’s my favourite (long) weekend of the year. Festivals aren’t for everyone, of course, but if you can plunge into it with wild abandon, then there’s fun to be had in every corner of the site.

And yes, I went in the middle of chemotherapy once, despite the advice of my doctors. I just couldn’t bear the idea of missing The Rolling Stones. We stayed in a B&B that year, 2013, as I attempted to be slightly more sensible, but I hated being away from the action.

I’d applied for a disabled pass thinking it might gain us closer access to the stage and my friend and I were initially delighted to be allowed onto the special elevated platform for The Stones. Surrounded by wheelchairs, I felt a bit of a fraud, as my particular illness wasn’t visible.

We soon realised, however, that we needed to be down amongst the main crowd, feeling the vibe. As we pushed our way through the heaving mass of people, we spotted a disabled toilet in the sound and lighting area. Flashing my disabled pass, we entered the area and managed to watch Mick and the boys cavort across the Pyramid stage from the best vantage point in the festival. My consultant would have been horrified to see me but just for a couple of days in the middle of horrific treatment, I felt alive and recovered some optimism for the future.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the Arcadia gigantic metal spider looming above me, spitting fire from its eyes, in a glade in the forest. The time I was pushed so hard as the crowd surged I flew out of my wellies into a bush. Or finding the elusive Rabbit Hole, a secret bar, after years of searching. All these experiences are etched in my memory and I like to think Glastonbury keeps me young.

To twist the classic quote: ‘When I’m tired of Glastonbury, I’ll be tired of life.’

It was devastating when they couldn’t go ahead with the 50th anniversay celebrations last year, but 2021 feels like even more of a nail in the coffin. The fear is not just that we will miss our festival season this summer, but that Glastonbury will never return.

I hope beyond hope that it does. I love Glastonbury so much I chose to set my first novel there. They say write about what you know, and there’s nowhere on Earth I know better than this little corner of Somerset…