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This Is What It's Like Growing Up Surrounded by English Hippies

Hanging out with nomadic, political people who can make incredible lentil curry isn't a bad way to spend your life.

by Emmeline Rodman
Jun 1 2015, 5:15pm

Photo of the author

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

When your parent wants to find themselves, usually it means you're going on that journey, too. For me, this meant growing up in the town of Glastonbury with my new age mother—a converted hippie who shunned traditional soaps and who thought life was better led barefoot.

My mother was raised in Canada and always found herself in some sort of trouble. After dating a few musicians, dropping out of high school, and working as a roller waitress, she wanted to be somewhere new. That year, she accidentally cut her knee in a cinema aisle and used the small payout to buy a one-way ticket to England. She met my Glaswegian father at a punk poetry open mic night in south London (where else?), and soon I came into the world.

After living in London until I was three, my mum wanted to move us to the spiritual countryside that is Glastonbury. It was a town of contrasts, with a potted history of myths and religion and a small population of farmers and disgruntled town's folk. It was a magnet to spiritualists and crystal healers, a guide to those who were lost, losing it, or forgot where they put it in the 1970s. It was a place of refuge for people who didn't see the value in phone lines or heating. That sort of thing.

The day we arrived, the local newspaper headline was "Know Your Onions." The same week, the mayor's goat opened the town's first supermarket, naturally sporting a ceremonial sash. It fared better than the short-lived McDonald's, which locals burnt to the ground in 1996 out of principle. Bad burger karma aside, this was our new home, and it felt better than our cramped Brixton tower block.

My mother worked all hours to fund our new age lifestyle as a waitress, shopkeeper, child minder, and stoned cook. Sadly, the jobs didn't always cover the rent of an average bedsit. As a result, we lived nomadically in flats, squats, caravans, and in fields, unclothed, during the summer solstice. We made strange friends. They opened to us a new world of raves, protests, meditation groups, and outdoor baths. They challenged us to seek new spiritual paths of enlightenment, too, often requiring us to wear and eat hemp simultaneously.

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This was the early 90s, and all social gatherings in Glastonbury revolved around the town's hallucinogenic mother ship, the Assembly Rooms. Hidden in a little courtyard off the high street, this old hall hosted a sea of dream catchers, candles, twigs, and more candles. No one seemed bothered about the fire hazard. The visitors were more concerned with hallucinogenics and were themselves far more colorful than the walls of magic eye posters. There were pixies, knights of the roundtable, depressed lawyers in hiding, and the truly unidentifiable. A hobbling mass of matted hair, these people were like comedy mascots for Middle-earth.

The day we arrived, the local newspaper headline was "Know Your Onions." The same week, the mayor's goat opened the town's first supermarket, naturally sporting a ceremonial sash.

When we weren't body painting at the Assembly Rooms, we'd be up the Tor, the giant mystic hill of Somerset. Even the most spiritually skeptical cannot help but feel alive once they've reached its roofless ancient tower. Part of you is probably thinking: It's just a big hill. How can it be that good? But the Tor is an inexplicable form of hypnotic catnip to the alternative mind: It's difficult to explain the feeling you have at the top. As you soak in the horizon of endless fields, you start feeling transcendental. And before you know it, you are one of them, wearing tie-dye and sitting in a drum circle, telling everybody how you're going to buy a camper van and head to Goa just as soon as your bank aligns its chakras and extends your overdraft again.

When summer would arrive, so too would the famous Glastonbury music festival in the nearby village of Pilton. For the average festival-goer this is a three-day affair at most, but as my mother had to work for our tickets, we arrived ten days early. We camped in the green fields reserved for long-term workers and the hippie elite. We couldn't afford a tepee, so in the first few hours we would build a warped yurt from sticks, rope, fabric, and wooden pallets. This temporary Moroccan-style cave was filled with incense and had little protection from the inevitable rain.

Two of the first things kids are usually taught are: Don't put things from the floor—namely, poo—in your mouth, and don't talk to strangers. But while my mother cooked for other hippies, I wandered the greenery wearing nothing but a small scarf and head of knotted hair and feathers I'd found on the ground. I would sit and listen to acid-trip rants around campfires, eat fresh bread baked in the back of old ambulances, and nap on old recycled parachutes with strangers. I was feral. Until the ten days soon ended and we returned to the town once more.

We might sound like what your dad calls "soap-dodgers," but our way of living—surrounded by nomadic, political people who can make incredible lentil curry—wasn't, in my experience, a bad one. The town was an enthralling and safe community, and one in which I didn't live with the same limitations as average kids. We were trusted to build structures, swim rivers, wear anything, and befriend anyone. Bedtime, bathing, and school were unstructured and largely optional. The lifestyle encouraged time with nature (clothing optional, as always), and we learned about music, art, and money. Everything was celebrated—apart from money.

Money is strange in the hippie world. Those who have it see it as an energy force. For those without, it was an "enforced system" they didn't participate in. To my mother's dismay, I saw a life beyond performing fire poi at second-rate festivals. I was commercially minded, often taking advantage of stoned locals by collecting crystal jewelry they lost during raves and selling it back to them. With my illicit earnings, I got the bus to the neighboring town of Street, just to stand around Clarks Village, a shopping outlet for discounted shoes. Capitalism beckoned me.

Which brings us to the question: How do you move on and function in society after growing up in such a bosom of magic? Will you ever make it past Bristol? Well, you have to camouflage to fit in. We moved out of Glastonbury when I was a teenager, and I joined a traditional secondary school. Bullied and uninspired, I walked out after a week. I later enrolled in an independent Steiner school with a more holistic approach. I made friends for life and lots of glassworks. Now I live in London and work managing art venues and teaching.

I maintain my hippie heritage as best I can. I'm a strict vegetarian (of course) and part-time Buddhist. Something I learned from my mother is that you can make any structure your home and survive any situation if you live fully in "the now." I try not to own too many things. I'm an expert recycler and can identify an array of mushrooms. A good hippie should aim to have a modest impact on the planet and not exude negativity to others or evangelize. I think I'm halfway there now, which is about all my mates can tolerate at the pub.