Think of Glastonbury and chances are you’ll think of mud, camping, wellies, flags and arms-aloft, singalong choruses. You might not think of candyfloss, creepy animatronics, bingo callers, sticks of rock and a seaside pier. But all that’s changed this year, at the 49th instalment of the blockbuster Pilton party. Glastonbury-On-Sea, a brand new area up near the Healing Fields, looks out across the site. There may not be any actual sea, but there are majestic views for days from the vintage-looking pier.
Devised by the Kent artist Joe Rush, Glastonbury-On-Sea has been something of a passion project for Michael Eavis, who apparently has a particular fondness for the Punch and Judy Show. You can get your fortune read, kick it with two fat ladies at Dick’s Cheesy Bingo (Dick will often pause abruptly through to dance to the Venga Boys), have a go on the Elvis Presley-themed one-armed bandit at pinball emporium Pinball Alley and watch a robotic band perform on a circular bandstand in the middle of the pier. It’s fun for all the family, if your family is into twilight zone entertainment permeated with a sense of the uncanny.
Geoffrey Harvey, who goes by the name Pinball Geoff (“It’s not a medical condition,” he says, “it’s what I do”), has been collecting vintage pinball machines since he was a teenager. He previously worked on attractions at Lost Vagueness, the escapist area of Glastonbury that has now become Shangri-La, and was invited to bring his pinball expertise to Glastonbury-On-Sea. “I didn’t expect [the pier] to look quite as extraordinary as it does,” he admit. “It’s incredible. They’ve really given it the look of an old pier. There’s the wood and the old metal. There’s even bird shit on there.”
Pinball Geoff, who works for a mental health charity in London, enlisted a friend who makes fabrics and runs a cushion factory to design and create the Glastonbury-On-Sea deckchairs dotted around the pier: “Between us we managed to pull it together. And we’ve been asked to come back another four years.” There are particular challenges in running a pinball emporium at the UK’s biggest music festival in a field in Somerset, he says. “It’s the logistics, the weather, wear-and-tear at unusual hours. For me [this obsession with pinball machines] is a mental health issue more than a career.”
Wearing a top hat with a Hawaiian shirt adorned with an Andy Warhol print of Che Guevera, Pinball Geoff treats me to a few two-pence pieces, which I feed into the Elvis Presley one-armed bandit. As the wheels spin, I ask Geoff what it is about Glastonbury-On-Sea that is so essentially Glastonbury.
“You create an instant world where you defy belief,” he says. “You’ve got all this stuff that looks like a normal pier, but also it’s slightly weird. For example you have the animatronics that you have on all piers but here it’s these weird robots. So it’s a bit like going to an evil circus. There’s something slightly nerve-wracking about it.”
Speaking of nerve-wracking: Dick, the distinctive bingo caller from Dick’s Cheesy Bingo, his face painted entirely white, wears a red visor upside down and has jelly snakes taped to his head. He admits it can sometimes be hard to convince punters to let their guard down. “We have to really force people to sit down,” he says. “I don’t know why. I don’t know if there’s anything off-putting about my calling.” It’s worth getting stuck in, though, as winners take home a rosette that declares: “I’m a Glastonbury-On-Sea winner.” Only a thousand have been made, and there are 200,000 ticket holders at Glastonbury. “So it’s very coveted,” Dick insists. “When they understand what they’re playing for, they flock to us like moths around a lightbulb.”
Asked what he thinks is so essentially ‘Glastonbury’ about the pier, he replies: “There’s real finesse. There aren’t many things that they’ve missed off the pier. It’s about the attention to detail and the spirit.”
Well-spoken Dick has a real passion for piers, and waxes lyrical about their appeal: “Blackpool has three piers. People used to block to those piers from their dull lives and come to the pier and have a wonderful, wonderful time.”
For him, there are parallels between piers and Glastonbury: “The things that I really love get people together, having a good time. Under the sunset sky in the Field of Avalon [the area in which The Healing Fields and Glastonbury-On-Sea are set], Michael [Eavis] has a really great vision of what Glastonbury should be. He went through some tough years and look at it now.
“Everyone’s having a great time here. Not many people leave Glastonbury without a smile on their face – even if it’s a twisted memory that later becomes a happy memory because it was twisted. There are so many people who have left here thinking, for instance, ‘Ohhh, I wish I hadn’t lost my wallet,’ and then 10 years later they’re telling everyone, ‘I lost my wallet – and I had a great time. I had a great time.’”
There aren’t many festivals where you can see The Cure and play Bingo with a man covered in confectionary. But then Glastonbury isn’t most festivals.