Liz Eliot: Glastonbury's green godmother

John Paul Flintoff / 31 May 2013

As thousands of festival-goers of all ages pack their wellies for the Glastonbury festival, an unassuming former peace activist in her seventies will be ensuring the event stays true to its hippy roots, away from the rock’n’roll limelight.

If Liz Eliot walked down your street, you would think she was utterly normal. A casual glance might note her sensible shoes, practical clothes and neat haircut. You would smile, and Liz would smile back.

And you would have no idea that she is a woman who uses t’ai chi movements to control unruly crowds and tells tough-looking drug dealers to move along, please. But in fact, that is exactly what she does.

For 23 years, Liz has been co-ordinator of Glastonbury Festival’s Green Fields, all 60 acres of them, which hold their own special vision of possibilities for the future – both practical and spiritual. Peace, compassion and understanding are the watchwords.

The sounds and smells of this part of the festival are different from those elsewhere on the farm: wind chimes, drums, guitars, candles, flares, chatter and the scent of baking bread and woodsmoke fill the air. It seems a world away from the venerated superstars who’ve performed on that famous Pyramid stage: Beyoncé and Springsteen at recent festivals – and this year none other than The Rolling Stones.

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Liz first came to Worthy Farm in Somerset in 1983, as a punter herself, with a pile of environmental leaflets to hand out. A few years later, she was given a ‘proper job’ by the festival’s founder, Michael Eavis. Today, with the mega-festival regarded by some as mainstream – too commercial, even – she’s widely regarded as a keeper of the flame. She’s the person who, perhaps more than anybody else, keeps Glastonbury ‘alternative’. ‘It’s a fight to keep that spirit,’ says the woman once described by Billy Bragg as ‘godmother to the Greens’.

Liz, 72, with the help of two managers and a crew of 2,600, has responsibility for some 12,500 performers, artists and stall holders, who make up the vast section of the festival that she curates – around 177,000-odd visitors will trek through her fields on the last weekend of June. Michael Eavis calls her ‘one of the most dedicated people who has ever worked for me’.

What drives her, and what she hopes to put across in all her work, are her strong beliefs: ‘Peace and love, self-empowerment, sharing and caring, reducing consumption and other hippy stuff,’ she says, with a self-effacing smile. ‘These are the core values we live by and hope to convey to the public. And, of course, good living with classy food, fun and laughter, which doesn’t cost the earth.’

After the festival lay ‘fallow’ last year to give both the land and the Eavis family a breather, preparations for this year’s bash are in their early stages as Liz drives me across the vast farm to ‘her’ fields on the hillside opposite. Liz stops the bashed-up estate car in a field choked with dandelions. Nearby stands a building like something out of The Lord of the Rings: it’s made of unfinished logs, with mud walls. Vegetables grow out of its crooked roof.

‘This is the Green Futures Field,’ Liz says, glancing around as if in a mild trance. I wait for her to elaborate. I’m not expecting it when she says: ‘We’ll be showing things like non-volatile paints and insulation.’

Oof! Talk about underwhelming! I thought I had come here to meet a wild-eyed hippy or, failing that, a woman who wanders dreamily through the furthest reaches of normality. In the two hours that follow, Liz will, indeed, show me her ‘alternative’ side, coming out with words so ‘cosmic’ that we’re both reduced to laughter. So why does she sound like a builders’ merchant now?

‘You’re right,’ she says, with a smile on her lips and a worried look in her eyes. ‘I know. I used to be more bold.’ It seems that after 30 years of navigating between the seasonal culture shock of Glastonbury and her everyday life among middle-class people two counties away in Cornwall, Liz has come to feel isolated. For instance, some friends and neighbours show little interest in what she does here. ‘If I were a chartered accountant they would ask about my work. But they don’t ask about Glastonbury.’

The festival is hugely successful, attracting more and more people with an astonishingly varied musical line-up, albeit with the obligatory stellar headliners guaranteed to shift tickets. People who have been going for years now bring their children and even grandchildren. It’s entirely possible to find in the festival all that is lovely about humankind. But an event of this size is almost certain also to include unattractive elements. Drugs, for instance. Liz agrees that it could be a bit ‘skanky’ in the past – but says she was drawn to that because it challenged her. ‘People who travel to India sometimes get culture shock. Glastonbury was a bit like that. The challenge was to strengthen yourself.’

The only daughter of a military man and a hotelier, who split up when she was young, Liz says she was always a rebel. Her love of nature, combined with post-war thriftiness, made her ‘green’ long before anybody used the word to mean environmentalist.

In the Fifties, she came under the spell of the beatniks, angry about the mess created by their parents’ generation, and after that she welcomed the advent of hippies because they allowed people to talk about peace and love. Indeed, she wore floaty dresses herself, and had a smallholding. But she was never entirely one of them: ‘Hippies could be a bit wet,’ she says.

After working for a while at her mother’s hotel, then as an au pair in Morocco, and in a photo library, she married a man who disapproved of women working. They had three children, but eventually separated. Liz joined campaigns, such as one to ‘reclaim’ Stonehenge at May Day, and spent time at the women’s peace camp at Greenham Common.

What kind of things did she get up to? Well, she says, on one occasion the women made a long chain and moved like a snake, mesmerising the onlooking soldiers so that the woman at the front was able to use wirecutters to penetrate the fence. Another time, soldiers stood blocking the women’s way with linked arms, so Liz sat down and visualised the soldiers without arms – whereupon, miraculously, when the women approached them, the soldiers unlinked their arms to let them pass.

Liz is well aware this might sound bonkers. ‘You can’t tell [mainstream] people this kind of thing,’ she says. ‘They just won’t get it.’

It’s a shame she sees it that way, because she’s entertaining and inspiring when she talks freely. At one point she says, ‘Our theme for this year is ‘how to grow veg in your back passage’’ – then she realises what she’s said, and laughs her head off. A lot more entertaining and inspiring, at any rate, than when she talks about non-volatile paint. So why not – to use terminology that seems appropriate here – just follow the positive energy and talk about what really interests her?

The question hits a nerve. ‘You’re right. It’s because I am feeling crushed,’ she says disarmingly. ‘I heard something on the radio about growing numbers of people not being interested in politics, or the climate. We do need to try to get something across…’

In Cornwall, Liz lives her beliefs – she eats little meat, grows her own vegetables according to the principles of permaculture, is considering installing a composting toilet, has had solar water-heating for years and generates her own solar electricity. ‘I tried to persuade the neighbours to get solar panels. But they tend to say, “Oooh, I dunno. Is the roof strong enough?”’

It seems to me that ‘selling’ green ideas isn’t really Liz’s strength. I don’t doubt for a minute her love of nature, or her belief that Something Must Be Done.

But her real talent is like her mother’s: she’s a host. And, as such, she makes a space for others to speak with more passion, and conviction, if they really must, about non-volatile paints.

‘You’re right. I’m very much about hospitality, and trouble-shooting and empowering other people. I stop people falling asleep in the sun and I ask people to move along if they’re selling drugs. I have a strong intuition about what is going on. I can walk into the King’s Meadow and just know if everything’s ok or not.’

Key lessons her hotelier mother taught her about hospitality were these: the other person counts more than you; anything they need should be available; and punctuality is important, to show respect.

Running the green fields has never been dull because it keeps her in touch with ‘alternative’ ideas and the people who espouse them. ‘I have a strange aura that attracts weirdness. I encourage alternative people. I like them. They’re enthusiasts, who believe that we can live a better way.’

She stares into the middle distance before telling me a story that seems to sum up both sides of her: not just the cosmic hippy who used to breach the fences at Greenham, but also the hostess from a military family, working with security to keep Glastonbury safe.

‘There was a time, a few years ago, when we had some trouble. There was a hole in the fence and, because everybody had mobile phones, they all found out about it. The security people were getting worried, and I came along and I was able to help. I don’t know why, but I instinctively did this thing with my hands...’

She demonstrates, slowly moving both hands in circles as if adjusting the orientation of plates at a formal dinner. ‘It’s from t’ai chi, it eliminates the energy...’

She sees my pen move across the page. ‘You can’t write that! You can’t!’

Why not? It helped, after all. She admits: ‘It dispersed the crowds instantly. I said, “It’s OK, you can go now, I’m here.” It took me two weeks to work out that the t’ai chi movements did it.’

We’re all different. Liz knows that, of course, and she of all people doesn’t want everybody to be alike. ‘You’re right. It’s true. I’m a perfect example of one extreme, because I’m Scorpio, with Gemini ascendant, and a Cancer moon. People on the opposite pole will come up with something incredibly rigid, and “anti”. And you do need extremes,’ she says, ‘to get the middle ground thinking.’

Going green at Glastonbury

The Green Fields are a 60-acre network of small fields on Worthy Farm. And Liz ensures that they are as green as their name. Energy comes from many alternative sources, with two tonnes of batteries storing solar power, for instance. Stalls hold only local or Fairtrade goods; there’s no plastic cutlery – if it’s disposable, it’s wood.

This year the Green Fields look at new and old ways of living, from technological innovations to tribal dances and from spiritual awakenings to eco-build inspiration.

Entertainment and music are all around, from poems and performance at the Croissant Neuf Field to laughter workshops in the Healing Field – or simply peace and quiet in the King’s Meadow.

The Green Futures and Greenpeace Fields are full of practical ideas for resolving today’s environmental challenges. In the Craft Field you can learn a range of new skills such as using a kiln, forge, axe or a lathe – or even a treadle sewing machine. The Tipi Field is the largest encampment of tipis in Europe, celebrating traditions from every corner of the planet.

The open fields welcome open minds – those looking for suggestions for ways of living that aren’t based on competition and consumption will find plenty of options. The Green Fields still embody the principles that inspired the first gathering at Worthy Farm and remain alive and well today.

This article was first published in the June 2013 of Saga Magazine. For great articles like this, subscribe to the print edition or download the digital edition today.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

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