Every summer, normally tranquil fields across Britain suddenly crowd with visitors – some in eccentric garb, some smothered in mud, nearly all in varying states of merriment or disinhibition. Apart from exuberant dancing, ukulele-strumming, campfire-tending and twig-whittling all tend to be activities of choice. Throw in an ancient woodland clearing or stately home and you have that most quintessential of bucolic British experiences: the music festival. The festival calendar includes dozens of recent arrivals, like Festival Number 6, The Good Life Experience and Elderflower Fields, alongside established events such as Bestival, Latitude and Glastonbury. And the number is only increasing.

Britain cannot claim the music festival as its own. It is, of course, a phenomenon that has expanded across the globe, not to mention beyond music – food, arts, crafts, philosophical talks and general communing with nature are as much a part of the new generation of festivals as live bands.

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At the same time, the festival’s roots go back a long way in Britain. Wild carousing is deeply embedded in the nation’s history as a way of letting off steam and inverting the traditional social structure, while the notion of bonding with fellow human beings after a winter’s isolation was integral to early gatherings. Could Brits be hard-wired by their heritage to be festival mad?

Prehistoric parties

Indeed, mass revelry goes back even further than we previously thought. In 2013, archaeologists from University College London discovered cattle teeth at Stonehenge, indicating that the famous prehistoric stone circle was the site of vast communal feasts as early as 250BC. The research suggests that up to one tenth of the entire British population – coming from as far as Scotland –gathered together there. As archaeology professor Mike Parker Pearson quips, it was “the only time in prehistory that the people of Britain were unified.” Other ancient festivals, too, were aimed at creating a sense of belonging. At Beltane, the May Day festival that originated in Scotland and Ireland, communities gathered to celebrate their proximity to nature – and to each other.

But class, not just communalism, was a part of the story, too. Winter solstice, also known as Saturnalia, was especially famous for reversing social roles: men dressed as women and women as men. Masters waited on their slaves, who were temporarily freed. Taking on new identities with elaborate fancy dress remains a huge part of festival culture in Britain; at Bestival, it’s even in the motto (“dressing up to get down”). And so, in a sense, is the inversion of the social structure. Today, many land owners and aristocrats open up their estates (for a fee) to the general public, letting them run wild in a space normally off-limits.

As the Church became dominant and sought to win over converts from the 4th Century on, many of these festivals, originally celebrated as part of the agricultural calendar, were incorporated into Christian celebrations. “June to September was a ‘merrie time’ full of revelry,” says Tom Hodgkinson, co-founder of the Idler Academy, which runs philosophical, life-skill and crafts courses at festivals around the country. “On feast days, you weren’t allowed to work, and there was a lot of drinking… all approved of by the Church.” The Reformation of the 16th Century put a dampener on festivities, thanks to crack-downs by Puritans who thought the feast days were too pagan.

Revelry’s return

But Saturnalia-style mayhem couldn’t be absent from Britain forever. Its 20th Century embodiment appeared in the 1970s and ‘80s with chaotic, usually free and largely LSD-fuelled gatherings. Among them were the Isle of Wight, Stonehenge and Glastonbury festivals, beloved by the hippie crowd and new-age travellers. Although the Isle of Wight festival and Glastonbury are still held annually, the Stonehenge festival ended badly in 1985 with the so-called Battle of the Beanfield: the police – who had obtained a high-court injunction – prevented a convoy of several hundred new age travellers from setting up the festival, leading to a violent confrontation.

Lord of the Manor Peregrine St Germans knows this sense of anarchy first-hand: from 1981, the Earl hosted the Elephant Fayre festival each year at his Cornwall estate. Characterised by impromptu poetry readings by the likes of Heathcote Williams and other performance “happenings,” the Elephant Fayre was founded on “counter culture – fun and excess,” St Germans says. In one incident, he recalls, “a gang of ‘warriors’ dressed as Vikings, samurais, American Indians and gladiators, allowed people to fire real bows and real arrows at them from 50 or 60 yards. No casualties.”

That “atmosphere of genial anarchy,” as his son Louis Eliot puts it, was all the more chaotic for its setting, Port Eliot – a 6,000-acre idyll complete with its own church, Iron Age fort, estuary, boat house and ancient woodland. Against that lush backdrop, Louis Eliot remembers musicians singing at campfires and the space rock group Hawkwind playing an impromptu show – not to mention baked goods “that could keep your imagination whirring” and people who “spent days caked in river mud.” In 1986, the anarchy became a little too much: the family closed the festival down following vandalism and hard-drug use.

In the late 1980s, spontaneous hedonism re-emerged in a different vein with the birth of rave, dubbed the Second Summer of Love. Huge house music parties in empty warehouses and fields spread rapidly across Britain in an explosion of youth culture. At Castlemorton Free Festival in Worcestershire in 1992, around 30,000 people partied on the town common for an entire weekend. Soon after, the Criminal Justice Act of 1994 gave police the power to shut down events featuring music that was “characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats” – a clause aimed squarely at Britain’s rave scene.

In recent years, the British festival has become more sophisticated and mainstream, complete with corporate sponsorships, ‘glamping’ and champagne bars. Since 2003, Peregrine St Germans’ grand estate has been home to the fashionable Port Eliot Festival. With a cornucopia of events, from live comedy to fashion shows, the July event is a far cry from its earlier, grungier incarnation – and commands a correspondingly high entrance fee.

That fee, of course, helps with the estate’s upkeep: increasingly, festivals provide a welcome income stream for the landed classes. If Downton Abbey were set in 2015, Lord Grantham would probably be hosting a festival to help keep the family afloat. Even more than that, though, opening their grand estates to the throngs is something that the landed gentry should be doing – at least according to Peregrine St Germans. Families like his, he says, have the key components of festivals: “the facilities, lovely grounds, park land, huge trees the size of a cathedral, rivers, beautiful gardens. I think that they should share it for a few days with others.”

British festivals may be less wild affairs now than in the 1970s and ‘80s. But for their devotees, the essential elements are still there, just as they were decades or even centuries ago: communality, escape, freedom, nature, revelry. “Everybody on the site is on the same side,” says Port Eliot’s host. “It’s aimed at stimulating the brain all day and partying all night.” Or, as Hodgkinson puts it: “It’s our party spirit, our free spirit. It’s all about suspending normal rules for a few days.”

This story is a part of BBC Britain – a new series focused on exploring this extraordinary island, one story at a time. Readers outside of the UK can see every BBC Britain story by heading to the Britain homepage; you also can see our latest stories by following us on Facebook and Twitter.