In 2012 I decided to experience a festival in a different way. I’d always seen the bright orange tabards of the Oxfam stewards when I had attended as a ticket holder; they were always so friendly with big smiles and some even had glitter on their faces. So when I couldn’t persuade any of my friends to come to Beautiful Days festival with me, I had a lightbulb moment and thought why not volunteer? I was a little nervous to turn up completely solo, but had heard many good things about stewarding, and was reassured by everyone on the Oxfam Festivals Team Facebook group that I’d have great fun and make friends when I got there.
I registered online via their website, paid my deposit, and a few months later I arrived at Escot Park near Exeter for my first weekend as part of the Oxfamily. I got my wristband from accreditation, and carried my tent into the volunteer campsite from my car. Despite the reassurance, I was still a little nervous about being on my own, my first thought was “well, where should I pitch my tent? I don’t know anyone!” but I shouldn’t have worried. As I was walking to the gates, a gentleman in a fantastic hat stopped me and asked if I was with Oxfam. When I said yes, he replied “brilliant! Camp with us! We’re by the big event shelter!” and led me over. That man’s name is Graham, and we’re still friends today! I went to his wedding to his amazing wife Gaelle in 2015. I enjoyed my first volunteering experience so much I returned to do 4 festivals with Oxfam in 2013.
The Job Itself
Stewarding can involve many things, but I usually summarise it as wearing a high vis tabard and being an information & safety point to ticket holders. You’re always in pairs, so you won’t be alone, you will have a radio, and you’re either placed on a fixed position or roaming. Each position will have different responsibilities, for example if you’re placed on a fixed gate position, you will usually be checking wristbands for entry into that area. You may even be stewarding one of the stages where you still get to hear the music!
All stewards will be there to answer questions from attendees, and be the festivals eyes & ears. The job is as fun as you make it. I try to say hi and smile to as many people as possible, and get them to tell me their best jokes. At most festivals with Oxfam, you work three 8hr shifts over the duration of the festival, with a break in the middle.
Arriving & Campsite
You always arrive on site at least one day before the punters do, which takes all the stress out of it. If you read my previous post on arriving at Glastonbury, you’ll know that getting there, getting through the gate and finding a camping spot is pretty stressful! Being able to set up camp a day or two early in your own designated volunteer campsite is wonderful, and seeing the festival before the gates are open is equally magical! You really start to feel part of something.
The Oxfam campsite has a marquee where briefings will happen, but the marquee also always has hot water, tea and coffee, plugs available for phone charging, and chairs/cushions for you to relax on while waiting for your phone to charge. Toilets in the volunteer campsites tend to be much cleaner with less queues, and you’ll always have access to showers so you can feel fresh before/after your shifts. At certain festivals, Oxfam have Nuts Catering in the Oxfield which have incredible fresh cooked food every day with excellent vegetarian, vegan and gluten free options. Many Oxfammers will tell you that Nuts is a huge reason they keep coming back to stewarding!
Other Benefits & Perks
Having a workers wristband has it’s perks! Obviously every festival is different so none of the following is guaranteed, but I’ve found a few things that are usually additional perks of volunteering. Firstly, cheap/free food! You get given one food token per shift you work, which can be used at certain food vendors within the festival whenever you like (you’ll be advised of these at your briefing). If Nuts Catering is at the festival, I would definitely recommend spending your vouchers here! Portions are huge, food is delicious and they have a great variety. Even when you’re spending actual money rather than vouchers, a lot of food vendors will give you discount or free extras if you’re a volunteer, so it’s definitely worth flashing the wristband and asking!
Secondly, shortcuts! Festival sites can be huge, so having a workers wristband sometimes allows you to use “backstage” cut throughs that are not usually available to ticket holders, saving you loads of time getting between stages and to/from shifts. At some festivals there’s even a workers/volunteers bar. One of my volunteering highlights was being able to meet Frank Turner after his set at Beautiful Days at the production bar.
And finally, MOST IMPORTANTLY, you are doing something amazing for a fantastic charity! Oxfam raise on average £ONE MILLION a year from steward volunteers. That money goes towards vital projects for people living in poverty throughout the world (find out more here) So you can feel great about what you’re doing whilst having an amazing time at the UK’s biggest summer events. Plus, volunteering looks fantastic on your CV!
Testimonials & Stories
I’ve gathered a few snippets from my steward friends on the Oxfam Steward Facebook page about stewarding experiences and what Oxfam means to them. Also a couple of their favourite stewarding stories from shifts! But first… here’s a little video Oxfam made in 2013. If you look closely, you’ll see yours truly at about 1:55…
And now onto the stories…
Lisa — Way back in 1994 I wanted a free way to get into Glastonbury without going over the fence and as my sister is an Oxfam shop manager she’d heard that Oxfam needed stewards there. There was only about 180 of us and our tabards were brightly coloured bin bags with ‘Oxfam’ printed on them and holes cut for the head and arms. We customised them due to weather conditions. Some people that I met then are people that I can still call friend. Gradually over the years the operation has become more professional but still I continue to make more ‘friends for life’.
Stephen — Having been to Glasto before I’d decided to concentrate on other festivals I hadn’t tried. But as a supporter of the charity and having talked to some other Oxfam volunteers I decided that Stewarding sounded like a good way to experience a festival. The dates for Glasto were available for me in 2016 so I made that my first Oxfam volunteering experience. Only during the training did I realise how much money it generated for Oxfam. Combining festival fun with a worthwhile cause meant I enjoyed it even more, so I volunteered again this year.
Ailika — Back in 2015 at Glastonbury, I found a love of my life but it stayed as a “Festival romance”. The kind of story what “No one will ever replace us” is all about by Courteeners.
Philip — It was the Sunday night at Bestival 2009, and I was on shift as a steward, silently cursing my luck that I was on duty when everyone else was having their final party of the festival. Suddenly a girl came up to us, in a state of panic. She’s had some booze, some weed and some pills, and now she was freaking out. Her friends were nowhere to be seen.
Pro-tip: I’m not going to give you any of that “Just Say No” spiel because (a) you’re all adults and can make your own decisions and (b) you probably wouldn’t listen to me anyway. But I will say this: if you’re not familiar with a drug, or combination of drugs, don’t experiment at a festival. If this or that substance turns out not to agree with you, the time to find out is not when you’re surrounded by 30,000 total strangers, you don’t know where you are and you don’t know where your mates are.
“Okay, sit down here”. We kept her our stewarding position, kept her warm, kept reassuring her. For a couple of hours she was really anxious, believing that her teeth were falling out and her bladder had disappeared. Eventually, whatever was in her system worked its way through. She calmed down, got herself re-oriented to the world, and realised her teeth were exactly where they’d always been. She thanked us for our help and then went back to her tent to sleep it off.
The amusing thing was, at Bestival 2009 the fancy dress theme was space, and we’d decided to wear our fancy dress costumes under our steward tabards for our final shift. I was dressed as a Jedi and and my colleague was dressed as Tinky Winky from the Teletubbies.
I like to think she’s still out there, telling people about the time she got talked down from a bad trip by Tinky Winky and a Jedi.