‘Zen in the Mud’ by Ed Howard

I’m a 43 year old man who has had desk jobs in London for the last 12 years. Nice clean, shiny jobs, with glass and steel and marble floors.

I am not the outdoors type.  I haven’t been camping since the early 90’s, because I could think of little worse. I don’t like big crowds, as I’ve got older, they make me genuinely anxious. I don’t like getting dirty, falling over, the sensation or smell of wet wipes. I like having clean hands. Clean hands and warm showers. And bed. I love a bed.

This year somehow, in a moment of weakness, i’d allowed myself this year to get talked into tickets for Glastonbury festival. I’ve always been pretty obsessed with pop music. There were loads of our friends going. We’d do it in style said my wife, a festival veteran; you can do that comfortable camping. Glamping. With a real bed and showers and stuff. It’d be great. They sold out within seconds. To other people. Oh god.

In the few days leading up, I found myself with a deep and real sense of dread. A big black cloud, and yes I am aware of that irony. I’d been looking at the 28 day forecast. The 14 day. The 10 day. The 7 day. The heatwave I’d imagined wasn’t coming. The dusty sunny festival, sipping cold beers with my wife and about 20 of our friends, all Glastonbury veterans.

On the Thursday morning I checked the weather again, hoping for a ‘force majure’. It wasn’t coming. Intermittent rain and thunderstorms. The BBC were focusing on cars trapped in the mud and the traffic for 10, 12 hours. The Wellington boots I had ordered online hadn’t come yet. Luckily a friend had a spare pair in size 11. We packed the car up. I sat up front with the driver. Not sulking, just dreading it.

Despite the reports of traffic chaos, we had a straight shot into the Worthy View campsite, which sits up on top of one of the hills above the festival. I strapped on the wellies and squelched through light mud and puddles. We found our tent and blew up the mattress. I’d ordered a bigger tent, which someone had put up for me partly because I’m 6ft 2, partly because I have zero experience erecting tents and partly because I was worried I may want at some point over the next few days to consider killing my wife. It wasn’t very big. It was still a tent.

We walked down the first hill with a beer and on turning left saw the site for the first time, just as the sun was setting. You’ll probably have seen it on on the TV, but nothing can quite prepare you for the scale of it. 200,000 people in a valley, all camping, with huge stages and circus big tops. For the first time I felt a little twinge of excitement.

Making our way through the ticket check I soon found myself in huge swathes of a crowd. The mud was sticky underfoot and that, combined with my crowd anxiety and wearing wellington boots for the first time since I took a child’s size 7 meant that I had to concentrate on every footstep. My wife had a minor tumble and such was my concentration at first I didn’t realise the thud behind me was her. We shuffled around for another couple of hours, unable to get into the field where a load of our friends were because the crowds were too big. The people down on the site in the valley had literally no space between their tiny tents. It looked like the end of the world. That is until I went to use the toilet. Nothing can quite prepare you for the horrors of the Glastonbury toilets. I was reminded of a six week solo backpacking trip in China nearly 20 years earlier, where I had pretty much given up eating so bad were the facilities.

I slept pretty well that night, and my ageing bladder held out through the night without having to leave the tent. Friday was a slog, it poured with rain, the mud had moved on a stage from foot deep to ankle deep and worse in some places. Were people really enjoying this? How were they doing it? Was there something wrong with me that I couldn’t get past the filth and the mud and stench? I did what I could and kept going, one sticky welly in front of the other, from area to area, stage to stage until it was time to hike back up the hill to camp.

We had a lazy lie in till almost mid day and on leaving the tent I was presented with a coffee and a cider for breakfast. My wife asked me if I could ever see myself coming again. Wincing I answer in the negative. We headed down the hill again and the mud was now shin deep in places. The concentration required was immense. In a particularly bad bit my wife realised my greatest fear as she lost her footing and fell forward, elbow deep in thick, sticky mud. Worried for my own balance, and with the help of a couple of strangers we hoisted her upright, and managed to extract a rogue welly from the mud. She laughed it off and cleaned up with paper towels and baby wipes.

We grabbed another cider and headed on to the largest Pyramid stage to see Madness. My first ever single received for Christmas in 1980 was Madness and I was looking forward to it. The field had the biggest crowd I’d seen yet and as the rain came down and the field degenerated into more mud, flags fluttered in the wind and tens of thousands sang along to ‘It must be love’. Nothing more, nothing less, love is the best. All these people. All in the mud and the filth. In the rain. All together. I felt my eyes well up and it reminds me of doing garden work on retreat in Yokohama ten or so years ago. Must be the cider.

We potter around the site the rest of the early evening, met up with a couple of different groups of friends. The rain keeps coming. The mud keeps getting worse. Slushy in some places, thick and gluey in others. I concentrated on every footstep, not wanting to fall or lose a boot. I get some great Caribbean food and my body is grateful for it and we watch a couple more bands. We’d arranged to go and see New Order who are doing the last set over on another big stage and so we set off just as the sun was going down and everything turned dark. Tens of thousands of people are making their way through the mud in the dark and then something unthinkable happened.

‘Dropped off wellies and mud’
As I’m trudging through the mud, focused on every step, concentrating a thought occurs to me. This is kinhin. This is walking zen meditation knee deep in shite. And I laugh out loud and stop in my tracks and look at the filth and the mayhem and the stench of one the long drop toilet hits me and it starts to rain and all my anxiety not just of the last few days, but of weeks, of months, of years falls off and I can’t stop smiling with joy and happiness at this utterly ridiculous situation that I’ve placed myself in. And we are late for New Order, and the crowd is dense and huge but we’ve had a text giving the location of our friends right up the front and so we fight our way through and against ridiculous odds find them and hug them and jump up and down in the mud as the band launch into another classic.

They finish and our friends disappear off into the darkness, and I’m no longer trudging through the mud, I’m concentrating but I’m borderline skipping, and when someone clumsily splashes my bare legs and I feel it go down my wellies, I really couldn’t care less.

Reaching the Source
The bliss keeps coming all day Sunday and into the night. Some people have already left, beaten by the mud and the tiredness but I’ve got the energy of a younger self and I don’t want it to end.

Return to Society
We’re up and out by 7.30 on the Monday, our campsite means we miss all the traffic. I feel like I’ve been on a journey and I’ve got the mud spattered clothes and jacket to prove it. We’re back in London by 11 and the hot shower reminds me of the feeling of gratitude after leaving my first Zen retreat sixteen years ago as does my warm comfy bed. The joy of it. Of course I’d do it all again.