FESTIVAL-GOERS at Glastonbury might be surprised to find something quite unexpected in the middle of the fields: an enormous Victorian pier.

The 60m structure, called Glastonbury-on-Sea, is the brainchild of underground artist Joe Rush, founder of the Mutoid Waste Company performance arts group.

His involvement with Glastonbury Festival began in the 1980s, and he’s since been dubbed the ‘King of Glastonbury’ by the national press.

Rush’s past installations include Cineramageddon, a “post-apocalyptic drive-in cinema experience”, and a Burning Lotus sculpture that was set on fire in 2022, filled with messages and pictures to help people ‘let go’ of things they wished to move on from.

This year, festival-goers can see his spectacular Carhenge display, an evolved version of a build of the same name in 1987, and, of course, the pier.

Glastonbury-on-Sea takes inspiration from Rush’s upbringing in the seaside town of Hastings and festival founder Sir Michael Eavis’s love of Burnham-on-Sea, which he's called his favourite place in Somerset thanks to its “laid back and unspoilt” nature.

Looking along the Glastonbury-on-Sea pier.Looking along the Glastonbury-on-Sea pier. (Image: Newsquest)

Sir Michael’s love of the seaside – and Punch and Judy shows – was a key reason why he decided to approve the build for its debut in 2019.

“The original idea for the pier came from a discussion I was having with my wife, Letmiya,” Rush, 63, tells the County Gazette in the pier’s production office.

“We were talking about my upbringing on Hastings seafront. My father was a portrait sketcher on the beach.

“We were talking about how nice it was for a party and all the different entertainment on it, and it turned into the idea of building it at the festival.

“People say, ‘you can’t have a pier, because there’s no sea’. But most of the time, the sea’s right out anyway, so it doesn’t really make a lot of difference!

“Then I went to Michael with it. He thought about it and said, ‘is it going to have Punch and Judy?’ I said ‘yes’, and he said, ‘alright, let’s do it’.”

There are stalls for candy floss, sticks of rock and even instant tattoos.There are stalls for candy floss, sticks of rock and even instant tattoos. (Image: Newsquest)

There was no Glastonbury in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic, but the pier has been a feature at every festival since 2022.

Work takes around two months thanks to a “phenomenal” set of crews including builders, artists and entertainers who bring Rush’s vision to life.

“The brief is a Victorian pier that’s in the 1970s, but it’s populated by robots,” said Rush.

“There’s this retro/futuristic feeling. It’s an idea the Mutoid Waste Company has evolved over the years – these really clunky old robots with rock and roll personalities.”

Asked if Sir Michael’s love of Burnham had a big impact on the pier’s development, Rush replied: “Totally.

“We were late getting open in the first year, so at one point, it was just me and Michael on it.

“We were watching the Punch and Judy show, and we were both standing there, laughing and laughing.

“I realised that he’s a genius, because he was absolutely right about the Punch and Judy show. That was always what the pier was all about. I never underestimate him.

“My dad came along and set up his portrait sketching pitch and started doing portraits, just the same as when we were kids! It was a really nice moment.”

When the Gazette visited at around 11am on Thursday, the pier was already packed with punters queuing to buy candy floss, checking out the pinball alley or admiring the ‘unofficial best view of the festival site’.

Looking over a sea of tents towards the Other and Pyramid stages from the end of the pier.Looking over a sea of tents towards the Other and Pyramid stages from the end of the pier. (Image: Newsquest)

Throughout the festival, visitors can also visit fortune tellers, purchase seaside souvenirs and take in performers and a twice-daily cabaret show at the 1000 Farces stage – and there will even be a Notting Hill Carnival takeover on Saturday afternoon.

“It’s lovely,” said Rush.

“What also gives me great pleasure is that I don’t really have to do much now that we’ve done it a few times.

“Everyone’s got their own ideas, and the thing’s got its own life.

“I come along now as one of the guests. I’m surprised by things, and the team show me the stuff they’ve done. I get a fresh look at it every year now.

“It’s an amazing, really well-designed structure. It’s so good that it could actually stand in the sea. I’m very proud of it; people laugh and enjoy themselves.”

Having so much trust in the team at Glastonbury-on-Sea has allowed Rush to spend more time at his latest venture: Carhenge, Pillars of the Underground.

Carhenge, pictured at Glastonbury Festival 2023.Carhenge, pictured at Glastonbury Festival 2023. (Image: Newsquest)

The sculpture contains 24 vintage vehicles and is dedicated to the memories of people who have “added to the cultural mix of our country and the planet”.

They include author Quentin Crisp, designer Vivienne Westwood, producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and sax player Nick Turner.

“We’ve got all these fighters and dreamers,” said Rush.

“Each year, we dedicate more to these characters – some that people know, others they’ve never even heard of, but whose lives upholds our cultural identity and evolution. That’s very important to me.

“It’s got a completely different feel (to his other builds); it’s not a rave, it’s not a stage, it’s a sculpture.

“It’s lovely to see these things evolve. You can’t get it right the first year – you’re lucky to get it built – and in the second year, you evolve it.

“In the third year, you’re getting it really good.”

Given the amount of work Rush has put into his Glastonbury Festival builds, it’s fair to assume that Worthy Farm holds a special place in his heart.

He said: “Glastonbury’s the last little pocket of generosity and spirit in a big commercial environment.

“It’s proven that you can do an operation of this size and this amount of work and money and still preserve an integrity of creativity, of eco-activism and giving people a good time.”

Glastonbury-on-Sea is located near The Park – but it's surprisingly easy to miss on the near-1,000-acre site.Glastonbury-on-Sea is located near The Park – but it's surprisingly easy to miss on the near-1,000-acre site. (Image: Newsquest)

When people finally get to see the finished products after months of work, their reactions make all the effort worthwhile.

“All that energy that goes into a build or a festival is like winding up a spring and putting pressure into it,” he said.

“When we release it and open the gates and people come in, all that energy is then released into the people.

“And that’s one of the reasons why it’s so euphoric and everything goes so high, and the bands take people to levels they’ve never managed before.”

He then laughed before saying: “It’s the most exhausting thing I ever do.

“Two days before the festival kicks off, I’m promising myself I’ll never do it again.

“And the day it finishes, I’m talking to Michael about a new idea I’ve had for next year!”