Festivals are back, baby! It has been a few years. What even is a festival? That one’s easy: it is a collection of musical performances on a farm, during which you lose your phone and your friends and it rains. As we emerge from a pandemic in which strangers were viewed as a danger, in a time of political polarisation and fragmented micro-subcultures, are people still interested in coming together for events like this? What is a festival for, in the UK, these days?
To find out, I have decided to cross the country, taking in as diverse a festival experience as possible. I will be hitting six of them in one bank holiday weekend (which now I’ve written it down, seems like a mistake). There’ll be cowboys and punks and home counties teenagers in Adidas trackie tops. I’m going to eat terrible food, dance to music I don’t enjoy, and talk to as many people as I can. I want to know why they have sought out these fields of Britannia, and what they hope to find. I also want to know how much the beer costs, and if the toilets are the hellholes I remember. I do not want to get rained on.
I am at Jubilation, a festival to mark the beginning of the Jubilee bank holiday weekend. It is a sunny day, I am surrounded by smiling faces, but I enter on edge. Flag-waving gives me the platinum heebie-jeebies. Anticipating a sea of union jack caps and red faces, I am surprised to see rather more red fezzes: the uniform of Madness fans. Jacqueline from Derby has seen today’s headline act 18 times since the age of nine. “I thought there’d be more red, white and blue,” agrees her fellow festivalgoer Suzanna. “But it’s pretty monochrome. Or two-tone, like the ska thing.” I guess music trumps monarchy.
Policemen gamely hold cameraphones, and take group shots. A beer costs £7, and the toilets are in good nick. The biggest queue is for churros: a little sugar to balance the Nutty Boys. I dance with a woman from Ruislip on a log, and realise I’m having fun. The best festivals do this: give life to the adage that strangers are simply friends we haven’t yet met. The assumption is good vibes; something that sets it apart from our online lives, where we assume every stranger is an unsolicited attack we haven’t yet met.
Log woman keeps dancing as I take a breather and talk to her friend. Were they concerned about being in crowds again, after successive lockdowns? “I haven’t given it a second thought,” log woman’s friend Sharon admits. She’s reassured by mass immunity, and growing knowledge about Covid. “This is normal: people being together.” She gestures to the throng of inebriates, swaying to No Woman, No Cry. “What we went through in the pandemic, that was … ” Madness? I suggest. She laughs. Banter unites all tribes.
Martin, also down from Derby, has combined his interests by wearing a union jack fez. Why is he here? “Because we can be. The world is unlocked!” He loves the feeling of people brought together like this, for a single purpose. The purpose itself is less important. With his north African hat, clear blue eyes and broad smile, Martin’s joy at being here is infectious, and I loosen up. “Just seeing the fence gets me excited!” I raise an eyebrow. “You know you’re at a festival when you see the fence,” he explains. Can’t argue with that. Maybe – just maybe – this is going to be one of the great weekends.
Buckle & Boots, Stockport; Slam Dunk, Leeds
I am up bright and early, which is a mistake, as the train to Manchester is cancelled. The seats on the next service are all double-reserved, and the politely seething game of musical chairs that ensues is more British than anything I saw yesterday. I could have done with more sleep, I think, as we pull into Marple Bridge, near Stockport, for Buckle & Boots, a country music festival. I’m not wearing either.
It’s like stepping back in time, or at least sideways. A saloon town in the old west. A fella wearing naught but dungarees strides past. There are women in tasselled boots and Daisy Duke shorts. Dogs sport neckerchiefs. A silver resin cow stands at the top of a rubble road, off which open-sided barns act as stages. There are a handful of merchandise stalls, so I buy a large black cowboy hat to blend in.
Barefoot Blue Jean Night by Jake Owen plays through speakers. The volume drops as Derby-based songwriter Kezia Gill mounts a double-decker bus stage. She sings Amazing Grace, with amazing grace. Karl Hancock owns the farm here, and admits he’d never been to a festival before he organised one. He’s done a solid job, by which I mean the toilets are great. Metal floors, proper walls. By the stage, a sign reads “Let’s get a little day drunk”, and it’s hard to sum up festivals better.
Handyman Tim, from Dorset, remembers meeting Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton at a country show at Wembley stadium when he was 10. “Huge stars would be walking around before the show.” The magic of small festivals is that they retain this levelling of the field. Punters rub alongside artists hanging around before sets, or getting on it with their mates. I bump into William Michael Morgan, tonight’s big act and one of the only other cowboy hat-wearers here. These days country fans wear baseball caps, he tells me. Tall, handsome, with a Mississippi drawl, he’s very cool. I may as well be cosplaying as a morris dancer. We pose next to someone wearing an Elizabeth II face mask. “All hail the Queen!” Morgan smiles. “Is that what you guys say?” We definitely don’t say that, I tell him.
You may know a country fan by the vans they keep. Outdoorsy people always have great mobile homes, models of practical ingenuity. I take a quick tour of the campsite. There are custom-fitted Ford Transits, and a swoonsome 24ft Airstream. Outside their tent, a couple offer me a cream scone. How do they keep the cream cold? Mark, known to his friends as Stretch, shows me a cool box with five frozen bottles of water inside. “Even when the box is too hot to sit on, inside it stays cold for five days.” Top tip. But I have to keep moving.
I jump on another train. It is half the number of carriages it should be, seat reservations being once again the real wild west. I’m heading to Leeds, for punk and hardcore festival Slam Dunk. It’s intimidating. The first person I see at the festival is wearing a T-shirt that reads, “Dying slowly is dying lonely.” Yet they are standing beside a big red double-decker that exclusively sells British fudge: to my mind, the least hardcore of the confectionery options (Sour Jawbreakers probably the most).
Why do people like this screamy music, I ask one festivalgoer. “Why does anyone like anything?” they respond, which is fair enough, really. “It’s aggressive, but it’s also positive,” reflects another reveller. “My entire shoe is full of snakebite and black,” he adds, as a separate point.
I do love the theatricality of this subculture, the dramatic eye makeup and gothic cabaret dress up. Some of the people here are spectacular. I’m asking a glamorous cartoon witch where Slam Dunk is located on the hardcore spectrum, when a man interrupts us, nervous but keen. “You look like Jemmy LaVey, the tattoo artist,” he says, twice. LaVey screams and lets him know this is his lucky day. I’ve lost my drink, so her friend pours hers into my mouth. I guess the pandemic is over.
There is another type of person with whom I’m fascinated. It is the person who turns up to metal gigs in, for example, a Ben Sherman shirt. Is this a normcore thing? Do they love the music, not the lifestyle? I approach a guy in Oakley shades and ask what’s going on. He’s Belgian, he tells me, here on a stag do. The rest of the party turn up. “Do you want me to dropkick the stag?” one asks me. He launches himself towards a gentle-looking blond man, kicking him in the chest with both feet. The blond man flies backwards, but then gets up placidly. It is impressive, and for some reason very funny. Turns out they’re all stunt performers. What’s your favourite part of this festival? I ask sunglasses guy. “The mosh pit,” he smiles. I should have seen it coming.
There is a mosh pit happening, which I quickly decide is not for me. If I’m going to have my head kicked in, I don’t want it to be to a soundtrack of Sum 41. Plus, I’m only halfway through my festival odyssey and already very tired. Step count for the day: 16,000.
Mighty Hoopla, London; Creamfields, Chelmsford
At this point it should be noted that I hate festivals. When I was young I wanted to stand out from the crowd, not be in one. I have just about accepted my ordinariness now, but still find humanity en masse to be smelly and inconsiderate. But even I have to admit everyone at this event smells good.
Mighty Hoopla is a two-day 90s-themed queer festival in south London’s Brockwell Park. In recent years it has gained a reputation for being an alternative Pride, and the first act I see is gender-bending drag, with full-frontal nudity. Attractive gender-nonconforming redheads in mesh tops sass past. It’s nice to be at an event where everyone makes an effort. There wasn’t even a mirror in the men’s room at Buckle & Boots; the biggest queue here is for the glitter-painting studio.
Friday was messy, apparently. It was a great atmosphere, though, notes Hoopla’s fire-safety officer Bradley. “Men in bras, everywhere you look a different colour, people up in trees.” He used to be in the London fire brigade, and now works events. Sophie, sitting under a tree with her fiancee Jenny, isn’t ready for crowds. There was a Bognor Regis Hoopla in January, the first without Covid-test entry requirements. It was overwhelming, she says. But today is calmer, and everyone has their own attitude to risk. Sophie’s sister, who is 37 weeks pregnant, is currently in the middle of a heaving tent nearby, watching 90s girl band Cleopatra coming at her.
What’s it like playing a festival? I head backstage to vox-pop some VIPs. “This is a time capsule,” says Kate Nash dreamily. She last played here in 2019, and returning is closing a loop. I don’t ask Macy Gray anything, because I’m too intimidated. I see someone I know. Rebecca Lucy Taylor, AKA Self Esteem, AKA Madonna-but-funny. It’s been disorienting watching a friend become the best pop star in the country, but quite useful. I think she needs a wee, but I pepper her with questions instead, because that’s what fame boils down to.
Festivals are special, she hums, because a crowd has chosen to see an artist, in a very particular mood. “Everyone’s out-of-office is on, and there’s a warm, balmy hedonism they want to have. Soundtracking that feels like making life a movie.”
No warm, balmy hedonism for me. My Hoopla experience ends in tragedy, at a stall where festivalgoers can swap their footwear for festival Crocs. The trade is meant to be temporary, but I take mine away to have some photos taken with drag queens, and put my trainers down. By the time I remember, they are long gone. I Marie Kondo’d my wardrobe recently, meaning they were my favourite and, crucially, only shoes. But it’s already time to move on – to the scariest place on Earth.
I arrive at a field in Chelmsford with a 50,000 capacity, beats pumping out of a sound system the size of a Death Star. Creamfields South is an electronic dance music festival and spiritual home to bigger boys. I have turned up hungry and sad and wearing sea-green Crocs decorated with plastic cherries. It’s already evening, so people here look as tired as me, eyes popping out of their heads or staring into space. There’s a lot of litter, and couples lying down stroking each other.
There is chaos here, definite last-night-of-festival vibes. Earlier, a man running from security got tripped up and caught with 500 of something up his arse, a guard tells me. How is there room for 500 of anything in there? Undercuts and bucket hats are the boys’ uniform, or Balmain T-shirts. The girls wear psychedelic bodycon dresses and look freezing. Everyone is having an incredible time, though, and has endless energy.
This is not my sort of place. Yet Creamfields is an institution, having staged events in 24 countries over 24 years. In the single evening I’m here, I could catch Calvin Harris, Carl Cox, Deadmau5, Fisher, Armand Van Helden or Paul van Dyk. There are DJ sets from Faithless and Idris Elba. Peter Tong is here. The fact I know who these people are is testament to the extraordinary strength of its lineup. For many of the young dance fans here, this is the centre of the Earth. There’s no queue at all for the bar, or food.
But can a festival be too big? “It’s a bit moody,” agree some of the older dance fans I meet. They prefer the smaller, sun-kissed vibe of Ibiza weekenders at clubs such as DC10. I have to admit some of the boys are a bit pumped up and shouty. There’s no queue at all for the bar, or food. Campers must have brought their own supplies in. Rylan is name-checking the festival sponsors from the loudest, tallest screens I have ever seen. He looks crystal sharp. If you like intense light shows, big beats and advertising, get yourself here. I don’t like any of those things (though I do like Rylan). Eventually, I have an existential meltdown in the toilets, which have no paper and are overflowing with cans of Strongbow Dark Fruits, used sanitary towels and loads of little freezer bags, which is weird. Maybe people brought oven chips in, and that’s why they’re not hungry.
In It Together, Port Talbot
A long journey to Port Talbot, on the coast of south Wales. The train carriages aren’t labelled, so I don’t know which side my reservation is in and wedge myself in among some football fans. Today is a huge match, Wales v Ukraine. But I’m travelling to In It Together, a new festival focused on community. It’s the last leg of my odyssey.
There are teething problems with the water supply, I’m told. But the festival has a good heart. There’s a DJ called Homebass operating out of the back of a van … which is just funny. The music aims to cater to all tastes. A kids’ steeplechase event is in process. “I wouldn’t bring my kids to a festival. I know what goes on,” says one of the DJs, as we munch flatpack burgers. Overheard conversational snippet of the day: “Don’t put me on any socials!” “Don’t worry, nobody wants you on there.”
Things are nervy in the events industry. I had planned on attending a different festival today, but it was cancelled. Some have gone bankrupt. The rest are out of practice putting on events at scale, or their staff are new to it. Plenty of lighting designers and associated artists have been out of work for a year, and found other jobs. We cannot take for granted this coming together of people, and its life-giving qualities.
Festivals are sites of communal and joyous togetherness, but can also bring up difficult feelings. The Samaritans’ festival branch has been going for 50 years, and is a crucial, consistent presence at events from Creamfields to biker fests. “There’s the Billy No-mates feeling, that you’re the only one not having fun,” says a volunteer (I can relate). “People fall out with partners. Or they come in at 2am when their friends are sleeping, and they can’t.”
As if to remedy the water supply issues, the heavens open. Is there a more depressing sight than a bouncy castle being taken down? I seek solace in a wellness tent. Osteopath Lucinda Morgan rocks my body on a massage table. Rain beats on the canvas like white noise, and I start to pass out. I find myself thinking about what St Martin-in-the-fez said about enjoying the fence. At festivals, time is centred on pleasure, the way it was as a child. Boundaries are an essential part of that freedom.
My reverie is broken by a roar. As Morgan realigns my C7, Gareth Bale’s free kick deflects in off Yarmolenko’s head, sending Wales to the World Cup. For the first time in 64 years. I go outside and take in the pandemonium.A blond man opens his bare chest to the torrential rain, screaming. There is singing, flag-waving. Hordes stampede through the mud, a single flow with an obscure agenda, or just carried along by the crowd. It’s a historic moment. But I’m very cold. “We are in this together!” roars an MC from the stage. I want to be in my flat, alone.
The train home is again rammed, this time with football fans eating kebabs. The atmosphere is different now the contest is over. The Welsh and Ukrainian fans praise each other’s keepers, show respect and solidarity. It’s touching. Although they are smelly and noisy and there are too many of them, people are OK. Still, it’s time to go home. My clothes are soaked, I’m talked out, and sitting four feet from vomit. Never again. If someone has my shoes, please can I have them back?