Green Man festival: Wales’ biggest music party inspired by growing up in Camden
Fiona Stewart can look at the astronomic growth of the UK’s festival scene with a measure of pride.
The 53-year-old, who owns the Green Man festival in Wales, played a major part in the industry’s boom over the past decade or so – and her peers and rivals are only too happy to admit it.
She was recently handed the festival world’s “outstanding contribution” award, becoming the first woman to join an exclusive club that includes the likes of Glastonbury founder Michael Eavis.
It was something she “never thought would happen” – and which was made all the more “bizarre” by having her friends, journalist couple Caitlin Moran and Pete Paphides, appear on stage to present the gong at the UK Festival Awards.
Fittingly, the ceremony was held at the Roundhouse. The lifelong Camden resident, who now lives in Camden Square, traces much of her approach – not to mention her choice of career – to her roots in the area.
“When I was growing up, it was like there was something in the air,” she said.
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“You didn’t know anyone who was not in a band or running a club night, it really was the cutting edge of music. It was just amazing.
“A lot of what happens in my festivals was inspired by growing up in Camden.”
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She highlights the freedom and creativity that was abundantly evident and the “acceptance of people who are a bit larger than life”.
“It’s about staying amazed and liking humanity, which is very integral to living in Camden.
“If you grow up with that all around you, you’re going to pass it forward into anything that you do.”
Although reluctant to say anything negative, it is clear she feels some of this spirit has vanished.
“Londoners don’t go to Camden market anymore,” she said.
“And many of the music industry elements have disappeared. But I think we can get it back. You can feel it’s still there – it just needs a bit of a nudge.”
Her career started in and around Camden Town in the 1980s, staging gigs and club nights, and being a dresser for drag artists at The Black Cap in Camden High Street.
Stewart was later hired by Channel 4 as a producer, in the station’s early days, before returning to the live music scene because television was “not as exciting”.
After working for Glastonbury, she became manager of The Big Chill festival, helping to rescue it from licensing difficulties – and pioneering the ‘boutique’ festival, which has been such an integral part of the explosion in live music events.
She said: “It was a boutique standard of service, everything high end. Great music but also nice bars and lots of things to do, an arts offer and usually family-friendly.
“Boutique really for me is somewhere that’s a really comfortable festival, it’s enjoyable but has a feeling of intimacy.
“In a way we have moved on from that – now it’s about ‘unique’ festivals – but at the time it was very original.”
Persuading stately homes to let thousands of revellers loose on their land – The Big Chill was staged at Eastnor Castle for many years – was another achievement.
“When I first started organising events, there was a very negative attitude towards festivals and it was difficult to get licences,” she said.
“I developed a lot of the relationships and helped to change attitudes. I brought events into stately homes and English Heritage sites when normally they had only been in disused airports.”
Stewart bought Green Man in 2005, two years after it launched, when it was still a small 1,500-capacity affair.
It is now the biggest music festival in Wales, attracting 20,000 revellers and winning awards and acclaim for its eclectic line-ups, tradition of championing new acts and picturesque setting in the Brecon Beacons.
She runs it with her son Ben, 31, a former Highgate School pupil, who lives in Kentish Town.
The festival boasts a multitude of stages and entertainment areas, offering not just music but comedy, circus, theatre and science-based fun (in an area known as Einstein’s Garden), while there is also a beer and cider festival and “food festival level food”.
It remains independent and free from corporate sponsorship, which Stewart says it not so much a matter of principle, but one of practicality, allowing for “complete freedom of the programme”.
“It’s a really strong line-up this year,” she added. “We’re really excited. We’ve got brand new areas, the beer and cider festival, four areas with a 24-hour licence.
“People can dance all night if they like, or if they want something more cerebral – it’s whatever you want.”
n Green Man takes place from August 14 to 17 and the line-up includes Beirut, Neutral Milk Hotel and Caribou. Visit greenman.net. For details on how to win tickets to Green Man, see opposite page.